Cause and effect
As a student of comparative religions, I believe that Buddhism is the most perfect one the world has seen. The philosophy of the theory of evolution and the law of karma are far superior to any other creed.
- Dr. C. G. Jung, Swiss psychologist
What rebirth we take after leaving our body depends on our previous actions. This is due to the functioning of cause and effect: karma and its result. That is, what we do creates the cause for what we’ll become, and what we are now has come about as a result of previously created causes.
Karma means action, and refers to the intentional actions of our body, speech and mind: what we do, say and think. These actions leave imprints and tendencies upon our mindstream. When these imprints and tendencies meet with proper conditions, they affect what we experience.
The discussion of karma - actions and their results - is compatible with science and psychology. Physicists, chemists and biologists research the functioning of cause and effect on a physicallevel. They investigate the causes producing a phenomenon and the results occurring when certain things interact in a specific way. Psychologists look for the causes of mental disorders and the results that can come from certain treatments. Buddhism investigates cause and effect too, but in a more subtle way. It considers how cause and effect function on a subtle mental, not physical level. In addition, Buddhism considers cause and effect over a series of lifetimes.
The fact that our experiences are results of our actions is not a system of punishment and reward. When a flower grows from a seed, it’s neither a reward nor a punishment of the seed. It’s merely a result. Similarly, when our actions bring our future experiences, these are results of our actions, not their rewards or punishments.
The Buddha didn’t set down commandments, the infraction of which warrants punishment. As the Buddha has no wish for us to experience pain, he would never judge or condemn us. Our unpleasant experiences arise due to our own actions.
Newton didn’t create the law of gravity; he merely described how it works. Similarly, the Buddha didn’t create the system of cause and effect or karma. He described what he saw after having removed all obscurations from his mindstream.
We may think that it’s unfair to experience in this life the result of what we did in previous lives. However, it’s not really an issue of “fair” and “unfair.” We don’t say it’s unfair that an object falls down and not up, for we know that no one invented gravity. Gravity isn’t due to someone’s favoritism. It’s simply the way things naturally function. Similarly, no one made the rule that if we harm others now, we’ll have problems in the future. This is simply the natural result arising from that cause.
Since we create the causes, we experience the results. The Buddha can’t reach inside our minds and make us think or act differently. Since the Buddha has infinite compassion, if he were able to save us, he would have done so already. Our teachers can teach us the alphabet, but we must learn it. They can’t learn it for us. Similarly, the Buddha described what to practice and what to abandon, but we must act on this. The Buddha can’t do it for us.
The beauty of our human potential is that we are responsible for our own experience. Living in the present, we create our future. We have the ability to determine who we will be and what happens to us, and to ensure happiness for ourselves and others. To do this, we must assume our responsibility and use this ability.
How cause and effect work
There are four principal characteristics of cause and effect: (1) karma is definite, that is, positive actions are certain to bring happy results and negative actions definitely bring undesirable results; (2) karma is expandable: a small cause can bring a large result; (3) if the cause for a certain occurrence isn’t created, that occurrence won’t be experienced; and (4) the imprints our actions make on our mindstream don’t get lost.
The first characteristic of karma is that constructive actions bring happy results and destructive ones bring unpleasant experiences. Actions aren’t inherently good or bad in themselves, but are considered positive or negative according to whether they bring the result of happiness or pain. If apple seeds are planted, an apple tree will grow, but chili will not. Similarly, if positive actions are done, happiness will ensue, never pain. When suffering is experienced, it’s caused by negative actions, never positive ones. The Buddha said:
According to the seed that is sown,
So is the fruit that you reap.
The doer of good will gather good results,
The doer of evil reaps evil results.
If you plant a good seed well,
Then you will enjoy the good fruits.
It’s helpful to remember this in our daily life. For instance, suppose a person is tempted to lie in order to increase his profit in a business transaction. Then he remembers that this will bring unhappy results. Recognizing that although lying may bring temporary benefit, it will bring more problems in the long run, he decides not to lie. By avoiding lying, he reaps the long-term benefit of acting constructively as well as the short-term gain of winning others’ trust and respect.
When misfortune occurs, some people react in anger, while others become depressed. Buddhist psychology focuses upon practical methods to extricate ourselves from such confusion and suffering. Thus, when we experience misfortune, it’s helpful to remember that karma is definite. Rather than becoming emotionally upset, which only compounds our suffering, we can recall that this situation has arisen due to our own past actions.
For example, if our house is robbed, we suffer from losing our possessions. If, on top of that, we get angry, then we become even more miserable. However, when we consider that our possessions were stolen as a result of some past misdeed on our part - perhaps stealing or cheating others - it will be easier to accept what has happened without anger. By recognizing the undesirable effects arising from selfish actions, we’ll have a firmer determination not to steal or cheat others in the future.
Some people react to misfortune by wallowing in self-pity: “I’m a terrible person. I deserve to suffer.” It’s more skillful to recognize that we experience unhappiness as a result of our past actions. This doesn’t mean that we’re “bad and worthless” people. It simply indicates we made mistakes in the past and are now experiencing their results. Accepting that we made mistakes and recognizing the problems that ensue, we can develop a firm intention to avoid creating the causes of suffering in the future.
Accepting that our problems are due to our own previous destructive actions doesn’t mean we remain passive in the face of harmful situations. If we can do something to prevent or to correct a bad situation, we should do it! However, by remembering that this misfortune is due to our own destructive actions, we won’t be angry or belligerent toward others as we try to remedy the problem.
The second characteristic of karma is that a small action can bring a large result. Just as a huge crop comes from a few seeds, a large result can come from a small action. Helping someone in a small way can result in great happiness, while harming someone slightly can bring years of misery.
Considering that small actions can bring large results helps us to stop rationalizing our negative behavior. Someone may think, “I just over-charged the customer a little bit,” or “I only shouted at my family a short time.” Of course, harming people a little is better than harming them a lot. Still, we can’t dismiss it, for this action will bring its result. The imprint of an action gestates and produces a larger result.
Similarly, although we may not be able to do great constructive actions, it’s important to do small ones, for even a small positive action can bring a great beneficial result. The seemingly small things in life are important. The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:
Even small non-meritorious acts
Can cause great ruin and trouble
In the world that lies beyond-
Like poison that has entered the body.
Even small meritorious acts
Bring happiness to future lives,
Accomplishing a great purpose
Like seeds becoming bounteous crops.
The third feature of karma is that if the cause hasn’t been created, the result won’t be experienced. This is quite logical: if no seed is planted, a crop doesn’t grow. In a car accident, why is one person killed while another is not? Why does one person die of cancer at a young age, while another doesn’t? This occurs because in previous lives, one person created the cause; the other one didn’t.
Likewise, if we want happiness, we must create the cause for it. Just praying to be happy but not acting positively is like praying to know math but not studying it. If we don’t create the cause, the result won’t come. Awareness of this gives us enthusiasm to avoid harming and to act constructively.
Lastly, the imprints of our actions don’t get lost. That is, unless a negative imprint is purified or unless a positive one is destroyed by anger or wrong views, it will eventually ripen when the proper conditions are assembled. Sometimes we lie and think, “It doesn’t matter. No one knows about it. Nothing will happen.” Actually, this isn’t correct, for the imprints may remain on our mindstream a long time before circumstances become conducive for them to bear results. As the Buddha said in the Dhammapada,
Whether it was good or bad,
The power of any action
Once performed is never lost;
The results arise accordingly.
Some actions are destructive and undesirable by nature. These include killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle talk, coveting others’ possessions, maliciousness and wrong views. These ten destructive actions will be discussed further in the chapter on ethics. Avoiding these actions is in itself acting positively. Other positive actions include generosity, serving the sick and needy, helping our parents and teachers, consoling those who are grieving and otherwise being of service to others.
A general guideline for the actions to abandon and those to cultivate also can be established according to the motivation for the action. Actions motivated by attachment, anger, closed-mindedness, jealousy, pride and so on are negative actions. Those motivated by detachment, patience, compassion and wisdom are constructive. We have to look to the motivation of the action in order to determine whether the action itself is constructive or not, for without a particular intention, we don’t speak or act.
Awareness of the role of motivation in determining the longterm results of our actions greatly helps in cutting through all hypocrisy and self-deceit. Sometimes we skillfully manipulate a situation so that we look good, even though our motivation is self-centered. For example, we may run an errand for a friend, not because we’re sincerely interested in their welfare, but because we want them to feel obliged to us. In fact, there is no point in fooling ourselves, for the principal imprint made on our mindstream was a selfish one. Being aware of the results of such deceptive behavior helps us to examine our motivations honestly and correct those which aren’t desirable.
The effects of our actions
We don’t necessarily experience the results of our actions immediately. When Susan loses her temper at her colleague Bill, she experiences the immediate result - he refuses to cooperate with her on the project they’re doing that day. However, the result of her action doesn’t stop there, but influences their relationship in the future as well. Even though she may be pleasant to him in the future, he will not trust her as much.
In addition, the imprints of her maliciousness and harsh speech remain on her mind stream and will influence her experiences in the future. Being in the habit of speaking harshly, she will easily repeat this action the next time the opportunity arises.
It would be a mistake to think that the results of our actions always come quickly and then cease. Just as it takes time for a seed to grow into a plant, it takes times for our karmic imprints to bring their results. As the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:
Wrong actions do not necessarily
Cut immediately like swords.
Those who migrate through wrong actions
Actualize the result afterwards.
Of course, the same applies for our positive actions. We may not instantaneously receive good results, but when the conditions come about for those constructive imprints to bring their results, they will. We should be satisfied to create positive causes and know that they’ll ripen in the future. Being impatient for the result to come doesn’t make it come quicker.
This is especially important to remember when we’re engaged in a spiritual practice. Attaining enlightenment isn’t like getting fast food! We tend to be impatient and want instant enlightenment. But if we think that we’ll become enlightened after doing a little practice for a short time, we’ll be disappointed. It takes time for our good imprints to ripen. Extended practice is needed to transform our minds.
An action that is complete with three parts, the motivation, the action itself, and the completion of the action, can influence four aspects of our experience: (1) the body we’re born into in future lives; (2) what happens to us while we’re alive; (3) our personality characteristics; and (4) the environment we live in.
First, our actions influence the type of body we’re born into in future lives. Beneficial actions bring comfortable rebirths, while destructive actions bring uncomfortable ones. For example a good rebirth, such as the one we have now, is a result of constructive actions we did in previous lives. The imprints of previous positive actions attracted our mindstreams to be born as human beings in fortunate circumstances.
Similarly, if someone acts destructively - for example, his sexual behavior is reckless and inconsiderate - then a negative imprint is left on his mindstream. At the time of death, if he dies with much craving, this acts as a cooperative condition enabling the imprint of his destructive action to bring its result. His mind is attracted towards a body of an unfortunate life form. Because the causal action was destructive, the result will be an unfortunate rebirth.
Our previous actions affect what happens to us during our lifetimes. For example, if we’re generous in one life, we’ll experience prosperity in future lives. If we steal, in our future lives we’ll face difficult economic conditions. It’s very helpful to be mindful of this because it gives us a greater perspective on why things occur the way they do.
Our previous actions also influence our present personality characteristics. A person who habitually criticizes and abuses others will easily do so again in future lives. A person who has trained his or her mind in love and compassion will be inclined toward those traits in the future.
Some attitudes and reactions automatically arise within us. For example, some people are easily offended. Others are inclined to substance abuse. Some people are instinctively considerate of others. These various habitual reactions occur because we were familiar with these thoughts and actions in the past.
Although we’re influenced by habitual negative tendencies from the past, these habits can be changed and new, more positive ones can be developed in their place. Also, it’s advantageous to nurture our beneficial tendencies so they’ll increase. In this way, we’ll shape our personalities and improve our characters.
Finally, our actions influence the environment we are born into. In recent years people have become more aware of the influence of our actions on our environment. When we abuse the environment for our own selfish purposes, we harm ourselves. The greed for more profit leads humans to act in ways that directly damage our environment. Respecting life leads to restraint and consequently a more pleasant place to live.
Buddhist texts speak of the effect of our actions on the environment in another sense as well. For example, the scriptures say that acting destructively results in rebirth in an unpleasant environment, while acting constructively brings rebirth in pleasant surroundings and comfortable climates.
The functioning of cause and effect isn’t predetermination. Nor is it fate. We have choice, if we’re mindful and aware of our actions. If we’re negligent and do, say and think anything that pops into our heads, then we aren’t making use of our choice, we aren’t taking advantage of our human potential.
Once an action is done, its result isn’t cast in iron. Cause and effect means that things depend on each other. There is flexibility and we are able to influence to a certain extent how an imprint matures. For example, if we purify a negative action, we can prevent it from bringing its undesirable result. Conversely, if we become angry, we can destroy the potential of a positive action to bring its result.
The exact way in which a specific action ripens and what we did in the past to bring a specific result in our present life can only be known completely by a Buddha’s omniscient mind. The Buddhist scriptures give general guidelines about the results of certain actions. However, in specific situations, the exact result may vary depending on other causes and conditions.
Whether an action brings a small or great result depends on the nature of the action itself, how it was done, who it’s done to, the strength of the motivation, the frequency with which it’s done, and whether it is regretted and purified later. All of these factors will influence the result. In addition, how the person dies affects which imprint matures and what result it brings. Thus, karma isn’t rigid and fixed.
Suppose that Harry goes hunting and kills a deer. This action will definitely bring him suffering in the future. However, various other factors will affect what happens. Was he seriously intent upon staking out and killing the animal, or did he go hunting only with mild interest? Was Harry happy after killing the deer, or did he have some remorse? Did he purify the negative imprint left on his mind stream? Did he often kill animals? When Harry died, was he angry, or was he thinking of holy beings and their qualities? Did his friends and relatives do positive actions and prayers on Harry’s behalf after he died? Such factors influence the specific result that comes from his action.
There are many nuances to every action. Only a Buddha has the complete ability to know exactly what specific past action or combination of actions brings a certain result in an individual’s present life.
The natural law of karma isn’t an excuse to avoid helping others. When witnessing others experiencing misfortune, some people may flippantly say, “Oh, that’s their karma. If I help them, I’d be interfering with their karma.” This is a misconception and a poor excuse for our own laziness. If we were hit by a car and lay bleeding in the road and a passer-by said, “Tsk, tsk, that’s your karma. I’m not going to help you. You have to wear off your negative karma,” how would we feel?
When others are in misery, we must help because they’re living beings just like we are. In fact, if we don’t help, we’re creating the cause not to receive help when we need it. In Buddhist thought, we have a moral and social responsibility to help others. We aren’t independent isolated individuals. Rather, we’re inter-related and in spite of superficial differences, we’re very similar.
Nor is the law of cause and effect a reason to look down on others. It’s not correct to think, “The starving people in the world must have harmed others in the past. That’s why they’re suffering now. They’re bad people and deserve what they get.”
Such a judgmental attitude shows a lack of self-respect and implies that we too are evil people when we suffer. This is incorrect. If we examine our own lives, we know that sometimes our negative attitudes get the better of us. Although we may not want to scream at our family, our anger gets out of control and we do. Other times we may deliberately try to slander another and only later realize and regret what we’ve done. In neither instance would we like to be judged as “evil” or “bad.” It’s true that we made mistakes and will experience their painful results, but that doesn’t mean we’re evil individuals. Our disturbing attitudes simply overtook us at that moment.
Just as we have compassion for ourselves and want others to forgive us when we act destructively, so too should we have a forgiving attitude towards others. Resentment and revenge don’t remove the harm done to us. They merely create more suffering for ourselves and others. Similarly, pride and condescension towards the unfortunate is inappropriate. When we have difficulties, we appreciate others’ aid. Similarly, when others suffer misfortune, it’s our human responsibility to help them as best we can.
When we see dishonest people who are wealthy or kind people who die young, we may doubt the law of cause and effect. However, cause and effect operate from one lifetime to another. Many of the results experienced in this life are results of actions created in previous lives, and many actions done now will ripen in future lives.
According to the Buddhist view, the wealth of dishonest people results from their generosity in previous lives. Their current dishonesty creates the cause for them to be cheated and impoverished in the future. Kind people who die young are experiencing the result of negative actions such as killing in past lives. However, their present kindness creates the imprints on their mindstreams for them to have happiness in the future.
Purifying and changing
Certainly, all of us have made mistakes that we now regret. However, we aren’t irrevocably condemned to experience the results of those actions. If a seed is planted in the ground, it will eventually grow, unless it’s burnt or plucked out. In the meantime, we can postpone its growth by not giving it water, fertilizer and sunshine. Similarly, we can purify our negative actions so they won’t bring painful results. If we aren’t able to do that, we can postpone or weaken their effects. This is done by the purification process, which has four steps.
Purification by means of the four opponent powers is very important. It prevents future suffering and relieves the guilt or the heavy feeling we experience now. By cleansing our mind we’re able to understand the Dharma better, are more peaceful and can concentrate better.
The four opponent powers used to purify negative imprints are: (1) regret; (2) taking refuge and generating an altruistic attitude toward others; (3) performing an actual remedial practice; and (4) firmly determining not to do the action again.
First, we acknowledge and have regret for doing the destructive action. Self-recrimination and guilt are useless and are just a way of emotionally torturing ourselves. With sincere regret, on the other hand, we acknowledge that we made a mistake and regret having done it.
The second opponent power is that of reliance. Our destructive actions generally occur in relation to either holy objects such as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, or other beings. To reestablish a good relationship with the holy objects we rely on them by taking refuge or seeking direction from them. To have a good relationship with other beings we generate an altruistic attitude and dedicate our heart to becoming a Buddha in order to be able to benefit them in the best way.
The third element is to actually do some remedial action. This could be any constructive action that benefits others. Buddhist texts outline some specific actions that help to cleanse negative imprints: listening to teachings, reading a Dharma book, paying homage to the Buddhas, making offerings, reciting the names of the Buddhas, chanting mantras, making statues or paintings of holy beings, printing Dharma texts, meditating and so on. The most powerful remedial action is to meditate on emptiness. How to do this will be explained in the chapter on wisdom.
Fourth, we determine not to act in such a way again. We frequently and habitually do some actions, like criticizing others or gossiping. It would be unrealistic to say we’ll never do them again the rest of our lives. Therefore, it’s wiser to choose a realistic amount of time and determine that we’ll try not to repeat the action at all, but will be especially mindful and make a concerted effort during that period of time.
The four opponent powers must be applied repeatedly. We have acted destructively many times, so naturally we can’t expect to counteract all those actions at once. The stronger the four opponents powers, the more powerful the purification will be. It’s good to practice purification with the four opponent powers every evening before going to sleep. This counteracts whatever destructive actions we have committed during the day and helps us to sleep peacefully.
At present, our minds are like uncultivated fields. Purification is similar to taking away the rocks, bits of broken glass and bubblegum wrappers cluttering the field. Accumulating positive potential by acting constructively is similar to adding fertilizer and irrigating it. Then we can plant the seeds by listening to teachings and cultivate them through contemplation and meditation. After a while the sprouts of realizations will appear.
We must act to improve our lives and attain enlightenment. Although we can employ someone to clean our house and move in new furniture, we can’t hire someone to clean our minds and install compassion and wisdom. However if we act, the beneficial results will surely follow.