Details of Karma 8: Karmic and Non-Karmic Impulses

Before exploring the explanations of karma according to the Sautrantika and Chittamatra tenets, we need to clarify which type of karma is their topic of discussion. Karma, disturbing emotions, and the unawareness (ignorance) from which they derive constitute the second noble truth, true origins of suffering. The word karma (las), however, is used with several different meanings and, in some of those cases, they are not true origins of suffering. Thus, not all impulses are karmic impulses. The Vaibhashika and Madhyamaka texts that I have consulted do not seem to make this distinction. 

Exertional Impulses and Functional Impulses According to the Sautrantika System

In his Sautrantika text, A Discussion for the Establishment of Karma (Las-grub-pa’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa) (Derge Tengyur vol. 136, 145A), Vasubandhu differentiates two types of impulses (1) exertional impulses (rtsol-ba-can-gyi las) and (2) functional impulses (byed-pa’i las): 

Buddha did not speak of the impulses of the eye and so on (as true origins of suffering) because here (in this sutra) he wished to speak only of exertional impulses, not functional impulses. What are exertional impulses? They are (the impulses) that affect the mind of an agent. What are functional ones? (They are) those that have (the impulses involved with) the specific abilities of the eye and so forth.
(Tib.) mig-la sogs-pa’i las ma-gsungs-pa-ni/ ‘dir rtsol-ba can-gyi las kho-na brjod-par bzhed-pa’i phyir/ byed-pa’i las-ni ma-yin-no/ rtsol-ba-can-gyi las ci-yin zhe-na/ byed-pa-po’i yid mngon-par ‘du-byed-pa gang yin-pa’o/ byed-pa ci-yin zhe-na/ gang-la mig-la sogs-pa so-so’i nus-pa yod-pa’o//

In his Commentary on (Vasubandhu’s) “Establishment of Karma” (Las-grub-pa’i bshad-pa, Skt. Karmasiddhi-ṭīkā) (Derge Tengyur vol. 138,101B), the late eighth-century CE Indian master, Sumatishila (Blo-bzang ngang-tshul, Skt. Sumatiśīla), glosses some of the words in the above quote:

Here, “exertional” refers to “something constructive and so on that affects (the consciousness to cognitively take a cognitive object).” ….. “Abilities” means “being able to cause eye consciousness and so on to arise.”
(Tib.) ‘dir rtsol-ba-can zhe-bya-ba-ni dge-ba-la sogs-pa mngon-par ‘du-byed-pa zhes bya-ba’i tha-tshig-go…. nus-pa zhes-bya-ba-ni mig-gi rnam-par shes-pa-la sogs-pa skyed-par byed-pa-nyid-do zhes bya-ba’i tha-tshig//

Five Types of Impulses According to the Chittamatra System

In “Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge” (mNgon-pa chos kun-nas btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya) (Gretil ed. 53, Derge Tengyur vol. 134, 85A), Asanga (Thogs-med, Skt. Asaṅga) presents five usages of the term karma as a type of impulse within the context of the Chittamatra system. Not all of them are the type of impulse included as the second noble truth:

What are the impulses that are ruled by disturbing emotions and attitudes? Inciting karmic impulses and incited karmic impulses. All (of them) are cited as having the defining characteristic of a karmic impulse. Further, there are five types of impulses: perceptional impulses, functional impulses, exertional impulses, transformational impulses and attainment impulses. The majority of those that are accepted (as karmic impulses) on this occasion are exertional impulses.
(Skt.) kleśādhipateyaṃ karma katamat / cetanā karma cetayitvā karma ca / sarvaṃ karmalakṣaṇaṃ nāma // punaḥ karma pañcavidham / upalabdhikarma kāritrakarma vyavasāyakarma pariṇatikarma prāptikarma ca/ 
(Tib.) las gang shes-na/ sems-pa’i las-dang bsam-pa’i las-te las-kyis mtshan-nyis mdor-bsdus-pa’o/ yang las rnam-pa lnga-ste dmigs-pa’i las-dang byed-pa’i las-dang rtsol-ba’i las-dang bsgyur-ba’i las-dang ‘thob-pa’i las-so. skabs-‘dir phal-cher rtsol-ba’i las-su ‘dod-do. 

Jinaputra Yashomitra elaborates on this passage in Explanation of (Asanga’s)Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge” (mNgon-chos kun-nas btus-pa’i bshad-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccayabhāṣya) (Gretil ed., Derge Tengyur vol. 135, 45B), 199B-200A):

  • What are known as “perceptional impulses” (dmigs-pa’i las, Skt. upalabdhikarma) are like (those involved when) the eye and so on looks at a visual object and so on. 
  • Functional impulses (byed-pa’i las, Skt. kāritrakarma) are (like those involved with) the earth and so on supporting (something on it) and so on, or something performing its characteristic (function), like “a form of physical phenomenon being something (that can be cognized) as a form” and so on.
  • Exertional impulses (rtsol-ba’i las, Skt. vyavasāyakarma) are the impulses for (actions of) the body and so on, preceded by an intended aim (bsam-pa, Skt. abhisaṃdhi).
  • Transformational impulses (sgyur-ba’i las, Skt. pariṇatikarma) are the impulses (involved with) a goldsmith’s (raw materials) and so on transforming into jewelry and so on.
  • Attainment impulses (‘thob-pa’i las, Skt. prāptikarma) are (those involved with) the arya pathway minds and so on for the attainment of liberation (nirvana).

“The majority of those that are accepted (as karmic impulses) on this occasion are exertional impulses” because there is also the inclusion of attainment and functional impulses.

(Skt.) upalabdhikarma cakṣurādīnāṃ rūpadarśanādi / kāritrakarma pṛthivyādīnāṃ dhāraṇādi yadvā yasya svalakṣaṇakṛtyam / tadyathā rūpaṇā rūpasyetyevamādi / vyavasāyakarmābhisaṃdhipūrvakaṃ kāyādikarma / pariṇatikarma suvarṇakārādīnāmalaṃkārādi / prāptikarmāryamārgādīnāṃ nirvāṇādhigamādi // asmiṃstvarthe yad bhūyasā vyavasāyakarmābhipretamiti prāptikāritrakarmaṇorapi saṃbhavāt
(Tib.) dmigs-pa’i las zhes bya-ba-ni mig-la sogs-pa-ste gzugs-la lta-bu-la sogs-pa’o/ byed-pa’i las-ni sa-la sogs-pa-ste rten-la sogs-pa’o/ yang-na rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis byed-pa gang-yin-pa-ste,/‘di lta-ste, gzugs-ni gzugs-su yod-pa’o zhes-bya-ba la-sogs-pa lta-bu’o/ rtsol-ba’i las-ni bsam-pa sngon-tu btang-ba’i lus-la sogs-pa’i las-so/ bsgyur-ba’i las-ni gser-mgar-la sogs-pa’i las-te rgyan-la sogs-par bsgyur ba’o/ ‘thob-pa’i las-ni ‘phags-pa’i lam-la sogs-pa’i mya-ngan-las ‘das-pa’i ‘thob-pa-la sogs-pa’o// skabs-‘dir-ni phal-cher rtsol-ba’i las-su ‘dod-do zhes-bya-ba-ni/ ‘thob-pa dang byed-pa’i kyang yod-pa’i phyir-ro/ 

The Tibetan master, Gyaltsabje (rGyal-tshab rje Dar-ma rin-chen) (1364-1432), in The Essence of an Ocean of Special Topics of Knowledge, An Excellent Explanation (Legs-par bshad-pa chos mngon rgya-mtsho’i snying-po) (288, 746-747), his commentary on Asanga’s “Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, spells out “exertional impulses” and “on this occasion” a little further: 

(Exertional impulses are) impulses that exert (effort) to implement a method (for an action to occur in the case of) karmic impulses for (karmic actions) of body and speech, preceded by a motivating aim… Which (of these) are included and not included as (the second noble truth, true) origins of suffering? On this occasion of explaining true origins, the majority are accepted as exertional impulses, because they are exertional through the gateway of being inciting and incited karmic impulses. The word “the majority” is mentioned to indicate that there are also (some) attainment and functional impulses (that are also included as true origins of suffering).  
(Tib) blo sngon-du btang-nas lus ngag-gi las-kyi sbyor-ba rtsol-ba’i las… las-kyi kun-‘byung-du gtogs ma-gtogs ci-rigs-su yod-do/ kun-‘byung bden-pa ‘chad-pa’i skabs-‘dir-ni phal-cher rtsol-ba’i las-su ‘dod-do/ sems-pa dang bsam-pa’i las-kyi sgo-nas rtsol-ba’i phyir/  phal-cher-gyi sgra smos-pas-na ‘thob-pa-dang byed-pa’i las-kyang yod-par ston-pa’o.

According to the Chittamatra presentation, all karmic impulses are the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā), which is the mental factor that draws the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to engage with the body, speech or mind. 

In Revealing Karma (Las gdags-pa, Skt. Karmavijñapti) (Derge Tengyur vol. 138, 175 A-B), however, Buddha’s disciple, Maudgalyayana, wrote:

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.) 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. 

Because incited karmic impulses are, in the context of the Mahayana sutras and the Abhidharma Basket and the Vaibhashika and Madhyamaka presentations that follow them, forms of physical phenomena involved in implementing a method for enacting an action of body or speech, incited karmic impulses are impulses of the karmic actions of body and speech. But, in the Chittamatra and Sautrantika presentations, incited karmic impulses are the mental urges that are “the impulses that exert (effort) to implement a method (for an action to occur in the case of) karmic impulses for (karmic actions) of body and speech. Thus, they are karmic impulses for karmic actions of body and speech, rather than karmic impulses of karmic actions of body and speech.  

The two interpretations of incited karmic impulses arise because the Sanskrit terms involved for what they refer to are simply the compounds “body karmic impulses” (kāyakarma) and “speech karma impulses” (vākkarma). These are what are called “tatpurusha” compounds, which, according to Sanskrit grammar, can be interpreted in multiple ways. The connection between the two elements of the compound can be glossed as being the genitive case “of” or the dative case “for the sake of.” Thus, the two interpretations and, accordingly, the two ways of translating the Sanskrit compounds: “karmic impulses of the body and speech” and “karmic impulses for the body and speech.”

All Buddhist tenet systems agree that all mental urges, regardless of how they are classified, are accompanied by: 

  • The mental factor of intention (‘dun-pa, Skt. chandas), which is the wish or intent to do something with the body, speech or mind directed at some object – to do something to it, to say something to it, or to think about doing or saying something to it
  • The mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes, Skt. saṁjñā), which differentiates the intended object from other objects in the cognitive field
  • A disturbing emotion or attitude. 

Concerning intention:

  • Yashomitra uses a Sanskrit synonym for intention, abhisaṃdhi, meaning an “intended aim.” 
  • The Tibetan translation of Yashomitra’s text translates abhisaṃdhi as bsam-pa, motivating mental framework, which includes the intention, distinguishing and disturbing emotion or attitude. 
  • Gyaltsabje uses blo, motivating attitude, which is also a synonym here for intention.

Even though the intended aim that accompanies the mental urge that brings on a karmic action may not be accomplished by that action and the action may result in an unintended outcome, nevertheless, all mental urges are accompanied by the mental factor of intention. 

Gyaltsabje fills in “in this meaning” as referring to the noble truth of the true origins of suffering but does not explain which types of attainment and functional impulses can also be included among true origins of suffering. It is unclear which ones they are.

The Five Systems of Natural Order According to the Theravada System

The Theravada teaching of the five systems of natural order (Pali: panca-niyama) provides confirmation of the conclusion from the Chittamatra discussion that not all actions entail karmic impulses. According to the Pali abhidhamma commentarial literature, as represented by An Expositor of the Meanings (Pali: Aṭṭhasālinī) (271-274), Buddhaghosa’s commentary on Enumeration of Phenomena (Pali: Dhammasaṅgaṇi), the universe follows the fixed laws of five systems of natural order: 

  • Physical order (Pali: utu-niyama) – the principles of physics that govern such things as the changing of the seasons, temperature, and weather
  • Botanical order (Pali: bīja-niyama) – the principles of botany that govern the growth of plants
  • Karmic order (Pali: kamma-niyama) – the principles of karma that govern the physical, verbal, and mental behavior of limited beings
  • Cognitive order (Pali: citta-niyama) – the principles of cognitive science that govern the sequence of moments entailed in the process of sense perception
  • Dharmic order (Pali: dhamma-niyama) – the principles of Dharma that govern the universe in general, such as causality and conditionality, namely, that all conditioned phenomena (those that arise from causes and conditions) are nonstatic (impermanent) – they arise, abide, and cease – and are in the nature of suffering and lack an independent self. 

Only the system of karmic order deals with karmic actions and, thus, with true origins of suffering.