Buddhist Analysis: Causes, Conditions and Results

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The presentations of the various metaphysical topics in Buddhism, as I’ve explained, are useful in helping us to deconstruct various problems that we might face. And one way that we saw that we can deconstruct what we experience is to see within that experience… Like we used the experience of taking the wrong computer bag at the airport and then feeling very angry with myself that I’m a total idiot. We’ve seen that we can differentiate what’s existent, what’s nonexistent. And we’ve seen what is happening – we can differentiate what’s happening now from what’s no longer happening. And within what was happening now, what we’re experiencing now, we can differentiate the various static phenomena (like categories) and the functional phenomena (things that are changing), and within that, what is and what is not (affirming phenomena and negation phenomena). And within that we saw, within the functional phenomena, one way of dividing that is into forms of material phenomena, ways of being aware of it, and the things that are neither. So the computer, my anger, me. And particularly these functional phenomena, another scheme of dividing them – we didn’t go into that – are the five aggregates. These are just five groupings of these functional phenomena, that at least one item from each of them makes up each moment of our experience.

This is very helpful, because if we’re going to deal with what’s happening – well, what’s happening right now is what’s relevant. And within what’s happening now, if we can see all the different components of it, and realize that everything is changing at a different rate, and there are so many variables that are affecting what I’m experiencing right now, then it helps to desolidify it. And when we have deconstructed – desolidified – what we’re experiencing, like a depression or a horrible mood, or something like that, then it becomes less of a monster; we can deal with it.

In this session we want to look at another extremely useful way of deconstructing what we’re experiencing, and that is in terms of causality. So let us go through all the various factors that are involved, and different types of causality, different types of results, and so on, and apply it to this example of taking the wrong computer bag.

Immediate Cause and Antecedent Causes

Here is the situation that we are analyzing. I don’t have my computer. So what’s the immediate cause (dngos-rgyu), which has also been translated as direct cause? This is what brought on this situation immediately. What immediately brought it on was that I picked up the wrong bag. Now what is translated here as indirect cause (brgyud-rgyu), we have to understand what indirect means; it means an antecedent causes, the sequence of events that led up to the immediate cause – to picking up the wrong bag. So what are the antecedent causes? The antecedent causes here are it was a bumpy airplane ride, that was followed by getting a headache on the plane, and then there was a long wait for the luggage, and I was worried that the person who was picking me up was waiting too long for me, and then I got distracted talking to a fellow passenger. And that all led to the direct cause: I picked up the wrong bag. OK?

Immediate Results and Successive Results

We have the immediate result (dngos-‘bras), also translated as the direct result. So that is what immediately followed after not having the right bag, not having my computer. So the direct result was that I walked out of the airport with the wrong bag. And then what is translated in your material as the indirect result (brgyud-‘bras) is referring to all the successive results, in sequence, that happened after that. So I couldn’t do my work, then I had to call the airport, then I had to go back to the airport to try to recover my computer. All those are the successive results that followed. OK?

So this is quite important in analyzing the situation – to see all the things that led up to what happened and all the things that follow it, sort of in a succession – so that we don’t just limit the way that we look at things in terms of this limited time span. Whatever we experience has a long antecedent of causes and then it has a long succession of results. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another.

Obtainer Causes and Simultaneous Acting Conditions

Then we have what’s called here the material cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu), which I translate as the obtainer cause, and the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen). So what are these? This is – well, let me translate the definition here, of an obtainer cause: a factor within the individual substantial continuum of a thing, through which the thing will mainly be brought about. OK. So what does that mean? First of all, we shouldn’t think, when this is translated as material cause or substantial cause, that this kind of cause is some solid thing; that’s not really what the word means. Literally, the word means obtaining; it is that from which we obtain the result. And what this is referring to is something in our mental continuum from which we obtain this item – picking up the wrong bag – as its successor. And in most cases, it ceases to exist once the successor arises.

So what are the examples for this? An example would be the seed and the plant. From the seed, you obtain the plant – it’s in a succession – and when you get the plant, you no longer have the seed. Or the unbaked dough is the obtaining cause for the baked bread. So it is the obtaining cause in the sense that you obtain it, but it’s not actually… This is what we have to watch out not to be confused by. We’re not talking about the substance of the bread, the substance of the bread in terms of the atoms and these sorts of things. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about that from which you get the item. But the unbaked dough is not there anymore, is it, when we have the bread. But it’s in the succession. That’s why we have this word succession, continuum.

So here in our example we’re talking about our mental continuum. I mean, it could be in a general continuum, but now we’re talking about a mental continuum. And here, sometimes that obtaining cause is finished when you get the result. But sometimes it can give more than one result, and so it will continue to be there until it exhausts giving all its results. And here what we’re talking about is… in Tibetan, you use the same word as seed (sa-bon). But again we shouldn’t think of it as a material seed; I think it’s better to understand it in this context as tendencies and potentials.

So there’s a tendency not to be mindful. Right? That was the obtaining cause for picking up the wrong bag; I wasn’t mindful. And then I have a tendency for the destructive action of taking what is not mine, and a potential to have my computer lost, to have my possessions lost, and I also have a tendency to get angry with myself. So all of these are the obtaining causes, or what’s called here substantial causes for this incident that happened, what I’m experiencing. And so then what were the simultaneously acting conditions, or the contributing conditions? What contributed to this? So I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I was talking to somebody else. These were the key conditions that were going on at that time that helped for this situation to arise.

So we start to see that what we experience, what happens, is dependent on so many things that went on before, and my own tendencies that are in my mental continuum, the circumstances in which it happened, etc. All of that is affecting what happened. Let’s take a moment to digest that much. You see, the issue is that we can’t blame anything. Because there’s so many factors that are involved, you can’t place the blame on any one of them and feel guilty about it.

Six Kinds of Causes According to Vasubandhu

Now we have a system of six different kinds of causes. Although that might look terribly complicated, especially when we try to work with the specific definitions, nevertheless it is a very useful scheme if one can work with it in terms of an example and you see what it’s talking about.

Acting Causes

First we have the acting causes (byed-rgyu), and this is referring to, as I say – it’s everything else except the actual result. This is implying that whatever happens to us is interconnected with everything that has ever happened. So nothing exists isolated; everything is interconnected. That’s the point of this.

So what are some of the acting causes? There were those who invented computers; I couldn’t have lost my computer if somebody didn’t invent the computer. There are all the people who made it. There are all the people who made the plastic and mined the metal, and these sorts of things, that went into the computer. And then I bought the computer, and so the store where I bought it from. Somebody must have built the store. Somebody must have sold it to me. How did I get to the store? I took the public transportation. Well, somebody must have built it. Somebody must have driven the subway, the U-Bahn that I took. All of these are acting causes for losing my computer. And how about getting into really basic things, like my parents gave birth to me, and I’ve gotten older and so I’m less mindful. And so if we really start to analyze all of this, it’s an unbelievable amount of factors that are acting causes that somehow are responsible for what happened. And it’s interesting that if any of these are left out – like if nobody ever invented a computer – the whole thing could never have happened.

Simultaneously Arising Causes

Then the second one is the simultaneously arising cause (lhan-cig ’byung-ba’i rgyu). These are all the things that are together with what is happening, in the sense that they support the result. They arise simultaneously with the result, in a sense. If you think about it, my arm that was picking up the wrong bag, and the action of picking up the bag – this was all happening simultaneously with picking up the wrong bag. Could I have taken the wrong bag and not have my computer if I didn’t have an arm that picked up the bag? And if the arm didn’t have muscles and didn’t have blood flowing through it, and these sorts of things, the whole thing couldn’t have happened. Right? Or seeing the bag, seeing something on the floor: if I didn’t see it, I couldn’t have picked it up. And seeing it with not paying very much attention; I mean, that was really what was involved. Actually, although it starts to sound a little bit funny, but nevertheless, if you really think about it, all these things were involved. And again, if some of them were missing, it wouldn’t have happened. So let’s digest those for a moment.

Equal Status Causes

The third type of cause here is known as an equal status cause (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu). What that means is causes for which the results are later moments in the same type of category of phenomenon as the causes are. So in other words, we’re talking about a certain status of the cause and effect, and the status – I’ll explain what that status is referring to – is the same for the cause and for the effect. It’s referring to the ethical status (rigs), primarily.

So in order to understand what this is referring to, we have to present yet another division scheme for phenomena. And here we have first the division into upsetting (zang-zing) and nonupsetting (zang-zing ma-yin-pa) things. Upsetting. It’s upsetting you. It’s making you upset. It’s upsetting in the sense that – well, I’ll give the definition: something upsetting is mixed with naivety about reality; and nonupsetting, it’s not mixed with this naivety. It’s more in this division of samsara and nirvana, this type of way of dividing things.

So what would be an upsetting thought and what would be a nonupsetting thought? An upsetting would be, out of naivety, “I’m a total idiot. I’m so stupid. How could I be like that?” What would be nonupsetting? “I’m a human being. Human beings make mistakes. These things happen because of all sorts of causes and conditions, etc. What do I expect? I’m getting older. Things like this happen.” So it’s important to try to get everything… very clear thinking here.

Now we have a division of three: destructive, constructive, and neutral.

Destructive (mi-dge-ba) is something that will ripen into gross unhappiness or the all-pervasive problem of just continuing our samsaric rebirth. And the constructive (dge-ba) is what’s going to bring about our ordinary happiness; this is the suffering of change – it’s not going to be satisfying, it’s not going to last, and so on, but is not as bad as unhappiness. That also perpetuates samsara. And then the neutral ones (lung ma-bstan) are neither.

When we talk about destructive phenomena, this is referring to things… I mean, there’s a whole big list of these, analyzed in different levels of complexity. But we have what’s called the three poisons (dug-gsum) – the three poisonous attitudes of anger (zhe-sdang), greed and attachment (’dod-chags, longing desire), and naivety (gti-mug). Here there’s actually a difference between naivety and unawareness (ma-rig-pa).

Unawareness, sometimes translated as ignorance, can accompany either a constructive or destructive or neutral state of mind. I just don’t know, or I know incorrectly, about either cause and effect or reality. If it’s I don’t know or I know incorrectly about cause and effect, that’s involved with destructive behavior. I think that stealing is going to make me happy; it doesn’t – it’s something which will bring problems. And naivety about how I exist, how everything exists, that could be behind destructive, constructive, or neutral phenomena. There are two types of unawareness: unawareness of cause and effect, unawareness of reality.

When we look at the term in Tibetan, timuk, or moha in Sanskrit, it’s very difficult to translate. I call it naivety. What it’s referring to is this unawareness only when it is accompanying destructive behavior or destructive phenomena. It’s a subcategory. So either not knowing about cause and effect or not knowing about reality, when it accompanies a destructive phenomenon, that’s called naivety. I can’t think of any word in our languages that would actually mean that. The whole implication of having a separate term here is that it’s much worse when it’s involved with something destructive. I think this indicates – although this is perhaps getting terribly technical – the importance of knowing the definitions and understanding them, otherwise terminology just becomes too confusing and we don’t really know exactly what they’re talking about. Terminology in Buddhism is extremely specific.

So what’s destructive? Anger and attachment and this naivety, and the actions that are motivated by them, and all the mental factors that would accompany that when I’m having these disturbing emotions. All of these are destructive.

And what would be constructive would be love, compassion, these sort of things, when it is mixed with this unawareness. “I am so wonderful. I remembered my bag,” “I got it back. I’m so great!” This sort of feeling. “I’m so thankful to you for this,” but with the feeling of “Wow, you’re so wonderful,” and making such a big deal out of it. This is unawareness of reality but mixed with something fairly constructive. What was behind this incident was a big, big thought of me, and “Oh, what am I going to do?” and so on. “And now I can do my work” – a big self-centered thought behind this positive feeling of being thankful and grateful and so on. So that leads to a happiness, but it’s a type of happiness that doesn’t last and isn’t satisfying.

And neutral phenomena. What’s neutral are things that are neither constructive nor destructive. Could be part of something constructive or part of destructive; by itself it’s neutral. So that could be attention, interest, intelligence, these sort of things. By themselves they’re neutral.

In our example here with the taking the wrong computer, what would be destructive would be anger; I’m angry with myself. What would be constructive would be patience in this situation. And what is neutral – literally the word is unspecified (Buddha didn’t specify is it destructive or constructive) – what’s unspecified would be the computer. What’s neutral is the computer itself. Me. I’m a neutral phenomenon. The mindfulness.

What about equanimity?

Equanimity would be constructive. You couldn’t have anger and equanimity at the same time. But I could have mindfulness while being angry, or I could have mindfulness while being very kind.

So equal status cause is referring to things that happen before what’s going on now that are in the same status – destructive, constructive, or neutral – as what’s going on now. So what am I having now? I’m feeling a lot of anger at myself. “I’m so stupid. I’m such an idiot. I’m a total idiot.” So what are the equal status causes of this? These would be frustration, impatience, low self-esteem – all these what we would call psychological or emotional factors that are involved with this whole syndrome of being so heavy on myself and getting angry with myself. OK? That also is contributing to what I’m experiencing right now: I don’t have my computer. I’m angry with myself. I took the wrong computer bag.

It’s helpful. It gave us some idea of what we need to work on in ourselves so that we don’t get so upset in these situations. This is upsetting. Not upsetting: “Well, I’m a human being. Things like that happen.” We’re not upset. Here we have equanimity in a nonupsetting way. An upsetting way of equilibrium here would be “Poor me. I’m a human being. Things like this happen. Poor me.” Feeling sorry for myself. I have equilibrium, but I’m feeling sorry for myself. So it’s a whole other sphere of causality, a whole emotional makeup, really, is what this is referring to.

Congruent Causes

The next one is a congruent cause (mtshungs-ldan-gyi rgyu, congruent cause). OK, so what is that referring to? I call it a congruent cause, and it’s conscious… it’s referring to ways of being aware of something. This is a subcategory of the simultaneously arising causes. And this has to do with phenomena that share five things in common with the results.

So now we have a result: seeing the computer is not mine, and that’s accompanied with being angry with myself. So there are certain mental factors that accompany that cognition, that moment of experience. We’re talking about things like attention, distinguishing (I’m distinguishing my bag from this bag), naivety about how I exist (I’m a total idiot), anger, unhappiness – all these things are in one package, in a sense, in this moment of experience, what I’m experiencing. And they share five things in common. That’s what congruent means. It’s sharing something together. What do they share in common?

  • They’re all aimed at the same focal object (dmigs-yul), the computer. The anger is aimed at it, the attention is aimed at it, the distinguishing is aimed at it, my unhappiness is focusing on this computer – “It’s not mine.”
  • They all are involved with the same mental aspect (dmigs-rnam). In other words, when I see it… I mean, there’s all these light rays and stuff that hit my eyes, and the electric impulses and chemical things that go to my brain, and somehow my brain makes a mental aspect, a mental hologram, that represents this computer. So actually if we think of this mental phenomenon, it’s aimed at a mental hologram. So they’re all aimed at the same mental hologram. That’s how the brain works, doesn’t it?
  • They all are relying on the same cognitive sensor (dbang-po). Here we’re talking about the photosensitive cells of the eyes. So it’s operating through that.
  • They’re all occurring at the same time (dus).
  • They are the same in that each arises from its own natal source (rdzas), its own tendency. My attention, anger and unhappiness each comes from its own tendency.

OK. So that’s a congruent cause. There’s all these mental factors that are part of that experience of seeing that this is not my computer and feeling angry. Let’s digest that for a moment.


Omnipresent Causes

Then the next one is translated here as the continuing cause (kun-’gro’i rgyu); I call it an omnipresent cause. I mean, the word literally in Tibetan means all going, so it is present everywhere. So in a sense, it is continuing – you know, when the result happens – although it may or may not. But the point being here that it doesn’t have to be in the same ethical category as the result; if it was an equal status cause, it had to be in the same category.

We can give examples here of attachment to my computer. You know, why am I so angry? Arrogance, that my work is so important; impatience with my old age. OK? So these are equal status; they’re in the same category – they’re destructive, like my anger. But a factor that is not destructive, but rather is neutral, which is here is self-preoccupation. Self-preoccupation is neutral; it’s unspecified. Neutral we use because it’s an easy word to say. Unspecified is actually literally correct and more specific because what it means is that it could be either destructive or constructive or neutral – it could be any of them. And so self-preoccupation: I could be self-preoccupied when I’m angry with myself. I could be self-preoccupied when I’m being so kind and so wonderful to everybody. I could be self-preoccupied while I’m eating my lunch. When we talk about this unspecified, it could be with any of the three possibilities: angry with myself; I’m so wonderful, I’m so kind; and I’m eating my lunch. Eating my lunch is just neutral. Okay? So it’s just a further refinement of the emotional background of why I’m feeling so horrible.

Ripening Causes

Then we have the ripening cause (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu); the cause for the full ripening of the karmic fruit we have here in German, a fuller translation. This is talking about the destructive phenomenon that will bring about a situation as its karmic result. And the situation… we’re talking about something unspecified.

So here we’re talking about, in a previous lifetime, what activated our tendencies or potentials, what’s called throwing karma (’phen-byed-kyi las), for our present rebirth. We had craving to be happy, to continue to be happy, and to be parted from unhappiness; you have a strong craving. This is when we were dying. And our craving to continue to exist. And of course our naivety about reality and about how I exist. Right? So all of that is a destructive cluster of emotions and attitudes. And what ripens from that which is unspecified is the unspecified result of being born with a body and a brain that experiences old age and loss of mindfulness, that experiences old age and a loss of mindfulness with old age – that type of body and brain and what happens to us. It’s unspecified: it can go along with something being destructive, being angry; it can go along with being constructive; it can go along with anything. And the cause for that, the ripening cause, is this cluster of disturbing emotions at the time of death that activates the throwing karma that, in a sense, throws us into our next rebirth.

OK, so these are all the causes. What about the results? There are five types of results here.

Five Kinds of Results According to Vasubandhu

Ripened Results

First we have the ripened result (rnam-smin-gyi ’bras-bu), and that’s referring to the result of the ripening cause. So these unspecified phenomena – with my body and brain that is experiencing old age, and a loss of mindfulness because of old age. Right? That’s part of what’s happening, isn’t it? What’s responsible for what happened and what I’m experiencing. So these are the results, what I’m experiencing.

Results That Correspond to their Cause

The next is results that correspond to their cause (rgyu-mthun-gyi ’bras-bu), and this can be either in terms of our behavior or in terms of what we experience happening to us. And so here, if we think about it, the karmic cause for something like this would be, in a sense, taking what is not given to us – this destructive action. In a heavy sense, it would be stealing. So that led to the tendency. Remember we had this obtaining cause, or material cause, for taking things that don’t belong to me. That tendency came from the karmic action of taking something that didn’t belong to me. So the result that corresponds to that cause would be an incident of taking something belonging to somebody else – that’s what we experience in our behavior similar to this previous action that we did – and experiencing somebody else taking my computer.

Now it’s not my karma that causes that other person to do that. That other person has all these causes happening from their side, why they take something that doesn’t belong to them. But somehow these two connect. My karma causes me to experience my computer being taken by someone else; it doesn’t cause the other person to take my computer. There’s a difference. And we can’t place all the guilt on what I did in some previous life, because we’ve seen that there are thousands and thousands of other causes of what’s involved with what’s happening, of what happened. Very helpful for getting over guilt. It’s not all the other person’s fault, it’s not all my fault, it’s… a million things have happened. Even the fact that somebody invented the computer. Actually that’s very helpful. If we think how silly it is to place all the blame on the person who invented the computer, or the person who sold us the computer in the store, then we will see that it’s equally silly to place all the blame on me, that I’m so stupid, or all the blame on this other guy who took my computer.

Results That Are States of Being Parted

Then we have results that are freedom from disturbing emotions (bral-’bras). So it is a result that is a state of being parted – being separated, literally, and so specifically from disturbing emotions. But not just disturbing emotions; it can also be grasping at true existence. This is in a different classification scheme, not exactly disturbing emotions. So it’s a larger thing, of what we could be parted from, but causes of samsara would be a little bit easier to say.

And what this is, what an example would be, would be a true stopping of anger. If I achieve the state of an arya – not an arya but an arhat, a liberated being – then I would be completely free of anger. That would be this type of result. This is just called a result. It’s not really a result. Because that state of being parted is a static phenomenon – it never changes, it’s forever – so we’re really talking about the attainment of this state of being parted. The state of being parted is not caused by anything, but all our effort is the cause for attaining that state. A technical difference.

Man-Made Results

Then we have what is called here in German effective results (skyes-bu byed-pa’i ’bras-bu); I call it man-made results. So here we’re not talking about something karmic. Let me give examples: I can’t do my work. I can’t do my work is the man-made result of taking the wrong computer. I bang my foot against the table in the dark. The man-made result is that my foot hurts.

Dominating Results

Then the last one is the dominating result (bdag-po’i ’bras-bu), and this would be referring (there’s also a karmic thing here) to a general situation in which we are born. Here it would be, for instance, being born in a society in which the airport people will help with locating my lost computer, and they keep lists of passengers and telephone numbers, and people are honest. We could have been born in a society where none of that happens. You leave your computer in an airport in some countries by mistake, and you can guarantee it’s going to be stolen; whereas in other countries, you leave it and it will turn up at the lost and found.

OK? So these are the different types of results.

The Four Conditions According to Vasubandhu

Causal Conditions

We have causal conditions (rgyu-rkyen). Those are – well, it’s all the five types of causes other than the acting cause. That’s a big, big category of things.

Immediately Preceding Conditions

Then we have the immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen). What this is referring to are the moments of consciousness and the mental factors the moment before we took the wrong computer. This mental activity, what was going on immediately right before seeing this bag on the floor and taking it, would give, in a sense, a momentum to the mental activity that occurred while I took the bag. That’s the immediately preceding condition.

Focal Conditions

Then we have a focal condition (dmigs-rkyen), which is the bag on the floor, the computer on the floor; that was what I focused on when I took the wrong bag. I mean, some bag on the floor when I took the bag.

Dominating Conditions

And the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) is referring to the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the eye sensors, through which I saw this bag on the floor and took it.


So this is our analysis of cause and effect. In another text, like the text of Asanga, we have a list of twenty different causes, so it could be even more complex. But I think that this scheme is perhaps enough. I hope that you can appreciate from this that although it’s a complex scheme, it is something that we could actually work with; it is something we could actually apply to different situations that we’re experiencing. And it can be very helpful for deconstructing it so that we don’t make such a big thing, a big horrible monster out of what we’re experiencing. We can see all the different things that it arose from, all the different results that we’re experiencing simultaneously, and then deal with it in a much more rational type of way.

When you become enough familiar with this, then actually you don’t really have to go through all the very, very specific analyses. Just remembering that “Oh, I can see this is made up of so many different causes and conditions” helps. Because it could take quite a while to go through the analysis. But that’s the initial thing, then you can go through the more detailed analysis. You see, that initial general understanding helps us to calm down. Once you calm down, then in a more rational state of mind we can do the analysis, which would give us some indication of what we would need to work on in order to correct the situation.