Karmic Versus Non-Karmic Actions

Let me explain a little bit here about karmic and non-karmic actions so that we have some idea here of what we are actually talking about when we talk about karma and this whole thing of choice. In Theravada, for example, there are five systems of natural order. These are the five niyamas in Pali. They talk about physical order – physical order are the principles of physics that govern such things as the changing of seasons, temperatures, and weather. That’s not karmic, that’s just the physical order of things. Then there is botanical order – these are the principles of botany that govern the growth of plants, so this would cover the issue of leaves falling from a tree, which leaves fall and how they grow and so on. Mind you, all of these are dealing with movements of energy. Karma is a movement of energy.

Then there is the karmic order; and the karmic order are the principles of karma that govern the physical, verbal and mental behavior of limited beings (kama in Pali). The fourth one is the cognitive order, and these are the principles of cognitive science that govern the sequence of moments that are involved in the process of sense perception. Theravada has an incredibly complex description of the sequence of moments involved with perceiving information, discriminating it, getting a concept, thinking about it, and so on – and there’s an order. So it would be our equivalent of all the steps of how the brain works. These are also movements of energies. So that’s the cognitive order; that’s also not karma.

Then there’s the dharmic order. The dharmic order refers to the laws of the universe, specifically to the laws of causality and also refers to the fact that all conditioned phenomena (that is all phenomena that arise from causes and conditions) are nonstatic – they are impermanent; they arise, abide, and cease, and are in the nature of suffering, and lack an independent self. So, these laws are also not karma. So we have in the Theravada system already that there are many other movements of energy and actions that take place, such as the changing of the seasons, and plants growing, and the brain working – and things in general arising, abiding, and ceasing that are not karma.

Now in Vasubandhu’s system – this is specifically in his Chittamatra texts he speaks of this – he says that there are “operational impulses.” We use the word – see I mean all these in this system are called with the word “karma” but it’s not our regular karma, so we have to talk about impulses, movements of energy. So there’s “operational impulses.” These are involved in the operation of, for instance, the sensory apparatus of the eye when seeing. So it’s a little bit equivalent to the Theravada cognitive order, although the analysis, how it operates, is different from the Theravada. It’s not talking about a sequence so much as just the energy involved, movement of energy involved. And then there’s “impulses entailing endeavor.” These are the impulses or movements of energy that are propelled by the motivating drive of an agent – that’s the system’s karma. The operational impulses of energy are non-karmic. This is what the commentator to Vasubandhu’s texts, the Indian commentator Sumatishila, in the late eighth century explains.

Now since there are two types of movements of energy (one are impulses that are propelled by the motivating drive of an agent, and one that are not), then it becomes very important for us to understand, what does the word “motivation” mean? What does motivation mean in Buddhism? And this is also a very difficult and complex topic. Motivation in English comes from the same word as motion, and this is really the connotation of the Sanskrit word as well – and the Tibetan word (kun-slong). It means literally an inciter, something that causes something else to arise. Often in the West we use motivation to mean the aim or why we did something. Like we usually use the word in the West, you know, my motivation for going to university is to be able to get a good job and support my family. That’s not really the meaning in the original here. It’s much more the idea of something that causes something else to arise.

So, it’s defined as a way of being aware of something that drives the primary consciousness and congruent mental factors (in other words, the mental factors that go together with it in a package), it drives it to an action or a state of mind and that doesn’t necessarily endure throughout the action or the period in which the state of mind occurs. And so it has two meanings, two usages. In one context – in the list of destructive, constructive, and unspecified phenomena, different types of ethical status of karmic actions – motivation refers to the naturally destructive or naturally constructive or naturally unspecified emotions and attitudes which incite an action or a state of mind to arise. So it could be naturally destructive, let’s say anger drives the mind to a certain action. Or it could be a naturally constructive state of mind like absence of anger, non-anger, imperturbability, you can’t get angered; or a belief in what’s a fact, faith, this type of thing – that could drive the mind to a certain object or state of mind. Or it could be something unspecified, like hunger drives the mind to want to eat. So here I translate “motivation” as a motivating emotional or mental state.

But elsewhere, particularly Asanga, uses the term in the expression “a motivating drive,” and this is the drive or the attitude, literally, to undertake an action, and it’s always accompanied by a motivating emotional or mental state. And so in many ways it’s the same as an urge, as karma. The difference is that karma as an urge, the mental factor of an urge, is always a mental factor; whereas a motivating drive can either be a mental factor or a primary consciousness. In the case of bodhichitta as a motivating drive, bodhichitta is a primary consciousness; it’s not a mental factor. Primary consciousness is what is aware of just the essential nature of a phenomenon; a mental factor qualifies it. So bodhichitta is just aware of the essential nature of Buddhahood – of our own not-yet-happening enlightenment – that’s a primary mind. So “motivating drive” is a wider term than “urge,” which is karma.

When we talk about motivating drive, there’s a causal motivating drive. Vasubandhu explains, this – in his Chittamatra texts – has two aspects. This is the mental karma. Causal motivating drive – the urge to take an action – and then the urge that decides definitely to do so. And then the contemporaneous motivating drive is the urge that actually sets us into motion. There are these phases. So when we talk about karmic action, karmic action is something which is done with endeavor, endeavor means that there is a motivating drive. There is an urge – or in the case of bodhichitta, it’s a primary consciousness – but in most cases it’s an urge that has two phases. The first phase is to take a certain course of action and that decides definitely to do so, and then the urge that sets us into motion. We are talking about physical and verbal actions – the first phase is the mental; the second phase is the physical or verbal aspect here. So this is what karmic actions are talking about; that’s quite different from the variable of it being with intention or not with intention. Remember the urge is like a magnet, it just moves the mind to a certain object. Intention: we’ve thought about it and come to a decision – so that helps the motivating drive, but it’s not the same as the motivating drive.

Another way of looking at it would be a causal motivation draws us to engage in an action in the first place, so it’s the drive to do or say something. And the contemporaneous motivation, it’s contemporaneous, it occurs right before the action, and it’s the drive with which you actually choose to engage in the action right now with a specific movement of the body or specific words. And mental actions have only this contemporaneous motivation, the second one. You can’t have the drive to think in a certain manner without actually doing so immediately when you have that drive, even if you decide to put off further thought until later. Now of course the motivating drive can change during the action. You could choose to do something else during the action. You’re hitting somebody and then you decide to hit him in a different place; or you have not so much anger, if we use the other meaning of motivating emotional state, and then it could change. You have more anger, or you have less anger, or you start to feel sorry for the person because they’re crying, whatever; it can change during the action. It has to obviously change during the action in order to stop doing the action.

Just one final point here, which is very interesting, that this system of the causal motivating drive consisting of the urge to take a certain course of action, the urge that decides definitely to do so, and the contemporaneous motivating drive being the urge that sets us in motion – this comes from Vasubandhu’s Chittamatra texts – and when we apply this to bodhichitta, we have the exact divisions of bodhichitta that we are familiar with. So bodhichitta as the causal motivating drive is the wishing state (or aspiring state) of bodhichitta. That has two parts. The mere aspiring state is merely the aspiration, the urge to take a certain course of action to reach enlightenment. And then the promised state of aspiring bodhichitta is the urge that decides definitely to do so – I’m definitely going to do that, nothing is going to turn me back. Then the engaged bodhichitta would be a contemporaneous motivating drive; it’s the urge that actually sets us into motion, that we’re actually going to engage in the actions that will bring us to enlightenment. So actually this manner of division applies not just to bodhichitta and reaching enlightenment, but, as Vasubandhu points out, it applies to all types of actions (physical and verbal actions). That’s very interesting.

So these are karmic actions: actions that are driven by the endeavor of an agent who does them. Whereas things that are happening more mechanically without endeavor, without a motivating drive, these are not karmic – like the operation of the eye. We can go into this a little bit further tomorrow, but Asanga has five categories that he speaks about of different types of movements of energy. We could list them just quickly so we don’t have to go through all of this again tomorrow.

Focusing impulses are those involved when looking at a visual object, so it’s similar to these operational ones of Vasubandhu. Then he has functional impulses; those are involved when something performs its function, like the earth functioning to support a house is in the commentary, but that would also be the stomach functioning to digest things. So that would also come into Vasubandhu’s operational thing. And then there’s the impulses entailing endeavor, which is the same as what we had with Vasubandhu – that’s karma. And then there’s transformational impulses, those that are involved with a piece of gold transforming into a piece of jewelry. So that’s more in terms of just mechanical things with the elements; there’s an impulse of energy, a movement of energy, with which water transforms into ice, or gold is made into a piece of jewelry. And then attainment urges, which are those involved when actually attaining an arya pathway of mind (liberation or enlightenment). This is the movement of energy that actually brings you to the attainment of enlightenment. You can’t say that that’s karma, that that’s a karmic thing and it will result in suffering. That’s Asanga’s division.

And Asanga says that of these, practically the only one that is karma are the impulses with endeavor. Now to understand this expression “practically the only one,” we have to look at the commentary, and Gyaltsab Jey in his commentary gives an explanation. The word “practically” there is saying that there’s debate over whether the functioning impulses and attainment impulses are karmic or not, because the functioning impulses (like with the stomach) actually does bring harm to others – you know, to the small creatures – so you could argue whether or not that’s tainted, whether that’s destructive by different categories that Asanga gives of what’s destructive. And the attainment ones – well at the moment before liberation you’re still in samsara, so is it tainted or not? So it’s just indicating that you can have quite a bit of debate on these points.

But where this becomes very interesting is the whole issue of digestion, because eating is an unobstructive, unspecified action. So, unspecified – meaning that eating in itself is neither constructive nor destructive; it takes on the ethical status of the motivating emotion that accompanies it. You could be eating just because of greed – so it’s destructive. You could be eating so that you will have the energy to help others – it’s constructive. You could be eating just because it’s time to eat – it’s unspecified. And it’s unobstructive – it doesn’t obstruct liberation or enlightenment, but it still is tainted with grasping for true existence, so it still perpetuates samsara. That we have to differentiate from digestion, the functioning of the stomach, which is going to kill any beings, tiny creatures that are in the food; and that’s non-karmic, it would seem from this example. And the reason why this is pointed out and why they make this differentiation is to counter the Jain position. And in Jainism they say that the digestion and all these things, it’s all karmic. And so, you know, it’s killing creatures, and so in order to achieve liberation in the end you have to starve yourself to death – stop all karma.

So, Buddha rejected that when he rejected these severe ascetic practices. The founder of Jainism came fifty years before Buddha. So this is one of the reasons why it’s important to make this differentiation. One has to eat, even if you’re doing it just because it’s time to eat. But eating is a karmic action, that’s because it’s tainted with grasping for true existence. But it’s an unspecified one: its ethical status depends on the motivation. And you can change eating into a cause for enlightenment – you know, I’m eating in order to have the strength to reach enlightenment and benefit everybody. So you do that with grasping for true existence, without grasping for true existence, and so on. Eating itself is not a problem: even though it may be tainted with grasping for true existence, it doesn’t obstruct liberation. Although if we just eat with our ordinary state of mind, neither constructive nor destructive, just mechanically you have to eat, still it perpetuates having this type of aggregates that will always need to eat, which generates into an unspecified – into a neutral feeling – neither happiness nor happiness, but it perpetuates samsara. The point is that it doesn’t obstruct liberation. This is why you have unspecified phenomena that are obstructing liberation and those that don’t. Eating doesn’t.

Now on the other hand, a deluded outlook toward a transitory collection (in other words, identifying with our aggregates) can accompany any type of state of mind: constructive, destructive, or unspecified. So that deluded outlook toward a transitory collection is an unspecified phenomenon, but it’s an obstructive one: it obstructs liberation, and in order to achieve liberation we have to get rid of it. We have to rid ourselves of it, what’s normally called we have to “abandon” it with an understanding of voidness. But eating is not in the same type of category. It’s an unspecified phenomenon because it takes on the ethical status of whatever motivating state of mind accompanies it, but it’s not something which you have to purposely get rid of in order to achieve enlightenment. It’s not something which the understanding of voidness is necessary in order to rid yourself of it. Nevertheless, when you achieve liberation, you do get rid of it. It goes away automatically. That’s because you no longer have these tainted aggregates that require this type of eating.

We have to point out certain things don’t obstruct liberation. That’s like conceptual thinking. It doesn’t obstruct liberation, because bodhichitta is always conceptual before enlightenment. This is the Gelugpa point of view. So it’s not something to be abandoned. It’s not something that obstructs liberation or obstructs enlightenment and it’s to be gotten rid of. You will automatically be rid of it i.e. the conceptual type of bodhichitta when you’ve gained enlightenment, like you will automatically be rid of eating when you gain enlightenment. A Buddha doesn’t have to eat, but it’s not something that you have to work on the path in order to get rid of; although in the case of conceptual thought you try to minimize it. Like when you have destructive conceptual thinking, just like you would try to minimize destructive eating when you eat merely out of greed; or eating out of anger: I don’t want you to have the cake; I’m not hungry but I’ll eat it because I don’t want you to have it.

I should just add one small point which is that when we are studying things like karma, we don’t expect that we’re going to get a linear explanation. We’re going to get pieces of the puzzle and the task is to put it together ourselves. We’ll get different pieces of the puzzle at different times.