The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems Regarding What Karma Is

Karma (las, Skt. karma) is the most complex topic in Buddhism and is explained differently in each of the four Indian Buddhist tenet systems. Here, we shall summarize the main points of the differences among them by surveying the major technical terms that appear in each of the four presentations.

In these presentations, karma is best translated as an “impulse” in order to be applicable to all technical terms regarding karma as used in all four systems. Many of the other technical terms need to be translated slightly differently, but within the parameters allowed by Sanskrit grammar, so as to fit all usages.

An Urge or an Urging (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā)

All Four Tenet Systems

  • The most general meaning of the Tibetan term sems-pa, Sanskrt cetanā, is an “urge” – the mental factor (sems-byung, Skt. caitta) that, like a magnet, draws the mind (i.e., a consciousness and its accompanying mental factors) into all cognitions of mental and sensory objects and into all actions of mind, body and speech. The most general meaning of the Tibetan term las, Sanskrit karma, is an “impulse.”
  • The urges that draw the mind into cognitions are called “functional impulses (byed-pa’i las, Skt. kāritrakarma) or observational impulses (dmigs-pa’i las, Skt. upalabdhikarma). The urges that draw the mind into actions of mind, body or speech are exertional impulses (rtsol-ba-can-gyi las, Skt. vyavasāyakarma). Only exertional impulses are true origins of suffering and thus only they are “karmic impulses.” The term las, karma is also used with this specific meaning of a karmic impulse.
  • The most general meaning of sems-pa, Skt. cetanā, then, is the mental factor of an urge. Within this general meaning of an urge as a mental factor, the most general meaning as a true origin of suffering is the karmic impulse that draws the mind into an action of mind, body or speech – in other words, the karmic impulse for the sake of (or, simply, for) an action of mind, body or speech. This may also be called an urging karmic impulse.
  • A more restricted usage of sems-pa, Skt. cetanā is as a karmic impulse that draws the mind only into an action of mind (yid-kyi las, Skt. manaskarma). We may refer to an urge in this usage as the karmic impulse in the context of (or, simply, in) an action of mind.
  • There are two types of karmic actions of mind. One is in the context of the presentation of the ten constructive and ten destructive actions. Here, the term sems-pa, Skt. cetanā, an urge, appears in its most specific usage. It is the mental factor that draws the mind into only specific actions of mind – namely, those that are focused on the body or speech and that consider and decide to commit a physical or verbal action. Thus, they “incite” such an action, whether or not that action of body or speech is actually enacted. Such karmic impulses are translated as inciting karmic impulses (sems-pa’i las, Skt. cetanākarma).
  • The second type of karmic action of the mind is a karmic action of the mind that is not an inciting karmic impulse, such as a throwing karmic impulse (‘phen-byed-kyi las) at the end of a lifetime that propels the mind into a next rebirth. There is no special term for this second type of karmic action of the mind.

Something Being Caused by an Urging (bsam-pa’i las, Skt. cetayitvākarma)

Vaibhashika and Madhyamaka

  • The karmic impulses in actions of body and speech (lus-kyi las, Skt. kāyakarma and ngag-gi las, Skt. vākkarma) are forms of physical phenomena and not mental factors. They include revealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs, Skt. vijñaptirūpa) and nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijñaptirūpa). Only the karmic impulses in actions of mind are the mental factor of an urge.
  • Among the karmic impulses in actions of body and speech (revealing and nonrevealing forms) that are preceded by karmic actions of mind that are brought about by inciting karmic impulses are “karmic impulses being caused by a previous urging” (bsam-pa’i las, Skt. cetayitvākarma). These are translated as “incited karmic impulses.”
  • Thus, there are also karmic impulses in actions of body and speech that are not incited karmic impulses, such as the karmic impulse in an unplanned, spontaneous action of body or speech. Such karmic impulses are only revealing forms and do not have a nonrevealing form. They were not being caused by a previous urging.

Sautrantika and Chittamatra

  • The karmic impulses for actions of mind, body and speech are also the karmic impulses in actions of mind, body and speech, and all are the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā).
  • All karmic impulses (urges) for actions of mind, body and speech are also “karmic impulses for (actions) being caused by an urge” (bsam-pa’i las, Skt. cetayitvākarma). In this usage, “being caused by an urge” does not refer to being caused by a previous inciting karmic impulse.
  • Among them, the karmic impulses being caused by a previous urging (bsam-pa’i las, Skt. cetayitvākarma) are the karmic impulses for actions of body or speech that are preceded by karmic actions of mind that were brought about by inciting karmic impulses. These are called “incited karmic impulses.”
  • Thus, there are also karmic impulses (urges) for actions of body and speech that are not incited karmic impulses, such as the karmic impulse (the urge) in an unplanned, spontaneous action of body or speech. They were not being caused by a previous urging.

Revealing Forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs, Skt. vijñaptirūpa)

Vaibhashika

  • Revealing forms are the shape of the body or the sound of the voice as a method implemented for causing an action of body or speech to occur.
  • They are karmic impulses in actions of body or speech and must be either constructive or destructive. 
  • The shape of the body is a momentary, substantial entity made of light, separate from color, and is different from the biological body, which is an unspecified phenomenon.
  • The sound of the voice is also a momentary, substantial entity. It is communicative that it is being produced by the work of a sentient being having the intention to speak and functions as a platform for words
  • The sequence of the momentary revealing forms of an action of body or speech arises with the initiation of the action and lasts only as long as the action occurs.

Madhyamaka 

  • Revealing forms are the movement of the biological body or the utterance of the sounds of words and phrases having meaning as a method implemented for causing an action of body or speech to occur.
  • They are the karmic impulses in actions of body or speech and must be either constructive or destructive. 
  • Although they themselves, as parts of the biological body, are unspecified phenomena, they take on the ethical status of the constructive or destructive emotion or of the unspecified attitude that causes them to arise and that accompany them.
  • They are not substantial entities and occur over a sequence of moments.
  • They arise with the initiation of a karmic action and last only as long as the action occurs.
  • The visible form of the biological body during the movement is comprised of moments of colored particles amassed into shapes.

Sautrantika and Chittamatra

  • Revealing forms are the movement of the biological body or the utterance of the sounds of words and phrases having meaning as a method implemented for causing an action of body or speech to occur.
  • They are not karmic impulses and thus are not the karmic impulses in actions of body or speech.
  • They arise with the initiation of a karmic action and last only as long as the action occurs.
  • They are unspecified phenomena and are parts of the biological body. 
  • The visible form of the biological body during the movement is comprised of moments of colored particles amassed into shapes.

Nonrevealing Forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijñaptirūpa)

Vaibhashika 

  • Nonrevealing forms are immaterial forms of physical phenomena and the only type of form of physical phenomenon that is merely a cognitive stimulator that is all validly knowable phenomena (chos-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs, Skt. dharmāyatanarūpa). Such phenomena can only be cognized by mental cognition.
  • They are momentary substantial entities
  • They are one of the two types of incited karmic impulses in actions of body or speech
  • They are constructive or destructive.
  • Their sequence arises with the initiation of a karmic action, continues after the action has ceased and ends only when they are relinquished.

Madhyamaka

  • They are immaterial forms of physical phenomena and one of five types of forms of physical phenomena that are merely cognitive stimulators that are all validly knowable phenomena.
  • They are not substantial entities and are not momentary.
  • They are one of the two types of incited karmic impulses in actions of the body or speech 
  • They are constructive or destructive.  
  • They last over a sequence of moments that arises with the initiation of a karmic action, continues after the action has ceased and ends only when they are relinquished.

Sautrantika

  • There is no such thing as a nonrevealing form.
  • There are no forms of physical phenomena that are merely cognitive stimulators that are all validly knowable phenomena.
  • Transformations (yongs-su ‘gyur-ba, Skt. pariṇāma) of the mental continuum in incited karmic actions of the body and speech function in a similar way as nonrevealing forms do and last as long as they do. They are not karmic impulses, but are constructive or destructive

Chittamatra

  • Nonrevealing forms are immaterial forms of physical phenomena and one of the five types of forms of physical phenomena that are merely cognitive stimulators that are all validly knowable phenomena.
  • They are not karmic impulses, but occur in incited actions of the body or speech
  • They are constructive or destructive.  
  • They last over a sequence of moments that arises with the initiation of the action, continues after the action has ceased and ends only when they are relinquished.
Top