Causation in East Asian and Southeast Asian Philosophy

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Causation is defined most commonly as a relationship between two events or two states of affairs in which the first brings about the second. The idea of causation has long existed among the peoples in South and East Asia, but as a historical notion, it has taken different forms of expression in these regions.

The Influence of Buddhism in South Asia

In South Asia, where the belief in reincarnation constituted an important philosophical base for both Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept of causation played a vital role in shaping one's outlook on life and history. According to Buddhism, all forms of existence are related one way or another in an infinite and endless causal web. Thus the creation theory, which is crucial to some religions, finds no place in Buddhism. Drawing on the incarnation belief, Buddhism also connects the life of this world to the next, in which the rise or fall of one's status leading to either salvation or condemnation is dependent on the karma one accumulates in this life. Ironically, however, this causal connection between this world and the next is not necessarily conducive to the development of historical consciousness because it dwells on the mutability, fluidity, and temporality of life, which breeds an extreme relativism that negates the meaning of life itself. Indeed, while Buddhism urges one to improve one's karma in life, it also stresses, extending the broad-based belief in eschatology in South Asia, that life is merely a fleeting bubble and that the world is extinguishable ablaze. Moreover, because everything is causally related in an infinite and endless web, nothing is constant or specifically consequential to anything else. Explanation for change also becomes unnecessary.

In its later development, however, Buddhism began to value life and history, which in turn translated its idea of causation into an important contribution to the development of historical thinking. In Theravada Buddhism, hagiological need led to the developmentof a scholastic trend. The same need also gave rise to a new concept of time, in which the birth of Buddha became a watershed in the otherwise completely cyclical flow of time. More important, the appearance of Buddha was not considered an accidental event, but a result of the work of an inexorable, omnipresent rule or norm. All this renders the Buddhist theory of causation germane to the study of history. Buddhists continue to situate the change of history in an infinite causal relation, or an "iron chain of causality," which leads them to a multilateral and simultaneous consideration of historical causation. In the meantime, they also seek to identify the specific causes for each event. They argue that even if the result is the same, the causal relation between the result and its causes remains unique. Historical change thus is regarded as an outcome of the concatenation of a number of divergent factors coming together in a unique circumstance and relationship.

The Influence of Confucianism in East Asia

In East Asia, the conception of causation was also characterized by relativism, or by a correlative way of thinking that, in both ontology and cosmology, took what Joseph Needham called "an organistic" approach to describing the relationship between humans and their environment. This correlative thought originated from speculations on the possible impact of what happened in nature, or in Heaven, on human lives on Earth. But in its later development, particularly in the theoretical formations of yin and yang and the Five Elements/Phases (wuxing ), it exerted a fundamental and pervasive influence on shaping the notion of causality in ancient China. Instead of searching for a linear, particulate cause, ancient Chinese approached causation in a circumambient (all-encompassing) manner, which allowed them to note an organic web of causal connection.

Out of its worldly interest and moral concerns, Confucianism appears more assertive in defining causal relations in human affairs, although it was by no means immune to the idea of a Heavenhumanity correlation in developing historical explanations. Confucius (551479 b.c.e.), for example, believed that the rise and fall of political powers depended on the Mandate of Heaven. But dismayed by the decline of central government of his time, he nevertheless set out, after seeing the unicorn that to him suggested a mission charged by Heaven, to revise the Spring and Autumn Annals, hoping to bring about a punitive consequence for the unruly behaviors of officials and princes. Mencius (c. 371c. 289 b.c.e.), devout follower of Confucius, claimed that Confucius's effort was not in vain, indicating a belief in historical causation among the Confucians in that immoral behavior is to be condemned through the course of history. Throughout early imperial China, the idea of a Heavenhumanity correlation represented a major expression of historical causation, subscribed to by Dong Zhongshu (c. 194c. 114 b.c.e.), a political theorist, as well as by Sima Qian (c. 14586 b.c.e.), a court historian. Dong used it to forge a theory on dynastic succession for legitimizing the reigning Han dynasty (206

b.c.e.220 c.e.), whereas Sima used it to help structure his interpretative framework of history. While a main framework, the correlative idea did not stop Sima from searching for other temporal and coincidental causes in explaining historical change. In fact, Sima was both commended and chided for demonstrating great curiosity for the "wonders" of history in his Shiji (The records of history). By comparison, Ban Gu (3292 c.e.), also a Han historian, was narrower in his interest and more rigid in his method in seeking causal explanations for history, focusing on the bond between morality and history.

Diversifying Tradition in Post-Han Era

After the fall of the Han dynasty, China's cultural tradition diversified as a result of the entrance of Buddhism, which gave rise to the expansion of Daoism and the resurgence of Confucianism. The theories of historical causation also flourished. Yet a general tendency remained identifiable, marked by the decline of the notion of a Heavenhumanity correlation. This decline was shown in the tradition, established in the seventh century, of writing official dynastic histories, which, following Ban Gu's model, purported to draw analogies from the history of previous dynasties for the benefit of the reigning dynasty. Hence the writing of dynastic historiography amounted to a serious effort to find specific causal relations in history, rather than to apply the mysterious and superstitious correlative idea. In his Zizhi tongjian (A comprehensive mirror of aid for government), Sima Guang (10191086) made a valiant attempt to generalize the causes for the successes and failures of the previous rulers. Of the important ones identified by him, few were attributed to the will of Heaven.

Yet the notion of Heaven remained important. Influenced by the metaphysics of Buddhism, the Neo-Confucians of the Song period (9601279), such as Zhu Xi (11301200), averred that li (principle), or tianli (heavenly principle), was the ultimate cause for the change of history, commanding the ebb and flow of good and evil times. At the same time, they searched for tianli 's various worldly manifestations in order to demonstrate and explain the mutability and temporality of life and history. This effort was continued by Wang Fuzhi (16191692) in late imperial China and Arai Hakuseki (16571725) of Tokugawa Japan (16031867). Wang and Arai discussed the concept shi (circumstance), which they used to underscore the uniqueness of the causal relations of historical events, an emphasis also readily identifiable in the Buddhist construction of historical causation.

See also Buddhism ; Causation ; Confucianism ; Hinduism .


Gokhale, B. G. "The Theravada-Buddhist View of History." Journal of the American Oriental Society 85, no. 3 (1965): 354360.

Needham, Joseph. History of Scientific Thought. Vol. 2 of Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Wu, Huaiqi. Zhongguo shixue sixiangshi. Hefei, China: Anhui renmin chubanshe, 1996.

Q. Edward Wang