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We provide transcribed talks by 35 different speakers
Ratnavyuha, Auckland, NZ
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Viriyalila, Portsmouth, USA
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Viveka, San Francisco, USA
Eric, FBA Team
You can also listen to this talk.
... a straightforward materialistic sense, you can chop down a tree and process it to make
newspaper. But chopping down the tree also destroys the habitats of living beings; it uses
chemicals that have an effect on the environment; it uses water, which decreases the flow
in the river, by which agriculture is affected, it produces waste products – and so on. This
complexity of conditions can be seen not only in the material world but also in culture,
society and in our consciousness. It means that we cannot see ourselves as isolated or
separate from the world around us.
Systems theory has a very particular way of looking at the world, based on the concepts of
non-linear dynamics. Very simply systems theory says that there are many causes and
many effects in any given situation. This complex interplay of conditions can look chaotic
and confused but in fact they have patterns of interaction. It talks about ‘open systems’ and
how they work. A ‘closed system’ is an isolated system having no interaction with an
environment, and is very rare in the natural world. All open systems are wholes in
themselves, and al open systems fit into larger systems. For instance, I am composed of
atoms, which make up molecules, which make up my cel s, which make up my organs. The
organs of my body make up ‘me’, I am part of a system known as my family, and my family
is part of a society. All of these are systems within themselves, which are connected to
other systems, and cannot be understood in isolation. All ‘open systems’ have self-
3 generated goals; my body has a self generated goal to maintain a constant body
temperature of approximately 98.6F despite the temperature of the environment. All
systems have ‘feedback mechanisms’ which act to increase or decrease a derivation from
the goal at the centre of that system. So, in a hot environment, my body sends a signal to
my brain via my spinal cord to say the body is overheating; the brain then sends a signal
back down the spinal cord and tel s the body to cool itself by perspiration. In cold weather,
the body senses the lower temperature and our brain tel s my body to start to shiver to
warm up. These are both known as self-stabilising feedback systems, which decrease the
deviation from the goal of my thermoregulation system, the goal of keeping my temperature
stable. There is also self-changing feedback, if my body overheats due to infection and
cannot cool down I may end up with a fever. The thermoregulation system breaks down and
produces change, il ness. There are times when the self changing feedback causes a
system to col apse, as when a fever cannot be overcome and the person dies.
Systems that work wel , that are ‘alive’ and evolving or changing to meet new situations are
connected and depend on the free flow of information, they cannot grow or change in
isolation. Self changing feedback is at al levels change-producing and exists at a point of
instability within a system. On a personal level it is how we learn, in terms of species it can
be seen to trigger evolution. Systems can have what are known as 'emergent properties',
which are dependent on the conditions and the relationships between them. For instance,
the wetness of water cannot be predicted by the qualities of oxygen, gas with inflammable
properties and hydrogen, a gas which is lighter than air. When oxygen and hydrogen come
together, the water they produce is something completely different. So, these emergent
properties can be reliable and at the same time unpredictable. Systems are not reducible to
parts. They are more than the sum of their parts. Things do not happen in isolation. Life is
The difference between a Cartesian and a systems way of seeing the world and interacting
with it, has repercussions for how we act. The two models lead us to very different
o We see our place in the world differently
o We have the opportunity to behave differently.
o We would have to evaluate the effect of our actions differently.
This has been a bit of a revelation to me! We have al been brought up with a Cartesian
way of looking at the world, and it is just SO different from an understanding of
conditionality. This has been very important to me, to have a clearer understanding of
conditionality, it has real y changed the way I approach my life. It has meant that I feel like I
am ‘walking closer to the truth’, that I’m more aligned to reality. That I’m more able to live
out my commitment to the 3 jewels.
So I just want to be a bit clearer as to the differences between these world views.
• Cartesian model.
o When we do something it wil be because we want a particular outcome. We
wil expect the outcome to be the one we desire. We wil be goal orientated.
o With think that with knowledge we can dominate our environment.
o We wil consider the means as justifying the ends.
4 o We would always be looking to the future when we can have what we want.
o Regard ourselves as acting in opposition to others who may take what we
want from us. We will be competitive. Win-loose game.
o We wil see ourselves as individuals (ego centric) and isolated
o Because we see ourselves as being on our own and in competition with
others we wil become polarised, divide ourselves from others and the world
around us. Leading to judgment and blame.
o If we don’t get what we want we wil experience, disappointment and
disempowerment. We wil see ourselves as ‘not good enough’ and have
low self esteem.
o This is largely the pattern of thinking in dominant cultures today.
• Systems approach.
o Nothing can be seen in isolation. For a system to be ‘alive’ and functioning it
needs the free flow of information and connection.
o This is a process involving synergy, a system being more than the sum of its
parts, it is not a win/lose game but a win/win lose/lose game. It is collective
o We are al responsible for the way the world is. The world we live in is ‘Mind
made’. As it is the results of our actions and thoughts it is important to have
as much clarity and awareness as we can manage.
o We have to act without understanding the outcome of our actions. We would
act in knowledge that we cannot but have an effect. (al actions have
consequences), we will not know the outcome of our actions.
o We can’t know everything Not only is the world complex but it is also
o We never act in isolation Regarding ourselves as isolated individuals is not
practical. Neither is competition or polarisation.
o All systems can adapt and grow, evolve and learn. Change is constant,
whatever we do we are contributing to change or stability
o We wil understand that the means is just as important as the ends. The
means is the end. How we do something is as important as what we do.
o Not only do our actions, including speech, or written word always have an
effect, and this is not always proportionate. Actions may be small but they
may have huge effects. (smal acts of kindness save lives).
o If you want change don’t conform. Think ‘outside the box’. Live Creatively.
o We are not on our own; we need to make connections and friendships with
people of common intentions. Change and stability are not brought about
by individuals in isolation, community is vital.
Thinking about the difference between causality and conditionality has been very helpful to
me. For me systems thinking is a helpful, provisional understanding, or ‘operational
concept’ so that I can make choices more in line with reality, more in line with conditionality,
more in line with pratitya samutpada. Like Ananda, I do have to bear in mind that systems
thinking is not pratitya samutpada, and that real understanding wil only come with insight.
Anyway I’m going to leave al this for the time being and talk about Bhante’s lecture,
‘Evolution or Extinction’ a very succinct version is at the back of the book ‘What is the
Sangha’. In this lecture Bhante talks about the kinds of problems the world faces,
5 economic, political, commercial, social, racial, and I would add after 30 years, global and
ecological and he talks about promoting change, he talks about spiritual development and
the spiritual community being essential to this process of promoting change.
‘But what is new now … (is) the size of the groups involved and the extent of their power,
their material power, especial y their power of mutual destruction, this is what is new. So
though the problems have been with us since the beginning, at least in a rudimentary form,
what has happened now, what has happened in the last one or two decades is that they
have become increasingly urgent, even perhaps catastrophical y urgent, so that we have, in
a sense, to solve them or even perish.’
‘In my view, at this very highly critical juncture of human history, ...