Ken Ward's Thoughts on Buddhism

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Cause and Effect in Buddhism

In Buddhism the word cause is used differently from how it is used in Western thought.

Cause in Western Thought

In Western thought, the word cause is used like this:

  1. Cause and effect are contiguous in space and time.
  2. A cause must be prior to the effect.
  3. The effect always occurs when the cause has occurred.

In the Western sense, the cause and the effect occur in a sequence in time, the cause coming before the effect.

The idea of cause is quite different in Buddhism.

Cause in Buddhism

Gotama defined it as, "When this is, that is; when this arises, that arises; when this is not; that is not; with the cessation of this, that ceases". SN 12.61

So in Buddhism:

  1. Cause and effect are simultaneous in space and time.
  2. A cause is present when the effect is present.
  3. When the cause ceases, the effect ceases.

The concept of cause is therefore different in the two uses. Lets show this by an example.

Someone falls over and breaks her leg. She thinks, "This is awful. I can't stand it. I might lose my leg." In the Western sense, the cause (loosely) is falling over. And she suffers because she has a broken leg.

In the Buddhist sense, she suffers because she is craving. She craves 'not to have fallen over'. She craves 'not to feel this pain'. And this is the cause of her suffering. She suffers as long as she craves. And when she stops craving, she stops suffering. (But still has a broken leg). So, if we say, "The cause of suffering is craving", we use the word differently in Buddhism from how it is used in Western thought. The two concepts differ.

In both cases, she needs to have a surgeon set her leg. And she may need pain killers, and other medicines and devices.

Cause is also mentioned in relation to the Second Noble Truth