What is causation?

Trees show the bodily form of the wind;
Waves give vital energy to the moon. — Zenrin Kushu

Things born of causation are non-existent: this is the realm of the wise; a thing imagined has no reality. (Lankavatara Sutra)

The world is born of causation; when it is regarded as removed from discrimination and as resembling Maya, a dream, one is emancipated. (Lankavatara Sutra, p. 298)

All things have no reality in themselves; they rise from thought and laws of origination. When that which is thought vanishes, the thinking one himself vanishes. – Pratyutpannasamadhi Sutra (Suzuki 1953, p. 183)

This post contains some writings on the subject of causation in order to give an idea of its central importance in ontology, or the philosophy being. For a wonderful treatise on Buddhist thought I recommend David Kalupahana’s book, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1975). According to Kalupahana, the question of causation plays a role in several aspects of human existence: the consequences of behavior in the realm of morality; the coming into being of human beings from ignorance; the coming into being of the world from emptiness; and the apparent causal relationship between events or phenomena in time.

Consequences of Behavior

On the subject of the consequences of behavior, I will begin with Alan Watts (1957) explaining the concept of karma, meaning ‘volition’ or ‘intention’:

Buddhism does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey. The Buddha’s precepts of conduct . . . are voluntarily assumed rules of expediency, the intent of which is to remove the hindrances to clarity of awareness. Failure to observe the precepts produces “bad karma,” not because karma is a law or moral retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful actions, whether conventionally good or bad, are karma in so far as they are directed to the grasping of life. Generally speaking, the conventionally “bad” actions are rather more grasping than the good. But the higher stages of Buddhist practice are as much concerned with disentanglement from “good karma” as from “bad.” (p. 52)

Karma, according to The Lankavatara Sutra, is not destroyed along with the relative mind and body when one dies, but is stored in the Alaya. It is karma that conditions the transmigration of the individual; however, karma does not determine that being’s destiny, as was believed by defenders of the caste system. Exactly how karma conditions one’s rebirth has never been made clear, but two principles are generally held to be true. The first principle is that a wicked life will inevitably produce rebirth into a life of suffering, while a meritorious life will produce a life that is favorable for spiritual advancement. The second principle is that the fruits of karma correspond in degree and quality to the action which created it–good or bad actions bringing good or bad fruits, and consequential actions bringing consequential fruits.

The Coming into Being of Human Beings from Ignorance

The Buddha explained how human beings come into being with the the Twelvefold Chain of Causation. The following is a translation by E. J. Thomas (1913):

At that time the Lord Buddha was dwelling at Uruvelā on the banks of the Neranjarā, at the foot of the Bodhi-tree, just after he had attained complete enlightenment. Now the Lord sat cross-legged at the foot of the Bodhi-tree for seven days, experiencing the bliss of emancipation. And the Lord during the first watch of the night meditated on the chain of causation forward and backwards:

From ignorance comes dispositions (samskara),
From dispositions consciousness,
From consciousness name and form,
From name and form the six sense-organs,
From the six sense-organs contact,
From contact feeling,
From feeling craving,
From craving clinging to existence,
From clinging to existence becoming,
From becoming rebirth,
From rebirth old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair.

Such is the cause of this whole aggregation of suffering. So the Lord knowing this at that time gave utterance to this solemn verse:

When clear the true nature of things appeareth
To the brahmin ardently meditating,
Then all his doubts vanish, for he perceiveth
Of natural things all the effects and causes.
(Vin. Mahav. I. 1.)

When the sutras state the Twelvefold Chain, it is preceded by the following: “When this exists, that exists or comes to be; on the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not exist or come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases” (Kalupahana, p. 141). Therefore, risings shouldn’t be seen as deterministic–one thing causing the next in line–but rather as correlated spontaneous events. Not one of the twelve would rise in the absence of the other eleven. Furthermore, in the Dharma there aren’t twelve, or ten, or even one cause; in fact, there is no such thing, ’cause’ being only a word.

True and False Causation

Buddhism teaches true cause and effect as opposed to the false notions held by those who are deluded. A false notion about the birth of a child is that it is the effect of actions on the part of the child’s parents; the truth is that it is the effect of ignorance on the part of the being in its previous life. A false notion about phenomena is that they come into being from other phenomena; the truth is that they come into being from emptiness, and take their form from the thoughts (samskara or sankhara) of sentient beings, who project their thoughts just like a movie projector projects images onto a screen, or like a painter paints images on a background of stone or wood. The whole universe is sustained by the collective consciousness of the beings that subsist in it, just as the song “Morning has broken” describes it:

“Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, sprung in completeness where His feet pass.”

Phenomena are called ‘conditional’: this means that they depend on something else for their subsistence. They have no ‘ego’ or self-substance of their own; they are not their own cause. They only appear to interact with one other (phases of the moon appear to affect the tide; the wind appears to move the banner) and to change their character (a kitten appears to become a cat); however, the relationship between the moon and the tide, or between the kitten and the cat, is purely mental. As Menno Hulswit explains,

To David Hume, commonly held to be the main representative of the empiricist approach to causation, our idea of causal necessity is due partly to our observation of the constant conjunction of certain objects, and partly to the feeling of their necessary connection in the mind. The habitual impression of conjunction feels like a necessity, as if the mind were compelled to go from one to the other. The necessary connection is not discovered in the world but is projected onto the world by our minds [emphasis added].

The Apparent Causal Relationship Between Events or Phenomena in Time

The Buddhist view of causation is that physical phenomena (dharma) do not undergo change, but constantly appear, like the single frames of a motion picture, each one slightly different and independent of the previous one, but giving the illusion of change over time. (This is Zeno’s arrow–see Biocentrism.) The Lankavatara Sutra expresses this idea in the following paragraph:

(p. 76) Again, Mahamati, not that things are not born, but that they are not born of themselves, except when seen in the state of Samadhi–this is what is meant by “all things are unborn.” To have no self-nature is, according to the deeper sense, to be unborn, Mahamati. That all things are devoid of self-nature means that there is a constant and uninterrupted becoming, a momentary change from one state of existence to another; seeing this, Mahamati, all things are destitute of self-nature. So one speaks of all things having no self-nature.

The Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra calls this concept a “series of similar moments”: “Furthermore, there are beings attached to the erroneous thesis of eternalism who are ignorant of the series of similar moments (sadṛśasaṃtāna) [that constitute a phenomenon]” (Gelongma, 2001). Alexandra David-Neel (1967) provides an easy-to-follow explanation of this concept in The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects.

Nagarjuna (the author of the Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra) used the example of dust, a lump of clay and a jar to illustrate the fact that time is neither real nor a cause of existence, as some argued in his time:

Present time is like a ball of clay, past time is like the dust of the earth, and future time is like the jar. Since time is eternal, the past does not make the future, for according to your texts, time is a single substance. This is why the past does not make the future or the present, for they are [mingled] with the past. In the past there is no future. That is why there is no future or present.

Question – You accept that that the past is like the dust of the earth. If there is a past, there must necessarily be a future. That is why the dharma ‘time’ must necessarily exist. [note that by calling time a dharma, the questioner is negating its existence, since dharma do not exist]

Nagarjuna – You have not understood what I have just said. The future is the jar; the past is the dust of the earth. The past does not make the future, because by falling into the characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of the future, it becomes future, and then why would it be called past? That is why the past does not exist.

Zen masters such as Dogen subsequently attempted to convey this idea of phenomena going through “a constant and uninterrupted becoming, a momentary change from one state of existence to another” by using such illustrations as firewood and ashes:

When firewood becomes ashes, it never returns to being firewood. But we should not take the view that what is latterly ashes was formerly firewood. What we should understand is that, according to the doctrine of Buddhism, firewood stays at the position [in time] of firewood . . . There are former and later stages, but these stages are clearly cut.

It is the same with life and death. Thus we say in Buddhism that the un-born is also the un-dying. Life is a position of time. Death is a position of time. They are like winter and spring, and in Buddhism we do not consider that winter becomes spring, or that spring becomes summer. (Shobogenzo, cited in Watts, p. 122)

What Dogen seems to be saying is that, yes, time seems to move in one direction (ashes can’t go back to being firewood) but that this unidirectionality of change doesn’t prove that time is more than a relative concept or that things are more than a constantly changing illusion projected by the mind.

Causation of the Human Personality

The greatest mystery of the Dharma is that the self, which seems so real, is a nonentity. This would be easier to accept if this same nonentity weren’t continually undergoing transmigration. Kalupahana (1975) discusses this paradox:

One of the most important problems that the Buddha had to face as a result of denying a permanent self (atman) was how to explain the causation of the human personality and its continuance in samsara (birth and death). It was pointed out that the process of rebirth of human beings had been directly verified by the Buddha and his disciples . . . [and] was thus not merely an explanation of certain problems connected with moral causation. The problem for him was to explain this fact of rebirth without positing a permanent and enduring entity, which he considered an unverifiable metaphysical principle. (p. 115)

The Lankavatara Sutra, which is like a teacher’s edition of the Dharma textbook, has the following to say about transmigration and the cause of the “setting in motion” of “another mind”:

11. Birth and death succeed without interruption–this I do not point out for the
ignorant. Owing to the uninterrupted succession of existence, discrimination moves
on in the [six] paths.
12. Ignorance is the cause and there is the general rising of minds: when form is not
yet born, where is the abode of the middle existence?
13. If another mind is set in motion in an uninterrupted succession of [births and] deaths, (p. 239) where does it find its dependence if form is not established in time?
14. If mind is set in motion, somewhere, somehow, the cause is an unreal one; it is
not complete. How can one know of its momentary disappearances?

The mysteries of the Dharma, such as the continuation of nonexistent beings through thousands of lives, can never be adequately explained in words, as Buddhist masters remind us; the only path to a true understanding of the Dharma is self-realization, with which comes noble wisdom.

* * *

Lester Levenson:

The job is to first undo negative thinking in order to get positive enough so that we may go in the right direction. Then, to drop all thinking, drop all negative and all positive thinking. When that happens we discover that we are in the realm of knowingness, of omniscience; we have no need to think as everything is known and we are all-joyous and totally free. Knowing everything, there’s nothing to think about!

Thinking is just relating things to other things, connecting things together. Knowing everything, we know the unity, the oneness and there’s no necessity for relating things by thought. Thereby we are free, free of all concepts of separation and limitation. This leaves us free to use a mind should we want to communicate with the apparency of the world. (Keys to the Ultimate Freedom)

The Lankavatara Sutra

The Dharma is its own cause:

Mahamati, my highest reality is the eternal-unthinkable since it conforms to the idea of a cause and is beyond existence and non-existence. Because it is the exalted state of self-realisation it has its own character. Because it is the cause of the highest reality it is its own causation. Because it has nothing to do with existence and nonexistence it is no doer. Because it is in the same category as space, Nirvana and cessation, it is eternal. (p. 60)

* * *

(p. 82) At that time Mahamati again made a request of the Blessed One: Pray tell me, Blessed One, about the causation of all things, whereby I and other Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas can see into the nature of causation, and by getting rid of the discrimination of eternalism and nihilism* we may no more discriminate as to the gradual or simultaneous rising of all things.

Replied the Blessed One: Mahamati, there are two factors of causation by which all things come into existence: external and inner. Mahamati, the external factors are a lump of clay, a stick, a wheel, thread, water, a worker, and his labour, the conjunction of all of which produces a jar. As with the jar made of a lump of clay, Mahamati, or a piece of cloth made of thread, or a mat made of fragrant grass, or the sprout growing out of a seed, or fresh butter produced from sour milk by a man churning it with his own labour, (p. 83) so it is with all things which, governed by external causes, appear one after another in continuous succession.

As regards the inner factors of causation, Mahamati, they are of such kind as ignorance, desire, and doing, which make up our [Buddhist] idea of causation. Born of these, Mahamati, there is the manifestation of the Skandhas, Dhatus, and Ayatanas [different kinds of phenomena]. They are not separable but discriminated by the ignorant.
. . .
(p. 84) These [inner causes], Mahamati, are the outcome of discrimination carried on by the ignorant and simple-minded, and there is neither a gradual nor a simultaneous rising of existence. Why? Because, Mahamati, if there were a simultaneous rising of existence there would be no distinction between cause and effect, and there would be nothing to characterise a cause as such. If a gradual rising of existence is accepted, there is no [enduring] substance that binds individual manifestations together [as argued by the philosophers], which makes a gradual rising impossible.

While a child is not yet born, Mahamati, the term father has no meaning. The logician argues that there is that which is born and that which gives birth by the mutual functioning of such factors as cause, subsistence, continuity, acceleration and others, and they conclude that there is a gradual rising of existence. But, Mahamati, this gradual rising does not obtain except by reason of their attachment to the notion of [things having a] self-nature.

When the [ideas of] body, property and abode are cherished in what is nothing but the manifestation of Mind itself, the external world is perceived under the aspects of individuality and wholeness, which, however, are not realities. Therefore, Mahamati, neither a gradual nor a simultaneous rising of things is possible. It is only when the vijnana (objects perceived by the senses) evolve by reason of discrimination, which discriminates the manifestation of Mind itself [that existence is said to come into view]. For this reason, Mahamati, you must strive to get rid of notions of gradualism and simultaneity in the conjunction of the causal events. Thus it is said:

140. Nothing whatever is born or ceases to exist by reason of causation; when causation is discriminated there is birth and cessation. [The belief that one thing causes another is a discriminating thought, which is the real cause of birth and cessation.]
(p. 85) 141. It is not to do away with the idea of birth and cessation, which takes place in causation; it is to do away with the wrong belief regarding causation that is cherished by the ignorant. [Things rise and disappear, but not for the reason imagined by the ignorant]
142. The existence and nonexistence of things subject to causation has no reality; the triple world owes its existence to the Mind put into confusion by reason of habit-energy.
143. Not ever being in existence, what things are there that are born? Nor is anything in causation lost. When effect-producing objects (samskrita) are regarded as like unto a barren woman’s child or a flower in the air, one perceives that grasping and grasped are a mistake and one desists.
144. There is nothing that is to be born, nor is there anything that has been born; even causation is not. It is because of wordly usage that I speak of things as existing.

*eternalism and nihilism: “The theory that everything exists means adherence to eternalism. The theory that nothing exists is nihilism. Therefore the wise do not adhere to either of the views of existence and nonexistence.” – Nagarjuna


Chodron, Gelongma (2001). Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra. (https://www.wisdomlib.org/buddhism/book/maha-prajnaparamita-sastra/d/doc224996.html)

David-Neel, Alexandra (1967). The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects. San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights Books. (Secret-Oral-Teachings)

Hulswit, Menno. “Causality and Causation: The Inadequacy of the Received View.” University of Nijmegen, Netherlands. (http://see.library.utoronto.ca/SEED/Vol4-2/Hulswit.htm)

Kalupahana, David (1975). Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Honolulu, The University Press of Hawaii.

Suzuki, D. T. (1932). The-Lankavatara-Sutra: A Mahayana Text. Translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit. (http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-nondiacritical.htm)

Suzuki, D. T. (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company.

Thomas, E. J. (1913). Buddhist Scriptures. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/busc/busc08.htm)

Watts, Alan (1957). The Way of Zen. New York, Vintage Books.

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