Two Sets of Cause and Effect

Palms and PoncianaOne of the key beliefs in Buddhism is that nothing comes into being without a cause, and this law of cause and effect is a fundamental point for understanding the four noble truths.

The following table shows two sets of cause and effect: suffering as the result of the origin of suffering, and cessation as the result of the path.

Result Cause
Problem 1. Suffering 2. Origin
Solution 3. Cessation 4. Path


Although these two sets of cause and effect are very specific, they follow the rule of all causes and effects, and in particular the type of cause and effect called karma in Buddhism. Karma is an often misunderstood concept. To clarify, natural changes such as planetary rotation or plant growth are not the results of karma.

Karma always relates solely to the workings of the mind. Only when there has been some sort of mental action, some sort of intention or volition, does the specific chain reaction of cause and result occur, and thus it is always associated with our mind state, our feelings or emotions.

However, while it is quite easy to see how suffering and its cause are linked with feelings, it may be more difficult to understand this in the context of the second set, cessation and path, as these are more subtle. Nonetheless, cessation and path are also inextricably intertwined.

From a Buddhist perspective, the countless things and events that make up the entire external world, whether associated with our feelings or not, are called other-powered because they arise due to other conditions. Nothing comes into being without a cause.

In the Rice Seedling Sutra the Buddha gives three statements:

Due to the existence of this, that arises.
Due to the production of this, that is produced.
It is thus: due to ignorance there is volition.

The first statement—“due to the existence of this, that arises”—can be applied to all phenomena, permanent and impermanent, and describes interdependent origination. These things exist, then that happens.

In Buddhist philosophical terms, for the purpose of meditation, all phenomena are divided into classifications, permanent and impermanent being a very common division.

To briefly describe the difference, permanent phenomena are phenomena that do not depend on causes and conditions for their existence. During their existence, there is no moment-to-moment change. In other words, they are static.

Impermanent phenomena refers to the opposite—things and events that depend on causes and conditions to come into being and that are subject to constant change. Thus impermanent in this context means changing moment by moment.

The second statement—“due to the production of this, that is produced”—can be applied only to impermanent phenomena. In order to produce something, the producer must be impermanent, for only impermanent phenomena can produce something that does not already exist. Permanent phenomena cannot. Permanent means fixed and unchanging, so how could it go from one state to another, like a seed becoming a flower? Only if something is impermanent, and hence has the potential to change when circumstances and conditions come together, will results and other phenomena arise.

The third statement—“due to ignorance there is volition”—is narrower in scope. Impermanent things do not have the ability to produce any random thing. In order to produce something, the cause must be similar to the result. Ignorance does not produce love—it produces attachment and aversion, and from these the deluded mind creates the wish to act, which is volition.

Source: Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths, The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 1, ed. Gordon McDougall (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 17-19.