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 is 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 two Sanskrit presentations:

The older one is the Madhyamaka presentation, found in Nagarjuna’s Root Verses for Madhyamaka, Called Discriminating Awareness (dBu-ma rtsa-ba shes-rab, Skt. Prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā) and elaborated upon by both Sautrantika Svatantrika and Prasangika Indian masters. It is based on such Sarvastivada sutras as The Noble Great Mahaparinirvana Sutra (’Phags-pa yongs-su mya-ngan-las ’das-pa chen-po’i mdo, Skt. Āryamahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra) and (The Sutra of) the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Noble Hallowed Dharma (Phags-pa dam-pa’i chos dran-pa nye-bar gzhag-pa, Skt. Āryasaddharmasmṛtyupasthāna), as well as on several texts from the Sarvastivada Abhidharma Basket. Vasubandhu, in Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-par mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakośa), and his commentators also elaborated on these sutra and abhidharma sources in the context of the Vaibhashika tenet system. 

The other Sanskrit presentation was formulated by Kumaralata, the founder of the Sautrantika tenet system, who rejected the Sarvastivada abhidharma sources in favor of other Sarvastivada sutra sources that were not translated into Tibetan and thus not preserved in the Kangyur. These sutra sources espoused a different explanation of karma exclusively in terms of the mind. Vasubandhu elaborated the Sautrantika objections to the Vaibhashika version in Autocommentary to “A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge” (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod-kyi bshad-pa, Skt. Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣyā). Asanga then expanded on this Sautrantika version of karma, putting it in the context of the Chittamatra tenet system, in An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya). This Chittamatra version was accepted by the Yogachara Svatantrika masters, but within the context of the other assertions of their own tenet system. 

In both the Madhyamaka-Vaibhashika and Sautrantika-Chittamatra 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 motivating state of mind. In all three cases, each is brought on by and accompanied by grasping for an impossibly 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 behavioral 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 behavioral 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 the same tenet system in order for them to fit together without contradictions. Although the Sautrantika-Chittmatra explanation of karma is simpler than the Madhyamaka-Vaibhashika one and is often taught first, its view of the voidness of the self has many shortcomings. Chittamatra asserts:

  • Foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. ālayavijñāna) and reflexive awareness (rang-rig)
  • All karmic aftermath – karmic force, karmic tendencies and karmic constant habit – as well as the self, as imputation phenomena on the basis of 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 nonstatic, 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 follows Asanga’s presentation, but without accepting those aspects of his Chittamatra assertions that do not accord with their views.

Madhyamaka, in general, refutes all these Chittamatra assertions. Since here we want to analyze specifically in the context of the Prasangika Madhyamaka understanding of the voidness of the self in order to attain either liberation or enlightenment, we need to fit that understanding into the Madhyamaka assertions about 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. Then, since 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 we 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 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: The Madhyamaka Presentation

A Karmic Impulse of the Mind: A Compelling Mental Urge

Mental karma is the mental factor of a compelling mental urge (sems-pa); let’s call it a “karmic impulse of the mind.” It is the mental factor that moves one of the types of consciousness, together with its other accompanying mental factors, to an object. 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.

Karmic impulses of the mind include:

  • An inciting karmic impulse (sems-pa’i las)a compelling mental urge that moves the mental consciousness to an object in order to initiate, sustain and end the mental action of thinking over whether to commit an action of body or speech regarding that object, and which reaches the decision to commit it, whether or not the decision is enacted
  • A mere karmic impulse of the mind for an action of the mind – a compelling mental urge that moves the mental consciousness to an object in order to initiate, sustain and end the mental action of thinking over whether to commit an action of body or speech regarding that object, and which does not reach a decision
  • A mere karmic impulse of the mind for an action of the body or speech – a compelling mental urge that moves the sensory consciousness to an object in order to engage the body or speech in initiating, sustaining and ending a physical or verbal action regarding that object, whether this mental urge has been brought on or not by an inciting karmic impulse of the mind.

A karmic impulse of the mind – the compelling mental urge – to move one of the types of consciousness to an object in order to commit a physical, verbal or mental action regarding that object is always accompanied by other mental factors that it draws along with it. The most significant mental factors are distinguishing, intention and a destructive disturbing emotion, a constructive emotion, or an unspecified deluded outlook. Depending on the accompanying intention and emotion, the karmic impulse of the mind is destructive, constructive, or unspecified.  

  • Intention (’dun-pa) is the mental factor of wishing (’dod-pa, Skt. abhilāṣa) for an intended object and to commit an intended action regarding that object. It is always specific because it is always accompanied by the mental factor of distinguishing (du-shes, Skt. saṃjñā), which specifies the intended object and intended action. 
  • The intention can entail wishing 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 wishing to do any of these.
  • The intention may be either decisive or indecisive. If, the intention brings on the mental action of thinking over – with the mental factors of investigation (rtog-pa, Skt. vitarka), scrutiny (dpyod-pa, Skt. vicāra) and discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajñā) – whether to enact the intention and becomes decisive, the intention is then also accompanied by the mental factor of firm conviction (mos-pa, Skt. adhimokṣa).
  • The intended object may be just someone, anyone, or it may be a specific person. The intended action may be just to speak with them, or it may be to say specific words to them.

A Pathway of a Karmic Impulse (A Karmic Action)

A karmic impulse of the mind is not the same as a karmic action. A karmic action is equivalent to a pathway of a karmic impulse (las-lam) or “karmic pathway.” A karmic action is what is driven by a karmic impulse of the mind and spans the entire course of an action: from its initiation until its finale takes place. Thus, the karmic impulse of the mind – whether an inciting one or a mere karmic impulse of the mind for an action of the body, speech or mind – is not part of the pathway of the karmic impulse of the mind. It is not a part, then, of a karmic action, as in the list of the ten destructive karmic actions and ten constructive ones, which are pathways of a karmic impulse.  

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

  • A basis (gzhi) – the object, regarding which the action is committed
  • 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 deluded outlook (lta-ba nyon-mongs-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 an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a chessboard, players and all the individual pieces and moves, the karmic pathway of a karmic impulse that constitutes a karmic action is an imputation phenomenon that is a synthesis of the series of moments of all the above-mentioned components – a basis and so on – some of which are forms of physical phenomena (the basis) and some of which are ways of being aware of something (distinguishing, intention and so forth). The type of imputation phenomenon a karmic pathway is, then, is a noncongruent affecting variable, which is itself neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. 

  • An imputation phenomenon (btags-pas ’dogs-pa) is a phenomenon tied to a basis of imputation (gtags-gzhi) and which can neither exist nor be validly known independently of that basis – for instance, a whole and its parts. The basis of imputation of the pathway of a karmic impulse is the continuum of its four-member components that are parts of the five aggregates of the agent of the action. 
  • Unlike ways of being aware of something, such as anger, noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ’du-byed) 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).

During the course of a karmic action of the body, speech or mind, then, there are two components, both of which are changing every moment:

  • The compelling mental urge (the karmic impulse of the mind) that moves the mental continuum to engage with an object in order to initiate, sustain and end a karmic action of the body, speech or mind regarding that object
  • The four-part karmic pathway of the karmic impulse of the mind. 

A Karmic Impulse of the Body or Speech: A Compelled Revealing Form

Karmic impulses of the body and speech include both:

  • A compelled revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) of an action of the body or speech
  • In many cases, a compelled nonrevealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) of an action of the body or speech.

Both revealing and nonrevealing forms are forms of physical phenomena that are parts of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena of the person committing the karmic action. 

  • In the case of a karmic action of the body, the compelled revealing form is the motion of the body as it changes shape in order to implement a method that causes the action of the body to occur, whether or not that physical action reaches its intended outcome.
  • In the case of a karmic action of speech, the compelled revealing form is the utterances by the voice of the changing sounds of speech in order to implement a method that causes the action of speech to occur, whether or not that verbal action reaches its intended outcome. 

A compelled revealing form:

  • Reveals the ethical status of the consciousness causing it to occur. That ethical status depends on the ethical status of the emotion accompanying the consciousness. The revealing form does not necessarily reveal, however, the specific emotion accompanying the consciousness. 
  • Is destructive, constructive, or unspecified, in accord with the ethical status of the consciousness causing it to occur. 
  • Lasts only as long as the method to carry out the physical or verbal action is being implemented.

Both revealing forms and the initial moment of nonrevealing forms include:

  • An incited karmic impulse (bsam-pa’i las) of body or speech – one that has been brought on by a mere karmic impulse of the mind that has followed from a mental action that was brought on by an inciting karmic impulse of the mind, namely a mental action that has reached the decision to enact the action of body or speech
  • A mere karmic impulse of the body or speech – one that has been brought on by a mere karmic impulse of the mind that has not followed from a mental action that has been brought on by an inciting karmic impulse of the mind. 

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

  • The mere karmic impulse of the mind (a mental urge) that moves the mental continuum to an object in order to initiate, sustain and end the physical or verbal action regarding that object
  • The karmic impulse of the body or speech (a revealing form) with which a method is implemented for causing that action to occur 
  • The four-part pathway of both the above-mentioned karmic impulse of the mind and the above-mentioned karmic impulse of the body or speech. 

A Karmic Impulse of the Body or Speech: A Compelled Nonrevealing Form

A compelled nonrevealing form is defined by Bhavaviveka (Legs-ldan ’byed), in his “Lamp for Discriminating Awareness,(Shes-rab sgron-ma, Skt. Prajñāpradīpam), as something having the essential nature of a form of physical phenomenon and of something that is doing something. This is in accord with Vasubandhu’s assertion of a nonrevealing form as something having a functional nature of both a form of physical phenomenon and a karmic agent. It does not reveal itself or the ethical status of the consciousness causing it to arise, as revealing forms do. 

Avalokitavrata (sPyan-ras-gzigs brtul-zhugs), in his Extensive Subcommentary to (Bhavaviveka’s) “Lamp for Discriminating Awareness” (Shes-rab sgron-ma rgya-cher ’grel-pa, Skt. Prajñāpradīpam-ṭīkā), elaborates further that a nonrevealing form is an imperceptible form of physical phenomenon generated by a revealing form of body or speech. What it does is increase our positive karmic potential (merit) from our own or others’ further constructive actions deriving from that revealing form or from the object involved with the constructive action with which it arose. Or it similarly increases our negative karmic potential from our own or others’ further destructive actions deriving from that revealing form or from the object involved with the destructive action with which it arose.

There are three kinds of nonrevealing forms:

  • Vowed restraints (sdom-pa
  • Avowed non-restraints (sdom-pa ma-yin-pa)
  • Intermediate nonrevealing forms (bar-ma), which are either constructive or destructive, but are neither vowed restraints nor avowed non-restraints.

Vowed restraints include the pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows. Pratimoksha vows are taken for just our present lifetime. Bodhisattva and tantric vows are taken for all lifetimes until the attainment of enlightenment. Vaibhashika, being a Hinayana tenet system, does not assert bodhisattva or tantric vows. So long as they are not given up, vowed restraints continue to perform the function of restraining the person who took them from committing an action that they have vowed to abstain from. 

Avowed non-restraints are taken for life and include, for instance, the pledge to take the lives of fish when one is born as member of the fisherman caste or joins that caste. So long as they are not given up, avowed non-restraints continue to perform the function of not restraining the person who took them from committing an action that they have vowed not to abstain from.

Intermediate nonrevealing forms include those obtained from:

  • Making or offering an object of use, based on which we and others build up positive or negative karmic potential when we or they make use of them. In the case of building up positive karmic potential, such objects of use include Dharma books, stupas, and Buddhist temples. In the case of building up negative karmic potential, such objects of use include weapons and slaughterhouses. These nonrevealing forms perform the function of providing the circumstance for us and others to build up positive or negative karmic potential when we and they make use of these objects. Further, these nonrevealing forms continue to build up positive or negative karmic potential on our mental continuum even in our future lives whenever we or others make use of the object we have made or offered.
  • As a subcategory of the above, ordering someone to commit destructive actions, such as when a military commander orders the soldiers to attack and kill the enemy. This nonrevealing form performs the function of providing the circumstance for the soldiers to build up negative karmic potential when they carry out the order and kill an enemy. Further, the nonrevealing form continues to build up negative karmic potential on the mental continuum of the commander whenever one of these soldiers carries out the order, even once the commander has died and taken rebirth.
  • Pledging to commit, for a limited amount of time, a constructive act, such as meditating each day or refraining from a specific type of inappropriate sexual behavior but not from all types. Similarly, pledging to commit, for a limited amount of time, a destructive act, such as killing enemy troops while in the army. The nonrevealing form of this pledge performs the function of providing the circumstance for the person who made the pledge to continue to perform the pledged action and continues to build up karmic potential each time the person repeats the action. It does not continue into future lives.
  • Committing, with a strong mental urge and strong constructive emotion, such as showing respect, a constructive action not associated with keeping a vowed restraint, such as making prostrations with a strong taking of refuge. Similarly, committing, with a strong mental urge and a strong destructive emotion, a destructive action not associated with keeping an avowed non-restraint, such as destroying private property with strong anger. In addition, committing one of the three destructive actions of body or four destructive actions of speech even with a weak mental urge and a weak disturbing emotion. The nonrevealing forms of all such actions perform the function of causing each repetition of the action to build up even stronger karmic potential, but only in this lifetime.

Further, a nonrevealing form: 

  • Must be either destructive or constructive, not unspecified.
  • Does not reveal the ethical status of the consciousness that causes it to arise.
  • Is part of a mental continuum but is not felt on that mental continuum. In Western terminology, that means the person possessing it is not conscious of it.
  • Is not made of particles of the gross elements of earth, water, fire or wind.
  • Can only be an object of mental cognition.
  • Is 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 nonstatic, is affected by causes and conditions and thus changes from moment to moment, but does not degenerate or wear out from moment to moment.
  • Arises dependently with the first moment of the arising of 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 the person possessing it continues to abstain from the actions they vowed to refrain from, or continues not to abstain from the actions they vowed not to refrain from, or continues to commit the action they pledged to commit with a strong mental urge and strong emotion. It also continues so long as the object of use the person made or offered continues to be available for use. Likewise, it also continues so long as others carry out the actions the person ordered them to do. In the case of nonrevealing forms arising from actions done with a strong mental urge and a strong show of respect or a strong disturbing emotion, or done with a weak disturbing emotion in the case of the seven destructive actions of body and speech, it continues so long as the person continues to repeat the action. 
  • Is lost from the mental continuum when the person possessing it gives up the vowed restraint or avowed non-restraint or loses it when they die, or when they give up repeating the action they pledged to do, or when the object of use they made or offered is destroyed or no longer available for use, or when the order to commit the action is rescinded or is no longer obeyed. In the case of nonrevealing forms arising from actions done with a strong mental urge and so on, they are lost when the person gives up repeating the action.
  • In the case of bodhisattva and tantric vows and, presumably, the intermediate nonrevealing forms of making or offering an object of use or of ordering others to commit a destructive action or of committing an action with a strong mental urge and so on, they are not lost when the person possessing them dies. 
  • I have not seen or heard any explanation for how these nonrevealing forms transit from lifetime to lifetime. One possible explanation is that, from a sutra point of view, they transit as noncongruent affecting variables on the basis of the conventional “me.” From an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, they would perhaps transit as part of the subtlest life-sustaining energy-wind, but this is merely my own hypothesis. 

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

  • The mere karmic impulse of the mind (a mental urge) that moves the mental continuum to an object in order to initiate, sustain and end the physical or verbal action regarding that object
  • The karmic impulse of the body or speech (the revealing form) with which a method is implemented for enacting that action 
  • The karmic impulse of the body or speech (the nonrevealing form) that arises dependent on the first moment of that revealing form 
  • The four-part pathway of both the above-mentioned karmic impulse of the mind and the above-mentioned two types of karmic impulses of the body or speech (a revealing form and a nonrevealing form). 

The Duration of a Karmic Action of Body or Speech

The implementation of a method to cause a physical or verbal action to occur (the revealing form of the action) has three phases:

  • A preliminary (nyer-bsdogs) or precursory (sbyor-ba) phase – such as stalking a deer when hunting
  • A principal (dngos) phase – such as delivering the fatal shot at the deer
  • A follow-up (mjug) phase – such as taking the carcass home, and skinning, cooking, and eating it.

The revealing form of the action arises with the preliminary phase and ceases at the conclusion of the follow-up phase if there is one. If there is no follow-up phase, it ceases at the conclusion of the principal phase. 

If the preliminary phase occurs with a strong motivation, the nonrevealing form arises at the start of this preliminary phase. Otherwise, it arises with the start of the principal phase. The nonrevealing form continues through the follow-up phase, if such a phase occurs, and, as shall be explained below, continues afterwards as well, until it is lost in one of the manners explained above.

The pathway of a karmic impulse of the body or mind – for instance, the destructive action of killing a deer – includes only the principal phase. Furthermore, the revealing form of that principal phase takes place only while implementing the method that directly causes the killing to take place – delivering the fatal shot. The revealing form of the principal phase does not continue up until the finale takes place – the death of the deer, which might occur at any time later after it has been shot.   

Karmic actions of the mind do not have preliminary or follow-up phases. 

Karmic Aftermath

There are three types of “karmic aftermath” – a term I have coined for karmic features that follow from karmic impulses of the mind (mental urges), whether inciting ones or mere ones:

  • Positive or negative karmic force (karmic potential) 
  • Karmic tendencies (sa-bon, Skt. bīja)
  • Constant karmic habit (bag-chags, Skt. vāsana).

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 this type of karmic aftermath “karmic potential.”

  • Karmic potential is always either destructive or constructive, never unspecified

Thus, there is positive karmic potential (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya; merit) and negative karmic potential (sdig-pa, Skt. pāpa; sin).

The Karmic Potential of a Mental Action

The karmic potential of a mental action has two phases:

  • The obvious karmic potential that is a mental action – the karmic pathway of a karmic impulse of the mind  
  • The unobvious karmic potential that continues after the mental action has ceased. 

The karmic impulse of the mind (a mental urge) that draws the mental consciousness to an object in order to initiate, sustain and end a mental action regarding that object is not a karmic potential. 

The obvious karmic potential that is the mental action – a train of thought with all its cognitive and emotional components – is obvious (mngon-’gyur; manifest) in the sense that it can be detected by the mental factor of alertness (shes-bzhin). Once this karmic pathway of the train of thought ends, the karmic potential becomes unobvious (lkog-’gyur; obscure) in the sense that it can only be known through inferential cognition.

Both phases of karmic potential are imputation phenomena – specifically, the type of imputation phenomenon that is a noncongruent affecting variable. 

  • The obvious karmic potential is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the continuum of the four components of a karmic pathway as they are experienced in the context of the five aggregates of the person committing the action. 
  • The unobvious karmic potential is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the continuum of the person, “me,” which, in turn, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the continuum of the five aggregates of the person who committed the action.

Technically, the type of phenomenon the karmic potential becomes after the mental action ends is a “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 a “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. 

The Karmic Potential of a Physical or Verbal Action

The karmic potential of a physical or verbal karmic action has seven aspects: 

  • The obvious karmic potential that is a coarse form of physical phenomenon – a revealing form (a karmic impulse of the body or speech)
  • The unobvious karmic potential having the essential nature of a tendency that continues after a revealing form has ceased 
  • The unobvious karmic potential that is a subtle form of physical phenomenon – a nonrevealing form (a karmic impulse of the body or speech)
  • The unobvious karmic potential having the essential nature of a tendency that a nonrevealing form builds up while that form remains present on the mental continuum – for instance when others make use of a Buddhist temple we have built
  • The unobvious karmic potential having the essential nature of a tendency that continues after a nonrevealing form has ceased 
  • The obvious karmic potential that is the physical or verbal action itself – the karmic pathway of a karmic impulse of the body or speech
  • The unobvious karmic potential having the essential nature of a tendency that continues after a physical or verbal action has ceased.

Note once more that karmic impulses (karma) of the body and of the speech are karmic potentials, whereas karmic impulses of the mind are not karmic potentials. Karmic impulses may be constructive, destructive or unspecified, whereas karmic potentials may only be constructive or destructive. Thus, unspecified karmic impulses of the body or speech are not karmic potentials.  

As for the types of phenomena these karmic potentials are:

  • Revealing forms and nonrevealing forms, as obvious karmic potential, are forms of physical phenomena. 
  • Physical or verbal actions, which last until their finale occurs, are noncongruent affecting variables – imputation phenomena on the basis of the continuum of the four components of a karmic pathway as they are experienced in the context of the five aggregates of the person committing the action. The finale of the action, however, as in the case of the death of the being one kills, may not be experienced by the agent of the action.
  • The three types of unobvious karmic potential that the revealing and nonrevealing forms and karmic actions of body and speech give rise to when they cease, as well as the unobvious karmic potential that the nonrevealing forms build up while they are present, are also noncongruent affecting variables – imputation phenomena on the basis of the continuum of the five aggregates of the person who committed the action. These four types of unobvious karmic potential are karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency.

The Network of Karmic Potential

A network (tshogs, collection, bountiful store) of karmic potential, or network of karmic force, is a synthesis of the various types of karmic potentials built up from all our previously committed physical, verbal and mental karmic actions with no beginning and which have not been lost from our mental continuum. Thus, they include:

  • Obvious karmic potential as karmic actions (karmic pathways) of body, speech and mind
  • Obvious karmic potential as revealing forms
  • Unobvious karmic potential as nonrevealing forms
  • Unobvious karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency –  both from when any of the above three cease and from the nonrevealing forms while they are present.

Because a network of karmic potential is a synthesis of forms of physical phenomena and noncongruent affecting variables, a network itself is a noncongruent affecting variable. As such, it is a nonstatic imputation on the basis of a 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. Of the three, only a samsaric-building one is karmic. 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. 

Prasangika is unique in asserting that an enlightenment-building network of positive potential – the network of positive potential dedicated to enlightenment with bodhichitta – is the evolving Buddha-nature factor (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs; the evolving Buddha family-trait) that functions as the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. 

  • An obtaining cause is that which transforms into a result as its successor and, in doing so, ceases to exist. For example, a joined sperm and egg of two humans is the obtaining cause for the body of a human. 

Noncongruent affecting variables cannot function as obtaining causes that transform into forms of physical phenomena, only forms of physical phenomena can perform that function. Therefore, only forms of physical phenomena can be the obtaining causes of other forms of physical phenomena. 

The obtaining cause for a body or mind must be in the same category of phenomenon as the successor body or mind obtained from it. The example always given is that only a last moment of a mind of a previous life can be the obtaining cause for the first moment of a mind of that person’s next life. That first moment of mind cannot arise from a physical obtaining cause as its successor. A joined sperm and egg, for example, cannot transform into a mind. Similarly, a mind cannot transform into a body as its successor.

Since the enlightenment-building network of positive potential is comprised of both forms of physical phenomena (nonrevealing forms) and noncongruent affecting variables, then it is my hypothesis that the nonrevealing form that is a bodhisattva vow may itself be considered as an obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. This hypothesis would also explain the mechanism whereby certain constructive actions of a bodhisattva are the causes for the 32 excellent signs (mtshan bzang-po, major marks) of the Sambhogakaya and Supreme Nirmanakaya that the bodhisattva attains and, when not dedicated to enlightenment, are the causes for these signs when reborn as a chakravartin emperor. The nonrevealing forms of these constructive actions would be the obtaining causes for these physical signs.  

From the example of the 32 excellent signs, it is clear that a network of positive potential lacking the positive potential of the nonrevealing form of a bodhisattva vow cannot function as the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. This reinforces the hypothesis that, within a network of enlightenment-building positive potential, it is the nonrevealing form of a bodhisattva vow that transforms into the Form Bodies of a Buddha according to the principle that only a form of physical phenomenon can transform into another form of physical phenomenon as its successor. This is parallel to a form of physical phenomenon – namely, an illusory body (sgyu-lus) – being the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha in anuttarayoga tantra. 

If my hypothesis is correct, it helps to explain the enormous emphasis placed on never giving up bodhichitta and our bodhisattva vow, even at the cost of our life. Over beginningless lifetimes, we have taken the bodhisattva vows countless numbers of times but also given them up countless numbers of time. This is the reason why we have not already become enlightened. Therefore, to attain enlightenment, it is essential that we never give up our bodhisattva vow and thus lose from our mental continuum the nonrevealing form that constitutes this vow.  

Karmic Tendencies

A karmic tendency (karmic seed) is also a noncongruent affecting variable. It arises with the conclusion of the implementation of a method to cause a physical, verbal or mental action to occur and continues with the mental continuum as a nonstatic imputation phenomenon 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.

Karmic Constant Habits

A karmic constant habit is also a noncongruent affecting variable that is a nonstatic imputation on the basis of the conventional “me.” It arises with the conclusion of the implementation of a method for causing a physical, verbal or mental action to occur and continues as part of the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib). Karmic constant habits are only lost with the attainment of enlightenment.

Unlike nonrevealing forms, karmic potentials and karmic tendencies, all three of which give results only intermittently – like stealing or, when we feel like stealing, refraining from doing so – karmic constant 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 having the essential nature of karmic tendencies and karmic tendencies themselves have finished bringing about their results, they transform into karmic constant habits. Negative karmic potentials having the essential nature of karmic tendencies also transform into karmic constant habits when they become “burnt seeds” with the application of the four opponent forces and Vajrasattva meditation. 

Results of Karmic Aftermath

Karmic potentials that have taken on the essential nature of karmic tendencies and karmic tendencies themselves, often in conjunction with each other, bring about various karmic results. Note that karmic potentials and karmic tendencies may give rise, over time, to one or more karmic results, and any karmic result that arises may arise from one or more karmic potentials or karmic tendencies or combination of both. 

Furthermore, the karmic potentials that are revealing and nonrevealing forms, as well as physical, verbal and mental karmic actions (karmic pathways of karmic impulses of the body, speech and mind) do not function as immediately preceding causes (dngos-rgyu) that directly give rise to their result in the next moment. 

Karmic results include:

  • Ripened results (rnam-smin-gyi ’bras-bu, Skt. vipākaphalam
  • Results that correspond to their cause (rgyu-mthun-gyi ’bras-bu, Skt. niṣyandaphalam), either in our behavior or in our experience. The Sanskrit term for these, utpatti, means “outflow.” They are outflows that follow from their cause. 
  • Dominating results (bdag-po’i ’bras-bu, dbang-gi ’bras-bu, Skt. adhipatiphalam), also translated as comprehensive results, commanding results or overlord 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 the principals of karmic cause and effect. Both karmic potentials that have taken on the essential nature of karmic tendencies and karmic tendencies themselves function as several types of karmic cause for several types of karmic results, and each result is several types of karmic result of several types of karmic causes, as well the non-karmic result of non-karmic causes. The body of a human or mammal, for instance, is also the man-made result (skyes-bu byed-pa’i ’bras-bu) of the parent’s sperm and egg as its obtaining cause. There is no need to go into the details here. 

Ripened Results

Ripened results are always unspecified. They refer to the unspecified items in the five aggregates of the rebirth state (human, fly, celestial being, hell being and so on) that our consciousness experiences when taking rebirth. These items include the body, its cognitive sensors, the types of consciousness, the possible range of feelings of happiness or unhappiness, and the possible range of the other unspecified mental factors, like concentration and intelligence, that go with the type of body and mind of the rebirth state. The specific mental factors that occur in any moment arise from their own causes and are not ripened results of karmic aftermath.

Specifically, the ripened results are what arise, through the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising, with the eleventh link, the link of conception (skye-ba; birth), which only lasts for one moment. Thus, during the moment of conception, only the body and the consciousness are manifest as the fourth link, the link of namable mental faculties with or without gross form (ming-dang gzugs; name and form). The cognitive sensors, the specific types of consciousness and the unspecified mental factors are present only as tendencies for them.

  • The ripened results do not include the destructive disturbing emotions or the constructive emotions of the rebirth state that are also present as tendencies at the moment of conception. The emotions come from their own tendencies, which are not karmic tendencies. 
  • The ripened results also do not include karmic impulses for karmic actions.  

Being unspecified, ripened results can only arise from ripening causes (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu), which must be either constructive or destructive. Thus, only positive or negative karmic potentials having the essential nature of tendencies – and not karmic tendencies themselves, which are always unspecified – ripen into ripened results. 

  • The word “ripening” (smin-pa) is used as a general term for a karmic cause maturing to the point where it gives it result. This should not be confused with the specific usage of “ripening” in the terms “ripening causes” and “ripened results.”

The way in which the body and mind of a rebirth state arises, as described with the twelve links of dependent arising, is: 

  • First, a karmic potential or a set of karmic potentials having the essential nature of a tendency gets activated, at the moment of dying, by the eighth and nine links – the links of craving (sred-pa, Skt. tṛṣṇā; thirsting) and of an obtainer attitude (len-pa, Skt. upadāna; grasping). The activated karmic potential that arises is a “throwing karmic impulse” (phen-byed-kyi las), the tenth link, the link of further existence (srid-pa, Skt. bhava; becoming). The mental consciousness it accompanies, and which throws it into a next rebirth, is the final moment of the causal phase of the third link, loaded consciousness (rgyu-dus-kyi rnam-shes).
  • The presently-happening great elements of earth, water, fire and wind of the body at that moment of dying are the appropriated (zin-pa, Skt. upātta) constituent components (khams, Skt. dhātu) of the cognition at that moment of dying. They are what the mental consciousness, the mental urge of throwing karma and the other accompanying mental factors take, in a sense, beneath them as their physical support (rten, Skt. adhiṣṭhāna). In worldly language, these elements are called “animate matter” (sems-pa-dang bcas-pa, Skt. sacetana) (literally, things that are connected with a karmic impulse of mind, a mental urge) and “living matter” (srog-dang bcas-pa, Skt. sajīva) (literally, things connected with a life-force).
  • The force of the appropriated wind element, which is supporting the causal loaded consciousness, the throwing karmic urge and the other accompanying mental factors, now causes the arising of the great elements of the body of the rebirth state as what are appropriated and, simultaneously, the arising of the link of resultant loaded consciousness (bras-dus-kyi rnam-shes) as what appropriates them as their physical basis. 
  • First, these appropriated great elements are the subtle elements of a bardo body. Then, at the so-called “small death” that occurs at the conclusion of the bardo existence, a further throwing karmic impulse gets activated from the karmic potential that gave rise to the prior throwing karmic impulse. The force of the subtle wind element of the bardo body causes the arising of the gross elements of a joined sperm and egg, if we are to be reborn as a human, as what are appropriated and the simultaneous arising of a continuation of the resultant loaded consciousness as what appropriates them as their physical basis.

The subtle elements of the bardo state and the gross elements of a rebirth state – for instance, the gross elements of a specific set of joined sperm and egg – that are appropriated by the resultant loaded consciousness derive from the previous moments of these elements’ own continuums. The elements themselves do not arise as the ripened results of the karmic potential. It is only their being taken as appropriated elements, along with the resultant loaded consciousness itself, that are the ripened result of the karmic potential. Furthermore, they are not the ripened result of the throwing karmic impulse. Nor is the throwing karmic impulse the ripened result of the karmic potential; it is merely the activated state of a karmic potential. This is the meaning of the statement, “Karma does not ripen into karma” – karmic impulses are not the ripened results of karmic potentials.   

In the case of beings lacking advanced awareness (mngon-shes, extrasensory perception), the not-yet-happening subtle elements of the bardo body and the not-yet-happening gross elements of the joined sperm and egg that have not yet arisen as what will be appropriated as the physical basis for their resultant loaded consciousness – neither of these sets of elements are the objects of cognition of such beings’ causal loaded consciousness, throwing karmic impulse and other accompanying mental factors. They are, however, objects of cognition of the advanced awareness of celestial beings (gods), for instance, at the time of their deaths. The joined sperm and egg of parents, of course, arise from their own previous obtaining causes. 

Throughout our next lifetime, the force of the presently-happening wind element appropriated as the physical support of the presently-happening consciousness will cause the arising of the great elements of the next moment of the sensory cognitive sensors of the body to be what are appropriated by the next moment of consciousness. 

  • Note that the body itself, not including the hair and the nails, is the cognitive sensor of physical sensations.
  • So long as the life-force (srog, Skt. jīva) for this next lifetime is still enduring, each moment of the great elements of the cognitive sensors of the body of this next lifetime will continue to be appropriated as the physical support by the consciousness and accompanying mental factors of that lifetime. These elements are further ripened results of the karmic potential that served, in that previous lifetime, as the ripening cause for the unspecified items of this next lifetime. That karmic potential has continued into this next lifetime because it did not finish giving rise to its ripened results at the end of that previous lifetime. It will continue to be present on the mental continuum until the death of this next lifetime.
  • When the lifespan for a particular lifetime is exhausted at the time of death, the further continuum of the great elements of that body can no longer be appropriated by the person’s consciousness and accompanying mental factors as their physical support. The body becomes a corpse. 

The Results That Correspond to Their Cause in Our Behavior

In the Indian Buddhist literature on karma and the Tibetan literature on karma before Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa), the results that correspond to their cause refer only to what later became named as “results that correspond to their cause in our experience.” In Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo), however, Tsongkhapa briefly states that former lamas – but without citing their names or texts – had asserted the division of this type of result into results that correspond to their cause in our behavior (byed-pa rgyu-mthun-gyi ’bras-bu) and results that correspond to their cause in our experience (myong-ba rgyu-mthun-gyi ’bras-bu).  

Results that correspond to their cause in our behavior, Tsongkhapa states are, for instance, taking joy (dga’-bar ’gyur-ba) in killing – so, liking to kill, delighting in killing, enjoying killing. A commonly given example is a child liking to kill insects from an early age. This is the result of repeatedly having taken others’ lives in previous lifetimes and arises when being reborn as a human after rebirth in one of the worse rebirth states. In relation to constructive behavior, Tsongkhapa just states that this type of result is the opposite of the case with destructive behavior. 

Later, the Sakya master Ngorchen (Ngor-chen dKon-mchog lhun-grub) in Ornament to Beautify the Three Appearances (rNam-gsum mdzes-par byed-pa’i rgyan) and the Nyingma master Paltrul (rDza dPal-sprul O-rgyan ’jigs-med chos-kyi dbang-po) in his Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Guru (Kun-bzang bla-ma’i zhal-lungThe Words of My Perfect Teacher) follow Tsongkhapa’s explanation. Ngorchen and Paltrul spell out that this result includes not liking to commit a certain type of destructive action but liking, instead, to commit the constructive action of refraining from it.

Just because we might have repeatedly committed a certain type of destructive behavior in previous lives, however, does not necessarily imply that we liked doing it. We might have been ordered and forced to repeatedly kill others in a war, despite not liking to kill, or have been forced by famine or hunger to repeatedly steal food to feed our children, despite not liking to steal. So, although it is not stipulated in any text I have seen, I would add the caveat that if we repeatedly committed a destructive action in past lives at our own initiative and liked doing it, then this result corresponding to its cause would be that we continue to like committing this destructive action. If, however, we were forced to repeatedly commit this action involuntarily and did not like doing it, this result would be to continue not liking to commit this action.

In A Discussion of the Five Aggregate Factors (Phung-po lnga’i rab-tu byed-pa, Skt. Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa), Chandrakirti lists joy (rab-tu dga’-ba) as a mental factor, defines it as a rejoicing, content state of the mind (sems-kyi mgu-ba) and specifies that it is different from mental happiness (yid-bde-ba). Thus, we might like doing something while feeling either happy or unhappy – for instance, we might like speaking honestly or like chattering meaninglessly, whether we are feeling happy or sad at the moment.

Please note that although we might like fishing, for example, which means killing fish, that doesn’t mean that liking to fish accompanies every moment of our cognition, nor does it mean that we constantly fish. However, when the thought arises to go fishing, or when we think about going or we actually go fishing, it is accompanied by this mental factor of liking to fish. 

Furthermore, because we might like to fish, then although we might experience the thought to go fishing arising and we might even think it over to decide whether to go fishing; still, we might not actually repeat the action of fishing and killing fish. Or we might go fishing and not catch anything and thus not kill anything. 

Therefore, the result that corresponds to its cause in our behavior does not refer to what we actually do but to one of the causal factors affecting what we do. The term for this result, then, is an example of giving the name of the cause to its result, like calling meditation to develop shamatha “shamatha meditation.”

The Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram-pa bSod-nams seng-ge), in A Text for Discourse on the Mind Training “Parting from the Four Clingings”: Key to the Profound Essential Points (Blo-sbyong zhen-pa bzhi-bral-gyi khrid-yig zab-don gnad-kyi lde’u-mig), takes Tsongkhapa’s explanation a step further. There, he asserts that results that correspond to their cause in our behavior is wishing to do the action again (slar-yang byed-’dod-pa ’byung) and, as a result, falling to a worse rebirth. “Wishing or wanting to do something” is the same definition that Chandrakirti gives for intention (dun-pa). “As a result, falling to a worse rebirth” indicates that if the consequence is a fall to a worse rebirth, the intention is decisive, whether or not a method is implemented to cause the action to occur. Merely liking to commit a certain type of destructive action and merely wanting to commit it, but not actually deciding to commit it, let alone not actually committing it, does not result by itself in a fall to a worse rebirth. 

In short, both liking or enjoying doing something and wishing or wanting to do it and deciding to do it are karmic results that correspond to their cause: our behavior in previous lifetimes. This result does not refer to actually repeating the action. 

Let us postulate a tentative analysis of a result corresponding to its cause in our behavior in accord with Tsongkhapa’s explanation supplemented by Gorampa’s, and let’s do this only in terms of an action of body or speech that we like and enjoy doing:

  • First, a thought arises to repeat some action that we have previously done. The thought is accompanied with the mental factor of liking to do this action. We might not recognize this as a thought and might experience it simply as “I feel like doing this again,” but, technically, it is a conceptual cognition in which the appearing object (snang-yul) is the object category (don-spyi) of an action of body or speech we have previously done. Through this category there appears a mental hologram of a motion of the body or a mental hologram of an utterance of speech representing that action and similar to one we have previously enacted as a method for implementing that action. Various circumstances can bring about the arising of this thought, such as a disturbing or a constructive emotion, a feeling of unhappiness or happiness, a pleasurable or painful physical sensation, incorrect consideration, the influence of others, being habituated to such thoughts, and so on. Although this mere thought might not lead to even considering repeating this action now or some time later; nevertheless, liking to do this action when the thought arises may trigger a sequence of events. 
  • Then, an intention arises – the intent or wish to repeat the action. The intention may already be decisive or it might accompany a mental impulse of the mind to think it over and come to a decision.
  • When the intention is decisive and supporting circumstances arise, a combination of a karmic potential having the essential nature of a karmic tendency and a karmic tendency itself from previous similar actions gets activated as a mere karmic impulse of the mind (a mental urge) to repeat the action.
  • This mere karmic impulse of the mind draws one of the sensory types of consciousness (for instance, eye consciousness), together with the decisive intention, liking to do the action and other accompanying mental factors, to cognize an object that will serve as the basis for the action of body or speech. 
  • Simultaneously with that, or shortly afterwards, a karmic impulse of the mind draws the body consciousness, together with decisive intention, liking to do the action and other accompanying mental factors, to cognize the appropriated great elements of the body. 
  • A karmic impulse of the mind now causes the appropriated great elements of the body to function as the generating cause (skyed-pa’i rgyu, Skt. jananahetu) giving rise to a karmic impulse of the body or speech in accord with the decisive intention that accompanies this karmic impulse of the mind. The karmic impulse of the body or speech is the revealing form that is the motion of the body or an utterance of speech as the method with which to implement the physical or verbal action.
  • Simultaneously with the arising of the first moment of the revealing form of the principal phase of the action, the same appropriated great elements of the body that give rise to this revealing form function also as the generating cause giving rise to the nonrevealing form of the body or speech. 
  • Subsequent moments of the appropriated great elements of the body serve as the reliant cause (rten-gyi rgyu, Skt. niśrayahetu) for subsequent moments of both the revealing and nonrevealing forms of the action.  
  • The particular motion of the body, to which the body consciousness is drawn to cause the body to take, resembles the form of previous similar motions of the body. The sound of the utterances of speech, to which the body consciousness is drawn to cause the voice to make, resembles previous similar sounds of the voice. Nevertheless, the result that resembles its cause in our behavior, here, is liking and wanting to engage the body and speech in this way and not the motion of the body or the utterances of the speech.

Note that, like karmic impulses, liking and intending to engage in a certain type of action take on the ethical status of that behavior. Thus, results that correspond to their causes in our behavior may be destructive, constructive, or unspecified. Therefore, this kind of result arises both from karmic potentials having the essential nature of tendencies and from tendencies themselves. It is only ripened results that cannot arise from karmic tendencies themselves, since ripened results may only be unspecified and ripening causes for them must only be either constructive or destructive, and since karmic tendencies themselves are always unspecified. 

Note also that although the mental factors of liking to do something, the intention to do it and the karmic impulses of the body and speech resemble those in our previous behavior, the person that serves as the basis in the pathway of karma is not necessarily in the continuum of the person that served as the basis for our previous similar actions. For instance, we might kill the reincarnation of someone we killed in their previous life or we might kill someone else; we might lie once more to the same person we lied to before or we might lie to someone else.    

The Results That Correspond to Their Cause in Our Experience

There are many varieties of results that correspond to their cause in our experience. Like the results that correspond in our behavior, these results, too, occur when reborn as a human after, for example, rebirth in one of the worst rebirth states. For instance, from killing, our life is short and filled with sickness and injury – for example, we may be killed by being hit by a car. When that happens, a karmic impulse of the motion of our body brings our body sensors into contact with the car that hits us, and our body consciousness cognizes the painful sensation of our body being hit. As a result of the damage to the body, the elements of our body no longer are able to serve as the reliant cause for the continuation of our life-force and we die. 

From lying, we are lied to and deceived by others. When that happens, our ear consciousness is drawn to take as its object the sound of words uttered by someone lying to us, or our eye consciousness is drawn to read such words. 

Note that in these cases, our cognition of the physical objects our sensory consciousness is drawn to – our physically sensing a painful sensation causing our death or our hearing the sound of deceitful words – resemble cognitions that we have caused the sensory consciousness of others to cognize. Our sensory consciousness cognizing these objects take on the ethical status of the emotions that accompany them and arise from the karmic potentials having the essential nature of a tendency and from the tendencies themselves from our previously having caused others to cognize something similar. These karmic potentials and tendencies do not cause the actions of others. They do not cause someone to hit us with their car or to lie to us. They only cause us to cognize the sensory objects – the painful sensation of being hit by the car or the sounds of the deceitful words being spoken ­– that we experience by being the basis at which their action is directed. 

Let us postulate a tentative analysis of how our experience of cognizing such sensory objects – for instance, the painful sensation of being hit by a car – arises: 

  • First, a thought arises with which we think to enter a situation that will provide the circumstances for our meeting with such a cognitive object – for instance, the thought to cross the street at a specific time and place. Note that the outcome – the experience of the physical sensation of being hit by a car does not exist already, predetermined, inside this karmic urge that brought on that thought, or inside that thought, or inside our crossing the street. A result does not sit inside a cause, waiting to pop out. The causes for the presence of the car that hits us also does not arise from our side – we do not cause the car to be driving on that street nor do we cause the driver of that car to hit us. They arise from their own causes.
  • Next, an intention arises – the intent or wish to enter the situation that will provide the circumstance for meeting with the object – the intent to cross the street. The intent may be decisive or indecisive. 
  • When the intention is decisive and supporting circumstances arise, a karmic potential having the essential nature of a karmic tendency, as well as a karmic tendency itself, to experience this result that corresponds to its cause get activated as a mere karmic impulse of the mind (a mental urge) to enter this situation. 
  • This mere karmic impulse of the mind draws our body consciousness, together with the decisive intention and other accompanying mental factors, to engage a karmic impulse of the motion of the body as a method for making contact with the car hitting us. This karmic impulse of the mind also draws our body consciousness to cognize the painful physical sensation of being hit by the car.

The Dominating Results

Dominating results refer to the circumstances of the rebirth state into which we are reborn and which we experience in common with many others reborn in that same environment. For example, from taking the lives of others, we are born in a dangerous place or in an unhealthy place where food and drink are scarce and of poor quality. From lying, we will be born in a place where there is much fear, dishonesty and where projects tend to fail. It is not specified in the texts whether this result also refers to moving to such places during our lifetime. Since these conditions of the place where we might be reborn arise as the result of human activity, Gorampa calls them “man-made results” (skyes-bu byed-pa’i ’bras-bu). 

My tentative hypothesis is that our experiencing these dominating results in our state of rebirth refers to the results that come from the completing karmic impulses (rdzogs-byed-kyi las) that also get activated at the time of death from karmic potentials having the essential nature of tendencies. The completing karmic impulses complete the circumstances in which the ripened results take place and are part of the tenth link of dependent arising, the link of further existence. If this hypothesis is correct, the way in which our experiencing of these results arises would be like those outlined with respect to our experiencing of ripened results.

Happiness and Unhappiness

The first of the four laws of karma, the law of certainty of karma, states that it is certain that any happiness we experience is the result of our previously committed constructive actions, and any unhappiness we experience is the result of our previously committed destructive actions. I have never seen it stated, however, which of the four types of results those feelings are as they arise throughout our lives. My hypothesis is that these feelings of happiness and unhappiness are a subcategory of ripened results, since feelings themselves are unspecified phenomena, and they arise only from constructive or destructive phenomena. When accompanying a consciousness, however, feelings of a level of happiness or unhappiness take on the ethical status of that consciousness, as does the karmic impulse of mind (the mental urge) and other accompanying mental factors.

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 that are either constructive or destructive and only the principal phases of those actions.

During the Time of the Karmic Pathway

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 phenomenon on that sight or sound. It may also be the sight of an object to steal. This refers to the mental holograms representing 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, or the actual object we steal, none of which are connected with our mental continuum.
  • The revealing form (obvious karmic potential) – the shape of the compulsive motion of our body or the sound of the compulsive utterances of our voice during the implementation of the karmic action. 
  • The nonrevealing form (unobvious karmic potential).

Aggregate of distinguishing

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

Aggregate of other affecting variables

  • The compelling karmic impulse of the mind (the mental urge)  
  • The intention
  • The motivating emotion
  • Liking to do the action
  • Other accompanying mental factors
  • The karmic action of the body or speech (the pathway of the karmic impulse of the body or speech, obvious karmic potential), as a noncongruent affecting variable.

Aggregate of feeling

  • Feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness.

Aggregate of consciousness

  • The sensory consciousness cognizing 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, or cognizing the sight of an object to steal.
  • The body consciousness cognizing the elements of our body involved with producing the movement of the body or the sound of the voice.

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 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 of our action to be the fullest.

During the Time of the Karmic Aftermath

Aggregate of forms of physical phenomena

  • The nonrevealing form (unobvious karmic potential)

Aggregate of other affecting variables

  • Karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a tendency (unobvious karmic potential)
  • Karmic tendency
  • Karmic constant habit.

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

During the Time When the Karmic Results Arise

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
  • As an object of cognition, the sight, sound, or physical sensation of 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 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 mere karmic impulse of the mind (the mental urge) that draws the consciousness and accompanying mental factors to the sight, sound or physical sensation of something happening to us similar to what we have done in the past.
  • 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)
  • Or, in the case of a result that corresponds to its cause in our behavior, liking to do an action similar to what we have done before and the decisive intention to repeat it.

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 have occurred and while the results are happening, 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 nonstatic imputation phenomenon on the basis of the everchanging aggregates throughout the three periods: during the time of the karmic pathway, during the time of the karmic aftermath and during the time when the karmic results arise. The karmic aftermath that are noncongruent affecting variables are imputation phenomena on the basis of this conventional self – in a sense, they “piggy-back” on the conventional self. Both the conventional self and the karmic aftermath that “piggy-back” on it are parts of the aggregate of other affecting variables. It is this conventional self that commits karmic actions and experiences their results.  

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, as the basis of imputation of the karmic aftermath that are noncongruent affecting variables, is also not static (they are not unchanging, not unaffected by things and not unable to do anything), not partless, and cannot exist separably and independently of a body, mind, and so on. Similarly, the karmic aftermath that are imputation phenomena on the basis of the self are also not static (they are not unchanging, not unaffected by things and not unable to do anything), not partless, and cannot exist separably and independently of a person, a body, a mind, and so on. 

  • 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 action 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 phenomenon tied to a basis of imputation.
  • The self is tied, as an imputation phenomenon, to the basis of a different, but related, network of aggregates in each lifetime and to a different, but related, network of aggregates in each moment of each lifetime.
  • The karmic aftermath that are noncongruent affecting variables tied, as imputation phenomena, to the self are also different, but related, in each moment in each lifetime. 

As an imputation phenomenon tied to the aggregates as its basis of imputation, 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.

As an imputedly knowable object (btags-yod), 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 existent).

  • 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.
  • The self-established existence of something is existence established by a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin) findable inside the object, rendering it a findable referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the mental label and word for it, rather than merely as the referent object (btags-chos) that the mental label and word refer to.

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 as is the case with the self. But we can distinguish them from each other, conceptually fit them into categories and give them names. Their existence, too, can only be established as 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 – the self to be refuted – who committed the action and who experienced the result. The emphasis with “blame” is on what is no longer happening (the karmic action) and either the presently-happening or not-yet-happening experiencing of the result. 

In more detail, “blame” for karmic actions is based on the misconception that: 

  • The conventional “self” that committed the karmic action and experiences its karmic result is the self to be refuted.
  • The karmic result exists as a predetermined, self-established, static entity findable inside (1) the presently-happening and no-longer happening karmic action, (2) its not-yet-happening, presently-happening and no-longer-happening karmic aftermath and (3) its not-yet-happening, presently-happening and no-longer-happening karmic result. 
  • The misconceived karmic aftermath are imputation phenomena tied to the basis of the self to be refuted, which is a self that doesn’t exist at all.  

The self as the one who is responsible for its previously committed karmic actions is the nonstatic, everchanging, imputedly knowable, dependently arising conventional self. The emphasis with “being responsible” is either on the conventional “me” being responsible for presently experiencing, or not yet experiencing, the results of our past actions or on being responsible to change our behavior. With the application of opponent forces, for instance, it is possible to avoid experiencing the karmic effects that would otherwise arise.  

Conclusion

To avoid such sufferings as guilt, we need to deconstruct the components of the three periods of karma (the karmic pathway of a karmic action, karmic aftermath and karmic results) into the five aggregates occurring during them and understand the conventional self as an imputation phenomenon tied to them as its basis. We need to understand that all the components of these aggregates arise dependently on their own causes, parts and what concepts and words refer to. Then we can understand that “blame” for our experiencing karmic results of our behavior 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 the various factors involved with karma to provide the circumstances most conducive for attaining liberation and enlightenment. 

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