The Universal Law of Cause and Effect

(by Hon Sing Lee, April 20,2003)

This is a candle.  The candle will now be lit.  The candle is now lit.

Tonight, we are privileged to share our shallow thoughts about the Law of Cause and Effect.  We hope you can enlighten us by sharing your thoughts too.


The Law of Cause and Effect is a fundamental premise or axiom of Buddhism beliefs.  It is so fundamental that it eludes the attention of many Buddhists.    However we feel that it is a very important premise both for practitioners and for theorists.  It was said that one who truly understands the Law, is not far from Enlightenment.

Diagram of Cause and Effect

The Law of Cause and Effect says that for every cause there is at least one effect, and every effect is due to at least one cause.  In Buddhist terminology, we call the cause the seed.  The seed needs to meet with suitable conditions, upon which effects will occur.  Thus we have this simple diagram: the seed, the conditions and the effect.

In this candle, the wax and its flammable property are the seeds, the oxygen, heat, and the wick are the conditions, the candle flame is the effect.


The candle flame
Do you not see its rising
And its falling every moment?
A new flame every moment
Each an effect of the Law
For when the conditions cease
No new flame arises
The candle flame stops.
Existence is but a series of momentary coincidence
Of the Law of Cause and Effect.
In this world, conditions change, new seeds are produced, activated and consumed.  This gives rise to the arising and falling of phenomenon.  Grasping on to the world with our six senses, we are attached to the duality of existence and non-existence.  We say, “Now it is born, and now it dies.”  We sighed, saying, “Impermanent are all things.”  We did not realize that impermanence is driven by the Law of Cause and Effect.  Like the clouds in the sky: Death is not the absolute end, because conditions will bring rebirth; birth is not the beginning of continued existence, because existence is only momentary.  Putting aside our attachment to existence and non-existence, there is no impermanence, but purely the Law of Cause and Effect at worDiagram of Impermanence


What is the nature of this candle?  
It was solid and with definite shape a while ago.  
Some of it is liquid now,
Which flows to wherever I pour it.  
Yet some of it is gaseous
Diffusing and spreading fragrance throughout this room.
Which is the true nature of this candle?
All three are.
This is Emptiness.
Conditions change the nature of things. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”  The hard becomes the soft.  The desirable becomes the undesirable.  The sweet becomes the bitter. The right becomes the wrong.  Attached to the duality of natures, we grief as the wheel of cause and effect turns.  We sighed, “Emptiness are all things.”  But there were no absolute nature in the first place, just conditional natures, conditional sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and feel.  Putting aside our attachment to natures, there is no emptiness, but purely the Law of Cause and Effect at work.

Non Self

Who is this person called Hon Sing?
What does he look like?
What personality does he possess?
How does he behave?

I knew him as a college student, and he was such
I knew him as a colleague, and he was such
I knew him as my son, and he was such
I knew him as my friend, and he was such

I knew him when he was happy, and he was such
I knew him when he was angry, and he was such
I knew him when he was desperate, and he was such
I knew him when he was ignorant, and he was such

He grew up in a city, therefore he is such
He grew up in a loving family, therefore he is such
He once encountered evil friends, therefore he is such
He has a supportive wife, therefore he is such

I thought I know him.  But he turns out to be such.
I have no absolute nature, personality, nor form, I only have conditional ones.  Sometimes I cannot even recognize myself.  I cannot recognize others too.  I cried, “Why am I like this?  Why is he like this? How could she do that?”  I get angry, frustrated, depressed, and even lost all my hopes.  I sighed, “Non-self are all sentient beings.”  Giving up the attachment to an absolute self, I realized that everyone is but an embodiment of one’s seeds and conditions.  Like packets of effects, they arise and they fall every moment.  There is no non-self, just the working of the Law of Cause and Effect.

(Chiew Hoon talks about Patachara Part I.)
Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a very wealthy merchant of Savatthi.  Her parents loved her so much that they kept her in the seventh storey of their mansion and did not let her go anywhere.

When she was sixteen, Patacara’s parents arranged her to marry the son of another wealthy man.  However she had already fallen in love with her servant.  Therefore they eloped on her wedding day to a village far away.  Her husband tilled the land and earned little, while Patacara did all the housework herself.  Life was hard.
After awhile Patacara became pregnant.  As was the custom she wanted to go back to her parents’ home for the delivery.  However her husband was afraid that her parents would punish or separate them.  Hence he refused.  As the day drew close, Patacara set off upon the long journey alone, informing only her neighbors.

When her husband found out, he chased after Patacara.  Patacara gave birth on the way, just when her husband caught up with her.  Seeing that there was no point then to continue the journey to her parents’ house, they returned to their village.

Some time later she became pregnant again.  Again she asked her husband to take her home to her parents but he refused.  Therefore again she set off upon the long journey by herself with her son.  When her husband found out, he chased after Patacara.

There was a storm when her husband caught up with her.  Patacara was in birth pains.  She asked her husband to find shelter.  He made a shelter and then went in search of some grass to build an embankment around the shelter. As he was gathering grass, a cobra that lay there got annoyed and struck him.  He fell dead on the spot.

Patacara gave birth to another son by herself in the shelter.  She was too weak to move, and the storm frightened the children.  Hence she protected them all night while waiting for her husband’s return.  In the morning, they went to look for her husband.  She found him lying dead.

'Oh, me! My husband met his death all because of me!" She wailed.

They then continued on their way to her parent’s house.  Soon they came across the Aciravati river.  Patacara was too weak to carry both children across together.  Hence she left the elder son on the river bank, and carried the baby across.  She left the baby on some soft grass and crossed the river again for her elder son.  

While in the middle of the river, an eagle saw the new born baby and mistook it for a piece of meat.  It came swooping down, in spite of Patacara’s cries and scream, and flew off with the baby.  Meanwhile, the elder son saw his mother yelling in the middle of the river, and thought she was signaling him to go to her.  Hence he went towards her and was swept off by the strong current.

Patacara was stunned.  She wailed:
'Both my two sons are dead and gone!
And my husband too had died on the way!'
Wailing in those desperate words, she proceeded along her way to Savatthi.

When she arrived in Savatthi, she was unable to find her parents' place.  She asked a passerby about her parents and her parent’s house.

“Please don’t ask me about that family.  Ask me about another family you know.”

“Good sir, I know only that family.  Please tell me about them,” said Patacara.

“Since you insist, I cannot hide the truth,” said the man.  “In the heavy rains last night, the family’s house collapsed killing all of them.”

“Oh no!” cried Patacara.

“Yes, can you see that fire over there?”  he asked, pointing to some flames.  “That’s their funeral fire.”

No sooner had Patacara heard this, she fell on the ground, rolling to and fro with grief.  She cried,
"Both my two sons are dead and gone!
And my husband too had died on the way!
My mother, my father and my brother,
Have been cremated before I arrive."

The meaning of the word ‘Patacara’

Her grief was too great for her to bear, Patacara lost her mind.  Screaming in pain she ran about the town, her clothes torn, hair streaming, and almost naked. She came to be referred to as 'The naked woman' Patacara (Or in another sense of the Pali word, 'the shameless woman'.) As she went absentmindedly wailing, people would say "Hey go away, mad woman!" Some would throw dirt and waste on her head, some would throw stones at her.

The Oxygen Element

Long time ago, the world knew not of oxygen
So the men said,
“There is wax, there is wick, there is heat, then there is flame!”
But something must be wrong,
For sometimes the recipe worked, and sometimes it was in vain.
“Don’t be silly, of course it is correct,
“For we know the Cause and Effect.”

One day there was an earthquake,
The men were trapped in an airtight cave.
They would only live,
If there was light to bring relief.
“Quick,” the wise men proclaimed,
“There is wax, there is wick, there is heat, then there is flame!”

Thus they lit the candle,
And came together as a bundle.
The oxygen got little,
The flame got weaker.

As the last light waned,
The men exclaimed,
“There is wax, there is wick, there is heat,
why then is there no flame?”
In the heart sutra, there is an often less translated line, in comparison to the Chinese version.  The line is after
“No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,
No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feel.”
The next line if translated literally from the Chinese, would say
“No realm of the eye, up till no realm of the mind.”
The world is independent of our six senses.  

The world abstracted from what we see,
that is the realm of the eye,
is not a complete picture of the world.  

The worlds abstracted from our ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind,
are also not a complete picture of the world.  
Even if we integrate all these worlds
to form a world with eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind,
that world would still not be a complete picture of the world.  
For if that world is the complete world,
then oxygen,
which we cannot directly see, hear, smell, taste, touch or feel,
would not exist!

“No realm of the eye, up till no realm of the mind” warns us that the world is not what it seems.  We are missing out so many things.  Thus we may know about seeds, conditions and effects, but we would never precisely know what seeds, what conditions and what effects.  It is just like the ancient scientists who did not know about the oxygen element.

Thus the ‘oxygen’ element idea tells us that if we think we can manipulate via the Law of Cause and Effect, then we should think again.  If we think we have a perfect solution for someone else, think again.  If we think we can simply rely on others’ solution without first understanding ourselves, think again.

For those of you who remember the stories of the Ten Eminent Disciples, the story of Mogallana’s attempt to save the Kapilavastu city, is an example of issues with the ‘oxygen’ element.

(Chiew Hoon talks about Patachara Part 2.)

Patacara finds peace

At that time Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching the Dharma at the Jetavana monastery. Patacara wandered to the Jetavana monastery.  Some monks spotted her naked body. They cried out, "Keep her away from here, she is a crazy woman !". The Buddha however said instead, "Monks ! Do not hinder her, let her come."

Patacara approached and bowed before the Buddha. As she looked at him he spoke to her saying , "Sister, regain your mindfulness!".

In an instant she remembered who she was and what had happened to her. Realizing she was naked she crouched upon the ground in shame. A monk threw her a robe and she gathered it quickly around her. Patacara then prostrated five times before the Buddha and said, "Venerable Sir, be my refuge, be my support" and then told him how she had lost all her loved ones.

The Buddha listened and said
'Patacara be troubled no more.
You have come to one
who is able to be your refuge and your support.

Just as you have shed tears for the loss
of your sons, husband, mother, father and brother,
So also had you shed much tears,
Even greater than the waters of the four great oceans,
Throughout the beginning-less round of existences.”
Instantly her grief lessened.  The Buddha, knowing that Patacara was able to control her sorrow, discoursed further thus:
"Patacara, when one falls victim to Death
neither one’s sons nor parents
nor close relations
can protect one.
One’s kith and kin have no power
To give protection.”
(Dhammapada verse 288.)
“Realizing this lack of protection against Death,
Let the wise,
Restrained by morality,
Hasten to clear the path
Leading to Nibbana.”
(Dhammapada verse 289.)
At the end of this teaching Patacara became a Stream-Enterer.  The various taints within her, even though as numerous as the particles of dust upon the earth, were all burnt away.

After becoming a Stream-Enterer, Patacara requested the Buddha that she be admitted into the Order of bhikkhuni. The Buddha granted her request.

The Order of the Five Niyamas

The Law of Cause and Effect is composed of five orders, called the five Niyamas.
Diagram of the Five Niyama
  1. Utu Niyama: the caloric order
    The world is of 4 elements ‘Earth’, ‘Water’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Wind’.  ‘Earth’ is the property of all solid things.  ‘Water’ is the property of all liquid things.  ‘Fire’ is the property of heat in all things.  ‘Wind’ is the property of all gaseous things.  Each of these properties has their effects.  All effects attributed to these properties are called the utu niyama.  In fact, all effects attributed to elemental properties are called the utu niyama.
  2. Bija Niyama: the germinal order
    All living things grow.  Growth is a definite process, which ends with death.  All effects attributed to a growing process are called the bija niyama.  In fact, all effects attributed to life processes are called the bija niyama.
  3. Karma Niyama: the moral order
    All deeds produce good karma, bad karma or neutral karma.  Good karma effects good events to us, bad karma effects bad events to us, and neutral karma effects events that are neither good nor bad to us.  A person’s karma follows him through cycles of rebirth, until it is exhausted.
  4. Citta Niyama: the psychical order
    Sentient beings are capable of making independent decisions, or free will.  Each decision effects an action, and each action produces an effect.  All effects attributed to some sentient being’s decision are called the citta niyama.
  5. Dharma Niyama: natural phenomenal sequence
    Effects become seeds, which when met with suitable conditions produce more effects.  For example the four seasons are effected from an orchestra of the above niyamas’ effects.  Same goes for a natural disaster, or a war process.  All effects attributed to seeds, which are effects of other niyamas, are called the dharma niyama.

Here is a poem I wrote to help remember these Niyamas.
My Family Camping Trip

I brought my family on a camping trip
But it poured and rained, till our tentage ripped.

"Bad Karma," my mother said
And she couldn't stop shaking her head.

"No, it is your citta," my sister blamed
"For choosing today and this silly game."

"It is really the utu," my father protested
"For it is the elements, that's making us wet."

"And our bija," my wife was firm
"Which caused wetness to be a problem."

"Blame it on the Dharma," I explained
"Which really brought in the rain."

Such is the Niyama of our weekend.
Forgive and forget, and your relationships will mend.
The five Niyamas gives us a framework to understand the workings of seeds and conditions leading to the effects.  Notice that we only participate in the Law of Cause and Effect through the Kamma and the Dhamma Niyamas.

Kamma is due to past actions (or violations).  The past once happened cannot be changed.  Thus we are really at the mercy of our karma.  In the movie Lord of the Rings 1, I like the line
“We cannot choose what we are put into,
but we can choose how we face it.”
Many a times, our (bad) kamma is so strong that we simply cannot escape some form of suffering.  In this sense, kamma niyama is almost deterministic.  However our free will is not deterministic.  In fact, citta niyama is the only potentially non-deterministic element of the five niyamas.  We can make a difference with our citta. Thus although karma is our pre-destiny, citta allows us to change that destiny.

To fully benefit from this citta advantage, we must regain complete control of our free will.  First we must be mindful, so that our subconscious do not automatically exercise our free will for us. Secondly we need non attachment, so that our free-will will not be bias. Lastly we need wisdom, so that our free-will will choose correctly.
(Chiew Hoon talks about Patachara Part 3.)

How Patacara attained Arahatship

One day bhikkhuni Patacara was washing her feet. As she poured the water on her feet the water flowed to a short distance on the sand before sinking in. When a second cup was poured, the water flowed slightly farther on the sand than the first stream and then sank in. When a third cup was poured, the water flowed yet farther away on the sand than the second stream and then sank in. Patacara, already a Stream Enterer, meditated on this phenomenon of the three streams of water, and applied it to the three periods of life thus:
“Just as the first stream of water stopped at a short place, sentient beings are liable to die during their youth.
Just as the second stream flowed slightly farther than the first stream and stopped, sentient beings are liable to die during their middle age.
And just as the third stream flowed farther than the second stream and stopped, sentient being are liable to die in their old age.”

It had been enough for her to realize the whole of existence.  There were those that lived a short time like her children, those who lived a little longer like her husband, and those who lived longer yet like her parents.  All passed by a constant change, in a never-ending rising and ceasing. From that insight into impermanence, the characteristic of suffering of all conditioned phenomena dawned on her conditioned mind, and hence the insubstantiality, the emptiness of all phenomena was then perceived.

In the monastic, Patacara pondered deeply on the three characteristics.  Finally as Patacara extinguished her lamp by pulling down the wick into the oil with a pointed needle, she attained Enlightenment.

The Buddha put this point in verse as follows:
Better it is to live
one day seeing the rise and fall of things
than to live a hundred years
without ever seeing
the rise and fall of things.”
(Dhammapada, verse - 113)
After attaining Arahatship Patacara learnt the Vinaya from the Buddha extensively and made wise judgments on matters concerning the Vinaya. Therefore on another occasion, as the Buddha honored distinguished bhikkhunis in a congregation at the Jetavana monastery he declared:
'Bhikkhus among my bhikkhunis disciples who are wise (adept) in the Vinaya, Bhikkhuni Patacara is the foremost.'


There is a Chinese saying
“The wise deals with the seed,
The fool worries about the retribution (effect).”
After understanding the Law of Cause and Effect, we learn to live with it, rather than be a slave to it.  Through the practice of the five precepts, and the noble eight fold path, we learn to limit our bad seeds, and increase our good seeds.  When bad effects do occur to us, we learn to accept and endure it.  
From impermanence, we draw strength;
From Emptiness, we raise optimism;
From non-self, we renew ourselves.
We are wielding the most powerful force, of Cause and Effect, every moment.  Are you wielding it mindfully?

Dedication Verse

It is a popular practice to dedicate merit after attending a Buddhist activity. This is to prevent the enormous amount of merit gained to be dissipated into unworthy causes due to our ignorance. Tonight we would like to share with you a Tibetan style of dedication in a Mahayana way. We shall recite the dedication verse:
“Due to this merit may I soon
Attain the enlightened state of Guru-Buddha,
That I may be able to liberate
All sentient beings from their sufferings.
May the precious bodhi mind,
Not yet born, arise and grow.
May that born have no decline,
But increase for ever more.”

Thank you.

Send your comments to Hon Sing.