Special Topics

Causes and Conditions

 
QUESTION:
 
Please elaborate on the Buddhist concept of causes and conditions, and explain its relationship to dependent origination, to self and illusion, and to causes and consequences.
 
SHIH-FU:
 
The principle of causes and conditions is fundamental to Buddhadharma. It is this principle which distinguishes Buddhism from other religions, philosophies and spiritual disciplines. In short, all dharmas, whether they are worldly (phenomenal) dharmas or transcendental (beyond worldly phenomena) dharmas, are part of, and influenced by, causes and conditions. 
 
The principle of causes and conditions explains the phenomenal relationship between events happening at different moments in time, and different points of space.
 
First, I will address the temporal relationship. Simply put, something happens in one moment, and in the next moment something else happens. The relationship and interaction of these two events we call the condition.
 
It might be easy to confuse the principle of causes and conditions with that of causes and consequences. In fact, the two principles are intimately connected with each other, and it is difficult to talk about one without mentioning the other. From the standpoint of causes and conditions, we have said that one event happens now, and another event happens later. From the standpoint of causes and consequences, we can say that the earlier event is the cause and the later event is the consequence. One event leads to the next.
 
Conversely, when no event occurs, then no succeeding event will take place. For example, parents lead to children. Parents are the cause and children, the consequence. When there are children, there must be parents, but when there are no parents, there can be no children.
 
A cause, however, cannot turn into or lead to a consequence by itself. Something else must occur, must come together with the cause, so that it may lead to a consequence. This coming together of events and factors is referred to as causes and conditions. A man and woman together do not automatically lead to children. Other factors must come together in order for the cause (parents) to lead to the consequence (children). Parents, children, and the other factors involved are all considered causes and conditions.
 
Hypothetically, if there were a cause standing alone, and no other condition came along to interact with it, then there would be no consequence. If a cause could remain static and not lead to a consequence, it could not even be considered a cause, since "cause" implies movement toward something else. In such a case, there is no relationship of causes and conditions. Therefore, one can say that causes and consequences are dependent upon the coming together of causes and conditions.
 
Furthermore, the condition (one dharma) which interacts with a cause (another dharma) must have itself been caused by something else, and so on and so on, infinitely in all directions throughout space and time. All phenomena arise because of causes and conditions. Any phenomenon that arises is itself a consequence of a previous cause, and arose because of the coming together of causes and conditions. This leads to the concept of conditioned arising, also known as dependent origination, which means that all phenomena, or dharmas, arise from causes and conditions. Dharmas do not arise out of nothing. They are dependent on causes and conditions. Ultimately, all dharmas, no matter when or where they occur, are interconnected.
 
Since all dharmas are the consequences of causes and conditions, their arising is conditional. This includes not only arising and appearing, but also perishing and disappearing. A person being born is a phenomenon, and a person dying is a phenomenon; a bubble forming is a phenomenon, a bubble bursting is a phenomenon; a thought appearing is a phenomenon, and a thought disappearing is a phenomenon. All dharmas arise and perish because of causes and conditions.

Dharmas include all phenomena, whether they be physiological, psychological, social, internal or external. Some may think that dharmas only include physical (external) and physiological phenomena. They would not consider psychological phenomena, such as thoughts, to be dharmas. Buddhism considers all phenomena, physical or mental, to be dharmas. The six sense organs interact with the six kinds of sense objects: eyes see forms, ears hear sounds, etc. These are all dharmas. The sixth sense organ, consciousness, has thoughts as its object. The object of consciousness also includes the symbols, words and language which people use in thinking, reasoning, remembering and communicating. All of these symbols and thoughts are dharmas from the standpoint of Buddhadharma. 
 
Let me make a distinction between dharma and Dharma. Dharma with a lower case "d" refers to any phenomenon. Dharma with an upper case "D" refers to Buddhadharma, or the teachings of the Buddha, the methods of practice and the principles and concepts which underlie practice. But remember, even the teachings of the Buddha and the methods of practice are themselves phenomena, or dharmas.

The Yogacara school explains three types of dharmas. The first type includes all physical objects, and is sometimes called the dharma of form. The second type includes mental dharmas, for example thoughts, moods and feelings. There are also dharmas which are neither physical nor mental. These are the symbols we use in conceptualizing thoughts, and include names, numbers, and abstract ideas such as space and time. Though these symbols are absolutely necessary when one is thinking and remembering, they are not the thoughts themselves. Therefore, they are not considered to be mental dharmas.
 
All three kinds of dharmas described above are called samskrita, or dharmas with outflows ─ that is, they are dharmas arising from attachment. All phenomena that are part of the world of ordinary sentient beings are considered dharmas with outflows. On the other hand, all phenomena that arise in connection with enlightened beings are dharmas without outflows, and are called asamskrita. Such dharmas include nirvana. True Suchness, and emptiness.

The principle of causes and conditions and conditioned arising definitely holds for samskrita, but what about asamskrita? Here, a subtle distinction must be made. Take, for example, nirvana. From the perspective of ordinary sentient beings, nirvana does arise from causes and conditions. A person practices, and if the causes and conditions are right, then a consequence of his or her practice will be nirvana. However, one who has already attained liberation makes no distinction between nirvana and samsara. An enlightened person, even though he or she can still function in the world, perceives that the world and phenomena have no true existence. In this sense, asamskrita are not dharmas which arise from causes and conditions, and there is no such thing as causes and conditions and causes and consequences.
What I have just said may seem to contradict the Buddhist concept of impermanence, which states that nothing remains unchanged. This concept, however, is from the perspective of ordinary sentient beings. Liberated beings do not perceive a world, sentient beings, or dharmas arising and perishing. For liberated beings, there is no change to speak of.
 
Ordinary sentient beings are not enlightened. They perceive themselves as having selves, and they interact with and give rise to physical and mental phenomena. What is this self? Previously we said that all physiological, mental and psychological phenomena arise because of causes and conditions. It is the aggregate of these phenomena which is called the self. Even though we may intellectually accept that the self is illusory, we still cling dearly to our illusions, and perceive the self as being real. If, however, we accept the premise that the self is an illusion, and recognize that we have many attachments, then we will have a solid foundation on which to build our practice and experience emptiness. 
 
The self exists as a consequence of causes and conditions, both in a temporal sense (the continuum of past, present and future) and a spatial sense. A cause cannot turn into a consequence unless it interacts with causes and conditions. These causes and conditions interact in a spatial sense. Therefore, we must intellectually grasp that the self is the consequence of causes and conditions; and we must practice so that we can experience the self arising from causes and conditions in a temporal as well as a spatial sense.
 
To say that the self is an illusion is not to say that the self is an hallucination. The self is not a mirage. We say that the self is illusory because it is forever changing in relation to causes and conditions and causes and consequences. It never stays the same. As such, we say that the self is an illusion. For the same reason, all phenomena are considered illusions. All things change from moment to moment, evolve, transform into something else. The self, therefore, is a false existence ceaselessly interacting and changing amidst a false environment. 
 
To intellectually understand this is not good enough. One must experience it directly; yet it is difficult to do so, because we are emotionally attached to our perception of self. This is vexation, and the only way to loosen the bonds of attachment and vexation is to practice. Through practice one can experience, in varying degrees, that time and space have no existence, and that self is an illusion. One might experience time passing very quickly, or one might experience the boundaries of the body merging with the universe. An ancient Ch'an master composed a short verse:
 
One is empty-handed, yet holds a hoe; 
One is walking, yet riding a buffalo; 
One stands on a bridge ─ the bridge is flowing 
and the water is still.
 
This master uses the concepts of ordinary sentient beings to describe his own perceptions. To him, holding a hoe and being empty-handed are the same; walking and riding a buffalo are the same; bridges and water are the same. The descriptions he uses are the activities and phenomena of ordinary people; they are things that are in motion. Yet, this master uses the movement of phenomena to describe the experience of non-motion. The experience of non-motion is free from causes and conditions. This master perceives reality, not illusion. It is we who perceive the illusion.