Karma: Who's to Blame?

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Topics for Analysis: Karma, Me and Blame

There are three topics that need clarification in order to answer the question: “Karma: who’s to blame” – karma, me and blame. We need to clarify all three through analysis since misconceptions about them cause us serious suffering, for instance the suffering of guilt. To achieve a true stopping of that suffering requires correct understanding. To gain that correct understanding, we need thorough analysis. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, analytical meditation as the most effective type of meditation to practice for eliminating suffering.  

Karma

Karma refers to the compulsion associated with an action – compulsive ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. Although the Tibetan word for karma, “las,” is the colloquial word for “action,” karma does not refer to our actions themselves. Karma is something we need to rid ourselves of in order to attain liberation and enlightenment. If karma simply meant actions, then all we would need to do is to stop thinking, saying or doing anything, and then we would be liberated from all suffering. That doesn’t make any sense. 

Although there is a unique Theravada presentation of karmic cause and effect, the Tibetans generally do not study it. Instead, they follow the two Sanskrit presentations:

  • The Chittamatra (Mind Only) explanation, based on An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa; Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya) by Asanga
  • The Prasangika modification by Tsongkhapa of the Vaibhashika presentation in Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-par mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha).

In both systems, karma may be destructive, constructive or unspecified. “Unspecified” means that Buddha did not specify whether it was destructive or constructive; it could go either way depending on the motivation. In all three cases, each is brought on by and accompanied by grasping for an impossible existent “me.”

  • Destructive – brought on by and accompanied by a disturbing emotion or attitude and by grasping for an impossibly existent “me” – for instance, saying hurtful words to someone because of anger and not liking what they said to “me.”
  • Constructive – brought on by and accompanied by a constructive emotion and by grasping for an impossibly existent “me” – for instance, refraining from saying hurtful words to someone because “I” don’t want to experience the suffering results, or helping someone with non-attachment to them because “I” want to be the good one, the one who always helps.
  • Unspecified – brought on by and accompanied simply by grasping for an impossibly existent “me,” without an additional disturbing emotion or constructive emotion – for instance, eating a hot meal with soup at noon because of believing that “I” am someone who always has to have a hot meal with soup for lunch and it must be at noon.

The Self, Me

It is clear, then, that all three types of karmic behavior entail grasping for an impossibly existent “me.” So, the issues of how the self, “me,” exists – the one who commits karmic actions and experiences their results – and of how the connection is maintained between cause and effect and between “me” as the agent of a karmic action and “me” as the one who experiencers its result are crucial.

Understanding cause and effect and “me” is dependent on the assertions of a tenet system, so the analysis of karma and of “me” need both to be in the context of same tenet system in order for them to fit together without contradictions. Although the Chittmatra explanation of karma is simpler than the Prasangika one and is often taught first, its view of the voidness of the self has many shortcomings. Chittamatra asserts:

  • Foundation consciousness (Skt. alayavijnana) and reflexive awareness
  • All karmic aftermath – karmic potential, karmic tendencies and constant karmic habits – as well as the self, as imputations on foundation consciousness
  • Foundation consciousness, karmic aftermath, the self and reflexive awareness as all having self-established existence, truly established independently from the words and concepts that refer to them
  • Truly existent, self-established foundation consciousness as containing the findable defining characteristics of both itself and of the truly existent, self-established self
  • Liberation from karma and suffering as requiring the true stopping of merely grasping for a self that is non-static, partless, independently existent from the aggregates and self-sufficiently knowable. Such refutation leaves unrefuted a truly existent, self-established self.
  • Physical objects, cognitive sensors, consciousness, mental factors, reflexive awareness and the self in a moment of mental activity as devoid of coming from different natal sources (rdzas). They all arise as a “package” from the same karmic tendency and all have truly existent, self-established existence.

Sautrantika, Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika follow Asanga's presentation, but without accepting those aspects of his Chittamatra assertions that do not accord with their views.

Prasangika refutes all these Chittamatra assertions. Since here we want to have the Prasangika understanding of the voidness of the self in order to attain either liberation or enlightenment, we need to fit that understanding into the Prasangika assertions about karma.

[See: Mechanism of Karma: Gelug Presentation, The Need for Revising Asanga’s Presentation of Karma]

Blame

To identify the object to be refuted concerning the self, we need to analyze how we regard ourselves, “me,” who is the agent of karma. If karma refers to the compulsiveness of our behavior, we need to identify that compulsive factor. Then we need to examine whether we feel that our compulsive behavior is something that we can’t stop ourselves from doing. If we view it that way, we have a dualistic view of ourselves as a bad “me” and as the policeman “me.” If we view ourselves in that dualistic way, we then need to examine whether it leads to problems and suffering.

If we feel that can’t stop ourselves from compulsively acting in certain ways, then am I to blame or are other people to blame or are outside factors like the economy to blame? For this, we need to analyze the role of the self and the role of causes, conditions and circumstances involved in our compulsively committing various actions and in experiencing their results.      

Also, blame implies guilt, which means (1) I’m a bad person, or (2) you’re a bad person, or (3) society is bad for causing me to act in a certain way or for experiencing some karmic result. That means thinking (1) I’m being punished for what I did because I deserve it, or (2) you need to be punished for what you did that made me do what I did, or (3) the social order needs to be destroyed for making me do what I did, like go out to steal or take drugs.       

Then we need to examine the difference between blame and responsibility, in terms of karma and in terms of the understanding of “me.”  These are the topics we need to analyze in order to answer the question: “Karma, who’s to blame.”

The Components of Karma: Gelug Prasangika Presentation

Mental Karma: A Compelling Urge

Mental karma is the mental factor of a compelling urge (bsam-pa), the mental factor that causes the mental activity to face an object or to go in its direction. In general, it moves a mental continuum to cognitively take an object. A mental continuum (mind-stream) is an individual, everlasting sequence of moments of experience made up of five aggregates.

Mental karma includes both:

  • An inciting compelling urge (sems-pa’i las, inciting karmic impulseurging karma) that moves the mental continuum to initiate, sustain and end a mental action
  • An urging compelling urge (bsam-pa’i las, urging karmic impulse, urged karma, urged impulse), which comes from the inciting one and that moves the mental continuum to initiate, sustain and end a physical or verbal action
  • In the Chittamatra system, only the inciting compelling urge is mental karma. The urging compelling urge is physical or verbal karma.

The compelling urge, whether for a physical, verbal or mental action, is always accompanied by other mental factors: distinguishing, intention and a destructive disturbing emotion or a constructive emotion. Depending on the intention and accompanying emotion, the compelling urge, i.e. the karma, is destructive, constructive or unspecified.  

  • Intention (‘dun-pa) is the mental factor of wanting ('dod-pa, Skt. abhilasha) to commit an action. Intention can entail wanting to obtain some object or to do something to it, or to achieve some goal, or to do something with some object or goal once obtained or achieved. It can also include not wanting to do anything of these. 

The compelling urge (karma) is not the same as the karmic action. A karmic action is equivalent to a pathway of a compelling karmic urge (las-lam) or “karmic pathway.” It spans the entire course of an action: from initiating it, to sustaining it, to ending it. Thus, the compelling urge (mental karma) – whether the inciting or the urging one – is not part of the pathway of a compelling urge (karmic pathway).  

Just as a chess game is a composite of all its pieces and all their interactions and moves, the karmic pathway of a karmic action is the composite of a series of moments having:

  • A basis (gzhi)
  • A motivating mental framework (bsam-pa): (a) a distinguishing ('du-shes) of the basis, (b) an intention ('dun-pa), (c) a destructive disturbing emotion, a constructive emotion or simply an unspecified disturbing outlook (nyon-mongs lta-ba-can). 
  • An implementation (sbyor-ba) of a method that causes the action to occur
  • A finale or outcome reached (mthar-thug) by the action.

The results and intensity of the results will vary depending on the completeness of all these components. Just as a chess game is more than all the individual pieces and moves, the karmic pathway of a karmic action is more than all the individual components. 

During the course of a mental karmic action, then, there are two components, both of which are changing every moment:

  1. The inciting compelling urge (the mental karma) that moves the mental continuum to initiate, sustain and end the mental action.
  2. The four-part karmic pathway of the inciting compelling urge (the four-part pathway of the inciting mental karma). 

Physical and Verbal Karma: The Compulsive Revealing Form

Physical and verbal karma include both:

  • The compulsive revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) of physical and verbal actions
  • The compelling non-revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) of physical and verbal actions.

Both are forms of physical phenomena that are parts of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena of the person committing the karmic action. Since they are part of the basis engaged by the urging compelling urge (the mental karma), they are considered parts of the pathway of the urging compelling urge. In short, in the Prasangika system:

  • Mental karma is not part of the karmic pathway
  • Physical and verbal karma are part of the karmic pathway. 

The compulsive revealing form is the changing shape of the body or the changing sound of the voice during the course of the karmic pathway of an urging karmic urge. The compulsive revealing form:

  • Reveals the motivation – the intention and the accompanying destructive disturbing emotion or constructive emotion
  • Lasts only as long as the method to carry out the physical or verbal action is being implemented
  • Can be destructive, constructive, or unspecified, depending on the intention and motivating emotion that is part of the karmic pathway of the urging karmic urge.

During the course of a physical or verbal action, we now have three components, all of which are changing every moment:

  1. The urging compelling urge (the mental karma) that moves the mental continuum to initiate, sustain and end the physical or verbal action
  2. The four-part pathway of the urging compelling urge (the four-part pathway of the urging mental karma)
  3. As part of the pathway of the urging mental karma, the compulsive revealing form of the physical or verbal action – the compulsive shape of the body (the physical karma) or compulsive sound of the voice (the verbal karma) involved in committing the physical or verbal action up until the implementation of a method to commit it is finished.  

Physical and Verbal Karma: The Compelling Non-Revealing Form

A compelling non-revealing form is a subtle form of physical phenomenon that is caused by a strong destructive or constructive motivating framework (the distinguishing, intention and motivating emotion), not by an unspecified action. It is caused by that motivation, but it does not show or reveal that motivation. 

  • It must be either destructive or constructive, not unspecified.
  • It is part of a mental continuum but is not felt on that mental continuum. In our Western terminology, that means we’re not conscious of it.
  • It is not made of particles, so is not made of particles of the gross elements of earth, water, fire or wind.
  • It can only be an object of mental cognition (like subtle forms in dreams).
  • It’s not a static category into which all revealing forms of the karmic pathways for all instances of the same type of karmic action fit, like a pattern.
  • Being non-static, it is affected by causes and conditions and so it changes from moment to moment – for instance, it can be strengthened or weakened by repeating an action. But it does not degenerate or wear out from moment to moment.
  • It arises dependently with a revealing form and continues with a mental continuum after the revealing form is no longer present. It continues with the mental continuum so long as we continue repeating that action (we continue lying or refraining from lying). It ends when we stop continuing to repeat it – in other words, we decide to stop lying or stop refraining from lying.

My current theory, based on my own analysis, is that compelling non-revealing forms are like a subtle form of dynamic karmic energy that is cumulative. They get stronger or weaker with each repetition of a certain type of action and continue so long as we maintain the determination not to stop repeating the action.

  • From a sutra point of view, non-revealing forms would transit from lifetime to lifetime as noncongruent affecting variables, which are neither forms of physical phenomena or ways of being aware of something (ldan-min ‘du-byed). As such, they are imputations on the conventional “me” during so-called “death existence,” as are the other components of the form aggregate at that time.
  • From an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, they would probably transit as part of the subtlest life-sustaining energy-wind, but this merely my own hypothesis. 

During the course of a karmic pathway of a physical or verbal karmic action, then, there are four components:

  1. The urging compelling urge (the mental karma) that moves the mental continuum to initiate, sustain and end the physical or verbal action
  2. The four-part pathway of the urging compelling urge (the four-part pathway of the urging mental karma)
  3. As part of the pathway of the urging mental karma, the compulsive revealing form of the physical or verbal action – the compulsive shape of the body (the physical karma) or compulsive sound of the voice (the verbal karma) involved in committing the physical or verbal action up until the implementation of a method to commit it is finished. Let's call this the obvious physical or verbal karma as a coarse form of physical phenomenon. 
  4. Also as part of the pathway of the urging mental karma, the compelling non-revealing form (the dynamic energy) of the physical or verbal action up until the implementation of a method to commit it is finished. Let's call this the nonobvious physical or verbal karma as a subtle form of physical phenomenon.

Vows

Vows are also non-revealing forms – types of dynamic energy. They arise with the revealing form of our taking the vows and continue with subsequently shaping our physical and verbal actions in accord with the vows. They last so long as we keep the vows and do not decide to give them up. When we give them up – when we decide not to continue keeping them – they are lost from our mental continuum. 

There are three types of vows:

  • Positive vows (sdom-pa) – to refrain from naturally destructive actions or proscribed actions specified by Buddha for certain persons to avoid, such as monastics eating after noon
  • Negative vows ­­(sdom-pa ma-yin-pa) – like not to refrain from shooting to kill the enemy when joining the military
  • Interim vows (bar-ma) – for instance, refraining from just some forms of inappropriate sexual behavior, but not all forms as specified in the full vow to avoid such behavior.

Thus, the non-revealing forms of our physical and verbal karmic actions grow even stronger with the additional non-revealing form of a vow. That’s why, in terms of purifying negative potential, one of the four opponent forces is the promise not to repeat the destructive action and not to give up our vows even at the cost of our life.

Karmic Aftermath

There are three types of karmic aftermath: 

  • Positive or negative karmic force or potential 
  • Karmic tendencies 
  • Constant karmic habits.

Karmic Force or Karmic Potential

We can call this type of karmic aftermath karmic force (from the point of view of it being the force resulting from the karmic pathway of a compelling urge) or karmic potential (from the point of view of it being a potential to bring about a result). For ease of discussion, let’s just call it “karmic potential.”

  • Karmic potential is always either destructive or constructive, never unspecified
  • Thus, there is positive karmic potential (bsod-nams, merit) and negative karmic potential (sdig-pa, sin).

Karmic Potential of Mental Actions

The karmic potential of mental actions has two aspects:

  • Obvious karmic potential as a mental action
  • Unobvious karmic potential as a noncongruent affecting variable.

The mental action, i.e. the pathway of an inciting karmic urge, functions as an obvious karmic potential. It is “obvious” (mngon-gyur) in the sense that the mental action – a train of thought with all its cognitive and emotional components – can be known with non-conceptual straightforward cognition. Once this karmic pathway reaches its finale, the karmic potential undergoes a phase transition to become a noncongruent affecting variable, a nonstatic imputation on the basis of the conventional “me,” which itself is an imputation on the basis of the five everchanging aggregates. It is now “unobvious” (lkog-gyur) karmic potential, known through inferential cognition.

  • “Non-congruent” means that unlike ways of being aware of something, like anger, those that occur in a moment of cognition do not share with the consciousness and mental factors of that cognition five things in common. They do not share the same: (1) reliance (cognitive sensor), (2) focal object, (3) mental hologram (aspect), (4) time (arising, abiding, ceasing), (5) natal source (each factor in the moment of cognition comes from its own tendency, but all of them share the same slant without clashing, (e.g. they share a single belief or intention).
  • “Non-static” means they change from moment to moment since they are affected by causes and conditions and produce effects.
  • An "imputation" or "imputed phenomenon" (btags-yod) is one that exists dependently on the basis of one or more of the components of the continuums on which they occur and are a synthesis over several moments of that continuum. Imputed phenomena cannot be known independently of their basis for imputation. 

Technically, the type of phenomenon the karmic potential becomes with this phase transition is “positive karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency” (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-ba’i bsod-nams) or “negative karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency” (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-ba’i sdig-pa). Like a karmic tendency (sa-bon), which will be discussed below, it arises as a noncongruent affecting variable only after the implementation of a karmic action has ceased. But unlike a karmic tendency, the karmic potential still remains either constructive or destructive. Karmic tendencies themselves are unspecified phenomena. 

Karmic Potential of Physical and Verbal Actions

The karmic potential of physical and verbal karmic actions has three aspects: 

  • Obvious karmic potential as a coarse form of physical phenomenon
  • Unobvious karmic potential as a subtle form of physical phenomenon
  • Unobvious karmic potential as a noncongruent affecting variable.

Obvious karmic potential as a coarse form of physical phenomenon refers to the compulsive revealing form of the physical or verbal action – the shape of the body or the sound of the voice during the course of the action. It ceases with the conclusion of the implementation of the action, at which point it undergoes a phase transition to become a positive or negative karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency. It is now unobvious karmic potential as a noncongruent affecting variable, a non-static imputation on the basis of the conventional “me.” 

Unobvious karmic potential as a subtle form of physical phenomenon refers to the compelling nonrevealing form of the physical or verbal action – the dynamic energy of these actions. Like obvious karmic potential as mental actions and obvious karmic potential as coarse forms of physical phenomena, unobvious karmic potential as subtle forms of physical phenomena arise with the initiation of the implementation of a karmic action. But unlike the two, it continues after the implementation of the action has ceased. It continues with the mental continuum as part of the aggregate of forms so long as one does not stop repeating the karmic action from which they derived, such as by taking a vow to stop. At that point, this karmic potential undergoes a phase transition and becomes a karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency. It is now unobvious karmic potential as a noncongruent affecting variable.

Networks of Karmic Potential

Networks (tshogs, collection) of karmic potential are syntheses of the various types of karmic potential we have built up from all our physical, verbal and mental karmic actions with no beginning. Thus, they include:

  • Obvious karmic potential as mental actions
  • Obvious karmic potential as coarse forms of physical phenomenon
  • Unobvious karmic potential as subtle forms of physical phenomenon
  • Unobvious karmic potential as noncongruent affecting variables that have taken on the essential nature of karmic tendencies.

Because networks of karmic potential are syntheses of mental actions, forms of physical phenomena and noncongruent affecting variables, networks themselves are noncongruent affecting variables, which are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. As such, they are non-static imputations on the basis of the conventional “me.” 

All our positive karmic potential constitute our network of positive potential (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit). Depending on the dedication, a network of positive potential (collection of merit) can be (1) samsara-building, (2) liberation-building or (3) enlightenment-building. 

Although there is no technical term for the synthesis of all our negative karmic potential, we can also speak of a network of negative potential. 

Karmic Tendencies

Karmic tendencies (sa-bon, karmic seeds) are also noncongruent affecting variables, which are neither forms of physical phenomenon nor ways of being aware of something. They arise with the conclusion of a physical, verbal or mental action and continue with the mental continuum as non-static imputations on the basis of the conventional “me.”  

  • Unlike karmic potentials, which are always either destructive or constructive, karmic tendencies are always unspecified.            
  • Unlike karmic potentials, karmic tendencies result not only from destructive and constructive karmic actions, but also from unspecified ones.

Constant Karmic Habits

Constant karmic habits (bag-chags) are also noncongruent affecting variables that are non-static imputations on the basis of the conventional “me.”  They arise with the conclusion of the implementation of a physical, verbal or mental action and continue as parts of the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib). They are only lost with the attainment of enlightenment.

Unlike non-revealing forms, karmic potentials and karmic tendencies, which only give results intermittently – like stealing or refraining from stealing when we feel like stealing – constant karmic habits give their results continually, without interruption. They are responsible for our limited periscope-like awareness and its making appearances of self-established existence. 

When karmic potentials and karmic tendencies have finished bringing about their results, they undergo another phase transition and now become constant karmic habits. Negative karmic potential also undergoes a phase transition to a constant karmic habit when the application of the four opponent forces and Vajrasattva meditation or the non-conceptual cognition of voidness “purifies” our mental continuum of them. 

Results of Karmic Aftermath

Karmic potentials and karmic tendencies in conjunction with each other bring about four types of results. There is a complex Buddhist analysis of the different types of causes and what types of results they can give rise to in conjunction with karmic cause and effect. Each type of karmic aftermath functions as several types of cause for several types of results, and each result is several types of result of several types of causes, including causes that are not types of karmic aftermath. The body of a human or mammal, for instance, is also the man-made result of the parent’s sperm and egg. There is no need to go into the details here. 

[See: Mechanism of Karma: Gelug Prasangika, Results of Karmic Aftermath]

Ripened Results

Ripened results are always unspecified. They include the unspecified items in the five aggregates of our rebirth state: the body, its cognitive sensors, the types of consciousness, the feelings of happiness or unhappiness, and the other unspecified mental factors, like the type of concentration and intelligence that go with the type of body of the rebirth state (human or fly). The ripened results do not include the destructive disturbing emotions or the constructive emotions. They come from their own tendencies, which are not karmic tendencies.

The Results That Correspond to Their Cause in Our Behavior

These results include the mental factors of the wish (‘dod-pa) or liking (dga'-ba) to repeat the same type of behavior as we previously committed and the intention (‘dun-pa) to repeat it.

The Results That Correspond to Their Cause in Our Experience

These results include the moments of consciousness involved in experiencing something being done to us similar to what we have previously done toward others. What someone does to us, like hitting us, is the result of their own karma; and the objects we experience, like the pain of being hit, arise from their own causes. Our experiencing them as objects of cognition, however, is the result of our karmic aftermath.

The Dominating or Comprehensive Results

These results include the moments of consciousness involved in experiencing the environment and society in which we are born or enter, and in experiencing what happens to our possessions. The environment and our possessions are, of course, the results of their own causes. Our experiencing them as objects of cognition is the result of our karmic aftermath. 

All three types of karmic aftermath are non-static and are affected in strength by what occurs on the mental continuum.

Analysis of Karmic Cause and Effect in Terms of the Five Aggregates

All the components that make up each moment of a karmic pathway, its karmic aftermath and the experiencing of its karmic results fit into the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience. Let’s analyze just physical and verbal actions.

During the Karmic Pathway (At the Time of a Karmic Action)

Aggregate of forms of physical phenomena

  • The sight of the body or sound of the voice of the basis at which the action is directed, as well as the other person, at whom the action is directed, as an imputation on that sight or sound. This refers to the mental holograms of all of these, which are connected with our mental continuum. It does not refer to the actual body, voice or conventional self of this other person, none of which are connected with our mental continuum.
  • The revealing form – the compulsive shape of our body or compulsive sound of our voice during the implementation of the karmic action
  • The non-revealing form – the compelling dynamic energy during the implementation of the karmic action.

Aggregate of distinguishing

  • Distinguishing the basis at which the karmic action is directed.

Aggregate of other affecting variables

  • The urging compelling urge  
  • Intention
  • Motivating emotion.

Of course, there will also be an aggregate of consciousness and an aggregate of feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness.

The finale of the karmic pathway may be experienced on our own mental continuum, for instance: (1) distinguishing what we have stolen as being ours, (2) experiencing the feeling of pleasure in an inappropriate or unorthodox sexual act, or (3) expressing idle chatter. 

Or the finale may not be experienced as part of our mental continuum – for example, the object of our karmic action: (1) dies, (2) understands the words of our lie, (3) understands the words of our harsh language, or (4) the two parties that are the objects of our divisive language lose their harmony or their disharmony becomes worse. In such cases, we do not need to be aware that our karmic action has reached its finale, although we still need to be alive for the results to be the fullest.

During the Time of the Karmic Aftermath

Aggregate of forms of physical phenomena

  • The non-revealing form – the compelling dynamic energy that continues after the implementation of the karmic action.

Aggregate of other affecting variables

  • Karmic potential as a noncongruent affecting variable
  • Karmic tendency
  • Constant karmic habit.

There are also the other aggregates in each moment of experience, including the destructive, tainted constructive and unspecified mental factors.

At the Time of the Karmic Results

Aggregate of forms of physical phenomena

  • The type of rebirth body (human, fly)
  • The type of cognitive sensors of our rebirth body (those of human eyes, of fly eyes)
  • As an object of cognition, the sight, sound, smell, taste or physical sensation of the environment in which we are reborn or live, and of our possessions
  • As an object of cognition, the sight, sound, or physical sensation of (1) someone doing something to us similar to what we have done in the past, or (2) something happening to us similar to what we have done in the past.

Aggregate of consciousness

  • The types of consciousness of our rebirth body (human visual or mental consciousness, fly visual or mental consciousness)
  • The moment of consciousness that cognizes the sight, sound or physical sensation of someone doing something to us similar to what we have done in the past, or of something happening to us similar to what we have done in the past.

Aggregate of feeling

  • The level of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies each moment.

Aggregate of other affecting variables

  • The wish to repeat an action similar to what we have done before
  • The intention to repeat an action similar to what we have done before
  • The unspecified mental factors of our rebirth type of mind (for instance, human concentration, fly concentration; human discriminating awareness and intelligence, fly discriminating awareness and intelligence)

Of course, there are also in each moment the aggregate of distinguishing and, as part of the aggregate of other affecting variables, the destructive, constructive and unspecified mental factors. 

In all three situations: during the karmic pathway, afterwards before the results and during the results, the various types of karmic aftermath are also present in the aggregate of affecting variables so long as they are not finished giving their results.

The Self as the Agent of Karma and Experiencer of Its Results

The self, the conventional “me,” a person, is a noncongruent affecting variable, a non-static imputation on the basis of the everchanging aggregates throughout the three phases: during the karmic pathway, afterwards before the results and during the results. This type of everchanging imputation is like age – neither a form of physical phenomena nor a way of being aware of something.

  • According to Prasangika, the karmic aftermath that are noncongruent affecting variables are imputations on the basis of the self.

The self that commits karmic actions and experiences their results, then, is an imputation on the individual continuum of five aggregates that include all the components of karmic actions, karmic aftermath and karmic results.

  • The self is part of the aggregate of other affecting variables
  • The karmic aftermath, in a sense, “piggy-back” on the self.

Just as the aggregates, as the basis of imputation of the self, are not static (they change every moment), not monolithic (they are made up of many everchanging components) and cannot exist independently of being the body, mind, etc. of a person; similarly, the self, a person, is not static (not unchanging, not unaffected by things and unable to do anything), not partless, and cannot exist separably and independently of a body, mind, etc.

  • The total absence of a static, partless, independently existing self is the coarse identitylessness or selflessness of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med rags-pa).
  • If the self were static, it could not commit any action and could not experience any result.
  • If the self were partless, it could not have the two distinct aspects of committing a karmic actions and experiencing its results.
  • If the self were independent and could exist separately by itself, then it could do things without a body or mind, and the body could do things without anyone doing it.
  • Thus, there is no static, partless, independent, separable self, living inside a body and mind and operating it as its possession – committing karmic actions with the body, speech and mind, and experiencing the results with the body and mind.
  • The relationship of the self with the aggregates is that of an imputation and a basis for imputation.

As an imputation on the aggregates, the self can only be known simultaneously with the aggregates.

  • Its voidness of being self-sufficiently knowable (rdzas-yod) is the subtle identitylessness or selflessness of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med phra-mo).
  • If a person could be known just by itself as “bad” or “to blame”, or “guilty,” then that person could be validly known as guilty by anyone who saw them, without knowing what they were guilty of.
  • Mental labeling is conceptual and through the media of static categories.
  • Designation is with words designated on categories and, through categories, on the items that fit into categories.

As an imputedly knowable object (btags-yid), the existence of the self can only be established in terms of what the mental label (concept, category) of “self” and the word “self” refer to on the basis of the aggregates. It is not self-established (rang-bzhin-gyi grub-pa, inherently exitent).

Within each moment of experience made up of components of each of the five aggregates, the individual components do not exist as self-established entities, encapsulated in plastic separate from each other, the same is the case with the self. But we can isolate them from each other conceptually into categories and give them names, and they are what the concepts and categories and words for them conventionally refer to.

Blame Versus Responsibility for Karmic Actions

A self, conceived as the one to blame for a karmic action and the one that experiences its results, implies that there is a static, self-sufficiently knowable, truly existent, self-established person who committed the action and who experienced the result. The emphasis with “blame” is on what is no longer happening (the karmic action) and the presently happening experiencing of the result.

The self as the one who is responsible for presently experiencing the karmic results of its previously committed karmic actions is the nonstatic, everchanging, imputedly knowable, dependently arising conventional self. The emphasis with “being responsible” is on future behavior that is not yet happening, but which can happen on the basis of applying opponent forces, which include changing one’s behavior.

Conclusion

To avoid such sufferings as guilt, we need to deconstruct the three phases of karma (the karmic pathway of a karmic action, karmic aftermath and karmic results) into the five aggregates and understand the self as an imputation on them. We need to understand that all the components arise dependently on their own causes, parts and what concepts and words refer to. Then we can understand that “blame” for our karma is based on the misconceptions involved with grasping for a self-established “me,” whereas responsibility for our karma is based on correct understanding of voidness and dependent arising. With such understanding, we can work with our karma to provide the circumstances most conducive for attaining liberation and enlightenment. 

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