Thich Nhat Hanh often uses matches to illustrate the idea of causes and conditions. He brings a little box of matches out of his brown monk’s bag, he opens the box and takes out a single match. After closing the box, he holds up the match. He then carefully strikes the match along the side of the box, generating a small flame at the tip of the match. This is not a magic trick, and something you and I have probably done countless times, yet he illustrates a very profound truth about the universe.
Before TNH strikes the match, all of the causes and conditions for the flame are already there, with the exception of that one condition — running the match tip along the box. That final condition causes a flame to manifest. Although we often think that striking a match is all we need to do to cause the flame, there is so much more. The wood that makes the match itself, the oxygen in the air, and the box all contribute to the flame. If we picked up a toothpick and ran it across a box of cereal, we would not manifest a flame, even if we did it with the same force and direction as we struck the match. And if we tried to light the match in a room devoid of oxygen, no flame would appear.
In order for something to manifest, causes and conditions must be sufficient. Causes and conditions can be physical form, our thoughts, our genetic history, and our habits. Sometimes when we act, we are the last condition necessary to manifest something, like the flame. Sometimes we simply contribute another condition which will manifest in the future. But our one action alone is the never the only cause.
It’s the same with every thought or action we produce. This morning it was raining here on retreat, and there were only a few spaces in the dry dining hall to eat breakfast. While I was eating, a woman approached me to indicate that I had taken her seat. We were in silence, and I wasn’t entirely sure what she was saying, so I did not relinquish the seat quickly enough, and she left looking quite irritated. For a moment I thought that I had caused her anger. But remembering the match, I realized that her irritation was not simply because of my action. Other causes and conditions were already present, and I just struck the match. I wish that I had been able to act more compassionately. But remembering causes and conditions allowed me to let go of blaming myself for single-handedly causing her anger.
Every moment is already full of causes and conditions before I arrive. My part is quite small. And yet my action plays a significant part. My small action may be the thing that leads to manifestation of anger, joy, or a flame. So in any situation I can ask myself: what is the most skillful action I can offer, given the causes and conditions I know and those that may be hidden from me? What is my one contribution going to be to this moment?
When I understand causes and conditions, I know my true impact on any situation. Each time I act, it is as if I am running the matchstick against the box — nothing more, and nothing less. And when I am triggered by someone else’s actions, I can see that they too contributed just one cause. The other causes and conditions were already in me, from my childhood, my ancestors, my previous actions and my thoughts.
We are always just one cause. We can try to be as skillful as possible, but will never be able to control the environment into which we contribute our actions. And that understanding frees us from blaming ourselves and others for situations that are much more complex than we ever realized. And, for me, less blaming means more happiness.