Buddhism, Impermanence, Contingency

All phenomena that are born, exist, and are subject to the influence of other phenomena, in other words, all phenomena that are composite, must abide by the law of impermanence and eventually cease to exist. They cannot exist eternally, without someday being destroyed. Everything we cherish and hold dear today, we will have to let go of and be separated from in the future. In not too long a time, I will also pass away. Therefore, I urge you to practice being an island unto yourself, knowing how to take refuge in yourself, and not taking refuge in anyone or anything else.

The Buddha, The Saṃyukta Āgama

Buddhism recognizes the contingent nature of reality. Whatever is could have been different and might never have been at all. Systems theory also focuses on contingency. We observe transient structures, not timeless essences; there is no reason why the current reality, which is just an observation of a particular system, has to be the only reality (or observation). Whatever is structured, put together, could have been structured in some other way. There was nothing inevitable or preordained about what we see around us. Furthermore, “all phenomena that are composite, must abide by the law of impermanence and eventually cease to exist.” Thus, we mustn’t put our faith is structures that will pass away–and that never had to exist in the first place.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,

The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent–flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent. . . .

Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. Without impermanence, life could not be. . . . We think impermanence makes us suffer. . . It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching

The flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, etc., that Thich Nhat Hanh mentions above are structures, also known as assemblages.

At a structural level, systems form assemblages, and, as such, they come together and fall apart. Systems theory is interested not in timeless essences but rather in transient assemblages. Assemblages are constantly changing. The body you had yesterday is not the body you have today. The same goes for minds, friendships, family relationships, organizations, legal systems, etc.

Structure, moreover, is subordinate to function. This means that if a system no longer functions there is no reason for it to continue to exist. A friendship, romance, organization, law, political system, economic system . . . that no longer functions will not reproduce itself; that is to say, it will not carry out its moment-to-moment operations.

But what does this have to do with taking refuge in yourself? Well, this self exists beyond permanence and impermanence; it is the self of nirvana. It is not the mind or body, and it only exists from moment to moment; it doesn’t have a history or a future. If we take refuge in something else–whether that is our own mind or body or a lover, teacher, guru, organization, doctrine, political regime, or whatever–we are going to be disappointed. Lovers change, gurus become corrupt, organizations collapse, dynasties fall, etc. One’s own mind and body will also cease to function. We can’t put our trust in the nonexistent essence of any of these things.

Systems theory is closer to the philosophy or Heraclitus or the Stoics than to Aristotle, Plato, or Thomas Aquinas.

It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state. (Plutarch)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Systems theory is interested in structural instability rather than stability. A stable system doesn’t change, which means it cannot survive in a constantly changing environment. This is why tall buildings are built to absorb the force of earthquakes or strong winds. The building moves with rather than against the force of the earthquake or wind. Instability is built into the structure. A skyscraper is a structurally open system because it can absorb energy from its environment; it bends instead of breaking.

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