by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)
In the Paccaya-sutta (Discourse on Causal Relations) a part of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha speaks of causality and causally conditioned phenomena. His goal was to bring others to the realization that the concept of causality explained the existence of individual things and that of causally conditioned phenomena the relationships between them, and how the realization of those concepts could lead to an empowering practice.
Causality is the core of understanding the dharma, of understanding knowledge in general. The Buddha told his disciples that dharma was subject to causality and so would undergo changes in accordance with causal factors like environment, culture and level of need. It is also at the core of understanding HOW we are, what role we play and can choose to play in the causal process of the Universe. The realization of causality empowers us with the knowledge that we can make a difference through our engaged actions, whether they be within ourselves, or throughour engagement with others, or with the world around us. No matter whether it is thought, action, philosophy, material, food, theories, etc. . . . all phenomena have a cause, thought some causes may be beyond our ability, right now, to discover. This is a powerful and liberating realization.
The Buddha teaches of four characteristics of causal relationships. These factors of causality were recognized through Siddhartha’s own experiences and can be proven true through our own experiences.
Objectivity: Dependent origination or causality is a fact no matter what angle a phenomena is viewed from. There are actions outside of conscious thought and awareness that are both cause and effect. Metaphysics and science, human and animal, the seen and not seen, act as agents of dependent origination.
Necessity: There is no exception to the causal rule. Nothing happens from “thin air”. The cause may not be discernible but there is a chain, or web of causes. This is a reality we can each recognize in our own experiences and we can realize its encompassing nature revealed in scientific studies across many disciplines.
Invariability: Even events that appear to have no cause, have a cause. While a cause/effect may have been the result of an unintentional action, it wasn’t accidental, there was a cause. This is why we must be mindful of our intent or motivation when we act because invariably our action will have causal consequences.
Conditionality: Events are situational due to the conditions under which they happen. Unconditional events would imply determinism, that an event was pre-destined or an arbitrary occurrence.
Viewing how we interact with others through a “causal lens” can change our perceptions and actions. When we realize that every move, thought and word WILL have results we have the responsibility to be more aware, to engage in more intentional actions.
Think before you act or speak is an age-old proverb. What about think before you think? How we think leads to a causal thread of how we’ll continue to think. How we think naturally leads to how we act. Through practice and study we may come to realize that some of patterns of thought are negative and they are leading us to make negative decisions and take negative actions. Causality allows the opportunity to make positive changes and the knowledge that those changes are apt to lead to positive results.
Viewing issues and problems through a “causal lens” improves our ability to inact lasting solutions. We are less likely to place blame on one individual or one event as “the one cause” by looking for the multiple weak links in the causal chain that connects cause to effect. “Fixing” or adjusting more than one link along the causal chain will enable us to forge a more encompassing solution to problems and situations.
That we are expressions of the Universe is easier to recognize once the causal process is realized. That the Universe is also an expression of us is the realization of a social self.