Shinran’s Teachings and the Law of Cause and Effect

Q: I understand that Shinran never taught anything other than what is contained in the sutras of Śākyamuni Buddha. The foundation of Buddhism is the law of cause and effect. What sort of teaching is that?

A: If Buddhism were a tree, the law of cause and effect would be its roots and trunk. That law runs through the more than seven thousand sutras that contain the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, so clearly no one without an understanding of that important law can hope to grasp Buddhism or the teachings of Shinran.

The law of cause and effect says basically that all things have a cause. No outcome can possibly take place without a cause. According to Buddhism, the chances of there being an effect without a cause are not one in a thousand or one in a zillion but zero. Buddhism grants no exceptions. Sometimes the cause is unknowable, as when an airplane crashes into the ocean and sinks, making investigation impossible. But saying the cause is unknowable is completely different from saying it doesn’t exist. Whether engine trouble, a navigational error, or turbulence is to blame, every accident always has a cause. Planes simply do not fall out of the sky without a reason. Every outcome, however tiny, inevitably has a corresponding cause. This is what Buddhism teaches.

Next, let us consider what a “law” is. In Buddhism it means a principle that never changes in all the three temporal worlds and the ten directions. The three worlds are past, present and future. The ten directions are the eight compass directions (north, south, east, west, northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast), and the two vertical directions, up and down. In other words, a law is a principle that applies anywhere in time and space. Buddhism uses the word “law” only for unchanging principles, those that remain the same in all places and at all times. In sum, the law of cause and effect means that throughout the three temporal worlds and the ten directions no result arises without a cause; each phenomenon inevitably has a cause.

Strictly speaking, it is the law of cause, condition, and effect. That is because a cause alone cannot bring a result. Only when the cause combines with the right condition can a result occur. Take rice, for example. The cause of a rice seed alone is not sufficient to produce the result of a rice crop. It must join with the right conditions of soil, water, sunlight, air. Planting rice seed in a block of concrete or ice wouldn’t yield the desired result, since the necessary conditions for a rice crop would be lacking.

Since the Buddhist law of cause and effect teaches that all phenomena result from the union of cause and condition, the law is more properly known as the “law of cause, condition, and effect.” Through this law, Buddhism sheds particular light on what we most want to know—the connection between cause and effect in human destiny. On this, Śākyamuni Buddha taught: “Good causes yield good effects; bad causes yield bad effects; own causes yield own effects.” The first part means that good seeds (actions) yield good fruit (happiness, pleasure). The second part means that bad seeds (actions) give rise to bad fruit (unhappiness, suffering). And the third part means that all outcomes that we experience, good and bad alike, are the results of seeds that we ourselves have sown. Since we ourselves sowed the seeds, naturally we ourselves must reap the results.

Every aspect of our destiny, whether for good or for ill, is the product of our own actions. Again, Buddhism grants no exceptions. Others’ actions can never be the cause of our fortune or misfortune, and in the same way, seeds we sow can never yield others’ fruit. Buddhism is very clear on this point: “own causes yield own effects.” Since the law of cause and effect is the foundation of Buddhism, a firm grasp of it is crucial. Otherwise Shinran’s teachings will not make sense.

By Kentetsu Takamori

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #42 | 2014, Shinran’s Teachings and the Law of Cause and Effect

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