Cause & Effect

Although I’ve been reading about Zen and Buddhism for years, it’s only recently that I’ve begun appreciating karma not as the metaphysical workings of an unseen cosmic force, but rather as, simply, cause and effect. It makes perfect sense that our future is strongly and subtly conditioned by past events and interactions; that our predispositions and habits would influence our perceptions, attitudes, and choices; and that all these factors would make certain things more likely to occur.

Another thing I’ve come to increasingly appreciate is the way in which Sudbury schooling represents an education in cause and effect.

On a formal, structural level, there is of course the Judicial Committee. When people do things that negatively affect others—for example, by bothering them, not picking up after themselves, endangering someone (or something), or not fulfilling their obligations—then JC could perhaps be seen as a democratic form of karma, manifesting consequences by way of discussion and votes.

Yet this involves so much more than breaking rules and getting caught. At a Sudbury school, people come to realize the effects of their decisions on themselves and their communities. Seeing what happens when you vent your emotions; when you don’t do what you said you would; or when you realize you’ve been zoning out or escaping, and thus wasting time—this makes for a very potent education.

Indeed, the core Sudbury value of responsibility itself touches on cause and effect—or to use a more academic term, agency. This interpretation of responsibility holds that, to a very great extent, one’s life depends upon one’s choices. When a person is immersed in such an environment, that person—regardless of age—will realize sooner or later that their words and actions have consequences. Sudbury people can’t help but pick up on the law of cause and effect.

On a broader level, cause and effect is a frustratingly elusive mystery, both in Sudbury and Zen. In the Sudbury world, one of our key marketing challenges involves connecting the dots between an education which involves a lot of doing nothing and our breathtakingly empowered and self-actualized alumni. On the one hand, you visit a Sudbury school and see what looks like perpetual recess: kids playing and hanging out for hours (days, years) at a time. Then you meet people who’ve been educated in this model, and you wonder how they can be so incredibly articulate, mature, self-possessed, driven, and talented when they goofed off for much of their schooling years.

Zen appears to offer a similar gap between cause and effect. Reach perfect awakening and enlightenment by sitting still, staring at a wall, and doing nothing (or worse, chanting ancient texts and bowing over and over)? What kind of crazy scam is this, anyway?

Fortunately, neither Sudbury nor Zen asks people to take their claims on faith. In fact, another of the many things I like about both of these practices is their insistence that you must question things, think for yourself, examine the results and go with what works. As the Buddha himself said, “Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others…Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real.”

Sometimes when I probe into the nature of cause and effect, I feel that my understanding is too close to the business plan of the underpants gnomes in a well-known South Park episode, which consists entirely of the following: Phase 1, Collect Underpants. Phase 2…? Phase 3, Profit. Still, as I work on reconnecting with my intuition, on recognizing and accepting reality and the lessons it presents, I’d like to think I’m steadily improving my ability to plant the seeds for a lovely future indeed.


Filed under Sudbury, Zen

2 responses to “Cause & Effect

  1. One of my Chan (Chinese Zen) teachers used to contend that there is no such thing as cause and effect, because 1) from one cause, there could be many effects and 2) because of the independence of all, nothing is that simple. The butterfly changes the weather on the other side of the planet 20 years down the road. And yet, it was not the butterfly that caused the weather, but “dependent co-arising,” with everything/everyone a partner in crime (so to speak).

    The Buddha was not entirely consistent about the experiential examining. He also said that rightview was believing in the effects of volitional action (karma). We do trust that others are trustworthy. That is a big leap of faith. And he also said that sometimes things just happen.

    • I love how impossible it is to make a simple, unqualified declarative statement about Zen. Seriously, I truly do. I heard once that awakening is accidental, in a sense, but what we as practitioners can do is work to make ourselves more “accident-prone.”

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