Marathon Monk: Back story

I remember a story about a guy who set off to walk from the centre of the USA to the ocean relying on the kindness of strangers for support. He was curious to learn more about his country and himself. At first he found it very difficult. People were suspicious and unhelpful. Then he learned to tell a white lie. He started saying he was doing it for a bet. People opened up. He was trusted and supported.

We all love a good story and if we don’t get one we are suspicious. It is in this spirit that I’m writing. If I don’t provided a back story I will appear weird. If I provide a good one then maybe you’ll trust me.

At the core of the Buddhist world view is the notion of Pratītyasamutpāda. It is a biggie. If you can really get your head/heart around it then you’re probably awakened. More importantly just now it is the key to how good stories are told.

Pratītyasamutpāda means “things arise in dependence on conditions” or “dependent co-arising”. Superficially this sounds like the cause and effect we are so used to but it is a significantly different. By playing with this difference great story tellers can spin great yarns.

Cause and effect implies there are separate entities. At a minimum there is the thing doing the causing that is separate from the effect being caused. The cause is considered separate from all the non-causes. The effect is separated from things that aren’t the products of the cause. Often we don’t label things causes until the effect is known. The low sun is beautiful until the motor accident has happened when it becomes the blinding cause. If we see causes before effects we have foresight – or anxiety. Causes are bound up with praise and blame.

Dependent co-arising comes from the perspective of interbeing. As things are empty of an independent self (i.e. entirely composed of other things) it is not possible for them to cause effects by themselves. If we look at any cause deeply we find it is made up entirely of things that aren’t the cause, or perhaps everything is the cause. Dependent co-arising is bound up with open hearted celebration (Mudita) and compassion (Karuṇā). We inter-are.

Our minds crave patterns. We see faces in the carpet. Clouds become animals. We clutch at clear cause and effect in a narrative before they disappear below the waves of dependent co-arising to be replace by other possible causes and possible effects. In a good story we are left with just enough certainty to be happy like a good TV quiz show that poses questions the audience can just about get. Nobody is comfortable with too much ignorance or uncertainty unless they fully understand Pratītyasamutpāda.

In my next post I’ll talk about a Marathon Monk who isn’t a monk and doesn’t run marathons.

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