Agency implies an agent that is doing something. If there is no agent, there can be no agency.

Original art showing THE SELF-OPERATING NAPKIN by Rube Goldberg from the regular series The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions. Originally published in Collier’s Weekly, September 26 1931)

Agency, of course, is the action or intervention of a thing, or person, to produce an effect. But what happens if there is nothing that has an inherent self-existence? For some reason, although this is a normal and fairly early meditative insight that comes as a result of a direct meditative experience, it is often overlooked that if there is nothing with an inherent self-existence, then there is nothing that can be the cause, or agent, of any change.⁠¹

To say that language can’t capture the truth is even more true when silly things are being stated. So when someone talks about “causes and conditions” in the same breath, they are being silly because these are not the same, and do not operate in the same way.

A cause is that which makes a thing happen. It implies an agent and its agency. The agent is the cause, and its agency is the action or intervention that it performs to effectuate something in, or to, something else.

But if there is nothing that has an inherent self-existence there can be no agents, and thus no agency.

A condition, on the other hand, is that which only opens the possibility of something happening. But conditions can never cause anything to happen, therefore, they are neither an agent nor have agency, and in fact, are never directly anything at all (because, as I mentioned, this is a rather early meditative insight that comes as a result of a direct meditative experience of the lack of an inherent self-existence — thus no “self” — in anything).

So try to make sense of conditions, not as any kind of interaction between entities, not even in a metaphorical sense. Instead, think of how a seed grows. The sun doesn’t cause the seed to grow, any more than rain does, or the soil, or all the bacteria, nutrients, animals, and other plants do. Yet, for the seed to grow, all of those conditions need to be right, including the condition of the seed being present.

As to what causes the seed to grow, well, just let the idea of causes go because there is nothing to be the cause. Understand instead that when the right conditions needed for the seed to germinate are present, the possibility of genesis is present, but what actually happens is uncaused by any, or even all, of the contributing factors that open up the possibility of it happening.

If you divest your life of any sense of “things” inherent in it, you will find yourself at a loss as to how what does happen arises. In fact, it is not always the case that people think that they are responsible for what arises in their lives. Some think it is God doing it, in which case it is either God’s grace or God’s punishment. Others think it is random chance doing it. There is even a mental illness that is specifically diagnosed for the presence of a belief that everything that happens is being caused by one’s self. However, there is another way to account for what happens, a way that doesn’t require God, or Random Chance, or even an omnific self doing it.

But the real issue here is not how to account for why what happens occurs, but rather to account for spontaneity — for when things just happen, and can’t happen in any causal way. Because if you settle on the idea that all things are caused, and there is something that is not caused, and in fact, cannot be caused, then you have a problem in your understanding.

On the other hand, if you settle on the understanding that everything that occurs, does so spontaneously based upon the possibilities that current conditions open up, then even if the same thing happens in every case, it can still be spontaneous, i.e., uncaused. It could be happening spontaneously in a reflexive response to those conditions, and not in a creatively spontaneous way. These are both spontaneous and, thus, uncaused, even though something particular happens every time.

Perhaps this surprises you. But think about all the things you thought were going to happen in your life that didn’t, and all the things that did happen that you never saw coming! When we think we are doing something, what we are doing is conflating the opening of possibilities in our life with one’s directly causing whatever does show up in our life to happen.

For example, you may pursue a college degree, but that doesn’t cause you to get a better paying job, it only makes it possible. Getting a better paying job may happen as a result of the preparations that you focused on, hoping for happy results — and the possibilities those preparations opened up — but you don’t get a better paying job because of your actions, or your hopes.

However, it’s not the case that our efforts are useless or inconsequential. Instead, this is about our confusion regarding what requires our effort — and that is specifically our decision to turn our concerted attention towards something, or to turn away from it. We may want a better paying job, but unless we turn our attention towards opening the possibility of that happening, it will most likely not happen. I would not go so far as to say it won’t happen because what does arise is often surprising, and is limited only by what is possible — and it’s always possible that you might get a better paying job, although that is normally not assured.

Scientists call this spontaneity, stochastic behavior — it extends all the way down to the quantum level of reality, where it is most obvious. It’s the reason why, for example, a computer needs a “clock,” that coordinates all the stochastic behavior of its electronic components so that the device can actually accomplish the tasks it has been engineered to allow to happen. Notice I didn’t say “make happen,” because sometimes things don’t. And we’ve probably all experienced that — and not just with computers.

Often, in our attempts to make sense of reality, we fall into old habits of thought that arise from an understanding in our heads that “things do stuff.” Exorcising that understanding happens naturally when a certain point in mind-training is reached, but without that direct experience, silliness abounds.

Parmenides, an Ancient “Pre-Socratic” Greek philosopher and shaman, who is sometimes credited with the label of “father of logic” in the West, once wrote a poem about his insights into reality. He didn’t use any pronouns in it, and few, if any, nouns. Smart people, thinking they knew what he meant, supplied a lot of additional wording in the form of pronouns and nouns that made the poem easier to read once it was translated, but also emptied it of the truth Parmenides had gone to great pains to express, because they didn’t understand that his words were an apophatic performance.

Then, once that was done, they realized that Parmenides hadn’t said the “right” thing in the “right” way, so they fixed that too. When Parmenides said: “the same is to perceive as well as wherefore is the perceived” (“ταὐτὸν δ᾽ ἐστὶ νοεῖν τε καὶ οὓνεκέν ἐστι νόημα”), equating the source (or the “wherefore”) of manifest appearances of the world with the faculty of perceiving them, which we call “awareness” today, they clarified it, equating “perceiving” with “thinking,” turning it into a kind of “I think, therefore I am” statement instead: “the same is to think as well as wherefore is the thought upon.” Which was silliness, of course — neither the Greek word for thought, nor for thinking, appears anywhere in Parmenides’ statement.

Parmenides seemed to be saying that it was what we today call awareness, and its focus of attention, which was the condition for that which was known, to be, and his interpreters didn’t like that because they knew that it was our actions, rather than our focused awareness, that makes things happen. So they ignored what Parmenides said, and put their own understanding into his translated words. Treason!

So let’s take the treason of Parmenides’ translators and commentators over two millennia as a suggestion and let’s see if their correction to Parmenide’s statement could even possibly be true. Is it possible to think our thoughts? What do you think?

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།
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¹ We live in an age today where “facetalking,” i.e., talking at someone, and only listening to ourselves, is so rampant it is assumed to be normal, so I feel it necessary to point out that although I have said there is nothing that can be the “cause, or agent, of any change,” it will be taken by some that I have just said there is “no change.” That is facilely untrue — both that I said it and that it could be the case.

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