Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory

The Dharma of Natural Systems

By Joanna Macy

Subjects: Buddhism
Series: SUNY series in Buddhist Studies
Paperback : 9780791406373, 254 pages, July 1991
Hardcover : 9780791406366, 254 pages, July 1991

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Table of contents



Part One: Background

1. Considering Causality


Like the Air We Breathe
The Linear Unidirectional Causal Paradigm
One-Way Causality in the West
One-Way Causality in Indian Thought
The Mutual Causal Paradigm in the West
The Buddhist Vision of Mutual Causality
The Reciprocal Hermeneutic of Buddhism and General Systems Theory


Part Two: Perceptions of Mutual Causality

2. The Buddhist Teaching of Dependent Co-Arising


The Central Role of the Causal Doctrine in the Dharma
Linear Causality in Pre-Buddhist India
Comparison with Western Linear Views
Scriptural Presentations of Paticca Samuppada


3. Dependent Co-Arising as Mutual Causality


From Substance to Relation
No First Cause
Syntax of Interdependence
Reciprocity of Causal Factors
Abhidharmist Interpretations
Paticca Samuppada as Interdependence


4. General Systems Theory


Science's Problems with the One-Way Causal Paradigm
The Perception of Systems in the Life Sciences
Cybernetics and the Concept of Feedback
Systemic Invariances and Hierarchies
Systems Theory in the Social Sciences
The Cognitive System
Systems and Value


5. Mutual Causality in General Systems Theory


The Transformation of Causes within the System
Feedback as Causal Loop
Negative Feedback Processes
Positive Feedback Processes
Seeing Causes


Part Three: Dimensions of Mutual Causality

6. Self as Process


Everything Changes
The Illusion of Separate Selfhood
No Clear Lines of Demarcation
The Lethal Mirage


7. The Co-Arising of Knower and Known


Perception as Convergence of Factors
Consciousness: Conditioned and Transitive
Information Circuits
Shaping the World through Projection
Learning as Self Reorganization
The Limits of Cognition
Objectless Knowing
Who is Knowing?


8. The Co-Arising of Body and Mind


Linear Views
"Like Two Sheaves of Reeds"
Two Sides of a Coin
The Internality of All Systems
The Ubiquity and Particularity of Mind
Beyond the Fear of Matter


9. The Co-Arising of Doer and Deed


Identity and Accountability
The Question of Rebirth
Kaya and Karma
Structure and Function
Past and Present
The Dharma and Determinism
The Determinacy of Choice
The Cognitive System as Decision Center


10. The Co-Arising of Self and Society


Participation and Particularity
The Interdependence of Person and Community
The Dharma of Social Systems


11. Mutual Morality


Concern for Other Beings
Tolerance and Iconoclasm
Political Engagement
Right Livelihood and Economic Sharing
Ends and Means


12. The Dialectics of Personal and Social Transformation


Free to Reconnect
The Tree and the Flame





This book brings important new dimensions to the interface between contemporary Western science and ancient Eastern wisdom. Here for the first time the concepts and insights of general systems theory are presented in tandem with those of the Buddha. Remarkable convergences appear between core Buddhist teachings and the systems view of reality, arising in our century from biology and extending into the social and cognitive sciences. Giving a cogent introduction to both bodies of thought, and a fresh interpretation of the Buddha's core teaching of dependent co-arising, this book shows how their common perspective on causality can inform our lives. The interdependence of all beings provides the context for clarifying both the role of meditative practice and guidelines for effective action on behalf of the common good.

Joanna R. Macy is Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. She is the author of Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age; Dharma and Development; Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess); and World as Lover, World as Self.


"This book deals with a very important and contemporary topic — breaking out of causal patterns of a reductive sort into more holistic non-reductive ways of thinking and explanation. It also brings together Western and Eastern ideas combining a particularly important aspect of Buddhist thought with new Western conceptions. It belongs to movements toward global integration." — Henry Le Roy Finch, Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York