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Cause and Effect

Ven. Dr. Thích Huyen-Vi

In this universe nothing happens without a cause. This general rule, the law of cause and effect, is not made by a creator, society nations but is a natural law.

Those who do not observe this rule thoroughly and carefully never recognize its importance. They, therefore, act helter-skelter and lack spiritual responsibility. And it is due to this that they get into much trouble, floundering through their lives. Lord Buddha, the All Enlightened One, on the contrary, preached the law of cause and effect and showed how it works in this universe. If people can appreciate it they will have understood a very important law, indeed.

We, therefore, have to understand the law of the cause and effect which Lord Buddha propounded. Then we can really follow the way which he followed and can get true happiness for ourselves as well as others.


Cause means primary cause in comparison with pratyaya, which means environmental or secondary cause. Effect by causing a further effect becomes also a cause. Cause and effect in the moral realm have their corresponding relations, the denial of which destroys all moral responsibility. Cause and effect are two aspects inseparably connected with each other. If there is no cause, there will never be any effect, and if there is no effect we cannot presume a cause.


a) The nature of effect is exactly like the nature of cause. If we want to get oranges, we have to plant the orange seeds, if we like to have soybeans, of course first we have to plant seed-beans. It can never happen that we plant orange seeds and get soybeans, or vice versa. The same idea is expressed in a Chinese proverb which says, «Plant melons and reap melons, plant beans and reap beans. Whatsoever a man sowed, that also shall he reap». Man first studies music, then he will know music and singing. He learns a language, then he will understand it. In other words, we can say that cause and effect always go together. Whenever the cause changes the effect also changes simultaneously.
b) Only one cause cannot have an effect. Everything in this world is caused by a number of causes (Hetupratyaya). One cause cannot produce effects if it is not connected with many other causes. For instance, we say that paddy seeds give rise to rice plants. That is to say, the paddy seed can never become a plant if put in empty space where there is no air, no light, no soil, water, etc. So when we hear it said that "Everything is created out of one single cause, or one single cause can effect many things", we do not think such a statement to be plausible.
c) Cause has effect has cause. The present cause has its future effects and the present cause also bears the shadow of a past cause. We call a cause because it has not become effect. An effect is spoken of so long as it has not transformed itself into a new cause. Everything, therefore, we can call either cause or effect. What was effect in the past becomes cause in the present, which again will become effect in the future. Cause and effect continue helping each other like a wheel in a machine.
d) The process of transformation from cause to effect is now quick and now slow. The development from cause to effect sometimes is quick and sometimes slow, and it does not always take place at the same time. There are a few causes whose effects appear simultaneously. As soon as the cause starts the effect is produced. For instance, we beat a drum (cause), the sound of a drum at once manifests (effect) itself, or when the female and male principles meet of direct current light immediately appears. On the other hand, there are causes which produce effects after sometime. For example, seeds take sometime to become rice plants. One has to wait for about four months to harvest the rice. Some causes produce effects after several years: A boy, for instance, who goes to school has to spend at least ten years before he will be able to finish his studies. Sometimes an effect is produced after many hundreds of years; for instance, the will-power of fighting for independance in the people of a nation, lies dormant for several centuries until it will assert itself.

We think that the law of causation is not true when we see the cause not producing any effect quickly.


As mentioned above, all things of the universe, animals or plants, material or spiritual entities come under the law of cause and effect. In order to understand this law more clearly, we show below that the law of causation applies to all things.

a) Cause and effect with reference to inanimate things. Water is heated by fire to become hot. Water is blown by wind and forms waves. If the weather is too hot it causes drought. If there is caused too much rain then there is flood. If strong winds blow, they cause a storm.
b) Cause and effect with reference to plants. Orange seeds give rise to orange trees, then these bear fruit. Pimento seeds come out of pimento fruits. Generally speaking, the sweet thing gives rise to sweet fruits and the sour sort becomes sour. The nature of effect really corresponds to the nature of cause.
c) Cause and effect regarding the animal race. Birds lay eggs. We call them eggs when they are in the state of cause; when they are hatched we call them effect ; then that chick again becomes cause and lays eggs which are effect. Animals give birth to their offspring which are effect. The animals grow up again to become cause, then they give birth which we call effect.
d) Cause and effect regarding man. This material body is due to two elements, male and female, called parents, and due to outside circumstance. Thus, creation continues forever. Cause produces effect, effect produces cause and thus the process never stops. Regarding the spiritual person, thought and action in the past, cause good or bad behavior in the present life. Thought and action in the past is the cause, character and feeling at present are effects. Then present action again becomes the cause in order to produce thought and action in future which is effect.

To recognize clearly the spiritually important points, we must consider the special forms as follows:


a) Cause and effect of karmically unwholesome actions. Concupiscence or lobho: men look at others wealth then they have a desire to acquire it by hook or by crook. That is the cause. When they attempt to get it they are beaten and sometimes killed by the proprietors, or the authorities catch them and send them to jail where they are tortured. That is the effect. Resentment or doso: They who are quick-tempered beat their wives and children and destroy the house and kill people. That is the cause. When the anger is over they look at their wives and children who have been maltreated and become sorry for things of the house already spoiled. They are punished by justice and receive much suffering. That is the effect. Ignorance or moho: A man who becomes passionately of beauty does not undestand what is wrong, what is right, which is good and which is bad. That is the cause. He causes disorder in the family making everybody unhappy, while his wisdom is obscured. That is the effect. Doubt or vicikicca: For the whole of their lives they suspect this thing and that thing. Other people explain and make matters clear to them, but they will never listen. That is the cause. In the end they have nothing to rely upon. When they die their lives have proved useless. That is the effect. Pride or mana: People inflated with pride think that they are the best. They look down on others. That is the cause. Then that behavior on their past makes other people hate them and move away from them, leave them to live in isolation. That is the effect. Furthermore, arrogant people are often addicted to drinking and also to smoking. They spend too much and finally ruin themselves. This is the cause. Whenever they get drunk, they try to pick a quarrel and kill one another, sometimes they may commit another crime, then they surely have to stand their trial. That is the effect.
b) Cause and effect of karmically wholesome actions. As we have seen, the result of karmically unwholesome actions is very shameful and troublesome, but positive is the result of karmically wholesome actions. The effect is bright and happy.

Men who have no desire are no slaves to wealth, their hearts and minds are always light. Men who have no anger, live safe and sound, their families are peaceful and happy. The people who are not after beauty to the extent to do something wrong are respected by their relatives. Their knowledge is penetrating and their bodies strong. The man who does not suspect makes people believe him. Then he can get success very easily. A man who is not proud is respected by others. People are ready to help him in every work even when they have to take risks. We need not expatiate on these facts, as everyone already knows them. We see these happen daily. If we only open the newspaper then we can understand the news clearly.

Generally speaking, in spiritual and material matters what holds good is that we sow and then reap accordingly. «Everyone is the child of his own deeds», as the French proverb says.


a) The law of cause and effect makes us avoid superstitions and mistaken belief in divine powers. The law of cause and effect lets us know the actual situation of the world. There are no vague and mysterious matters. It rolls up all the dark curtains of the superstitions which cover so many things and provides a rational explanation of events that are otherwise associated with divine reward and punishment, eternal damnation, etc. Therefore, those who understand the law of cause and effect, will never have wrong beliefs, neither compelled to propitiate gods or subscribe to fatalism, nor being anxious about anything.
b) The law of cause and effect makes us rely on ourselves. When we know that our life is due to good or bad actions of the past, that we are ourselves architects of our lives, we understand that we are also the men who create all matters; but the tragedy is we do not believe in ourselves. Then who will believe us? Self-confidence is the best thing to have. Then only one can work with zeal. If we know well how to do good actions, we are sure to produce good fruits.
c) The law of cause and effect helps us, and does not discourage. A man is always discouraged, because he has no faith in himself. He relies on others and becomes dependent. But when he understand that he himself is the source of personal power and the cause of all the failures or success, then he begins to develop self-confidence. He corrects himself, stops sowing the seeds of bad causes and avoids getting bad effects.


A few persons think that if the law of cause and effect be correct and just, why do some persons, even when they are generous for the whole of their lives, suffer so much? Others who are very cruel live in abudance and happiness all their life. Why so? The answer is succinctly given above. The time that a cause takes to become effect is sometimes short, but sometimes very long. Cause and effect do not always occur at the same time. There are some causes which bring effect immediately, but other causes may produce effects only in another life or in another form of existence.

In case people in this life perform so many wicked actions, but enjoy peace and prosperity, this is due to the good actions performed in previous lives. But the misdeeds they do in this life are too much and are sure to produce bad effects in the future or in the next life. For instance, some persons who indulge too much in worldly pleasures may have enough money to spend owing to previous effect and diligence. But when their stock of merit is exhausted, they will again become poor people.

Others who are very honest and do many good deeds may meet with accidents or may have to face many troubles. That will be due to their actions in their past lives. They must have committed bad actions. But the good actions and honestly in this life will bring good effect in next lives. For example, some persons may not gain anything this year even if they do hard work. That is due to the cause of spending too much in the last few years. But if this year they work very hard, they will definitely get only good results next time. That is why Confucius said:

«Good or evil actions in previous lives all have consequences,
The only difference is that they have to be born sooner or later. »

Some persons may demand that according to the law of cause and effect only those who do something wrong should get bad results. If a father does wrong why should the son be punished? If the son commits a crime why should the father be punished? But sometimes we observe tat a father’s sins reflect upon his son and vice versa. Why?

Lord Buddha says, « There are two kinds of causes and effects. Deeds of the community which can influence all the membres of a community, and individual deeds which may have their effects on the community. Differentiated karma (the cause of different resultant condition) means that there are individual actions and public actions. Individual deeds are the private karma and its reward of every person. For example, if we try hard to study we shall gain good knowledge. If we eat, we satisfy our hunger, etc. Public deeds influence the community. For instance, all Vietnamese, rich or poor, learned or simple folk, all had to come under the influence of war when the fighting was going on. When born in a peaceful country we, of course, can enjoy happiness and peace. Thus when we live in a family, in a society or nation, we have to experience the fruits of karma connected with family, society, and nation, as the case may be. Confucius has said, « If one person gives alms in charity, a thousand persons can get good reward, or if one tree gives rise to beautiful flowers, then ten thousand trees may get the nice smell. »

We already know the value of the law of cause and effect:

Thus we should apply this lesson to every act in our life. Whenever we do any work we have to think of the effect, good or bad. If we are pure in deed, word and thought, we will never be in trouble in the future. If we follow this principle we shall see our characters and actions wholly changed for the better. We shall never do wrong and do more and more good deeds every day. Thanks to the knowledge of this perfect law we can steadily progress and develop all good qualities in us so as to achieve in the end the Summum-bonum of life, the realization of full and complete Enlightenment and final Release.


Minh Quang uploaded October 14, 2001


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