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17 million words and counting!
Kamalashila, Catalunya, Spain
Eric, FBA Team
Colum, London, UK
Sravaniya, Boston, USA
Coleen, FBA Team
Vajratara, Sheffield, UK
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Sheila Groonell, Aryaloka, USA
Building an Ethical Underworld – Lessons from the Mafia
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM781
Talk given at the Buddhafield Festival, Devon, 2007
'Evolution or extinction' by Sangharakshita (1971) – this talk as a response; the
Buddha's basic teaching and experience; conceptual constructions of a specific time
and culture – 'pratitya samutpada' ('dependent arising') and 'general systems theory'
I want to give this talk because I really want to say some things about how we effect change
in the world, and also the place of the spiritual community in doing this.
In 1971, Bhante Sangharakshita – my teacher – gave a lecture called, 'Evolution or Extinction:
A Buddhist View of Current World Problems'. In one part of this lecture he talks about the
individual's responsibility for the way the world is, and the role of the spiritual community in
promoting change. He talks about the potential of the spiritual community being like an
earthworm: an earthworm undermining the existing order and shifting the governing values of
the world. And this talk is my response to his lecture.
I am going to start by talking about the underlying essence of the Buddha's teaching, which is
known as 'pratitya samutpada', and how systems theory works as the conceptual
construction of this essence. Then I will move on to the implications of setting up conditions
for change informed by this systems thinking, and then we will look at how the criminal
underworld does some of this very well… and then I would like to talk a bit about what we as
individuals and members of a spiritual community could learn from this, to be a catalyst for
change in the world.
Buddhism, in its 2,500 year history, has spread very widely, and has done so in the spirit of
adaptation and assimilation. The Buddha, in discourse, defined the Dharma – his teaching –
“…whatever is conducive to dispassion, detachment, leads to a decrease in worldly gains,
frugality, contentment, energy, delight in the good, and solitude. This is the norm; this is the
discipline; this is the Master's message.”
Sangharakshita, in the ‘Survey [of Buddhism]’, says:
‘The Dharma, while remaining essentially changeless, was capable of assuming a thousand
forms, because it is in principle simply the means to enlightenment.’
The fundamental experience of the Buddha on his Enlightenment was what was called
'pratitya samutpada', and this is defined as 'conditioned co-production', 'dependent arising', or
'mutual causality'. This insight, this experience the Buddha had, was transcendental; it had
nothing to do with any kind of conceptual construction. It was a very particular way of
experiencing the world, and in the Buddha's time it was just known as 'the way things are'.
Pratitya samutpada was described by the Buddha in terms comprehensible to the intellect,
and he used various ways of doing this – the Four Noble Truths; the Nidana Chain – and
these were conceptual constructs of pratitya samutpada, and they were of his time and of his
But for me, today, in systems theory (which has grown out of scientific understanding) is a
conceptual construction of our time, and our culture, and it can bring us closer to
understanding conditionality or dependent arising, which is akin to the essence of the
Differences between causality and conditionality; Cartesian thinking; conditionality
through human culture and experience; properties of systems; feedback mechanisms;
systems evolving in complexity – change; instability, non-predictability and synergy
So, to begin with I want to look a little bit at the difference between causality and
conditionality, and the implications for acting on these as paradigms in terms of the way we
view the world.
Causality was expounded by Descartes and others of his time, and it is often known as
'Cartesian thinking'. This moved from a holistic understanding of the world to a mechanistic
one, where there is direct cause and effect. So, A causes B. You chop down a tree; you
process it; and you get paper at the other end.
Cartesian thinking sees the world as being machine-like; there is a direct relationship between
input and outcome. It led to us understanding that we could control the world 'from the
outside'; that we were in charge; that we were separate from the world; in fact, as superior
beings we could dominate the world via our superior intellect, and the world was there for
Man to have dominion over.
Systems theory looks at the interplay of conditions which make up the world we live in – and
conditionality means that there are lots of different things going on that lead to a lot of other
different things going on.
So in a very straightforward materialistic sense you can chop down a tree and process it to
make newspaper… but [chopping down the tree] also destroys habitats of living beings; it
uses chemicals that have an effect on the environment; it uses water, which decreases the flow
in the river, which means plants are affected, which means we have waste, etc.
So it means that one thing triggers a lot of different other things. And this conditionality can
be seen not only in the material world but also in culture, and society, and in our
consciousness. It makes a lot of different things understandable, but it is a paradigm shift,
and it is very different from the one that we are used to using in the world.
And it has certain properties. I won't go into this in a lot of detail (because I just don't have
time) but it is important to know that all systems are wholes in themselves, and all systems
fit into larger systems.
For instance, I am composed of cells, which make up my organs, which make up me, and I am
part of my family, and my family is part of society, and all of these are systems within
themselves which are connected to other systems; and it is very difficult to affect one without
affecting another. Things don't happen in isolation.
All open systems have self-generated goals. So, a red blood cell's self-generated goal would be
to carry oxygen around the body. We all have a purpose; it is the goal at the centre of that
system. And there are feedback mechanisms operating on that system which actually
increase or decrease a derivation from the goal at the centre of that system.
There are two kinds [of system]: there is the self-stabilising kind, which decreases the impact
of anything that's slightly untoward within the system, so it strengthens the goal; and there
are self-changing feedback systems, which means that the system evolves in complexity.
The system that evolves in complexity is the one that will trigger evolution. In personal
terms it is how we learn; and at all levels it is change-producing. And this self-changing, this
change-producing feedback, exists at a point of instability within a system; so the system has
to be a bit unstable. And not only can it lead to change but it can lead to the collapse of that
system when a new balance cannot be achieved for some reason.
So, I have a mechanism in my body which regulates my temperature: my capillaries open if
I'm too hot, or I shiver if I'm too cold. But if neither of those are working very well, I may
end up with a fever; the system may break down and not work any more.
All systems have what are known as 'emergent properties', which are dependent on the
conditions and the relationships between them. And systems are not reducible to parts; and
they are more than the sum of their parts. For instance, the wetness of water cannot be
predicted by the qualities of oxygen and hydrogen. When oxygen and hydrogen come
together, water is something completely different. And these emergent properties can be
unpredictable – literally – you cannot predict them.
And this is the process in synergy. So when things just work together, you just don't really
know quite what's going to happen. You're not in charge!
Repercussions for how we act; the Cartesian model of the world and its effect on
behaviour; systems theory, actions and consequences; means and ends as the same
The difference between a Cartesian way of looking at the world and a systems way of looking
at the world has quite a lot of repercussions for how we act. And Cartesian understanding,
and the systems approach, lead us to very different perspectives on our interaction with the
world. We would see our place in the world differently, we would have the opportunity to
behave differently, and we would have to evaluate the effects of our actions very differently
using these two different paradigms.
In a Cartesian model (and this is the one that is largely a dominant cultural understanding in
our world today) the understanding is that we do something because we desire a particular ...