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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising > Day Three: The Last Five Links and the Mechanism of Samsara

The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

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

Day Three: The Last Five Links and the Mechanism of Samsara

The next three links – eight, nine, and ten – are the causal links that actualize (bsgrub-byed-kyi yan-lag). They are what activate the karmic aftermath of throwing karma in the moments preceding death so that the karmic results will actualize. Thus, they serve as the simultaneously acting conditions (lhan-cig byed-rkyen) for the aggregates of our future rebirth. They act simultaneously with the karmic causes for them. Without them present and functioning as conditions, the karmic aftermath will not activate and give its results.

These three links are parallel to the sequence that occurs at any time during our lives in response to experiencing feelings of happiness or unhappiness. Normally, we respond with disturbing emotions, urges to act, and impulses in which we actually do act. Here, however, the parallel factors are much stronger in their impact, because they occur at death.

The Eighth Link: Craving

The eighth link is craving (sred-pa). Here, we are focusing on feelings of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral that have ripened during the moments just before our deaths. It is a form of longing desire (‘dod-chags) to experience something in the future that we may or may not be experiencing now.

There are three types of craving.

(1) The first is craving in relation to what is desirable (‘dod-sred), which means craving to not being parted from the ordinary forms of happiness that we are currently experiencing. The happiness we are feeling may be from having our loved ones around our deathbed or even because of a narcotic painkiller. The level of happiness we are craving to and do not want to let go of does not need to be intense.

(2) The second sort is craving because of fear (‘jigs-sred), namely craving to be parted from pain and unhappiness. Many elderly people who are suffering mentally feel that everyone they know has died and they just want to be freed from their depression and misery. These first two forms of craving are not difficult to understand.

(3) The third form of craving, craving in relation to further existence (srid-sred), refers to craving for a neutral feeling we are experiencing to survive and not degenerate, for example the neutral feeling of being asleep or in a coma.

A supplementary explanation of craving in relation to further existence is that it is craving for our own bodies composed of five aggregates as a basis for the first two forms of craving. We have to examine this one. It is subtle and not easy to understand. Even if we are in a coma, there is still this unconscious craving to have a body, to hang on. My friend’s elderly aunt had a severe stroke. She is in a semi-coma. All she can do is move her eyes. Most of the time, she is out of it. The doctors say she should have died within a few weeks of the stroke, but she has lived on for about eight months with a tube in her stomach to feed her. She is hanging on to life and will not let go.

Even meditators who have gained equanimity about their feelings still may have craving for their bodies, the basis for their equanimity. This is not so difficult to see even from our own limited experience. We might do some practice of tonglen (giving and taking) in the dentist’s chair, or think of the pain as impermanent, say some mantras, and so on. As a result, we might be a little mentally relaxed about the pain. Yet, we could find that our bodies are still tense. The tension in our hands as we tightly grip the arms of the dentist chair is perhaps indicative of this third kind of craving.

There is also an alternative way of explaining the three kinds of craving, in relation to objects of the three times. (1) Craving in relation to what is desirable is holding on to objects of the present, which we are attached to keeping. (2) Craving because of fear is holding on to objects of the past. We are afraid to let go of everything we remember that we’ve accomplished or had in the past. (3) Craving in relation to further existence is holding on to objects of the future, namely holding on to having continued existence with future rebirth.

The Ninth Link: An Obtainer

The ninth link is an obtainer (len-pa), which can be either an obtainer disturbing emotion or an obtainer disturbing attitude. A set of aggregates is "tainted" (zag-bcas kyi phung-po, contaminated aggregates) if it has come from unawareness, the first link of dependent arising which led to throwing karma and the whole process that gave rise to them. The aggregates are called obtaining aggregates (nyer-len-gyi phung-po) if they contain one or more of these obtainer emotions or attitudes. Due to their presence and functioning, we obtain future aggregates also containing them, through the mechanism of their helping to activate karmic aftermath.

There are four obtainers, the first is an obtainer disturbing emotion, while the following three are obtainer disturbing attitudes.

(1) The obtainer disturbing emotion is obtainer desire (‘dod-pa nye-bar len-pa) for some desirable sensory object of the realm of desirable sense objects. It may be attachment to one that we are currently experiencing, or longing desire for one that we wish to have. A very common form is wanting someone to hold our hand or to embrace us. We want a physical sensation. "Hold me!" "Don’t let me go." We want to see pictures of loved ones, or of Buddha, Jesus, or whoever. Most people will not long for a smell or a taste at the moment of death, but a dog might have attachment or longing for the scent of its master. It could also be attachment or longing for the sound of a loved one’s voice. This really happens at the time of death. It is terrible. This is one of the things that activate throwing karma. All of this is given in the texts in technical jargon. It is important to relate it to our experience and think about what it is actually talking about.

(2) The second type is an obtainer deluded outlook (lta-ba nye-bar len-pa). It itself is divided into three, which cover three of the five "disturbing deluded outlooks on life" (lta-ba nyon-mongs-can, deluded views), which I call "deluded outlooks" for short.

We are talking here about what are called "klesha" in Sanskrit (nyon-mongs), which I prefer to translate as "disturbing emotions and attitudes," but even that is inadequate. According to the definition, when they arise, they cause us to feel disturbed and uncomfortable. Some people translate this term as "emotional afflictions" or "afflictive emotions," but those terms give the impression that it is only talking about emotions. It is not.

It is extremely difficult to find a word or phrase in our languages that covers the full extent of what are included as kleshas. Of the six fundamental kleshas, five are not outlooks on life, while the five subdivisions of the sixth kelsha are outlooks on life. Of the five that are not outlooks on life, attachment and hostility are emotions in our Western usage of the word. Arrogance or pride is perhaps an emotion, but is more of an attitude. Naivety and indecisiveness are disturbing states of mind. The sixth, deluded outlooks, are disturbing attitudes.

In any case, let us look at the three deluded outlooks that are included here as divisions of an obtainer deluded outlook.

(a) The first, a distorted outlook (log-par lta-ba), is primarily a denial of cause and effect. With a distorted outlook we may deny cause and effect. We may still believe in future rebirth, but we deny that we will experience the results of any of our actions then. To use an analogy from computers, our attitude is that our hard disc will be completely wiped and we go on to our next life as an empty disc drive. The formatting and programs that will get loaded on it in a future life will have no relation whatsoever with what we have done in this life. This can also be quite disturbing, since we have no idea what will get loaded and it could easily be something terrible. There is nothing we can do to influence what will happen.

Our distorted outlook may also be a denial of rebirth. If we think that this lifetime is the only one a seemingly solid "me" will ever have, we tend to hang on to it even more strongly than if we believe in rebirth.

Another variation may be a denial of a safe direction (refuge). We may feel there are no sources of safe direction that can indicate what are the most helpful thoughts to have and prayers to make as we die. With this distorted outlook, we can feel lost and helpless. Since distorted outlooks have an emotional component of antagonism toward anyone or any view that disagrees with ours, this denial of anything that can help us at the time of our deaths can be very bitter.

(b) The second obtainer deluded outlook here is an extreme outlook (mthar-‘dzin-pa’i lta-ba). One variety is the disturbing attitude that our bodies and minds, with their present seemingly concrete and permanent identities, are going to last forever and death will never happen. It is a grand denial of death, which is a very disturbed and disturbing state of mind. It can easily lead to absolute panic at the moment of our deaths.

An extreme outlook can also be that we will have no continuity after we die. We think nothing happens after death, that there is no further experiencing. If we look at this psychologically, this is a disturbing state of mind. Underlying it is usually the frightening feeling that there will be a big nothing.

(c) The third obtainer deluded outlook is holding a deluded outlook as supreme (lta-ba mchog-tu ‘dzin-pa). Holding a deluded outlook as supreme is an attitude involving how we regard things. According to one explanation, we might regard our aggregates, our bodies, and so on, as totally pure, clean, and a source of true happiness. With this deluded outlook, we hold such an attitude based on incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed) as supreme; we think it is totally true. That is why we want to continue having our bodies. When we think of our bodies as a source of true happiness, most people usually think in terms of sex.

The incorrect consideration involved here could also take the opposite form, which would be to regard our aggregates as dirty and horrible. We then consider that outlook as totally correct, and perhaps think, "If I could just get separated from them, I would have true happiness." Somebody dying from cancer or AIDS or about to commit suicide might have this deluded outlook, for example.

These three, then – a distorted outlook, an extreme outlook, and holding a deluded outlook as supreme – constitute the second kind of obtainer, an obtainer deluded outlook.

(3) The third kind of obtainer is the disturbing attitude of holding deluded morality or conduct as supreme (tshul-khrims-dang brtul-zhugs mchog-tu ‘dzin-pa).

  • Deluded morality is ridding ourselves of some trivial manner of behavior that is meaningless to give up, particularly under the circumstance of dying. An example would be giving up our favorite foods that are not good for us when we are in the final stages of terminal cancer.
  • Deluded conduct is to dress, act, or speak in some trivial manner that is meaningless to adopt in the face of imminent death. For instance, putting on our army uniforms so that we die in full dress, clutching a good luck charm, or, not accepting what is happening, calling out for someone miraculously to save us from dying.

With this obtainer disturbing attitude, we are convinced that acting in these trivial ways will purify us of anything negative, liberate us from all our worries, and definitely deliver us to a better fate.

(4) The fourth obtainer is asserting our identities (bdag-tu smra-ba), which refers to the disturbing attitude of a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (‘jig-lta). Thinking in terms of a solid "me," we identify that solid "me" with our aggregates, in other words with some part of our experience as we are dying. Or, we identify that supposedly solid "me" as the possessor, controller, or inhabitant of our aggregates as solidly "mine." When we are dying, for instance, this could be panicking with the thought, "What is happening to me? What is happening to "my" body?"

These are the four types of grabbing out. These things actually happen to all of us when we die, in one form or another. "Hold me! I am dying! Someone save me! I don’t want to leave this body, it has given me such joy in my life! What is happening to me?" It is a horrible experience. This is experiencing death with unawareness.

In the practice of anuttarayoga tantra, we rehearse dying so that we die without unawareness, and so we don’t panic at the time of death. We know that the dissolution process of death occurs in eight stages and we know what is going to happen, so we don’t freak out. Until we gain complete familiarity with the eight stages of the death process, the instructions for the meditation are, as we imagine experiencing each stage, to be aware of which stage has just ended, which stage is now happening, and which stage will come next. The reason for that is to gain familiarity so that we don’t get lost; we stay aware of the whole process. Otherwise, it is easy to freak out at each particular stage when it actually happening. This is really quite a profound psychological reason for practicing this type of meditation. Panic, in a sense, is one of the main things that cause the activation of throwing karma.

The Tenth Link: Further Existence

The tenth link, further existence (srid-pa), is usually translated as "becoming." Literally, however, it means "existence," referring to existence in our next rebirth. Here, the name of the result is being given to one of its cause. "Further existence" actually refers to a karmic impulse that activates (nus-pa mthu-can-du byed-pa) the karmic aftermath of throwing karma just before we die.

As a type of mental karmic impulse, the full technical name for "further existence" is a "karmic impulse that actualizes a further existence" (yang-srid sgrub-pa’i las). It is somewhat like an impulse to survive. The further existence it actualizes includes the four divisions of this link: bardo existence (bar-do’i srid-pa), conception existence (skye-srid), predeath existence (sngon-dus-kyi srid-pa, sngon-gyi srid-pa), and death existence (‘chi-srid).

The disturbing emotions and attitudes of craving and an obtainer arouse (gsos-‘debs) a further existence impulse and, like these eighth and ninth links, this tenth link is a necessary simultaneously acting condition for samsaric rebirth. The activated karmic aftermath of throwing karma is the cause that "ripens" into that rebirth. The throwing karma that causes the karmic rebirth is a phenomenon of the past and is not an immediate cause of the rebirth.

During the time of these three causal links that actualize, the aftermath of throwing karma imputed on our causal loaded consciousness has not yet ripened to bring its result. The next two links, the resultant links of what is actualized (mngon-par grub-pa’i ‘bras-bu’i yan-lag), summarize the result of being thrown to the next rebirth.

The Eleventh Link: Conception

The eleventh link, conception (skye-ba), is equivalent to the first moment of link number four, nameable mental faculties with or without gross form. As we have discussed, that doesn’t necessarily mean the moment of conception as we understand it biologically, but rather the moment when the embryo starts to function as a basis for experiencing. This eleventh link lasts just one moment.

The Twelfth Link: Aging and Dying

The twelfth link, aging and dying (rga-shi), starts in the second moment of our rebirth. So, after the first moment of experiencing the future life on the basis of an embryo, we start to age. This is very interesting in terms of our concept of getting old. We do not just start getting old when we are sixty; we start getting old the moment after conception.

My mother, before she died, lived in a retirement community in Florida. Everyone there was between sixty-five and eighty, and none of them thought of themselves as old. They were just "retired." "Old people" are those over eighty in nursing homes. Children or teenagers consider anybody over twenty-five as being old. If you are over forty, forget it! The Buddhist way of looking at aging is much healthier: the second after conception, we start to get old.

The Process of Samsaric Rebirth

The twelve links do not occur in a linear sequence. Why should they, other than because of our grasping for inherent symmetry? There are four sets of links.

  • The first set is happening all the time, the causal links that throw (1, 2, and 3a). We are "planting seeds" of throwing karma all the time.
  • The third set, the causal links that actualize (8, 9, and 10), happen at the moments just before death. They are how we activate the aftermath of throwing karma.
  • The second group, the resultant links of what has been thrown (3b, 4, 5, and 6), refer to the development of the embryo in the womb in the life that is thrown by the activated throwing karma.
  • The last two links, the resultant links of what is actualized (11,12), start again at the second set. We could die before that second group has fully developed, as in an abortion or a miscarriage, or long after.
The Causal Links
that Throw
The Resultant Links
of What Has Been Thrown
The Causal Links
that Actualize
The Resultant Links
of What Is Actualized
1. Unawareness
2. Affecting Impulses
3. Loaded Consciousness
    a. Causal
    b. Resultant
4. Nameable Mental Faculties with
or without Gross Form
5. Stimulators of Cognition
6. Contacting Awareness
7. Feeling a Level of Happiness
8. Craving
9. An Obtainer
10. Further Existence
11. Conception
12. Aging and Dying


To complete all twelve links can take either two or three lifetimes. The first group, the planting of the aftermath of throwing karma, is one lifetime. The third group, which activates this karmic aftermath, can happen either in the same lifetime that it was planted or in a later lifetime – it could even be a million years later. They do not have to be consecutive at all. The second and fourth groups are referring to one lifetime from different perspectives.

(1) In the case of the process being completed in two lifetimes, the first and third sets occur in the same lifetime and the second and fourth in the immediately following one.

(2) If it occurs in three lifetimes, the first set occurs in one lifetime, the third set is in another lifetime, not necessarily the next one, and the second and fourth sets happen in the lifetime immediately following the lifetime in which the third set occurs. Once the aftermath of throwing karma is activated by the third set, the fourth set is the result in the next lifetime.

Stopping the Process: Vajrasattva Purification

Now, how do we get out of this? How do we stop it? There are many steps involved, as is usually the case in Buddhism. First, we try to purify ourselves of the negative karmic force that we have built up. One of the most widespread methods for this is through Vajrasattva meditation. This method is found only in Mahayana.

The meditation begins with looking at the destructive actions that we have committed. This includes both actual negative things we remember doing, as well as things we cannot recall. This includes even destructive acts we have undoubtedly committed in past lives. Even though we do not really know what we have done in past lives, still we admit that whatever our destructive acts might have been, they were mistaken. That doesn’t have to be so vague. For instance, I am allergic to cats and have been since I was a baby. That is a suffering. It must have come from some negative behavior in a previous lifetime. It doesn’t matter what that was. One could speculate, but in any case, there must have been some cause for it in a previous lifetime and whatever it was, it was a mistake.

There is no need to confess our "sins" or "crimes" to anyone else, not even to Buddha. We merely acknowledge this to ourselves. We acted like that because we were confused, not because we were "bad" and disobeyed divine commandments or civil laws. Forgiveness and begging for mercy are concepts from certain non-Buddhist ethical systems that are irrelevant in the Buddhist context.

Then, we apply the four opponent forces.

(1) First, we regret having acted destructively. Regret is very different from guilt. Guilt is like never throwing the garbage out or never flushing the toilet. We hang onto it and never let go, even though it is horrible. That is really a good analogy. Making it seem ridiculous makes it easier to let it go. When we feel regret, it is like we ate food that will make us sick. We wish that we had not eaten it, but it doesn’t mean that we are bad persons for having eaten it.

(2) Secondly, we make the firm decision that we are going to try our best not to repeat those acts. We cannot promise and then guarantee that we’re never going to yell at anyone ever again. But, we are going to try our best not to get angry and yell any more. This second factor, then, entails the intention not to repeat the act. If the negative karmic force from our destructive behavior is still on our mental continuums as subtle negative energy, our intention not to repeat it transforms the subtle karmic energy into a negative karmic potential. The karmic force of our previous pattern of yelling is now less apt to cause us to act like this again in the near future.

Also, remember that in the Gelug Prasangika system that asserts subtle karmic energy, this subtle energy is still a karmic impulse and, if the motivating emotion were strong, it would still be an active throwing karma. The karmic force of a nonstatic abstraction, such as a karmic potential, is much less compelling than the karmic force of a subtle karmic energy impulse.

(3) Thirdly, we reaffirm the positive direction that we are going in with safe direction (refuge) and bodhichitta. This is called "the force of the basis on which we rely." We put our feet back on the ground. These are the directions that we are going in our lives. These are what our lives are all about.

(4) Fourthly, we apply some positive actions to counteract the negative karmic aftermath we’ve built up. Here, the positive action is Vajrasattva meditation, which we do with a multistage visualization. In it, we basically imagine that we flush all the negative karmic force out from our bodies and let it go. We throw out the garbage. We recite a hundred-syllable mantra while doing this visualization.

It is not just saying magic words without feeling or thinking anything. If we repeat the mantra twenty-one times each day with the four opponent forces complete, with proper concentration, Mahayana motivation, and so on, the negative force from this particular karmic action will not grow, it will not increase. This is because the positive karmic force of our application of the opponent forces counters and diminishes the heaviness of our destructive actions. Otherwise, the negative force on our mental continuums grows every day.

Many factors affect the heaviness of the results that ripen from karmic aftermath. Some occur while we commit the karmic acts, such as the amount of suffering we cause to others and the strength of our motivating emotion. Others can occur even after the act is finished, such as, here, applying counteracting actions. If we have an argument with our partner, for example, and we let it go without apologizing, the resentment, doubt, and so on just get stronger everyday. But if we apologize, the aftereffects of the argument in our daily relationship become less heavy. For this reason, it is always recommended that we recite the Vajrasattva mantra at least twenty-one times a day. Once we know the mantra, it really does not take so long to do.

If we repeat the mantra a hundred thousand times purely – with bodhichitta, proper concentration, and, optimally, also with a conceptual understanding of voidness (emptiness) – we can achieve a "provisional purification" of the networks of negative karmic force that we have built up from the destructive acts that we have been focusing on purifying.

The mechanism resembles the one that explains how destructive physical, verbal, or mental actions directed at a specific bodhisattva and motivated by anger can devastate (bcom) any positive karmic force built up from previous constructive actions directed at that bodhisattva in this or any previous lives. The term devastate has a very specific meaning. The karmic force of our angry behavior eradicates (med-pa) any positive karmic force built up from constructive actions directed at that bodhisattva, but does not affect the positive karmic tendencies of those acts. Because those positive karmic tendencies can still ripen, it is possible for us again in the future to feel like acting constructively toward that bodhisattva and to engage in such behavior. Without a supporting network of positive karmic force, however, those karmic tendencies will require very strong and special external and internal circumstances to activate and ripen. Thus, the term eradicate does not mean that we have achieved a true stopping (‘gog-bden) of positive karmic force directed toward that bodhisattva, such that we can never build up any more again. We can build up more, because our angry behavior has not eradicated our positive karmic tendencies toward him or her.

Further, the eradication, by means of anger, of a specific positive karmic force means that, regardless of what circumstances are present, this positive force can never ripen into the result that it would otherwise have ripened into, had anger not devastated it. Nevertheless, the positive karmic force could ripen into another, much weaker form of happiness than what it would previously have produced and that ripening could be severely delayed.

In addition to this effect that our angry behavior has on the karmic aftermath of any previously committed constructive actions directed at that bodhisattva, it also weakens our networks of positive karmic force built up from previous constructive behavior directed at anyone else. This means that the negative karmic force of our angry behavior causes those positive networks to produce weaker or only minor results and often postpones their ripening.

A hundred thousand repetitions of the Vajrasattva mantra with the appropriate visualizations and correct state of mind functions similarly with our negative karmic aftermath. In terms of specific types of destructive behavior directed at specific individuals, if we have openly admitted they were mistaken and applied the four opponent forces, our purification practice eradicates the networks of negative force from those types of behavior directed at those individuals. It does not affect the negative karmic tendencies previously built up directed at them and so, with strong circumstances, they can ripen into further destructive behavior aimed at them. Our Vajrasattva practice also weakens the networks of negative karmic force from other types of previously committed destructive actions that we have not recalled or thought of in our open admission, but does not eradicate them. It also only weakens the networks of negative karmic force from the types of destructive actions that we have admitted, but directed at individuals other than the ones we have specified.

For this reason, it is important to try to recall and admit as many specific negative deeds toward individuals as possible, since the effect will be stronger than just a vaguely formulated "any negativity directed at any sentient being." Nevertheless, it is important to think as vastly as possible when doing Vajrasattva purification. So when thinking, "all negativities directed at all sentient beings," we need to really mean it and try as best as possible to conceive what "all negativities" and "all sentient beings" really entail. If we leave them vague and they have no emotional value to us, our purification will be limited.

In any case, any level of purification accomplished by mantra recitation not accompanied by nonconceptual cognition of voidness is only provisional. It is only a temporary respite from the heavy ripening of our previously built-up negative karmic aftermath. It gives us breathing space to work on the path in a less hindered way, like when we achieve a precious human rebirth with the respites and enrichments that render it most conducive for spiritual practice.

Even after successful Vajrasattva purification, we will certainly still experience craving and an obtainer emotion or attitude as simultaneously acting conditions for the activation and ripening of karmic aftermath in general. Our Vajrasattva meditation has not affected them. Nevertheless, since the negative karmic aftermath left on our mental continuums would be weaker, the further existence impulses that our craving and obtainers arouse and that activate that aftermath would lead to less heavy suffering results. Certainly we are not going to be free of ever feeling unhappy again or free of worse rebirths and unpleasant things ever happening to us, but the heaviest suffering will be temporarily gone.

Also, since craving and obtainer emotions and attitudes are the simultaneously acting conditions for new karmic impulses to arise, we are certainly not free of the possibility of more negative karmic impulses arising in the future and, if we act them out, building up fresh negative karmic aftermath. The mechanism is similar to what Asanga and other Mahayana masters explained for reconnecting so-called "severed roots of positive force (roots of virtue)." Only nonconceptual cognition of voidness can rid us forever of all karma, karmic aftermath, and karmic ripenings – both the negative as well as the positive varieties. Both keep us bound with uncontrollably recurring rebirth – samsara.

Also, since our Vajrasattva practice has not necessarily affected the strength of our disturbing emotions and attitudes, including our grasping for a solid "me," some of our karmic impulses and actions will still be strongly motivated by them. As a result, we will still build up more throwing karma and their aftermath that will ripen in more samsaric rebirth. But, meanwhile, we have a provisional respite from difficult conditions that would be obstacles to our deeper practice to rid ourselves of karma completely. This is why a hundred thousand repetitions of the Vajrasattva mantra are a widely recommended and practiced, effective preliminary for tantra practice.

One last point about Vajrasattva mantra repetition. Please, don’t be superstitious about the numbers. It’s not that if we do twenty and not twenty-one, it’s not going to work, or that between ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine and a hundred thousand we hit the jackpot. It certainly does not work like that. It is much healthier if we do some repetitions everyday, or do a lot for over a longer period of time. It is like counting the breath: the number is not important. It is very easy to get caught up in the numbers and become preoccupied with them.

The Ultimate Antidote: Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

What we really need in order to rid ourselves of all aspects of karma forever so that they never return is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness). Only this will bring about a true stopping of karma.

Voidness means an absence. We projected and imagined that we and everybody else existed as solid, substantial "me"s. That is the first link. And it felt like that and we believed it. Our projections, however, do not correspond to anything real. There is an absolute absence of a real solid "me." It does not exist and never did exist. It feels like that, we have the concept of one, but the actual thing does not exist. Our belief that this solid "me" exists is aimed at something that does exist: the conventional "me." But, the manner in which we consider it to exist does not refer to anything real. The conventional "me" does not exist in the manner of a solid "me," because there is no such manner of existence. Let me use an example that hopefully will make it clearer.

We see a man dressed in a red and white suit with a white beard. It looks and feels to us as if he truly is Santa Claus. No man, however, can exist as Santa Claus because there is no such actual person as Santa Claus. When we stop projecting this impossible way of existing, we simply see a man who looks like Santa Claus, but is devoid of existing as the actual Santa Claus. We know that it is just like an illusion: the appearance of a Santa Claus does not correspond to anything real.

Likewise, this conventional "me" looks and feels substantial, but that does not correspond to reality because there is no such thing as a solid, substantial "me." What we perceive is simply a conventional "me" that appears to exist as a false "me," but that deceptive appearance is merely like an illusion. This is true regarding not only ourselves, but regarding everyone.

This is just a simple introduction to voidness. It is obviously very complicated. To gain a true stopping of all aspects of karma and samsaric rebirth, we need to focus nonconceptually, and with full and correct understanding, on the absence of this impossible way of existing in terms of ourselves and others.

[See: Introduction to Voidness (Emptiness) and Mental Labeling.]

Progressive Levels of Understanding Voidness: The Five Pathway Minds

In Buddhism, there are five so-called "paths" to becoming either liberated or enlightened, depending on which track we are on. "Path" means a pathway mind. A path is a level of mind, a level of experiencing things.

[For more detail, see: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]

(1) We achieve a first pathway mind when we have as our primary motivation an unlabored (rtsol-med) motivation of either the determination to be free (renunciation) or, in addition to that, bodhichitta. "Unlabored" means that we do not need to go through a line of reasoning, with deliberate effort, to work ourselves up to feeling it. It just comes automatically. Having bodhichitta as our primary motivation means that we have it manifest all the time: we continuously have the intention to achieve enlightenment and help all limited beings, whether or not we are conscious of this hope and aim.

Before achieving this first pathway mind, we may or may not have achieved the perfect concentration of a stilled and settled mind of shamatha (zhi-gnas). This first pathway mind is called the pathway mind of building up (tshogs-lam), usually translated as the "path of accumulation." With this level of mind, we work on building up, among other further good qualities, shamatha focused on a correct conceptual understanding of voidness. When we achieve shamatha focused conceptually on voidness, we attain the third of three major stages of this path, an advanced pathway mind of building up.

We then work to build up the joined pair shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness. Vipashyana (lhag-mthong) is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, and it is not necessarily focused on voidness. We may have even attained it before achieving that path of building up. In fact, non-Buddhist meditators as well achieve shamatha and vipashyana focused on a variety of objects. Here, the point is to focus it on voidness. Of course, it is possible to do a type of meditation on voidness that resembles vipashyana before we have attained shamatha. Actual vipashyana, however, is only possible to achieve once we have the perfect concentration of shamatha.

[See: General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana.]

(2) When we achieve the joined pair shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness, we have attained the second pathway mind, a pathway mind of applying (sbyor-lam), usually translated as the "path of preparation." With this second level pathway mind, our joined shamatha and vipashyana is focused conceptually on voidness and we are applying that further in order to gain the joined pair focused nonconceptually on voidness. So here we are able to focus on voidness only through a correct idea of it. Otherwise, if we had no idea of what voidness meant, what would we focus on? It is conceptual meditation. It is important not to look down on conceptual meditation.

This second pathway mind has four stages. When we achieve the third, the patience stage, we no longer have any fear about losing our conventional identities. This is really quite advanced, since with the second stage of this pathway mind we have joined shamatha and vipashyana on voidness even in our dreams. With this third stage pathway mind of applying, we will no longer have any of the worse kinds of rebirth states. We could still have better rebirths with suffering and pain, but we won’t ever again be reborn as a cockroach, for instance.

What this means is that the strength of the positive karmic aftermath from our voidness meditation has become so powerful that it has seriously weakened the strength of the aftermath of our negative throwing karma. It has weakened it to the point at which this negative karmic aftermath will no longer ripen into rebirth in one of the worse realms of samsaric existence. It can only ripen into terrible conditions and experiences in better samsaric rebirths or even in this life. Moreover, the strength of our disturbing emotions and attitudes has also weakened sufficiently so that any negative karmic impulses or actions motivated or accompanied by them can no longer act as a throwing karma. We do not build up any new negative throwing karma.

Our voidness meditation, however, has still not affected the karmic aftermath of our positive throwing karma for further samsaric rebirth in one of the better states. Also, it has still not weakened the strength of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that might still motivate or accompany our positive karmic impulses and actions to the point at which these disturbing emotions and attitudes no longer make them into throwing karma.

(3) The third pathway mind is the pathway mind of seeing (mthong-lam), with which we have joined shamatha and vipashyana focused nonconceptually on voidness. We no longer need to focus on voidness through an idea of it, but can focus free of all conceptions.

In talking about what happens at this stage, our discussion has to become a little more complex. Let us restrict our discussion to the Gelug and Karma Kagyu presentations of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka system of tenets. Sakya and Nyingma each have slightly different presentations of this material.

Remember, we were talking about unawareness about how persons exist and about how all phenomena exist, and that it has two levels: doctrinally based and automatically arising unawareness. Before the path of seeing, we are called "ordinary beings" (so-so’i skye-bo). Once we achieve this pathway mind, we are called an "arya" (‘phags-pa), a highly realized being, a "noble one." Ordinary beings have both doctrinally based and automatically arising unawareness about how persons exist. With a pathway mind of seeing, we rid ourselves of the unawareness that is doctrinally based. But an arya, however, still experiences automatically arising unawareness – at least up to a certain later stage. Automatically arising unawareness is more deeply seated than the doctrinally based form is, which is why ordinary beings and aryas both have it.

Not all unawareness is the first link of dependent arising. The first link is only the unawareness of how persons exist. Moreover, although on the mental continuum of an ordinary being, both the doctrinally based and automatically arising unawareness about how persons exist are the first link, the automatically arising unawareness about how persons exist that is on the mental continuum of an arya is not the first link. Thus, although as an arya we have rid ourselves of the unawareness link, we still have automatically arising unawareness – not only with respect to persons, but also with respect to things.

Because we are rid of the first link as an arya, we are free of a big chunk of confusion. We do not create any more of the second link; there is no more new throwing karma, not even the positive variety. That is because the disturbing emotions and attitudes that automatically arise are too weak to make even our positive impulses and actions strong enough to be throwing karmas. Thus, while we are not yet free of samsara, there is no creation of new throwing karma.

Therefore, there is no more of the third link, consciousness loaded with new throwing karma. Consequently, there are no resultant links of what has been thrown or resultant links of what is actualized from new throwing karma. However, we still have old throwing karma, in the form of networks of karmic forces and karmic tendencies. It is too complicated to go into detail here. We can still activate the old throwing karma and experience resultant links of what has been thrown and resultant links of what is actualized from it.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika and Chart for Understanding Karma.]

While we have a pathway mind of seeing, we still experience all the various types of results of karma, including contacting awareness and feeling a level of happiness. Although the craving and obtainer links no longer have doctrinally based forms, they still have automatically arising ones. We are free of the first link – doctrinally based unawareness concerning how persons exist and the automatically arising unawareness about this that arises on the mental continuum of an ordinary being. However, according to the Gelug Prasangika assertions, we are not yet rid of the root of samsara – the automatically arising unawareness, on the mental continuum of an arya, about how not only persons, but also about how all phenomena exist. Thus, although we no longer have doctrinally based craving and obtainer emotions or attitudes, which would come from doctrinally based unawareness, we still have automatically arising craving and obtainers, coming from automatically arising unawareness.

The Gelug non-Prasangika systems and all systems as explained by the non-Gelug traditions do not assert unawareness about the reality of all phenomena, whether on the mental continuum of an ordinary being or an arya, as a root of samsara. This is because they consider such unawarness as an obscuration concerning all knowables and which prevents omniscience. They do not consider it, as Gelug Prasangika does, as an obscuration that is a disturbing emotion or attitude and which prevents liberation.

Unawareness about Reality

Doctrinally Based
Automatically Arising
Concerning Persons first link both first link and
root of samsara
Concerning All Phenomena neither first link nor root of samsara root of samsara
Aryas Concerning Persons

none root of samsara
Concerning All Phenomena none root of samsara


Within craving, we still have the automatically arising forms of all three types of craving:

  • craving not to be parted from ordinary forms of happiness,
  • craving to be parted from unhappiness, and
  • craving for neutral feelings not to degenerate and for our bodies as the continuing basis for experiencing happiness and no suffering.

Within the obtainers, we still have the automatically arising forms of them:

  • desire for desirable sensory objects,
  • a deluded outlook toward a transitory network, and
  • an extreme outlook.

However, we no longer have:

  • a distorted outlook,
  • holding a deluded outlook as supreme,
  • or holding deluded morality or conduct as supreme.

These three deluded outlook obtainers only have doctrinally based forms.

Even without concepts, we can still grasp to our bodies as constituting the solid identity of "me" and grasp for that "me" with this solid identity to last forever. However, only based on concepts can we deny the future-life effects of our behavior, think of our bodies as beautiful sources of true happiness, or cry out desperately for a miracle to save us from death.

When we die, this subtler, automatically arising level of craving and obtainer emotions and attitudes will still arouse a further existence impulse that will activate the karmic aftermath of the old throwing karma that is left on our mental continuums. We will still experience samsaric rebirth thrown under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes. It will not be rebirth in one of the three worse realms. We have eliminated that possibility a long time ago. Because we have a strong determination to be free, strong bodhichitta, and strong prayers, we will be thrown to a fortunate rebirth with a precious human life that will enable us to continue on the path to enlightenment.

Nevertheless, because we have all our previously accumulated karmic aftermath, we can still experience being unhappy, being hit by a car, or getting cancer. We can even still get angry and repeat previous negative behavior such as yelling at others. However, since our destructive actions are motivated only by automatically arising anger, and not by the doctrinally based form, the force of the impulses and actions is weak. It is not strong enough to create any new throwing karma. The automatically arising desire and attachment that might motivate our positive impulses and actions, such as helping someone out of longing to feel needed, will not bring about any new positive throwing karma either. However, we are still in samsara.

(4) To get out of samsara, we need to work further with voidness with a fourth pathway mind, the pathway mind of accustoming (sgom-lam), usually translated as the "path of meditation." Eventually, we reach the stage at which our joined shamatha and vipashyana focused nonconceptually on voidness is strong enough to eliminate our automatically arising unawareness about everything: both persons and all phenomena. At that point, we rid ourselves of the root of samsara.

If we have been working on the track just to achieve freedom from samsara, motivated by the determination to be free, we reach the stage of a shravaka or pratyekabuddha arhat. If we have been working on the bodhisattva track, we finish the seventh of ten bodhisattva stages and are about to enter the eighth. We are a bodhisattva arhat, but not yet a Buddha.

The various schools that subscribe to the common Mahayana explanation of karma each explain slightly differently what we start to rid ourselves of and what we finish ridding ourselves of at each of these arya stages. However, they all agree that when we achieve arhatship, we will no longer experience any suffering or compulsively feel like repeating our previous karmic patterns of behavior. But we have only achieved nirvana with residue (lhag-bcas-kyi myang-‘das). Until we die and get rid of the residue of tainted, samsaric bodies with which we were born, we could still be hit by a car or get cancer, but we would not suffer.

Once we die, however, we achieve nirvana without residue (lhag-med myang-‘das), parinirvana, and no such things would ever happen to us again. We would be reborn with bodies made of light. Such bodies are not samsaric and not thrown by craving, an obtainer, or a further existence impulse. However, we are still not free of our karmic constant habits or what continuously ripens from them. But, I will not go into detail about this here, since the various schools have different assertions concerning it.

According to the Gelug Prasangika tenets, nirvana with residue means with a residue of appearance-making of true findable existence (bden-snang). Nirvana without residue means without such a residue. Arhats alternate between the two, not only in the remainder of the lifetime in which they attain arhatship, but in all future lives until enlightenment when they rid themselves forever of such appearance-making. They experience nirvana without residue only during total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) on voidness. They experience nirvana with residue at all other times as their subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, post-meditation), whether they are meditating on something other than voidness or not meditating at all.

Thus, when arhats achieve nirvana – whether they are shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva arhats – they are free of all karmic ripenings of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath (networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies). The continuities of their aggregates are no longer tainted. Since they lack any findable defining characteristics on their own side that could still make them tainted, they are no longer tainted. Each moment of their continuity comes from deep awareness (ye-shes), not from unawareness. This is because according to Gelug Prasangika, even unawareness about how all phenomena exist is included among the obscurations preventing liberation and arhats have achieved a true stopping of this set of obscurations. Only if aggregates come directly from unawareness in the previous moment can they be considered tainted. When arhats die from the lifetime in which they achieved liberation, however, they are reborn with bodies made of pure light, as in the common Mahayana tenets.

At this stage, according to Gelug Prasangika, we have achieved true stoppings of unawareness and karma, but we are still left with the constant habits of unawareness, karmic constant habits and what continuously ripens from both. They cause our cognition continuously to be limited and continuously to be unable to focus simultaneously on the two truths. Thus, we are not able to benefit others as fully as is possible.

(5) With a fifth pathway mind, the pathway mind needing no more training (mi-slob lam), we become Buddhas if we have been progressing on the Mahayana track. Now, we are able forever to focus nonconceptually on not only voidness, but on the two truths simultaneously. This rids us forever of the constant habits of unawareness and of constant karmic habits. As enlightened Buddhas, we are able to benefit others as fully as is possible.

Summary of the Purification Process

I am presenting these complicated stages in brief just to give a general idea of the steps of the purification process, so that we don’t have false hopes about what is going to happen on the path. In summary,

  • first we stop the negative karmic forces from growing stronger and stronger each day.
  • Then we clean house to rid ourselves of our backlog of negative karmic force, especially the karmic aftermath of negative throwing karma, but we will immediately start building up more negative force, more negative throwing karma.
  • Then we get to the stage where we will not be thrown into any of the worse rebirths by the karmic aftermath of negative throwing karma.
  • Next, we rid ourselves of the first link. We do not build up any more new throwing karma – either negative or positive.
  • Next, we rid ourselves of the root of samsara. We no longer have uncontrollable recurring rebirth. We have gotten rid of all the karmic aftermath of throwing karma.
  • Eventually we become enlightened, at which point we overcome all our limitations and realize all our potentials to be able to benefit others as much as is possible.

The process of purification is one of gradual stages, which occur as the result of focusing nonconceptually on voidness with the joined pair shamatha and vipashyana. We cannot simultaneously have, in one moment of cognition, both unawareness of reality and correct nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Either we understand voidness or we do not. Ridding ourselves of all unawareness and the constant habits of unawareness is a matter of the strength and duration of our nonconceptual focus on that understanding. Bodhichitta makes the force of our cognition extremely strong. If we are able to have this strongest of motivations, the most focused mind, and have it focused all the time, nonconceptually on voidness, unawareness never comes back. We will always stay with that understanding.

We have covered an intermediate explanation of the process of samsara, the process of getting out of samsara, and the process of purification all the way to Buddhahood. Please appreciate that it can be explained in a much more complex way. We need to work in stages.

Questions about Mental Karma

Question: When a thought of anger arises in our minds, could we understand that the gross impulse generated by that thought is the one that makes us do or say something and the subtle impulse stays with us in our mental continuum?

Answer: We need to deconstruct the conceptual framework from which you are asking the question. In our Western languages, we use the word thinking in a very broad way. Here in the Buddhist explanation, we need to limit it. When we talk about the karma involved with the a mental action, an example of a mental action would be thinking, "He didn’t call me yesterday. I wasted the whole day staying at home and waiting for him to phone. Next time I see him, I’m going to really yell at him for being so inconsiderate." Thinking that train of thought is a destructive mental action. The negative emotion of anger that accompanies it is something else. Anger is the motivation; it is not the negative thinking itself.

Regardless of which tenet system we follow, mental karma does not entail physical impulses of energy, either gross or subtle. It is purely the mental urge that brings on and sustains a train of thought. It is never the karmic action of thinking.

Question: What if I want to say something bad to someone and I don’t act it out, but the same thought recurs until it moves me to the action?

Answer: First, we have to differentiate the negative mental act from the negative verbal act. Thinking about it is a mental act; the verbal act is actually saying it. Thinking about doing something beforehand – planning it – can lead to actually saying it, but it may not lead to saying it. In the discussion of karma, we have four possibilities: planned and acted out; planned and not acted out; not planned but acted out; and neither planned nor acted out. The heaviest karmic potential comes from planning something and then acting it out.

Question: Is it correct, then, that even if a thought does not lead to an action, even the thinking of it creates karma that we need to purify? What about killing someone in a dream? No one gets hurt, so do we generate negative karma to be purified?

Answer: Yes to both your questions. In the case of dreaming of killing someone, even if the dream began with planning to kill the person and then actually killing him in the dream, the negative karmic force is weaker than if we had actually killed someone when awake. Even though the action was planned and then carried out in the dream, there was no actual basis – no real person – at whom the action was aimed and who was killed by our action.

Question: If I have the karma to die either at home or in a hospital bed in a more or less conscious way, what would you suggest as a practice, taking into account that I am not a very developed practitioner? Should I practice shamatha, a Buddha-figure, visualize my Lama?

Answer: The most important thing at the time of death is to stay focused on refuge (our safe direction) and on bodhichitta. Please keep in mind that refuge does not mean, "O Buddha save me!" Rather, it is thinking, "This is the direction that I want to continue in, the safe direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I want to go all the way to enlightenment to be able to help everybody. May I achieve a fully endowed human form with all the respites from suffering and enrichments with favorable circumstances most conducive for continuing on the path all the way to Buddhahood so I can really be of best help to everybody. May I always be guided by fully qualified teachers." We can stay focused on the figure of a Buddha or our Lamas to stay with this thought. Or, if that is too difficult, we can just focus on the thought, "May I be able to benefit everybody."


I cannot overemphasize the need to be realistic. "What do you expect from samsara?" Until we become arhats, we are not going to stop feeling unhappy sometimes. And we are not going to stop getting sick, being hit by cars, and so on until after that we achieve a body made of light. Before arhatship, our experience is going to continue to go up and down. As we progress, the roller coaster will not be so severe, but we will still sometimes feel unhappy about things, get into bad moods, and experience things happening to us that we don’t want to happen. We must not fool ourselves with false hopes of miracles or let ourselves be fooled by people who tell us that miracles are going to happen.

If we have a realistic idea of what happens in the process toward enlightenment, it strengthens our determination and our courage. We can think, "I know it is going to be difficult and that my moods are going to go up and down, but I am going to push ahead anyway. I am not going to allow that to distract me." In this way, we can work steadily and in a stable fashion toward liberation and enlightenment and not give up or get discouraged when miracles do not occur.


May whatever understanding we might have gained go deeper and deeper so that we can see more clearly the process that is keeping us in samsara, as well as the stages of getting out. May whatever positive force has come from our listening and thinking about all of this serve as a cause for being able to work in a realistic and steady way toward liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.