By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB
What we do matters because every thought and action we take has a causal effect. There is no way around this, it is an omnitemporal event in that causality is a factor every time we act. Our relationship with the universe is bound by cause and effect. The Buddha offered this truth in the Mahahatthipadopama Sutra, “He who sees causality sees the dharma, and he who sees the dharma sees causality.” The reality of life is that we are agents of cause and examples of effect in everything we do. With this knowledge a Buddhist turns their intent to being a wholesome agent of cause and effect.
While causality and dependent origination are often used interchangeably there is a distinction to note. Causality points to a cause that creates an effect. Dependent origination takes that another step. It is those causes and effects that drive the moment-to-moment transformation of all phenomena. The term causal conditioning brings these two ideals together. All phenomena are dependent on cause and effect as transformative factors in their existence; those factors condition how those phenomena are, or in the case of human beings as they might choose to be.
Throughout the sutras the Buddha offered that there were certain characteristics of causal relationships. Each characteristic was, like all phenomena, dependent on the other. Causality exists omnitemporally. No matter the time or the angle of view it is a fact of existence. In metaphysics or science, in human or animal actions, whether the cause or effect is recognized, there is always a causal result, an effect that arises from a cause, or chain of causes (a causal chain). Experience has shown that there is no exception to causal conditioning because nothing happens from “thin air.” The cause may not be discernible but there is always a cause, sometimes more than one; and, this is true for effect also.
Phenomena arise that may appear to have no cause, what some might term accidents or coincidence. It is invariable that there is a cause, even one that is not readily evident. It might have been an unintentional cause but it happened just the same. This is why intent is so important in how and why we make decisions. Effects are just as invariable. The effect might never be recognized by the initiator of the cause but it also happens just the same. Like cause there can be multiple effects, too. Realized or not our actions are going to have consequences so we engage the world in such a way as to promote wholesome outcomes, wholesome karmic consequences. What we do matters.
All phenomena are conditioned by cause and effect. For a practitioner it is critical you understand and accept that you are a cause, that your thoughts and actions condition how you interact with yourself and the world around you. You are the effect of your own cause. Your thoughts and actions will condition the people around you that you are both interdependent on and interconnected with. This is why intent must be to perform wholesome acts in order to promote more wholesome acts.
Imagine yourself taking a walk. The fresh air feels good in your lungs, your muscles get exercise, and your bodymind eases. You pass by a neighbor, both of you smile and wave hello. You might be on a sidewalk or a forest path. Each step you take is a cause and whatever is under your feet is feeling the effects. Tunnels laboriously made by ants are shaking, loose dirt falling. The ants work to repair the damage. You trod on a handful of tiny seeds scattered on the ground. Cracked open, some seeds won’t germinate.
Every thought, every action is a cause. Every thought, every action is an effect.
Viewing how we interact with ourselves, others and the world around us through a “causal lens” it will change our thoughts and actions. When we realize that every move, thought and word WILL have results we realize we have the responsibility to be more aware, to engage in more intentional actions. Because human beings are not limited to acting purely out of instinct, that we make choices dependent on input from internal and external sources, our actions tend to have broader encompassing effects than that of the other beings that inhabit this planet. With that firmly in mind, making causal conditioning a part of how we think and act is critical for our goal of being the originators of positive consequences.
Think before you act or speak are age-old proverbs. What about think before you think? How we think leads to a causal chain of how we’ll continue to think. 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 contribute to our wholesome personal character.
Part of positive personal development is changing the way we think about ourselves. How we think about ourselves and how we act for ourselves are both cause and effect of transformation. Thinking positively might seem like a trite idea but experience reveals that it does have an effect on how we are and how we view life. It begins with the realization that we are not a permanent, unchanging self. We not only have the opportunity to transform but we, with the knowledge of the Dharma, have the responsibility to strive to make wholesome transformations happen. Unwholesome worldviews or dispositions don’t have to be permanent. They can be transformed and then we can go on to engage others in a more wholesome way.
What We Do Matters.