Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems, by Joanna Macy

Reviewed by Peter Carlson

Joanna Macy has been a well-respected voice regarding ecology for many years; not many people are aware of her deep roots in Buddhist practice.  This book compares the Buddhist concept called paticca samuppada, translated most often as dependent origination.  It’s a core concept of Buddhism, describing the development of mind-states as very rapidly aggregating conditions of the mind in response to the dynamic changes of the world.  Most commentaries on dependent origination seem to describe the process as linear—that is, one condition of the mind leads to another, which creates the conditions for the next, and so on.

She describes modern systems theory, which has become recognized as a core concept of modern science in the disciplines of physics, biology, ecology, and psychology, to name just some applications.  Systems theory emphasizes non-linear processes—that is, that complex systems such as human metabolism, must be understood as many subsystems interacting, mutually influencing each other to produce a metabolic effect.  She relates systems theory to the arising of self-states through dependent origination.

Her writing is extremely thorough in describing the concepts, which doesn’t make this an easy read, but I found her insights and the way she describes them very interesting.  If you have a basic understanding of dependent origination and systems theory, this book could be quite delightful.  I wish you well.

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