Analysis of Causality and Karma

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Six Types of Causes

Our discussion has brought up several questions and topics. We can add more pieces of the puzzle by looking into these topics so that we have a larger picture of what’s involved with karma. One of these topics is the topic of the different types of causes, conditions and effects. What actually are the causes for what happens to us, the causes for what we experience, the causes for what we see? Are any of them karmic causes?

There’s a list of six types of causes. We find this in Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu. Asanga gives a more detailed list. I don’t want to go into tremendous detail about this because it’s really quite complicated, but just to give you a general idea of what’s involved.

First of all, there are acting causes, and these are all phenomena, other than the result itself, which do not impede the production of the result and which do not prevent the production of the result. Asanga includes even those that do impede the production of the result, so everything other than the phenomenon itself. The example is hail and a crop. Hail, from Vasubandhu’s point of view, would impede the production of the crop, but Asanga would include it as a cause for the crop, because the crop will be smaller or will be damaged as a result of the hail. It impedes the production of it, but it also influences it. Vasubandhu divides these types of causes into potent acting causes – a seed for a sprout – and impotent acting causes – such as the space that allows a sprout to grow, or the mother or the clothes of the farmer who planted the seed. He divides like that.

Asanga actually gives 20 types of acting causes, and so his presentation is incredibly full and complex with all the different types of causes that there can be. I don’t really want to list the 20 since we don’t have time for that. However, just a few examples: The ground is something that we rely on, so it’s a cause for us to be able to live, or water for a fish, or light for being able to see, or fire for being able to change wood into charcoal, or parts of a syllogism for being able to understand through inference, or hearing the sound of a word for understanding what an object is or what the word means. That’s the most general type of cause, and a lot of the karmic aspects fall under acting causes.

Then, there are the simultaneously arising causes, and these are the causes that arise simultaneously with their results. It starts to become a little bit strange. Can a cause and its effect occur simultaneously? Remember, we had a lot of discussion in Shantideva refuting that, but this is referring to two phenomena that mutually contribute to the production or arising of each other. One can’t exist without the other. For example, the elements of a material object and the material object that’s made of them. They mutually cause each other, and they occur at the same time. Or the defining characteristics of something and a basis having those defining characteristics – they’re occurring at the same time. For example, this is a table because it has the defining characteristics of the table. The defining characteristics of the table don’t exist first; they’re simultaneous with the table. Or the mental factors and the consciousness they accompany – there can’t be one without the other. They support and cause each other. So, we have simultaneously arising 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. They have to be either in the same ethical category of constructive, destructive, or unspecified, or they have to be on the same plane of compulsive existence: the plane of desirable sensory objects, ethereal forms, or formless beings. For example, prior moments of something, like patience, are an equal status cause for later moments of it. This type of cause provides continuity. It can also be moments of something being equal status causes for the next superior level of it. The discriminating awareness from hearing the teachings acts as an equal status cause for the discriminating awareness of thinking about the teachings, and that acts as an equal status cause for the discriminating awareness of meditating on the teachings. These are equal status causes.

Then, there are congruent causes. This is a subcategory of simultaneously arising causes. These are the things that share five things in common. Remember, a consciousness and the mental factors that accompany them have five things in common: the same focal object, the same mental hologram, the same cognitive sensor that they rely on, the same time and the same entity. “Same entity” means that each constitutes its own substantial entity and is the singular item in the cognition that comes from its own homogeneous class. For instance, there is only one consciousness and only one feeling in any moment of a specific cognition. This is the list that Vasubandhu gives according to the Vaibhashika theories, Sautrantika modifies it slightly, and Asanga gives a slightly different list according to the Chittamatra theories. 

Then, there are driving causes. Driving causes are the disturbing emotions and attitudes that generate other subsequent disturbing emotions and attitudes in the same realm. We can have, for instance, anger and that could lead to bearing a grudge and wanting revenge, or the deluded outlook toward our aggregates (the transitory network) can be a cause for attachment, leading to more and more types of disturbing emotions.

Lastly, ripening causes are the destructive and the tainted constructive phenomena that have the power to produce the unobstructive, unspecified phenomena included in the aggregates of future rebirth states. These refer to positive and negative karmic potentials, and their ripened results are the body, types of consciousness, feelings, and so on of a next rebirth. Ripening causes, when activated, become throwing karmic impulses and they propel the consciousness to a next rebirth.  

So, these are the six types of causes. We can see from them that there are many different types of causes besides karma for what we experience. For instance, the elements of a material object are not a karmic cause for it. In this list, the karmic causes are just limited to the ripening causes and one aspect of the acting cause. The rest of these causes have to do with how disturbing emotions continue and how the various aspects of our mental phenomena actually work.

Types of Conditions

Then there is the presentation of the four conditions. There are the causal conditions. These are all causes that have the power to produce a specific result. They refer to the five types of causes other than the acting causes.

The second is immediately preceding conditions. They are the immediately preceding moment of awareness that produces the appearance-making and cognizing of the next moment of awareness as its result. Because of this type of condition, we have beginningless and endless individual mental continuums. This is because each moment of cognition has to have an immediately preceding condition, in other words, another moment of awareness or cognition before it in order to account for the fact that it is an awareness. Likewise, each moment of cognition acts as an immediately preceding condition for the next moment of cognition. And so like this, there can be no beginning and no end to any specific individual mental continuum. Only the various types of consciousness and mental factors have this condition for their arising.

Then, there’s a focal condition. It is that which presents an aspect of itself to be an object of sensory cognition. In the context of Vasubandhu’s Vaibhashika system, external objects exist before the cognition of them and thus serve as the focal condition for the cognition of them. 

Then, there’s the overlord condition or dominating condition. It is that which produces the essential nature of something, such as the eye sensors for the visual consciousness and the attendant mental factors of a visual cognition. The eye sensors refer to the photosensitive cells of the eyes. They rule what the result of them will be, namely that the cognition or consciousness that results from them will be visual. The causal conditions, on the other hand, produce the special features of something, such as the mental factor that accompanies a visual consciousness being attachment. The eye sensors will make a cognition be a visual cognition, and prior moments of disturbing emotions will make the cognition have this special feature of being with attachment. These are conditions.

There are also additional types of causes and conditions, and here we have the obtaining cause of something. The obtaining cause is that from which one obtains the item as its successor, and which usually ceases to exist when its successor arises, for instance a seed that produces a sprout. Once the sprout arises, the seed no longer exists. It’s not talking about later moments of the same thing, like disturbing emotions producing the next moment of disturbing emotions. Rather it’s talking about uncooked dough being the obtaining cause for a loaf of bread. It’s not talking about the material elements of the bread; it’s talking about that from which we obtain the result. In some cases, such as with karmic tendencies, they may produce results several times. Karmic tendencies only cease to exist when they have finished giving rise to all their results. 

Then, there are simultaneously arising contributing conditions. These are items that must exist prior to the arising of something and that assist in making the arising happen but don’t transform into what arises, so water and fertilizer for a sprout. 

Next, there are similar family causes. These are items in the same category of phenomena as the results and which serve as the models for them. There needs to be a previously existent external model of a visual form of a clay jug in order to produce a clay jug that looks like that. That’s a similar family cause for the visual form of a clay jug.

Finally, there are natal sources of things – that from which something arises, so a womb as the natal source of a baby, an oven for a loaf of bread, or a karmic seed in the Chittamatra system for both the consciousness and the form in a cognition. A natal source, such as a potter’s wheel, can give rise to two inseparable things, like a whole clay jug and its parts, or it can give rise to two separable things like two clay jugs. Some natal sources cease to exist after they give rise to something. A seed is the natal source of the sprout, it ceases to exist after producing the sprout; or others can continue to exist, like the potter’s wheel after it produces a clay jug.

When we learn about this brief list of causes and conditions – Asanga gives great detail of various types within these, subcategories – then we start to appreciate that what happens, what we experience, is not all explained by karma. Many, many different causes and conditions are affecting what happens and what we do. Obviously, these are systems that we have to really write down, study, work with, analyze, debate, and try to figure out. They are very complex, but I think we can start to appreciate the sophistication of the Buddhist analysis of cause and effect. It’s not so simple.

The Relevance of Understanding Different Causes and Conditions

When we study abhidharma, we analyze which causes can produce which results, how many causes can produce each result and such things. That’s where we really start to understand this topic, when we work all of that out in the abhidharma studies. It’s the last thing they study in the Geshe training. That’s because it’s explained in the context of the Vaibhashika and Chittamatra systems, so it’s important to have completed our Prajnaparamita and Prasangika studies before we get into this; otherwise, we may become attached to the Vaibhashika and Chittamatra systems. This was what the young Serkong Rinpoche explained. He said that’s why they study abhidharma last.

I hope you see the relevance of all of this and see that it’s not just boring lists and details. When we talk about karmic impulses and that they are accompanied by emotions and attitudes that make them destructive, constructive, or neutral, well, where do these emotions come from? What are the causes of them? Is it karma? It’s much more complicated than that. 

For example, we may see a person and see them with longing desire. What are the causes of seeing the person and what are the causes of seeing them with attachment? This is, when we start to talk about karma and whether we have choices, we have to see where’s everything coming from that we’re experiencing. Do we have a choice that the consciousness that relies on the eye sensors is going to be visual consciousness? Obviously not. Further, what’s the cause of a previous moment of longing desire producing another moment of longing desire? Do we have a choice over that? This is why this analysis of all these causes and conditions is relevant here. We need to learn the basic principles of how Buddhism analyzes cause and effect in order to be able to then apply them, so this is just another piece of the puzzle.

I hope as a result of this discussion of the different types of causes, that you don’t get discouraged. The point is if we really want to try to understand karma, we need to have respect for the topic and realize how many different things we really need to have an understanding of before we can really tackle this question. When we see somebody and have longing desire for them, well, there’s a seed, or tendency, of longing desire. Did that seed cease to exist after this moment of longing desire? Does this moment of longing desire bring on more longing desire? What was the cause of our meeting this person? Is it the same as the cause of our seeing the person? How much of our conduct in our interaction with them is involved with the karmic potentials of the other person? How much is involved with our own karmic potentials? How much is involved with the elements of their body? How much is involved with the weather? 

There are just so many different things that can influence our behavior in the interaction. We might normally have a lot of longing desire toward this person, but then there’s another circumstance, it starts to rain and we run into a store to get shelter. Or another person we know comes along who joins us, and that completely changes our interaction. Although we have that seed of longing desire, and we’re meeting the other person who would be the object of such desire, our longing desire doesn’t arise because there are other things that are interfering with it. Because our longing desire doesn’t arise, there is no motivating emotion to cause a karmic impulse to arise to speak or act in a lustful way.

What other things might prevent our longing desire from arising? We might focus on the ugliness of the person’s body when we visualize their bones. Where did that habit of imagining their skeleton come from? It came from the influence of others who taught us the practice. Why did that ripen at that time? Well, because of this practice that we’ve done before. So, is all this karma? From one point of view, yes, but it’s not a simple karmic transaction that’s happening here. It’s very complex. 

Can we find the origin of any problem that we have, like our compulsive destructive behavior motivated by longing desire? Can we find the ultimate origin of it? Yes, Buddhism says if we go deeply enough, the ultimate origin of it is grasping for true existence. All of it comes out of that, and that’s what we need to work on getting rid of. 

We can work on provisional measures for overcoming longing desire and lessening the strength of what’s going to ripen from our karma potentials and tendencies – like regret, purification and things like that. But ultimately, what we have to gain is the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. If we’re totally absorbed on voidness like that, then as long as we can sustain it, there’s nothing that will activate any of these potentials and tendencies. We want to be able to do that forever, which will happen only when we become a Buddha. So, non-conceptual cognition of voidness is the actual opponent of grasping for true existence and thus the actual opponent of our compulsive karma. We don’t just want a temporary escape.

If we have a problem, then how do we get rid of it? Do we go to work in an orphanage to build up more positive force? Or do we work specifically on the problem where we attack it at its root – our grasping for true existence? We need a multiphase plan of attack, so we do all of them. We work on a temporary solution to the problem, a temporary opponent and, simultaneously, work on gaining a deeper opponent to it. We need to work on building up more positive force and work on purification. Unless we’ve built up a tremendous amount of positive force, we’re not going to understand voidness at all. There’s a lot of work we have to do.