Take refuge in yourself

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: Everything that is could have been different; 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). There was nothing inevitable or preordained about what we see all around us. Furthermore, “all phenomena that are composite, must abide by the law of impermanence and eventually cease to exist.” The only way for a system to continue to exist is to resist entropy, or to reproduce itself from moment to moment. Thus, we mustn’t put our faith is things that will pass away–and that never had to exist in the first place.

Systems theory also focuses on contingency. Systems are composites or assemblages. A social system is a structure of communicative events; a psychic system is a structure of psychic events, or “consciousness events.” A living body is a composite (or assemblage) of biological events. Systems theory is interested not in timeless essences but rather in transient assemblages. Systems 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.

But what does this have to do with taking refuge in yourself? Well, if we take refuge in something else–whether that is a lover, teacher, guru, organization, doctrine, or whatever–we are going to be disappointed. Lovers change, gurus become corrupt, organizations collapse, etc. 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 an open system because it can absorb energy from its environment; it bends instead of breaking. The building must rely on itself–its own structural qualities–in order to stay upright.

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