Here is an exchange I had with a friend recently.
Q: When you say we are never the agents of change - do you mean ever?
A: What I propose is spoken from my understanding of Buddha-dharma (the teachings of the Buddhas) and it is not so present in the secular-psych approaches which remain married to the 20th century existentialist philosophy that emphasizes individual identity and personal choice. It is inconsistent with mainstream Christian thought too, which likewise emphasizes individual identity and will. The biggest differences are the doctrine of "karma" (cause and effect) and the initial "3 Stains" Buddhist teaching, which asserts :
1. "Anatta"- there is no separate eternal self or soul (yes, there are transient spirit-selves but none that survive death)The second point is the crucial one here for this discussion. It asserts that all there is is a causally interconnected net of continuously shifting and changing phenomena within which we we seem to experience ourselves as unique. In short, everything is already changing all the time. That is its nature. We do not cause the change, nor can we.
2. "Anicca" - there is nothing in the realm of time/space which possesses permanence, - everything is transient and changing, and
3. "Dukkha" - this realm of our normal experience can not provide us full satisfaction or fulfillment
What we experience as our "self" is a temporary presentation that is causally linked with the momentum that precedes us. The causes that lead to "me" are not limited to what I have done, but are the results of previous karmic force which may include individuals like my parents and grandparents, but may also include higher level karma, such as social and cultural forces.
I use that image of canoeing on a fast flowing river, but the more accurate Buddhist metaphor, which would scare off most people, is that we are not in a canoe but we are actually the peaks of those moving waves. We cannot change the ocean or the waves. We can only attend to the momentum and align ourselves with it. Our purpose is to recognize our true "wave-ness" and fulfill that as completely as we can. We experience "Dukkha" (existential lack) when we try to set ourselves against or separate ourselves out from the momentum of the wave and the ocean.
The concept of "will" which so dominates Western thought is not much of an issue for Buddhist teaching. Instead we use the term "vedana" which roughly equates to intention. It is the directionality of our thoughts, desires and, ultimately our actions. When our thoughts, intentions and actions are "wholesome (Kusala, that is, directed at realizing our true nature) then we flow with the flow. When they are unwholesome (a-kusala, self-obsessed) then we experience that dissatisfaction that characterizes human life - ie. Dukkha.
The challenge for us is not to cause change but to discover the flow of change and how to best align ourselves with it.We are more collaborators than agents. This remains a moral and positive purpose.If that's the case, why do we reflect, pay attention to our values, set our own intentions and facilitate our own attentive action? When we took your pups for the walk earlier this winter I really heard you when you talked about being aware of the already existing momentum. But do we not act as agents of change on some level?
Only in a relative sense, that is, to the extent that we hold to the idea of a separate self. The value of meditation, value clarification and intention setting is that it permits us to see through the delusion of individual selfhood, at least momentarily, so we can release the self-obsession that drives our lives and suffering. They permit us to step outside of the narrowness of "my" experience, and allows enough perception of our location in the flow that we broaden or value system to encompass all beings. It promotes a larger, non-self-obsessed desire for the Awakening of all beings from their suffering. Meditative practices are one of the eight tools (Buddhist cal the the Eight-fold Path) recommended to us so we can grow beyond the compressed and sorrowful states of individual being.
This has lead to an accusation of determinism, fatalism and nihilism being targeted at Buddha-dharma by those whose understanding is immature. The teachings, practices and ethics of Buddhist teaching are not life-denying or passive. On the contrary, we are called in each moment to discover how we are ever the expression of universal wisdom and compassion. The question raised for us is how will we act to demonstrate or "realize" that.
in the Dharma,