On Cause and Effect

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 11488)

This is intended as a brief discussion of the nature, distinctions, ramifications and questions regarding causality.

What is cause and effect? For example, if a person commits theft, in terms of the person’s body, speech, or mind, which one is the cause? The word “karma,” which we often use in our speech, connotes the same meaning as “cause” here. A thief uses hands to grab something and puts it in a bag. Is this action the cause? When someone thinks, “I’m going to steal this.” Is this thought the cause? In the case of stealing, should the action of the hands be construed as the cause or the thought?

The Sarvastivada School1 and the Yogacara (Mind-Only) School hold many different viewpoints on the interpretation of causality, but the ones elucidated by the Mind-Only School are the more comprehensive within the context of the Relative Truth. The Yogacara School thinks that everyone has a mind continuum from beginningless time until the attainment of enlightenment. This mind continuum sometimes has the five consciousnesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, but sometimes not. No matter how it manifests itself, a permanent existence called the alaya consciousness is present at all times. Whenever karma is committed, a karmic seed will be planted in the alaya consciousness.

There is an analogy for this. When ink is poured on the snow, the snow will be turned into ink color. After it melts, the color can still be seen on the ground. Similarly, if karma is born of defilements, the karmic mark will be left in the alaya consciousness after defilements are gone. Karma (or cause) is kind of a unique ability. Although our eyes cannot see how rice seeds germinate, they do have within themselves the capacity to do so. Likewise, when a karmic seed is planted in the alaya consciousness, it will yield fruit when all the right conditions come together. This fruit is also called karmic effect. And this particular capacity of the alaya consciousness to yield karmic fruit is the inherent nature of cause.

After a person has killed a being or stolen things, the karmic seed of such action will remain in this person’s alaya consciousness. When it will germinate is uncertain, however. The scriptures often used the analogy of harvesting crops to illustrate the timing of karmic effect. There are great varieties of grains and vegetables and the length of time for them to ripen varies. Some may ripen in only one to two months, others five or six months, or even longer. The types of seeds, the geographical location and the climate are all contributing factors to this disparity.

Likewise, it is stated in the scriptures that ripening of the cause comes in four types. The first is the one that ripens in the same lifetime. For example, karma was committed in youth and the effect takes place in middle or old age. Sometimes karma ripens even sooner, and the effect can be seen immediately. The reason is that certain conditions can expedite the manifestation of fruit. Such fast ripening has something to do with the object and the motivation of the action. There are many such cases told in One Hundred Stories about Karma (Karmasakata). For example, the Sangha and ordinary people are two completely different objects. If it is a serious case of stealing from or slandering the Sangha, the retribution may come right away or in this lifetime. If the same act is committed against ordinary people, one will surely bear the consequence but not necessarily right away or in this lifetime. The different results arise from the difference between the two objects. The other condition is the difference in motivation. If the intention to kill is very strong or has been premeditated for a long time, the retribution will come swiftly, whereas the effect may not be immediately apparent if the motivation to kill is not so fierce.

The other three types of ripening do not result in karmic effect that will manifest swiftly. The first is ripening in the next life. For example, the effect of committing great evil, such as the five hellish deeds, or great virtue will definitely materialize in the next life. Second, the effect is certain to manifest but the timing of which is uncertain; it may take three or four lifetimes or even longer. Third, there may or may not be any effect. What could be the reason for this uncertainty in view of infallible karma? When a weak cause (or karma) encounters a strong antidote, causality may then be broken.

The first three types of karma, that is, the one that ripens in this and next life, and with uncertain timing, are immutable karma. The fourth, with indefinite fruition, is mutable karma.

About the powers of the four different types of karma, only the omniscient Buddha knows. Ordinary people or non-Buddhist practitioners possessing some psychic powers and even arhats would not know their intricate workings thoroughly. During the time of the Buddha, there were many non-Buddhist practitioners in India who, with their clairvoyance, saw lifelong virtuous people find rebirth in the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realm instead. They questioned, “If cause and effect was truly infallible, why would virtuous people not end up well?” Hence, they viewed the idea of cause and effect as pure nonsense.

How can a person who has practiced virtue the entire life be reborn in the lower realms? Well, although the person may have been virtuous throughout this life, we do not know anything about this person’s previous lives. Maybe the person has been virtuous in this as well as the last two lifetimes, but it may not be so anymore if we could go back even further. Some negative karma might have been committed many lifetimes ago. From the perspective of the three types of immutable karma, virtuous karma that the person has committed in this life happens to ripen not in the current or the next life, but in the yet known future lives. That is, it may not come to fruition until perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years later.

In our innumerable past lives, had we ever committed this type of immutable karma? The answer is yes. Therefore, we can be as virtuous as we would like in this life, retribution may still await us if we cannot purify all our negative karma of the past. Once this type of karma matures, there is no escape but to bear its effect albeit temporarily. Does this mean that virtuous karma we have accumulated in this lifetime will go to waste? It certainly won’t. They also bear their own fruit. However, if virtuous karma is not powerful enough and ripens slowly, it is possible that we may have to suffer first before enjoying any reward.

Apparently, even non-Buddhist practitioners with some spiritual realization may still be confused about the workings of cause and effect, not to mention people without any right view or understanding. The complexity of the cycle of cause and effect and how it passes through the past, present and future make it possible only for the Buddha to comprehend entirely its causal relation. Others merely glimpse different parts of the cycle. These non-Buddhist practitioners are usually well learned; some may even have acquired certain clairvoyance over worldly matters. However, they jumped to a conclusion only based upon what they saw—virtuous people took rebirth in the lower realms—and from it the conclusion was drawn that cause and effect could not have existed. Then books were written and theories developed based on this conclusion, which gradually formed into a sect after attracting enough followers. This is how nihilistic view was established.

How did eternalism come about? There were some people whose insight could not reach beyond certain point in time when even equipped with some supernatural power. Still, through this power, they discerned that they were once born in the form realm.2 When they were celestial beings then, Brahma and Indra already existed. Now that they had died and exited from that realm, but Brahma and Indra were still around when they looked over again. They tried to see when these gods were born and when they would die. They looked a few thousands, even tens of thousands of years ahead and found the gods remaining alive. They then came to the conclusion that Brahma and Indra would never die. They looked back tens of thousands or a few million years, but could not find the days the gods were born. Then they concluded that only beings below the rank of Brahma and Indra would die, whereas Brahma and Indra would be eternal. They subsequently incorporated these viewpoints into their books, gathered followers and established a sect. This is how the views of nihilism and eternalism originated.

In the modern world, people also have similar questions. There are some who have never stolen things, killed or hurt anyone; rather, they have kept their vows and practiced virtue. Yet, they often seem to be less fortunate than others in many aspects. Such cases tend to make people wonder, “If karma was true, why should good people run into bad luck?” Lay practitioners who do not have in-depth knowledge of karma or fully understand the viewpoints of Abhidharma-kosha-shastra may ask the same question. Some would even say, “I have attended many pujas and read so many scriptures. I should not have to suffer this or that illness or misfortune.” This is a wrong view. The fact is that all the virtuous actions committed have been stored in our alaya consciousness. It is due to the relevant conditions not yet matured that karma derived from those actions has not come to fruition. This is like a farmer who sowed all his grains in the springtime and must wait five to six months for the harvest. In the meantime, he is just a poor fellow with nothing left to eat at home. Some people may question, “You have toiled hard every day, tilling the land. Why don’t you have any food to eat?” Question like this is pointless. Everyone knows that there is a waiting period between sowing and harvesting.

The reason why he has no food now is because he did not plough the land properly last year to reap a bumper harvest this year. His hard working this year would not have directly affected that outcome in any way. Similarly, attending pujas or liberating animals would not have any direct impact on the pain and misfortune we suffer now as those are the manifestations of the ripening of past negative karma.

Another situation is that bad people seem not to get sick or encounter ill luck that often. Many of them have a good life and may even live in prosperity until they die. Again, people will question, “If cause and effect does work, why is it there is no retribution after all the bad deeds these people have done? It seems that evildoers live a healthier and happier life than people of virtue. Wouldn’t this be an indication that causality does not exist?” This is exactly the same situation as the farming example.

Now let us analyze whether physical suffering and misfortune arise purely based on karma.

Some non-Buddhists think that karma dictates the arising of all phenomena. Whether a person has a good life, or even how early or late one can eat, is predetermined and hence immutable. However, this is not the Buddhist view. Buddhism holds that physical suffering and misfortune all have various contributing factors as their causes. Some illnesses, the so-called karma-induced illness, originated from previous life. They are medically incurable, no matter how much money is spent. These may be attributed to karma. If you have a cold, headache, or fever, it may also be karma related, but not necessarily caused by karma from the past lives. Hence, karma is sometimes directly responsible for certain things to take place, but other times may not be so directly involved. The point is, in all matters, Buddhism has always opposed taking the dualistic approach, affirming one while negating the other. The same applies to karma.

On the other hand, if everything were destined and immutable as some non-Buddhists believe, what would be the point of undertaking spiritual practice? Since everything has already been set, there is no point trying to change anything in life—if having a good life, rejoice in one’s good fortune; a miserable one, just bear it. By the same token, if everything were predetermined, it would be useless giving food to the needed since going hungry would have been their destiny anyway. Hence, fatalism has failed to stand.

Still some others refuse to acknowledge the reality of cause and effect. This is also wrong. Best we should take the approach of the middle way rather than the two extremes.

In any case, it is beyond the limits of our perception to know whether suffering or happiness is karma related. Under normal circumstances, what we do now, either good or bad, definitely will affect future karmic results but not quite so imminently the manifestation of karma at present. However, exceptions are possible with special circumstances.

Some people think that it is because killing and stealing are against religious beliefs that people refrain from doing so. The truth is that killing and stealing should be forsaken because they are against the natural law and hence inevitable punishment. For example, is it against the Buddhist doctrine to take poison? Although Buddhism forbids people to take poison, the real reason is poison itself which is inedible. If you insist on taking it, you will be poisoned and experience pain. This is the result of acting against the natural law. Certain kinds of poison can take effect immediately; others may take months or even years for the effect to set in. The same is true of karmic results. Although we cannot see the actual workings of cause and effect, the manifestation of effect follows the same principle. If people see that a person remains in good health after taking poison but before the effect setting in, they then assume that the person did not take poison after all. Does this make sense? In fact, one should not equate absence of pain with non-poison; it is simply not time yet for the poison to take effect. Similarly, killing and stealing are like swallowing poison. They are bound to take effect, just a matter of time.

There is an example in the text. Once there was a king who killed an arhat. The next day, a downpour of innumerable jewels fell on his territory. The rain of jewels, becoming more precious by the day, continued for the next six days. On the eighth day, however, a ferocious pouring of mud came down and buried all his subjects. Why did the king have jewels rained down on his land after killing an arhat? It was due to the great deeds he had committed in the past lives. Even though killing an arhat was an extremely grave crime, virtuous karma from the past ripened first and hence his great fortune. But when good karma was depleted, the negative karmic results ensued immediately. Did the Creator arrange the sequence of events as non-Buddhists would like to think? No. The mechanism is the same as that of crops, whose harvest depends on the right combinations of soil, climate, sunlight and other factors. It is not man-made but the law of nature.

If you would like to know more about karma, you can read the fourth chapter of the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra, which clearly explains the workings of cause and effect. Not understanding karma correctly will cause many problems even for people with clairvoyance, let alone ordinary folks like us.

The fourth type of cause (karma) is mutable karma. Since the strength of this karma, virtuous or not, is weak, it will likely not cause any effect when met with a counteracting condition. For negative karma to become mutable, we must bring forth this counteracting condition, i.e., repentance. According to the Mahayanabhidharma-sangiti-shastra, the way to turn all evil karma committed since beginningless time into mutable karma is to repent and vow never to commit again. To repent past wrongdoings and resolve never to repeat again are the two key elements to turn immutable into mutable karma.

For example, a butcher who killed animals for a living had a change of heart and became a lay Buddhist. He expressed great repentance for the killings and vowed never to do it again. Once these two conditions are satisfied, karma derived from the killing will become mutable karma which may or may not result in any karmic fruit. If the repentance could go deeper, it would even be possible that the butcher might not need to bear any consequence at all.

About those past misdeeds that we have performed but cannot recall, we can contemplate like this: “All the misdeeds that I have committed since beginningless time, intentionally or unintentionally, are all wrong. As if they are the poison I have taken, I feel the greatest fear and regret for my actions, and vow never to commit them ever again.” This way, all negative karma can be changed into mutable karma. The significance of such resolution cannot be overstated. Otherwise, any karmic effect will be possible if this is not done.

Although we have not committed killing or stealing in this life and, being Buddhist practitioners, we often chant mantras, meditate and liberate animals, these virtuous actions are still the doings of defiled mortals. Once strong anger arises in our minds, all our virtuous karma so far accumulated will be destroyed instantly if the merit has not been dedicated. Besides, the roots of virtue of ordinary people are not stable— being good now does not mean staying good forever. If we were to have the powers of divination, we would be able to see all of our negative karma being stored in the alaya consciousness. Without repentance, the ensuing retributions will surely take place. Then it will exactly match the nihilists’ view, i.e., causality does not exist, such that one may lead a virtuous life but still drop to the lower realm after death. That would be a dangerous view for us Buddhists. Thus, we must repent all our negative karma as all of them can be purified through true penitence.

On the other hand, virtue also has the possibility to turn into mutable karma. It is therefore important for us to save all virtuous karma as best we can. There are two ways to do that. One is dedication. The other, a better way, is to understand fully the meaning of emptiness, that is, knowing virtuous karma is, like dreams, intrinsically illusory. If we can contemplate in this way, even if anger arises, it cannot destroy the root of virtue. Because anger is defilement, a mental affliction rooted in attachment, it is incompatible with the view that all phenomena are illusory. But the virtuous actions we performed are directly associated with attaining realization of that view. Since something mired in attachment is inferior to the virtuous root planted with wisdom, anger cannot destroy this root of virtue. If we have neither attained any realization nor dedicated merit, but are constantly filled with anger, virtuous karma will be destroyed very easily. For ordinary people, the best way to save accumulated good karma is dedication of merit.

In conclusion, we should do everything we can to turn all evil karma into mutable karma and all virtuous karma immutable.

These four types of karma are very important. To know what causality is, one must know how to differentiate the four and be thoroughly knowledgeable about them all. This understanding is essential to our practice as well.

How to validate the existence of causality? The Buddha once said that it is not so easy for an ordinary person to prove the existence of cause and effect, but not impossible. Buddhism holds the doctrine of dependent arising of all phenomena or compounded phenomena. What is dependent arising? It means that cause begets effect. All phenomena are the manifestations of dependent arising, the results of conditioned genesis. Suppose a person killed an animal. It caused great harm to that animal. How can there be no consequence for the person who had committed such grave karma? Like casually throwing a seed into the moist and warm soil, it will germinate on its own with no tending required. By the same token, in the phenomenal world, every cause must bear its own fruit with no exception.

Sometimes patients, after being diagnosed and given only one to three months to live, may continue living a healthy life three months later with the help of performing virtuous deeds such as liberating animals or undertaking a long life practice. When the patients go for check-up again, doctors find the symptoms all gone. This has happened in Tibet, China and other parts of the world. It is not hearsay or a fairytale but a fact, which somewhat validates the existence of causality.

The Buddha also proved the existence of causality in the sutras through the following example. It seems that some people can never become wealthy, no matter how hard they try. There is nothing wrong with the way they work or operate, but they remain poor their whole lives. Others enjoy fabulous wealth throughout their lives without having to work hard for it. The same also happens with people’s health and life span. We may think that these seemingly unreasonable outcomes are due to the variable external environment, but they are not. For example, once a Tibetan king, wanting to help the poor, divided all the wealth of the nobles evenly among the poor three times. However, after some time, everything went back to where it was—the poor remained poor, the nobles stayed noble and well-off. The king could do nothing more. Actually, not all those nobles were smart and capable, the poor foolish and lazy. Most likely, in this case, it could be the workings of cause and effect. Of course, the example is not saying that we are all destined to be rich or poor, so the rich would never need to work for anything and the poor would labor to no avail. Nevertheless, the law and the workings of cause and effect are present in this example.

Also stated in the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra is that some children may suffer the effect of seriously negative karma that their parents accumulated. If children can suffer the consequences of their parents’ negative karma, is it not contradictory to the Buddhist teaching that one reaps what one sows and that no one can assume other’s karma? The Abhidharma-kosha-shastra explains that these children themselves already have certain negative karma. Due to the close relationship between the parents and their children, the ripening of the children’s negative karma may be expedited when the parents committed extremely evil karma. There are many such documented cases both in the East and the West. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to directly prove the existence of causality because our eyes cannot look beyond this life for causes from the past lives and effects in the future lives. Nonetheless, through indirect means, as shown by the example above, it is possible to prove the link between cause and effect. Not only is samsara conditioned by causality, but also nirvana and liberation. Therefore, if it is liberation that we seek, we must plant the seed of liberation, which will then yield the fruit. Such is the view of Buddhism.

The cardinal doctrine of Buddhism is dependent arising of all phenomena, which encompasses a broad range of subjects. From the perspective of Relative Truth, it means that when there is cause, there is effect. Life’s sorrows and joys, separations and reunions, in fact, all phenomena come with their own respective causes. Some we can see, some cannot. Only very special kind of persons can grasp the whole picture. But cause and effect always go hand in hand, never alone. No cause, no effect, and vice versa. If one is in pursuit of happiness, one must sow happiness to reap happiness. The seed of happiness is virtuous action. To avoid suffering and misfortune, one must not give rise to their causes. The cause of suffering is doing evil. Being foolish and ignorant, ordinary people try to reap happiness by sowing suffering. For example, nowadays many people try to prolong their own lives by killing and eating all sorts of animals. Aren’t the means and the purpose completely contradictory to one another? Sadly, this contradiction has been evident in many other aspects of our life today.

Hence, without the correct understanding and the discernment of cause and effect, ordinary people may end up doing wrong most of the time and be forced to taste the unexpected, bitter fruit afterwards.

1 The school that discusses the existence of everything, asserts the reality of all phenomena

2 One of the three realms of mortality—the realm of desire, form and non-form.