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The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, June 2-4, 2000

Day Two: The First Seven Links


Let us reaffirm our motivation, the aim why we are here. We are here to learn more about how we perpetuate our problems and difficulties in samsara from one lifetime to another so that we can understand what is happening in our experience and slowly eliminate unawareness from the way we experience things. As a result, we can eliminate problems and difficulties from the way we experience life, not only so we will have lasting happiness, but also so we’ll be in a better position to bring lasting happiness to others.

We were talking last night about how mind in Buddhism refers to an activity that goes on with no break, with no beginning and with no end. It is the mental activity of experiencing things and it is an individual, subjective experiencing of things. We are not talking here about experiences as events accumulating one after the other. Nor are we talking about experience as an emotional event, as in, "I had a great experience yesterday." Nor does experience have to be conscious. When we sleep, we are usually not conscious of being asleep, but still we experience being asleep. Something is happening. That is what we are talking about. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking are all ways of experiencing things. Sleeping, dreaming, being born, and dying are all instances of experiencing something. Even if we are in a coma, we are still experiencing something, the coma.

This experiencing of things is individual and subjective. My experience of seeing the same movie as you do is different from your experience of seeing it. Our experiencing has unbroken continuity, which does not just come from nothing at the moment of conception and end without a next moment of continuity at the time of death. It makes absolutely no sense to say that a nothing can become the experiencing of something and that an experiencing of something can become a nothing. We are led to the conclusion that this subjective, individual experiencing of things has no beginning and no end. This means there is a continuity of lifetimes, rebirth.

Our experiencing of things can be mixed with confusion or it can be free from confusion. When it is mixed with confusion, we have samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Our experiencing of things is filled with problems of various sorts. When our experiencing of things is without unawareness, we are liberated from samsara. Once we are free of unawareness such that it never recurs, the continuity of our experiencing of things still goes on from one lifetime to another, but no longer under the control of unawareness. If we are working toward enlightenment or if we are enlightened, the continuity is driven by compassion. The driving force for continuing to experience things in samsara is the drive to try to make a seemingly solid "me" exist and be secure. We want to continue living. When we are free from confusion, the driving force to continue to live is the wish to be able to help others.

The unawareness that is the first link of dependent arising is the unawareness of how we and others exist – primarily of how we exist. It feels as though we exist as some sort of solid, concrete "me." But we don’t really know that this is just an appearance or a feeling that does not correspond to reality. Or we think that it does correspond to reality. This unawareness makes us befuddled. Our mind is unclear about how we exist and so we are unsure of ourselves and indecisive. Being unsure of ourselves, we stubbornly stick with whatever we decide in order to try to gain some security. Because we are insecure about how we exist and feel we are a concrete "me," we want to make this imagined solid "me" secure. In fact, our entire lives are driven by the compulsion to try to make that solid "me" secure. This compulsion is strongest at the time of death. We desperately want the solid "me" to continue existing, no matter what. That is the driving force that leads us to further rebirth with continued unawareness about how we exist.

We saw yesterday that this confusion about how we exist has two levels. There is doctrinally based unawareness and automatically arising unawareness. The doctrinally based unawareness is something that we learn. The authentic form of it is acquired from concepts we have learned and accepted from one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. An analogous form may come from being conditioned by our families, society, television, various ideologies, propaganda, advertising, and so on. This conditioning leads to deeply rooted neuroses. Automatically arising unawareness is not something that anyone has to teach us or influence us to have. Everyone has it all the time, simply because of the limited way in which our mental activity makes things appear. It makes it appear as though we exist as a solid "me," the so-called false "me," and it feels like that.

We saw that if we wanted to describe this feeling of a solid "me," we would describe it as having three characteristics. The surface feeling about how we exist is that there is a solid "me" that is unaffected by what happens, is always one and the same, and is a separate entity from our experiences. On the basis of these three characteristics, there is a subtler one. Although the actual explanation of this subtle form of unawareness is much deeper and more complex, it is often explained in a more simplistic manner. We feel that this type of "me" is the boss that is controlling what is happening. It is the observer, the decision-maker, the controller that has to be in control or else it is out of control.

We looked at some examples of this confusion about how we exist. In terms of doctrinally based unawareness, we are told and we think, for instance, "Just be yourself. Be true to yourself." That makes absolute total sense to us. Being yourself means being unaffected and separate from any situation. Likewise, we are told to be unique and to find ourselves – a self that will always be one and the same, no matter what.

The three aspects overlap. We feel: "I am separate from my experience, but when I go into experiences, I must be myself, unique, always one and the same." That type of solid "me" needs to be in control. We hear, "Control yourself." "Don’t let anyone step on you." "Be in control." All of this is deeply rooted. We say, "I have to protect myself from being hurt," as if there were some little entity over here inside us and another separate entity also inside us, but over there, who has to protect the first entity from being hurt. If we look at this, we can see how it is the source of self-preoccupation, worry, nervousness, and so on. All of that multiplies from this unawareness. "I have to put on a good act, because if I don’t, they are going to see the real ‘me.’" It is based on thinking there is a real "me." Or, we say, "You say you love me, but you don’t know the real ‘me.’ If you did, you wouldn’t love me." Consequently, we can’t accept that anyone loves us. Or, we come home from work, take off our shoes, and think, "Ah, now I can be ‘myself.’" It’s strange, isn’t it?

The opposite of this is to experience things from moment to moment with awareness of our motivation and of what is going on with other people, and, with compassion, refrain from acting harmfully. We just act, communicate, relate, feel emotions, and experience things from moment to moment, without self-consciousness and without elaborating anything on top of bare experiencing.

The problem is that it feels as though there were a solid "me" in our experience. This is the automatically arising unawareness. It automatically seems as though there is a solid "me" that is not affected by anything. We eat a huge piece of chocolate cake and because we do not get fat in the next moment, we say, "I was not affected by it. I am not affected by anything." "I hurt myself, but here I am. It didn’t really affect me." We go to sleep and, when we wake up in the morning, it feels as though "Here I am again!" The same "me," always the same.

It feels as though we are separate from what happens to us because we can dissociate ourselves from our experiences. I remember once falling down on a concrete walk and cracking my ribs. There was such a strong experience of a "me" separate from the experience, who did not want to relate to it. When our partners begin to cry or yell, often we completely dissociate. It really feels like there is a separate "me" who does not want to experience what is going on. The morning after we get drunk, we say, "I wasn’t really myself last night." Or, we sometimes automatically say, "I’m not in good health; I really don’t feel like myself today." And there is this little voice going on in our heads all the time. It feels as though the voice is that of this solid "me," the controller, who is obviously separate from what is going on because it is always commenting. This voice in our heads makes the phenomenon of worry even more concrete. It reinforces our confusion. It is automatically there. We didn’t need to learn how to do it.

That is what is so terrible about samsara: this unawareness about how we exist is self-perpetuating because of the automatically arising mechanism that reinforces it. The more we understand what is going on, the more disgusted we feel. It is like thinking that our office situation is okay and then finding out that the boss was dishonest. When we discover the fraud, we become disgusted. We develop the determination to be free from it. This is usually called "renunciation." It is the determination to be free of samsara and the full willingness to give it up.

With "Dharma-Lite," our attitude is thinking, "I want to be free," but we don’t think that we have to give up anything. Dharma-Lite is like Coca-Cola Lite, it is delicious but not "The Real Thing." There is nothing wrong with Dharma-Lite, it can be useful, but we have to go further. To get out of our problems, we have to give them up. We have to give up the unawareness that is causing them and the patterns and habits that are reinforcing our unawareness.

[See: "Dharma-Lite" Versus "The Real Thing" Dharma.]

Deeper Analysis of the Link of Unawareness

If we look more closely at this first link, we are focusing on the conventional "me" and apprehending it incorrectly as if it existed like a false "me" – separate, unaffected, one and the same, the boss. It is like the child focusing on the sound of the cat under the bed and apprehending it to be the sound of a monster there. The child really feels that there is a monster under the bed and is frightened. It is not totally imaginary. There is a basis. There is actually a cat under the bed. Likewise, we do have a conventional "me," but the way that we perceive it and the way it feels to us does not correspond to the way it actually exists.

This conventional "me" is, to use a simple word, an abstraction. All that is happening is the moment to moment individual, subjective experiencing of waking up, brushing our teeth, eating breakfast, and so on. If we want to put all of these moments together and refer to them as something, we would refer to them as "me." But that conventional "me" is not something solid; it is just an abstraction to put together all the moments of our experiencing things. In technical terms, it is an imputation mentally labeled on the unbroken continuity of moments of our individual, subjective mental activity.

For example, what is a line on a computer monitor? A line is something that looks solid, but if you examine closely, it is just a series of dots or pixels put together. A line is just an abstraction to refer to a series of dots. It does not really exist as a solid line. Likewise with our experience. Each moment is like a dot, which we put together and call "me" and "my life." Like the line on a computer monitor, it seems solid, but it is not. The line exists; but it doesn’t exist as something solid and independent from a series of dots. Likewise, we exist; but we don’t exist as something solid and separate from the series of moments of our experience. This takes a lot of time to really digest. It is very important to start to work with this.

Every moment of our lives, we are perceiving the conventional "me," which is not solid, and apprehending it as if it were solid. That is the first step that creates our problems: we focus on the "me" that exists, which is merely an abstraction and yet which appears not to exist in that way. The unawareness and confusion accompanying each moment of our mental activity makes it appear to exist as something solid. We perceive it as such and believe that, in actuality, it exists as something solid. This is even more confusing and we feel insecure about it.

A Deluded Outlook toward a Transitory Network

Then a very fundamental disturbing attitude arises and accompanies our experiencing of things. It is called, in technical jargon, a "deluded outlook toward a transitory network" (‘ jig-lta). This attitude is aimed at our experience. Specifically, it is aimed at a particular configuration of the five aggregates that compose each moment of our experience and takes it or considers it to be the solid, false "me." In simple words, it is the misleading attitude with which we identify solidly with a particular moment of our experience, whether it be a mood, an incident, or whatever. Unlike unawareness about how a person exists, which can be confusion about how we exist or about how others exist, a deluded outlook toward a transitory network only concerns how we exist.

"Transitory" means that the content of our experience is changing all the time: our experience is made up of many changing parts. The deluded outlook takes the configuration of the parts that make up some experience and considers it to constitute a solid identity for the solid "me." Not only do we do this with any configuration of elements that constitute our experience, we replace one self-identity with another during the course of a day. Sometimes we identify with something that lasts just a few moments, like hearing the sound of words of an insult. We feel insulted and, identifying with experiencing that, we feel, "You just insulted ‘me.’" We may also identify with something that we experience over a long period of time, such as being young, old, a man, a woman, married, single, and so on.

The deluded outlook toward a transitory network has two aspects, often translated as regarding our experiences in terms of "me" and "mine." Based on feeling and believing that we exist as a solid "me," we not only sometimes identify with what we experience as "me," we sometimes also identify what we experience as the possession of that solid "me." It is "mine." For example, we may not only believe that we solidly exist as someone sexy, we may also believe that our body is the possession of that sexy "me." It is a further solidification of our so-called false "me," since now there are objects that it owns, controls, and can use as it likes. In the case of the body, there is a place where the solid "me" lives. Or, we experience giving birth to children and base our identity on being a parent. Then we feel "My children are mine," as if we owned them and they were ours to control.

According to the Gelug Prasangika interpretation, the deluded outlook toward a transitory network focuses on the conventional "me," rather than on the aggregates. Like the aggregates, the conventional "me" is also transitory and also is a network of many moments and facets. This deluded outloook regards the conventionally existent "me" either as a solid "me" having the solid identity of the aggregates or as a solid possessor of the aggregates as "mine."

Further Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

Once we start thinking of the "me" as having a solid identity and as being a solid possessor of things and regarding them as solidly "mine," we develop many further disturbing emotions and attitudes. They motivate us to assert our identities, to prove those identities, because the accompanying unawareness still makes us insecure. Often the process is completely unconscious. For example, we may unconsciously think, "I am a mother. I possess these children as ‘mine.’ I have to have their attention and obedience. They have to be the way I want them to be, because they are ‘ mine.’ Only then will I be a good mother. I have to defend my identity as a parent by telling them what to do; otherwise, I am not really in control as the mother or the father. That is my whole identity."

Attachment or greed is to gather something that we hope will substantiate our solid identities as parents, such as obedience. We become angry to get rid of anything that we think might threaten our solid identities as parents, such as disobedience. If we are really angry, we may beat our children because their disobedience is so threatening.

All of this occurs together with the disturbing emotion that I like to translate as "naivety" (gti-mug, Skt. moha). Naivety is a subcategory of unawareness. Unawareness can accompany any moment of experience, whereas naivety is the unawareness that accompanies only moments of destructive behavior – destructive thinking, speaking, or acting. Naivety is perhaps not the best translation for the term, but I cannot yet think of anything better. In the past, I translated it as "closed-mindedness," but closed-mindedness emphasizes only the stubbornness aspect of unawareness. "Naivety" is a broader term. It also implies innocence, which is appropriate since the concept of being bad or guilty when acting destructively is alien to Buddhism.

As with unawareness, naivety can concern behavioral cause and effect and how we, others, and everything exists. In our example, there is naivety about being the parent who needs to be obeyed. We feel that our self-worth comes from being the parent. There is naivety about the child and naivety about the effects of our behavior, if we think that beating the child is going to make the child obey us, for example. Underlying the whole scenario is the naivety that a solid "me" can only be worthy in terms of how the child that it possesses acts.

Here is another example. We experience seeing our child sitting in front of the television. A disturbing attitude comes up: "I am supposed to be the parent and have a successful child. This child is my possession, I possess him as "mine," and my identity depends on being a successful parent. I have got to get the child to stop disobeying me and get him to obey me in order to feel secure about who I am." These thoughts may be conscious or unconscious. They are usually unconscious.

The urge then comes to say something to the child. With attachment to getting him to obey us, we have to tell him to do something, even if there is nothing to do. "Stop looking at the TV and pay attention to me!" There could also be anger there. "What are you doing, you lazy bum! Get a job! Get married (to make me secure because my friends are asking why my child is not married yet)!" When the feeling and then the urge to say or do something comes up, we then act it out. Either we say something harsh or we walk over and hit the kid because we experience what he is doing as threatening to us. In addition, we are naive about how the child is going to respond.


The first link is unawareness about how we and others exist. We think we exist as a solid "me" and others exist as a solid "you." This unawareness is both doctrinally based as well as automatically arising. It arises automatically because it feels like there is a solid "me" in here and a solid "you" out there.

This works in stages. First, there is a feeling of a solid "me" and a solid "you." Then there is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network in which we give a solid identity to the solid "me" based on what we experience. Based on this disturbing attitude, this distorted way of seeing things, our confusion gets deeper and deeper. This brings up disturbing emotions and attitudes. Because of this, the feeling arises to think, speak, or act in certain ways, followed by the urge to do so. We then act out the urge with an impulse of energy in which we actually say or do something. That furthers this whole process of samsara and gets us into the second link of dependent arising.

We need to recognize that the entire process occurs in terms of our disturbing attitudes, principally toward ourselves. We also need to recognize that other people have the same unawareness as we do. We are not unique. Moreover, this whole process usually happens unconsciously. We do not even know that we have these deeply rooted, disturbing attitudes. Nor do other people know that they have them.

The first step in getting out of this is being conscious of what is going on. Yesterday, we talked about becoming self-aware. That is a very important aspect of taking safe direction or refuge in the Dharma. We need to look inside and see what is happening in order to find the causes of our problems and not to blame them on others. We tend to blame others for our problems, but as the saying goes, "It takes two to tango."

If somebody gives us a present and we don’t accept it, who does it belong to? Likewise, if we give a present to someone and she doesn’t accept it, who does it belong to? If someone throws all sorts of garbage at us in terms of his disturbing emotions and attitudes and we catch it all with a big catcher’s mitt, we are participating, aren’t we? We have accepted the garbage. "Yes, I am a bad parent." In any problematic relationship with others, it is important to notice that both sides are participating. It is very difficult to get the other person to stop throwing garbage at us. But, if we don’t accept it and if we know that it is coming from deeply rooted unawareness in the other person, we can handle it in an emotionally mature way.

This is a very delicate procedure. We are sitting there quietly watching TV and our father comes in and gives us a horrible look like "Get up and do something worthwhile!" Maybe we start to feel guilty. With some understanding, we would realize that there is no reason to feel guilty. Even if we feel guilty, we wouldn’t believe that we really are a bad person. It takes a long time to stop guilt from automatically arising. It is deeply psychologically rooted and it automatically arises. Then we have to be careful not to be naive, denying the reality of what our parent is feeling or that we have anything to do with it. We can get into a different dimension of confusion by identifying with everything being just fine and then getting angry that our father is wrecking this.

We need to be sensitive to understand what the parent is feeling. In addition to not accepting that we are guilty and bad, we could respond in a way that might help our parent. We have to examine ourselves deeply. "What am I doing sitting in front of the TV? Am I in fact being lazy?" If we are just being lazy and wasting our time, we need to be mature enough to acknowledge that and admit it to the parent. Or, we can be mature enough to explain that we have been studying or working hard all day and are taking a break. We need to take the other person and his or her feelings seriously and respond in a mature way, a way that is both considerate of the other person and of ourselves. That is called acting with "skillful means."

And, we need to respond with some emotional feeling. I remember coming back to the U.S. to visit my family after my first two years in India. My sister said to me, "You are so calm I could throw up!" I was not showing any strong emotional response to what was going on. In going in the direction of Buddhism, especially in terms of calming ourselves down, we have to be careful not to be so calm that we respond to others in an impersonal way.

Our introspection is not just in terms of our motivations and emotions. We need to go deeper and deeper to uncover our basic, fundamental unawareness about how we exist. This is the basis upon which all further confusion arises. If we can clear out this automatically arising unawareness, all the other confusion will stop following. As the great Indian master Shantideva said, "If you don’t see the target clearly, you cannot hit the bull’s eye." Although it may be a bit shocking to uncover our unawareness, it is a necessary first step in order to start working to rid ourselves of it. We should not expect that our unawareness will disappear instantly. What we can hope for is suggestions and guidelines of what to look for when we engage in the process of introspection.

Let’s take a few minutes to think about what we’ve been talking about. Don’t just think about this as some sort of theoretical framework. Try to relate it to your personal experience. I think all of us are able to recognize this unawareness and these patterns in our behavior. We don’t need to be depressed by it. It is just seeing the target. As we become more and more familiar with it, we start to see it operating all the time in ourselves and in others.

The Second Link: Affecting Impulses

This brings us to the second link of dependent arising, which I call "affecting impulses" (‘ du-byed, Skt. samskara). It is sometimes translated as "karmic formations." It refers to a karmic impulse – specifically, to a throwing karma (‘phen-byed-kyi las) – which will affect our future lives.

There are three explanations of karma within the Indian Buddhist tenet systems and each explains this second link slightly differently. One explanation is from the Hinayana systems of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, as explained in common by all four Tibetan traditions. Let us leave this aside for this occasion. The Mahayana systems of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka explain another. Although the four Tibetan traditions agree on this point, Gelug asserts that within Madhyamaka, only Svatantrika accepts this explanation. Prasangika has its unique way of explaining the topic, but only Gelug accepts this.

Common Mahayana Explanation

According to the common Mahayana assertion, karma is exclusively a mental factor. It is the mental urge (sems-pa) that draws us in the direction of a certain object. Since it is always accompanied by an intention (‘dun-pa) to do something with or toward that object, karma is what draws us in the direction of an action. More specifically, it is a mental urge that draws us toward an action the moment before actually engaging in that action, and which brings us to initiate and continue doing that action. The urge may be mental, verbal, or physical karma, depending on the type of action. Karma, however, is never the action itself. Let us call karma a "karmic impulse.’

If a strong disturbing emotion or attitude, or a strong positive emotion, accompanies the karmic impulse before and during an action, that impulse becomes a throwing karma. Roughly speaking, it has the strength to throw or propel our mental continuums into future rebirths in specific rebirth states. Otherwise, it is a completing karma (rdzogs-byed-kyi las), with the strength only to complete the conditions and details of that rebirth. The second link of dependent arising, affecting impulses, refers to throwing karmic impulses.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma, Session Two: Mentel Factors Associated with Karma.]

Gelug Prasangika Explanation

According to the Gelug Prasangika system, the above explanation of karma is valid only for mental karma. The karma that draws us toward any action, whether physical, verbal, or mental, is always mental karma – a mental urge. Physical and verbal karma refer only to impulses of physical energy during and after physical and verbal actions. The distinction between throwing and completing karma is the same as in the previous, less complex system. The distinction is made depending on the strength of the disturbing emotion or attitude that accompanies the karmic impulse.

Two types of energy impulses comprise physical and verbal karma here. In technical terms, they are called "revealing forms" (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) and "nonrevealing forms" (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs). To make it simpler, let’s call them "gross and subtle karmic energy."

The gross karmic impulse is the gross karmic energy of a physical or verbal action, equivalent to the action itself, either the motion of the body or the clear utterance of syllables with the voice. Examples would be the gross impulses of energy involved with an authoritarian parent hitting or yelling at a child. The gross karmic impulse of energy is finished when the action is finished.

There is also a subtle impulse of karmic energy accompanying the action, which does not stop when the action ends. It continues afterwards as part of our mental continuums as a continuing physical aftermath of the experience. It is a little like a vibration. It continues so long as we intend, either consciously or unconsciously, to repeat the action and do not intend to give it up.

Usually, we think of vibrations as being "out there." "I can feel your vibrations." But here, we are talking about a vibration as a shaping of our own subtle energy, which accompanies our continuing stream of subjective, individual experiencing of things. Usually, we are completely unconscious of it. If we quiet down, it may be possible to get a hint of what we are talking about. If we were to sit quietly after we’ve made a big scene and yelled, we could feel that our energy is uneasy. The heart is beating faster; the blood is pumping more strongly in our arteries. When we become more sensitive, we can feel that. The subtle energy of the body is shaped by what we have done. Even when we are no longer feeling gross physical symptoms of that energy, there is still a shaping of the energy that goes on and accompanies our subjective, individual experiencing of things.

Physical and verbal karma is both the gross impulse of energy that accompanies an action and the subtle energy that both accompanies it and continues afterwards as part of our mental continuums. The second link of dependent arising, however, affecting variables, includes only the gross karmic impulse and only the first phase of the subtle karmic impulse, the phase during the action itself. It does not include any of the karmic aftermath of throwing karma left on the mental continuum afterwards.

Throwing Karma and the Conventional "Me"

Regardless of which system of explanation we follow, throwing karma is the karma that shapes our future rebirth states. For instance, it may bring about a dog rebirth. Completing karma is the karma that shapes whether we are reborn as a street dog or as the poodle of a very nice person who will feed us nicely, put a pink rhinestone collar around our necks, and paint our toenails pink.

We might think that in this dog rebirth we were a human being born as a poodle with pink toenail polish, but that’s incorrect. For example, I could think, with unawareness, that I am truly and solidly "Alex, the human." That is the true identity of "me." Then, with horror, I might think, "I don’t want to be Alex the human reborn as Fifi the poodle," as if the solid "me, Alex the human," would be in the poodle. "People wouldn’t recognize the ‘true me.’ They would call me ‘Fifi’ and put pink polish on my toenails. How repulsive."

That is complete confusion about how rebirth works. There is no solid "me" with a solid identity that reincarnates from one lifetime to the next. Although "me," as the conventional Alex the human, experiences things as "me," so does the continuity of that conventional "me" as the conventional Fifi the poodle. Fifi experiences things in terms of "me" and "myself, the possessor" – the possessor of the territory of some house as "mine" and the possessor of some master as "mine." It is the same samsaric trip. It is just a continuity of the previous, confused way of experiencing things. In this episode of this particular individual mental continuum, I am solidly identifying with Alex the human. In the next episode, I am solidly identifying with another configuration of experience, Fifi the dog. There is no solid "me" that always has one and the same solid identity, or that has a different solid identity in each lifetime. There is not even a conventionally existent "me" that always has one and the same identity.

We need to look at this very deeply. There is just a continuity of the individual, subjective experiencing of things. The abstraction "me" refers to the whole thing. The conventional "me" exists, but we make it into something substantial and then paste a solid identity onto it, based on our experience of what is happening.

Throwing karma is the strongest type of karmic impulse. For example, if we think in terms of a solid "me" and identify with the experience of being disapproved of by our parents, we believe that we have an identity based on that experience. "I am not good enough. There is something wrong with me." As a result, we might have recurring longing desire to find somebody to love and appreciate the "real me," which would then make us okay. But, because we identify with being no good, we unconsciously sabotage any relationship that we get into, so we guarantee that the other person will reject us and confirm that we are no good. Having frequent casual affairs or compulsively looking around or cruising for partners could be strongly motivated by this insecurity and the desire to be loved. The karmic impulses associated with such type of behavior would have the strength of a throwing karma.

If we think just in terms of the shaping of karmic energy involved with that kind of behavior, maybe we can get a better idea of throwing karma. If we have the urge to go out and find a partner and we go out and cruise bars or parties to try to pick somebody up, how are we acting? We are acting like a street dog that goes around sniffing other dogs’ behinds, engaging in physical acts with other dogs, and then moves on. Especially if it is repeated over and over, the shaping becomes stronger and stronger. It is very clearly throwing karma to be reborn as a street dog.

Differentiating an Action from Its Motivating Emotion

Furthermore, we need to differentiate an action from the motivating emotion for an action. We can do a destructive action with a negative motivation. For instance, we can kill a mosquito because it is annoying us and we are trying to go to sleep. We are thinking here of a solid "me" and a solid "you, the mosquito." We get angry at the mosquito and then go on a safari hunt to "get" it. When we finally kill it, we are really happy. The karmic impulses involved become the throwing karma to be reborn as something like an animal of prey or as something hunted by such an animal.

We could also commit a destructive action with a positive motivating emotion. We could kill that mosquito because we have love and concern for our children and don’t want them to be bitten and to get malaria. Since the motivation and action are, in a sense, ethically contradictory, the karmic strength of the destructive impulse to kill is too weak for it to function as throwing karma. It would become a completing karma.

Likewise, we can do constructive actions with a negative motivating emotion. We can make a nice meal for our grownup children with the disturbing motivation of wanting to be appreciated, loved, and needed. Or, we could make the meal with a positive motivation, out of love to make them happy. Only the constructive impulse of the latter would be a throwing karma. But please notice that with each possibility, there is still the underlying unawareness about how we exist: we think and feel like there is a solid "me," unique, unaffected and so on.

When the karmic impulses of our actions and the motivating emotions that accompany them are strong, not ethically contradictory, and are with this unawareness about how we exist, the karmic impulses function as throwing karmas. It is still samsara, whether it is a destructive karmic impulse bringing about one of the worse rebirth states or a constructive karmic impulse bringing about one of the better ones.

That is the second link of dependent arising, these millions and millions of throwing karmas, the strongly motivated karmic impulses that can effect and shape our future rebirths. Any time that we act with a strong noncontradictory motivation, the karmic impulse involved is going to have the strength to function as a throwing karma. We don’t act like street dogs all of the time. We act in many different ways. There are many possibilities that are strengthened by our unawareness and behavior. It is not that we are just starting to accumulate throwing karma; we have been doing this with no beginning.

The Third Link: Loaded Consciousness

The third link of dependent arising I call not just simply "consciousness," but "loaded consciousness" (rnam-shes), to make it clearer. This link is divided into two parts. The first part is, literally, loaded consciousness at the time of the cause (rgyu-dus-kyi rnam-shes). It refers to our mental continuum – our moment-to-moment individual, subjective experiencing of things – that is loaded with the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, which can act as a cause for a future rebirth. It is the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, not the throwing karma itself, that throws us into our next rebirth. Technically, the karmic aftermath of throwing karma "ripens" (smin-pa) to bring about the five aggregates of our next rebirth state and our experiences in that state.

Karmic Aftermath

Now, what is the karmic aftermath of throwing karma with which our consciousness is loaded here during the period after the action associated with that throwing karma has ceased and before it is activated and ripens into a future rebirth? First, we need to know that according to the Mahayana tenets, there are two general types of karmic aftermath: that which ripens intermittently and that which ripens continuously. The first produces results only some of the time and when it exhausts and is finished giving results, it naturally ceases existing as something present on our mental continuums. The latter produces effects every moment of our existence, all the way to enlightenment. It never will go away unless we achieve a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of it. This latter set of karmic aftermath refers to karmic constant habits (bag-chags).

Since the Hinayana tenet systems do not accept constant habits, they do not assert this type of karmic aftermath. Since the twelve links of dependent arising is an explanation accepted in common by both Hinayana and Mahayana, the karmic aftermath with which the third link, loaded consciousness, is loaded includes only the intermittently ripening karmic aftermath.

There are two types of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath: networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies (sa-bon, seeds). Let’s look first at the common explanation given in the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools, in other words all Mahayana schools except Gelug Prasangika.

Common Mahayana Explanation

Although actions are not karmic impulses – they are not karma – they are forms of karmic energy. The karmic energy of the mental action of thinking about something is a type of mental energy, while the karmic energy of doing or saying something is a type of physical energy. When the actions cease, the continuities of these karmic energies undergo a phase transition, much like ice melting into water. Their continuities take on the essential nature of a karmic tendency (sa-bon, seed); they become a nonstatic abstraction (ldan-min ‘du-byed, noncongruent affecting variable) imputable on the mental continuum. Let’s call them "karmic potentials." Nonstatic abstractions are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. They arise from causes, change from moment to moment, and produce effects.

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

As an umbrella term for the entire continuum with its phases of karmic energy and karmic potential, let’s use the expression karmic force. Please bear in mind that I have coined these terms; there are no equivalents of karmic energy, karmic potential, or karmic force in either Sanskrit or Tibetan.

Karmic force, both as karmic energy and as karmic potential, is always either constructive (dge-ba, virtuous) or destructive (mi-dge-ba, nonvirtuous). Those involved with constructive behavior are positive karmic forces (bsod-nams, Skt, punya, merit), and those involved with destructive acts are negative karmic forces (sdig-pa, Skt. papa, sin). It is in this regard that karmic potentials – phenomena having the essential nature of karmic tendencies – differ from actual karmic tendencies. Karmic potentials are either constructive or destructive. Actual karmic tendencies are ethically neutral, unspecified (lung ma-bstan): Buddha did not specify them to be either constructive or destructive.

I prefer the translation terms "constructive," "destructive," "positive karmic force," and "negative karmic force" over the more commonly used "virtuous," "nonvirtuous," "merit," and "sin." The latter set of terms often leads to misunderstanding since they introduce the idea of moral judgment and reward and punishment. These concepts are irrelevant to Buddhism and, therefore, I think it is better to choose terms that can minimize the misunderstanding that comes from inadvertently projecting onto Buddhism inappropriate concepts from other systems.

Imputable on the moments of a continuity of karmic energy and karmic potential is a network (tshogs, collection) of karmic force. Like karmic potential, it is also a nonstatic abstraction, neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. The technical term network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) is normally restricted to refer to enlightenment-building networks of positive force: positive force built up with bodhichitta and dedicated to our attainment of enlightenment and our helping all others. However, I think we can coin the analogous terms network of samsara-building positive karmic force and network of samsara-building negative karmic force associated with karmic actions that are not built up with renunciation or bodhichitta and not dedicated to either our liberation or our enlightenment. For ease of discussion, I use the terms enlightenment-building networks of positive force and networks of karmic force.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks.]

In addition to networks of karmic force, the second type of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath with which our consciousness is "loaded" is karmic tendencies. When the positive or negative karmic energy of a constructive or destructive action – equivalent to the karmic action itself – undergoes its phase transition to a karmic potential when the action ceases, that karmic energy also gives rise to a karmic tendency (karmic seed). Like karmic potential, it too is a nonstatic abstraction imputable on the mental continuum. But, unlike karmic potential or karmic energy, a karmic tendency is unspecified. It is ethically neutral. Thus, of the two types of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath, one – networks of karmic force – are either constructive or destructive, while the other – karmic tendencies – are unspecified. Both, however, are nonstatic abstractions. Consciousness is loaded with them not in a physical sense, like seeds planted in the ground – although that is the analogy traditionally used to explain this link in a simplistic manner. Consciousness is loaded with karmic tendencies merely in the sense that consciousness serves as the basis for labeling them (gdags-gzhi).

In summary, according to the explanation system common to all Mahayana schools except Gelug Prasangika, throwing karma is exclusively the mental urge that brings on and sustains a strongly motivated physical, verbal, or mental action. It lasts only as long as the action lasts, but is not the action itself. It is constructive or destructive, depending on the ethical status of the associated action. The aftermath of throwing karma has two aspects that will ripen intermittently, both of which are nonstatic abstractions imputed on the mental continuum – basically, on the continuum of the loaded mental consciousness. As nonstatic abstractions, they are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. The karmic potential and associated network of karmic force is destructive or constructive, while the karmic tendency is ethically neutral.

Often, we come across the simple explanation of what loaded consciousness is loaded with. They are loaded with karmic seeds (sa-bon), like seeds planted in the ground. "Karmic seeds," as you will recall, is the term that I have been translating as "karmic tendencies." In this explanation, "karmic seeds" is used as an umbrella phrase for both karmic potentials and karmic tendencies. Only karmic tendencies are actually karmic seeds, because, by nature, karmic seeds are ethically neutral phenomena. Karmic potential is merely karmic force in the nature of a karmic seed, but it is not actually a karmic seed. This is because, as karmic force – either so-called "merit" or "sin" – it is either constructive or destructive. The term seed is used for the imagery: a plant produces a seed which then produces another plant. Similarly, karmic impulses produce karmic seeds, which then produce karmic results that lead to the arising of more karmic impulses.

Unlike actual seeds, however, these karmic seeds are not forms of physical phenomena. They are potentials and tendencies, which are nonstatic abstractions. Potentials and tendencies also come from something and give rise to a recurrence of the same type of thing; it’s just that they are abstract phenomena, which describes the karmic process more accurately.

Gelug Prasangika Explanation

The Gelug Prasangika explanation of the karmic aftermath of throwing karma is a bit more complex. In the case of mental karma, the aftermath is the same as above: a destructive or constructive karmic potential with its associated network of karmic force, and an unspecified karmic tendency.

In the case of physical and verbal karma, the gross and subtle energies of the action itself are the throwing karma. The karmic tendency and the karmic potential from the gross karmic energy begin as soon as the action ceases. The subtle karmic energy, however, continues after the action has ceased, and goes on as long as we continue to have, either consciously or unconsciously, the intention to continue acting in the same way as the action that created it, and we do not intend ever to stop. That subtle karmic energy that continues after the action has ceased is still throwing karma. The moment we lose the intention to continue acting in the same way, the subtle karmic energy transforms into a karmic potential. Unless we have vowed to continue such behavior in our future lifetimes – as we do, for example, when taking the bodhisattva vows with the intention to continue bodhisattva behavior until we attain enlightenment – our subtle karmic energies naturally transform into karmic potential at the time of our deaths.

Thus, loaded consciousness is loaded with (1) constructive or destructive karmic potential and subtle karmic energy, and its associated network of karmic force, and (2) unspecified karmic tendencies. The karmic potential, network of karmic force, and karmic tendencies are nonstatic phenomena and are not throwing karma. The subtle karmic energy is a subtle form of physical phenomenon, not made of atoms, and is still throwing karma. It is not a so-called "karmic seed."

During the Physical or Verbal Act:

Gross Karmic Energy
  • throwing karma
  • karmic force
  • physical phenomenon
Subtle Karmic Energy
  • throwing karma
  • karmic force
  • physical phenomenon



Karmic Aftermath:
Karmic Potential
  • karmic force
  • abstraction

Network of Karmic Force
  • karmic force
  • abstraction

Karmic Tendency
  • abstraction
Karmic Potential
  • karmic force
  • abstraction

The Resultant Links of What Has Been Thrown

The first, second, and the first half of the third links are unawareness, positive or negative throwing karmas, and our mental continuums loaded with the karmic aftermath of these throwing karmas. These two and a half links are called "the causal links that throw" (‘phen-byed-kyi yan-lag): they throw us into a next rebirth. Then we have "the resultant links of what has been thrown" (‘phangs-pa’i ‘bras-bu’i yan-lag). They describe the development of the rebirth state that is thrown by throwing karma. It is how the whole mechanism develops into a fetus or an egg for perpetuating samsara. Let us speak just about the fetus in a womb.

The second part of the third link is the loaded consciousness at the time of the result (‘ bras-dus-kyi rnam-shes). It is the moment-to-moment individual, subjective experiencing of things that has been thrown into a new rebirth as a result of the ripened aftermath of throwing karma. It is the basis for experiencing all the karmic results that will arise in that lifetime.

Many karmic results will ripen intermittently during a future rebirth. Buddhism presents a complex analysis of cause and effect, with six types of causes and five types of result. Both the network of karmic forces and the karmic tendencies act as causes for each, although as different types of causes for each result. Similarly, what ripens from them is a different type of result of each, although specific things that ripen are given the name of the predominant type of result that they are. Also, we shouldn’t think that whatever we experience in a future rebirth will be determined purely by the aftermath of our karma. Buddhism is not a solipsistic system. Both internal and external circumstances also play a role in the causal process, as do many other external causes, such as the sperm and egg of our parents, including their species and personal DNA. In fact, because everything is in some way interconnected and dependent on everything else, cause and effect is the most complex topic there is.

The main karmic result discussed with the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising is the ripened result (rnam-smin-gyi ‘bras-bu). This refers to the basic aggregates (phung-po) of our next rebirth, which are enormously influenced by the life form that we will be assuming. Ripened results include, however, only the unspecified items within our aggregates, such as our bodies, minds, and karmic tendencies.

  • Our networks of karmic force are their ripening causes (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu). They give rise to them in the same way as a fruit tree gives rise to fruit when it is mature.
  • Our karmic tendencies are their equal status causes (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu). Equal status causes have the same ethical status as their results, like a moment of love giving rise to a moment of compassion.
  • Our karmic tendencies are also the obtaining causes (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) of our bodies and minds. They give rise to them like a seed gives rise to a sprout.
  • The Chittamatra school asserts that our karmic tendencies are also the natal source (rdzas) of all of them, like an oven is the natal source for a loaf of bread. All other schools assert that karmic tendencies are the natal sources of only items in our aggregates that are ways of being aware of something and nonstatic phenomena. The parents’ sperm and eggs and the external elements are the natal sources of those that are forms of physical phenomena.

Not included among ripened results are the naturally constructive or destructive items, such as the continuities of the networks of karmic force that go on in our next life.

  • Our networks of karmic force are their equal status causes.
  • Our karmic tendencies are their obtaining causes and natal sources

The Five Aggregates

To understand the way that the whole mechanism develops in the womb, we need to have at least a rough understanding of the five aggregates, the factors that make up each moment of our experiencing of things. The way that we experiencing things, what we experience, is a conglomeration of many different factors, which we can group into five. They do not actually exist in separate boxes. This is just a scheme to organize the material. Each of the five categories is made up of many components, which is why they are called "aggregate" factors. There are one or more elements from each of these five groupings making up what we are experiencing in each moment, and they all function together as a network: everything is interconnected. I won’t give them here in the traditional order, but in an order that is slightly easier to understand.

(1) The aggregate factor of forms of physical phenomena (gzugs-kyi phung-po) consists of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations, as well as the physical sensors, namely the sensory cells, the rods and cones of the eyes, and so on. We can also speak of the physical element of the body in general. We could get into a more sophisticated discussion of the forms that appear in dreams and so on, but let’s skip that this time.

(2) Next is what is usually called the aggregate of consciousness (rnam-shes-kyi phung-po). These are the different types of primary consciousnesses involved in our experiencing things. In the Western model, we have a general consciousness that can operate through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. In the Buddhist model, we don’t speak of a general type of consciousness. We speak of specific types of consciousness for each of the sensory channels. There are six types of consciousness: the consciousness of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and mental phenomena, such as thoughts, dreams, and sleep. Primary consciousness just concerns the basic sense field that we are aware of. In each moment of experiencing things, we are on one channel or another. We are either on the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the thinking channel, and so on.

(3) Then we have an aggregate of distinguishing (‘du-shes-kyi phung-po). This is often called "recognition," but we are not talking here about something so sophisticated as recognition. We are talking about something very basic. It occurs in each moment of a worm’s experience as well. The Western term "recognition" means we see something similar to what we have experienced before; then we remember what we experienced before and compare it with what we are experiencing now. For recognition to work, we need to recognize that the two are similar. That is not what we are talking about with this aggregate. In its simplest form, we are talking about distinguishing something from within a sense field, with a specific characteristic feature, so that we can focus on it and experience it.

For example, the sensory field of vision is made up of all sorts of colored shapes. That is what we see with primary consciousness. In order to focus and deal with anything in that sense field, we have to distinguish from everything in the background a certain cluster of colored shapes having some characteristic feature. It’s not just important to do this, it’s essential. We couldn’t deal with the world without being able to distinguish different things within sense fields. Everything that we see would just be an undifferentiated mass of colored shapes.

Within the audio field of sound, we also need to distinguish one sound from the others that we hear simultaneously. We have to distinguish the sound of someone’s talking from the sound of the traffic. We also need to distinguish words. It’s really quite amazing if you think about it. There is a stream of sounds coming out of someone’s mouth and we are able to chop it up and distinguish sequences of sounds into syllables and words. Otherwise, how could we understand anything that anybody said?

Each moment of our experience contains some aspect of distinguishing. We don’t have to know what things are or give them names in order to distinguish them. For example, we may distinguish some shadowy thing moving over there in the darkness. There is a sound. We don’t know what it is, but we can distinguish it. Sometimes, we don’t even want to know what it is, like when hearing something move in the bushes by the side of a jungle path.

(4) Then we have an aggregate of feeling (tshor-ba’i phung-po). Our word "feeling" covers much more than what is meant here. In almost every Western language, feeling means emotions. In English, feelings can refer to sensations, like hot or cold, smooth or soft; emotions, like passion or depression; states of well-being, such as healthy or sick; a state of sensitivity, such as "She has a good feeling for art"; a threshold of sensitivity, as in "he hurt my feelings"; intuitions, such as "I have a feeling that today will be my lucky day"; or opinions, as in "What do you feel about this issue?" Here, we are not talking about any of these. We are certainly not talking about emotions. All this aggregate is talking about is feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. In every moment of our experience, we are experiencing some object together with an accompanying feeling somewhere on the scale of completely happy to completely miserable. It is very rarely exactly in the middle or neutral; there is at least a subtle level of happiness or unhappiness. Even if it seems like we aren’t feeling anything, we are just inattentive of what is happening.

(5) The last aggregate is what I call the "aggregate of other affecting variables" (‘ du-byed-kyi phung-po). This is sometimes called "volitions," but that is taking just one element of the aggregate to name the entire package, so it is not the best translation. Also, although the name of this aggregate and the name of the second link of dependent arising is the same, in the second link "affecting variables" refers only to throwing karma. Here, the affecting variables that constitute this aggregate include everything that makes up and affects our experience that is not in the other four aggregates. It’s the aggregate of everything else. It includes all emotions, positive and negative, and other mental factors such as attention, interest, concentration, sleepiness, and boredom. It also includes nonstatic abstractions such as karmic potentials, networks of karmic force, and karmic tendencies, but let us leave them aside for the moment.

Roughly speaking, we could say that we have one aggregate factor made up of physical things and four made up of mental things, ways of being aware of things. If we think "mental" just refers to our thoughts, we get the wrong idea. We are talking about any way of being aware of things. Seeing, distinguishing, feeling a level of happiness, being angry, and so on are all ways of being aware of something.

[For more detail, see Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregate Factors of Experience.]

The Fourth Link: Nameable Mental Faculties with or without Gross Form

We have come to the fourth link of dependent arising, which I call "nameable mental faculties with or without gross form" (ming-dang gzugs). It is often called simply "name and form."

Each of the next four links refers to a period of time within the development of a fetus. In Buddhism, we talk about the plane of formless beings (gzugs-med khams, formless realm), the plane of samsaric existence on which live divine beings without gross form. Nameable mental faculties without gross form refer to the aggregates of these formless plane beings. Actually, although there are no gross forms on this plane, there are still very subtle forms. Beings on the plane of desirable sense objects (‘dod-khams, desire realm) have gross forms and beings on the plane of ethereal forms (gzugs-khams, form realm) have ethereal forms. Nameable mental faculties with gross form refer to the aggregates of the beings of these two planes of samsaric existence. In any case, the fourth link refers to the moment of conception up until the moment just before the cognitive faculties of seeing, hearing, and so on are differentiated.

What does this mean? A sperm and an egg join. There is a form aggregate: the elements of the body are manifest. The other four aggregates, the mental ones, the ways of being aware of things, are present in the form of latencies (bag-chags, instincts), but they are not yet manifest or differentiated. They are present in name only; they are merely nameable mental faculties.

We have to be quite precise here. We are not talking about a joined sperm and egg with the mere potential to support experience; rather we are talking about a joined sperm and egg which already has mind joined with it. It already has mental activity, although not conscious mental activity in any sense of the word conscious. The fetus is experiencing things, but the aggregate of consciousness is not yet differentiated into seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking and the four mental aggregates are not differentiated from each other.

This distinction between having the potential for mental activity and actually having mental activity, even if unconscious and undifferentiated, is very important and is not so obvious. This is the distinction that we need to make in order to settle the question of when life begins, which is an essential point when considering the question of abortion. When does a future rebirth begin? This is a very difficult question to answer. How much does that sperm and egg have to develop before it changes from merely having the potential to support experience to actually supporting experience, even if that experience is unconscious and not yet differentiated into seeing, smelling, tasting, and so forth?

A fundamentalist approach to this would be to say that the fourth link occurs starting with the moment of conception, and so life begins there. If we analyze this with logic, there is no logical pervasion that a sperm and egg with the potential to support life are necessarily supporting life. Life does not mean just living cells, because we could then say that a sperm or an egg is alive. Are they sentient beings? No. This is a very interesting point and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that it needs to be investigated scientifically. There are many ethical implications in terms of birth control and abortion.

The Fifth Link: Stimulators of Cognition

The fifth link is called stimulators of cognition (skye-mched, cognitive stimulators). This refers to the period between the development of the six different stimulators of cognition up until but just before the aggregate of distinguishing is differentiated. The six stimulators of cognition are the cognitive objects and cognitive sensors (dbang-po) of each of the six cognitive faculties. In the case of the five sensory faculties, the objects and sensors are forms of physical phenomena, such as sights and photosensitive cells. In the case of the mental faculty, the objects may be any validly knowable phenomenon, while the sensors are the immediately preceding moments of cognition.

The form aggregate is now differentiated into sights, sounds, and so on, as well as the cells that can sense those things. The fetus has developed to the point where there are visual sensory cells, in other words rods and cones in the proto-eyes, auditory sensory cells in the proto-ears, and so on. In addition, the aggregate of consciousness is also differentiated into visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, and so on. It is no longer merely a nameable mental faculty. At this point, however, there is no distinguishing of forms or particular sensations; there is just awareness of sense fields in general. The other three mental faculties are still only nameable. It is very interesting if we think about it from a developmental point of view. There is awareness of physical sensation, but no differentiation into hot or cold, and so on.

The fifth link refers to the sensory cells and sensory objects or sense fields experienced through them. These are ripened results and refer to what is happening when a life-form is taking shape. To use the rough analogy of a computer, so far we have discussed the hardware. Now, we need to discuss the software.

The Sixth Link: Contacting Awareness

The sixth link is contacting awareness (reg-pa). Now the aggregate of distinguishing and significant parts of the aggregate of other affecting variables are functioning. They no longer are merely nameable mental faculties.

Calling this link "contact," its usual translation, gives the impression that it is the physical action of contacting an object. It is not that. It is a way of being aware of an object which, because it is distinguished, is contacted. Contacting awareness differentiates such an object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. For example, from within the field of physical sensations, the fetus now is able to distinguish experiences of hot or cold, or bouncing up and down that it cognitively contacts. It is aware of the physical sensation of bouncing up and down, for instance, as a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensation.

What determines that? Karma. Here, karmic results start to ripen that are similar to their cause (rgyu-mthun-gyi ‘bras-bu). Because we created pleasant or unpleasant situations in past lives, we encounter things that we are aware of as pleasant or unpleasant at this stage of development. Although the distinguishing aggregate and such other affecting variables as contacting awareness are functioning, the feeling aggregate is not yet functioning. It is present, but still in an undifferentiated form as a nameable mental faculty. In other words, we are aware of objects that we contact as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, but we do not yet feel happy, unhappy, or neutral in response.

The Seventh Link: Feeling a Level of Happiness

The seventh link is feeling a level of happiness (tshor-ba). At this point, the feeling aggregate is also functioning. Feeling is defined as the way in which we experience what has ripened from our karma. We experience happiness in accordance with contacting awareness of a pleasant physical sensation or unhappiness in accordance with the contacting awareness of an unpleasant sensation. Or we experience neither happiness nor unhappiness, or a very low level of one or the other, in accordance with contacting awareness of a neutral feeling.

These four and a half links – resultant loaded consciousness, nameable mental faculties with or without gross form, stimulators of cognition, contacting awareness, and feeling a level of happiness – are the resultant links of what has been thrown. Now we have the fully ripened mechanism of all five aggregates functioning. Everything is in place to uncontrollably perpetuate our samsaric situation.

For example, the fetus in the womb is aware of bouncing up and down as an unpleasant sensation. It is unhappy and dislikes the sensation. With repulsion, it feels like kicking to eliminate it. An urge arises to kick; it acts out the urge with an impulse of energy and kicks. This causes the mother to feel a physical sensation with contacting awareness as something unpleasant. She experiences discomfort. Kicking with anger and providing a circumstance for the mother to experience discomfort builds up causes for being aware of things in the future as unpleasant and experiencing unhappiness. Another fetus could be aware of the same sensation of bouncing up and down as soothing and relaxing, and be happy and calm in response. It is all coming from karma.

Questions about Future Rebirth

Question: Does the aftermath of throwing karma ripen in the very next life or in a lifetime after that?

Answer: The aftermath of a throwing karma can ripen into the immediately following rebirth or into any rebirth after that. However, once it is activated, it throws us into the immediately following rebirth. We have the aftermath of millions of throwing karmas on our mental continuums. When the aftermath of a particular throwing karma is activated at the time of death, it throws us into the next rebirth, starting with the bardo in-between state. In the bardo, we have a subtle body made of light, which already has the form of our next rebirth. If we are to be reborn as a human, that body has the form of what we will look like at the age of eight.

Question: There are teachings that the consciousness in the bardo sees its future parents in sexual embrace. How does it know when to dive in?

Answer: As we said, a big question is when does the next rebirth begin. It is a difficult question. There are classic descriptions of the consciousness observing the father and mother in union and then entering through the father’s mouth and going through his organ with his sperm into the mother’s womb and joining the egg. If it will be reborn as a male, it feels repulsion for the father and attraction for the mother, and if as a female, vice versa. I think logically we can differentiate that a little bit further to include homosexuals and bisexuals. One could be born into a male body with repulsion for the mother, and so on. The throwing karma determines whether it is a male or female and completing karma determines the sexual preference.

The question is, is this description to be taken literally or is it metaphorical? In any case, whether the consciousness joins this sperm and egg at the moment of conception or later, it is not consciously thinking, "Where is my mother and father? Oh, there they are!" It does not choose. It is not standing around in the bardo watching couples and waiting for the right ones to begin fornicating. Rather, it is almost like a magnetic attraction. There is no control at all. A consciousness is just drawn to a particular physical basis. I tend to think that the classical description of going through the father’s mouth and so on is not to be taken literally. But if we argue some point in the Dharma, we have to argue it with Dharma reasons, not just say, "I don’t think so."

This description of rebirth is primarily found in tantra sources. In anuttarayoga, the highest class of tantra, we want to purify the process of death, bardo, and rebirth. Therefore, we meditate in a process that is analogous to death, bardo, and rebirth in order to transform and purify them. The description of the universe in The Guhyasamaja Tantra, with Mount Meru, the four continents, the elements, and so on, is the same as that found in the abhidharma texts of sutra. The Kalachakra Tantra has a different description, in which Mount Meru and the element mandalas are in proportion to the human body. Based on this presentation, we can meditate in such a way that the mandala of Kalachakra has the same proportions as the universe and the same proportions as the human body. In this way, we can purify both our external and internal situations at the same time. Similarly, when we want to purify the birth process in anuttarayoga tantra, we meditate in analogy to the birth process. We meditate that our consciousness enters the mouth of the male deity and goes through the male organ into the womb of the female deity, with an experience of bliss. All the figures in the mandala are generated from drops in the womb of the female deity and these figures then come forth from the womb and take their places in the external mandala.

So, just as the description of the universe in Kalachakra is a convenient description for meditation and is not to be taken literally, likewise, the description of the rebirth process that we find in The Guhyasamaja Tantra is not to be taken literally. It is just giving a convenient analogy for the purpose of meditation. I think this is a valid argument, consistent with Buddhist logic, for asserting that the description of rebirth as starting with the moment just before the future father ejaculates into the future mother’s womb is not to be taken literally.

Question: What about test-tube babies or fertilized eggs that are frozen?

Answer: In the traditional presentation, we can be born by womb, egg, heat and moisture, or transformation. The classical texts even say that humans can be born in all four ways. We have to think about what this could possibly be referring to. Maybe some of these modern ways of being born are what they were talking about. Being born from an egg is referred to as being "twice-born," because one is born into an egg and then is born again from the egg. We can imagine a similar two-step process when an egg is fertilized in the womb of one mother and then implanted in the womb of another mother. That is being twice born. If a sperm and an egg are joined in a test tube and then implanted in a woman’s womb or even developed in some artificial environment, which for sure will come at some point, such artificial situations could be similar to birth form heat and moisture. Birth from transformation sounds like cloning to me; there is transformation from a cell into another body, without the fertilization of a sperm and egg. Using our imaginations, we could agree that there are these four different types of birth even among humans. Obviously, we would need the karma to be born in one way or the other.

In terms of frozen embryos, it is difficult to say whether a consciousness has entered an embryo or not. Obviously, there are both possibilities. But even if it has entered, it is just another experience. There would be the subjective, individual experience of being in a state of suspended animation or coma because of the circumstance of the physical basis being frozen. It is a remnant of a previous rebirth in a cold hell. Such phenomena are described in the laws of karma.

Question: In which moment does the fetus start to generate new karma?

Answer: In response to feeling happiness or unhappiness, disturbing emotions come up because we are attached to the happiness and don’t want to let go of it, or we don’t like the unhappiness and we want to get rid of it. Disturbing emotions such as attachment and aversion come up as a response to feelings of happiness or unhappiness. Those disturbing emotions motivate us to do something about it. There is an intention there as well. Then, there is an impulse of energy with which the fetus kicks the mother. That starts to build up more karma.

We can see that the whole scenario has started again. If the mother becomes resentful of this being inside her womb that is kicking and making her feel uncomfortable all the time, it could be the beginning of a bad relationship between the mother and the child. The father as well may resent the baby for making the mother so uncomfortable that she is not able to be affectionate and show attention to him. Karma is ripening in the circumstances that the baby experiences. In this example, it is born into a situation where the parents already resent it because it was kicking all the time. It will probably kick and cry all the time because it is experiencing everything as unpleasant and it is unhappy and angry. The parents then might wish even more strongly that the baby would shut up, which the baby would experience as being even more unpleasant and get even more freaked out. This whole package is the ripening of karma. The baby is just making it worse, uncontrollably. Welcome to samsara!

Question: But if the mother is already engaged in the process of purification, it acts as a favorable condition for the child, right?

Answer: Not necessarily. Remember we said that karma doesn’t ripen in a linear way. We can be practicing well and meditating everyday and still get cancer and die. What ripens can be from many lifetimes ago. A mother might be a very good practitioner and have a baby who screams and cries and is always miserable. It doesn’t follow that a practitioner will have a nice little Buddha.

Question: An enlightened mental continuum keeps taking rebirth out of compassion, with total control instead of out of confusion, into wherever and whenever and under whatever circumstances he or she wants, correct?

Answer: Correct.