Understanding cause and effect as both relative and temporally infinite, ultimately beginningless and endless, we then can confront the causal world more creatively, knowing we are both part of it and potentially all of it. We can face its immensity and dedicate our potential infinite energy toward making the world ever better for everyone. Thus facing and embracing the timeless infinity of interdependent causation gives us the strength in every finite-seeming time to learn to cope with reality cheerfully. We can voluntarily engage with it out of an amazing combination of freedom determined by wisdom and necessity met blissfully with compassion.  

I’ll explain further what I mean by causation here. I am a New Yorker, and once I had an epiphany in the subway that left a lasting impression. I had been practicing and thinking about the Buddhist biological teaching about the beginninglessness of life: that since no something can come out of nothing, all somethings come from other somethings, which solves the chicken and egg problem of which came first. Chickens and eggs just keep on coming, one before the other, back and back until they’re lost to view from our point in time. 

It seems correct, but there was this uneasy feeling about it, as if there must be some place where everything first came from—an original chicken or egg. On the other hand, who says so? Why can’t it always have been going on? What’s the harm in that? Once you let go of that worry, the implication of beginninglessness for me and you is that we have always existed in some form, having somehow become human in this life. 

But when I think about it all, given an infinite past with infinite past lives, I cannot rule out already having been every kind of being any number of times. And not only me, but every living being must also be the same. And so, every single being there in that subway car must have been involved with me over numerous previous life times, in every conceivable relationship. No particular relationship can be ruled out in the context of an infinite past of countless relationships. 

As this kind of thinking was going through my mind, I kept on glancing furtively at the other people up and down the car, on the East Side Lexington Avenue line, going uptown from Union Square. In New York subways one doesn’t stare at other people much. Everyone is busy doing something—reading books, looking at their phones, or staring at the ads above the seats. Suddenly people began to look “familiar.” Then it hit me that we had been involved with each other numerous times over numerous lifetimes, maybe as friends, maybe as enemies, maybe as parents and children, maybe as lovers, maybe as sisters or brothers. I had to control myself not to stare at people as they all began to seem so déjà vu! 

From this experience, I developed a fantasy to explain to my friends the root of a buddha’s compassion, how a vow to save all beings from suffering, a kind of messianic determination, called a “bodhisattva vow,” might make sense. If one never meets other beings but once and eventually all beings die and disappear, and then we escape from involvement with each other, there is no need to make such a fuss. But if everyone has been involved with each other beginninglessly, and if everyone is going to continue to be involved again and again, endlessly, it makes sense that our involvement should be optimized. Who wants to fight and hate again and again? Who wants to hurt and be hurt again and again? Obviously everyone should somehow come to love everyone else and each want every other one of them to be happy, if only to prevent their unhappiness from spilling over upon oneself. Everyone should somehow come to help everyone else. So, wakening to this realistic possibility, I can now do my part by promising to optimize my and others’ benefit from my side, at least for starters. This is a very realistic worldview that inspires wakefulness and compassion.

Excerpted with permission from Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life (Hay House Inc., August 2021)

For more, watch Robert Thurman discuss Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life in a Live@Tricycle conversation with editor-in-chief James Shaheen.

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