Theory of causation

The Buddhist leg of my journey was nearing its conclusion and I had yet to step foot on my old college campus of UC Berkeley. I had skirted it these last weeks like some skittish satellite refusing to leave orbit. I knew this part of the story wouldn’t be complete unless I went there.

I started gently: strolling the sidewalk that lines the southern perimeter. I passed the building that houses the library where I worked all four years, the outdoor café I frequented for their frothy lattes, and the art museum that always reminded me of concrete steps sized for a giant; while climbing, the giant dropped bits of neon that shine and blink when it’s dark out.

Since graduating, I have visited campus, but never in the middle of the day when school is in session. I’ve cut across a corner at night or on the weekend, tossing a cursory glance at one of my old haunts. “Wow, looks the same,” I might say, or “Goodness, a new building.” Then I would turn tail and skedaddle out of there.

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and spring semester is in full swing. I pass a series of tennis courts and a parking garage, both of which are unchanged since my days here. Then I get a few butterflies in my stomach because I’m close enough to see the main entrance, the pedestrian thoroughfare that leads from Telegraph Avenue on to campus. A river of students flows with currents in both directions.

I approached slowly, casually, as if almost two decades hasn’t slipped by since I was one of them. I can almost feel the weight of my book bag being added to my shoulders. Back then, I had an industrial strength backpack that I remember as always packed to the gills, as if I might need every word in every book at any moment. I wonder how much of that weight was symbolic, a cross between the protection and burden I believed I needed and deserved. Today, I let the tide help carry me. Soon, I’m standing in belly of the beast: Sproul Plaza. A stream of students stretches as far as I can see into the center of campus, but smaller tributaries branch off here and there, and everywhere eddies of greeting and conversation pool. The entire area is teaming with life, just as it would have been on a beautiful weekday afternoon when I was student. I find a clearing on the steps of the student union and take a seat.

As Buddhists conceive of events, nothing occurs in isolation. According to “dependent origination” or “Buddha’s theory of causation,” everything is a result of something else and, in turn, has consequences. A particular domino’s collapse may command our attention, but its fall was preceded and followed by countless others.

Through my new Buddhist lens, I can see that what I believed were my private dramas at age 20 were unfolding alongside communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. The four years I was an undergrad were a particularly difficult chapter for the university community. I wonder what role that played in what I had always assumed were my own dark forces.

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5 thoughts on “Theory of causation

  1. You are brave to return. Going ‘back’ has always been one of the scariest things I know to do. And sometimes, it’s better not to. I remember going back to the home and neighborhood I spent the first ten years of my life in, and the resulting shock. In particular, I grieved over the loss of a tree that had been my childhood home away from home (although it was right next to my house, lol). The renters or owners or whoever was there now had cut it down. It felt as if a part of me were missing. Not particularly Buddhist in response, I know, but it’s what I felt.

    I hope your return to Berkley and the absence of the very large backpack, will be good. The thought that occurred to me when you spoke of all that weight was the Jim Henson movie “Labyrinth”. Remember the people who carried every possession, every thought, every moment of their entire lives on their backs? I think we do that too often. And that IS a Buddhist concept, lol. If you live in the moment, that weight isn’t attached to you.

    Here is to your continued journey.

    Yours in Christ,

    • Hi Patti, Thank you for sharing. It can be so hard to go back, but it can also be so freeing. I haven’t seen that movie, I must look it up–sounds fascinating. A couple more posts on going back to the “belly of the beast” on campus are coming…

  2. It is a fantastic movie……much more adult than you would think. AND it has David Bowie as the Goblin King looking his most decadent and wonderful. 🙂 I think you’d like it.

    I don’t always post, but I always read and enjoy your blogs. I hope life is going well for you and you are coping with all the experiences that have come to you.

    Yours in Christ

  3. Thanks for going back. I’ve never been to Berkeley. I always wanted to go there as a student. But at that point in my life, I was convinced they would never take me, so I never applied 😦 It was then (the 1960s) and still has one of the finest History departments in the States.

    Does the phrase “new Buddhist lens” indicate any settling of your search?

    I may be missing something, but this theory of causation does not seem particularly Buddhist. I studied a lot of philosophical historical stuff on causation at one time: what you wrote seems simple (a good thing).

    • Hi Walt, My “new Buddhist lens” joins my Christian and Jewish lenses–I think just providing me with slightly different interpretations or ways of seeing the world. No settling just yet. I think you’re right to point out that the “theory of causation” does not belong to Buddhists alone. I think some variation of this idea–that events have causes or that actions/intentions have consequences, etc.–exists in most belief systems.

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