Not every idea from Eastern traditions finds direct correspondence in Western thought. Nonetheless, the two often enhance, expand upon, and contrast with each other.
People come to Buddhism from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds for many reasons, such as finding refuge from suffering, and answering existential questions, such as: Why do we live? Why does anything exist? How does everything hang together? Enticed by the prospects of deeper understanding and the cessation of ignorance, scores of seekers endure sitting crosslegged for long sessions and, in some traditions, commit endless prostrations, to advance along the path toward grasping the ultimate view of the universe and everything.
Mindfulness and compassion are central pillars of the Buddhist view, based on accepting the understanding that, ultimately, there is no separation between self and other. This acceptance in turn is rooted in the teachings on dependent origination, the exposition of which—throughout the centuries—has resulted in a vast body of accounts, translations, and interpretations of The Sūtra on Dependent Arising. As Casey Kemp, a lead translator of the text, states:
Many scholars and Buddhist followers have heard the story of the classic statement of dependent arising being spoken to Śāriputra by Aśvajit, an early disciple of the Buddha who was summarizing his teachings. However, this particular account, in which the same statement is taught to Avalokiteśvara by the Buddha himself, is not as well-known.(84000)
Dependent origination is an exposition of the interdependence of conditioned phenomena, and it is considered the essence of the Buddhist view. It is famously exemplified in this excerpt:
When there is this, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When there is not this, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.(Culasakuludayi Sutta, MN ii 32, cited in Anālayo)
The essence of dependent origination consists of 12 connected causes (Skt: nidāna), beginning with ignorance and ending with death. Nidāna, in ancient Hindu literature such as the Upanishads and Puranas, means the “first cause, primary cause, original or essential cause.” In Ayurveda and medical texts, Nidāna Sthāna refers to the causes of disease.
An extensive and complex topic, especially in the context of Buddhist logic, causality is the subject of much study in all Eastern traditions. At a more practical level, however, appreciating the interconnectedness of all phenomena can contribute to building cognitive depth and ontological orthogonality. Modern scholars are building on interconnectedness, applying it to a variety of fields in contemporary settings. For example, a measure of interconnectedness called the interconnectedness scale has been developed in psychology to promote well-being by raising awareness of dependencies. (Yu et al.)
There is also growing interest in understanding how natural phenomena arise from elements and forces studied as environmental connectedness. The relationship between humans and nature is investigated with a type of metric called connectedness to nature scale (CNS). (Pasca et al.) Systems thinkers, scientists, and researchers have always taken an interest in interconnectedness and dependencies in systems.
Synchronicity is described as both “a meaningful event” and “an acausal connecting principle,” and most people have some direct experience of it. Carl Gustav Jung was fascinated by coincidental occurrences. He narrated them in his books and he even leveraged them in the course of his profession. He once wrote:
Synchronistic phenomena prove the simultaneous occurrence of meaningful equivalences in heterogeneous, causally unrelated processes; in other words, they prove that a content perceived by an observer can, at the same time, be represented by an outside event, without any causal connection. From this it follows either that the psyche cannot be localized in space, or that space is relative to the psyche. The same applies to the temporal determination of the psyche and the psychic relativity of time.(Jung 2020)
Jung gave the example of a patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible, writing:
After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.(Jung 2010)
In his wish to help the patient, Jung had hoped for something to happen, creating an intent—making the cause, as Buddhists would say. The patient subsequently related a dream about a golden beetle, and a beetle very similar to the scarab she dreamt about turned up at a window the moment she mentioned her dream to the analyst. Was this all a coincidence?
By formulating a hypothesis on synchronicity that attempted to expand the Western world’s conception of the relationship between nature and the mind, Jung happened upon interconnectedness.
But if we accept dependent origination as valid, and Buddhists do not have any doubt about that, and if everything is interconnected, then synchronicity cannot be acausal. Perhaps there are causal links behind the complex networks of connections that make up reality and our experience of synchronicity.
More recently, Joseph Cambray considers synchronicity in the context of contemporary science, such as quantum physics. (Cambray) In light of the complexities underlying the fabric of reality, to state that every phenomenon is the result of karma, could seem like an oversimplification. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the potential reverberations that maybe every thought, action, and intention resonates in the universe and reflects back onto the human experience in one way or another.
Taking mindfulness to a new level and making us aware that maybe we play a role in how interconnectedness plays out, dependent origination can offer a new perspective on the study and understanding of synchronicity.
Anālayo, Bhikkhu. 2021. “Dependent Arising and Interdependence.” Mindfulness 12, no. 5: 1,094–1,102.
Cambray, Joseph. 2009. Synchronicity: Nature and Psyche in an Interconnected Universe. Vol. 15. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Jung, Carl Gustav. 2010. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. From Vol. 8. of the collected works of CG Jung, New in Paper. Vol. 36. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
———. “5. Synchronicity” In Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal, ed. Roderick Main, 93–102. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780691213170-007
Pasca, Laura, Juan I. Aragonés, and María T. Coello. 2017. “An Analysis of the Connectedness to Nature Scale Based on Item Response Theory.” From Frontiers in Psychology 8: 1330.
Yu, Ben CL, Winnie W. S. Mak, and Floria H. N. Chio. 2020. “Promotion of Well-being by Raising the Awareness of the Interdependent Nature of all Matters: Development and Validation of the Interconnectedness Scale.” Mindfulness 11, no. 5: 1,238–1,252.
The Sūtra on Dependent Arising (84000)
Synchronicity (The Existential Buddhist)
Causality and synchronicity: Steps toward clarification. (APA PsycNet)
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