Karma is a prominent topic discussed throughout the history of Indian thought, with several different explanations found in the varied schools of Indian philosophy, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Even within the Buddhist fold, there are several different presentations in the tenet systems (grub-mtha’, Skt. siddhānta) that evolved. For many students of Buddhism, both Western and traditional, this broad array of assertions can be quite bewildering. There is much confusion and misunderstanding. The only way to resolve that confusion is through learning what the Buddhist teachings say, thinking about their meanings so that we correctly understand them, and then meditating on them to accustom our minds to the principles of karma so that we can integrate them into our lives.
Among the different Buddhist tenet systems, the Sarvastivada and Mahayana ones were studied extensively, on the basis of logic, at the great monastic universities of India, such as Nalanda. Many of the great Nalanda masters wrote extensive commentaries on karma and other topics, in Sanskrit, from the points of view of these various systems. This method of study of the tenet systems, based on logic and reason, was transmitted from India to Tibet, and most of these commentaries were translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan.
The various Tibetan traditions have followed an eclectic approach to the study of karma. They study its presentation in the texts of the different tenet systems, accept the basics that are shared in common in all of them, and incorporate distinctive elements from different ones into an eclectic system that they all accept.
Here, we shall focus on the Indian commentarial tradition, with occasional reference to sub-commentaries by Tibetan masters. We shall offer, individually, the presentations by the main Indian tenet systems that treat the topic of karma and primarily let the Nalanda masters speak for themselves. When available, we shall translate from the original Sanskrit; otherwise, we shall do so from the Tibetan translations from Sanskrit.
Sanskrit grammar is one of the five major secular fields of knowledge studied at the great Indian monastic universities. Therefore, to understand the classical Indian literature on karma correctly, we need to base our study on translating the texts strictly in accord with Sanskrit grammar, even when its grammatical constructions do not accord with those in the language into which we are translating. Doing otherwise often obscures or, sometimes, may even misrepresent the nuances and intent of the original. One of the major examples of this is the popular translation of karma as “action,” which is in accord with the Tibetan translation, las, which is the Tibetan colloquial word for “action.” But “action,” as in the “ten destructive actions,” refers to a pathway of karma (las-kyi lam, Skt. karmapatha), which includes a basis for an action, a motivating framework of an intention, distinguishing and emotion, the implementation of a method for committing the action, and a finale.
The Sanskrit word “karma” is an agent noun, made from the strengthened verb root kṛ (to do, to act) plus the suffix ma. Thus, karma is “something that does something,” “something that acts.” This is analogous to the agent noun “dharma,” something that holds one back (from suffering), which derives from the strengthened verb root dhṛ (to hold, to hold back, to safeguard) plus the suffix ma.
It is important to bear in mind that, within Buddha’s teachings, karma is considered the most complex and difficult topic to comprehend. Only a fully enlightened Buddha can understand it in all its details. Nevertheless, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly emphasizes, we can gradually approach that full understanding by studying the texts of the great Nalanda masters. Therefore, this is the approach that we shall follow here.
The Three Baskets (the Tripitaka)
Buddha spoke of karma, as recorded in his sutras, while his disciples and later generations elaborated his teachings on karma in their abhidharma compilations. Originally, however, Buddha’s teachings were transmitted purely orally, with successive generations of monastics memorizing and reciting them as the method for passing them on to the next generation. Because of discrepancies in what was remembered and large distances between groups of monastics, 18 early traditions of the teachings developed.
These are sometimes called the 18 “Nikaya” traditions (“the traditions of the monastic groups”), and, to differentiate them from the Mahayana tradition, the Prajnaparamita Sutras labeled them the 18 “Hinayana” traditions. Although “Hinayana” and “Mahayana” are pejorative names on the one hand and self-aggrandizing on the other, we shall use them for ease of recognition, without intending these connotations.
Several of these 18 schools split apart from each other at councils that were held to confirm the authenticity of the teachings. The Sarvastivada school, for example, split from the Theravada one at the Third Buddhist Council, held under the patronage of King Ashoka. According to the Sarvastivada account, this took place in 237 BCE. A few decades later, in 190 BCE, the Dharmaguptaka school also split from the Theravada one.
Each of these 18 traditions classified Buddha’s teachings into three groups, which they referred to as “Baskets”: a Vinaya Basket, a Sutra Basket, and an Abhidharma Basket. Each of these 18 sets of Three Baskets (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripiṭaka) preserved both different versions of some of the same texts as well as some completely different texts.
Of these 18 traditions, the Theravada Three Baskets are fully extant, the Sarvastivada collection is mostly extant, and many of the Dharmaguptaka texts as well as fragments of texts from the other “Hinayana” schools are extant in Chinese translation. The Sarvastivada Three Baskets were written in Sanskrit and the Dharmaguptaka in the Gandhari language. Both schools were prevalent in present-day Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani Punjab and Afghanistan. The Dharmaguptaka school had Mahayana influence, as seen with its canon containing an additional Bodhisattva Basket and a Dharani Basket. The Theravada Three Baskets were written down in the Pali language in Sri Lanka.
Although sometimes the name “Three Baskets” is applied to the later Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana canons of the Buddha’s teachings, this division scheme does not actually match the Hinayana schemes. The Chinese canon preserves many texts from many of the various Hinayana Three Basket collections, especially the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka ones, as well as a collection of Mahayana texts. The Tibetan canon preserves some of only the Sarvastivada texts as well as a different collection of Mahayana texts, with only some appearing also in the Chinese canon.
The Sarvastivada Sutra and Abhidharma Baskets and the Emergence of the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika Schools
The Sarvastivada Sutra Basket – or at least what is extant of it – contained three collections, each including different texts from those in the Theravada Sutta Basket having the same names as their Theravada equivalents, but with Āgama (Discourse) substituted for Nikāya (Collection):
- Long Discourses (Dīrgha Āgama), two-thirds of which is preserved in Sanskrit
- Middle-Length Discourses (Madhyama Āgama), preserved in its Chinese translation
- Connected Discourses (Saṃyukta Āgama), also preserved in its Chinese translation.
The Abhidharma Basket (Skt. Abhidharma Piṭaka; The Basket of [Texts on] Special Topics of Knowledge) of the Sarvastivada School contains seven main texts. Four are attributed to three authors who lived before the split from Theravada:
- An Aggregate of Phenomena (Skt. Dharmaskandha), by Shariputra (Shā-ri’i bu, Skt. Śāriputra) according to Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, by Maudgalyayana (Mau-gal-gyi bu, Skt. Maudgalyāyana) according to Chinese sources, both direct disciples of the Buddha
- Setting Forth in a Chorus (Skt. Saṅgitiprayāya), by Maudgalyayana
- A Treatise of Revealings (Skt. Prajñaptiśāstra), also by Maudgalyayana. Its third chapter, Revealing Karma (Las gdags-pa, Skt. Karmavijñapti) deals with karma.
- A Corpus of (Types of) Consciousness (Skt. Vijñānakāya), by Devakshema (Skt. Devakṣema), about one century after the passing of the Buddha, so some time in the fourth century BCE.
The fifth text of the seven was added some time in the century that followed the split:
- The Establishment of Deep Awareness (Skt. Jñānaprasthāna), originally known as The Eight Chapters (Skt. Aṣṭagrantha) by Katyayaniputra (Kā-ta’i bu-mo’i bu, Skt. Kātyāyanīputra), sometime in the second century BCE.
These five Sarvastivada abhidharma texts present karma, “something that does something,” as an impulse. For actions of mind, the karmic impulse is the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā) – the mental urge that brings on the action of mind. For actions of body and speech, the karmic impulses are forms of physical phenomena – namely, revealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs, Skt. vijñaptirūpa) and nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijñaptirūpa). Revealing forms are the forms the body and speech take to implement a method for committing the action; they reveal their motivating factors. Nonrevealing forms are imperceptible forms brought on by revealing forms; they do not reveal their motivating factors.
Purportedly in the late first century CE, Kumaralata (Skt. Kumāralāta) (aka Kumaralabdha, Skt. Kumāralabdha) rejected these abhidharma sources in favor of relying exclusively on the sutras. The Sautrantika school that followed is attributed to him as its founder. Thus, the Sautrantikas rejected the Sarvastivada abhidharma texts as their main source of the Buddha’s teachings and turned instead to its sutras. They said that this is because only Buddha is a valid source of information, given that only Buddha is omniscient. According to the Sautrantika tenets, the karmic impulses involved with the actions of body, speech and mind are all the mental factor of an urge. Although the discourses included in the Sarvastivada Sutra Basket – and perhaps in portions not preserved – undoubtedly contain presentations of karma in accord with this interpretation, I have been unable to locate the references.
The Theravada Three Baskets, however, do contain the assertion that all karmic impulses involved with actions of body, speech and mind are mental urges. It is found, for instance, in the Seed Sutta (Pali: Bījasuttam), the third sutta in the eleventh section, Groups Distinguished for Mendicants (Samaṇasaññāvaggo) of the Chapter of Tens (Pali: Dasakanipātapãli) section of the Collection (of Numbered Items) Increasing Incrementally (Pali: Anguttaranikāya) (104):
O monks, for a person with right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right understanding, and right liberation, whatever karmic impulses for actions of body that have been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view, and whatever karmic impulses for actions of speech that have been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view, and whatever karmic impulses for actions of mind that have been carried through to the end, having been taken up in accord with their view, and which are also mental urges, wishes, aspirations and affecting variables – all of those things will evolve into enjoyable, pleasurable, pleasing, agreeable happiness. What is its cause? It is their view, O monks, which is excellent.
(Pali) sammādiṭṭhikassa, bhikkhave, purisapuggalassa sammāsaṅkappassa sammāvācassa sammākammantassa sammāājīvassa sammāvāyāmassa sammāsatissa sammāsamādhissa sammāñāṇissa sammāvimuttissa yañceva kāyakammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yañca vacīkammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yañca manokammaṃ yathādiṭṭhi samattaṃ samādinnaṃ yā ca cetanā yā ca patthanā yo ca paṇidhi ye ca saṅkhārā, sabbe te dhammā iṭṭhāya kantāya manāpāya hitāya sukhāya saṃvattanti. Taṃ kissa hetu? Diṭṭhi hissa, bhikkhave, bhaddikā.
In the early second century CE, the Kushan King Kanishka convened a Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The participants of this council rejected the Sautrantika assertion and compiled a commentary to The Establishment of Deep Awareness, called The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise on Special Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣa-śāstra). It is said to have many Mahayana influences. The Mahayana sutras confirm the earlier Sarvastivada abhidharma assertions that the karmic impulses of actions of body and speech are revealing and nonrevealing forms of physical phenomena. The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise became the source of the Vaibhashika tenet system.
One of the compilers of this Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise was purportedly Vasumitra (dByigs-bshes, Skt. Vasumitra). He is credited as having authored the remaining two of the seven main Sarvastivadin abhidharma texts:
- A Corpus of Cognitive Sources (Skt. Dhātukāya), credited to Vasumitra according to the Chinese translation or to Purna (Skt. Pūrṇa) according to the Tibetan versions, both of whom lived in the early second century CE
- Verses on Topics (Skt. Prakaraṇapāda), with the first four chapters credited to Vasumitra and the last four to Kashmiri arhats.
The Development of the Interpretations of Karma in the Indian Tenet Systems
The late second-century CE founder of the Madhyamaka school, Nagarjuna, in his presentation of karma in the seventeenth chapter of Root Verses on Madhyamaka, Called Discriminating Awareness (dBu-ma rtsa-ba’i tshig-le’ur byas-pa shes-rab ces bya-ba, Skt. Prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyama-kārikā), followed the assertions in the Mahayana sutras and in Revealing Karma that the karmic impulses involved with actions of body and speech are forms of physical phenomena. Without specifically mentioning the Vaibhashikas or the Sautrantikas, however, he refuted their shared interpretation of the substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) of karma with his assertions concerning the voidness (emptiness) of arising and perishing and of karmic cause and effect.
Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmakośa), compiled toward the end of the fourth century CE, systematized the Vaibhashika presentation of karma, which had first been formulated in The Great Extensive Commentarial Treatise.
In his (Auto)commentary on “A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge” (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod-kyi rang-’grel, Skt. Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya) and A Discussion for the Establishment of Karma (Las-grub-pa’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Karmasiddhi-prakaraṇa), Vasubandhu presented the Sautrantika refutations of some of the Vaibhashika assertions. These two texts by Vasubandhu are the main early sources for the details of the Sautrantika presentation.
Vasubandhu’s brother, Asanga (Thogs-med, Skt. Asanga), in An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), accepted the Sautrantika assertion that all karmic impulses are the mental factor of an urge, but explained this within the context of the other assertions of the Chittamatra school, which he propounded. He wrote further about karma in some of his other Chittamatra texts, such as:
- Foundation for Yogic Behavior (rNal-‘byor spyod-pa’i sa, Skt. Yogācārabhūmi, often referred to as The Main Section of Foundation (for Yogic Behavor) (Sa-yi dngos-gzhi, Skt. Maulya Bhūmayah)
- Compendia of Fundamental Phenomena from “Foundation for Yogic Behavior” (rNal-‘byor spyod pa’i sa-las gzhi-bsdu-ba, (Vastusaṃgrahaṇīsaṃgrahaṇī)
- Compendia of Ascertainments from “Foundation for Yogic Behavior” (rNal-‘byor spyod-pa’i sa rnam-par gtan-la dbab-pa bsdu-ba, Skt. Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī).
Vasubandhu himself also wrote A Discussion of the Five Aggregate Factors (Phung-po lnga’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa) and A Discussion for the Establishment of Karma (Las grub-pa'i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa), in which he presented variants of the Chittamatra assertions of karma found in his brother’s texts.
In the centuries that followed, various Indian and then later Tibetan masters wrote commentaries to all these texts. Within the Madhyamaka fold, Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika schools followed Nagarjuna’s presentation, while Yogachara-Svatantrika school followed the Chittamatra presentation, but each of these did so within the context of their own assertions of the voidness of cause and effect. All the Tibetan traditions follow Nagarjuna’s presentation, but again, each of them did so within the context of their presentations of the voidness of cause and effect.
It is important to bear in mind that all the diverse explanations of karma found in the Buddhist tenet systems are merely different conceptual frameworks that present mechanisms for explaining the same, universally experienced phenomena, namely, compulsive behavior and its effects as a driving force for perpetuating uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). All these systems are explanations of the second noble truth, true origins of suffering. By studying these various systems in detail, we will gain, from different angles, deeper insight into how samsara works.
Let us first examine the main assertions concerning karmic impulses and revealing and nonrevealing forms in the Mahayana Sutra Basket and then in the Sarvastivada Abhidharma Basket.
Sources from the Mahayana Sutra Basket
In The Sutra on Repaying the Kindness of the Buddha, the Great Skillful One in Methods (Thabs-mkhas-pa chen-po sangs-rgyas drin-lan bsab-pa’i mdo), translated into Tibetan from Chinese, Buddha discusses the ethical self-discipline of the constructive actions of refraining from destructive behavior. This ethical self-discipline entails, initially, requesting and acquiring monastic or lay vows and, subsequently, refraining from what one has vowed not to do or say. Buddha states in the sutra (Derge Kangyur vol. 76, 174a-175b):
Furthermore, there are four types of ethical self-discipline that each (being) out of all limited beings can acquire. When each of these four types of ethical self-discipline are divided, they become twelve types of ethical self-discipline. There are three (mental factors) that give rise to, are the causes of, and are the conditions for the four faults of turning away from not taking a life, not taking what was not given, not keeping chaste behavior, and not lying. In other words, these (faults) can arise from longing desire, they can arise from anger, and they can arise from naivety. Because of that, (each being, out of) all these limited beings, has these twelve destructive actions. Therefore, (each of them) can acquire twelve types of revealing forms of the ethical self-discipline of the constructive actions (of taking monastic vows) to turn away from these destructive actions. All fathomless number of limited beings can also acquire these like that….
Furthermore, all limited beings produce seven types of negative karmic actions of body and speech. The production of these negative karmic actions also arises from three types of causes and conditions. They, too, can arise from longing desire, they can arise from anger, and they can arise from naivety. Like that, the seven types of negative karmic actions can arise from these three causes and conditions. And like that, the seven types of negative karmic actions become twenty-one. When the ethical self-discipline comes about (from taking lay vows to) turn away from these negative karmic actions, then one limited being has twenty-one revealing forms of ethical self-discipline. Similarly, it is also like that for all limited beings….
When first receiving the regulations (of vows), as soon as the four karmic impulses of requesting and acquiring (the four root monastic vows) have been enacted (with body and speech), the ethical self-discipline is fully attained. The revealing forms of the ethical self-discipline of that first phase of mental urges (sems) that initiate (requesting and receiving the regulations of the vows) are called “karmic impulses” and are also called “pathways of karmic impulses.” The revealing forms of the ethical self-discipline that are produced from later phases of mental urges are called “karmic impulses” but not pathways of karmic impulses.
Being like that, the revealing forms of the ethical self-disciple from the first phase of mental urges are completing themselves as incited karmic impulses. They are called “pathways of incited karmic impulses” by means of their (being in pathways that) contain incited (karmic impulses). Because the revealing forms of subsequent ethical self-discipline, having been caused by the previous ethical self-discipline, automatically and spontaneously establish themselves, then although they are called “karmic impulses,” they are not pathways of karmic impulses.
(Tib.) yang tshul khrims thob pa ni sems can thams cad la so so nas tshul khrims bzhi thob par ‘gyur te/ tshul khrims bzhi so sor dbye na tshul khrims bcu gnyis su ‘gyur ro/ /sems can la srog mi gcod pa dang / ma byin par mi len pa dang / mi tshangs par mi spyod pa dang / brdzun mi smra bas bzlog pa’i nyes pa bzhi skye ba yang rgyu dang rkyen gsum gyi phyir te/ de yang ‘dod chags las skye ba dang / zhe sdang las skye ba dang / gti mug las skye ba’o/ /sems can thams cad la mi dge ba bcu gnyis po ‘di yod de/ mi dge ba ‘di las bzlog na dge ba’i tshul khrims kyi rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs bcu gnyis thob par ‘gyur ro/ /dpag tu med pa’i sems can thams cad la thob pa yang de dang ‘dra’o/….
sems can thams cad la lus dang ngag gi sdig pa bdun ‘byung ste/ sdig pa ‘byung ba ‘di yang rgyu dang rkyen rnam pa gsum gyis skye’o/ /de yang ‘dod chags kyis skye ba dang / zhe sdang gis skye ba dang / gti mug gis skye ba ste/ de ltar na rgyu dang rkyen gsum gyis sdig pa bdun skye ste/ de ltar na mi dge ba’i sdig pa bdun gsum nyi shu gcig go/ /sdig pa de las bzlog na tshul khrims su ‘gyur te/ sems can gcig la tshul khrims kyi rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs nyi shu rtsa gcig yod pa bzhin du sems can thams cad la yang de dang ‘dra’o/….
thog ma khrims nod pa’i tshe gsol ba dang zhu ba bzhi’i las byas ma thag tu tshul khrims rdzogs par ‘gyur te/ thog ma’i sems skad cig ma dang po’i tshul khrims kyi rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs ni las zhes kyang bya/ las kyi lam zhes kyang bya’o/ /sems skad cig ma phyi ma las khrims kyi rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs byung ba ni las zhes bya’i/ las kyi lam ma yin no/ /de lta bas na sems kyi skad cig ma dang po las tshul khrims kyi rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs bsam pa yongs su rdzogs te/ bsam pa dang ldan pas bsam pa’i las kyi lam zhes bya’o/ /tshul khrims snga mas rgyu byas te/ tshul khrims lhag ma’i rnam par rig byed kyi gzugs lhun gyis grub pas de bas na de la las zhes bya’i las kyi lam ma yin no/
In general, ethical self-discipline (tshul-khrims, Skt. śīla), as in “far-reaching ethical self-discipline” (the perfection of ethical self-discipline, the paramita of ethical self-discipline), is explained as being a mental factor that accompanies, for instance, the sensory consciousness with which one engages in the constructive actions of requesting, acquiring and keeping vows to refrain from destructive actions of body and speech. Those constructive actions have revealing forms of body and speech, which Buddha refers to as the “revealing forms of ethical self-discipline.” There is a first phase of revealing forms, which arise during the ceremony of requesting and acquiring vows, such as, in the case of monastic vows, shaving the head and receiving and putting on robes. Subsequently, there are the revealing forms of the body and speech while refraining from acting or speaking in destructive ways that transgress the vows.
Buddha then identifies these revealing forms as karmic impulses (las, Skt. karma), referring to those from the initial phase of requesting and acquiring the vows as “having been incited” (bsam, Skt. cetayitvā; having been urged). For simplicity of expression, we have called these “incited karmic impulses.” Buddha does not mention, here, the inciting karmic impulse (sems-pa’i las, Skt. cetanākarma) – which is the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā) – that would have brought on the karmic action of mind to think about and make the decision to take the vows. Such an inciting karmic impulse and mental action would have preceded the actions of body and speech of acquiring and requesting the vows. It is in relation to this inciting karmic impulse that the initial revealing forms of acquiring and receiving the vows are called “incited karmic impulses.”
The revealing forms of the body and speech of this first phase are brought on by mental urges. All mental urges are karmic impulses of the mind, but not all are inciting karmic impulses. The mental urges that bring on this initial phase of revealing forms are the type of karmic impulse of the mind that is not an inciting karmic impulse. The revealing forms of this initial phase, then, are the “pathway of a karmic impulse” (las-kyi lam, Skt. karmapatha) – namely, the figurative “pathway” that these karmic impulses of the mind that gave rise to them have taken, which was to lead to the revealing forms of requesting and acquiring the vows (the incited karmic impulses).
That pathway that that karmic impulse of the mind led to is called the “pathway of an incited karmic impulse,” in the sense of it being a pathway containing an incited karmic impulse, not in the sense of it being a pathway that the incited karmic impulse is taking. Although, as later Indian commentators elaborate, the pathway of a karmic impulse has many components – a basis toward which an action is directed, a motivating intention, a distinguishing of the basis, a motivating emotion, the implementation of a method for committing the action, and a finale – here, Buddha is giving the name of the whole to a part when referring to the revealing form with which that implementation is done as a pathway. It is like when we injure a part of our leg, we say we injured our leg. Thus, the revealing forms of this initial phase are both incited karmic impulses and pathways of a karmic impulse of the mind that contain an incited karmic impulse.
The revealing forms that subsequently arise when refraining from the destructive behavior that we vowed to avoid are also karmic impulses of the body or speech, but they are neither incited karmic impulses nor pathways of a karmic impulse of the mind. They are the revealing forms of the body refraining throughout the day and night from destructive behavior – for instance, the body refraining from killing and the speech refraining from lying. Although the other things we may be doing or saying are brought on by mental urges, the revealing forms of our body and speech refraining from transgressing our vows are not brought on by mental urges. These revealing forms “automatically and spontaneously establish themselves” and are caused to arise by our ethical self-discipline previously established with the first phase of requesting and taking the vows. These revealing forms, then, are karmic impulses of body and speech, but are not pathways of karmic impulses of the mind, since they are not directly brought on by a mental urge.
In this quotation, Buddha explains that the ethical self-discipline is established as soon as the first phase of revealing forms occurs. Moreover, this ethical self-discipline leads to subsequent phases of keeping the vows by refraining from actions of body and speech that transgress them. Buddha does not specify here, however, the mechanism for how that works. For this, we must look to another sutra.
In The Noble Great Mahaparinirvana Sutra (‘Phags-pa yongs-su mya-ngan-las ‘das-pa chen-po’i mdo, Skt. Āryamahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra) (Derge Kangyur vol. 52, 207B), Buddha explains that the ethical self-discipline of the constructive actions of requesting, acquiring and keeping vows to refrain from destructive behavior also entails nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijñaptirūpa):
Ethical self-discipline has seven aspects; namely, there are the seven (types of) nonrevealing forms of body and speech. By means of (the presence) of these nonrevealing forms as a circumstance, then even if the mind is abiding in a destructive or unspecified (state), it cannot be called a degeneration (or weakening) of the ethical self-discipline. The ethical self-discipline is being upheld.
(Tib.) tshul khrims la rnam pa bdun yod de/ lus dang ngag las rnam par rig byed ma yin pa’i gzugs yod do/ /rnam par rig byed ma yin pa’i gzugs kyi rkyen gyis sems mi dge ba’am/ lung du mi ston pa la gnas kyang tshul khrims nyams pa zhes mi bya ste/ tshul khrims srung ba’o/
Buddha identifies these nonrevealing forms as types of karmic impulses in (The Sutra of) the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Noble Hallowed Dharma (‘Phags-pa dam-pa’i chos dran-pa nye-bar gzhag-pa, Skt. Āryasaddharmasmrtyupasthāna) (Derge Kangyur, vol. 68, 137b-138a):
Then further, monks, suppose you ask, among the eleven distinguishable forms (‘du-shes-kyi gzugs), what are the ones that are considered as ripening nonrevealing forms that are karmic impulses and phenomena like? Well, among the internal phenomena of those with yogic behavior, those that are considered as phenomena (here) and that abide (in their mental continuums as karmic impulses) are the ones that – having been received as being vows that will accompany everything they do – from then on enter into a state of being a continuum of constructive phenomena, whether they are asleep, crazed or drunk.
For example, like the stream of a river that always flows without a break, these (vows) are like that, whether these persons have entered into sleep, craziness or drunkenness. The nonrevealing forms that are like that are accepted as being imperceptible and nonobstructive. Suppose you ask what are these forms like? They are (phenomena that) are in a state of existence of being (phenomena) with the essential nature of karmic impulses. That being so, they are both forms and one of the eleven types (rnam-pa) of forms.
Distinguishable forms are divided into eleven types, (those distinguished as), “This form is long; this form is short; this form is pretty; this form is not pretty; this form is perceptible; this form is obstructive; this form is imperceptible; this form is nonobstructive,” up to nonrevealing forms.
(Tib.) de nas gzhan yang dge slong de las dang / chos dang / rnam par smin pa rnam par rig byed ma yin pa’i ‘du shes kyi gzugs bcu gcig rjes su ji ltar mthong zhe na/ rnal ‘byor spyod pa nang gi chos la chos kyi rjes su lta zhing gnas pa des/ gang gi tshe chos thams cad kyi byed pa dang ldan pa gang sdom pa nyid blangs te/ de phan chad gnyid log gam/ myos sam/ rab tu myos kyang / dge ba’i chos kyi rgyun nyid rab tu ‘jug ste/ dper na/ chu bo’i rgyun bar chad med pa rtag tu ‘bab pa de bzhin du/ skyes bu de gnyid log gam/ myos sam/ rab tu myos pa’i ‘jug pa yang de bzhin no/ de ltar rnam par rig byed ma yin pa’i gzugs bstan du med pa/ thogs pa med par ‘dod do/ /gzugs de ji lta bu yin zhe na/ las kyi ngo bo nyid yod pa nyid yin te/ de lta bas na/ gzugs de yang / gzugs rnam pa bcu gcig po de dag yin la/
gzugs ‘di ni ring po/ gzugs ‘di ni thung ngu / gzugs ‘di ni sdug pa/ gzugs ‘di ni mi sdug pa/ gzugs ‘di ni bstan du yod pa/ gzugs ‘di ni thogs pa dang bcas pa/ gzugs ‘di ni bstan du med pa/ gzugs ‘di ni thogs pa med pa zhes rnam par rig byed ma yin pa’i bar rnam pa bcu gcig po ‘di ni ‘du shes kyi gzugs su rnam par dbye ste/
Note that the eleven types of distinguishable forms are not the same as the division of forms of physical phenomena into eleven types found in abhidharma: five types of sensory objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations), five types of physical cognitive sensors (the sensitive cells of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body) and, in the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika systems, nonrevealing forms counted as the eleventh type. In the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka systems, the fivefold set of forms that is included only among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena (chos-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs) is counted as the eleventh type of form of physical phenomenon. The definition of distinguishable forms and the list of the eleven of them is not contained in any of the texts preserved in Tibetan translation in the Kangyur or Tengyur.
Buddha refers to the nonrevealing forms as “ripening” (smin-pa, Skt. vipāka), meaning they are ripening causes. Ripening causes (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu, Skt. vipākahetu) are constructive or destructive phenomena that give rise to unspecified phenomena – phenomena unspecified by Buddha to be either constructive or destructive.
Sources from the Abhidharma Basket
One of the main sources on karma from the Abhidharma Basket is Revealing Karma by Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana. Concerning the revealing forms and nonrevealing forms of karmic impulses involved with the ten destructive actions, Maudgalyayana writes (Derge Tengyur vol. 138, 189B-191B):
Suppose you ask, “When what are called the ‘pathways of the karmic impulses involved with the ten destructive actions’ have been spelled out in full, does taking a life have something called a ‘revealing (karmic impulse)’ or does it have something called a ‘nonrevealing (karmic impulse)?’”
Well, it has been said that it has a revealing (karmic impulse) and it also has a nonrevealing (karmic impulse) as well. Suppose you ask, “What is the revealing (karmic impulse)?” Well, it is like this: whether someone has ordered you saying, “Take the life of this living being,” and you have said, “I will take its life” or, while having being ordered, “Don’t take its life,” you have said, “I will take its life anyway,” then whether in the case of immediately taking the life of that living being or later taking the life of that living being, whatever karmic impulses of the body there are at the time of taking its life are called “revealing (karmic impulses).”
Suppose you ask, “What are the nonrevealing (karmic impulses)?” Well, it is like this: after the taking of a life, so long as you have not turned away from doing it again and not placed it aside and not given it up and not abandoned doing it (again), then for that long, (the karmic impulses that) the body does not reveal are called “nonrevealing (karmic impulses).”.…
Suppose you ask, “Do covetous thinking, thinking with malice, and distorted, antagonistic thinking have something called a ‘revealing (karmic impulse)’ or do they have something called a ‘nonrevealing (karmic impulse)?’” Well, it has been said that they have no revealing (karmic impulses) and no nonrevealing (karmic impulses). …
Suppose you ask, “When what are called the ‘pathways of the karmic impulses involved with the ten destructive actions’ have been spelled out in full, is (the karmic impulse involved with) taking a life a mental factor or it is not a mental factor?” Well, it has been said that it is not a mental factor…. Suppose you ask, “Are (the karmic impulses involved with) covetous thinking, thinking with malice, and distorted, antagonistic thinking mental factors or are then not mental factors?” Well, it has been said that they are mental factors.
(Tib.) mi dge ba bcu’i las kyi lam zhes bya ba nas rgyas par sbyar te/ srog gcod pa rnam par rig byed ces bya ba ‘am/ ‘on te rnam par rig byed ma yin zhes bya zhe na/ smras pa/ rnam par rig byed kyang yod/ rnam par rig byed ma yin pa yang yod do/ /rnam par rig byed gang zhe na/ smras pa/ ji ltar ‘di na kha cig la la zhig ‘di skad du srog chags kyi srog chod cig ces bsgo la des kyang gcad par bya’o zhes smras kyang rung / ma bcad cig ces bsgo bzhin du gcod do zhes smras kyang rung ba las/ phar song ste srog chags kyi srog bcad kyang rung / phyir ‘ongs te srog chags kyi srog gcod kyang rung ste/ gang gi tshe srog chags kyi srog gcod pa de’i tshe/ lus kyi las gang yin pa de ni rnam pa rig byed ces bya’o/ /rnam par rig byed ma yin pa gang yin zhe na/ smras pa/ srog gcod pa las phyir ma log cing phyir ma nur la ma btang ma spangs pas/ ji ste na lus kyis kyang rnam par rig par mi byed pa ‘di ni/ rnam par rig byed ma yin pa zhes bya’o/ …. /brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta ba rnam par rig byed ces bya’am/ ‘on te rnam par rig byed ma yin pa zhes bya zhe na/ smras pa/ rnam par rig byed kyang ma yin/ rnam par rig byed ma yin pa yang ma yin no/ /mi dge ba bcu’i las kyi lam zhes bya ba nas rgyas par sbyar te/ srog gcod pa gzugs can zhes bya ‘am/ ‘on te gzugs can ma yin pa zhes bya zhe na/ smras pa/ gzugs can zhes bya’o/ /de bzhin du ma byin par len pa dang /….
/mi dge ba bcu’i las kyi lam zhes bya ba nas rgyas par sbyar te/ srog gcod pa sems las byung ba zhes bya’am/ ‘on te sems las byung ba ma yin pa zhes bya zhe na/ smras pa/ sems las byung ba ma yin pa zhes bya’o/ … /brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta ba sems las byung ba zhes bya’am/ ‘on te sems las byung ba ma yin pa zhes bya zhe na/ smras pa/ sems las byung ba zhes bya’o/
Concerning the pervasion between karmic impulses and pathways of karmic impulses entailed with the ten destructive actions, Maudgalyayana goes on (200B-201A):
Suppose you ask, “When what are called the ‘pathways of the karmic impulses involved with the ten destructive actions’ have been spelled out fully, then out of these pathways of the karmic impulses involved with the ten destructive actions, are there those that are also karmic impulses as well as pathways of karmic impulses, and are there some that are pathways of karmic impulses and not karmic impulses?” Well, it has been said that seven are karmic impulses as well as pathways of karmic impulses – namely, taking a life, taking what was not given, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, lying, speaking divisively, speaking harshly, and chattering meaninglessly. And three are pathways of karmic impulses but not karmic impulses – namely, covetous thinking, thinking with malice, and distorted, antagonistic thinking.
Suppose you ask how is it that some are karmic impulses as well as pathways of karma?” Well, it has been said that the karmic impulses of taking a life, being that which is now enacting (the taking of a life), are also the pathway of the mental karmic urges that have been causing them to arise (motivating them) by means of their being (mental urges) to take a life and have been driving them along, and (have provided) their course as well – in other words, that have been the causes from which the taking of a life (has arisen). It is the same with taking what was not given, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, lying, speaking divisively, speaking harshly, and chattering meaninglessly.
Suppose you ask, “Why are covetous thinking, thinking with malice, and distorted, antagonistic thinking pathways of karmic impulses but not karmic impulses?” Well, it has been said that although covetous thinking, thinking with malice, and distorted, antagonistic thinking are not karmic impulses and are not things that are enacting (an action of body or speech), nevertheless they are the pathways (of thinking) that have been produced by mental urges that have been causing them to arise (motivating them) by means of (the disturbing emotions of) covetousness, malice, and having a distorted, antagonistic outlook and that have been driving them along, and (have provided) their course as well. In other words, they are the pathways of the mental karmic urges (that have arisen) by means of (the disturbing emotions of) covetousness, malice, and having a distorted, antagonistic outlook as their causes, but they are not karmic impulses (themselves).
(Tib.) /mi dge ba bcu’i las kyi lam zhes bya ba nas rgyas par sbyar te 201A /mi dge ba bcu’i las kyi lam gang yin pa de dag las/ du zhig las kyang yin la las kyi lam yang yin/ du zhig las kyi lam ni yin la las ni ma yin zhe na/ smras pa/ bdun ni las kyang yin la las kyi lam yang yin te/ srog gcod pa dang / ma byin par len pa dang / ‘dod pa la log par g.yem pa dang / brdzun du smra ba dang / phra ma dang / tshig rtsub po dang / tshig kyal pa rnams so/ /gsum ni las kyi lam yin la/ las ni ma yin te/ brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta ba rnams so/ /ci’i phyir las kyang yin la/ las kyi lam yang yin zhe na/ smras pa/ srog gcod pa’i las ni da ltar de byed pa yang yin la srog gcod pas kun nas bslang ba’i sems pa rnams kyi lam dang / bgrod pa dang / srang yang yin te/ rgyu des na srog gcod pa las kyang yin la/ las kyi lam yang yin no/ /srog gcod pa ji lta ba bzhin du ma byin par len pa dang / ‘dod pa la log par g.yem pa dang / brdzun du smra ba dang / phra ma dang / tshig rtsub po dang / tshig kyal pa yang de dang ‘dra’o/ /ci’i phyir brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta ba las kyi lam yin la las ma yin zhe na/ smras pa/ brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta ba ni las kyang ma yin/ byed pa yang ma yin gyi/ brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta bas kun nas bslang ba’i sems las byung ba rnams kyi lam dang / bgrod ba dang / srang yin te/ rgyu des na brnab sems dang / gnod sems dang / log par lta bas las kyi lam yin la/ las ma yin no/
Concerning inciting karmic impulses and incited karmic impulses that are in relation to the ten destructive actions that have been committed after having been, literally, “certified” (ched-du byas-pa, Skt. adhikṛta) by previous calculation, Maudgalyayana states (175A-B):
With respect to those (destructive actions) that are known as “those that have been committed after having been certified by previous calculation,” there are the two (types of karmic impulses): inciting karmic impulses (sems-pa’i las) and incited karmic impulses (bsam-pa’i las). Suppose you ask, “What are inciting karmic impulses?” Well, it has been said that whatever karmic impulses of the mind there are that are for thinking about (enacting something with body or speech), for thinking about it prior (to enacting it), that cause (enacting it) by thinking about it, that bring about (enacting it) by thinking about it, and that affect (enacting it) by thinking about it – these are what are called “inciting impulses.”
Suppose you ask, “What are incited karmic impulses?” Well, it has been said that karmic impulses of the body that have been incited (by inciting karmic impulses) and karmic impulses of the speech that have been incited (by inciting karmic impulses) – these are what are called “incited karmic impulses.”
(Tib.) ched du byas pa zhes bya ba la de la sems pa’i las dang / bsam pa’i las dang gnyis yod de/ sems pa’i las gang zhe na/ smras pa/ sems pa dang / mngon bar sems pa dang / sems par gyur pa dang / sems par gtogs pa dang / sems mngon par ‘du byed pa dang / yid kyi las gang yin pa ‘di ni sems pa’i las zhes bya’o/ / bsam pa’i las gang zhe na/ smras pa/ bsam pa’i lus kyi las dang bsam pa’i ngag gi las ‘di ni bsam pa’i las zhes bya’o.
We can see from these quotations from Buddha and his direct disciple, Maudgalyayana, that many of the main points concerning the presentation of karma as entailing revealing forms, nonrevealing forms and pathways of karmic impulses are found in the Mahayana sutras and in the Abhidharma Basket, prior to the composition of the Indian treatises on karma that later expound them in detail.