Causality of karma

Two special kinds of causal factors

The system of abhidharma that Vasubandhu endorses recognizes six basic types of cause, two of which are relevant to the topic of karma. The first of these is a type of cause called a similar cause (sabhāga-hetu), because it gives rise to an effect that is similar to it with respect to its being profitable, unprofitable or indeterminate. That is, a profitable property always engenders a profitable successor, and so on. A profitable cause is defined as one that gives rise to a desired result and therefore makes one content for a period of time. An unprofitable cause is one that leads to some result other than what one desired and therefore causes temporary discontent. The only kinds of properties that are capable of being profitable or unprofitable are premeditated bodily and verbal actions, thoughts, and acts of awareness that accompany those thoughts. All other properties are said to be undefined (avyākṛta) with respect to being profitable.

The second type of cause that is relevant to this discussion is called the cause of fruition (vipāka-hetu). It is regarded as the cause that gives rise to the final result of a causal sequence initiated by an action or karma in the past. This final fruition is the experience of happiness or frustration that naturally results from a profitable or an unprofitable action. Being a final result, it does not give rise to any further profitable or unprofitable properties, but it is invariably caused by an antecedent profitable or unprofitable action. One further point concerning this fruition is that only certain kinds of actions have a fruition at all. Unprofitable actions are said always to have a corresponding fruition. But only some kinds of profitable actions have karmic consequences. According to Buddhist tradition, a person who has eradicated sensual desire, has no longing for continued existence, is free of erroneous views and has no trace of opinions never again produces karma. In other words, a person who has fully developed wisdom (prajñā) may continue to perform actions, but these actions are not forms of karma. Since a wise person’s actions are not karma, she or he never has to be reborn in order to experience the consequences of actions performed in this life.

Not all kinds of profitable action produce karmic fruition, for it is only karma that is accompanied by a false belief in an enduring self that produces karmic consequences. Some people lack wisdom and therefore, motivated by a desire to experience pleasure in the future, act out of desire for personal rewards. The profitable action that such people perform is called meritorious action. All meritorious action is profitable, and therefore eventually results in temporary happiness, but not all profitable action is meritorious. People who practice meditation and cultivate wisdom, for example, perform profitable actions, but they do not generate merit, for merit is the exclusive possession of those whose lack of wisdom prompts them to seek personal rewards for their good deeds.

Given this outline of the types of cause recognized in Vasubandhu’s system of abhidharma, we can begin to see how the abhidharma analyst accounts for how an action that immediately perishes still manages to give rise at some time in the future to an effect in the form of an experience of contentment or frustration. The initial profitable or unprofitable action immediately gives rise to an effect of the same type, and this in turn gives rise to another effect of the same type, and so on for a series of contiguous moments until finally an experience of pleasure or pain arises. But the question still remains, what is it that keeps this causal chain of contiguous moments associated with the same “person”?

It is in his treatment of this question that Vasubandhu distinguishes himself from some abhidharma theorists who preceded him. In the area of the theory of karma, Vasubandhu departs from some other Buddhist philosophers on two important issues. The first of these issues concerns what it is that binds many causal sequences together into one complex known as a person. The second issue concerns how and where a karmic potential is “stored” until its consequence is experienced at some time in the future.

Next we shall examine the alternative views on these issues.

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