So …. not unlike Archimedes, I suppose, I was soaking in a bath last night. (I mean, warm water is warm water, whether appearing in 21st-century Colorado or in ancient Greece, right?)
Though rather than pondering ways to measure the volume of irregularly-shaped objects, I was reading Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. At least this was the plan. But on this particular evening, for whatever reasons, instead of diving right into the text, I decided first to read the introduction — written by the book’s translators: Swami Trabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. In offering a broad overview of Shankara’s philosophical system, they write the following, in relation to causality:
Causal relation exists in the world of multiplicity, which is Maya. Within Maya, the mind cannot function without causal relation. But to speak of cause and effect with reference to the Absolute is simply absurd. To seek to know what caused the world is to transcend the world, to seek to find the cause of Maya is to go beyond Maya — and, when we do that, Maya vanishes, for the effect ceases to exist. How, then, can there be a cause of a non-existent effect? In other words, the relation between Brahman and Maya is, by its very nature, unknowable and indefinable by any process of the human intellect.
Now while I didn’t actually shout “Eureka!” (it was more like an under-the-breath “whoa!”) I definitely could have, given the sweet excitement I felt around the insight that this passage facilitated. I finally understood that all questions of “first cause” must necessarily dissolve, once we’ve unveiled our true identity as Pure Awareness, Brahman, Tao (or whatever else you want to call This).
To speak in terms of “causes” and “effects” requires a dualistic framework — in which causes and effects can be identified, as such, and clearly distinguished from one another. And in relative frames of reference, this kind of thinking works, at least provisionally. Illusory entities can be perceived and described in terms of illusory causes and illusory effects.
But all of this is happening (or, more precisely, appears to be happening) in the realm of Maya. Once Maya is seen through, the very question: “what caused it?” is rendered nonsensical. (Or, to repeat from the above passage: “How, then, can there be a cause of a non-existent effect?”) The question assumes Maya to be an actual real effect — but effects and their corresponding causes operate only on illusory levels. Because Reality is nondual, it stands ontologically prior to the cause/effect duality.
When we first ask the question, “What causes the (phenomenal) world?” — we’re very likely asking from within the mind’s dualistic assumptions. We assume the world to be an actual effect; and so assume that there’s an actual cause of it. But to find the true non-conceptual “answer” to the question is to transcend conceptual mind, i.e. to see through Maya. And from this nondual point of view, the question dissolves, because we now understand the question to be equivalent to seeing a coiled rope as a snake, and then asking: “What’s the cause of the snake?”
Now, I’ve chewed on this issue of “first cause” before. See, for instance, my essay Turtles All The Way Down: Tao As First Cause?. And I’ve reached a similar conclusion with respect to the changing/unchanging polarity in Laozi, Einstein, Archimedes: Puzzling. And on many occasions played with the seeing-a-rope-as-a-snake metaphor.
Yet somehow, there in the bathtub last night, reading that passage about Shankara’s philosophy, I just grokked this cause and effect thing in a way that I never had before — and felt so giddily happy — like a piece of the puzzle had fallen in place, resulting in a deep sigh of relief, a gentle smile, and bathwater flowing upobstructedly from here to ancient Greece.