On the evening of his enlightenment, the Buddha saw into the real nature of cause and effect. During his years of teaching, he taught that without understanding causation, enlightenment is not possible. To fully understand causation is to understand the nature of things. Every action, whether arising through the body or mind, gives rise to some effect. Every action has a consequence. That consequence is another action, which then gives rise to another effect, on throughout space and time. Those actions and their effects are born out of and perceived through our human consciousness. This can be the path to great suffering, or to liberation through the practice and realization of what is true.

If our actions are based in the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance, then those actions will give rise to effects that are based in greed, anger and ignorance. If the mind is awakened, and greed, anger and ignorance become generosity, wisdom and enlightenment, then the actions and effects arise out of that enlightened mind. This is how we create conflict in our world on every possible scale, as well as enable lives to be transformed, people to be liberated, change to be affected. It’s profoundly important.

To be caught in samsara is to be caught in the unending cycle of causation, where a negative, hurtful or binding action creates more bondage. Fundamentally, all of this is based in the delusion of the self—the belief that the self is separate and distinct from everything else. In our separateness, we believe we lack what we need, so we set about looking for something that is exterior to that independent self to fill the void. We find something that grants us some sense of relief or pleasure, yet that sense of pleasure doesn’t last. We feel the sense of incompleteness again, and go looking to fill it; and on and on it goes.

The Buddha said when one is awakened that cycle is broken. Samsara is realized in its ultimate form—it has no form. What we experience in our interior and exterior life is a result of consciousness. When that consciousness is deluded and in bondage, so too is the world, both inside and outside. When that consciousness is liberated, so too is the world. An enlightened being breaks the bonds of causation and is free.

Baizhang is one of the great masters of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. In this koan, everyday an old man would sit in the back of the hall while Baizhang was giving teisho, a formal discourse. And each day as soon as the talk was over, the old man would disappear. Yet one day he stayed behind. So Baizhang went to him and said, “Who are you?” The old man replied, “I used to be the abbot of this monastery many years ago. One day a monk came to me and asked me this question: ‘Does an enlightened being fall into causation?’” In other words, is an enlightened being subject to the law of cause and effect? “And I answered, ‘No, an enlightened being does not fall into causation.’ And for that I was made to live five hundred years as a fox. Now I beg you, say a turning word, and please release me from this fox body.”

It’s important to understand that in Chinese Buddhism being a fox is not a desirable state of being. Dragons are enlightened beings, while foxes are deluded beings. So the old man says, “Please release me from this fox body.” Baizhang said, “Ask me the question.” The abbot said, “Does an enlightened being fall into causation?” Baizhang said, “An enlightened being does not ignore causation,” that is, is not blind to causation. At that moment the master was released from the fox body.