General Questions about Karma

Other languages

The Complexity of Karma

This weekend we’re going to be speaking about karma, and although the topic is announced as “karma: free will versus determinism,” that will be just a part of what we’ll talk about. I’d like to go into some detail about what karma is, what the various mental factors are that are involved with karma, and how karma works, so that we have a general idea of how the question of free will versus determinism fits into the Buddhist presentation of karma. Also, I know that there are many questions that people have about karma, and so I’d like to try to weave different themes here into our weekend in order to answer some of them. And there will be plenty of time for questions. 

We need to be quite clear from the very beginning that Buddha mentioned himself that karma is the most difficult thing to understand in his teachings, far more difficult to understand than voidness. So, if it’s complicated and if there are many aspects in it that we can’t understand, that’s not something that we should be surprised about. That is, of course, the way it is. Also, we should realize that there are many explanations of karma within Buddhism. There’s not just one explanation, and so this means that we can understand how karma works in many different ways, and the different systems will give us different insights into how karma works. 

There’s a presentation in the Theravada system, which differs in many ways from the presentations in the systems taught at Nalanda that the Tibetans study. It will be too confusing and complicated to try to cover the Theravada presentation as well, but we should at least be aware that it’s quite different. Within those presentations that the Tibetans study and follow, there is the Vaibhashika one, which comes from Vasubandhu, an Indian master, in his text Abhidharmakosha, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge. However, in his commentary, he often critiqued it and gave the Sautrantika position. In other texts that he wrote, he gave the Chittamatra explanation. This is a good example of how one master can explain different systems during his lifetime, although it is difficult to know which system he himself accepted.  

In addition to Vasubandhu’s texts, the Tibetans study Asanga’s texts. One of them is Abhidharmasamuccaya, An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, but Asanga wrote several others as well, and the Tibetans take material from all of his texts. Asanga presents karma from the Chittamatra point of view. Many of its points are based on what Sautrantika asserted prior to Asanga, but he modified them to fit within the other assertions of Chittamatra. The Madhyamaka presentation of karma predates both Vasubandhu and Asanga and presents the basic features that Vasubandhu later elaborated upon within his presentation of the Vaibhashika version. The Madhyamaka version was written by Nagarjuna and presents karma within the context of the other Madhyamaka assertions.

For those of us who are familiar with these different tenet systems, that makes a little bit of sense. For those of us who are not, then it doesn’t really matter, so don’t worry. It’s just that there are several distinct systems for explaining karma, and we can gain insights from all of them. The Tibetans primarily study both Vasubandhu’s and Asanga’s presentations and there is enough in common in these two systems that we can work with in our daily lives. I’ll try to explain from the point of view of that common material, but in certain points I’ll indicate the main different positions. Also, I should point out that it is not just the Tibetans that follow a course of study that includes both Vasubandhu’s and Asanga’s approaches to karma. The Chinese did that as well in the Chinese traditions that emphasize studying the Indian Buddhist literature. 

What Is Karma?

Karma has basically two varieties – this is what all these schools say. Let’s call them both karmic impulses. There are karmic impulses associated with actions of the mind and karmic impulses associated with actions of the body and speech. The karmic impulses associated with actions of the mind are the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā). An urge is the mental factor that, while accompanying a sensory or mental consciousness and its other attendant mental factors – attention, concentration, disturbing emotions, or whatever – draws them to an object like a magnet moving iron filings attached to it. 

It is difficult to find a word that properly conveys what this mental factor refers to and the word “urge” is not quite adequate, since the English word connotes a desire or wish as a part of it. This mental factor is accompanied by a wish for an object but does not include that wish. It is best to think of this mental factor of an urge as a “propelling awareness.” While aware of an object, it propels the consciousness and attendant mental factors that it accompanies to that object. It’s not, however, that the urge arises first, then cognizes some object and then moves the consciousness and other mental factors to it. The urge – this propelling awareness – arises simultaneously with the object and with the consciousness and other mental factors that it moves. Because it’s a mental factor, the propelling awareness is differentiated here from the energy-wind or the lung that is the physical component that performs this same function of moving the consciousness and mental factors to an object.

Not all urges are karmic – for instance, those that draw a sensory consciousness to cognize a sensory object or a mental consciousness to cognize an object of mental wandering are not karmic. The urges that are karmic impulses are those involved in compelling karmic actions of the mind. There are two types:

  • One type propels the conceptual mental consciousness and accompanying mental factors to think about and come to a decision concerning committing a specific action of the body or speech with or to some specific object. These are called “inciting karmic impulses” (sems-pa’i las, Skt. cetanākarma) since they incite a karmic action of the body or speech and are compelling. 
  • Another type of karmic impulse for an action of the mind is the one activated at the time of death, called “throwing karma,” that propels the mental continuum into death, bardo and its next rebirth. It is not an inciting karmic impulse. 

The compulsive karmic impulses that are associated with karmic actions of the body and speech are also of two types: 

  • One is an incited karmic impulse (bsam-pa’i las, Skt. cetayitvākarma) – a karmic impulse brought on by a prior inciting karmic impulse. 
  • The other is one not brought on by a prior karmic impulse. It is not an incited karmic impulse. 

Asanga and Vasubandhu have very different assertions of what these karmic impulses associated with karmic actions of the body and speech are. Asanga’s Chittamatra version is slightly more complicated than the Sautrantika one it elaborates upon, so let’s use the Sautrantika presentation assertion here to represent Asanga’s position since it’s easier to understand. For Asanga, the karmic impulses associated with karmic actions of the body and speech are the karmic impulses for those actions. They are the mental factor of an urge – a propelling awareness – that drives the sensory consciousness and its accompanying mental factors in engaging the body and speech in committing the action. Theravada agrees with this position.

For Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, these urges are not the karmic impulses associated with the actions of the body and speech, although they drive the sensory consciousness and its accompanying mental factors in engaging the body and speech in committing the action. The karmic impulses associated with the actions of the body and speech are the karmic impulses of the actions, not the karmic impulses for the actions. They are forms of physical phenomena, not the mental factor of a propelling awareness, an urge. There are two types:

  • The revealing form of the action is the motion of the body or the utterance of the sounds of speech as the method implemented to cause the action of the body or speech to take place. It reveals the ethical status of the mind that causes it to arise as being constructive, destructive, or unspecified.
  • The nonrevealing form of the action is a very subtle form of physical phenomenon that does not reveal that ethical status. It arises mostly in the case of certain strongly motivated constructive or destructive actions. An example is a vowed restraint. A vow is an invisible subtle form that continues even after taking the vow and that causes the body and speech to refrain in each moment from transgressing the action one has vowed not to commit.   

It’s very important to realize that karma is not at all an action. It’s either the mental factor that is driving an action or it is the motion of the body or the utterance of speech as the method implemented for causing an action to take place. To translate the work “karma” as “action,” then, is very misleading. The Tibetans translated it with the word “las,” which is the colloquial word for “action,” and so when Tibetans translate it into English, they call karma “action,” and Western translators follow their example. But if karma were simply actions, then to get rid of karma all you would have to do is stop doing anything. That makes no sense. The Sanskrit word “karma” derives from the verb k, “to do,” but it’s not so much the action, it’s what does or makes the action to take place. 

Also, the usual English rendering of the Sanskrit and Tibetan words for “urge” (sems-pa, Skt. cetanā) as “volition” and then calling karmic actions “volitional actions” is also misleading. “Volition” implies an act of will, and thus it’s closer to the Sanskrit and Tibetan term I translate as word “intention” (dun-pa, Skt. chandas). An urge and an intention are two quite distinct mental factors, although they always accompany each other. 


Asanga defines intention as “The wish to be the agent in connection with this or that action regarding a desired object. It performs the role of providing the support that undertaking the action with perseverance relies on.” Gyaltsab Je elaborates, “An intention is an awareness that, having aimed at an intended object, is differentiated according to the interest it has in it. When divided, the intention may be the wish to meet it, the wish not to be parted from it or having keen interest in it. It indicates as well individualizing certainty about unintended objects that one has no intention toward.” 

Gyaltsab Je goes on to explain that the intention could be the wish to meet with something that we’ve previously cognized or done, such as the intention to see a friend and say nice things to them. Or it could be the wish not to be parted from something that’s presently being cognized or presently being done, for instance, the intention not to stop speaking nicely to our friend. Or it could be a keen interest in something to be attained or done in the future, such as an intention to speak nicely to our friend when we meet them. 

Distinguishing (du-shes, Skt. saṃjñā) is another mental factor that accompanies our various types of consciousness and attendant mental factors. This explanation about intention indicates that first we need to distinguish our friend, either while seeing or thinking about them, before we can have the intention or wish to do something directed at them, such as saying something nice to them. Another point is that a distinguishing and an intention to do something not only precedes doing it, but they both also accompany doing it. While doing something, we still have the intention to do it and the distinguishing of the person at whom it is directed. 

One of the things that ripens from karmic potentials is our liking to do something. For instance, from the karmic potential to speak nicely to others, which came from acts of speaking nicely and from the karmic impulses involved in them, we like to speak nicely to others; we automatically speak nicely to others. That liking is what ripens. Karmic impulses do not ripen from karmic impulses. 

For example, we see someone, distinguishing them from the other people we also see. This triggers our liking to say something nice to them and the arising of a thought having a distinguishing of them and the intention or wish to say something nice to them. That thought is driven by an urge, a propelling awareness of the person, and is accompanied by an intention – the wish to say something nice to them. We may then have the karmic action of the mind to think over saying something nice and to decide to say it. That karmic action of the mind is driven by a propelling awareness – namely, an urge that is a karmic impulse for an action of the mind – and is accompanied by that intention, the wish to say something nice to them. 

Then, having made that decision, if we follow Asanga’s presentation, a propelling awareness – in this case an urge that is a karmic impulse for an action of speech – drives the body consciousness to engage the speech in saying something nice to the person. The body consciousness and urge are still accompanied by an intention, the wish to say something nice to them. Note that throughout these steps, we have distinguished the person we wish to say something nice to and we have distinguished what we want to do to them – we want to say something nice to them. We may also have a separate propelling urge – in this case, not a karmic one – driving the eye consciousness to look at the person.

Vasubandhu defines intention simply as the wish to do something, and Jinaputra Yashomitra elaborates that as the wish for an intended phenomenon. According to Vasubandhu, there is an intention with every moment of cognition. He doesn’t stipulate, as Asanga does, that the intention has to be decisive, and it has to be about doing something constructive. Asanga stipulates it like that since he is especially analyzing the mental factors involved in meditation. Vasubandhu widens the discussion about mental factors to include constructive, destructive and unspecified actions. In every moment, there are a propelling urge, an intention, and a distinguishing. 

This gives us a whole different picture into what does it mean when, in the West, we speak about certain actions that are intentional and certain actions that are unintentional. Let’s say we drive our car and hit somebody. Well, we had no intention to hit the person, but we did have the intention to drive the car and reach a desired destination safely. Our body consciousness that engaged our body in driving the car was propelled by an urge, although according to Vasubandhu that propelling urge was not a karmic impulse. The karmic impulse in this action of driving the car was the motion of the hands and feet as the method implemented to cause the driving to take place and it required distinguishing what we were doing. Hitting the person and killing them while driving our car was not the outcome we intended to happen from driving and was not an intentional act of killing someone. Our driving the car provided the circumstance for the person to be hit and to die. Driving the car was a karmic action accompanied by the intention to drive our car, it was not the karmic action of killing someone with the intention to kill them. 

These distinctions are very delicate and precise, they are important to make when discussing karma. We lose these distinctions when we translate and understand karma as “actions” and propelling urges as “volition.” Translating like that leads to much confusion and misunderstanding. That’s always the problem in understanding this material; we just go by the words that the earlier translators have chosen, and we’re not aware of the definitions. Because of that, we think that these translation terms mean what they mean in our own languages, and they don’t. The problem really is that we don’t have terms in our languages that exactly correspond to the Sanskrit or Tibetan terms, and sometimes even the Tibetan terms don’t exactly correspond in meaning to the original Sanskrit terms they are translating.

The Difference between an Intention and an Urge

Could you explain once more the order between the intention and the urge? What’s happening here? Is there a gap somewhere in which we can make choices? 

Well, let me explain. First, on the basis of our unconscious liking to do something, something triggers it, and we have a thought to do it with the intention or wish to do it. We wish to do something we like and are automatically attracted to do. We want to repeat what we did in the past, or we want to continue and not stop what we’re doing now, or we want to do something next in the future. This is just a thought, we would call it, “I feel like doing that.” It is not a line of thinking and so the urge that draws the mental consciousness to this thought is not a karmic impulse. But we could stop here and not go on to think about acting on this thought.  

But if we don’t stop there, then, we might think about doing it and make the decision to do it. That line of thinking is a karmic action of the mind. It is propelled by an urge that is a karmic impulse of the mind and it is accompanied by the intention or wish to do it. Merely having an intention or wish to do something doesn’t mean that we have decided to do it. We could stop the line of thinking before we reach a decision, and we could even decide not to do what we wished to do. But even if we decide to do it, we could stop there and not do it. So, there are gaps between when we merely feel like doing something and we think about doing it, between when we start to think about doing it and decide to do it, and between having decided to do it and actually doing it.

Even when we are actually doing something – let’s take a neutral example of going to the refrigerator to get something to eat – there are steps in the act. We need to walk to the fridge, open the door, stick our hand inside and take something. We could stop at any point. Even if we take something from the fridge, we could decide to put it back and not eat it. There are so may gaps where we can decide not to go further.

How is it with some things, for example, the urge to go to bed? 

First, we feel sleepy. We notice that we’re sleepy, so some information comes in and that triggers the thought to go to bed. We feel like going to bed. We have an interest in going to bed and a wish to do that – that’s the intention. Then, there’s a propelling urge – a karmic impulse of the mind – that drives the mind to think about going to bed and decides, “I’m going to go to bed now.” So, we make the decision, “I’m going to go to bed now.” Then, there’s a propelling urge that drives the mind to engage the body in the action of getting into bed, and that’s a karmic impulse for an action of the body. 

But what you’re saying is that there could be another intention going on, that actually I don’t want to go to bed. I want to stay up and meditate all night. 

Right, then we have – this is interesting – then another intention comes up, a wish to stay up all night and meditate. Now, because of both liking to go to bed and liking to stay up and to meditate, two contradicting thoughts arise. Then in the line of thinking about what to do and to come to a decision, there is the mental factor of indecisive wavering (the-tshoms), “Which shall I do, this or that?” The outcome of that karmic act of the mind is that we come to a decision. In coming to a decision, our line of thinking is accompanied by the mental factor of discriminating awareness (shes-rab), which discriminates between what I am going to do and what I am not going to do. The mental factor of firm conviction (mos-pa) adds decisiveness to that decision. The karmic impulse of an urge is what propels this whole line of thinking. Even then, let’s say we decide to stay up and meditate, the telephone might ring and we get interrupted and after the call we are too tired and so we decide to go to bed after all. If we do sit down to meditate, there is the propelling karmic urge that engages the body to sit down and the propelling karmic urge that drives the mind in analytical meditation. 

And then you fall asleep! 

What is that? Sleepiness arises as a mental factor that accompanies the meditation. It triggers the thought, “I feel like going to sleep.” We might not even have that thought or a line of thinking to decide whether to stop meditating and go to bed. A propelling urge, but not a karmic one, might drive the mental consciousness into a state of sleep even before we get up and go to bed. 

What’s the role of discriminating awareness here? 

Discriminating awareness in Asanga’s system differentiates between this is what I want to do and that is what I do not want to do; this is beneficial and that is not beneficial. It only comes in when we come to a decision at the finale of a line of thinking about whether or not to do something. When Gyaltsab Je says, “It (an intention) indicates as well individualizing certainty about unintended objects that one has no intention toward,” this certainty is not the firm conviction gained with discriminating awareness. He is speaking about the certainty involved with exclusion (sel-ba). When we have an intention wishing to do something, it excludes wishing to do something else. We explicitly intend to do something and implicitly intend not to do something else. In this sense, our distinguishing what we wish to do has certainty to it. 

So, merely feeling like going to sleep with the intention or wish to go to sleep does not entail discriminating awareness. Discriminating awareness is involved when we have thought about whether to go to sleep and come to the decision to go to sleep. The intention or wish to go to sleep backed by that decision has relied on discriminating awareness.

Is an intention rationally thought out or not? 

If we limit the analysis of your question to the intention that accompanies the propelling urge that drives the body consciousness to engage the body or speech in committing an action of the body or speech, then that action may or may not be preceded by having rationally thought about committing the action and deciding to do it. Remember I mentioned inciting karmic impulses and incited karmic impulses. Incited karmic impulses are propelling urges for karmic actions of the body or speech that are preceded by inciting karmic impulses that are the propelling karmic actions of the mind to think over and decide to commit that action. 

So, this leads to the whole discussion about actions that we enter into without having deliberated them before and those that we have deliberated before, and what the results are of each of them. Whether an action of the body or speech has been deliberated before, there is still an intention, a wish to enact that action to bring about a specific aim, that accompanies the action. Let’s not confuse this issue of thinking about and deciding to do or to say something with the issue of the action we decided to do bringing about an unintended outcome that we did not think about and decide that this is what we wanted to result. 

For example, if we drive our car and run over and kill insects, the intention that accompanied our driving the car was to drive the car to reach our destination. Our intention was not to drive it in order to kill insects. We may or may not have deliberated beforehand whether to drive our car to get to our destination or to take the bus, and we decided to drive. In either case, our intention in driving was the same – to reach our destination. In driving the car, one outcome was the intended one, we reached our destination. A secondary, unintended outcome was that we killed insects along the way. Since our intention in driving was not the wish to kill insects, the issue of whether or not to kill insects along the way with our car would not have arisen. Hypothetically, we could have taken into consideration that, in driving our car, inevitably it would run over ants on the road and yet we decided to drive anyway. But even in that case, our intention when driving would not have been to run over and kill ants on the road.

Both Asanga and Vasubandhu distinguish karmic impulses about which there is certainty of when the karmic potentials they leave will ripen and karmic impulses about which there is no such certainty. One of the criteria for distinguishing the two types is whether they have been deliberated beforehand. When deliberated and decided upon beforehand, then depending on the actions they propelled, there is certainty about whether their karmic potential will ripen in this lifetime, the next lifetime, or any lifetime after that. When not deliberated and decided upon beforehand, there is no such certainty about when they will ripen, but they will ripen at some time. In Asanga’s system, being a Mahayana one, it is possible to purify away the karmic potentials so that they don’t ripen at all, but in Vasubandhu’s system, being a Hinayana one, that is not possible. Because of that difference, Vasubandhu asserts that taking a life that was not deliberated upon beforehand, such as our example of killing insects while driving our car, do not have karmic consequences. Asanga and Nagarjuna, however, say they do have consequences, although much weaker than deliberate actions, however these consequences can be avoided through purification practices.   

These are topics I hope to get into this weekend. These are quite complex systems, but once we get the idea, it’s not so difficult, actually, to get the general principles of what’s involved with karma. However, one has to be quite precise about the mental factors and the steps that are involved. 

But sometimes the process seems to be fairly unconscious, we do something without thinking to do it; for instance, there can be some cookies on the table, and we think I’m not going to take one, but then we take one anyway. 

Here we need to differentiate between the propelling urge that is the karmic impulse for the action of the mind to think and decide not to eat the cookie and the propelling urge that is the karmic impulse for the action of the body to take and eat the cookie. Each of these karmic urges is a “motivator.” A motivator is something that causes something else to arise. The motivator urges are accompanied by some constructive or destructive emotion. The causal motivator of thinking not to eat the cookie might have been not being greedy, but the contemporaneous motivator of taking and eating it might have been greed. That’s how things like your example happen. Our greed outweighed our not being greedy.

Asanga gives a long list of different types of motivators of our actions. Taking the cookie doesn’t have to necessarily be motivated by greed or desire for the cookie. It can arise simply from strong habit. We’re not hungry, we don’t really think to eat the cookie or even want to eat it, but just out of habit we stuff it in our mouth. 

Now you might ask, “Where does the ‘me’ come in who has made this choice to eat the cookie?” I’m jumping ahead of our discussion, but we might as well bring it in here as part of our introductory discussion. We have to remember there’s no independent “me” separate from what we choose to do. We think, “I am independent from the whole thing and so I’m going to choose to eat the cookie or not.” That’s a completely false view of “me” as totally independent from the aggregates – the body, the consciousness, the mental factors and so on. The “I” is what is an imputation phenomenon that exists and can be known only on the basis of all the components of what we think, say or do. From an experiential point of view, it’s experienced as “I made the decision,” but it’s not that there’s a “me” separate from the whole system involved in making the decision. The decision has happened, and it has arisen, based on many, many, many, many factors. 

We can get into the whole Buddhist discussion of causality. One type of cause for something to happen is called the “acting cause” (byed-rgyu). Everything other what actually happens is the acting cause for what happens, either directly or indirectly. Everything is interconnected in the universe. All of history, the development of this universe and so on, are responsible for the cookie being on the table and for the propelling urge that drives our taking and eating it. Everything is involved in the causation process. 

All right, so it’s not our fault. 

This gets into another point, that again there’s an independent “me” separate from the whole system that’s to blame. This whole issue of who makes decisions and is there free will or determination has to be understood in terms of the Buddhist explanation of how the self exists. The fallacies all come up from thinking that there is a “me” independent from the whole system of what’s going on. Then, one really has to understand the relationship between the “me” and the aggregates. The self is part of the aggregates, not separate from them, and we do commit actions; it’s not that nobody commits them or someone else does. Karma is so complicated and difficult to understand, more than voidness, because voidness, especially the voidness of the self, is just one little piece that we have to understand in order to understand karma. 

Concerning certain actions that we do in our life, we intend something to happen, so we commit an action that we hope is going to bring about that aim, but it doesn’t bring about that aim at all. What is this?

This is very thoroughly analyzed in the Buddhist presentation of karma. In Asanga’s system, a propelling urge that is a karmic impulse drives a consciousness and its accompanying mental factors in committing an action. The action is called the “pathway of the karmic impulse” (las-lam) and the karmic impulse that drives it is not considered a part of its own pathway. The pathway includes a basis at whom or at which the action is aimed, a distinguishing of that basis, an intention, some emotion, a method implemented to cause the action to occur, and the reaching of an outcome or finale. 

The method implemented to cause the action to take place needs to be initiated and it has to bring about its intended outcome. We can initiate an action, but it might not bring about its intended aim as its outcome. We shoot somebody with the intention, the wish to kill them, and we might miss or we might hit them in the arm and they don’t die. The act of shooting the gun has reached its outcome, but that outcome is wounding somebody, which is not what we intended to happen when we pulled the trigger. We haven’t committed the action of killing somebody, although that was our intention; we’ve committed the act of wounded somebody. There will be two separate karmic potentials that have been built up and they will ripen into different karmic results. One is from the karmic potential from having thought to kill someone and deciding to do it. The other is from having wounded someone. 

One has to start to analyze much more precisely what’s going on. It’s not the case that we initiate an action, and it always reaches the conclusion that we intended. Not at all. We’ll get into this on the weekend, but all the different factors in the karmic pathway have to be complete for a certain action to have happened. When some of the factors aren’t there, what happens is that the intended action deconstructs into a different action. In this example of shooting somebody to kill them, it deconstructs into just wounding somebody. There’s no karma of killing, it’s true, but there is the karma of thinking to kill, and there is the karma of wounding somebody. It’s not that there’s no karma. I’m using the word “karma” here in a very loose sense. 

I was thinking of a cowboy film I saw recently in which there was somebody whose father was killed by the “baddie.” He spent the next twenty years training to be the best shot in the West, so that he eventually killed the baddie. So, presumably that’s all tied in as well. If I try to shoot somebody but I haven’t learned how to shoot, then that’s different from if I have spent the last ten years learning. 

Right, as in the cowboy film, when somebody spends ten or twenty years training to be a good shot so that they can actually kill the bad guy and they actually kill him, the karmic results of that killing is much heavier than when somebody who, without any training, just shoots and happens to hit the bad guy and kills him, sure. This goes into the big, long discussion of all the factors that make the ripening of karmic potential heavier or lighter. How much we planned it, how much effort we put into it, and so on, affect, of course, the strength of what ripens. 

Eventually, the more we think about karma, the larger and larger our minds become because we have to bring in so many different factors. Eventually, we have to bring in everything. That’s why it’s the most difficult thing to understand, and why only a Buddha can understand it fully because only a Buddha has the omniscience of knowing everything. It’s based on a Buddha knowing everything (being omniscient) and specifically knowing all the factors of karma, that a Buddha knows all the causal factors affecting why somebody is in a certain mental state and what would be the best thing to teach them and the effect that that would have on not only this person but also on everybody that this person meets with, forever. 

Types of Factors That Cause Karma Potential to Ripen

When somebody shoots somebody, and they miss, then this is the result of whose karma? 

Well, everything that happens is the result of many, many different factors, not just the result of one thing. Buddha said a bucket is filled not by the first drop or the last drop, but by a whole collection of drops of water. The person could shoot and, because their hand moved or they sneezed or something like that, they got distracted and lost concentration. That could be the reason why they missed. Or it could be that the person that they were aiming at moved and, for that reason, they missed. These are some of the various circumstances that could have arisen. 

Let’s say, for instance, as the potential victim we moved and so the shooter missed. What is that the result of? We might have wanted to do something constructive, something destructive or something neutral like go and eat. We might have just been tired of standing in that position. These are the circumstances that arose for us not to be killed. But if the shooter missed and we were not killed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shooter lacked the karmic potential for killing me and I lacked the karmic potential to be killed by him. We could both still have those potentials, but the circumstances were not available for the murder to take place. 

In other words, what I’m saying is that there are many, many different factors that are involved in why an action doesn’t reach its intended outcome, some of which are happening from our side, some of which are happening from the other person’s side and some of which are circumstantial, like a strong wind arose and blew the bullet off course. 

We need to be clear about what actually ripens from karmic potential. The karmic urge that propels our minds to engage the body in some action like killing someone does not ripen from karmic potentials and neither does the intention to kill someone. What does ripen is liking to kill things. Based on liking that, then certain circumstances will trigger the thought to kill someone with the wish to kill them and so on, as I’ve already described in detail.

Take the example of crossing the street and being hit by a car. Did our karma cause the car to hit us? Well, we can’t really say that. If we do say that, we get into a very solipsistic view of the universe, that everything is caused by us. We didn’t cause the other person to drive the car at that time. Does our karma ripen for us to cross the street at just the time that the other person is going to be driving? Well, no, we can’t say that either, because that again seems to imply that we are influencing the other person driving. We have to say that there are many, many causes and circumstances that are ripening from the other person’s side for them to drive the car at a certain time. There is another circumstance from our side that we’re crossing the street also at that time. We may be crossing it without looking because of our liking to do things without checking, like crossing the street without looking. This could go along with our lack of patience and our lack of attentiveness. The mechanical cause of our being hit by the car is the moving car, but that is not a karmic cause, it is a mechanical cause. Our having a short life because of being hit by a car and dying young, though, is a result that ripens from a karmic cause. We need to differentiate between a cause of something and a circumstance, and correctly identify what type of cause or circumstance anything is. 

There is always a network of circumstances for some karmic potential to ripen. Then, it gets into the very difficult discussion of what causes this potential to ripen, and it is this circumstance but not that. There has to be sufficient circumstances for something to ripen in addition to what is occurring on our side. There are many, many factors that are involved, and then the question is, how far are we going to take it? If our karmic potential to be hit provided the circumstance for the karmic potential for the other person to hit us, then do we have to start asking how did my karmic potential know that the other person was going to be driving the car at just that time, so that we crossed it at just that time? That gets pretty weird. What happens is just a dependent arising of many, many things. 

What is the relationship between karmic causes and the circumstances for karmic causes to ripen? 

Let’s say we drive our car and there is a rainstorm, the road is slippery, and we have an accident and smash into a tree. Did our karma cause the rainstorm? We can’t really say that. The rainstorm came from many, many other causes. It acted as a circumstance. Our karmic potentials ripened in being born in a place that has rainstorms and in liking to drive a vehicle, but it didn’t ripen into the rainstorm. 

All of this is dealing with the very complicated question, “Is everything that happens in the universe the result of our karma? Is everything that goes wrong in the universe our fault?” I am reminded of someone that I knew who, when he would go to a football game and his team lost, would say that his team lost because he was there. It was his fault. That’s really sick, isn’t it? 

Chittamatra doesn’t say that we’re the only one that exists in the universe and that everything is created from our mind. It speaks about collective karma, or shared karma, but there’s no findable basis outside that we’re all sharing. Of course, the Chittamatra position of no external phenomenon and how we account for the existence of other sentient beings is rather difficult. It certainly doesn’t say that everybody exists in our head and that our karmic potential is the sole thing that’s influencing everything that happens in the universe. Certainly not. Everything is interconnected. We can say, however, that one factor that affects the way that a universe evolves is the collective karmic potential shared by every being with the karmic potential to be born in that universe. The universe must be able to support them.

This brings us into another topic, which we don’t have time to get into tonight, which is, what are karmic actions and what are non-karmic actions. Are there certain things that happen that are not karma? This we have to look at quite carefully. Vasubandhu has a presentation, Asanga has a presentation, and Theravada has a presentation as well. We’ve already seen that the propelling urges that draw our consciousness to look at something, for instance, is not a karmic urge.

The question is really quite complex, but what is clear is that the fact that the person moved when we shot them is not due to our karmic potential. Also, their moving to the side was not due to a karmic potential ripening for them not to be killed. If they did not have the karmic potential to be killed, they would not be killed, but there is such a thing as a karmic potential not to be killed. The propelling urge that moved the other person’s body consciousness to move to the side so that we only wounded them was not a karmic urge. Although we had the intention to kill, the circumstances were not complete for the karmic pathway of our killing someone to be complete. External circumstances could also have contributed. The weather, lightning went off, or it thundered, and we got startled, and so we missed. We haven’t gotten rid of our karmic potential to kill somebody – that’s still there – but the circumstance wasn’t complete for it to ripen fully now. 

It’s not your fault that you couldn’t kill the person, so now you have less karma to deal with? 

No, it’s not that we have less karmic potential to deal with; it’s not that we’ve gotten rid of any potential to kill by missing when we shot. It’s just that we’ve postponed the ripening. The potential victim is not dead, so that particular action of shooting them has not been an action of killing, but we still have that potential to kill, so it will come up in a different situation. 

The Word “Karma” Is Used in a Loose Sense

The word “karma” is often used to refer to the entire sequence of components involved in karmic cause and effect, but that’s not precise. In Asanga’s system, karma is the propelling urge that drives the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors when engaged in committing a karmic action of the body, speech, or mind. Then, there is the actual karmic action, and it’s called the “pathway of the karma.” That action itself acts as a karmic force, either a positive karmic force (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya) or a negative karmic force (sdig-pa, Skt. pāpa). Positive karmic force is usually called “merit.” Negative karmic force is sometimes translated as “sin,” or something like that. After the finale or outcome of the action has occurred, the karmic force continues, but now it has taken on the essential nature of a karmic legacy (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bo gyur-ba). 

There are two types of karmic legacies (sa-bon, Skt. bīja). There’s one that is the continuation of the positive and negative karmic forces; we have to have different words for these, so I call them “karmic potentials,” although they are the same Sanskrit and Tibet terms as “karmic force.” Then, there are the karmic legacies that are usually called “karmic seeds,” which I call a “karmic tendency.” 

If we want to simplify these, there are karmic potentials and karmic tendencies. Karmic potentials are either constructive or destructive, karmic tendencies are unspecified. Both ripen only intermittently. There are also constant karmic habits (bag-chags, Skt. vāsanā), which are asserted only in the Mahayana systems. They ripen continually in each moment by making appearances of truly established existence and limiting the mind. “Karmic aftermath” is a term I have coined to refer to all of these: karmic forces, karmic potentials, karmic tendencies, and constant karmic habits. 

What ripens is this karmic aftermath and not karma itself. So, in Asanga’s system, there are karmic impulses, which are propelling karmic urges, there are karmic actions, there is karmic aftermath, and there are karmic results.

So, sometimes in a loose way you can use the word “karma” for both?

Yes, even the classical Sanskrit and Tibetan texts use the term “karma and its results” (las-’bras), and so they use the word “karma” very loosely to cover the whole process up to the result. However, that’s really not technically what the term “karma” means, but that’s the popular usage of it. We need to remain mindful when talking about karma to use the technical terms correctly and not make it confusing when saying that karma ripens, although that is an easier way of saying it. It’s the aftermath of the actions that are brought on by karma that ripen.