Soyen Shaku. Courtesy Zen Studies Society, NY.
Soyen Shaku. Courtesy Zen Studies Society, NY.

WHEN THE PARLIAMENT of World Religions opened in Chicago in September 1893, a replica of the Liberty Bell tolled ten times, once for each of the great religions represented. Charles Carroll Bonney, the President of the Parliament and one of its first visionaries, began his address. “Worshippers of God and lovers of Man, Let us rejoice that we have lived to see this glorious day!” He went on to say that the Parliament was evidence that “the finite can never fully comprehend the infinite” and declared, “Each must see God with the eyes of his own soul. Each must behold him through the colored glasses of his own nature. Each one must receive him according to his own capacity of reception. The Fraternal union of the religions of the world will come when each seeks truly to know how God has revealed himself in the other.” Then chairman John Henry Barrows welcomed the delegates and described the days which lay ahead as “the first school of comparative religions, wherein devout men of all faiths may speak for themselves without hindrance, without criticism, and without compromise, and tell what they believe and why they believe it.” And so they did.

The Parliament took place in the context of the Chicago World’s Fair, a celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the “New World. ” For most Americans this assembly, which lasted a little over two weeks, was the first encounter on this continent with people of the great religious traditions of Asia. The Parliament was not really a “world event” except in intention and vision. It was planned by American Christians, mostly Protestants, and it could be seen as the first act in the modern interreligious movement. There were relatively few Asians, and the sole Muslim speaker was a New Englander who had converted to Islam. Even so, the vision of the Parliament was lofty, and it set forth questions of interreligious relations that are as vivid today as they were one hundred years ago. In convening the Parliament, Barrows proclaimed, “Our meeting this morning has become a new, great fact in the historic evolution of the race which will not be obliterated.”

While mutual tolerance and extraordinary courtesy dominated the Parliament, there were some for whom this “new, great fact” was questionable and even objectionable. The Archbishop of Canterbury had declined to come because “the Christian religion is the one religion.” He went on to say in his statement, “I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their positions and claims.” Apparently the Sultan of Turkey also objected to the Parliament of Religions, and as a result, representatives of the Arab Muslim world did not attend. The monks of the Engaku-ji Buddhist monastery in Kamakura, Japan, were likewise skeptical and sought to dissuade their abbot, Soyen Shaku, from going. They thought it would be “improper for a Zen priest to set foot in such an uncivilized country.” Despite their apprehensions, Soyen Shaku insisted on going, and the young monk who drafted his letter of acceptance in English was D. T. Suzuki.

Among the Buddhists at the Parliament was the Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Dharmapala, who asked the audience in a large lecture hall, “How many of you have read the life of the Buddha?” When only five raised a hand, he scolded, “Five only! Four hundred and seventy-five millions of people accept our religion of love and hope. You call yourselves a nation—a great nation—and yet you do not know the history of this great teacher. How dare you judge us!” One of the Buddhists from Japan was equally challenging, pointing explicitly to the anti-Japanese feeling in America and deploring the signs that read, “No Japanese is allowed to enter here.” “If such be the Christian ethics—well, we are perfectly satisfied to be heathen.”

During the sixteen days a wide variety of Buddhist traditions (such as Esoteric Buddhism and Nichiren) were introduced by their respective masters. But of the many speeches given the one that was the most accessible—and that seems to have had far-reaching effect—was that by Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku. The speech, on cause and effect, used no Asian Buddhist terminology such as “dharma” or “koan,” and was firmly rooted in the grounds of reason familiar to the turn-of-the-century audience. Although Soyen Shaku was far from being the most charismatic figure present (he did not have the fluency in English or the exotic yellow silk tunic of Dharmapala), he spoke to a topic which commanded the attention of the audience—the breach developing between science and faith. Most important, he drew the attention of Paul Carns, editor of The Monist and Open Court Press. And it was through this connection that Soyen sent his own translator, D. T. Suzuki, to America to work with Carns. It was Suzuki’s experience working with Carns that enabled him to become the preeminent cultural translator of Zen Buddhism to North America.

The bridges built at the Parliament were only a beginning. In 1896 and 1897, Soyen Shaku organized Buddhist-Christian conferences in Japan, perhaps the first such dialogues to have taken place in the modern era. Today, with Buddhist-Christian dialogue flourishing on all fronts—on spirituality, on theology, and on environmental issues—it is clear that those beginnings were the seeds of a new era.

—Diana L. Eck
Professor of Comparative Religion and of Indian Studies at Harvard University

This is an edited version of the speech The Law of Cause and Effect as Taught by the Buddha, given by Soyen Shaku in 1893.

 IF WE OPEN OUR EYES and look at the universe, we observe the sun and moon, and the stars on the sky; mountains, rivers, plants, animals, fishes, and birds on the earth. Cold and warmth come alternately; shine and rain change from time to time without ever reaching an end. Again, let us close our eyes and calmly reflect upon ourselves. From morning to evening, we are agitated by the feelings of pleasure and pain, love and hate; sometimes full of ambition and desire, sometimes called to the utmost excitement of reason and will. Thus the action of mind is like an endless issue of a spring of water. As the phenomena of the external world are various and marvelous, so is the internal attitude of human mind. Shall we ask for the explanation of these marvelous phenomena? . .. Why is the mind subjected to constant agitation? For these Buddhism offers only one explanation, namely, the law of cause and effect. . . .

First, a certain phenomenon cannot arise from a single cause, but it must have several conditions; in other words, no effect can arise unless several causes combine together. Take for example the case of a fire. You may say its cause is oil or fuel; but neither oil nor fuel alone can give rise to a flame. Atmosphere, space, and several other conditions, physical or mechanical, are necessary for the rise of a flame. All these necessary conditions combined together can be called the cause of a flame. This is only an example for the explanation of the complex nature of cause; but the rest may be inferred.

Second, a cause must be preceded by another cause, and an effect must be followed by another effect. Thus if we investigate the cause of a cause, the past of a past, by tracing back even to an eternity we shall never reach the first cause. The assertion that there is a first cause is contrary to the fundamental principle of nature, since a certain cause must have an origin in some preceding cause of causes, and there is no cause which is not an effect. From the assumption that a cause is an effect of a preceding cause which is also preceded by another, thus, ad infinitum, we infer that there is no beginning in the universe. As there is no effect which is not a cause, so there is no cause which is not an effect. Buddhism considers the universe as no beginning, no end. Since, even if we trace back to an eternity, absolute cause cannot be found, so we come to the conclusion that there is no end in the universe. As the waters of rivers evaporate and form clouds, and the latter changes its form into rain, thus returning once more into the original form of waters, the causal law is in a logical circle changing from cause to effect, effect to cause.

Zen circle, Nakahara Nantembo, 1923, ink on silk. Courtesy the Gitter Collection.
Zen circle, Nakahara Nantembo, 1923, ink on silk. Courtesy the Gitter Collection.

Third, all the religions apply, more or less, the causal law in the sphere of human conduct, and remark that the pleasure and happiness of one’s future life depend upon the purity of his present life. But what is peculiar to Buddhism is, it applies the law not only to the relation of present and future life, but also past and present. As the facial expressions of each individual are different from those of others, men are graded by the different degrees of wisdom, talent, wealth, and birth. It is not education, nor experience alone, that can make a man wise, intelligent, and wealthy, but it depends upon one’s past life. What are the causes or conditions which produce such a difference? To explain it in a few words, I say, it owes its origin to the different quality of actions which we have done in our past life. . . If you closely observe the conduct of your fellow-beings, you will notice that each individual acts different from the others. From this we can infer that in future life each one will also enjoy or suffer the result of his own actions done in this existence. As the pleasure and pain of one’s present actions, so the happiness or misery of our future world will be the result of our present action.

Fourth, we enjoy happiness and suffer misery, our own actions being causes; in other words there is no other cause than our own actions which make us happy or unhappy.

Now let us observe the different attitudes of human life; one is happy and others feel unhappy. Indeed, even among the members of the same family we often notice a great diversity in wealth and fortune. Thus various attitudes of human life can be explained by the self-formation of cause and effect. There is no one in the universe but one’s self who rewards or punishes him. The diversity in future stages will be explained by the same doctrine. This is termed in Buddhism the “self-deed and self-gain” or “self-make and self-receive.” Heaven and hell are self-made. God did not provide you with a hell, but you yourself. The glorious happiness of future life will be the effect of present virtuous actions.

Fifth, according to the different sects of Buddhism more or less different views are entertained in regard to the law of causality, but so far they agree in regarding it as the law of nature, independent of the will of Buddha, and still more of the will of human beings. The law exists for eternity, without beginning, without end.

Things grow and decay, and this is caused not by an external power but by an internal force which is in things themselves as an innate aptitude. This internal law acts in accordance with the law of cause and effect, and thus appear immense phenomena of the universe. Just as the clock moves by itself without any intervention of any external force, so is the progress of the universe.

We are born in the world of variety; some are poor and unfortunate, others are wealthy and happy. The state of variety will be repeated again and again in our future lives. But to whom shall we complain of our misery? To none but ourselves! We reward ourselves; so shall we do in our future life. If you ask me who determined the length of our life, I say the law of causality. Who made him happy and made me miserable? The law of causality. Bodily health, material wealth, wonderful genius, unnatural suffering are the infallible expressions of the law of causality which governs every particle of the universe, every portion of human conduct. Would you ask me about the Buddhist morality? I reply, in Buddhism the source of moral authority is the causal law. Be kind, be just, be humane, be honest, if you desire to crown your future! Dishonesty, cruelty, inhumanity, will condemn you to a miserable fall!

As I have already explained to you, our sacred Buddha is not the creator of this law of nature, but he is the first discoverer of the law who led thus his followers to the height of moral perfection. Who shall utter a word against him who discovered the first truth of the universe, who has saved and will save by his noble teaching, the millions and millions of the falling human beings? Indeed, too much approbation could not be uttered to honor his sacred name!

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters