Understanding Causation and Karma


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs


Arguably the most powerful and fundamental concept that the Buddha taught was the idea of Dependent Origination. It is basically the notion that everything that occurs results from everything that has gone before it. As the Buddha stated “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” In essence he taught that if any component that leads up to an event or thing had not occurred then the event or thing does not occur, that all things are interconnected and things only originate dependent upon the occurrence of all other things. So, if you see a butterfly its existence only occurred because of the entirety of the physical history of the universe. If anything had been different then the butterfly would either not be present or would be different in some way. In a more personal sense, what we are is an expression of everything that happened in the past and all that is here in the present. Had anything been different we’d be different.


This notion projected forward in time suggests that what we do now will impact what happens in the future. If we do one thing the future will be different than if we do another. Since everything is causally connected to everything else, whatever occurs effects everything else that occurs in the future. The Buddha’s teaching preceded chaos theory by 2500 years, yet essentially predicts the same things. The frequently cited example in chaos theory states that a butterfly flapping its wings in China effects a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. This is based upon the same ideas as dependent origination that all things are interconnected. Keep in mind that Dependent Origination doesn’t mean that the wings flapping produces the hurricane, although it may, it simply means that it would be a component among everything else that is happening to bring about the hurricane. It would not be the same if the butterfly hadn’t flapped its wings, perhaps only in a minuscule way or perhaps in a major way. That would depend on everything else going on and the chain of causation unleashed by the flapping wings.


Dependent Origination is a powerful teaching that is very often misunderstood. It is the basis for much of the Buddha’s teachings, including the notion of Karma, which is probably the most misunderstood concept in Buddhism. The literal meaning of the Pali word Karma is action. It doesn’t have a mystical meaning. It simply means that actions have effects. Karma simply states that what we do effects the future including our future as a result of the causal connections between everything and everything else. If we perform a good deed, it is likely that it will bring about good in the future and that may very well bring us personal good in return. That is not absolutely certain. But, good deeds would make it more likely that good things will happen to us in the future. That is called good Karma. Conversely, if we perform actions that are harmful to others, it is likely that bad things will happen to us in the future. This is not predetermined as everything that happens is dependent upon everything else. But, it shifts the likelihood of the outcome. That is called bad Karma. The effects of Karma may be immediate or they may take many years to occur or as some believe even carry into future lifetimes.


Sometimes Karma acts by the effects of our actions on ourselves. These could have a psychological effect causing us to view ourselves more positively or negatively that can then affect how we act in the future. Karma can act through others. I’ve had students many years in the past who I don’t even recall send me messages letting me know that what I taught them changed their lives. My teaching produced Karma. Many years later the students’ messages affected me, making me feel good about my career and myself. On the other hand, I’ve received messages on student evaluations of my courses that they saw my course as a waste of time and money. Once again my actions of teaching produced Karma, that came back to affect me in negative ways. The action of writing this essay produces Karma, the nature of which emerge in the present, with my good feeling about having stopped procrastinating and actually wrote it, and in the future as people read it and react to it.


Everything we do has effects. We should strive to act in ways that produce good positive effects and create good Karma. Although this can be to some extent selfish, it can also be seen as having positive effects occur world and others making it a better place. The Buddha’s ethical teachings were very simple. If an action results in greater happiness, well-being, and understanding then it is good. On the other hand, an action that causes harm, decreases happiness, well-being, and understanding is bad. Actions are right or wrong, not in and of themselves but based upon their consequences. So, ethics are also wrapped up in Dependent Origination and Karma. The more you look at it the more and more profound the teaching looks.


There is nothing mystical or spiritual in the notions off Dependent Origination or Karma. They are very mechanistic and reflect the physical laws of nature and the universe. It’s seeing things as vastly interconnected, as they really are, and seeing how these interconnections produce multitudinous causal chains that set in motion all that will occur in the future. Understanding these notions can make us wise, compassionate, and the creators of good Karma for the good of ourselves and all sentient beings.


“Karma is experience, and experience creates memory, and memory creates imagination and desire, and desire creates karma again. If I buy a cup of coffee, that’s karma. I now have that memory that might give me the potential desire for having cappuccino, and I walk into Starbucks, and there’s karma all over again.” – Deepak Chopra


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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