This evening, we shall be beginning a seminar on what does karma actually mean in terms of the Gelug Prasangika presentation. This is an extremely important topic since karma is one of the things that we need to overcome. We need to rid ourselves completely of it so that it never arises again, because it is the cause of suffering. Therefore, it’s extremely crucial to identify what exactly karma is. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly rid ourselves of it, because it’s something within our own mental continuums? So, we need to be able to identify karma within ourselves.
Karma in the Context of the Four Noble Truths
The context of course is the major context that all of Buddha’s teachings fit into: the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that we have true suffering, of which there are three types. The first is the so-called suffering of suffering, which refers to unhappiness. Next is the suffering of change, which refers to our ordinary type of happiness – happiness that never lasts or satisfies. We always want more, and if we have too much it actually turns into unhappiness, like when we eat too much of our favorite food in one sitting. The third type is the all-pervasive suffering, which refers to our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That is the word samsara: rebirth with the type of body and mind that will be the support or basis with which we experience unhappiness or ordinary happiness. If we didn’t have a body or a mind, we wouldn’t experience happiness or unhappiness, obviously. We are, without any control, born with the type of body and mind that will be able to experience this type of happiness or ordinary unhappiness. Buddha’s body and mind don't have that.
If we look at the second noble truth – the true causes of these three types of suffering – unhappiness comes from destructive karma; ordinary happiness comes from constructive karma; and uncontrollably recurring rebirth comes from karma all together. Of course in the three cases, the karma is accompanied by disturbing emotions and attitudes. Underlying both of these is our unawareness of how we exist and how everything exists. In this network, in a sense, of causes of suffering, karma is very prominent. So, we need to identify it.
The third noble truth is the true stopping, which means to rid ourselves completely forever so that it never returns. What do we want to stop forever? We want to stop unawareness, karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes.
The forth noble truth is the true pathways of mind referring to levels of realization that will rid us of the true causes of suffering. The so-called true path is actually referring to true understandings.
The Varying Presentations of Karma
What is karma? There are two basic presentations of it in the Buddhist teachings, as followed by the Tibetans. Theravada tradition has yet another explanation of karma, but the Tibetans don’t study that and we won’t discuss that this evening. However, you should be aware that it’s quite a different presentation of karma – although the general idea of what karma is is not dissimilar. Nevertheless, the explanation of the mechanism is quite different. The two traditions that the Tibetans study coming from India are firstly the presentation of Vasubandhu, who explained it in his text called the Abhidharmakosha. This means the Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge. It is accepted by the Vaibashika school of Indian Buddhist tenets, which is one of the Hinayana tenet systems.
Tsongkapa, with his Prasangika system, basically accepts many of the points that Vasubandhu makes, but he modifies that in accordance with the Prasangika understandings. With that we have the Gelugpa version of the Prasangika version of karma. You should be aware that each of the different Tibetan traditions has their own version of Prasangika, so Tsongkapa’s version of it is unique to the Gelug tradition. The other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism don’t follow it at all. The Sautrantika tenet system, which is also a Hinayana system, is not so clear in what they follow. They have many objections to Vasubandhu system. Vasubandhu presents that in his own commentary to his text.
The other presentation of karma is a Mahayana one that we find in the text by Asanga. In his Abhidharma text called Abhidharmasamuccaya, which is the Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge. This is written in the Chittamatra system, the mind only system and is also accepted by the Svatantrika division of Madhyamika. Most of the non-Gelugpa systems of Tibetan Buddhism follow Asanga’s assertions although they study Vasubandhu as well of course. In the Gelug Prasangika system certain things from Asanga are accepted but mostly it is Tsongkapa’s reformulation of the Vaibashika system.
Anyway, perhaps that’s just interesting information and not so useful. But it can help us to understand that there are many different views of karma. Nothing in the Buddhist teachings exists by itself. In fact, nothing in the universe exists by itself. The only way that we can really understand karma and work with it is in the context of a particular system of tenets, with all the various other assertions in that system and how karma fits into that whole philosophical system.
When we study the Dharma it’s very important to have a very broad study and knowledge so that any particular topic that we study we can fit into the context and larger picture of all the teachings. That’s why the Tibetans study for twenty or thirty years, so that they have as large a context as possible with which to understand any of the particular points of the teachings.
What I would like to do this evening is present Asanga’s system, which is a simpler explanation of karma. "Simple" is a relative term. Simple means less complicated than the Prasangika version, but still extremely complicated. Still, it is a bit easier to understand. But the main thing that I would like to explain on this weekend is the Gelug Prasangika system, since that is not so frequently explained. Again, you have to remember that Asanga’s system is formulated in the Chittamatra school – the mind-only school – so that’s relevant to the whole presentation of karma. According to Asanga, karma is a mental factor and it’s the factor of an urge. An urge is one of the five ever-functioning mental factors that accompany every moment of our cognition. In order to understand anything in the Buddhist teachings, you need to know the definitions of the technical terms. The monastic training to master these terms is usually referred to as the debate tradition, but the actual Tibetan word for it means "definitions." The definitions are what they primarily work with and study.
Defining Technical terms: The Mental Factor of an Urge
So, an urge is a mental factor. This means that it’s one little part of each moment of our cognitions, and it causes the mental activity to face an object or go in its direction. In general, it moves a mental continuum to cognitively take an object. An urge; I don’t know how the word is used in German, but for example, 'I have an urge to look at the wall;' 'I have an urge to scratch my head;' 'I have an urge to look at you;' 'I have an urge to say something to you.'
So, an urge is a mental factor that occurs, and then you do it. An urge can be constructive, destructive, or unspecified. "Unspecified" means that it can go in either direction; or "unspecified" can also just be neutral. For example, there’s nothing constructive or destructive about scratching my head – unless I scratch it too much, obviously. Now in the case of karmic urges, they have a compulsive quality to them. It’s as if we have no control over them. That I think is the most important thing to understand about karma. There is this compulsiveness and that’s really what we need to overcome – this compulsiveness that is almost like it’s in control of us.
To continue with defining terms, "mental karma" is that which brings on a train of thought. Now, here we talk about the destructive trains of thought. This would be to think about how I can get something that I covet. For example, 'How I could steal that money.' Other destructive thoughts would be how I can hurt somebody, or how I can refute what another person is saying or doing when it is true and proper. So, the mental karma is that compulsive urge, that compelling urge, to start to plot like that and start to think like that. There are more innocent types of compulsive mental urges, like the compulsive urge to sing a song in your head. This is what you call an "ear worm" in German, when the song goes on and on. That’s a compulsion, isn’t it? It is what starts you on that train of thought. Another example is when you are trying to go to sleep and compulsively that mental urge is there to think and worry and you can’t stop your mind.
So, here what we’re talking about is the compulsion – that compulsive urge that gets you into these trains of thought. We’re not talking about the trains of thoughts. It’s that compulsion that leads to it that you have no control over. That actual line of thinking is called the pathway of the mental karma. It’s not the karma.
Physical and Verbal Karma: Compelled Urges
Now, physical and verbal karmas are also mental factors in this system. They are compelling urges but here they are not called compelling urges. They are called "compelled urges," which means that they can be compelled by the mental urges. It’s the urge that brings on a pathway of physical or verbal behavior. For example, there is this compelling urge to think about how I can get something that I want. It could be stealing something; it would be getting a job; it could be getting something from the refrigerator. It could be anything. I’m going to get whatever it is and the urge is to that conclusion. Now, what has been compelled by that urge is now the urge that sets us in motion to actually do it. Again, that’s compulsive, as in the example, "I think I’ll go to the refrigerator and get something to eat" and then compulsively you go and do it. Another example: "I’m going to go over there and talk to him" and then compulsively I start speaking.
So, karma is not the action. It is the compulsion that brings on the action. The problem is that the Tibetan word for karma happens to be the colloquial Tibetan word for action. Therefore when people translate the word las in Tibetan, then naturally they translate it as "action" because that’s what the colloquial word means. It leads to a completely wrong idea. If you analyze it, karma is something that you have to rid yourself of and stop completely, so if karma means action, then it’s easy: just do nothing and you’ll be liberated from all suffering. Obviously, it does not mean action, at least not in our ordinary way of understanding it and certainly not in Asanga’s system.
Karma is a true cause of suffering, therefore it has to be something that really is a trouble maker. Just doing something or talking is not the problem, is it? It’s the compulsiveness of it that is the problem. So, the actions in this system are known as the "pathways of karma." In other words, what that compulsive urge leads to or what follows from it. Then you have a compulsive train of thought, compulsive speech, or compulsive action.
Both the urge and the behavior that follow from it could be destructive, so it’s accompanied by some disturbing emotion such as anger, greed and these sorts of things. It can also be what’s called "tainted constructive," meaning that it’s constructive without a disturbing emotion, but it still has grasping for a big solid “me.” For example, asserting yourself as a solid “me” that is always good, being helpful in order to be a really good person, a really good Dharma person; or a compulsive do-gooder who can never say no. The urge and behavior can also be unspecified. For example, I could just talk about politics and it could go either way: it could be with a lot of anger or it could be to try to find a solution to some political problem. It can go either way and is therefore unspecified.
Pathway of Karma
Now, what is a pathway of karma? First, before we get into this, perhaps we take a few moments to just let that sink in – that what we’re talking about in this system of karma is that compulsive urge. It’s not talking about the action; it’s that compelling urge to think something, to say something, or to do something. It’s the compulsion that’s driven with some disturbing emotion like anger or attachment, or just driven by some big ego trip as in "I have to be good," "I have to be perfect," "I have to have everything under control with everything going my way." "I’m in control" indicates a big 'me' and everything has to be clean and perfect. There’s a compulsion about it. There’s nothing wrong with things being clean. It’s the compulsiveness that’s the problem, feeling that I have no control over it and I have to clean it again and again. This is suffering: to be happy for a moment that it’s clean but then all of a sudden to feel unsatisfied and have to clean it again. I think that’s a perfect example actually.
Let that sink in. And by letting it sink in what we mean is to try to recognize that in yourself. That is what this is all about: to identify that compulsiveness within ourselves that is one of the main troublemakers that we would really like to get rid of. It’s not only that we want to get rid of it because it causes problems and makes us neurotic, but it really prevents us from helping others. Compulsively we might say the wrong thing, or compulsively we become attached to them, or we lose our patience. These are problems in terms of helping others.
Obviously if we think about it a little further, it’s going to require a little bit more than just self-control. That’s a start. At the beginning we can use self-control not to be so compulsive, but really we have to go deeper into what is driving that compulsion and where that is coming from in order to rid ourselves of it. That’s not the topic that we will speak so much about this weekend. That’s another topic. How do we rid ourselves of karma? Now we just want to understand how karma works. First you have to understand all the ways in which karma, in a sense, makes a web that traps us. Then, you can understand how to deconstruct it and how to get rid of it.
To repeat, we said that thinking, speaking, acting, doing something – these are pathways of karma and not the karma. What we need to understand is a pathway of karma. A pathway of karma is not just the action. Maybe you could use it as a word for the whole thing but it’s much more complex than that. It’s hard to find a good word and that’s why I use the word "pathway." Again, we need to look at the definition. It’s a gathering or assemblage of four factors. These are four factors that need to be gathered together or assembled together for a pathway of karma to be complete, and for the karma results of it to be the fullest. If one or more of these are missing then it changes. It becomes something else and is not the same pathway of karma.
Four Factors for a Pathway of Karma to be Complete
(1) First, there has to be a basis, somebody that I hurt or help; somebody that I steal something from or give something to; somebody that I lie to or am always truthful to. That’s your basis.
(2) Then, there needs to be a motivating mental framework and that consists of three factors.
- First of these three is distinguishing. Distinguishing is usually translated as "recognition," which is not very accurate. Distinguishing in the simplest way is that I see colored shapes but I have to distinguish these colored shapes as being a person or a body and not the colored shapes of the wall in the background. If you can’t distinguish something from something else, you can’t possibly deal with it in any way. You don’t have to know what it is. In this case it’s talking about distinguishing the basis as in wanting to speak to this person and not that other person, or wanting to shoot this person and not that person or the wall. You need to distinguish the basis from anything else.
- Next is the motivating aim and that refers to the intention. The intention is what I’m going to do, or what I’m going to say – what I intend. I intend to try to get that job so now I’m going to think about what I could say. There’s an intention.
- There’s also an accompanying emotional state that’s driving it that can be either destructive or constructive. It’s the combination of these three things that is covered by a bigger term, the motivating framework, but that’s usually referred to as just your motivation.
Let’s have the example of when we came here. We distinguish that we want to learn about karma and not about voidness, or impermanence, or something else. We distinguish correctly. The intention is not to just listen carefully but to learn something that can help in our lives to overcome problems and be of more benefit to others. That’s the intention or the aim. Why do we want to achieve that aim? What is the emotion behind it? It’s compassion for others. When we talk about motivation in Buddhism, it’s the gathering together of these three factors. That’s why when you need to examine your motivation and correct it, you need to examine these three factors. What did we come here for? Was it for social interaction? What do I expect from it? What’s the aim? What’s the emotion behind it? Is it curiosity, compassion, loneliness, or wanting to be with friends? All these things come together to make the motivation.
To repeat, we have the basis, the motivating mental framework, and (3) then we have the application of these. The choice of Tibetan words is very interesting here. It’s not the word "action." It’s the application of that motivation to doing something. It’s by joining and it’s the word "to join" actually. So, we apply that motivation to actually commit the action. We have the intention to come here, for example, and we knew the right place and address, but we were caught in traffic and we didn’t get here. You have to actually get here. Or perhaps you never left because the phone rang and something happened so you never even arrived. The intention has to be applied by actually doing it. (4) Then you have to actually reach the finale. You have to actually get here.
An example might be that you shoot somebody and they would have to actually die, otherwise you’ve only wounded somebody and you haven’t killed somebody. In this case it’s turned into a completely different action. Another example is that you wanted to say some nasty words to someone and hurt their feelings but they didn’t hear you. It didn’t have any effect and reach its finale. What did you say? Perhaps the telephone connection got broken and they never heard what you said. Or you send a nasty email and it got caught in their spam filter and they never read it. It happens.
If we speak in terms of a pathway of karma, these four factors are always there and although the finale only occurs at the end, we have an entire sequence. There is the urge to start it, there’s the urge to keep it going or you could stop in the middle, and there’s the urge to stop the action. The pathway covers that whole sequence. If you think about it, it’s very nice actually. For example, there’s an urge to call this person up and complain and yell. So, there’s a compulsion to think to do it. That’s the compelling urge to start the action of speaking and then you’d call them after you have thought to do it.
Actually, there’s the compulsion for us to dial the number and then there’s the compulsion to start speaking. There can be the compulsion to dial the number, but perhaps you didn’t distinguish the number correctly and you dial it incorrectly. That happens as well. Distinguishing has to be correct. That’s interesting because your temper could go down a little bit if you get the wrong number to start with. Finally, you start to speak. You must have experienced something like this, how you can’t stop yourself from going on and on. There's the compulsion of each moment going on and on, saying more and more without thinking. It just comes out this compulsively and then finally you shut up. Finally, there’s that compulsion to end the conversation – enough already. Of course, everything could change during your harangue. Your emotional state could change. Perhaps you hear the person on the other side crying and you feel a little bit sad because you are causing them to cry; or perhaps they yell back at you and you get angrier. That whole complex that’s involved in the pathway, each of those factors can change.
In Asanga’s system we differentiate the compulsion – the compulsive urge that’s driving this whole thing – and the action that follows. What do you actually call it? Do you call it the action that follows or the event that follows? It’s the assemblage or gathering of all these parts and the whole sequence of them as they are changing. That whole thing is the pathway of the karma. In Asanga’s system, that whole pathway of karma is itself a self-sufficiently existent event. It’s a thing. What does that mean? That means that entire conversation is one thing, one whole event that really upset me. What upset me? There are all these little parts and so on, but the conversation as a whole is the event. I remember the conversation? What do you remember? According to this system, it’s one self-sufficiently knowable thing sitting by itself as that conversation. It’s from the Chittamatra system and the Svatantrikas accept that as well.
The actual technical term is "self-sufficient entity," sometimes translated as "substance," which is meaningless in this situation. The definition of a self-sufficient thing is that it is something that performs a function. The conversation performed the function of making me upset. What was the conversation? It was all these words, the emotion behind it, the aim, the intention and the basis. The whole thing is included but the conversation is a thing in itself performed the function of making me upset. That’s Asanga’s system. It makes sense.
A pathway of karma, then, is not just committing the action. That’s just one little piece of it. What do you call the whole thing? It’s difficult, isn’t it? If you analyze anything that you do or someone else does or says, it really is a complex. That’s a good word. It’s a complex of all these different factors but to us it performs a function as an entity unto itself. Think about that. Examples might be, 'I remember that conversation,' 'I remember that trip to India,' or 'I remember when I had that job.' What are you remembering? Doesn’t it seem that it’s one thing that you are remembering? But actually it’s made up of a complex of an unbelievable amount of different things that happen. Yet 'Going to India made a big impression on me.' What had a big impression on me?
Our topic is not the analysis of voidness, but obviously although it seems as if it’s a solid thing, Prasangika would say that there is nothing solid there on the side of any of this that makes it an event by itself. You can call it an event of course but there’s nothing solid there. But the other schools would say yes there is. It functions. For example, 'I learned a lot from that relationship.' What did you learn from? This word, that word? What?
So, in Asanga’s presentation, compulsive urges and pathways of karma are mutually exclusive. That fits comfortably in the mind only system, doesn’t it?
Destructive, Tainted Constructive and Unspecified Karmic Urges or Pathways of Karma
Now, since karma and the pathways of karma as well can be either destructive, so called tainted constructive, or unspecified, we should look to see the definitions of these. "Tainted" means something that it is derived from a disturbing emotion or attitude, or is related in some way with a disturbing emotion or attitude. Now we need to understand what the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes are. It’s hard to find a word. It’s this word klesha in Sanskrit. What in the world can you call it, a delusion? There isn’t a good word. They can come with or without an associated outlook. The one that comes without an outlook I’m calling a "disturbing emotion," although emotion doesn’t really cover the five things that are there. The other one I’m calling a "disturbing attitude." To repeat, there isn’t a good word to translate this. Be aware that in the West we just do not divide mental factors into these categories in the way that Buddhism does. We really don’t have words that cover them properly. We don’t group them in the same way.
But the definition of a disturbing emotion or attitude is very helpful – as are all the definitions. A disturbing emotion or attitude is the state of mind, which when it arises causes us to lose peace of mind and self-control. If you are very sensitive, you can usually detect that with just the feeling of nervousness inside. The energy is disturbed.
"Destructive" is defined as a karmic urge or pathway of karma that is brought on by and accompanied by unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, and accompanied as well with other disturbing emotions. In other words, we are unaware of what the effect of what we are feeling and what we are going to say or do will be. We are confused. If I yell at you, I really am unaware although I have that urge to yell and to say something nasty. I’m really unaware of what the effect of that is going to be on me, and that it’s going to make me lose my peace of mind and is not going to make me feel any better. I also am unaware of the effect that it’s going to have on you. I’m not sensitive to that at all and don’t care if it hurts your feeling. This is unawareness of cause and effect.
A destructive urge or pathway of karma has this unawareness and also a disturbing emotion – specifically desire, attachment, or greed. Desire is for something that I don’t have. Attachment is that if I have it, I don’t want to let go. Greed is that even if I have it, I want more. Then there is the disturbing emotion anger, or there is simply insensitivity in that I’m naïve about my compulsive urges or behavior and the effects.
In addition, there is no moral self-dignity. I don’t have any self-pride. "I don’t care what I do and I don’t care about how my actions reflect on others." This is a very Asian concept actually. If I act improperly, it’s going to bring shame on my family. Also, it would be if I go and get drunk and so on, it reflects badly on Buddhists if we are Buddhist. People might think badly about Buddhists. Another example might be if I were a woman and act in a certain way, people might think badly of women and it might reflect badly on all other women. When it’s destructive karma, we just don’t care about that.
Then, a karmic urge or pathway of karma is constructive if it’s brought on by and accompanied by detachment. Detachment is when I don’t want to get anything from you. I don’t want to hold on to what I have and not share, and I don’t just want more and more. That’s attachment. This doesn’t mean that we’re totally free of attachment completely but it is a good step. In this moment, I just want to help you and I don’t want anything from you. I may have attachment for chocolate but that’s something else. In this moment, I’m not holding anything back and I don’t want more and more of your time and attention. The accompanying emotion could be non-anger, meaning that I don’t want to reject you or cause harm or hurt anybody. It could also be not being naïve about the effect of my behavior on myself for others. In addition there is moral self-dignity and care about how my actions reflect on others.
It’s interesting to identify these in ourselves. There are a lot of words but to really know what we are talking about here... There are all these various things that we talk about in Buddhism – they need to be recognized in ourselves, otherwise it’s pointless. You might as well be learning names of insects. Once I asked my students in Berlin why they don’t cheat or lie. Why? Seriously, are you afraid of going to hell? Well, nobody was afraid of going to hell for that. So, why don’t you cheat or lie?
In order not to create the habit.
In order not to create the habit. I don’t actually want everybody to start answering because we don’t have the time. Just think for yourself. If we had a lot of time it would be interesting to discuss it with among ourselves, but we don’t unfortunately. So, I’m sorry.
The conclusion that most of us came to was that it just doesn’t feel right. It wasn’t because there was a law against it or because we are thinking in a deep philosophical way. It just doesn’t feel right. That is the sense of moral self-dignity. 'I wouldn’t act like that. I think more of myself that I wouldn’t act like that.' Do you recognize that? If, for instance, I’m very angry, why don’t I make a big scene and yell and carry on in front of everybody else? It’s because I think more of myself that I’m not going to make such a scene and cause others to think badly of me. It just doesn’t feel right and therefore I will control myself until later. Somebody who makes a big scene and screams and yells at the person next to them on the U-Bahn [subway] causes a disturbance for everybody on the car. That person doesn’t care what anybody thinks when they make a scene. They are out of control. Being out of control is the definition of a disturbing emotion. It’s important to recognize these things within ourselves and know what we are really talking about.
Now, both tainted constructive and destructive karmic urges and pathways of karma are brought on by and accompanied by unawareness of the second kind of unawareness. That is the unawareness of how we and others exist as persons. This is underlying both constructive and destructive. What are we talking about? Let’s look at tainted constructive karmic urges. Even when they're also motivated by compassion, they are compulsive in the sense that these constructive things are done in a way to make our self secure, or in a sense to confirm our existence. We have a disturbing attitude as well here. This is called a deluded outlook toward a transitory network. Basically this is a deluded outlook toward our aggregates.
What is happening is that with this attitude it is searching for something in our aggregates, what we are experiencing, in order to latch onto it as a basis for grasping for a true “me.” This is to project onto that basis “me” or "mine." It is accompanied by this outlook. It’s seeking this to make it a basis on which grasping for an impossible type of “me” is going to project onto it that it’s “me” or mine – a true solid “me.” It doesn’t do the projecting; the grasping does the projecting. It is something just latches onto things like my house and mine, and this grasping is what projects. That’s why it is with an outlook. So that and unawareness of how we exist is also there.
There is the combination of these three troublemakers. They are this deluded outlook toward a transitory network, grasping for a “me,” and unawareness of how we exist – all coming together. Each has a slightly different function and they work together. So, in the case of physical action, we have the compulsive constructive urge to do something constructive like clean our house and get everything in order. Why do we do that? In order to feel secure, safe, and that everything is under control and in order. We latch onto the clean house. That’s me; 'I’m a good housekeeper.' This solid “me” that now feels secure and good because this clean house is mine, clean, good. All is good. In actuality, we feel insecure, which is how the unawareness of how we exist manifests. If a piece of paper falls off the desk, it’s a small disaster because 'I have to be clean and good' compulsively. 'I have to clean again and again.' It’s compulsive. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning your house but you’re doing it in the sense that if my house is clean, then 'I exist and I am good and I am clean.' Do you see how these factors are there?
Another example is that we have the compulsive urge to help others. We want to help our married daughter in how she brings up her children. She doesn’t even want us to do this, but compulsively we have to give our advice. Why do we do it? We do it in order to feel useful, in order to feel needed, and to feel good that we are helpful persons. 'This good advice, this good help is mine.' In a sense, what is underlying it is that it affirms our existence because we’re insecure. We’re insecure because we think that there’s this solid “me” that has to be made secure by being good. This is what we mean by a tainted constructive compulsive behavior. It’s compulsive. Why? It’s compulsive because it’s tainted with this confusion. We’re doing it in order to make ourselves feel good, feel that we exist, and feel that we are useful.
There are compulsive constructive verbal actions. We recite mantras and things like that in order to be a good practitioner. 'The recitation and accumulation of 100,000 mantras are mine. I’m good. I’ve proven that I’m a good practitioner because I’ve done 100,000 of them.' Now it makes me feel secure, this solid “me,” as if it could be made secure by reciting something 100,000 times. It could be the same thing with a mental activity such as reciting the mantras in your head. It is the same thing. The action itself is not the problem. It is the compulsiveness behind it and the whole mechanism of “me” and "mine." This is going to make “me” feel secure and make “me” feel good. That’s the problem. That’s what is making it compulsive and basically you would say neurotic in the West.
This is the basic presentation of what karma means and what it is talking about in the less complicated system, Asanga’s system. The important thing to remember out of all of this is that the biggest troublemaker in us is the compulsiveness that drives us to act in compulsive neurotic ways that are either destructive or constructive. That compulsion that is accompanied with these disturbing emotions brings unhappiness basically when acting in a destructive way. It leads to my unhappiness because compulsively I have that urge to yell; compulsively I have that urge to be selfish or to be demanding. It’s out of control and causes our unhappiness. There is also the compulsive constructive behavior, such as always having to clean my house, to always try to be perfect and so on. It makes me feel happy but that happiness doesn’t last because I’m never satisfied. Then I have to do something else to prove that I’m perfect. I can never be perfect enough. It’s completely neurotic. Each time that I get things a little bit perfect, it feels okay. But it isn’t okay. I think perfectionism is the perfect example of what we’re talking about in terms of this compulsive constructive behavior. Being a perfectionist can drive you crazy especially when we apply it here in our Dharma practice. We have to be perfect, we have to sit properly and all of this. We are never relaxed.
Then, because of all of this we have all-pervasive suffering. Because of this compulsiveness, then compulsively we take rebirth and have a body and mind with which we can experience more compulsive urges. Maybe the following example is not an exact analogy but it’s a nice analogy. We are in an unhealthy relationship with somebody with all sorts of compulsive behavior in it. The relationship ends and getting out of it is analogous to dying from one rebirth. Then compulsively we look for another relationship and then we get into it. That’s the compulsion. We have to have a relationship. Then, we get into it and we have the same compulsive habits again. It just repeats and we never learn. We just compulsively get into another and another and another relationship and they are all unhealthy. This is all-pervasive suffering. Unless we learn something from them, the more unhappy relationships that we get into, the more it makes the habit of being unhealthy and compulsive stronger, doesn’t it? This is pathetic. This is samsara. We want to get out of that because it just makes us crazy and miserable and even more so because it really prevents us from being of any constructive help to anybody.