Emptiness & Interdependence

Emptiness and Cause and Effect – How The Two Are Inseparable

Cause and effect speaks of how all phenomena arise interdependently to create our world, in all its pain and glory. If there were no causes and conditions, there would be no movement…everything would be inert.
  • Question: Dear Elizabeth,

    I was hoping that you could help me with some confusion that I have had as I contemplate and sit with the two truths. I feel like I have hit a wall in some way. As I sit doing the “nature of mind” practice or as I walk around I have this sense of expansion and that anything is possible. Through the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) reasoning I sense things aren’t as solid as they appear and there is not this separation between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, as I had assumed.

    Then, all of a sudden, I think of the precision of cause and effect, and, what was previously full of possibilities and openness, becomes very real and solid.

    If things don’t truly arise how can there be cause and effect? And, if there is cause and effect, how can things not be real? How can a seed become a sprout if there is no contact between them?

    Well, this is my dilemma presently. I don’t know it I should just stop thinking about it or should I keep trying to have some analytical understanding and continue to contemplate. If you have anything that you could say to help me with this it would be greatly appreciated.

    Response: Dear Friend,

    Thank you for your questions!

    I just want to start by saying that there is no openness or emptiness separate from this magical display of cause and effect. Cause and effect speaks of how all phenomena arise interdependently to create our world, in all its pain and glory. If there were no causes and conditions, there would be no movement…everything would be inert. So we couldn’t even have these bigger experiences – such as seeing how the world was so full of possibility – without the magical world of causes and effects.

    You said in your question that when you, “…think about cause and effect the world becomes scary and more solid.” And you ask: “If things don’t truly arise how can there be cause and effect? And, if there is cause and effect, how can things not be real?”

    In fact, it is because things arise interdependently that we can say they are empty…and this includes cause and effect. Cause and effect is the world of appearance and possibility. Everything is made of the movement of relationship: cause and effect. A thought, or a cup of tea or an emotion is both the result of infinite causes and it is also the cause for infinite causes and effects to arise. Think of how many causes and conditions need to come together so that we can have a cup of tea? Think of the origin of the cup…the people involved in creating the cup, the elements used to compose it, the transportation, the fuel. Furthermore, each of these causes is compounded, made of parts and comes together based on causes and conditions.

    There is nothing in this world that we can find that is independent, and exists from its own side. Everything from the smallest particle to the smallest unit of time arises due to causes and conditions, and these causes and conditions are also the result of causes and conditions and so on. The question is: have you ever seen anything (a cause or affect) that exists independently from its own side that did not arise from other causes and conditions and is not compounded or made of parts? Everything (including “things” we call cause and effect) is in relationship. So causes and effects (which you can say is the world of infinite possibility) are empty. Here is what we need to contemplate to really understand this: “BECAUSE everything is in relationship it is empty. And BECAUSE everything is empty of an independent existence, this world we experience can and will arise.”

    In other words, there is no appearance without emptiness and there is not emptiness without appearance. As it says in the heart sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form.”

    So lets look at an apple seed and an apple tree. Apple seeds (given the right conditions such as water and sunlight) consistently seem to produce apple trees. They never produce banana trees. We experience cause and affect this way. If we were to say to a farmer that this was not the case, he would think we were crazy and ask us how we put food on the table. But when we look more closely at the process of production, we cannot really see the contact between seed and fruit. Seed and fruit are not 2 separate autonomous things…nor are they one.

    They are infinitely connected to everything else. It is impossible to see where the seed leaves off and the fruit begins because a seed, like everything else in the universe, is dependent on causes and conditions to arise, it is compounded or made of parts, it is dependent on infinite factors to even perform a function – to change, and even our perception of ‘the seed’ is subjective and not found within the seed itself. The seed (or cause) is empty of any intrinsic existence.

    I was out harvesting my apples this week and I am always so amazed that from planting that tiny apple seed a tree grew. And every year the tree has so much energy and it gives rise to all these apples. Sometimes I don’t even want to pick the apples because of this feeling of amazement I have about it all. But then they taste so good…so I picked them. But I always leave the most beautiful apple on the tree to honor the process – the process of empty appearance.

    So we can see cause and effect as this miraculous display of appearance. This world is ours to enjoy if we have a sense of wonderment about it. But we have the tendency to see it all as real and bearing down on us. We see this world that is made of relationship (and therefore empty) in a gross way. We separate form and emptiness rather than seeing them in union. Then we wonder how something that is “real” can be empty.

    We have an idea of ‘realness’ but what does that really mean? What does it mean to think that cause and effect are real? It would have to mean that a cause or effect was independent and intrinsic and not in relationship. When we start to look at things in relationship the ‘thing’ itself loses this artificial boundary we impute upon it. This is liberation. This is how we move outside our ordinary dense way of seeing things – away from all our mistaken assumptions about how things are – and see everything with a sense of awe. That is the mind of practice. That is the whole point of the Middle Way practices and logics.

    As Tilopa said to his disciple Naropa:

    “Son, it is not appearances that bind you, it is your own grasping.” This means that we have misunderstandings about the way things are and these misunderstandings affect the way we are in life – our relationships to the world around us.

    All these misunderstandings come when we think the world as it appears to us is separate from emptiness. And the consequences of this are that we feel fear and don’t have a sane relationship to the world around us. For instance, this mistaken feeling of real-ness is the reason we fear extinction. The Middle Way teachings ask us to question this realness. How? They lead us through an investigation that helps us see that everything is in relationship. When we experience interdependence, we emerge from our tight and contracted way of being into the great nature of empty appearance.

    Just think about seed and fruit…the world of appearances and possibilities is really miraculous and magical. It is an infinite and ongoing process of the union of appearance and emptiness. When we start to look this way, we will never look at an apple or anything else the same way again.

    These are challenging ideas – but only because we have so many assumptions about things and we have never challenged them. In fact, ideas such as ‘realness’ are not just ‘ideas’ but deep-rooted beliefs that we need to challenge. They affect us emotionally, physically and energetically as well as conceptually. Please do stick with you inquiry. It will ‘click’ at some point and you will feel amazed by all of this if you do…I promise.



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