Not-Yet-Happening Events

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Karma: Neither Deterministic nor Predetermined

We’ve been discussing karma, and we saw that there are various systems with which karma is explained. However, what we are speaking about when we talk about karma is our compulsive behavior, what brings on our compulsive behavior, and the effects of our compulsive behavior on ourselves and how this builds up various habits and tendencies and so on that are going to then ripen into various things that we experience with, basically, suffering. It’s various types of suffering of samsara, whether it’s the suffering of unhappiness, or the suffering of change, which is our ordinary type of happiness (but it doesn’t last and doesn’t satisfy – our so-called worldly happiness), or just the all-pervasive problem of samsara – that we continue to have this type of basic aggregates (body and mind and so on) that is going to continue to bring on the other types of suffering. If we speak in terms of feelings, what we have is the regular type of suffering of unhappiness, our ordinary, so-called “tainted” happiness, and then the neutral feeling that we experience in higher, deep states of concentration. 

Karma explains how this whole system gets perpetuated, and it has nothing to do with reward or punishment, which would imply some figure external to the system who is a judge giving that reward or punishment. It is not deterministic, because it is possible to change what we experience; it’s possible to change what we do. Also, it’s not predetermined, because predetermined would imply that there is somebody external to the system who has decided what’s going to happen and it is fixed. It’s not total free will, which would imply that there is a “me” who is totally independent of everything that we experience and is able to make decisions independently of everything. Rather, whatever we experience can be explained, there are causes. It’s not that what happens to us is without any cause. There’s a big difference between something being deterministic and something being explainable, and this we will have to explore. 

When we start to look at what’s the difference between something being deterministic and something being explainable, deterministic, I think, has the connotation (maybe you can correct me from science) that once all the variables are given in a system, then the result is determined. Whereas explainable means that whatever happens can be explained. I think the difference is the direction in which we analyze. If, given the variables in a system, we analyze forwards, and the system is closed so that no other variables can affect it, then it’s determinist. If we analyze backwards from what’s already happened, it’s explainable. 

What’s the difference between deterministic and predictable? 

Deterministic means it’s definitely going to be this. Predictable implies a probability based on statistics, based on average, by means of which we could predict what is going to happen, like tomorrow’s weather, but there’s no certainty that that definitely will happen because there are many other factors that could affect it meanwhile. However, it is within certain parameters; it’s not that anything could happen, but given the variables in the system, it’s the various possibilities of what could happen. In both cases, we’re working from a given system to predict what’s going to happen in the future; whereas, everything is explainable is working backward; whatever happens, happens from causes, and we can figure out what the causes were. I think from a Buddhist point of view, what is absolutely for sure is that whatever happens can be explained. 

The difficulty comes because there are almost countless variables that affect what’s going on, what’s happening. This is why we need to look a little bit more closely at the Buddhist analysis of the different kinds of causes, although that’s very complex. We looked at one type of cause, the acting cause (byed-rgyu) – it’s everything other than the result itself, which implies that everything is interconnected, and everything affects everything else. The whole universe is one interconnected system. Nothing is independent, which, of course, if we think about it logically, comes from the Big Bang. If we use that as a model, then of course, everything has to be interrelated. 

Unless we’re a Buddha, we don’t have all the information. We don’t know all the variables. Only a Buddha is omniscient. If we try to look at what’s going to happen, all we can do is give a probability of what might happen, because we don’t have all the variables. A Buddha knows all the variables, so a Buddha knows what’s going to happen. We can only explain what has happened by analyzing backwards what the causes must have been, but only to the extent of the variables we are aware of. 

That then gets into a complicated discussion of past, present and future. The past, present and future aren’t things that are existing and happening now, simultaneously, somewhere in space-time. Rather, in Buddhism, we speak about the past as what’s no longer happening, the present as what is presently happening, and the future as what has not yet happened. The discussion becomes very complicated and difficult in terms of what does a Buddha actually know. A Buddha knows the three times without impediment and without attachment. 

Dynamic Systems versus Closed Systems

The important thing, I think, is to understand that the system of karma is dynamic. A dynamic system is the opposite of a closed system. A closed system is one that, once all the variables that could affect the system have taken place and have had their effect, is then closed. Nothing else can affect the system. Once the system is closed, there are two possibilities: either we can say what’s going to happen and there is nothing we can do to change that, or there’s sort of a gap in which we have a choice of what we are going to do and the effect occurs depending on what we decide to do. Neither of these are the model for how karmic cause and effect work in Buddhism.

The Buddhist system of karmic cause and effect is a dynamic system, which means it’s never closed. There are always more variables that arise every moment and continue to affect things. Not all these variables, as we were indicating yesterday, are coming from our own side, because everything is influenced by everything else – all the circumstances around – and that’s changing all the time. So, it’s never a closed system. 

Also, when we look at choice, we have to look at what’s actually happening. As we analyzed yesterday, there are the mental factors of discriminating awareness, conviction and so on; when a decision occurs, there’s no separate “me” making a decision. However, the way it’s experienced is in terms of “I made the decision,” and conventionally, that’s true. Again, we have to look in terms of what does it mean to say that we chose, and yet Buddha knew or knows what we’re choosing? “I chose” is how we experience it. Buddha would experience it as a decision that occurred on this mental continuum for a huge set of causes and circumstances. Both of them are valid, unless we think in terms of a separate “me” making a decision, an independent “me” making a decision, which, of course, is not the case. 

Isn’t it also the case that Buddha wouldn’t know beforehand what the decision would be? 

No, that’s not the case. Even though the decision had not been made yet, it’s not the case that a Buddha didn’t know and just made a good guess of what’s going to happen. That’s why we need to have a clear idea of no-longer-happening, presently-happening and not-yet-happening events, and what that means. As I already mentioned, one of the qualities of a Buddha is that a Buddha knows the past, present and future without impediment and without attachment. It’s one of the ten qualities of a Buddha’s omniscient mind. 

Is this to be taken literally? 

It’s to be taken literally, but with an understanding of the voidness of the three times. Not literally in terms of truly established existence.

But there’s no future there that the Buddha can cognize. 

Right, so this is why I’m saying it’s not very easy to understand what in the world the Buddha actually knows. 

Another point is, does he know only tendencies? Could a Buddha know that there’s no way to predict? 

No, because everything can be known from a Buddha’s point of view – this is what’s so difficult. It’s not the case that the Buddha knows this by inference (i.e., given all the variables, the Buddha can infer what’s going to happen) because inference is conceptual cognition, and Buddha does not have any conceptual cognition. He knows it straightforwardly without relying on a line of reasoning. This is very complicated and difficult to understand. 

Understanding Our Not-Yet-Happening Enlightenment in Terms of Negatingly and Affirmingly Known Phenomena 

Does a Buddha know really what’s going to happen in the future? 

Yes, for example in anuttarayoga tantric initiations, Buddha declares the form of the dhyani Buddha in which we will attain enlightenment, based on our tossing a stick onto a tray in which each direction and the center is assigned to a specific dhyani Buddha. There are even cases of clairvoyants who know what has not yet happened. As I said, this is a very complicated topic. 

When we speak in Buddhism about what’s translated as “future,” it means “not yet happening.” A “not-yet-happening” is a negatingly known phenomenon. There are two types of existing phenomena: those that are affirmingly known and those that are negatingly known. An affirmingly known phenomenon would be, for example, an apple. A negatingly known phenomenon would be, for example, “not an apple.” In order to know this negatingly known phenomenon, we have to have known “an apple” beforehand and then conceptually excluded it from the set of all things that are not an apple in order to know “not an apple.” An apple cannot be “not an apple,” but once it has been excluded, everything left is “not an apple.” We don’t need to exclude everything left one by one. On the other hand, to know an affirmingly known phenomenon, we don’t need first to know something and then to conceptually exclude it. All we need to know is “an apple.” 

Like “an apple,” “presently happening” is an affirmation phenomenon. We just need to see a football game starting to know “presently happening.” “Not yet happening” is a negatingly known phenomenon. We first need to know what “presently happening” is and then, before the game starts, exclude it to know “not yet happening.”

Another point is that “not a red apple,” like “not an apple,” is also a negatingly known phenomenon. “A red apple” forms a unit and the whole unit is conceptually excluded in order to know “not a red apple.” Similarly, “not a presently-happening football game” is a negatingly known phenomenon, which to know requires excluding “a presently-happening football game.” 

One more point: An affirmingly known phenomenon can have more than one element in it, and one of those elements can be a negatingly known phenomenon. For example, we could speak about “a table without an apple on it.” This constitutes a whole unit and is an affirmingly known phenomenon. To see the table we don’t need to know and conceptually exclude anything else. However, part of the “package” of what we see is the negatingly known phenomenon “without an apple on it.” To cognize that, we would have had to have known beforehand “the presence of an apple” – not necessarily on the table, but we would have to know what an apple looks like – and then conceptually exclude its presence. 

Similarly, when we speak of bodhichitta being aimed at our “individual enlightenment which has not yet happened,” this enlightenment is an affirmingly known phenomenon. But the state of enlightenment is an eternal, static phenomenon, not affected by anything. It doesn’t change. It can neither not yet happen nor no longer happen. Furthermore, enlightenment, like voidness, is the same, no matter what its individual basis is. So, whether it’s my enlightenment or Buddha’s enlightenment, from the point of view of enlightenment they are both the same state. In any case, enlightenment can only be non-conceptually known by a Buddha. We can only know it conceptually by representing it with something, such as a Buddha-figure. 

If we want to be more precise about bodhichitta, we need to say that bodhichitta is aimed at our individual enlightenment that has not yet been attained. This is still an affirmingly known phenomenon, “enlightenment,” and contains a negatingly known phenomenon as an element of it, “not-yet-attained” – in other words, there is a “not-yet-happening attainment.” 

An “attainment” (thob-pa) is something that always has an object. An attainment has to be an attainment of something – like an attainment of enlightenment or the attainment of a result that ripens from karmic aftermath, such as the attainment of a rebirth state. Furthermore, an “attainment” of something means not only the first moment, but the entire time afterwards so long as what is attained is still presently happening – in the case of enlightenment, forever; in the case of a rebirth state, until death. 

An attainment of something is an imputation phenomenon. An “imputation phenomenon” is something that can only exist on the basis of something else and cannot be cognized independently of that basis first being cognized and then, except in the case of voidness, being cognized together with that basis. An attainment is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregates (body, mind, emotions, etc.). It is, in a sense, a part of that basis and is not something that we or anyone else imputes or projects on it. For us to know that someone has an attainment of something, like a precious human rebirth, first we would need to cognize the continuum of their aggregates and then those aggregates plus the attainment of a precious human rebirth on the basis of that continuum. Since the presently-happening members of the five aggregates, as the basis of the attainment, are changing in each moment, the attainment of a precious human rebirth on the basis of those changing, nonstatic aggregates is also nonstatic. Note that an attainment of something, like a person (a conventional “me”), is a nonstatic, affirmingly known imputation phenomenon on the basis of a continuum of aggregates. 

I am not sure whether an omniscient Buddha would need to follow the sequence of first cognizing a basis for imputation and them both that basis and the imputation phenomenon on it, but in any case, a Buddha cognizes simultaneously both our individual continuum of aggregates and our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” on its basis. This is what a Buddha knows non-conceptually. The same is true with how a Buddha knows the “not-yet-happening results” of some karmic potentials on the basis of our individual continuum of aggregates containing those potentials.

How do we know “a not-yet-happening attainment”? For us to know one, we would first need to know “a presently-happening attainment” and then exclude it to know “a not-yet-happening attainment.” If we have ever experienced the “presently-happening attainment of watching a football game,” we can make this exclusion while waiting for a game to start in order to know the “not-yet-happening attainment of watching a football game.” What do we see while waiting? We see the empty field and an absence of our “presently-happening attainment of watching a football game.” An absence of something is a negatingly known imputation phenomenon. First, we need to see its basis, like a table, and then its basis plus the imputation phenomenon, like the table plus the absence of an apple on it.

How do we know that at some point there will be “a presently-happening attainment of watching a football game”? Because there is a potential for the game to start and that potential has an aspect of “temporarily not-yet-giving rise to the game until all the circumstances are complete.” We know that there is “a not-yet-happening attainment of watching the football game” on the basis of that aspect and we conceptually infer that there is such a not-yet-happening attainment based on the fact that we have bought a ticket, taken our seat, all the other fans are also present, and so on. 

Similarly, a Buddha can cognize an absence of “a presently-happening attainment of enlightenment” on the basis of our continuum of aggregates. A Buddha also cognizes the “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” that is the “temporarily not giving rise to a presently-happening attainment of enlightenment until all the circumstances are complete” that is an aspect of the enlightenment-building potentials that are imputation phenomena on the basis on the conventional “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of our continuum of five aggregates. Since only a Buddha can cognize non-conceptually “a presently-happening attainment of enlightenment” – namely, his own – and since all enlightenments are the same, a Buddha can exclude it in order to cognize non-conceptually the “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” on our continuum.  

Although we can conceptually know the “not-yet-happening attainment of watching the football game,” this “not-yet-happening attainment” is not “a presently-happening attainment.” The game hasn’t started yet. Likewise, our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” is not “a presently-happening attainment of enlightenment.” Although we can only conceptually know our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” by inferring it based on our potentials for attaining it, a Buddha knows it non-conceptually without relying on some line of reasoning. A Buddha knows it non-conceptually because a Buddha cognizes non-conceptually our continuum of aggregates and both the absence of “a presently-happening attainment of enlightenment” and the “presently-happening enlightenment-building potentials” that are imputation phenomena on them – to put it more simply. 

Further, a Buddha cognizes that our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” will be in the form of the specific dhyani Buddha in whose direction the stick fell that we tossed in the tray. This is because of the potential we created at that time to attain enlightenment in that form.    

What Does a Buddha Know?

Similar to how a Buddha non-conceptually knows our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” that is an aspect – to put it briefly – of our potentials for a “presently-happening attainment of enlightenment,” a Buddha non-conceptually knows the “not-yet-happening results” that are an aspect of our karmic potentials.  

To go further, we need to bring in the whole discussion of the voidness of cause and effect. One line of reasoning that’s used to refute the true findable existence of results or effects is that at the time of the cause, the result neither truly exists nor is it truly and totally nonexistent. If the result truly and findably existed at the time of the cause, then there would be no need for its production or its arising; it would already exist and be happening. If the result were truly nonexistent at the time of the cause, then it could never arise, because there could be no arising of something that doesn’t exist at all. Something that is truly a “nothing” cannot become something that is truly a “something.” 

The position that the result already exists, truly findable at the time of the cause is the position of the Samkhya School of non-Buddhist Indian philosophy and the Buddhist position is certainly not like that. It’s not that the result exists already in the causes and is waiting to pop out, to manifest, when all the circumstances are complete. Our “presently-happening attainment of enlightenment” is not something truly and findably existing already in the “presently-happening causes.” Our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” is also not something that is presently happening. Although our “not-yet-happening enlightenment” is not yet happening, that doesn’t mean it is truly and findably something that does not exist. We really need to understand, or at least try to understand, the voidness of cause and effect. 

For example, when we have an ice cube tray filled with water, we know that if we put it into the freezer, the water is going to turn into ice cubes. The water has a potential to turn into ice cubes. Do we know the “not-yet-happening ice cubes”? Yes. Although the “not-yet-happening ice cubes” are not present now, yet we know that they will be present when the circumstances for their production are complete. We know it through something like a law of physics, which is a conceptual construct – water at a temperature below freezing turns into ice. We don’t have to actually verbalize the law, it’s a concept and we know it conceptually. Buddha doesn’t have to apply the concept in order to know that water in a freezing temperature turns to ice. But this law exists and can be known.

But the concept is not what is causing the water to freeze. 

Correct, the concept is not what’s causing the water to freeze; the concept is just a way of explaining it, of understanding it. These are the types of things we need to think about in order to try to approach the question of what does a Buddha know. A Buddha non-conceptually knows our “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” and the “not-yet-happening result of our behavior,” and there are laws of karma, which are conceptual constructs. 

Further Discussion of “Not-Yet-Happenings”

What happens if the Buddha knows the “not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment” of Jorge, but Jorge decides that he’s not going to work toward the attainment of enlightenment anymore? 

Well, Buddha would have known that. Buddha knew Jorge’s not-yet-happening decision of not working to attain enlightenment. He knew beforehand that some circumstances would occur, and that Jorge would change his mind, give up bodhichitta and no longer work toward attaining enlightenment. Now, how does Jorge experience it? 

Mind you, there’s no independently existing Jorge in the equation. From the point of view of the mental continuum on which all the various actions are taking place from moment to moment, there is discriminating awareness, conviction, decision-making, and stuff like that. His “presently-happening decision” arises as a result of an incredible number of causes and circumstances, some of which are connected to the mental factors on his mental continuum and many of which are not connected to his mental continuum: the weather, an earthquake, God knows what – that are also happening. 

From the point of view of Jorge, the person who experiences the decision-making subjectively, what’s happening? There is the arising of the thought of making the decision and this is equivalent to making and knowing the decision. This making of a decision happens without there being an independent “me” making it, but nevertheless, the decision-making is experienced individually and subjectively. Of course, it’s experienced as a decision, and it is a decision – conventionally, it is a decision. Nobody else is forcing Jorge to do it. But whatever he decides has an explanation, and a Buddha sees all of this because a Buddha knows all the factors that are involved, which can all be explained by laws, although laws are just an approximation, after all, to try to explain things. 

But that still sounds quite deterministic. I mean, you made a comparison between deterministic being explaining in a forward way, whereas causation is more an explanation that’s directed backward. But the point is that a Buddha, when we take the example of predicting someone’s attainment of enlightenment, then a Buddha does predict things. So, a Buddha is also directing his attention in the direction of things that are not yet happening and not directing it back to the causes. But based on the causes, he is directing his attention at the results, or possible results. And so even when there are countless causes and when they are constantly changing, etc., a Buddha would still be experiencing all of them, and he still would be experiencing all of their interconnectedness and would experience them in each moment of their change, and so on – so that would still sound pretty deterministic. 
And if, for example, the Buddha would know that Jorge attains enlightenment in a given amount of time – 6,438 eons – and would tell that to Jorge, then that would be fixed because then wouldn’t it be that Jorge wouldn’t need to do anything anymore because the point is that the Buddha would have predicted it, and how could it be more certain than having been predicted by a Buddha. So why do anything at all then at such a point? 

During an initiation, the tantric master as a Buddha would just announce the dhyani Buddha in whose form Jorge’s not-yet-happening attainment of enlightenment will occur on the basis of his tossing a stick into a tray during that specific initiation. The tantric master doesn’t say when Jorge’s presently-happening attainment will start to take place. And, of course, Jorge may receive other initiations in which the stick he tosses lands on another dhyani Buddha, and so then another variable will have occurred to change the situation. 

But in any case, even if a Buddha felt it would be beneficial to announce to Jorge that his attainment of enlightenment will take place in 6,438 eons, a Buddha would know the effect of telling him that and so would have factored that into the equation. Obviously, in his next life, Jorge will have forgotten what the Buddha said, and might even forget it in this lifetime as well, or not believe the Buddha, but a Buddha would know all of that.  

The Example of Flatland

I must say I’m just playing with the idea but let me introduce my own ideas here and see if this makes any sense. Let’s just jump into it. There is a book that was written at the end of the 19th century called Flatland, and in this, it speaks about a two-dimensional universe, Flatland, and a three-dimensional being that visits this two-dimensional universe. Of course, from the perspective of the three-dimensional being, he is above the plane of Flatland and can see much, much wider than the people of Flatland can. The people of Flatland can only see what is directly close to them, whereas, the three-dimensional being can see the whole flat plane, like looking from an airplane above it. When the three-dimensional being walks through Flatland, then all they see in Flatland is a two-dimensional shape. Of course, that shape changes as the three-dimensional being lifts the leg up and so all of a sudden it disappears, and then another shape appears again in another place when that being puts the leg down. The size of the shape changes, and so on; sometimes there are two shapes because there are two legs, and so on. 

This, I think, is suggestive (at least maybe it’s suggestive) of how we could understand these extraordinary powers of a Buddha. Let’s take seriously the concept that we are getting in the West that there are not just three spatial and one temporal dimension, but there are ten dimensions or eleven dimensions, and who knows what they’ll decide in a few more years of how many dimensions there are. Nevertheless, if a Buddha would be able to operate in all dimensions, then the situation of a Buddha with respect to our view of three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension and what our limited awareness can perceive would be like that of this three-dimensional visitor to Flatland. Remember, we are sentient beings with a limited mind, limited hardware (the apparatus for perceiving); we can only perceive three spatial and one temporal dimension, like the Flatlanders can only perceive two spatial dimensions, but a Buddha can perceive the whole thing and can operate in the whole thing. 

When we hear about a Buddha manifesting in many, many forms simultaneously and a Buddha changing sizes (Milarepa as well; Milarepa fit into the tip of the yak horn) and these types of things, and manifesting everywhere in the universe all at once, and so on, I think we can understand it or at least one way of understanding it would be by this example of the three-dimensional being seen from the perspective of Flatland. If we can understand this in terms of the physical dimensions, why not also in terms of multiple temporal dimensions. 

In terms of physical dimensions, because a Buddha’s mind is omniscient, it is pervasive with the entire universe simultaneously as its object of cognition and therefore a Buddha can manifest throughout the entire universe in many, many different forms simultaneously. I think that it would be similar in terms of the temporal dimension as well. Flatland people can’t see somebody coming from far-away distances, whereas a three-dimensional being has the perspective to see a person in the distance coming in this direction while, at the same time seeing what is here now. Similarly, a Buddha can see not-yet-happening and no-longer-happening events while also simultaneously seeing what is happening now.

From the point of view of the Flatlanders, what the Buddha is seeing is the “not-yet-happening of somebody arriving,” and that “not-yet-happening” is nonstatic. It’s coming closer and closer, and this is exactly what Prasangika says, that “not-yet-happenings” are impermanent or nonstatic phenomena. They’re changing every moment because in each moment, instead of being x minus ten seconds, they’re x minus nine seconds, x minus eight seconds, and so on. They’re coming closer and closer to becoming “a presently-happening event.” Of course, that event is not a findable thing, existing on its own and then modified by a time-variant. It’s not like a suitcase on a moving conveyor belt coming closer and closer to us. One has to connect this, of course, with the understanding of the voidness of true findable existence. 

From our point of view, we are only able to perceive the temporal dimension of “presently-happenings.” From a Buddha’s point of view, a Buddha can perceive “not-yet-happenings,” “presently-happenings” and “no-longer-happenings” – all three times simultaneously. But that doesn’t mean that the three times are all presently happening. That’s what is important to add to this. It doesn’t mean that they are all presently happening, but a Buddha can perceive all of them. It is somewhat like seeing a succession of days on a calendar – only one day is presently happening at a time, but when we look at the calendar, we also see the days that are not yet happening and the ones that are no longer happening.  

Further Discussion of the Example of Water and Ice Cubes

Think of the example of water and ice cubes. There is an ice cube tray with water in it. We’re going to put it in the freezer. Can we know the not-yet-happening ice cubes? I think that we could know them, but we could know them only conceptually – for instance, we could know them through visualization. But we wouldn’t necessarily have to visualize or imagine them. Nevertheless, the “not-yet-happening ice cubes” aren’t presently happening; they’re not presently here. 

You can say ice cubes will occur, but I don’t think I can imagine exactly what those ice cubes will look like. 

Right, we don’t know exactly what the ice cubes will look like because the “presently-happening ice cubes” are not present inside the “presently-happening water.” “Not-yet-happening ice cubes” are imputation phenomenon on the potential of water to turn into ice. They are negatingly known imputation phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something, and so they don’t have any form of their own. We can only represent them conceptually by imagining a form they could take.  

How could we know the “presently-happening ice cubes” that will arise? Well, if we knew all the variables of the distribution of the temperature within the freezer, then we would know how they would affect the formation of ice cubes in it; and if we knew the exact status of the freezer, and the electric grid of the city, and the building, and the country, and so on, we would also know the “not-yet-happening electric failure.” Also, if we knew the behavior of everybody, we would know the “not-yet-happening terrorist attack on the electric grid” that would also cause the “not-yet-happening ice cubes” not to be presently happening for a very long time. Buddha would know all these factors. 

I’m just suggesting a line of thinking, a line of analyzing, of how we could know the “not-yet-happening ice cubes” at the time of the “presently happening water.” We would only be able to know them through a concept (water plus freezing temperature equals ice) and a conceptual representation of them. If a Buddha were operating in all dimensions and able to perceive all dimensions, a Buddha would be able to see all three times simultaneously, but it’s not that all three are presently-happening. The future isn’t happening somewhere now and if we go fast enough, we can get to the future and see it. Anyway, these are just ideas that I play with. I don’t know if they are helpful or relevant or if they are just complete garbage, but I find it useful for starting to deal with these very difficult issues of these extra-physical and extratemporal and extrasensory powers of a Buddha. 

Buddha knows everyone’s previous lives and all of their not-yet-happening actions. Can a Buddha or we change what has already happened? No. Can a Buddha change what’s not yet happened? Also no. Can we change what we have not yet done? If what has not yet happened were truly existent, it would be already determined and fixed, and so it can never be changed. But as we have seen, “not-yet-happenings” are nonstatic phenomena. They are affected by circumstances and so they change in each moment. 


I must say that I don’t have complete clarity on all these issues. I’ll be perfectly honest with you. They are very, very difficult issues, some of the most difficult issues, but I think the most important point is how do we experience things? We experience things in terms of choice, and so there are various gaps that occur. There is a gap between when, in response to what is going on within us and around us, a thought arises to do something and then the intention or wish to do it arises. We described the arising of such a thought as “feeling like doing something.” 

For example, in response to perceiving that we are tired and it is late at night, the thought arises to go to sleep. There is a gap, however, between feeling like going to sleep and the intention or wish actually to go to bed. We have the choice to ignore what we feel like doing and what we are intent on doing and wish to do. But if we are really intent on going to bed, we might think it over first, so there’s indecisive wavering. “Should I go to bed now or should I meditate?” And we come to a decision, “I’m going to go to bed.” But there is another gap before we actually go to bed where we could change our mind. During these gaps, it’s not as though the system is closed, because many, many other things are happening. Circumstances that could affect what we do are happening. Memories come up, all sorts of things come up: habits come up, the phone rings, a lot of things can happen. The Buddha knows all these factors that are arising to affect what we do, but how are we experiencing it? We’re experiencing it from the point of view of choice. 

Then choice becomes not only like an illusion; it becomes an actual illusion. 

No, no, it’s like an illusion, but it occurs, so there is a choice that’s being made. How do we understand choice? What does the word “choice” mean? We’re not going to decide this issue so simply. We have all weekend to discuss this; we have a whole lifetime to discuss this. Remember that we started the whole weekend with the statement that the Buddha said that karma was the most difficult thing to understand, of anything. Also, as we discovered, the correct understanding of voidness is just one part of what we need to understand in order to understand karma. We need to understand the voidness of cause and effect. We also certainly need to understand the voidness of the self. We need to understand what mind means. There’s nobody outside of the whole system, neither Buddha nor us, that’s deciding what’s going to happen. 

Choice has to do with the issue of decisiveness: how indecisiveness goes to decisiveness, that’s where choice comes in. We have to understand the connotation of the Western word “choice,” and is it really relevant here, or is the whole concept of choice based on the concept of a truly independently existing “me”? Our concept of “no choice” is also based on a concept of a truly existing “me” who has no choice. This, I think, is crucial to our understanding this question of free will, determinism, choice, etc. I think the whole way that the question is phrased is from a point of view of considering the self truly existent and independent from the system, and either we have choice or we don’t have choice. It’s not like we are sitting in a restaurant and all the choices are sitting on a menu waiting for us to pick one. 

We have to be careful that we’re not saying, “Yes, I understand voidness,” but actually, we’re taking a Chittamatra or Svatantrika point of view as opposed to a Prasangika point of view. We’re saying we know there’s no independent “me,” but that’s not deep enough, that’s not a deep enough understanding of how the “me” exists. We need to do a great deal of analytical meditation.