Buddhist Analysis: Types of Causes

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Introduction: Deconstructing the Self and the Aggregates

According to the Buddhist analysis, the self is imputed on the individual continuity of the five aggregates. The aggregates are made up of all non-static phenomena – everything that changes from moment to moment – and any of the non-static phenomena could be part of our experience. Static phenomena can also be part of our experience, like for instance categories, but they are not included in the five aggregates. Voidness (emptiness) is the absence of any of this existing in impossible ways – both in terms of impossible ways of the self existing and impossible ways of the aggregates existing.

[For a list of the five aggregates, see: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregates]

Concerning the deconstruction of the self, it is very important to remember that even with the Prasangika analysis, we still say that conventionally there is a self. But that self is like an illusion. It appears that it is establishing itself from its own side but it doesn’t – that’s impossible. There is no findable referent thing holding up the referent object of the imputation, in technical jargon.

Now, what we need to deconstruct are the aggregates themselves. We need to deconstruct them not just in terms of understanding on the deepest level how they exist, but also on the conventional level to understand how they arise; what their causes are. Each moment of our experience is made up of so many component parts, and each of them is changing at different rates. These are changing at different rates because each of them is arising from a different set of causes and conditions – although some can be shared in common. And because causes and conditions affect and give rise to what we experience, they also affect me, because I am labeled on that and I experience these things. It’s important not to identify with any of them; not to identify with our body or age or any of these things, or with various judgments – “I’m no good,” “I’m not good enough” and this sort of things. These judgments of our self are examples of mental labeling ourselves with categories – and that mental labeling could be accurate or inaccurate. We validate them in terms of there has to be a generally accepted convention by a group of beings, it has to not be contradicted by minds that validly see conventional, superficial truth and not contradicted by minds that see correctly the deepest truth.

I’ll give an example: there is the convention of you’re not good enough to go to university because you don’t have this level of grades at school. As a convention, it’s agreed upon by a certain society. Anybody who checks you records would agree: your grades are not good enough. It’s not that somebody made a mistake with the school records. But it’s not that you exist inherently as somebody that is not good enough – you are not good enough for anything from your own side, you are just a terrible, incompetent person. That’s contradicted by a mind that sees the deepest level correctly. This is just a convention or category of “somebody who’s never good enough for anything” mentally labeled on your conventional self as your true identity, and a mind that sees the deepest truth correctly would contradict that.

The Six Types of Causes According to Vaibhashika

Now, to deconstruct the aggregates – what we experience – we need to understand the presentation of causality: causes, conditions and results. We can then understand the voidness of causality, how it works – that is absolutely necessary. It isn’t that the cause is encapsulated in plastic and the result is encapsulated in plastic, otherwise how can they possibly connect? But our topic it is not the deepest truth about cause and effect; our topic is the conventional truth of it, in other words, what are the various types of causes and effects and conditions? So let’s look at them.

It’s no surprise that the different schools and Indian tenet systems have different analyses of this. But we will not go through all of those details – that is far too complicated. We will just present the system that we find in the Vaibhashika school of tenets – the most generally accepted analysis of causality. In Vaibhashika we have a presentation of six types of causes. I have to warn you beforehand: this is really complicated, and you really have to be familiar with this system over a long period of time to be able to remember it and apply it. So please don’t get discouraged. It is possible to work with these, but you have to be really familiar with them.

Acting Causes

First we have acting causes. These are all phenomena other than the result itself, which do not impede the production of the result. These are divided into

  • potent acting causes
  • impotent acting causes.

The potent acting cause for a sprout is the seed. The impotent acting cause would be the mother of the farmer who planted the seed. We couldn’t have the sprout if it hadn’t been planted, and even the sprout couldn’t come from the seed unless it was planted by somebody; and if was planted by the farmer, you couldn’t have the farmer if we didn’t have the mother of the farmer and so on. But the mother of the farmer is not the potent cause of the sprout. In the Chittamatra system of another great Indian master, Asanga, he specifies twenty different types of these acting causes. It’s quite interesting to study.

So we have this wide array of all the various causes going way, way back. The Big Bang is the cause of the sprout in a sense. If there hadn’t been the Big Bang there wouldn’t have been be the sprout. We can trace it all the way back: all the dinosaurs and the plants that lived in the time of the dinosaurs – if that hadn’t decomposed and made the dirt we wouldn’t have had the sprout. So it gets really quite broad. This actually is quite profound, if one thinks about it, because it implies that everything is interdependent and interconnected. Nothing happens just by itself. That is one aspect of dependent arising: things arise and happen dependently on everything else, basically.

In terms of our aggregates, that questions – what I see, what I hear, etc. – I see the sprout or I see the table. The sight that I see – that comes from everything going all the way back to the Big Bang as the acting cause. The important consequence of this is the understanding of the huge network of interdependence. Consider this wooden table. Its acting causes are the wood it’s made of, all the people who cut the trees and the wood, all the animals and plants that decomposed make this soil the trees grew in, the trucks that brought the wood to the factory where they made the table, the people who built the roads, the people who built the trucks, the people who mined the ore, which was then made into the steel, which was made into the cars and the trucks that brought the table to you.

It’s unbelievable if you start to trace back how much work has gone into making this table or this building possible. On the basis of that, we understand that everybody must have been kind to us in one way or another; that it’s the work of an unbelievable amount of people over an unbelievable amount of time that allows us to enjoy the use of anything. So that helps with our development of compassion. It wasn’t that they did all this to be kind to me, but if everybody didn’t do all this work over history, we couldn’t survive. We benefit very much from the work of everybody that has come before us. That follows from the understanding of these acting causes.

Simultaneously Arising Causes

Second, we have simultaneously arising causes. This is referring to the elements that something is made of. The Vaibhashika system specifies as having a cause and effect relationship (1) the elements and materials that something is made from and (2) the actual thing itself, although they are simultaneous with each other; they occur at the same time.

None of the other schools accept that the materials that something is made of are the cause for it; they just say that the whole is ascribed on parts. We’re not talking about the flour and the eggs and the sugar that the cake is made of that were there before, and then you get the cake. We’re talking about the cake itself and the ingredients that are right there at the same time as the cake. That’s what we are talking about, like all the pieces of the body – the circulation system and the respiratory system and all these things. Also, within a cognition, the primary consciousness and the mental factors that accompany it – these also are simultaneously arising causes. We can’t just have the consciousness by itself; there are these other mental factors that make it possible for the consciousness to function. These mental factors arise simultaneously with the consciousness – that’s one of the five things they have in common. You can’t be aware of a sight unless there is attention to the sight, unless there is concentration on the sight. These factors come together with that primary consciousness. So, this is deconstructing something in terms of what it is made up of.

Equal Status Causes

Then we have equal status causes. These are causes for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomena as they are. For instance, we’re talking about continuities here. There is continuity of patience, continuity of love, continuity of anger; the prior moments generate the next moments in an equal status of the thing. And they stay in the same category of phenomena: destructive or constructive or unspecified (neither, so neutral; this neutral category is referred to as unspecified. Buddha did not specify whether it was either constructive or destructive.) So, it could be deeper levels of the same thing, so for example deeper levels of understanding; but it is of an equal status since it’s later moments of something, so the causality involved in generating continuities.

Congruent Causes

Then we have congruent causes. “Congruent” here is referring to things that have five things in common. In the Vaibhashika system, these five in common are specified as (1) the same focal object. (2) The same mental aspect is referring to giving rise to the same mental hologram. So they they’re equally responsible for the mental hologram that arises. It is not that each one gives rise to a separate mental hologram. (3) They rely on the same cognitive sensor. So if it’s seeing, they all rely on the power of the photosensitive cells of the eyes. The sensors by the way are referring to cells, a form a physical phenomenon; usually it is translated as “sensory power,” which sounds pretty vague. We’re not talking about a power; we’re talking about the actual physical cells. We have sound sensitive cells in the ears, smell sensitive cells in the nose, taste sensitive cells in the tongue, and sensation sensitive cells throughout the entire body, except the nails and the hair. So, these share that. They also are (4) simultaneous – the primary consciousness and the mental factors. (5) And they are the same in that each arises from its own natal source (rdzas), its own tendency. That’s Vaibhashika’s way of asserting these five things in common. Chittamatra has a different opinion – we won’t go into that.

So, congruent causes are a subcategory of simultaneously arising causes. Again, nobody except the Vaibhashikas asserts that this is a type of causality; this is just referring to parts. So simultaneously arising causes refer to the elements that something is made of – the mental factors and consciousness that a cognition is made of. And the congruent causes are just referring to this primary consciousness and mental factors that make up a moment of cognition.

Omnipresent Causes

Then we have omnipresent causes – causes present everywhere on the three planes of existence. An omnipresent cause is referring only to the disturbing emotions and attitudes that generate other subsequent disturbing emotions and attitudes in the same plane of existence. I don’t want to go into the detail of different planes of existence – that’s a further complication that has to do with deeper and deeper states of absorption in meditation. Let’s not talk about these. When we were talking about the equal status causes, that covered not just disturbing emotions and attitudes, but it covered anything that has continuity. Now we are only speaking about the disturbing emotions and attitudes. But they do not have to necessarily have the same ethical status – that’s only in terms of equal status cause. They can either be destructive or unspecified.

Some disturbing emotions are always destructive, like anger. But some are unspecified, like a deluded attitude toward a transitory network. That deluded attitude is the state of mind that throws out a net of “me” and “mine” onto something occurring in our aggregates. The attitude can either go together with either constructive or destructive states of mind and so cannot be specified as being just one or the other. For example, we see a photograph of ourselves. It’s just a piece of paper with pixels and colored shapes on it, but we throw out the net of “me” on it and consider it “me.” We could have a negative attitude accompanying that, “I look so old” but then we could develop compassion for ourselves and so now our deluded attitude is accompanying a positive state of mind.

Ripening Causes

The sixth type of cause is the ripening cause. A ripening cause is a destructive or tainted constructive phenomenon. “Tainted” means, for example, doing good in school. That’s a constructive phenomenon – you get good grades. But if it’s tainted, it’s tainted with perfectionism – “I’m not good enough, I have to do even better” – so it’s mixed with confusion about how we exist. It’s a tainted constructive phenomenon.

What we’re discussing here with ripening causes is the whole mechanism of karma and rebirth. It’s complex; this entails the twelve links of dependent arising.

  • We have unawareness about how we exist.
  • That leads to disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.
  • These lead to destructive behavior or tainted constructive behavior. We act out with compulsion behind this that drives us to act this way.
  • Then that leaves what literally is called “karmic seeds.” These are tendencies. These tendencies are an imputation on – well again it depends on the school whether we’re talking about it being an imputation on the mental consciousness or the foundation consciousness; Prasangika would say that it’s just an imputation on the mere “me.” Any way, the karmic seeds are an imputation. They’re one of these things that are a noncongruent affecting variable; it’s nonstatic but neither a way of being aware of anything, nor a form of physical phenomena, although we use the word “seed.” We don’t think of it as an actual physical seed.
  • Then, these tendencies are carried along in the mental continuum and in either this lifetime or the next lifetime they are activated. And when they’re activated then they give rise to – here’s the result – nonobstructive, unspecified items contained among the five aggregates of future rebirth states.

Unspecified phenomenon – they’re are either constructive or destructive; it can go either way. It can go either way depending on whether or not they have disturbing emotions together with them. Some of them obstruct or prevent liberation and enlightenment; others don’t. Some, like the body, consciousness, feelings and so on – these are ethically neutral, and they can go together with either a constructive or destructive state of mind.

If I am killing somebody, the body is involved with that, the consciousness is involved with that, some feeling of happy or unhappy is involved with that. When I’m angry, my body is still there, the consciousness is still there. I’m not very happy when I’m getting angry – that’s still there. And the same thing when I’m acting constructively with this unawareness. Likewise, I’m helping somebody, and I’m kind and loving – still there’s a body, there’s a consciousness, there’s a feeling of happy or unhappy. And even when I become a Buddha, still there’s going to be a body and a consciousness and feelings and “happy.” So, these things are nonobstructive; they do not prevent enlightenment or liberation, depends on the system. But there are other unspecified phenomena that also could go either with constructive or destructive states of mind, which do obstruct or hinder liberation or enlightenment, for example grasping for an impossible way of existing.

Here we’re talking about the causes for these nonobstructive, unspecified items in a future lifetime. In other words, what is the cause for the next rebirth – for future rebirth, samsara? The aggregates of that future rebirth are going to contain unawareness and all the other things coming from driving causes and equal status causes. From the driving causes, we’ll have disturbing emotions in that future life; from equal status cause we’ll have positive things like patience and concentration; and from these simultaneously arising causes we’ll have the elements of the body. All the different pieces of types of causes. Now, from constructive and destructive behavior we get the karmic tendencies. And these karmic tendencies, as ripening causes, are going to be responsible, when they’re activated at the time of death, for the actual nonobstructive, unspecified items of that next rebirth state – the body and so on.

How does a samsaric rebirth develop? Now we are looking at other aspects of the twelve links of dependent arising.

  • We have first a physical basis – let’s say if it’s going to be a human, then a sperm and an egg – and a consciousness not yet differentiated into various types of consciousness or mental factors.
  • This physical basis then differentiates into sight-sensitive and sound-sensitive sensors, and the consciousness differentiates into visual consciousness, ear consciousness, sensation consciousness, etc.
  • Eventually we can distinguish various objects, as a fetus, so the aggregate of distinguishing takes shape. And we have contacting awareness, which means that on the basis of distinguishing something – again, from karma – comes awareness of these objects that we distinguish. We experience them as pleasant or unpleasant. So if we play nice music, the fetus somehow hears some filtered form of that – it’s a pleasant contacting awareness of that. And if it hears really loud, horrible noises then that’s unpleasant, and it kicks.
  • Then the next thing that comes is a feeling of happy or unhappy.
  • Now, we’re born, and we’re experiencing being happy or unhappy – that’s ripening again from these ripening causes; it’s part of the aggregates, dependent on constructive or destructive behavior.
  • We live our whole life. Now, at the time of death the tendencies – the karmic tendencies, the so-called “seeds” – have to be activated in order to, in a sense, throw the mental continuum for it to continue into the next life. It’s not as if a soul is coming out of your body and going into another one, but that’s the terminology that’s used: it throws our continuum into the next life.

Our definition here of a ripening cause is playing on the fact that these karmic tendencies or seeds have to be moistened; you have to put some water on them for them to be activated and give rise to the sprout. That’s what the word “moistened” means here: activated. So what activates these karmic seeds, these tendencies? There are two links that do that.

  • The first of these is called “craving.”

That’s how it’s usually translated; but the actual Sanskrit for “craving” is the word for “thirst” – being thirsty. It’s a little strange that things are moistened by thirst, but anyway – thirst. This is directed at the feeling that we have. We’re talking about the state of mind, the mental factor – not the physical sensation – when you think of thirst. So if we have some happiness, we thirst not to be parted from it, like a thirsty person who has just a little drop of water. Then they’re so thirsty, they feel, “I don’t want to be separated from the happiness of drinking this water.” That’s thirst.

If we experience unhappiness, then of course we thirst to be free of it, like a person feeling they want to be parted from thirst. And if we are in a deep, deep meditation trance in which we are experiencing a neutral feeling, then we thirst for that state not to degenerate, not to go away. Whichever of those three states of thirst we experience at the time of death starts to activate the karmic seeds. That’s why it is so important – no matter if you feel happy or unhappy – as they say in India, same, same – don’t be like a thirsty person in terms of your state of happiness or unhapiness. “I’m unhappy – so what?” It will change. Don’t be like this thirsty “me” person. Don’t make a big deal out of feeling happy or unhappy; just get along, get on with your work, whatever you have to do, basically. It’s not that easy to do, but that’s really the most basic advice that we can have. Nothing special about feeling unhappy, nothing special about feeling happy. So what?

  • Then we have the next link; it’s usually translated as “grasping” but that confuses us with another term, “grasping for true existence,” so we’re not going to use it here. Rather it is an obtainer attitude – that’s literally the translation of the word – it is “what obtains for us” or “gets for us” rebirth.

This is a series of five different types of attitudes, disturbing attitudes (one of them is a disturbing emotion). Thirst is aimed at a feeling as its object; we don’t want the feeling to go away or we want it to go away or not to degenerate. With an obtainer attitude, the object is “me.” We are thinking in terms of “me:” “I don’t want it” or “I want it” – and throwing out this net of “me” and identifying with this feeling; throwing this net of “me” and “mine” onto the feelings. There’s a whole series of possibilities here and they will obtain for us in the sense that they will complete the activation process of the karmic seeds. The obtainer attitude then activates the seeds and brings the next rebirth.

So when it says in the definition of the ripening cause, it’s not just a destructive or tainted constructive phenomena – anger, killing somebody, or being a perfectionist; it is not just that. But the tendency that comes from that, has to be not devoid of being activated. It can’t be not activated; it has to be activated, so moistened by this thirsting. Then it gives the result. So that’s a ripening cause.

The Four Types of Causes

Then we have the presentation of the four causes. We had six causes; now we have another presentation of four causes.

Direct or Immediate Causes

We have a direct or immediate cause. That is a cause that gives its result immediately after the cause occurs. Like for instance, you bang your foot and that is the immediate cause for getting a bruise. So the result follows immediately after the cause. That’s a direct or immediate cause.

Indirect or Antecedent Causes

Then we have indirect or antecedent causes. These are causes that give their result after a long succession of its occurrence or after a long time. Like smoking is the long-term cause that gives rise to developing cancer. It’s not that you smoke one cigarette and the next morning you have cancer, is it? It’s not like banging your foot and getting a bruise. Let’s hope not! So that’s a long-term antecedent cause; you have to smoke an awful lot. And even if you give up smoking after a long time you can still get the cancer.

This is very important in terms of karma: karmic seeds can take an awful long time before they ripen. When we talk about karma we don’t have the Western term of “instant karma.” There’s no such thing as instant karma, where instantly you have the karmic result. We have really weird concepts, like, “I didn’t bring my umbrella and that is the cause for why it rained.” “Instant karma” – but we think like that.

Obtaining Causes

Then we have an obtaining cause. This is the same word as “obtainer.” This is unfortunately translated as “material cause” and that causes a tremendous amount of confusion. When you think of a material cause, actually you’re thinking of the simultaneously arising causes – the elements, the material that something is made of. We’re not talking about that here at all. Here, it is that from which one obtains the item as its successor, and thus which ceases to exist when its successor has completed arising. So for instance the seed is that from which we obtain the sprout. When we have the sprout, we no longer have the seed. Obviously, the sprout is not made up of the seed – so to call it the material causes is quite confusing. So the karmic seed or tendency is the obtaining cause here from which we get the cognition of something, the experience of something.

Let me think of a simple example. A simple example is that you have a ticket for the U-Bahn – for the metro or whatever you call it here. This is a ticket that is valid for a month, and I bought it at the beginning of the year for the whole year. Each month I have a ticket, and from that ticket I can obtain as many rides as I want – not just one ride, but as many rides as I want during that month while it’s valid. But when the month is finished that ticket is no longer valid; it’s finished. It is finished giving rides to its successor. The things you get from it, that you obtain from it – you obtain a ride; the ride is obviously not made up of the ticket. That’s why you can’t call it the material cause. So, we’re talking here about the karmic tendencies or seeds. The karmic tendencies will give rise to various experiences and so on; they give rise to a succession of experiences. But once that has finished ripening, you no longer get any more things that ripen from it, that you obtain from it. So for instance the uncooked dough is the obtaining cause for the loaf of bread. When we have the loaf of bread, you no longer have uncooked dough. So the unbaked dough is not the material of the loaf of bread; it’s what you obtain the loaf of bread from, what transforms into the loaf of bread. We’re talking about something that transforms into something else, if we talk about it in very general terms.

Simultaneously Acting, Contributing Conditions

Now, the fourth one is a simultaneously acting, contributing condition. This one is a condition. So, these are things that have to exist prior to the arising of something, and they assist in making the arising happen, but they do not transform into what arises. So the seed transforms into the sprout – that’s the obtaining cause – but water and sunshine are the simultaneously acting contributing conditions. You have to have that at the same time.

So if we have, let’s say, the karmic tendency to be hit by a car for example, from that we will obtain the experience for being hit by a car. A body and consciousness and feeling and all of that’s involved in the experience of being hit by a car are the acting causes. But aside from the various things that will activate that seed of karma, besides that you have to have simultaneously acting contributing conditions: somebody has to be driving the car, and we have to be in a place where we can be hit by a car, and there are cars. We can’t be hit by a car in the middle of a dense jungle of New Guinea. Our karma does not cause that other person to get into their car and hit us with their car – that’s coming from their karma. They have the karma to hit somebody with the car; things have to interact. I didn’t cause them to hit me; I caused myself to experience being hit. It’s very simple: I walked into the street and they drove the car. I didn’t drive the car, did I? So, it’s very important to differentiate here the obtaining causes from our side and the simultaneously arising conditions from outside.

Further Types of Causes

Then just very quickly, there are two more causes. A similar-family cause: this is referring to something that serves as a model for something else. A model of a glass, and they make glasses out of the model. So that’s a similar-family cause. And then natal sources, like the oven for the loaf of bread, like the womb for the baby.

Just one last point, please keep in mind that something can serve as many different types of causes. The same thing could function as a cause in several different ways – that’s not so simple.