Skillful Understanding: Cause and Effect

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 25-29)

When the Buddha started exploring suffering, he found through experience that the middle way, namely the Eightfold Path, (as opposed to self-indulgence or self-mortification) was the way.

In review, the Eightfold Path has eight steps and each of these steps is under one of three components—Wisdom, Virtue and Concentration. The Eight Steps are 1) Skillful Understanding; 2) Skillful Thinking; 3) Skillful Speech; 4) Skillful Action; 5) Skillful Livelihood; 6) Skillful Effort; 7) Mindfulness and 8) Concentration. 

The First Step:  Skillful Understanding

Skillful Understanding (pp. 25-29) is one of two Wisdom components (the second is Skillful Thinking). This step is important because it presents the understanding for why we are following the path.  It explains the role of 1) cause and effect (more below) and 2) the four noble truths (we will start discussing the Noble Truths next week).

Understanding cause and effect

When we look at our behaviors, whether they are skillful or unskillful, we ask “what does each bring?”  The main point in this part of step one is that all actions have causes and effects.  The purpose of mindfulness in working with step one is to develop an awareness that our actions have consequences both good and bad depending on intent.  The basis of Buddhist morality is that acting in unskillful ways leads to unhappy results, and acting in skillful ways leads to happy results. Happy means long lasting happiness not the short-lived happiness obtained through desire or ill-will.

The concept of karma comes up in relation to cause and effect.  Karma refers to how both skillful and unskillful behavior affects an individual over time.   Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. Karma means “deed” or “act” and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, that governs all life. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated. That is to say, a particular action now is not binding to some particular, pre-determined future experience or reaction; it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment.

So, looking at unskillful behavior, how can it lead to harm?  This is not straightforward as noted above.  It can be immediate or delayed.  Our mind often makes up causes and effects which may not really be the case.  Another way to state it is that karma or unskillful behavior puts you at risk whatever the cause or effect.

Skillful behavior yields two results, internal and external. How happy you feel (internal) and how happy others feel as a result of your behavior (external).

There are ten unskillful actions that will cause harm: body (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct); speech (lying, malicious talk (e.g. gossip), harsh language, useless speech); mind (covetousness, ill will, wrong view).  (There will be more on this later.).

Avoiding these of unskillful behaviors is not a doctrine or commandments to be followed.   Rather, behaviors (unskillful or skillful) are actions that will yield predictable results.


  • Reflect on cause and effect and how each of the ten unskillful behaviors can cause harm.
  • Next, reflect on how practicing skillful behaviors can cause you to feel happy (internal) and also affect the happiness of others (external).

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