In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, hetu, pratyaya)

  • Introduction
  • General Perspectives on Causality
  • Reference Works
  • Sautrāntika Theory of Seeds (bīja)
  • Karma in the Mahayana
  • Academic Papers on Karma
  • Academic Papers on Pratītyasamutpāda
  • Academic Papers on Selected Topics
  • Causality and Soteriology (Mārga)

Buddhism Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, hetu, pratyaya)
Tadeusz Skorupski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0218


This entry covers four models of causality: karma, pratītyasamutpāda, hetu, and pratyaya. The English terms causality and causation are used here as generic terms. As Buddhist interpretations of causality are complex and controversial, only general features of causation theories are delineated. Buddhist expositions of causality stem from and corroborate Buddhist doctrines and soteriology. In terms of doctrine, Buddhism rejects the existence of a permanent self (ātman), and denies the existence of a first cause in any form. The nature of existence is interpreted in terms of the two truths: conventional and ultimate. Conventionally, there exist beings and things, but only as conceptual entities (prajñaptisat). Ultimately, they do not exist, because they have no permanent core. So how does the inexistent world function? Conceptual entities are dissected into impersonal phenomena or dharmas as ultimate units. The dharmas are momentary, and they arise and vanish in space and time in conformity with definite principles that regulate their flow and interdependence: karma and dependent origination. The term karma, literally “action” or “deed,” as a technical concept, denotes the principle of ethical causation: there are no agents, but there are actions and their consequences. Karma as action denotes an act of mental volition (cetanā), and the bodily and verbal actions that stem from it. Volitional actions are ethically qualified, depending on whether they stem from the three wholesome roots or the three unwholesome roots. Such actions accumulate and yield their fruits: particular body-mind configurations evolving in cyclic rebirths (saṃsāra). The principle of pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination), denotes the conditionality or interdependence of existential phenomena. Essentially, it accounts for the conditioned flux of phenomenal existence, in particular the interdependent flow of the five aggregates with no ontological substratum. The terms hetu (cause) and pratyaya (condition), occur as a compound or separately. As a compound, hetupratyaya denotes the principle of causes and conditions applicable to all aspects of existence. When included in lists of conditions, it denotes the first condition, the condition qua cause. Individually, they are virtually synonymous, or form either separate or correlated models of causality. In terms of soteriology, causality is integrated into the four noble truths. The second truth teaches the origin of suffering, identified by the Buddha as craving. Otherwise, the origin is interpreted in terms of karma and dependent origination. The third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, teaches the eradication of karma leading to rebirths, and the cessation of suffering: appeasement of dependent origination.

General Perspectives on Causality

The citations here include thematic and general sources. Doniger O’Flaherty 1980, Newfeldt 1986, and Krishan 1997 deal with various aspects of karma theories in India. Edelglass and Garfield 2011 surveys doctrinal identities of Buddhist schools. Hirakawa 1990 treats Indian Buddhism up to the emergence of early Mahayana. Ronkin 2005 deals with Theravada doctrines, including causation. Sakamoto 1981 studies important Abhidharma concepts. Williams 2009 sketches the principal features of Mahayana doctrines. Hayes 2015 sketches the doctrinal positions of six Mādhyamika masters. Kalupahana 1975 surveys pre-Buddhist and Buddhist causation theories.

  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    Out of the twelve contributions on karma topics, three papers focus on Buddhism: “Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism,” “The Medical Soteriology of Karma in the Buddhist Tantric Tradition,” and “Rebirth Eschatology and Its Transformations.”

  • Edelglass, William, and Jay L. Garfield. “Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy.” In The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Edited by Jay L. Garfield and William Edelglass. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Seven chapters deal with Buddhist schools in Indian and Tibet, including Abhidharma, Madhyamaka, and Yogācāra philosophies.

  • Hayes, Richard. “Madhyamaka.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.

    Hayes portrays six Madhyamaka thinkers: Buddhapālita, Bhāvaviveka, Candrakīrti, Śāntideva, Jñānagarbha, and Śāntarakṣita. Nāgārjuna is portrayed by Jan Westerhoff in a separate entry.

  • Hirakawa, Akira. A History of Indian Buddhism from Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Translated by Paul Groner. Asian Studies at Hawaii 36. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1990.

    Translation of Indo Bukkyō Shi, published in Tokyo in 1974. Hirakawa surveys early Buddhism in India. Chapters eleven and twelve treat the doctrines of karma and dependent origination. His main sources are Sarvāstivāda works.

  • Kalupahana, David J. Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai‘i, 1975.

    Initially, Kalupahana sketches pre-Buddhist causation theories, and then surveys Buddhist interpretations of causality, mainly focusing on the principle of dependent origination.

  • Krishan, Yuvraj. The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina Traditions. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

    Krishan offers a comprehensive survey of karma theories in the classical period of India. Karma in Buddhism is discussed in Section II, pages 59–90.

  • Newfeldt, Ronald, ed. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Development. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

    The eighteen papers on karma are divided into three sections: Hindu, Buddhist, and Western. The Buddhist section contains five papers on karma and rebirth in Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, and Japan.

  • Ronkin, Noa. Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition. London: Routledge-Curzon, 2005.

    Chapter 5 discusses the early Buddhist notion of causation, and the Abhidhamma theory of causal conditions. See also Ronkin’s “Abhidharma,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014).

  • Sakamoto, Yukio. Abidatsuma no Kenkyū. Tokyo: Daitō Shuppansha, 1981.

    In this substantial research output, Sakamoto studies Abhidharma concepts of karma, dependent origination, phenomenal existence (samsara), and defilements.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Williams surveys the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism in India and beyond. Chapter three and four deal with Mādhyamika and Yogācāra schools. Revised version of the first edition, published in 1989.

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