Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It also happens to be the name of a movie. The Butterfly Effect refers to how a very small and seemingly insignificant occurrence could influence the world in a substantial way. The term was originally coined by a scientist named Edward Lorenz who discovered that a small change in the input of data could result in a completely different result from what was expected. The term came about when a fellow researcher posed the following question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
An old Japanese proverb goes, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.” The reasoning is, when a strong wind comes, dust flies into people’s eyes, and the numbers of those without sight increases. In olden days, blind people often became shamisen (traditional three-string instrument) performers. So the sales of the instrument increased. The front of a shamisen is made of the skin of cats. So when shamisen sales go up, cats become scarce. When cats become scarce, the number of mice increase. Mice love to gnaw on wooden tubs, and so people need to replace their tubs. Thus the proverb, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.”
In this way, a small and insignificant cause can bring about a big and unexpected effect that could not have been predicted. Simply put, it is to say that there is no way that we can predict what will happen in the future.
I began to think that the Butterfly Effect is similar to the important concept of dependent origination in Buddhism. It is to say that causes and the countless conditions that affect those causes lead to some kind of effect. Things, in other words, do not happen solely on their own. This is what Buddhism refers to as karma. It may be easier to understand by thinking about the following story.
A young man was asked by his mother to buy her pick up something at a store. So after work, he took a different way home in order to stop at the store. On the way, he saw a motorcycle shop with a sharp looking bike on display. It’s exactly what he’d been looking for, and so he buys the bike. On the way home, tragically, he’s killed in a collision with a truck.
This tragedy occurs because the young man decided to take a different way home. What would we think if we were the mother? In her despair, she might think, “If only I didn’t ask him to go shopping for me,” and feel tremendous guilt for what had happened to her son.
We have the tendency to search for the one cause of an effect. But Buddhism teaches us that there is no one cause for something to happen. There are many causes and those causes are influenced by many conditions to bring about the natural course that is the effect we are looking at.
In reflecting on the young man in the previous story, there is no one cause for his death. At each turn, if there was even a slight change, he might not have been killed. If he were not asked to go shopping, if he hadn’t stopped at the motorcycle shop, if he wasn’t interested in motorcycles, if that truck hadn’t come in his direction…any of these things would have prevented his death.
When we look at the causes of an effect, we see that there are so many different conditions that could have resulted in a different effect. This is the Butterfly Effect – a multitude of small causes and conditions changing the effect – something that can happen infinitely.
If is for this reason that the mother cannot be blamed for “asking her son to go shopping for her.” “If this had happened, that would not have happened.” It is useless to think in such ways.
However, as human beings, we cannot help but feel guilt when a bad result occurs. The reason why is life does not proceed simply due to those causes and conditions. We consciously (or unconsciously) make decisions at every moment of our lives. But those choices are influenced by our environment in the same way that our personalities are shaped. Conditions are accumulated to push us to make the decisions we make. That means that we cannot totally control the things that happen in our lives. In a real sense, we do not have the power to control our lives.
When we reflect on the past in the context of the present, we see that the effects occurring now are the products of causes and conditions of the past. This is what Buddhism calls karma.
A cup is filled with water. When another drop of water is inserted into the cup, the cup overflows. The reason the cup overflows is that the seemingly insignificant addition of one small drop is inserted into the cup. It may be a small change, but it can have the effect of changing one’s life. How that result affects a person may differ from one person to another.
A mistake often made is to equate fate with karma. Fate is when one looks at the future in the context of the present and determines that a certain result will occur. Buddhism looks at the causes from the result to see that the causes and conditions of the past have brought forth the result at hand. This is what we call karma.
To be distressed by or be proud of what happened in the past, to feel anxiety or anticipation for what is to come in the future…for any human being, these are feelings that one cannot help having. But when we get too caught up in such thinking, it can only lead to suffering. The past did not occur through our own power; the future will not pan out in the way we hope due to our own capabilities.
We cannot predict the future. There is no way we can predict what will happen, but it is there that the endless possibilities of the future exist for us. That’s why life is so interesting and full of promise. Experiencing both sadness and joy, we try to live with strength the lives we have been given.