Karmic Versus Non-Karmic Impulses

Five Systems of Natural Order According to Theravada

Let me explain a little bit here about karmic and non-karmic impulses so that we have some idea of what we are actually talking about when we talk about karma and the issue of choice. In Theravada, for example, there are five systems of natural order. These are the five niyamas in Pali. 

  • First there is the physical order. This refers to 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 the botanical order. This deals with 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, how they grow and so on. These are not karma. 
  • Next is the karmic order. This refers to the principles of karma itself that govern the physical, verbal and mental behavior of limited beings. 
  • The fourth one is the cognitive order. The cognitive order covers 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. It would be our equivalent of all the steps of how the brain works. 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. It also refers to the fact that all conditioned phenomena – that is all phenomena that arise from causes and conditions – are non-static. They are impermanent; they arise, abide and cease, and are in the nature of suffering and lack an independent self. These laws are also not karma. 

Like this, the Theravada system outlines five systems of order in the universe, such as the changing of the seasons, the growth of plants, the compelling urges of karma, the workings of the brain, the arising, abiding and ceasing of things in general. They all entail invisible impulses that automatically drive change. But only the impulses that drive our behavior are karmic. They are the only ones that are included in the second noble truth as true origins of suffering.

Karmic and Non-Karmic Impulses According to Sautrantika

The Sautrantika system, as presented by Vasubandhu, differentiates functional impulses from exertional impulses. 

  • A functional impulse is the mental factor of a compelling urge that drives a mental or sensory consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to move toward an object and to cognize it. Functional impulses are dealing with the same phenomena as the Theravada cognitive order, although the two systems are not equivalent. Functional impulses are not karmic.
  • Exertional impulses are the ones that are karmic, and they entail conscious effort. They are the mental factor of a compelling urge that drives either a mental consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to think about and decide to commit a specific karmic action with the body or speech, or that drives a body consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to engage the body or speech in committing that karmic action. 


When we talk about compelling urges driving a mental or sensory consciousness either to cognize an object or to commit a karmic action, we naturally need also to look at what is meant by motivation. 

What does motivation mean in Buddhism? This is also a very difficult and complex topic Often in the West, we use “motivation” to mean why we do something. For example, our motivation for going to university might be to be able to get a good job and support our family. That’s not the meaning of what we usually translate in Buddhism as “motivation.” Motivation in English comes from the same root as motion, and this is really the connotation of the Sanskrit word (samutthāna) as well and the Tibetan word (kun-slong). They both mean something that causes something else to arise. It is better to think of motivation as a “motivator.”

In the context of the Vaibhashika presentation of karma, and specifically the presentation of the ten destructive and ten constructive actions, Vasubandhu differentiates two motivators – a causal motivator and a contemporaneous motivator. 

  • The causal motivator is the mental consciousness in one of the three karmic actions of mind that entail thinking about and deciding to commit a specific karmic action of the body or speech. Vasubandhu calls it the “initial engager” of the body or speech. 
  • The contemporaneous motivator is the body consciousness in one of the three karmic actions of the body or four karmic actions of speech that have been thought about and decided upon. Vasubandhu calls it the “subsequent engager” of the body or speech.

The motivator consciousness is accompanied, of course, by the mental factors of an urge, an intention, a distinguishing and an emotion, but these are not considered the motivators in this presentation. However, the consciousness – either mental or sensory – is not the only thing that motivates or, literally, causes an action to arise. Asanga speaks of emotions and karmic urges as the motivators causing actions to arise. He calls the motivating emotions the “foundational, or primary motivators.” They refer to the naturally destructive or naturally constructive or naturally unspecified emotions and attitudes that cause an action or a state of mind to arise. The motivating emotion could be naturally destructive – let’s say anger or greed – causing us to commit a certain action or to think about committing it. Or it could be a naturally constructive state of mind like an absence of anger (being unperturbed) or a belief in what’s a fact that could cause us to think, speak or act in a constructive way. Or it could be an unspecified attitude, such as regarding our car as “mine” when we drive it. 

The motivating emotions that accompany the causal and contemporaneous motivator consciousnesses can be different from each other. Often, they are different. We might think of fumigating our house to get rid of cockroaches and, when thinking about doing that and deciding to do that, we might do so without necessarily hating cockroaches. But when we are actually engaging in killing them, we might have strong hostility and be very aggressive. Even during the course of committing an action of body or speech, our motivating emotion may change. We may start to beat up someone while having strong anger toward them, but when they start begging us to stop, our anger may gradually weaken snd even turn into compassion until we finally stop. 

Asanga speaks of karmic urges also as motivators. As we have seen, karmic urges cause an action to arise, or motivate it, by propelling the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors, including the motivating emotion, during the course of a karmic action of the mind, body or speech. 

Drolungpa, an early Kadampa master, even speaks of the accompanying intention as the motivator for a karmic action. Thus, there are many explanations of what motivates a karmic action in the sense of what causes it to arise. For example, when we speak of bodhichitta as our motivation, bodhichitta is a principal awareness (gtso-sems). A principal awareness is a composite of a consciousness and its accompanying mental factors. So, bodhichitta is a composite of a motivator mental consciousness, a motivating emotion (love and compassion) and a motivating intention (the wish or intent to benefit all beings and to attain enlightenment in order best to do so).

Three Types of Karmic Urges According to Sautrantika

Let’s go back to Vasubandhu’s Sautrantika presentation. There, Vasubandhu presents three types of karmic urges: 

  • The karmic urge that propels the mental consciousness to “course” along a line of thinking about whether to commit a specific action of body or speech.
  • The karmic urge that propels the mental consciousness to “decide” to commit that action.
  • The karmic urge that propels the body consciousness to “move” the body or speech in implementing a method to cause the action to take place. 

The first two types of karmic urges – the ones that drive the coursing and deciding – propel the causal motivator, the mental consciousness, in initially engaging the body or speech. The third type of karmic urge – the one that drives the moving – propels the contemporaneous motivator, the body consciousness, in subsequently engaging the body or speech. 

You remember that Sautrantika differentiates urges that propel a sensory or mental consciousness to cognize an object and urges that propel the mental or body consciousness in committing an action of mind, body or speech. The former are functional urges and are not karmic impulses. The later are exertional urges and are karmic impulses. Both are the mental factor of an urge, however. They both propel the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors, like a magnet drawing along iron filings or a locomotive pulling a train. 

We can further distinguish exertional and functional urges in terms of what they engage: 

  • Exertional urges are the urges involved in the ten destructive and ten construction actions. They initially and subsequently engage the body or speech in committing an action. 
  • Functional urges are the urges involved with sensory or mental cognition of an object. They engage a cognitive sensor in cognizing an object.

Although a consciousness driven by an urge and accompanied by an intention and an emotion is involved in the sensory or mental cognition of an object and one could say that these are all motivators of the cognition in the sense that they cause it to arise, still functional urges are not karmic. They are not included in the second noble truth, true causes of suffering,  

Just one final point here, which is very interesting. We can apply this distinction between a causal motivator and contemporaneous motivator to bodhichitta. The wishing state of bodhichitta, with which we think over and decide to work toward enlightenment in order to benefit all beings would be like a causal motivator stage for the development of bodhichitta. The engaged state of bodhichitta, with which we actually engage in the actions that will bring us to enlightenment would be like the contemporaneous motivator stage for its development. 

Karmic and Non-Karmic Impulses According to Chittamatra

In the context of the Chittamatra system, Asanga speaks of five types of impulses. Let’s just list them just quickly so that we don’t have to repeat this topic tomorrow. 

  • Observational impulses are those involved with sensory cognition, so they’re similar to the functional impulses explained by Vasubandhu in the context of the Sautrantika system.
  • Then, there are functional impulses. Asanga uses the same term in Sanskrit that Vasubandhu uses for the impulses involved with sensory cognition, however the meaning is different. Here, functional impulses are the impulses involved when something performs its function, like the earth element functioning to support something on it or a visual form functioning to be an object of visual cognition. 
  • Next are exertional impulses. These are the impulses involved with actions of the body, speech and mind that are preceded by an intended aim.
  • Then there are transformational impulses. Those are involved with a piece of gold, for instance, transforming into a piece of jewelry, or water transforming into ice. 
  • Lastly, there are attainment impulses, which are those involved with the arya pathway minds bringing about the attainment of liberation.  

Asanga says that the majority of impulses that are accepted as karmic impulses and included among the true origins of suffering are exertional impulses. Now to understand what is meant by the word “the majority,” we need to look at Jinaputra Yashomitra’s commentary. There it says that some attainment and some functional impulses can also be included as true origins of suffering. 

Neither Jinaputra Yashomitra nor Gyaltsab Je in his subcommentary to this passage gives examples of these two types of impulses that could also be included as origins of true suffering. In terms of attainment impulses, my guess is that, from a Chittamatra point of view, the attainment of a seeing pathway mind (the path of seeing) by a shravaka holding the Vaibhashika view would still be a true origin of suffering, because it would not bring about the attainment of a true stopping of the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions.

As for an example of a functional impulse that could be considered as a true origin of suffering, my guess is the functional impulses of the water element in the stomach – referring to the digestive juices – in digesting food. This is because they could bring harm to others, such as any tiny creatures in the food. But there can be quite a bit of debate on these points, especially concerning the whole issue of digestion. 

Unobstructive, Unspecified Actions 

Eating is an unobstructive, unspecified action. It’s unspecified, meaning that eating in itself is neither constructive nor destructive; it takes on the ethical status of the motivating emotion or attitude that accompanies it. We could be eating just because of greed, so it’s destructive. We could be eating while being nonattached to food – that’s constructive. Or we could be eating just because it’s time to eat – that’s  unspecified and neutral. Eating in itself is also unobstructive – it doesn’t obstruct the attainment of liberation. We don’t need to stop eating in order to attain liberation. Nevertheless, to attain liberation we would need to purify ourselves of the negative potentials built up by unintentionally killing tiny creatures when eating.

As I have mentioned earlier, Vasubandhu, in the context of the Vaibhashika system, which is Hinayana, specifies that a karmic action needs to be intentional. Unintentional actions are non-karmic and are not true origins of suffering. This is specified because the Hinayana systems do not accept that karmic potentials can be purified away. Their results will have to be experienced, even if only in a very minor form, as exemplified by the Buddha getting a splinter in his foot. This stipulation that unintentional actions, such as killing tiny creatures in the process of eating, was made to counter the Jain position. Jainism asserts that digestion, walking, lighting a fire, and so on, which all entail unintentionally taking the life of tiny creatures, are all karmic actions and obstruct liberation. Therefore, to achieve liberation, we need, in the end, to sit still and starve ourselves to death. 

Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, came 50 years before Buddha. And although Buddha tried the severe ascetic practices that Mahavira and other teachers of his time had taught, he rejected them when he broke his fast. Buddha saw that we have to eat, even if we’re eating just because it’s time to eat. But being an unspecified phenomenon, the ethical status of our eating depends on our motivating emotion or attitude. We can change eating into a cause for enlightenment, for instance, by eating in order to have the strength to reach enlightenment and benefit everybody. 

What we need to work on is not only to eat without any disturbing emotions, such as attachment and greed, which would make eating destructive; we would also need to work on eliminating the deluded outlook toward a transitory network that accompanies our eating, whether we’re eating with greed, nonattachment to food, or just because it’s mealtime. With such a deluded outlook, we regard our aggregates while eating as “me” and “mine” – so we think in terms of “my body,” “my hunger,” “my food,” “my diet,” and so on. 

So, eating itself is not a problem; this deluded outlook is the problem. Eating does not obstruct the attainment of liberation; this deluded outlook obstructs its attainment. The deluded outlook toward a transitory network is an unspecified phenomenon. It can be the motivating attitude that causes any destructive, constructive or unspecified action to arise and that goes on to accompany the action. To attain liberation, we have to abandon it, which means rid ourselves of it so that it never recurs. To attain liberation, however, does not require that we stop eating forever. 

There are certain other things that do not obstruct the attainment of liberation and enlightenment, for instance conceptual cognition. Before attaining enlightenment, bodhichitta is conceptual. It doesn’t obstruct the attainment of liberation or enlightenment; rather, it is a cause for their attainment. This is the Gelugpa position concerning conceptual cognition. It’s not something to be gotten rid of by applying opponent forces. We will automatically be rid of all conceptual cognition, including conceptual bodhichitta, when we have attained enlightenment, like we will automatically be rid of eating when we attain enlightenment. A Buddha doesn’t have to eat, but it’s not something that we have to work on minimizing while on the path to Buddhahood in order to get rid of. What we do need to work on is minimizing and eventually stopping our thinking and eating with a destructive motivating emotion. So, we would try to minimize destructive eating such as when we 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 shouldn’t expect that we’re going to get a linear explanation. We’re going to get pieces of the puzzle, and our task is to put them together ourselves. We’ll get different pieces of the puzzle at different times, but they all fit together.