A Buddhist’s View On Cause & Effect
Buddhists do not talk about destiny or God's will. Instead, they understand that things happen through a complex web of causes and effects.
Let's start with the basics. If you plant a rice seed, you will get rice. You won’t get wheat or tomatoes. So, the cause of rice is the rice seed.
Things do not just appear without a cause. For example, look at yourself — you are here because of your parents. You didn’t just miraculously appear. You were born because of cause and effect. All of this is probably easy to understand, but it’s when we go a bit deeper that people start to get confused.
When I teach this subject, people always say, "If everything comes from a cause, why did this happen or why did that happen?" The truth is there isn’t usually just one cause. Let’s take the rice seed again. The rice plant cannot just grow from a seed. It needs soil, water, air, and many other things.
So, there isn’t just one cause. There are so many causes, each crossing over the others like a giant spiderweb. This is why it is quite often impossible to find out why things did happen. But that isn’t good enough for us humans — we want answers, and that is why it is easier to dismiss things as simply destiny or God’s will than it is to understand cause and effect.
A Story of Complex Causes and Effects
Let me give you an example. Ruth always awakes at 7 a.m. by her electric alarm clock. She washes, gets dressed, has a cup of coffee and is out the door at 7:45. She walks down the road to the bus stop, which usually takes 10 minutes, and she crosses the main road and catches the 7:55 bus to work.
On this particular morning, her alarm did not go off because there was a power cut. This meant she didn’t get up until 7:30 a.m. She quickly washed, dressed, and ran out the door at 7:50. It was raining, so she had to go back inside for her umbrella. This made her even later.
As she was running down the road, she saw the bus pull up. At the same time, Dave was going into work early because he had a lot to do. His wipers needed replacing, so he couldn’t see very clearly. Ruth, in her desperation to catch the bus, ran out in front of Dave. He didn’t see her and the two collided.
Now, Ruth’s friends will say the cause of the accident was Dave’s fault, and his friends would say it was caused by Ruth. But let’s look at all the causes that led to the accident. The power cut, the alarm clock not working, Ruth getting up late, the rain, Dave going into work early, his wipers not working properly, Ruth running in front of him, and him not seeing her. From this example, you can see it is not always clear what causes things to happen. All we can say is that there was a cause or causes and it wasn’t destiny or God’s will.
Learning to Stop and Think
Another thing people tend to say — especially if they are talking about karma, which is just another way of saying cause and effect — is, "If you do good, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad, bad things will happen to you." Well, this would be true if we all lived in our own personal bubbles, but we don't. What you do will affect others, and what they do will affect you.
This is why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. It is because we all get affected by other people’s actions. The cause of your bad fortune may not even be your fault.
Here is an example: You may be the best driver in the world, someone who always stops at red lights and never goes above the speed limit. Again, that would be fine if you drove around in a bubble. But we don’t, and we could end up having an accident because of someone else’s bad driving. If this happened, the cause of your accident would be the dangerous driving of someone else, while the effect might be that you ended up with a damaged car.
For me, I like this teaching because it stops me from playing the blame game. I understand that there is not going to be one thing or person I can say caused what happened. That stops me from asking, “Why, why, why?” It also teaches me that whatever action I take, there will be a consequence. Thus, I always think before I act.
I understand this concept may seem a little difficult to understand at first, so I would suggest you contemplate it during your meditation practice. While meditating, ask yourself questions like:
- Can things appear without a cause?
- Can things have more than one cause?
- Do my actions have consequences?
I can assure you, once you understand the concept of cause and effect, so many other things start to fall into place.
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