Three Types of Karmic Aftermath

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There are three types of karmic aftermath. The first is karmic force or karmic potential. These terms are two different ways of referring to the same thing. There are two types and they’re usually translated as “merit” (bsod-nams) and “sin” (sdig-pa) or something like that, but these are really not very appropriate terms. They are borrowed from Western religions and don’t really fit the definitions. Next, we have karmic tendencies (sa-bon). This literally means “seeds” of karma. Then, we have constant karmic habits (bag-chags). This is a little bit complicated, as most topics in Tibetan Buddhism are.

Karmic Force or Potential

Let’s first look at karmic force or karmic potential. I use the two different terms depending on what we are trying to explain about them. From the point of view of it being the force of a karmic pathway and the force resulting from it, it is a karmic force. Karmic potential is looking at it from the point of view of it being a potential to bring about a result. In any case, there are various reasons for not choosing the usual terminology. However, I think the terms “force” and “potential” are a more neutral terminology that eliminates any sort of moral judgment and guilt, or the tendency with “merit” to have the feeling that we are so wonderful because we have earned something. To make the topic a little bit easier to discuss, let’s refer to it with just one term, “karmic potential.” Karmic potential is always either destructive or tainted constructive. 

There are two phases of karmic potential. One is during the pathway of the karmic impulse and the other continues as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the conventional “me” that is, in turn, an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of five aggregates.

A karmic pathway (las-lam) consists of a basis for an action, a distinguishing of that basis, an intention, an accompanying emotion, the implementation of a method for causing the action to take place, and the reaching of the intended finale of the action. Thus, a karmic pathway is equivalent to a karmic action.

Imputation phenomena are phenomena that can neither exist nor be known separately from a basis. Some are static, like categories (a category cannot exist or be conceptually known separately from an individual item that fits in and represents the category), and some are nonstatic. Among the nonstatic ones, some are forms of physical phenomena, like a whole computer and its parts; some are ways of being aware of something, like a mood and its component mental factors; and some are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something, like the phase of karmic potential that is a karmic pathway and its components. The technical term is “a noncongruent affecting variable,” a horrible technical term but that is literally how it translates. It isn’t congruent, which means it doesn’t share five things in common with the ways of being aware of the things that it accompanies. There is no need to go into this, as it just makes things more complicated. Let’s just leave the karmic potential that is a karmic pathway as a nonstatic imputation phenomenon that isn’t a form of physical phenomena or a way of being aware of something. 

For example, we saw a football game. What did we see? We saw one moment at a time of many players moving around and doing things. The football game that we saw was an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all that. The game could not have existed or been known separately from all of that as its basis. Although the players and their movements were forms of physical phenomena, the game was neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. The game was nonstatic because it changed from moment to moment and, from the Gelugpa point of view, the game was something we saw non-conceptually from moment to moment. 

Another example is age. Age is a sequence of having been alive for a certain number of moments and is an imputation phenomenon on that span of moments. Another example is speed, where an object is here and then it is there and then there, and so there is speed as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the sequence of different positions of the object in time and space. Another example is a number in a sequence, or the order in a sequence such as that this is today’s third lecture. That’s an imputation of where it is in the sequence or the order. It is not a form of physical phenomenon or a way of being aware of something. It is number three out of three, but we could add another lecture and then it changes to be number three out of four. It was the last lecture of the day, but then it could be the next-to-last lecture. It can change. 

The first phase of a karmic potential, then, is the pathway of a karmic impulse and is an imputation phenomenon. In general, it can be said to be “obvious karmic potential.” 

  • In the case of the karmic pathway for an action of the mind, the karmic impulse involved is the mental urge that drives the line of thinking. It is not part of the karmic pathway and so is not considered a karmic potential. 
  • In the case of the karmic pathway for an action of the body or speech, the karmic impulses involved are the revealing and nonrevealing forms. They are parts of the karmic pathway and are also considered karmic potentials. The revealing form is obvious and ends when the action ends; the nonrevealing form is unobvious and continues after the action ends.  

The second phase of karmic potential begins when the pathway of the action reaches its finale and ends. The obvious karmic potentials that were the karmic pathway and the revealing form undergo a phase transition, like ice to water, and become nonobvious karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-pa). This means the karmic potential is now an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the conventional “me,” as is a karmic tendency, but unlike a karmic tendency, which is always unspecified, it is still a karmic potential and therefore either destructive or tainted constructive. 

The unobvious karmic potential that was the nonrevealing form during the karmic pathway of an action of the body or speech continues after the karmic pathway has ended and, once it itself comes to an end by one of various means, it too becomes a karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency. For example, the nonrevealing form that is a vowed restraint undergoes this transition when we give up the vow.  

There is also a network of karmic potential, a so-called “collection of merit.” It is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all the individual karmic potentials that we have built up on our mental continuum. I call it a “network” because these karmic potentials reinforce each other. They are not just a collection of individual items like stamps in an album. 

Karmic Tendencies

To review briefly, karmic potential is either destructive or tainted constructive. All karmic pathways are a karmic potential, but not all karmic impulses are karmic potentials. Karmic impulses of the body and speech are karmic potentials, karmic impulses of the mind are not karmic potentials. Karmic potentials continue after the karmic pathways have ended. They continue as karmic potentials that have taken on the essential nature of karmic tendencies. In the case of the karmic potential that is a nonrevealing form, after the karmic pathway has ended, it continues first as a nonrevealing form and only when it is given up does it take on the essential nature of a karmic tendency. 

After a karmic pathway has ended, in addition to nonrevealing forms and karmic potentials that have taken on the essential nature of karmic tendencies, there are also karmic tendencies themselves – literally, “karmic seeds.” These are also nonstatic imputation phenomena, not forms of physical phenomena or ways of being aware of something. But there is a big difference. Karmic potentials are either destructive or tainted constructive, while karmic tendencies are unspecified. The Buddha did not specify that they were constructive or destructive, so they could go either way depending on the ethical status of the other factors they accompany. 

Our unspecified actions are ones such as eating at one o’clock because that’s the way that we are, and we always eat lunch at that time. That will not have as an aftermath a karmic potential, but it will have a karmic tendency to eat again at that time. 

Therefore, all three types of karmic behavior, destructive, constructive, and unspecified, will have a karmic tendency, but only the constructive and destructive types will have a karmic potential. It’s not only karmic behavior that has tendencies as its aftermath. So do all the mental factors, such as our emotions. There is a tendency to get angry and a tendency to be compassionate. 

Why Such Complexity?

The reason why we make this differentiation of karmic potentials that are destructive or tainted constructive and karmic tendencies that are unspecified is because of the complex analysis of cause and effect. There are six different types of causes and four different types of results. Nothing arises from just one cause. Many things arise at the same time in one moment of cognition and each of them is the result of a different set of causes. It is not like the Chittamatra assertion that all the components in a moment of cognition derive from a single karmic tendency for that moment of cognition. In Prasangika it’s not as simple. 

When we look at tendencies, for example, each mental factor in a moment of cognition comes from its own tendency and each factor can be of a varying strength. In addition, when we look at the results that ripen from karmic potentials and karmic tendencies, we see that there are up to 13 factors that can affect the strength of what ripens, for instance the frequency with which we have committed a certain action and the intensity of the motivating emotions with which we have committed it. 

There is another important point about karmic potentials and tendencies. They give results only intermittently. We don’t kill or help others or eat every moment of every lifetime, we do those things only sometimes. This is also the case with the tendencies for mental factors such as the various emotions. We don’t get angry every single moment of our existence, do we? It is only sometimes. Karmic potentials and tendencies ripen only when certain conditions occur that trigger them. 

Constant Karmic Habits

The third type of karmic aftermath that we have are called “constant karmic habits.” They give rise to their results constantly in every single moment and not intermittently. What they give rise to is our limited awareness. The term “sentient being” actually is referring to someone with a limited awareness. A Buddha is not a sentient being. A limited awareness means one that is not omniscient. We don’t know everything simultaneously. 

Sometimes I describe limited awareness as periscope vision. In a submarine, we would just be looking through one little hole at the top of the periscope. The problem of limited awareness is a hardware problem in which we can only see through these two holes in the front of our head. We can’t see through the back of our head. Our brain is limited. We can’t understand everything. We can understand a little bit more than a fly, which has even more of a hardware problem. For that lifetime it has a fly brain. Limited awareness is a hardware problem of the physical body. That’s why we want to have a Buddha body that doesn’t have this sort of problem. As long as we know things through this limited hardware, we’re going to have limited awareness. That’s the big problem; we’re not a Buddha. 

It’s a very helpful way to look at our body and our brain as limited hardware. They wear out with an expiration date, and we don’t even know what that expiration date will be. However, they will expire like a bottle of milk. The body and the brain are very limited and realizing that helps not to have so much attachment to them.

Together with that limited awareness that’s preventing us from being omniscient is the fact that the limited mind makes things appear to be self-established and truly existent. This is part of being limited – having periscope vision we are unable to see the interconnectedness of absolutely everything. Instead, everything seems disconnected and self-established. This is because of our hardware problem. 


This covers the karmic aftermath. There are the karmic potentials, karmic tendencies, and constant karmic habits. In our next session, we will continue with the karmic results and then see how all these karmic actions, karmic impulses, karmic aftermath, and karmic results distribute among the five aggregates and the relationship of “me” with those aggregates. Then, we can understand the relationship between “me” and karmic cause and effect. When we understand the relationship of “me” with that, then the whole issue of blame becomes irrelevant.


We think whatever positive force or understanding has come from this discussion, may that go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone, not just me, to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all. It’s important when we make a dedication that it’s not just made for “me,” but for everybody. This is like in chapter ten of the Bodhicharyavatara by Shantideva, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, where he makes the dedication of the positive force for it to ripen on everybody, not just on “me, me, me.”