Investigating Cause and Effect

Anyone can talk about “cause and effect,” but few people grasp its true meaning. Even scholars and professors do not understand it clearly. Ordinary people only care about the effect, but do not appreciate the cause. This is why there is the Buddhist saying, “Bodhisattvas fear cause, while sentient beings fear effect.” While in the process of creating various bad causes, we fail to appreciate how serious they are. But once their effects materialize, we realize things have gone wrong. By then, it is too late to regret.

When faced with setbacks, most blame fate or others for their plight. They do not understand that they should look for the cause from the effect. It is unwholesome causes that lead to unwholesome effects. Let us make an example. Suppose that two people, Smith and Jones, get into a fight. Smith accuses Jones of striking. On hearing this, we might consider the effect of fighting to be deplorable, but if we judge the situation on the surface and do not investigate the real reasons, we are being obtuse. In reality, Jones may have struck Smith due to Smith’s transgressions against Jones.

People in the world take superficial looks at things. Children blame parents for the “effect” of being too harsh. They fail to realize, however, the “cause” of their parents’ harshness was their own unruliness. Parents may blame children for the “effect” of not respecting them. They do not know that the “cause” of their disrespect is the parents’ immorality. How are we to understand the reality and be just in our assessments if we do not investigate the cause and effect of phenomena?

Some people who are ignorant of the concept of cause and effect relationships and misinterpret it. For instance, they may ask, “Why do those who practice vegetarianism and recite the sutra, or those who are also compassionate and generous in helping others still encounter misfortune? What justice is there in cause and effect?” These people do not realize that virtuousness does not cancel out debts already owed to the bank!

Similarly, some people may have committed serious crimes and gotten away with it. They may even lead lives of luxury. The logic of “cause and effect” for such cases is that they made a large deposit to their savings account in the past. There is no reason to stop them from using it. Cause and effect are linked cyclically to past, present, and future.

When we see flowers bloom, we should remember that someone planted seeds for them in the past. When we witness others practicing compassion and generosity, we should think of the sweet fruits they will enjoy in the future. Only the ignorant speak of “cause and effect” without understanding it. The rules for judging good and bad, kind and evil in the world lie within the truths of cause and effect.