Shinran and Causality in the Three Worlds

Q: I understand that Buddhism teaches “causality in the three worlds.” What exactly does that mean? What is the connection between that teaching and Shinranʼs emphasis on salvation now, in the present?

A: You rightly point out that “causality in the three worlds” is a fundamental precept of Buddhism. Without a firm understanding of it, Buddhism would make no sense.

To begin with, “causality” means the chain of cause and effect, and the “three worlds” refer to the three temporal worlds of past, present, and future. The past world covers all the time before we were born, the present world encompasses the time from our birth in this world until our death, and the future world is the eternity following death. Buddhism teaches that our life flows eternally through the three temporal worlds of the past, the present, and the future.

Some may well question the existence of past and future worlds. But a personʼs birth into this life is obviously an outcome that has to have a cause. What led to that particular outcome? Why is a given person born not in China, with a population of 1.3 billion, but in neighboring Japan, say, with a population of 120 million? Why are some born now, others in the twentieth century or earlier? Countless young men were born in the twentieth century only to be carted off to war to die like flies. Had they been born in a time of peace, their lives would have been vastly different.

Out of the seven billion people on this earth today, no two were born at the same time and place, and no two share the same looks and abilities. Such factors have immeasurable impact on our lives. How are they determined? Here is what Śākyamuni Buddha taught:

If you desire to know the seeds of the past, look at the fruit in the present. If you desire to know the fruit of the future, look at the seeds in the present.

If you want to know what seeds you have sown in the past, look at the results you reap in this life. If you want to know what you will reap in the future, look at the seeds you are sowing now.

In other words, if you carefully examine the present you will know all about the past and the future, because the limitless past and the eternal future are embraced in the present moment.

According to this teaching of Śākyamuni Buddhaʼs, the different circumstances of each personʼs birth today are due beyond a doubt to the different actions that each of the seven billion people on earth took before they were born. “Good seeds yield good fruit, bad seeds yield bad fruit, own seeds yield own fruit”: in line with this rigorous law of cause and effect, our deeds in the past world have given rise to our situation in the present world.

Just as we each have a past world, naturally we each have a future world as well. If there were no future world, we would be forced to recognize an exception to the law of cause and effect.

Let us imagine a scenario that might serve as an example. Someone kills another person and is sentenced to death for his crime. If the action of killing one person (cause) could be atoned for by dying once (effect), then someone who killed ten people would have to be executed ten times, a clear impossibility. If there were no future world, then the result for the murderer would be the same whether he killed one person or fifty: a single execution.

Different causes produce different outcomes: this is the law of cause and effect. If a job were advertised as paying a hundred dollars a day, someone who worked a hundred days would naturally expect to be paid ten thousand dollars. A job that paid a hundred dollars whether you worked one day or a hundred would find few takers.

Only someone ignorant of the universal law of cause and effect would make the reckless assumption that different causes can produce the same outcome. Even if the results of our present actions do not appear in the present, they will appear without fail in the world of the future. The truth of “causality in the three worlds” is unchanging throughout space and time.

Understanding the true meaning of the Buddhist law of causality in the three worlds brings home the vast importance of the present.

When viewed with a closer and closer lens, the world of the past is not only our numberless past lives but last year, yesterday, an hour ago, and the breath just exhaled. In the same way, the world of the present is this year, this day, this hour, this breath. The world of the future similarly comes down to next year, tomorrow, an hour from now, the next breath. Therefore, we are taught that the three temporal worlds of Buddhism meet in every breath we inhale and exhale.

Each passing moment of our lives contains the three worlds. This is why if we fix our eyes on Now, then the self that has transmigrated through the aeons will become clear to us, and we will become aware of the crucial matter of the future.

That fact is evident from these words of the Chinese monk Shan-tao (613−81), quoted by Shinran in his masterwork Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment:

I am, now, a foolish being imbued with evil and caught in the cycle of birth and death, constantly submerged and constantly wandering for all these countless aeons without ever a chance for liberation: this is clearly revealed to me.

Right now I am the vilest and most depraved of sinners. I see myself clearly as someone who has suffered from ages past without limit and who will never be saved in the future.

Without salvation in the present there can be no salvation in the future. This is why, through the basic doctrines of genshô futai, (obtaining absolute happiness in this life), heizei gôjô (achieving lifeʼs purpose while alive), and futaishitsu ôjô (salvation in this present life), Shinran emphasized the importance of being saved now.

(Petals of Shinran, The Cherry volume Chapter 6)

By Kentetsu Takamori

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #15 | 2012, Shinran and Causality in the Three Worlds

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