Questions about Nonrevealing Forms of Vows and Karma

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Nonrevealing Forms Can Be Known Only with Mental Cognition

When we talk about a nonrevealing form, how is this known? Can we in our practice learn to be able to perceive it?

“Nonrevealing” means that it doesn’t reveal its motivation to anybody. It is something that can be known, but only with mental cognition. It’s not something that we can see or hear. It’s like a dream form, in that we can only know it by our mind. For instance, we can’t actually see a dream with our eyes. 

When we are aware, for example, of the nonrevealing form of a vowed restraint that we have taken on to refrain from killing, what are we actually aware of? We are aware that we have this vowed restraint and that we are planning to keep it. Does it reveal the motivation with which we took it on? No. Mind you, whether we are aware of them or not, the nonrevealing forms continue with our mental continuum as extremely subtle forms.

We can also take on an avowed nonrestraint to kill or shoot people, for example, when we join the army, and we can be aware that we have taken on an avowed nonrestraint to engage in this type of behavior. For example, we join the mafia, and we promise to kill whomever the mafia boss instructs us to kill. We can be aware of this avowed nonrestraint, but it’s not as if it reveals our motivation, such as fear or wanting to make money. It doesn’t reveal anything.

Motivations for Taking on Vowed Restraints

Of course, we can take on a vowed restraint with various types of motivation. We can take bodhisattva vows because we want to attain enlightenment and benefit all beings. We can take the vows for individual liberation – the monastic or lay vows – because we want to attain liberation from samsara. We can have constructive motivations like these. However, we can also take on vowed restraints with many other, less positive types of motivation, such as all our friends are becoming monks and we want to be with our friends. Another example is that we can’t get along with the opposite sex, or are attracted to the same sex, so we join a same sex community of monks or nuns. Perhaps, we join a monastery because our parents told us to – as often happens in the Tibetan community – or because we want free food and not to have to work or to join the army. There can be many motivations and reasons. Just the fact that we take on and keep a vowed restraint doesn’t reveal that motivation.

For example, the vowed restraint to refrain from hunting: It could be that we really like hunting, but we know that it is destructive and will cause harm and therefore, we refrain from hunting. Or it could be that it would just never enter our minds to hunt, so it’s no big deal to refrain from so doing. The strength of the motivation and the type of the motivation is not revealed just because we have taken on a vowed restraint.

 What is the original word in Sanskrit for a nonrevealing form?

The Sanskrit word for the revealing is prajñapti and for nonrevealing aprajñapti. Prajñapti is a causative noun, “causing one to know,” from prajñā, to know. It is something that cause one to know the motivation. The Sanskrit prefix “a” makes the word a negation, and so something that does not cause one to know the motivation.

The Relation between Revealing and Nonrevealing Forms and Categories

Is a revealing form a category and a nonrevealing form not a category? 

A nonrevealing form is not a category; however, the revealing form is also not a category. Categories are static phenomena: they do not change from moment to moment and do not perform any function. Revealing and nonrevealing forms are nonstatic. They change from moment to moment as they perform functions. The revealing form of the body is the shape of the motion of the body as the method implemented for causing an action of the body to take place. The revealing form of speech is the sound of the utterances of speech as the method implemented for causing an action of the speech to take place. They are nonstatic, changing phenomena because, in each moment, as we do something, our body is in a different position, and in each moment as we say something, the sounds of the syllables and words we utter are different. A nonrevealing form, for instance a vowed restraint to refrain from killing, also changes from moment to moment as it performs the function of keeping us from taking a life.  

A category is static and doesn’t do anything. It is like a box into which many items fit. For example, with the category of killing or stealing, the category itself doesn’t do anything. Nonetheless, each time that a person kills someone, it can be classified as fitting into the category of killing. We can conceptualize and know it as being a killing. Categories can have names or words designated on them so that we can now call all instances that fit in the category as “murders.” They fit into the category of “a killing.” Categories and words are associated with conceptual thought.

How Conceptual Thought with Categories Leads to Revealing and Nonrevealing Forms

Based on conceptual cognition with categories, we communicate with words. When we think, “I am going to kill,” the category of killing defines what killing is. How does this turn into a revealing form and a nonrevealing form? 

Right, a karmic action of the mind is a line of conceptual thought, and it involves categories, like “killing.” The category can be designated with a word and that word can be represented by the mental sound of the word “killing.” Similarly, the line of thinking will entail further categories, like “me” and “what I’m going to do.” 

A category is a static classification that encompasses all items that fit the definition of what belongs to the category. In the conceptual thought, the category is represented by a mental hologram of a specific item that fits into the category. This mental hologram could be one of the nonstatic act of killing that we are planning and deciding to do. If we go on to commit that act, then the revealing form of the shape of the motion of our body as a method we implement to carry out the killing will be modeled on that mental hologram in our conceptual thought. Along with the revealing form will be a nonrevealing form.  

How Vowed Restraints Continue After Death

Concerning dying, all our levels of consciousness dissolve, but how do vows continue? Does it mean that they become so subtle that they actually can survive the dying process even though the grosser levels dissolve?

A vowed restraint, as a nonrevealing form, is an extremely subtle form of physical phenomenon that is not made of material elements. The vows for individual liberation – the monastic or lay vows – last only for one lifetime because they are taken on just for one lifetime. However, the bodhisattva and tantric vows are taken for all our lifetimes. We pledge not to give them up all the way to enlightenment. 

Vaibhashika and Sautrantika do not assert bodhisattva or tantric vows and so, for them, nonrevealing forms are lost at the time of death and do not have continuity into future lives. Chittamatra does assert that bodhisattva and tantric vows continue into future lives, but it does not accept nonrevealing forms. These vowed restraints are tendencies (sa-bon) – literally “seeds” – on the foundation consciousness, alayavijnana, and they continue with foundation consciousness after death and on into future lives.

Just as the mental consciousness of beings on the plane of formless beings are accompanied by the subtlest level of the elements, so too the nonrevealing forms of vows continue to accompany the subtle mental consciousness that Prasangika asserts in its sutra system as present in death existence and as continuing on into future lives. In terms of anuttarayoga tantra, the nonrevealing forms of vows continue as part of the subtlest energy-wind.

What happens when we have taken the bodhisattva vows and haven’t lost them, and we die with them intact and are reborn as a fly? Do we still have the bodhisattva vows? The answer is yes, but they are dormant. Even if born as a human, the vows would have to be retaken and re-energized in a sense. Something similar can happen within one a lifetime. During our human lifetimes, when we violate the precepts of our bodhisattva vows, we weaken the vows, but we do not lose them. We have not given them up. We can refresh and restore the vows by regretting our transgressions and taking on the vowed restraints again. When we reaffirm our motivation before a teaching or meditation session, this is also a refreshing of them. We are not generating bodhichitta anew. That’s why I always say, “Let’s reaffirm our bodhichitta motivation” and not “Let’s generate bodhichitta.”  

A Strategy to Resolve Indecisive Wavering

You mentioned that when we worry, have doubts or some question in our minds that we can’t resolve, we dwell on the question again and again. It is kind of incomplete. How do we solve this problem so it will not bother us?

When we can’t come to a decision, this is called “indecisive wavering” out of the seven ways of knowing things. It is usually described in terms of being indecisive about understanding and accepting something in the Dharma. Either a person is wavering toward a correct understanding or toward the incorrect understanding or is somewhere in between. For example, we see someone in the distance and it’s not clear who it is. We can’t really decide, so what we use is another form of cognition, which is knowing that in order to make the decision, we need more information. In this case, for example, we would have to get up closer to the person to correctly identify them.

This strategy with indecisive wavering is quite relevant here. If we can’t make a decision about what to do or what to say, then maybe we need more information to make an intelligent decision. For example, we are speaking with somebody and we don’t know quite what to say, so we can ask the person to tell us a bit more about what they mean or why they said something. When we get more information, this helps us make a decision. 

This is a very important way of knowing things that we really need to employ. We need to know that we can’t really be decisive about something unless we get further information. For example, if we can’t decide if rebirth is true or not, we need more information about how it works, what is being reborn, etc., before we can make a proper decision. 

For example, a person said nasty things to us at work yesterday. Today when we go to work, should we say something back to them? I think this is fairly common when we are dealing with constructive and destructive behavior and are thinking whether to do a constructive or destructive action and are having difficulty deciding if we should do it or not. Even in that situation at work, we can get further information. What did the person mean by that? 

There is a tactic that Thích Nhất Hạnh always emphasizes. Go to the person and say, “I have a problem with what you said to me yesterday. It really upset me. Can you help me by clarifying and explaining why you said that?” This gives the other person the opportunity to be generous and to offer us an explanation. It changes the whole dynamic of the situation. It is based on getting more information and knowing that we need to get more information before we make the decision to say something nasty back to this person. 

Mixing Systems

About revealing and nonrevealing forms, can we say that a revealing form is connected to our consciousness and the nonrevealing form is connected to our unconsciousness in terms of how we understand these terms in the West? 

Yes, we could say that; but I wouldn’t formulate it in these terms, and I would be careful in how that is formulated. We can be conscious of a revealing form because we can see or hear it. However, we would be unconscious of the nonrevealing form. That’s how I think it would fit into that scheme of conscious and unconscious. Conscious or unconscious has to do with whether we are attentive of something. For example, we are not attentive of the nonrevealing form of a vowed restraint we have taken on, but we can think about it if we want to. That would be conceptual, and the nonrevealing form would be an object of conceptual cognition. 

In theory, if we attain extrasensory perception, which is a byproduct of perfect concentration, and we focus on this nonrevealing form, in theory we should be able to know it non-conceptually. This is because we would have absolutely no mental wandering, mental dullness and are totally focused on it. However, I don’t know for sure that this is the case. It seems as though from theory that this should be possible.

In order to answer your question, we need to go a little bit further in the direction of the seven ways of knowing. For instance, there is inferential cognition, which is always conceptual. We can infer that our vows are weak. Based on a line of reasoning that by looking at our conduct and how we may have gotten somewhat around the vows and not kept them very purely, we can infer that they are weak. Is that being conscious or unconscious of the vows?

The Western conceptual framework of conscious and unconscious doesn’t really fit into this. In other words, there are many different ways in which our conceptual mental consciousness could take as an object the nonrevealing forms of vows, or, even weaker than that, just the nonrevealing forms of our behavior. 

This raises the whole issue of mixing systems. We were saying that we can’t really mix Prasangika and Chittamatra harmoniously. Similarly, we can’t mix a Buddhist explanation with a Western psychological explanation very easily. The categories with which we conceptualize in each system don’t overlap and, in many cases, don’t even intersect.

Grasping for a Self-Established “Me”

You mentioned the definition of karma as being compulsiveness, but I understand compulsion in terms of what I think is the fourth aspect of the second noble truth, when they speak about various strong intentions. That implies that if our intention is not very strong, it isn’t a karma because it’s not compulsive enough. Could you clarify this?

Karma doesn’t exist all by itself. Karma arises from various causes and conditions and also leads to various types of aftermath and results. When we look at the whole issue of karma, we need to look at the whole issue of a compulsive repetition of certain patterns of behavior, if I can formulate it like that. We have a habitual way of behaving, and that way of behaving is reinforced by repetition. This is what the second aspect, actually, of true causes of suffering is referring to – the origin of true suffering. A tainted body is going to arise again and again from our craving and so on, because the craving repeats and repeats. We can understand that also in terms of karmic patterns repeating and repeating. 

What repeats could be destructive behavior, constructive behavior, or it could be unspecified. If it’s destructive, it’s motivated by a disturbing emotion. If it’s constructive, it’s motivated by either no disturbing emotion or a positive emotion, and if it’s unspecified, none of these things are involved. However, all of them have grasping for a self-established “me” as part of the motivating mental framework. 

For example, a destructive action is that I hit you. I hit you with the intention to hurt you because there is a destructive emotion behind it. I don’t like you and I am angry with you. There is a big “me” there. You hurt me and I don’t like you, and I am going to hurt you. There is a big emphasis on “me.” 

With a constructive action, I refrain from hitting you. It could be because I don’t want to act under the influence of anger. It doesn’t mean that we are completely liberated from anger. It could be that I want to help you and not hurt you. However, there’s still “me.” Why do I want to do that? I want to be good. I am a good person, and I don’t do things like that. There is a big “me” that is still there. I don’t want you to dislike me. I don’t want you to hurt me back. 

With an unspecified action, I eat lunch at one o’clock and I always have soup with my lunch. Behind this is the way that I am. I always eat lunch at that time and I don’t want to eat lunch at two o’clock. This is too late, and I always want to have soup with my lunch. There is a strong “me” behind this. “This is who I am and this is what I do and the way that I lead my life. You had better accept it.” It is unspecified, however. It is just eating lunch with soup at one o’clock. 

In all of these actions there is an intention. The intention might be to hurt you, not to hurt you, or to eat lunch with soup at one o’clock. There is always an intention. The strength of the potential left by the karmic impulse and thus also the strength of the result that will ripen from it are proportionate to the strength of the motivating emotion. Is it a little bit of attachment or a lot of attachment? Is it a little bit of anger or strong anger? 

What also affects the strength of the potential and of the result is the amount of suffering that what we do will cause another person. For example, am I going to hit you or am I going to kill you? Am I going to say some strong words about you or really nasty things about your mother? There are many different ways of how I intend to do that. If I want to hurt someone, how I intend to do that could vary in strength of the potential and the karmic result according to how much suffering it will cause the other person.

Is it true that unless we have a correct understanding of voidness, all of our actions of all three categories will be compulsive, which means that anything we do is based on karma and compulsion?

This gets a little bit complicated, as always. It has to do with the obscurations of karma and when we achieve a true stopping of them. We gain liberation from karma and karmic tendencies with liberation, but we only get rid of the constant habits of karma, which cause us to have limited cognition and not omniscience, when we become enlightened. 

We progress toward that attainment in stages. First, we can reach a certain point where we can no longer be reborn in one of the lower realms. Then we can reach a certain stage, I believe when we become liberated at the end of the seventh bhumi, where we no longer accumulate any more karmic potential. It is gradual that we achieve a stopping of certain aspects of karma. However, all aspects of karma are not gotten rid of until we are enlightened and become a Buddha. The main liberation comes as an arhat and the full package of being free from constant habits happens when we are a Buddha.

Networks of Positive Force

Now there is an important point that comes later when we discuss the aftermath of our karmic behavior. One of the results, an aftermath that continues with our mental continuum, is the so-called “collection of merit.” I prefer to refer to it as a “network of positive force.”

There are three types of networks of positive force. One has no dedication at all. This is the default setting – our usual so-called “good karma” that will just contribute to a nicer samsara. For example, the positive force built up from being generous so that other people will give us money. Next, there are positive force dedicated to attaining liberation and positive force dedicated with bodhichitta to attaining enlightenment. According to a commentary on this topic by Haribhadra, an Indian master, the Sanskrit word that is usually translated as “collection” or “network” actually means “something that builds something else up.” It builds up positive force for attaining a nicer samsara, liberation, or enlightenment. 

The definitional network of positive force that is enlightenment-building is the one that we have when we attain unlabored bodhichitta. “Unlabored” (rtsol-med) means that we don’t have to rely on the seven-part cause and effect meditation and so on to generate it. We just have bodhichitta as our primary motivation all the time so that, unconsciously, it’s always there. With this, we attain the first of the five pathway minds, the building-up pathway of mind – the so-called “path of accumulation” – that is building up more and more so as to attain a unified pair of shamatha and vipashyana. The path of accumulation is not something we walk on. It’s a level of mind that is building up toward that attainment. That’s definitional bodhichitta. When we have that level of bodhichitta, it will contribute to our attainment of enlightenment. We don’t have to have non-conceptual cognition of voidness yet. That’s attained with a seeing pathway of mind, the path of seeing. 

Before we attain that level of unlabored bodhichitta and a building-up pathway of mind as a bodhisattva, we have what is known as a “facsimile network” of enlightenment-building positive force. It’s built up with labored bodhichitta. Nevertheless, it will also contribute to our enlightenment. In a sense, part of this positive force will improve our samsara on the way to enlightenment because we need precious human rebirths and things like that. We certainly want to guarantee that we have this samsaric ripening. However, it will also contribute to actually attaining enlightenment.