In the first session, we introduced the topic of Karma: Who’s to Blame? We saw that the approach we need to follow is an analytic one in which we examine each of the three components: karma, self and blame. If we want to get a harmonious picture of how these three go together, we need to analyze them from the point of view of one system. This is because there are two explanations of karma that are studied in the Tibetan tradition. One is in the context of the Sautrantika and Chittamatra views and the other is from the point of view of Vaibhashika and Madhyamaka.
Since the deepest view about the self is found in the Prasangika system within Madhyamaka, if we want to put it together with karma, it needs to be combined with the Prasangika view of karma. Although all Tibetan schools agree on the Madhyamaka presentation of karma by the Indian Buddhist masters, they differ in their interpretations of the Prasangika view of reality. Therefore, among those views, we’ll explain the Gelugpa one.
We also mentioned that karma refers to karmic impulses – karmic impulses of the body, speech, and mind. All three varieties may be destructive, constructive, or unspecified. The term “unspecified” means that it can go either way.
The main point about karma I want to emphasize is that it involves compulsiveness. This compulsiveness is included in the way that we think, speak and act. We perceive this compulsion as being out of our control because it’s under the influence of strong habits driven by our disturbing emotions and by our grasping for a truly existent, self-established “me.”
Karmic Impulses of the Mind
There is a long list of mental factors that accompany our cognition of things. Some of them we might call mechanical in that they are parts of the mechanism of how we know things – for example, attention, interest, concentration, and these sorts of things. Karmic impulses of the mind refer to one of these mechanical mental factors, a mental urge (sems-pa). Other mental factors include our emotions, both the positive and the negative ones.
A mental urge is defined as the mental factor that moves one of the types of consciousness, together with its other accompanying mental factors, to an object. It’s a compelling urge, in that when it arises, we have no control over it. There are two types of compelling mental urges: functional urges and exertional urges. Functional compelling urges drive a sensory consciousness to see, hear, smell, taste or physically sense an object, or they drive a mental consciousness to think of an object. Unlike functional urges, exertional urges require conscious effort.
Functional urges are not karmic impulses of the mind. For instance, the uncontrollable urge that draws our mental consciousness to some extraneous object of mental wandering when we are sitting in meditation and trying to focus on our breath.
What is it that drives the mind to start thinking something? Do we recognize how compelling that is? It is without any control that we just start thinking something. It could be something destructive, thinking about being angry at this person or that person, or it could be something constructive, about how everyone is so nice and how we love someone. It could also just be neutral, as in what are we going to have for lunch? It is amazing how out-of-control our thinking is, isn’t it?
That’s what I mean when I describe this mental factor of an urge as being compelling. It just drives our attention away when we are meditating, for instance. Of course, there is always energy involved with any action of the mind, but we are talking here about a mental factor, which relates to the way in which our mental activity works from the experiential point of view.
Compelling functional mental urges arise every moment and drive our consciousness, together with its accompanying mental factors, to take their next object. As I said, these are not karmic impulses of the mind. In the Prasangika system, karmic impulses of the mind refer specifically to the compelling exertional mental urges that drive the conceptual mental consciousness to think about doing or saying something to someone or something while being focused on that person or thing. Only these types of compelling urges are the karmic impulses for karmic actions of the mind.
In this system, although the compelling mental urge that drives the body or speech in committing a karmic action of the body or speech is an exertional urge, it is not considered a karmic impulse and is not the karmic impulse for the karmic action of the body or speech. The Chittamatra and Sautrantika systems, on the other hand, do classify such an exertional mental urge as the karmic impulse involved.
Destructive Actions of the Mind
Sometimes there is a bit of confusion about this compelling mental factor in terms of karmic actions of the mind, so as examples let’s briefly mention the three destructive types of mental activity − thinking covetously about something, thinking with malice about something, and thinking distortedly with antagonism about something. These mental activities are streams of thought that arise about committing some action regarding someone or something – thinking with a certain set of disturbing emotions and attitudes about doing something to someone or to some object or about saying something to someone. They are not just one moment of thought. In each case, a compelling mental urge drives the mental consciousness and a specific set of accompanying mental factors to that person or object and to think about and decide whether to do or say something to them or it.
The following are the types of destructive ways of thinking that we have when we are planning to do something.
- Covetous thinking is asking ourselves, “Should I try to get this thing that I think is fantastic and is going to make me happy?” It might also include thinking about how we can get it. It reaches its conclusion when we decide that yes, we are going to work to try to get it and it may include this is how we are going to go about doing that. That is this a line of covetous thinking. This destructive way of thinking is driven by longing desire in that we want to get something that we don’t have. It has attachment in that we plan to hold onto it and are not going to share it, and it has greed, in that we will want even more.
- Thinking with malice is asking ourselves, “This person said something nasty to me and I don’t like that. Should I say something nasty back to them and, if so, what can I say that will hurt them?” We go through the process of deciding whether to say something hurtful and, if we decide to say something, what should we say. This way of thinking is driven by anger and hostility.
- Distorted antagonistic thinking is not simply thinking in an incorrect way, such as that there is no value in meditating or doing any sort of spiritual practice. It is also very hostile and antagonistic. What a person is deciding, in this case, is whether to tell their partner or child that spiritual practice is a stupid waste of time and not to do it. Or it might be deciding whether to repudiate evidence-based reality as being false information and to assert an “alternative reality,” believing “I am right.” That is distorted and antagonistic thinking and is based on naivety and closed-mindedness ignorance. Another example is deciding, “Should I stop meditating because it is stupid and a waste of time? I’m not getting anywhere.” It is this way of thinking.
Constructive Actions of the Mind
Constructive thinking is the opposite of these destructive forms of mental activity. We may feel like yelling at a person, but we think about whether to refrain from yelling because we know it will cause a lot more problems and so we decide to refrain from yelling. That’s an example of a mental activity that would be constructive.
Unspecified Actions of the Mind
Regarding unspecified lines of thought, an example would be deciding whether to go for lunch now. This is neither positive nor negative, depending on our motivation and whatever else is going on in our minds about lunch. Also, in all these cases, if our train of thought doesn’t come to a conclusion and we don’t make any decision, the mental action is incomplete. It doesn’t lead to any decisive action of body or speech.
I think the most common example of destructive and unproductive thinking is worry. We worry about what will happen and what we should do, and it just goes on and on and never comes to a decisive conclusion. This is a lot of suffering, isn’t it? It’s not a very happy state of mind. The problem isn’t thinking and trying to decide what to do. The problem is the compulsive worry that is involved with that process and never reaching to a decision about what to do to alleviate that worry.
We have to correctly identify the problem. Don’t identify the problem as being just thinking. It is the compulsiveness that we can’t control. There are certain decisions that we do have to think over, but we need to avoid this state mind that just gets carried away with constant worry. The compelling mental urges that drive such compulsive worrying thought are the karmic impulses of the mind.
Two Types of Karmic Impulses of the Mind
There are two types of karmic impulses of the mind: an inciting karmic impulse of the mind (sems-pa’i las) and a mere karmic impulse of the mind.
- An inciting karmic impulse of the mind is an exertional mental urge that drives a mental action that reaches a decision to actually do or say something to someone or to actually do something to some object. It may also reach the decision not to do or say something. It doesn’t matter whether or not the physical or verbal action is even implemented.
- A mere karmic impulse of the mind is an exertional mental urge that drives such a mental action that does not reach a decision.
For example, if I think about whether to say something nasty to you and decide to say it, the karmic impulse of mind that brought on that line of thinking was an inciting one. This is the case whether or not I actually say anything. If I think about saying something and don’t come to any decision, then the line of thought of thinking about it was brought on by a mere karmic impulse of the mind.
Accompanying Mental Factors
Compelling mental urges, whether functional or exertional, whether karmic or not, whether inciting or not, are always accompanied by other mental factors. In the case of functional urges, they draw these mental factors with them to an object. In the case of exertional urges, the mental factors merely accompany the urge as it drives the mental consciousness to think about and decide whether to do or say something.
In terms of exertional karmic impulses, whether karmic or not, there are three main such mental factors that constitute what is called the “motivating framework” (bsam-pa). Let’s look at them in terms of the karmic impulse of mind that brings on an action of the mind to think about doing or saying something so as to reach a decision:
- Intention (’dun-pa) is the wish or intent to do something specific regarding a specific person or object – for instance, to think about saying something nasty to someone that will hurt them.
- The intention requires the mental factor of distinguishing (’du-shes) to distinguish the intended person or object from others and the intended action regarding that object from other actions – to say something nasty, not something nice, to this person and not that one.
- There must also be a disturbing emotion – if we are intent on saying something nasty to that person, the accompanying emotion is hostility and anger.
If we are going to say something nice to someone, the accompanying emotion would be a tainted constructive emotion, such as love, the wish for someone to be happy. The emotion is tainted because there is an appearance of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa) that accompanies it. For example, in this case of the karmic urge to think about saying something nice to someone, from the constant habit of grasping for self-established existence, our minds project the appearance of a solidly existent “me,” a solidly existent “you” and a solidly existent action of saying something nice, each existing as an independent, self-established entity. In addition, we grasp at these appearances to correspond to how all three actually exist. Our minds also project the appearance of a solidly existent result, your becoming happy, existing already fixed inside the karmic urge and inside the action, and we grasp at that appearance to be true. In addition, our minds project the appearance of another solidly existent result of saying something nice to this person. They project that it will establish us as existing as a good person because we made that person happy, and we believe that to be so. Like this, our constructive karmic impulse, accompanying constructive emotion and ensuing constructive action are all tainted.
To give an example, there are some people who are in a relationship with someone but are insecure about it. Therefore, compulsively, they always have to say, “I love you,” and implicitly demand their partner to reply, “I love you too.” Unconsciously, they project and believe that if they say, “I love you,” and the other person says it back, this will somehow establish that the relationship is real.
Saying, “I love you,” motivated by love, is constructive in that there is nothing destructive about saying it or in hearing it from another person. However, when it’s compulsive and is based on the insecurity about “you,” “me” and “our relationship,” it just causes suffering. No matter how many times we say, “I love you,” or our partner replies, “I love you too,” it never satisfies, we always want to say it and hear it again. It never cures our insecurity, which is based on grasping for self-established existence, especially concerning ourselves, “me.”
Feeling Insecure Is an Indicator of Grasping for a Solid “Me”
What indicates that we have this grasping for a solid, self-established “me” is a feeling of insecurity. This is a very important point.
Why do we feel insecure? It is because we are focused on some fictitious, truly existent, self-established “me,” which doesn’t correspond to anything real. There is no “me” that can be established as existing independently of everything. This is the false “me.” We feel insecure about this false “me” and are always trying to make it feel secure. We worry about ourselves in terms of our being this false “me” and we want people to love us. We want “likes” on our Facebook page, and we can never get enough of them. That insecurity is the indication that we have this grasping for a solid “me.” But it is impossible to ever make the false “me” secure, because the false “me” does not correspond to anything real. We are unaware, or ignorant, of that fact.
For example, we might think, “I am young, healthy and attractive and this is going to last forever.” That is, of course, impossible. Then we feel insecure about it. We feel that we have to prove it to everyone and are worried that we are going to lose it. We are worrying about something that is impossible to secure and that’s why we feel insecure. Life brings changes and everything in it is impermanent.
Karmic Impulses of the Body and Speech
That was the Prasangika view of karmic impulses of the mind, which are compelling mental urges. They may be inciting mental urges or mere mental urges. Now let’s discuss the Prasangika view of compelled karmic impulses of the body and speech.
Compelled karmic impulses of the body and speech, according to this view, are forms of physical phenomena that are driven by compelling non-karmic exertional mental urges. They are not mental factors. There are two types of physical phenomena associated with actions of the body or speech – a revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) and a nonrevealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-gyi gzugs). There are two types of each: an incited karmic impulse (bsam-pa’i las) of the body or speech and a mere karmic impulse of the body or speech.
- An incited karmic impulse of the body or speech is one that has been preceded by a mental action that was driven by an inciting karmic impulse of the mind and thus had reached a decision to enact the physical or verbal action.
- A mere karmic impulse of the body or speech is one that has not been preceded by such a mental action.
Simple Explanation of Revealing and Nonrevealing Forms of Physical Phenomena
All physical and verbal actions have a revealing form, a manifest, obvious form that makes itself known to others and which also reveals the ethical status of the consciousness that causes it to arise. This revealing form is the motion of the body as a method for implementing the physical action or the utterance of the sounds of words as a method for implementing the verbal action. The shapes that the motion of the body takes or the sounds that the utterances of speech make reveal themselves in that they can be seen or heard. They also reveal the ethical status of the consciousness causing them to arise. A simple explanation is that because the revealing form can be seen or heard, it makes knowable to others that the mind of the person making that form with their body or speech is under the influence of a constructive or destructive emotion or an unspecified attitude. It may not, however, reveal the specific emotion or attitude accompanying the consciousness.
The nonrevealing form, when the energy of the motivating emotion of the physical or verbal action is strong, is somewhat like a physical imprint or “muscle memory.” It is obscure and unobvious; it cannot be seen or heard, only known by the mind, and so does not make knowable to others that motivating emotion. It functions to bring on further short-term repetitions of the action – for instance, to repeat nasty words or nice words to someone.
This is the first level of explanation. The karmic impulses of our physical and verbal actions are both revealing and nonrevealing forms. That’s very nice to say, but when we read or hear about that and start to analyze, we have to go deeper. We don’t just want some intellectual knowledge enabling us to spout some definitions that we don’t really understand. We want to be able to identify these two in our own experience, because they are what we want to rid ourselves of. It isn’t just interesting and a curiosity to hear what they mean. We want to actually understand them because karma is a troublemaker.
Karmic Impulses Are Not the Same as Karmic Actions
As we already discussed, a karmic impulse is not the same as a karmic action. In the case of karmic actions of the mind, the exertional karmic mental urge is what drives the mental consciousness and accompanying mental factors in thinking about and deciding to commit a specific action of the body or speech. Thus, the compelling karmic urge drives the karmic action of the mind but is not actually a component of the action. In simple language, the urge that drives our thinking is not the thinking itself.
An action doesn’t just last one micro-second. An action is something that occurs over a sequence of moments. When we were talking about the compelling karmic urge to think something, it’s not just the compelling urge to start to think something. It’s also the compelling urge in each moment to sustain that train of thought and the compelling urge at the end to stop thinking it and to begin thinking something else. It includes the whole sequence.
Likewise, the non-karmic exertional mental urge that drives the body or speech in committing a karmic action of the body or speech is not the karmic action itself. And as in the case of actions of the mind, there is a sequence of non-karmic urges to start, continue and stop doing or saying something.
In both karmic actions of the mind and karmic actions of the body and speech, the stream of exertional mental urges that drives the consciousness and accompanying mental factors during the action is not the same as the karmic action it initiates, sustains and ends. The exertional mental urge is the simultaneously arising cause (lhan-cig ’byung-ba’i rgyu) of the karmic action as its result. As in the case of the constituent elements of a material object and the material object itself, here the cause and the effect mutually contribute to the production of each other. There can be no karmic action that arises and exists independently of an exertional mental urge that drives the consciousness and accompanying mental factors to engage in it, and there can be no exertional mental urge that arises and exists independently of a karmic action that it drives the consciousness and accompanying mental factors to engage in.
However, although the cause and effect, here, arise simultaneously, they are not identical with each other. A cause is the effect of something prior but cannot be its own effect; and an effect is the cause of something later but cannot be its own cause.
As for the karmic impulse of the body or speech that is a revealing form, this is the method implemented to cause the action of body or speech to occur – remember, the motion of the body or the utterance of speech. There may also be a sequence of movements of the body and a sequence of utterances of the sounds of words involved in committing such an action. In this case, the sequence of karmic impulses is part of the karmic action, but it is not the karmic action itself. As was the case with the exertional mental urge driving the karmic action, the revealing form that is part of the action is a simultaneously arising cause of the action, but not the action itself.
A karmic action, whether of the mind, body or speech is what is known as the pathway of a karmic impulse, or a pathway of karma for short, and it is made up of many components.
To use an analogy, an action is like a chess game made up of all the individual moves and all the individual pieces that go on during the game, plus the players, of course. The game is a synthesis of the whole thing. It’s more than just each individual move – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A karmic action is likewise a synthesis of all the components of each moment of the action, like the chess game being a synthesis of each moment of all the moves.
The Pathway of a Karmic Impulse
Each moment of the pathway of a karmic action is comprised of four factors, the second of which has three parts:
- A basis (gzhi) at which the action is directed.
- The “motivating mental framework” consisting of three mental factors: (1) a distinguishing that the basis of our action is this intended object and not that one, and that the action we wish to commit regarding it is this intended action and not that one; (2) the intention, which is the wish or intent to commit a specific action regarding a specific object; and (3) a motivating emotion, which can be destructive or tainted constructive. Each of these components can change during the course of the karmic pathway.
- The implementation (sbyor-ba) of a method that causes the action to occur.
- The finale (mthar-thug) or outcome achieved by the action.
In the case of a karmic action of the body or speech, the revealing form that is the karmic impulse of the body or speech is the third of these four factors – the implementation of a method that causes the action to occur.
For an action to be complete and the result to be the strongest, all the components need to be complete. For example, you shoot someone with the intention to kill them. If the outcome is that the person dies, then the action was killing them. If the person doesn’t die, then you haven’t actually killed them, and the action turned out to be just wounding them, not killing them, despite your intention. The action of killing them was not completed. The result and the intensity of the results will vary depending on the completeness of all these factors.
It’s actually very interesting to learn all the details. We might be a little bit surprised. For instance, with lying, it’s completed when the other person understands and believes what we say. They could have not heard us, heard us incorrectly, or not believed us, thinking that what we said was stupid and untrue. In such cases, our action turned out to just be chattering meaninglessly.
More Extensive Explanation of Revealing Forms
During the course of the implementation of the method that causes a physical or verbal action to take place, there is the body of the person or the speech of the person committing the action. The compulsive revealing form is the changing shape of that person’s body or the changing sound of their voice during the course of their implementation of that method. It ends when the implementation of that method ends, whether the finale or outcome of the action occurs immediately with the implementation of that method – the person they shoot instantly dies – or it occurs sometime later – that person dies the next day from the gunshot wound, provided that the shooter does not die in the meantime.
The implementation of a method that causes the karmic action of the body or speech to take place may take just one moment – for instance, pulling the trigger of a gun that shoots and kills a deer – or it may last over a sequence of moments and changing in each moment – for instance, while punching someone or expressing a lie. In fact, the revealing form of the body or speech does not occur just during this principal phase of a karmic action, pulling the trigger or expressing the lie. It arises with any preliminary or precursory phase – for instance, stalking the deer. It continues during any follow-up phase as well, if there is one – such as taking the deer home, and skinning, cooking and eating it. Similarly, the revealing form of lying may arise with the preliminary utterances of words we say leading up to the lie and may continue through the course of any further utterances of words we say after expressing the actual words of the lie.
Regardless of how long the revealing form lasts, it is obvious and so it can be seen or heard and therefore reveals the ethical status of the consciousness causing it to occur. But it does not necessarily reveal the specific emotion accompanying that consciousness, making it destructive, constructive or unspecified. For example, the motion of the body of someone hunting a deer reveals that their mind is under the influence of a disturbing emotion, but not whether they are angry with the deer for eating their crops or they long to eat a venison steak.
Another point: the revealing form of a karmic action of body or speech can be destructive, tainted constructive, or unspecified. Its ethical status depends on the ethical status of the consciousness causing it to arise and so it depends on the ethical status of the emotion that accompanies it as a factor in the karmic pathway of the revealing form.
What do we have thus far in our analysis of karmic impulses of the body or speech? In every moment during the course of a physical or verbal action, we have:
- The karmic pathway of the action, made of all the factors, which include a basis, a distinguishing, an intention, an emotion, the implementation of a method to cause the action to occur, and an outcome.
- The compelled motion of the body of the agent of the action or compelled utterances of their speech as the method implemented to cause the action to occur, revealing to others the ethical status of the sensory consciousness causing this action to occur. These are the revealing forms that are the karmic impulses of the body or speech, and they are parts of the karmic pathways.
- A compelling non-karmic exertional mental urge that engages the body or speech, from moment to moment, in implementing a method for causing the action to occur. This is not part of the karmic pathway.
- Although not usually mentioned in the analysis of karma, there is also a functional mental urge that, from moment to moment, draws the sensory consciousness, together with its accompanying mental factors, to the basis for the action. While lying to someone, we usually are looking at them at the same time. This urge is also not part of the karmic pathway.
Let’s digest this for a moment. During a karmic action of the body or speech, there are all these components present and going on simultaneously – a basis as the object of the action, an eye consciousness drawn by a functional urge to look at that basis and a body consciousness driven by a non-karmic exertional urge to engage the body or speech in doing or saying something to that basis with a motion of the body or an utterance of the speech (the revealing form of the action). That body consciousness and urge are accompanied by a distinguishing of that object and of the intended action and an emotion. And, of course, there is the person, “me,” who is the agent of the action, but we will get to that later. All of these components network together like in a chess game. It’s not that they are separate and unrelated to each other.
In addition, the karmic action of the body or speech may have been preceded by the karmic pathway of a mental action with which we thought about and decided to commit the physical or verbal action. The mental urge that incited, sustained, and ended the action of the mind would have been an inciting karmic impulse of the mind and, subsequently, the revealing form of the body or speech would have been an incited karmic impulse of the body or speech.
Identifying These Points in Our Behavior
What we try to do is to identify these components in our behavior. Let’s say, for example, that we want to step on a cockroach and kill it. A functional urge draws our eye consciousness to see a cockroach on the floor of our kitchen. We distinguish it from the floor, are unhappy at seeing it, feel repulsion and hostility toward it, and then experience a compelling destructive mental karmic impulse that drives our mental consciousness, together with the distinguishing, unhappiness and an intention that is the wish or intent to kill it, into thinking with hostility about stepping on it. After thinking for a few moments, we decide definitely to step on it. The pathway of our inciting destructive karmic impulse of the mind is now complete.
Next, a compelling non-karmic exertional urge drives our body consciousness, together with distinguishing the cockroach, unhappiness and the intention to kill it and hostility, to engage our body in the act of killing it by means of a motion of the foot as the method for implementing stepping on it and killing it. The motion of our foot is the incited, exertional karmic impulse of the body. This karmic action of killing the cockroach could involve a prelude phase of hunting and chasing it, based on unhappily distinguishing it on the floor, and even putting our foot on it when we finally catch it. Our intention, however, was not just to put our foot on it, but to really squash it. The motion of our foot stepping forcefully down on it and killing it is the principal phase of our destructive action. The finale or outcome of the action is the cockroach dying.
Our emotion while stepping on it was hostility and perhaps also fear. Once we step on it and begin the follow-up phase with looking at the mess it made on our shoe, our emotion might change to disgust. But, as we clean our shoe, our unhappiness might change to happiness that we got rid of it.
All these actions are compulsive and, although we could stop the sequence during the hunt for the cockroach, we experience hunting and killing it with no control over ourselves. Similarly, we compulsively hunt and swat that mosquito or fly with the revealing form of the motion of our body.
Compulsive revealing forms of speech are also involved with people who are compulsive talkers – people who talk all the time with no control. They interrupt people all the time with their chatter. That’s the destructive action of chattering meaninglessly, thinking that the chatter, which is meaningless, has meaning. This is, for example, posting on social media photos of what they ate for breakfast, as if anyone is really interested. Behind such behavior is the thought, “I am so important that you really must be interested in what I eat at each meal, and you must really want to see a picture of it.” There is this strong grasping for “me,” as if the whole world wants to know what we had for breakfast. Come on, who cares? In any case, it’s just an illustration of how this grasping for a self-important “me” is actually behind all of our compulsive karmic actions.
Deeper Explanation of Nonrevealing Forms
Next, let’s discuss compelled nonrevealing forms, which are the subtle, unobvious karmic impulses of the body or speech. Because they cannot be seen or heard and can only be inferred, they are difficult to recognize or to understand how they work. Let’s first get the definition and characteristics. Then, we can investigate the meaning of them, which is the real job of analytical meditation. We will try to figure out what the teachings are talking about based on our conviction that the Buddha was not just speaking nonsense and that he spoke about something that can benefit us. Therefore, we want to figure out what everything in the Dharma means.
Definition and Characteristics
A compelled nonrevealing form:
- Is a subtle form of physical phenomenon that does not reveal the ethical status of the consciousness that causes it to arise.
- It is a part of a mental continuum but is not felt on that mental continuum. In Western terminology this means that we’re not conscious of it.
- It is not made of particles of the gross elements of earth, water, fire or wind.
- It can only be an object of mental cognition, like the subtle forms that appear in dreams.
- It is not a static category into which all the revealing forms of the karmic pathways fit as instances of the same type of karmic action. It’s not that. For example, it’s not that there’s a category of “how I kill,” or “how I lie,” and each instance of my killing or lying fits as an example into that static category. We are not talking about something like that. It is a form of physical phenomenon.
- It is non-static, meaning it changes from moment to moment. This means that it is affected by causes and conditions to give rise to different results.
- It performs the function of causing further and further positive or negative karmic potential to arise. However, in performing this function, it does not degenerate or wear out like our body does.
- It must be either destructive or tainted constructive and not unspecified or neutral.
- It arises dependently and simultaneously with a strongly destructive or constructive revealing form and continues after the revealing form is no longer present on the mental continuum.
- It continues with the mental continuum until we give it up or it is lost.
Types of Nonrevealing Forms
There are three types of nonrevealing forms:
- Vowed restraints (sdom-pa)
- Avowed nonrestraints (sdom-pa ma-yin-pa)
- Intermediate nonrevealing forms (bar-ma), which are either constructive or destructive, but are neither vowed restraints nor avowed nonrestraints.
Vowed restraints include pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows. So long as we keep them, they perform the function, in every moment, of refraining us from committing certain actions we have vowed to avoid. In that way, they build up further and further positive potential at all times. We lose the monk and nun vows when we die. But since we take bodhisattva and tantric vows for all our lifetimes until we attain enlightenment, they continue with our mental continuum as extremely subtle forms, even into future lives, so long as we do not give them up.
Avowed nonrestraints are pledges not to refrain, for our entire lives, from catching and killing fish, for instance, if we are born into the caste of fishermen or take on that occupation. They are lost either when we give them up or when we die.
Intermediate nonrevealing forms include those that arise simultaneously with:
- Making or offering an object of use, which, when others make use of, they build up positive or negative karmic potential and so do we. In the case of building up positive karmic potential, such objects of use include Dharma books, stupas, and Buddhist temples. In the case of building up negative karmic potential, such objects of use include weapons and slaughterhouses. These nonrevealing forms continue to build up karmic potential on our mental continuum, even after we have died, whenever someone makes use of the object we have made or offered. These forms are lost when the object is no longer available.
- As a subcategory of the above, ordering someone to commit destructive actions, such as when a military commander orders the soldiers to attack and kill the enemy. The nonrevealing form continues to build up negative karmic potential on the mental continuum of the commander whenever one of these soldiers kills an enemy.
- Pledging to commit, for a limited amount of time, a constructive act, such as meditating each day or refraining from raping someone but not from other forms of inappropriate sexual behavior. Similarly, pledging to commit, for a limited amount of time, a destructive act, such as killing enemy troops while in the army. The nonrevealing form of this pledge continues to build up karmic potential each time we repeat the action we pledged to do.
- Committing, with a strong mental urge and strong constructive emotion, a constructive action not associated with keeping a vowed restraint, such as making prostrations with a strong taking of refuge. Similarly, committing, with a strong mental urge and strong destructive emotion, a destructive action not associated with keeping an avowed nonrestraint, such as cheating on our taxes with strong hostility at paying large amounts of tax. The nonrevealing form of the action continues to build up karmic potential each time we repeat that action, so long as we do not stop repeating it.
What Actually Is a Nonrevealing Form in Western Terms?
These are the defining characteristics and varieties of compelled nonrevealing forms. We can read the list and perhaps even recite it, but what in the world is this talking about? We can’t find that answer anywhere in a description that we would be able to understand in our Western terminology. It is up to us to think about it. I can share with you my most recent guess. That’s all that we can do really. We can try to identify them, and as we work with them further and further, we might refine our understanding of what this type of subtle form is referring to.
One idea that comes to mind, but only in such cases as repeating a certain action, is that a nonrevealing form is like a muscle memory or muscle imprint. When we learn to do a certain physical exercise or to play an instrument, operate a machine, type on a keyboard or sing a song, what we can call a “muscle memory” enables us to repeat the motions involved without conscious effort. But this is not so accurate, since those above examples entail repeating unspecified actions. Better examples would be the muscle memories or imprints involved with compulsively hitting people or yelling at them.
Another idea is that perhaps a nonrevealing form is a sort of inertia associated with our behavior. It is going on during the action and continues after the action until we break that inertia. It is a form of physical phenomenon, and we can therefore think of it in terms of the laws of physics, in a way.
But what about the nonrevealing form built up from building or running a Dharma center? This is more difficult to explain in Western terms.
The Importance of Not Giving Up Bodhichitta and Thus Losing the Bodhisattva Vows
There is one important point that I think is associated with nonrevealing forms, specifically the nonrevealing forms of the bodhisattva vows and why we are advised not to give them up even at the cost of our lives. Although I haven’t seen this in a text, here is my analysis.
The Chittamatra Mind-Only system asserts that an object of consciousness as well as the consciousness and all the mental factors cognizing that object in any moment of cognition all come from one karmic seed, a karmic tendency. They also include as coming from this seed reflexive awareness, the cognitive faculty within a cognition that takes as its cognitive object the consciousness and mental factors within the cognition that it is part of. They all come from one karmic seed as their natal source (rdzas), like bread out of the oven. The problem with that scheme concerns the cause of the Form Bodies of a Buddha.
There is a type of cause called an “obtaining cause” (nyer-len-gyi rgyu), referring to what something is obtained from, like a sprout from a seed. It transforms into its result and ends when all its results have finished arising and thus it must exist before its result. In the Chittamatra system, forms of physical phenomena do not have an obtaining cause. The karmic tendency for a cognition is only the obtaining cause for the consciousness, accompanying mental factors and reflexive awareness of the cognition, but not the obtaining cause of the object of the cognition. That karmic tendency does not turn into the object of the cognition it gives rise to.
Furthermore, although the karmic tendency for a cognition transforms into the cognition and so exists before the cognition, only prior cognitions that transformed into that tendency existed before the tendency, not physical objects that were the objects of those cognitions. Chittamatra refutes that physical objects exist before cognition of them and thus refutes external phenomena. Therefore, Chittamatra asserts that the karmic seed or tendency is merely the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen) of the object of the cognition it gives rise to.
Only the Indian Mahayana Buddhist tenet systems assert Buddha-nature factors (sang-rgyas-kyi rigs) – literally, Buddha family-traits – that are responsible for the attainment of Buddhahood. In the Chittamatra system, the evolving Buddha-family traits are the seeds on the mental continuum of someone that enable that person to attain the pathway mind of a Buddha needing no further training. Presumably, these are the seeds within the person’s network of deep awareness (collection of wisdom) dedicated to enlightenment and such seeds would be the obtaining cause for the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha. There is no obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. Similarly, Svatantrika asserts the evolving Buddha-family traits to be only the factors – presumably the seeds – included in the network of deep awareness dedicated to enlightenment and which are fit to become the essential nature of a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, with no mention of the Form Bodies. Prasangika is unique among the Indian Mahayana Buddhist tenet systems in asserting evolving Buddha-family traits to include factors that transform into Form Bodies.
According to Prasangika, the network of positive potential (collection of merit) dedicated to enlightenment is the obtaining cause of the Form Bodies, while the network of deep awareness is the obtaining cause of a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. The network of positive potential consists of both potential that has taken on the essential nature of a tendency (a seed) and nonrevealing forms. A seed is accepted as the obtaining cause of a sprout since both the seed and the sprout are the same class of phenomenon – both are forms of physical phenomena. But the karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a tendency (a seed) is a noncongruent affecting variable (ldan-min ’du-byed), not a form of physical phenomenon. Noncongruent affecting variables cannot transform into forms of physical phenomena, only forms of physical phenomena can transform into forms of physical phenomena. Only forms of physical phenomena can be the obtaining cause of other forms of physical phenomena. Therefore, we can infer that the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha must be forms of physical phenomena.
It then follows that if the network of positive force dedicated to enlightenment is the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha, there must be forms of physical phenomena included in the network of positive force. Thus, we can infer the existence of nonrevealing forms as members of such a network and that they are the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. Thus, when it is said that nonrevealing forms can only be known by mental consciousness, this refers to their existence being known conceptually by inferential cognition.
Think about that. In the Buddhist discussion of beginningless mind, we always say that physical substances, like a joined sperm and egg, cannot give rise to a mind; only a previous moment of mind can give rise to a next moment of mind. Similarly, a mind cannot give rise to a physical substance; only another physical substance, like a joined sperm and egg, can give rise to one, like the body.
Another piece of evidence for inferring the existence of nonrevealing forms as the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha comes from the presentation of the 32 excellent signs of a Buddha, the so-called “major marks” of a Buddha. Each of the 32 signs comes from a specific type of constructive behavior that the person enacted while being a bodhisattva. For example, a Buddha has a long tongue because, as a bodhisattva, he or she took care of others with compassion like a mother animal licking her baby. The nonrevealing forms that arose with the revealing forms of such actions by a bodhisattva would be the obtaining causes for those excellent signs.
I believe, then, that this analysis reveals the reason why so much emphasis is placed on never giving up the bodhisattva vows, even at the cost of our life. The bodhisattva vows, which are vows to avoid specific types of behavior that would prevent us from being of help to others and becoming Buddhas, are nonrevealing forms. They, too, are obtaining causes for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. As revealing forms, then as Shantideva explains, they give rise to further positive potential every moment that we keep them, whether we are awake, asleep, sober or drunk.
In terms of beginningless mind, we have taken the bodhisattva vows a countless number of times, but we have also given up bodhichitta and lost those bodhisattva vows a countless number of times. Therefore, to attain enlightenment, there needs to be a first time that we have never given up bodhichitta and lost our bodhisattva vows. The reason we haven’t attained enlightenment already, given beginningless mind, is that this first time of not giving up our bodhisattva vow has not yet happened. Therefore, there is the imperative never to give up our bodhisattva vow even at the cost of our life.
We need a form of physical phenomenon that is going to continue all the way to enlightenment, which will then turn into the physical body of a Buddha. This is the nonrevealing forms of constructive behavior and, even stronger and more importantly, the vows, which make the constructive behavior more stable and decisive. The strength of a nonrevealing form can get stronger or weaker depending on how often we repeat the action, the motivation behind it and what we do, etc. It’s non-static and changes in strength and energy from moment to moment.
In summary, we have an action, and each of its parts is going to have its own cause. These causes are compulsive. What is also compulsive is the urge to do the action and continue doing it. The shape that the motion of our body takes while doing the action is compulsive as well. The muscle imprint of the action is compelling and causes us to repeat this type of behavior compulsively.