Mental Factors Associated with Karma

There are several different discussions of karma in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. I should also point out that all of them are quite different from the Theravada presentation of how karma works. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are three basic explanations. We are going to discuss only one of those, the one that is the less complicated – it is complicated enough! 

This presentation is the basic explanation of the Chittamatra, Sautrantika and Yogachara-Svatantrika Indian tenet systems, with slight variations in accord with the differing tenets of these schools. It derives from the Chittamatra texts of Asanga and Vasubandhu. Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika follow the Vaibhashika presentation of Vasubandhu, as modified by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. In our discussion of Chittamatra’s less complicated system, we shall follow the Gelug presentation of the philosophical details.

According to this explanation, karma, as an impulse, is exclusively a mental factor. A mental factor is a way of experiencing something. This is specifically the mental factor of an urge. It is the impulse or urge that sets the mind in motion to go toward a particular object and drives it to engage in a particular course of action toward or with that object – to do, say, or think something constructive, destructive or unspecified. Then, there follow impulses or urges that set the mind in motion to sustain and, in time, stop implementing methods for carrying out the actions. Because these impulses derive from habit, they are compulsive and compelling.

Types of Phenomena in Buddhism

To understand what types of phenomena are involved in the discussion of karma, I think it will be helpful to have a brief review of the different types of phenomena presented in Buddhism.

We can speak in terms of what exists and what doesn’t exist. What exists is what can be validly known – whether it is the presence of something or the absence of something. Anything that cannot be validly known does not exist. Something that exists may not be something that we can validly know very easily with our usual type of minds, such as voidness, but as long as it can be validly known by some level of mind, it exists. Chicken lips do not exist because one cannot validly know them. We could imagine human lips on a chicken or a cartoon drawing of lips on a chicken, but we can’t validly picture chicken lips on a chicken because there is no such thing. Any manner of picturing them would be an invalid cognition.

What can be validly known (what exists) is divided into static and nonstatic phenomena. They are usually translated as permanent and impermanent phenomena. The distinction here, however, is not in terms of how long something exists, whether it is eternal or exists only for a short time, but rather in terms of whether something changes while it exists. Static phenomena, to put it very simply, are like facts that don’t change: one plus one equals two. That fact is not caused by anything, it didn’t grow from anything, it doesn’t produce an effect – it is just a fact.

Nonstatic phenomena are those that change from moment to moment. They arise from causes and produce effects. There are three categories: forms of physical phenomena (gzugs), ways of being aware of something (shes-pa), and nonstatic phenomena that are neither (ldan-min ’du-byed, noncongruent affecting variables).

Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregates

These three types of nonstatic phenomena are what make up every moment of our experience, and each moment of our experience is slightly different. In other words, our experience changes from moment to moment. We can organize the components of each moment of our experience into the five aggregates, but we won’t do that today. Let’s speak more simply.

Basically, in each cognition in each moment, there will be some form of physical phenomenon – a sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation – and also the cognitive sensors of the sense organs, the body, and so on – the photosensitive cells of the eyes, sound-sensitive cells of the ears, and so on involved with the cognition of that sensory object. There can also be a form of physical phenomena that can only be known by mental consciousness, such as the images that appear in dreams. Usually, there is more than one cognition occurring at a time – we can simultaneously see someone speaking and hear what they say.

Then we have ways of being aware of or experiencing things. These are usually referred to as “mental phenomena,” but that is really quite a misleading term, since in a Western framework, mental phenomena would include objects of mind, and those are not meant with this category. All of the members of this category are actually different sorts of mental activity. To make it simple, ways of experiencing things can be divided into two: primary consciousness and mental factors.

The first division of them is primary consciousness (rnam-shes). This may be sensory consciousness, like seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling a physical sensations such as hot, cold, pain, motion, and so forth. Or it may be mental consciousness, such as thinking, dreaming, and so on. Primary consciousness is, basically, the “channel” that the experience is on, as in a channel on television. There is the seeing channel, the hearing channel, and so on.

The Chittamatra system also asserts foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. ālayavijñāna), which is the foundation on which karmic aftermath is carried, and deluded consciousness (nyon-yid), which focuses on foundation consciousness and mistakenly identifies it with the self of the person. We will not discuss these two in any detail here.

With any primary consciousness, there are always accompanying mental factors (sems-byung). Sometimes I call them types of subsidiary awareness. There are many of them. Asanga lists fifty-one of them. Those are just the most noteworthy ones; there are many more than that. What these mental factors do is to qualify the experience of something. The primary consciousness just experiences the essential nature (ngo-bo) of its object – in other words, what kind of phenomenon the object is. Is it a sight, a sound, etc.? These other factors fill out more details about the experience of the object, such as attention, interest, and emotions.

In this system that we will be discussing, karma is one of these mental factors, an urge. As already mentioned, karma, as an urge or mental impulse, is the mental factor that, while focusing on an object, affects the mind to go into motion to engage in a constructive, destructive or unspecified action toward or with that object. Like a locomotive, it draws the primary consciousness and its accompanying mental factors with it to the object in the next moment and drives the person, “me,” which is part of the aggregates, to initiate and engage in an action toward or with it.

I don’t think it is the appropriate time to go through all the mental factors, so let us just look at one more: feeling (tshor-ba). This only refers to feeling a level of happiness, unhappiness or neutral. It could be anywhere on the spectrum. Whenever we are experiencing something, it is accompanied by experiencing some level of happiness.

Emotions are other mental factors. These could be disturbing or non-disturbing emotions, destructive or constructive. We experience seeing someone with anger or we see someone with love, we are happy or unhappy to see them, and then there is the compelling urge or impulse that draws us into saying something nice or something nasty to them in the next moment.

The Chittamatra and the Yogachara division of Svatantrika also assert reflexive awareness (rang-rig), which accompanies each cognition and is aware of just the other ways of being aware of something, but this does not enter into our discussion.

Questions about the Mental Factors Associated with Karma

Karma as an Impulse to Do Something

Is this impulse always karma?

Yes, karma is referring to this mental impulse. The laws of karma explain why the impulse arises that drives our minds to look at one person or another, to say one thing and not something else, or to get into a situation or to meet a new person.

Is the impulse to help my children also karma?

Yes, as opposed to the impulse of a mother spider that drives her to eat her children.

Both positive and negative impulses are karma?

Right, karma includes, as well, neutral impulses like the compelling impulse that drives us to scratch our heads. We need to be aware that when the word karma is used in general discussions, it refers to the whole topic of what happens and why it happens. But, when we speak more specifically, then, within the general topic, karma refers to the compelling mental impulses. All the different aspects of the process are given different names.

Sometimes we will read “karma” translated as “action.” This is a general way of translating the term that is useful in some specific discussions, such as Nagarjuna’s analysis of the relation between an agent and an action. In the philosophical system that we are explaining here, karma does not refer to actions. It is the compelling mental impulse that brings us to committing an action, but it is not the action itself.

In the Vaibhashika and Prasangika systems, karma includes the shape or motion of our bodies while committing a physical action and the sound or utterances of the sounds of our voices while committing a verbal action, as well as the subtle energy during the actions and continuing with our mental continuums after ending the actions. Yet even in those two systems, karma never includes the mental action of thinking. So, I think it is better not to use the word action to translate karma.

The Karmic Impulse to Do Something and Longing Desire for It

Is an impulse toward something the same as attachment to it?

Attachment (’dod-chags) is another mental factor. Actually, we need to differentiate two meanings of döchag, the Tibetan technical term here: attachment and longing desire. “Attachment” is toward something we presently have and do not want to let go of. “Longing desire” is for something we do not have at the moment and long to have.

What is the difference between an impulse and longing desire?

They are distinct mental factors. They can go together, but they don’t have to. Longing desire, the same as attachment, exaggerates the good qualities of things. We might see the chocolate and say, “Wow! This is the most delicious thing in the world!” but no impulse to eat it arises at the moment, because we are full.

Can there be an impulse without longing desire? What is the relationship?

The mental factor of an urge, namely a karmic impulse, accompanies every single moment of our experience. It is one of the five ever-functioning mental factors (kun-’gro lnga). Longing desire, on the other hand, as a specific disturbing emotion, is intermittent. It arises only occasionally, not all the time. An impulse could be accompanied by anger, for example, rather than by longing desire. One could also be accompanied by love. Karmic impulses, on the other hand, arise every moment – not just during our waking hours, but also when we are asleep. It is what draws us to having a dream, to rolling over, to continue to sleep, or to wake up. We can never take time out from karma. It arises every moment.

The Karmic Impulse to Do Something and the Intention to Do It

We also need to differentiate between a karmic impulse and an intention (’dun-pa), they are two different mental factors. A karmic impulse is just what draws the primary consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to engage, in the next moment, in an action directed at the object it is focused on. An intention is the wish to do something specific toward or with a specific object that we want to do it to, in order to obtain or not obtain it, or to be parted or not parted from it. An intention, then, is a volition.

A karmic impulse and an intention are always related. This is why we always say that karma is intentional. That does not necessarily mean, however, that I intend to do harm or benefit by doing what I would like to do. We may not know if our actions will be harmful or helpful. It could just be the intention to look at someone, or the intention to walk toward them. There is the intention or wish to walk and the karmic impulse that drives us to start walking in the next moment. They are distinct.

Impulse and intention, then, would imply what we call free will?

It is your choice how you describe it. I don’t think it is fruitful here, however, to distinguish in terms of free will or predetermination, because it entails bringing in a topic from a different conceptual framework.

How do an impulse and an intention work together?

They are always in accord with each other. We could have the intention to get out of bed and come to this class in the morning. If we get out of bed in the next moment, that indicates that the karmic impulse accompanying that intention or wish drew us into moving our body and getting up. If we did not get up in the next moment, then the karmic impulse that accompanied the intention or wish to get up drew us into the mental act of thinking about getting up.

We may or may not decide to get up, as a result of having thought about it. The karmic impulses that accompany the thinking draw us into staying in bed until we come to a decision. But when we finally decide to get up, then the karmic impulse accompanying the intention to get up draws us into actually getting up. We couldn’t simultaneously have the intention to stay in bed and the impulse that brings us to get out of bed. Those two contradictory mental factors could not be present simultaneously.

In any one moment, these two factors focus on the same object or action and fit together harmoniously. In the same moment, there would be an intention to get up and an accompanying impulse that draws us to get up. Or there is an intention not to get up and an accompanying impulse that draws us into not getting up. We may, of course, waver indecisively between the two choices until we finally decide what to do. Indecisive wavering (the-tshoms) is another mental factor that could accompany an impulse and intention.

Also, what we intend to do and what actually happens can be different. We intend to dance nicely with someone, for instance, and a mental impulse draws our body consciousness to move our feet, but the result of our action is that we step on their toe.

The impulse and intention that caused us to get out of bed or the impulse and intention to stay there may or may not have been with attachment. Again, attachment exaggerates a thing’s good qualities and, based on that exaggeration, we want to get it. “This is going to be the most wonderful lecture in the world and if I miss it I am really missing something good.” “Lying in bed is going to be the most comfortable thing in the world.” That is attachment.

Another thing to remember is that when we experience all these mental factors, they all come in one package; they all interact with each other like a network. We could logically isolate one mental factor from another; but in actuality, they are all mixed together in one cognition.

Being Conscious of Something and Being Mindful of It

Is the impulse conscious or not?

These mental impulses, in contrast to our intentions, are not conscious. “Conscious” and “unconscious” are variables in a Western analysis. In the case of mental impulses, we are talking about something that is extremely subtle. And it occurs in every single moment of our experience. It is the compelling urge that draws us into implementing, in the next moment, a method for carrying out an action toward or with some object that it is focused on. We are talking about something very basic. Every living being has this in every moment.

Although we can be aware of our intention to do something, it is very difficult to be aware specifically of the compelling mental urge that moves the mind to do it, or to consider doing it. The urge is very subtle to distinguish.

Does the Western term conscious equate with the Buddhist term mindfulness?

We have to be a little bit more specific about which mental factors we are talking about in the Western discussion, like mindfulness. What we Westerners commonly call “mindfulness meditation” is not actually talking about the mental factor of mindfulness (dran-pa), but about completely different mental factors.

If we analyze the Western presentation carefully, it is talking about various mental factors. There is the mental impulse that draws us to look at a specific object, such as your eyebrows as opposed to your hands. That is the karma. There are also the intention to focus on your hands in order to see how you are holding them and the attention (yid-la byed-pa) that engages us with looking at them. All of these come together in one package. Mindfulness is what holds my attention on your eyebrows rather than think of something else. It is the mental glue and is also in the same package. This package may also include other mental factors as well, such as love – the wish for you to be happy – and unhappiness, because the way you are holding your eyebrows in a frown makes me unhappy.

Consistent with the system that we are explaining, there is a third way of experiencing that accompanies every moment. This is reflexive awareness, which is awareness of the experience itself. This is what allows us to remember experiencing something, but its accuracy and certitude would depend on the strength of the mindfulness that accompanied the experiencing. This would be what you were referring to in terms of being conscious. In other words, it is knowing what is happening, knowing what our impulse is, knowing what our intention is. It could be very weak and have almost no certitude about what it is focusing on, so that we don’t remember it at all, or it could be very strong.

The problem is that our Western words do not correspond to the Tibetan. The way that German, English, and Tibetan cut the pie is different. The most important point is what the Tibetan words mean. Therefore, the most productive way to approach all of this is to not get stuck with the German or English words, but to try to understand the definitions of the words we are talking about.

Impulses and Patterns of Behavior

Could we say that karma is a subtle type of habitual pattern?

Karma is a huge topic. The word karma can be used as a general word. Habits, patterns, and so on are other aspects of karma. We will get into that discussion.

That brings us very nicely to the third type of nonstatic phenomena, nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. The examples that you gave are the perfect examples: patterns of behavior, habits. These are somewhat like abstractions that are based on series of actions, so we say there is a habit or a pattern. Obviously, these can change. They also affect what happens. In our more detailed discussion of the entire mechanism of karma, we will bring in this type of nonstatic phenomenon.

How Karma Works: Immediately before an Action

Let us try to analyze a little more clearly how karma actually works. To do so, we need to break down the process into different periods. The first period is the moment immediately before doing, saying, or thinking something. At this point, we have an impulse, a mental factor, that, while focusing on an object, draws our consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to engage, in the next moment, in an action of body, speech or mind toward or with it. Depending on what type of action it draws us to engage in, it is called a karmic impulse for an action of body, speech or mind.

Several other mental factors necessarily must accompany that impulse and may have arisen already in the moments before. Collectively, those factors are called the “motivating mental framework” (bsam-pa). The karmic impulse is not included in that motivating framework.

Immediately before Committing an Action Because of the Karmic Aftermath of Having Previously Committed the Same Action

An impulse to do, say, or think something may be either constructive (dge-ba, virtuous), destructive (mi-dge-ba, nonvirtuous), or unspecified (lung-ma-bstan), which means unspecified by Buddha to be either constructive or destructive, and so therefore neutral. It has the same ethical status – constructive, destructive or unspecified – as the action that it draws us into committing.

Let’s use the example of our neighbor in the next-door apartment playing extremely loud music and the destructive karmic impulses that might arise. A destructive physical karma would be the impulse that drives us to bang on his door with anger. A destructive verbal karma would be the impulse that drives us to yell at the person to turn down the volume. A destructive mental karma would be the impulse that drives us to think nasty thoughts about them, or to think to go and bang on their door and yell. In each case, the impulse also draws us to continue focusing on our noisy neighbor.

Inciting Karmic Impulses and Urging Karmic Impulses

There are two types of karmic impulse. In this general Mahayana presentation:

  • An inciting karmic impulse (sems-pa’i las) is a karmic impulse, the mental factor of an urge, that brings on and accompanies a mental action, such as thinking something, and incites a subsequent physical or verbal action to implement what we might think to do or say.
  • A karmic impulse for what is being urged (bsam-pa’i las) is a karmic impulse for an action of body, speech or mind. For ease of discussion, we shall call this an “urging karmic impulse.”

All actions of body, speech or mind are brought on by a karmic impulse. Some are preceded further by an inciting karmic impulse and some are not. Furthermore, although all karmic impulses that bring on actions of mind are urging karmic impulses – some are also inciting karmic impulses, and some are not.

The Motivating Mental Framework

Accompanying the karmic impulse is always a cluster of three other mental factors, collectively known as the “motivating mental framework.” They are:

  • Distinguishing an object on which to focus the action
  • The motivating aim of what we intend to do with or to that object
  • A motivating emotion or attitude.

Distinguishing (’du-shes) is the mental factor that is usually translated as “recognition.” It focuses on the defining characteristic of an object, for instance some person, and differentiates that object of focus from everything else. Distinguishing does not imply that we know who the person is or would recognize the person if we met them in the hall. We may have never met the person. We might not even know if it is a man or woman playing the music so loudly next door. As part of the motivating framework, we need to distinguish an object on which to focus our action. We need to distinguish, from everybody else, the specific person whose door we have the urge to knock on, at whom we have the urge to yell, or about whom we have the urge to think nasty thoughts. We also need to distinguish what we specifically intend to do toward this person from everything else that we could do.

The second mental factor accompanying the impulse is the motivating aim (kun-slong, Skt. samutthāna), usually translated just as the “motivation.” It refers to the mental factor of intention – the wish to do something specific to a specific person that we want to do it to. We may want to do something specific physically to them, or to say something specific verbally to them, or to think about doing or saying something specific to them in our minds. Thus, intention always implies an accompanying distinguishing.

The Western concept of motivation is different from what is meant by the Buddhist term usually translated as “motivation.” In Sanskrit and Tibetan, the word for motivation means, literally, “that which causes something else to arise.” When we talk about our motivation in Buddhism, we are actually talking about our motivating aim, our intention, what we are aiming to do when we do anything. In a sense, it also implies what we intend to accomplish by doing it. The intention, here, might be actually to yell at our neighbor in order to make them turn down their loud music. Like when we say in the beginning of a class that our motivation or aim is to listen to the teaching in order to gain enlightenment to help everybody.

“Motivation” is not the best translation term here, because in our Western languages “motivation” emphasizes the motivating emotion that goes with the aim or goal. Buddhism also considers the motivating emotion important. It is the third mental factor of the broader term, the “motivating mental framework.”

Accompanying the impulse to commit a destructive action, there is always a motivating disturbing emotion, for instance anger and lack of patience in the case of our noisy neighbor. With the impulse to commit a constructive or an ethically neutral, unspecified action, unawareness (ignorance) about how all phenomena exist accompanies the impulse. We may help someone while grasping for them to exist solidly as our “true friend,” whom I, as a solidly existent “me,” “truly love.” This unawareness also accompanies our destructive impulses.

Sometimes a disturbing emotion may also accompany the constructive action, such as longing desire for them to love me back. On the other hand, we may engage in a football game while grasping for a solidly existent “me,” who needs to win to “prove myself.” A disturbing emotion may also accompany an unspecified action, such as playing the game with hatred of the other team.

In the system we are examining, unawareness of how all phenomena exist is not classified as an actual disturbing emotion. The Sakya school calls it a “nominal disturbing emotion.” Karma Kagyu, however, agrees with the Gelug Prasangika system regarding this point and considers this type of unawareness an actual disturbing emotion.

Before engaging in a constructive action, positive emotions may also accompany the motivating aim and the impulse that draws us to do the action. Before listening to a Dharma teaching, for example, the motivating emotions would optimally be the positive ones of love and compassion. The motivating aim is to reach enlightenment to help everybody. Why? Because of love for all beings to be happy and compassion for them not to suffer. Before actually helping our friend, however, we also need to discriminate whether or not she wants our help, and whether or not we are capable of helping her. We could have correct or incorrect discrimination (shes-rab) regarding these points, which is yet another mental factor.

A positive emotion may also accompany the motivating aim and impulse to do something unspecified. We may bake cookies for our children out of love for them.

This is the analysis of what is going on when the impulse comes to mind that draws us to yell at someone, or to do, think, or say anything. There are four mental factors involved, which all come together in one sort of “package”: an impulse to yell, a distinguishing of the object toward whom to yell, a motivating aim of what we intend or wish to do, and a motivating disturbing emotion. Each of these is a distinct and crucial factor in any deep analysis of karma, so it is important not to confuse the impulse with these other factors that constitute the motivating mental framework that accompanies it.

There could be mistakes in either of the first two factors. We could distinguish the wrong person and yell at the wrong neighbor. We might have no intention to yell, and yet it just happens, as if by accident, that we start to yell when we speak with the neighbor. The first one was a mistake. The second was an uncontrollable accident, because we did not intend it. The motivating disturbing emotion could be very strong, it could be very weak, or it could be only a nominal disturbing attitude. All of this is going to affect the results of the impulse.

While Actually Doing an Action

First, we have the karmic impulse that, while focusing on an object, drives us to do, say, or think something toward it. This occurs in the moment immediately preceding our initiating an action by means of implementing a method for carrying it out. The next step is when we are actually doing, saying, or thinking it. During the initial moment of carrying out the action and up until the moment just before we stop doing the action, we have consecutive impulses to implement methods for continuing to carry out the action. Immediately preceding the last moment of the action, we have the impulse that drives us to stop doing it. Accompanying each moment of these impulses throughout the action are the same three mental factors of the mental framework as when just before doing it.

While Committing the Action Itself

The factors comprising the motivating framework, being nonstatic phenomena, may not stay consistent before and during committing a karmic action. The motivating aim, namely the intention, before the action is to get the neighbor to stop making loud noise. During each moment of committing the action – taking each step while walking to the neighbor’s door, making all the motions of our hand involved with knocking on the door, etc. – there is the intention to do each of these actions. While speaking, there is the intention in each moment to say each word we say.

For actions of body and speech, the motivating aims before and while committing the actions may not be in harmony, usually because the motivating emotion has changed. For example, we intended to yell at our neighbor, and we might even have thought about it before going over to their apartment door. But, a beautiful young woman or handsome young man opened the door and we were so enchanted by them that, when we started to speak, we couldn’t yell at all.

Or, perhaps when we intended to yell at our neighbor, the motivating emotion beforehand might have been love and compassion. We had love and compassion for our baby who was trying to sleep and for the other neighbors. Originally, the emotion was not anger. But then, when we actually started to yell, the anger came up with the experience of yelling. It is difficult to yell and maintain the emotion of compassion. It is very easy to get into it and become angry. This is why, when we talk about the results of an action, we have to analyze all these different factors: what was the motivating emotion before and during the process of deciding to commit the action, and what was it while actually committing it? Were they the same or different? Did the motivating emotion change in strength during the action, and so on?

Karmic Force

Now we have to introduce two more terms. They are usually translated as “merit” (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya) and “sin” (sdig-pa, Skt. pāpa). As you know, I don’t care for those translation terms, since they carry connotations from non-Buddhist religions, which do not apply here. In Tibetan, we differentiate between something that is positive and something that is negative. We want a word that will cover both, so we will call it a “karmic force.” “Merit” would be a “positive karmic force” and “sin” would be a “negative karmic force.” In the system we are looking at here, the two refer to the action itself, the karmic force of the action of body, speech or mind. The karma itself (the compelling impulse that drives us to do, say, or think it) is not a karmic force.

Previously, I used the term “karmic potential,” but “karmic force” is better as the general term for all its phases according to all systems of explanation. I’ll explain more in our next session.

Observing the Mental Factors Accompanying an Impulse

Can one learn to observe all the factors that accompany a karmic impulse without being in a monastery?

This happens all the time. It is not necessary to be a monastic on retreat. We are not used to this analysis, but that does not mean it is impossible. First, we need to know what to observe. What do we look for? The impulse arises that drives us to go to the refrigerator. The motivating aim or intention is actually to go there and find something to eat. What is the motivating emotion? It could be because we are craving to get rid of the hunger we feel and will eat anything we find in the fridge. Or, it could be greed: we want some chocolate even though we are not really hungry. The motivating aim could have been to clean the refrigerator, but when we opened it, we saw this delicious looking chocolate and another intention came: to eat it! The motivating emotion has now changed from the emotion of attachment to everything being spotlessly clean to greed for the chocolate. It could even now be naive compassion. “The expiration date is tomorrow and I don’t want to waste anything, so I’ll eat this chocolate. People are starving in India.” The accompanying motivating emotions can be quite varied.

These are the things that we observe. Of course, it requires slowing down. If we can differentiate that there are these two factors, the motivating aim and the motivating emotion behind it, it can be very helpful in and of itself. If our intention is to make the neighbor stop playing music so loudly, we can work on the motivating emotion that accompanies this aim. There is nothing wrong if our intention beforehand is merely to make them turn down their music. But we need to make sure that when we begin to speak with the person, our motivating aim remains to speak politely and doesn’t change to yelling. Furthermore, we have to be careful to distinguish correctly which apartment the noise is coming from. This just gives us some idea of what to check. I do not think we have to be in a monastic retreat in order to start doing this.

The real issue here is mindfulness, which is to remember to do this and, when we are doing it, not to forget about what we intended to do and why we intended to do it. That is what we mean by “mindfulness” in Buddhism. We remember to do something and we hold on to it and don’t let go. Our big problem is that we don’t hold on to it. We forget to hold on.

So karma itself is just a technical expression and what we have to watch is the intention?

The main things to watch, when they arise, are not only our intention or motivating aim – what we wish to do to someone or something – but also our motivating emotion. These usually arise first and then continue when the karmic impulse arises that draws our consciousness and other mental factors to engage in committing the intended action toward it. The karmic impulse is very compelling and is difficult to recognize. This uncontrollable aspect of our behavior – our karmic impulses – is what we call “samsara.” We have uncontrollable, compelling impulses that draw us into doing this and that, and it goes up and down.

So you don’t have to worry about the impulse?

It is not that we don’t care about the impulse. I will deal with that later. This is a deeper problem, so let’s stay with something that we can deal with at this stage. First, we have to differentiate the karmic impulse from the distinguishing, the intention and the accompanying emotion. All these are interconnected.

If I am suffering, how can I stop it?

We try to develop the mental factor of ethical discipline (tshul-khrims), which is the mental factor that is involved with restraint from acting destructively. This has to accompany any watching that we do of our intentions. What is the intention or motivating aim of watching our intentions? From a Buddhist point of view, it needs to be to avoid suffering. It needs to be renunciation – the wish to be rid of the suffering and its causes, the wish to give them up. An additional intention could be to be able to help others more, because we will be suffering less from our own problems.

What are the motivating emotions accompanying that? It could be boredom and disgust with our uncontrollably recurring suffering, or it could also be compassion for others. On the other hand, it could be fear of punishment in a hell because of being bad.

This combination of motivating intention and motivating emotion accompanies the impulse that arises and drives us to observe our motivating intentions and motivating emotions to do, say, or think something. They also accompany the actual action of observing them. That action of observing is also a karmic force. And that karmic force has effects.

We are talking about what we can do to restrain ourselves. In the example of the chocolate in the fridge, I don’t think that just being aware of the impulse to go and pick it up and eat it is normally strong enough to prevent us from acting out that impulse.

Correct. When that happens, it is usually because the accompanying motivating emotion for refraining is not strong enough.

Therefore, my understanding of this whole subject is that if you look at the motivating intention and the motivating emotion, then you have a chance. I can see what I am doing, what the motivation is. Perhaps there is always greed. Slowly it comes up. Perhaps I want a little joy or something. It is like in vipashyana. If you carefully look at it, it disappears.

I don’t know if it necessarily disappears when we look at it carefully. There are other approaches that bring the thoughts to disappear, such as the mahamudra method of seeing thoughts as passing clouds in the sky. However, it can also be the case that the vipashyana or mahamudra practice may be coming from the self-centered thought, “I am unhappy. Poor me. I want to be happy.” This gets into what we will discuss later in the analysis, which are the factors that cause the ripening of the karmic aftermath, and the subsequent sequence for an impulse to come up in the first place.

My experience is that just observing is not enough. We have to do something. We could observe, but if the motivating emotion to do something about what we observe is not strong enough, we don’t accomplish much. Even though that particular moment of greed for chocolate, for instance, will naturally pass – we don’t need to do anything to make it pass – that doesn’t prevent the greed from arising again in the next moment. We need to increase our mindfulness, which means our mental glue, to stay with the restraint, with the discipline of not eating the chocolate. When we have the determination to not eat the chocolate and the motivating aim is to lose weight, that is how a diet works. There needs to be a motivating aim. What are we trying to accomplish?

The motivating emotion could be different?

Yes, we look to see what is the motivating emotion accompanying our aim to lose weight. Is it vanity? Is it to become healthier and live longer to be able to help others?

Please note that we are not using the word sin or crime here for breaking our diet and stuffing ourselves with the whole bar of chocolate. A negative karmic force is a destructive action that is motivated by a disturbing emotion and which will ripen into an experience of unhappiness. By negative karmic force, we don’t mean breaking a divine or civil law. That is why it was very important to recognize that the Buddhist discussion of karma is not about being good or bad.


The whole discussion of ethics in Buddhism revolves around our intention or motivating aim and motivating emotion that go with an action. That aim and emotion are the main things that will affect or influence the karmic results of the action. This is the important point. The whole discussion of ethics in Buddhism is really a discussion about the motivating mental framework with which we do an action. There is this whole package of distinguishing some object, the motivating aim or intention to do something toward it, and the motivating emotion behind the aim. In the West, we call the last two factors the “motivation.” In Buddhism, we are always trying to “check our motivation.”

The cause of suffering is karma (compelling impulses) and the disturbing emotions that go with them, all interacting with each other. They are both included in the fourth aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables (’du-byed-kyi phung-po, Skt. saṃskāra-skandha). More precisely, the combination of a compelling impulse that drives us to do, say, or think something, accompanied by a motivating intention and disturbing emotion, brings on the karmic behavior that results in suffering.

I think it is fine that we are going slowly. I think it is better to understand these basic principles than to try to cover a lot of territory. Even if we only accomplish some understanding of this whole system this weekend, that is fine.

Let us try to think about what we have heard and let it sink in. This is not just a nice intellectual scheme. It is a very practical way for understanding what is happening to us – what we experience and what we compulsively do. It is very helpful and practical because it gives us an indication of how to modify what is happening to us, so that we can bring about more happiness for not only ourselves, but also for everyone.