Karmic Potentials, Tendencies and Constant Habits

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Brief Review of Gelug Prasangika System of Karma

Last time we presented the main ingredients of karma according to the Gelug Prasangika system. We saw that karma is dealing with the mental urge that brings on a pathway of mental karma, physical karma, or verbal karma. It’s a compulsion. In the physical and verbal sphere, karma is speaking about the shape of our physical behavior or the sound of our verbal actions or behavior. This is known as the revealing form. There is also the non-revealing form like this neural pathway which is there for physical and verbal behavior as well. Before any type of action, whether mental, physical and verbal, we have the karma of the mental urge.

During the physical and verbal behavior, we have the revealing forms; their shapes and sounds are also karma. In addition to the karma during the action of physical and verbal behavior, continuing afterwards, we have the non-revealing form. Simply stated, we have these three different aspects of karma and they extend from what brings on the action, through the action, and some aspects continue after the action as well. So, that’s what we have covered.

How Karma Works According to Tsongkhapa

Now, how does karma actually work according to Tsongkhapa? First, a mental factor arises and that is the mental factor of liking to do an action. For example, in our colloquial languages we might say that I’d like to go visit someone, or I feel like speaking to you, or I feel like going to the refrigerator and getting something to eat. It’s a mental factor. It arises in a particular moment similar to what we’ve done in the past. In other words, we feel like repeating an action that we did before.

It can also be described as wishing to do something. In that case it is described as either equivalent to or accompanied by an intention. So, we feel like doing, saying, or thinking something for various reasons. There needs to be circumstances that are why we feel like doing this now. It can be the circumstances that we’re in, such as the time, place, and company that we’re with. It can be what’s going on in our lives at that time and can also arise upon whether we are feeling happy or sad. It would also depend on past tendencies to act, speak, or think in certain ways. We could also feel like doing something because of some motivating emotion such as anger, or on the most fundamental level, just grasping for some impossible type of “me.” For example, I need to prove how strong I am or how good I am at this or that.

Mental Karma

Then, next comes the mental karma, the compelling mental urge arises that draws us in the direction of that compulsive line of thinking. For example, first I feel like getting something, the mental factor, and then there is that mental urge that will draw me into the line of thinking of how I can get it. Now, this pathway of thinking, the planning of how I can either get something or hurt somebody, etc, functions as either a positive karmic potential or force or a negative karmic potential or force. In this case, if positive, it would be tainted positive. Actually we need to be a little more precise. What we are talking about is usually translated as merit. Sometimes the opposite is called sin which is a horrible thing to call it. Depending on which angle from which we are viewing these two, we can either consider them, as I like to translate them, as karmic potentials or karmic force. That karmic potential or force is either positive or negative, meaning that it comes from a constructive situation or tainted constructive one, or a destructive one.

Karmic Potentials – Explaining Non-Congruent Affecting Variables

The compulsive line of thinking and planning itself is a karmic potential. It has the potential force to produce results. When that compulsive thinking has ceased, then that karmic potential of that way of being aware of something with all the complex things that are involved with a pathway of karma, that karmic potential undergoes a phase transition. The thinking process and complex of things involved is a way of being aware of something. But, now that pathway of karma, this potential, changes from a way of being aware of something to an abstraction. That may be the easiest word for it, a technical word, but it isn’t a good word. The actual technical term is a non-congruent affecting variable that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. That’s quite a mouthful.

Let’s explain this further phrase by phrase. It is a variable. That means that it is non-static and changes from moment to moment. It is affecting which means that it effects what we experience. It’s not like the other types of non-static phenomenon. It’s not a form of physical phenomenon like a sight, sound, smell, taste, or physical sensation. It is not a part of our physical body and it’s not a way of being aware of something like consciousness, emotion, concentration or the other mental factors. It is accompanying the various moments of experience but it’s not congruent with it.

Consciousness and other mental factors are congruent with each other. That means that they share five things in common. This is similar to congruent triangles in geometry if you can remember your high school geometry. The consciousness, emotions and all the mental factors all share in common the same cognitive sensors such as the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes or the sound-sensitive of the ears. Next, they also share the same focal object, such as looking at a painting. When looking at a painting, for example, the consciousness is aimed at the painting, the interest is aimed at the painting, and the level of happiness is aimed at the painting. Everything is sharing the same focal object and all of that is relying on the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes for it to arise. That is dominating what type of experience it will be. It’s a visual experience.

In addition, they all share the same mental hologram. This is usually translated as aspect but that doesn’t have very much meaning. When you see something the light enters into your eyes and gets transformed into electrical and chemical signals and then what we actually perceive is a mental hologram that is a decoding of this neural and chemical information. They also share the same time. In other words they are all occurring simultaneously. Finally, they are all coming together and arising harmoniously.

What about age? Age is occurring every moment of our experience. We are getting older and it’s changing from moment to moment. It’s a variable and it affects us certainly. It’s not either a way of being aware of something or a form of physical phenomenon. For example, your age is not focused on the painting when we’re looking at it, is it? It’s not dependent on the pho-sensitive cells of our eyes etc. It’s not congruent with each moment of experience but it’s accompanying it. It’s happening. Therefore, it is an example of this non-congruent affecting variable. In a sense, it’s a little bit abstract but it is precise. It is not abstract in the sense of vague but abstract in the sense that it’s not concrete. It’s an imputation, as in how old you are, your age, and that’s changing from moment to moment as you are getting older. I think that’s a very clear example.

The conventional “me” is the same type of phenomenon. “Me” is an imputation on each moment of experience. It’s non-congruent. It’s not a way of being aware of something or a form of physical phenomenon. Karmic potential is the same type of phenomenon here. It is a non-congruent affecting variable. It’s imputed on the mental continuum. It continues moment to moment. It changes every moment in that it can get strengthened or weakened and can cause effects etc. It does something. It’s not a form of physical phenomenon or a way of being aware of something. It’s not focused on the picture, for example, when I look at it.

You follow that, I hope. It’s a very essential thing that you need to understand in order to understand the whole Buddhist presentation of the self, but also to understand karma.

So, next, the karmic potential, in terms of the mental karma undergoes a phase transition. First it’s a pathway of thinking or a way of being aware. But, when you stop thinking, it becomes a non-congruent variable. We’ll call it that for short. In addition, it is an imputation. What is it an imputation on according to the Gelugpa Prasangika system? It’s an imputation on the conventional “me” which is an imputation on the shape of the five aggregates changing from moment to moment. It’s sort of piggy-backed on top of the “me” which is imputed on top of the shape of the five aggregates. As imputations on the mental continuum, conventional "me" and karmic potential can be known both non-conceptually and conceptually. This is unlike categories, which are mentally labeled on the mental continuum and can only be known conceptually.

The conventional “me” continues lifetime to lifetime carrying karmic potential imputed on it. The shape of the aggregates can change all the time. At death consciousness is just the clear light mind and subtlest consciousness. But it always has a shape, either five aggregates, or a continuum or however you want to talk about it. There’s always the “me” imputed on it and so, we always retain our individuality. The karmic potential is riding on that “me.”

When you said at the time of death, can you clarify what happens even if the shape is different?

It’s still the conventional “me” at the time of death. The shape is just the continuum of the clear light mind and the subtlest consciousness. You don’t have the five aggregates. There is still the conventional “me” as an imputation on what’s called our death existence.

This is not so strange. We speak in our ordinary language in phrases like “I have the potential to succeed,” or “I have the potential to get sick.” Don’t we? A potential is imputed on the “me.” We don’t say that the body has the potential to get sick. We say that I have the potential to get sick. We don’t say that the mind has the potential to succeed. We say that I have the potential to succeed. “Me” is imputed on the shape of our whole experience, and that “me” has the potential to succeed.

Karmic Tendency and Constant Karmic Habit

To repeat, the karmic potential is either tainted constructive or destructive. Technically, this phase of the karmic potential when it is this non-congruent variable, this is known as a karmic potential that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency. A karmic tendency is my way of translating the word "seed." It is literally the word, seed.

After the pathway of compulsive thinking has ceased, there arises a karmic tendency and a constant karmic habit. Both of these are also non-congruent affecting variables and also imputed on the conventional “me.” Both of them are unspecified phenomenon, neither constructive nor destructive. They can go in either direction. Karmic constant habits give rise to their results continually. It does that in every moment. The result, what it gives rise to, is truly established existence. This is a constant karmic habit. The constant habits of the disturbing emotions and ignorance or unawareness do that as well.

Could you clarify what causes truly established existence?

When we talk about constant habits, this includes constant habits of karma, constant habits of disturbing emotions, constant habits of grasping for true existence, constant habits of unawareness or ignorance, and all of them do the same thing. They are responsible for making appearances of truly established existence and they do that in every moment non-stop until we achieve a true stopping of all of them together with the attainment of enlightenment.

Karmic tendencies, on the other hand, give rise to their results intermittently. In other words, they give rise to the results from time to time. It’s the same thing with the tendencies of the disturbing emotions. You don’t get angry all the time in every moment of your existence. The English word is intermittently, meaning sometimes. So, karmic tendencies give rise to their results sometimes. These karmic tendencies continue to do this, to give their results intermittently until they actually end when they are finished giving their results. Then they become what is sometimes called burnt seeds. Remember tendency is literally the word "seed."

Phase Transitions

But, what is one of Tsongkhapa’s special assertions is that they continue even as exhausted burnt seeds as imputations on the conventional “me.” They are not eradicated even when they finish giving our usual way of looking at the result of a karmic tendency. But, rather they undergo a phase transition and now they turn into or function as constant karmic habits. So, you only achieve a true stopping of them when you attain enlightenment. The term phase transition refers to something like when water turns to steam or water turns to ice and transforms.

We’ve already had one type of phase transition when the karmic force changes from a way of being aware of something to being a non-congruent affecting variable. So here we have another type of phase transition. This is where you need to make charts for yourself.

Karmic potentials also give rise to their results intermittently except that they are either tainted constructive or destructive. Remember, karmic tendencies are unspecified. That’s very significant in terms of the type of results that they can give rise to. But since the karmic potentials during the phase when they are non-congruent affecting variables, have taken on the nature of karmic tendencies, then like unspecified karmic tendencies, after they have finished giving their results, they also undergo the same type of phase transition and become a constant karmic habit imputed on the conventional “me.”

The karmic potential continues as a burnt out tendency not only when it finished giving rise to its results. It is also the case with negative karmic potential, that when you have purified yourself with four opponent forces and Vajrasattva type of meditation, that you have not eradicated the negative karmic potential. It continues with the essential nature of a tendency and it undergoes a phase transition. It then functions as a constant karmic habit preventing omniscience.

To review, karmic potentials are constructive or destructive. Karmic tendencies are unspecified. So, in the case of purifying ourselves of negative karmic potential with Vajrasattva type of practice, you haven’t gotten rid of the unspecified karmic tendencies. You’re burning, in a sense, the negative karmic potential. As I said, you need to make charts, and if you’re really skilled in visualization you don’t have to make a chart with paper. You can just visualize the chart and construct it in your minds. This is one of the benefits of training in visualization.

To purify negative potentials does not mean that they are eradicated or removed from our mental continuum. They are just made to undergo a phase transition. They are still there and are still imputable but because we still have karmic tendencies, in the future we could repeat the negative actions that we did in the past. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to do them again. That’s how it works.

Okay, so now visualize. You have the pathway of mental karma that is a karmic potential and it undergoes a phase transition. You still have a karmic potential only now it’s a non-congruent affecting variable. Whether we’re talking about the pathway of thinking or the non-congruent variable that it transforms into afterwards, they both are either constructive or destructive. Look at the imaginary “chart” where one phase of it is the thinking and one phase is a non-congruent affecting variable. It’s simple. They are, in both phases, either constructive or destructive.

Let me turn the mental image the other way so that you can see it in the proper order. I’m looking at it from my point of view. So, we’ll imagine that we go over here. Here is the thinking and then here is after you stop thinking and now this line is constructive or destructive. It’s the potential. Then after the action has finished and the thinking is finished that starts over here, then you have a karmic tendency and that’s unspecified and you also have the karmic habit and that’s unspecified. Visualize it. You are doing all sorts of visualization practices. Use that ability.

Is the non-congruent affecting variable after the action has finished?

When the action has finished, we have non-congruent affecting variables as imputations on the mental continuum. So what do we have imputed on the mental continuum? We have karmic potentials, karmic tendencies, and constant karmic habits. But the karmic potentials were also the action and the thinking itself. The karmic tendencies and the constant karmic habits are not the action and the thinking. The karmic potential actually has three phases because once it is finished as a potential and the phase change of having the nature of a karmic tendency, it undergoes the final phase shift and in the end it’s all constant karmic habits. The train of thought is also a karmic potential.

Now, perhaps you are getting confused. Let’s do it phrase by phrase. First there is the thinking. That is a karmic potential and is constructive or destructive. Next, the action has finished and after the action that karmic potential continues, but now it is a non-congruent variable as an imputation. Also, starting after the action, there are two unspecified things. There is the karmic tendency and the constant karmic habit. The constant karmic habit goes all the way to enlightenment. It only ends when we achieve enlightenment. When the karmic potential and the karmic tendency have each finished giving their result, they undergo a phase transition and both of them become and function as constant karmic habits. We don’t get rid of that as well until we are enlightened. The karmic potential undergoes that phase transition to a constant karmic habit that’s finished giving its result in the same way that a karmic tendency does. It says that it is a karmic potential having the essential nature of a tendency because it behaves like a tendency in that one respect.

Okay, now, that’s just with mental karma and the pathway of mental karma. With physical and verbal behavior, when you’ve deliberated beforehand, you have this pathway of mental karma beforehand. This is not karma. This is the pathway of mental karma. Then, you have an urge which is more mental karma, to actually implement what you’ve thought about. Following this you actually have the pathway of the physical or verbal karma. In this case, these are karmas. I’m referring here now to the fact that during the action you have the revealing form, as in the shape of the sound.

Like the pathway of mental karma, it also is a positive or negative karmic potential. This is in a revealing form. It’s exactly the same as we had in the discussion of mental karmic pathways. So, it continues as a positive or negative potential in the revealing form. It undergoes the phase transition after the action ceases and continues as a positive or negative potential, as an imputation, a non-congruent affecting variable. It’s the same as we had with thinking. The only difference here is that the physical and verbal karma are considered to be karmic and in the mental case it is not. That’s the only difference. All the other mechanisms are the same.

What is added to it is the non-revealing form. Remember, the non-revealing form is during the pathway of karma and continues afterwards. This too is functioning as a karmic potential which is constructive or destructive. That non-revealing form will continue all the way to enlightenment, intermittently giving results. It will only come to an end when we decide fully that we are never going to repeat that type of action regardless of whether it is constructive or destructive. So, in that sense it’s like a bodhisattva vow in that we say that we are never going to give it up until we achieve enlightenment. Therefore, if you do give it up, you’ve lost the bodhisattva vow.

So, if we decide never to help anybody again, or never to lie again, or whatever it is, the non-revealing form is no longer on our mental continuum. It’s unlike these other features that we were talking about. It doesn’t undergo a phase transition and become a constant karmic habit. It’s gone and that’s very significant as I’ve mentioned with regard to how we get a form body of a Buddha in the Prasangika system. We’ll get to that.

Collection of Merit, the Network of Positive Force

So, when we speak about the so-called collection of merit, this network of positive potential, what does it include? As I said, using visualization, if you can train yourself to do that, it’s much easier to remember and work with these things. Remember, we have the positive potential of the mental pathway, the physical pathway and the verbal pathway. The physical and verbal are the revealing form. Also, we have the non-revealing form of the physical and verbal phenomena or events and that continues during the action and afterwards. This is also a karmic potential in this network of positive force or positive potential. We also have the continuums of the mental, physical, and verbal pathways after they have ceased, when each of them have gone through a phase transition of being a karmic potential, a non-congruent affecting variable, as an imputation.

It’s not really that complicated. To simplify, you have the action. So, you have thinking, speaking, and acting. Each of those is a karmic potential and the karmic potential is during that act and afterwards. During the act it is either a way of being aware, thinking, or it’s a physical shape, or it’s a sound. Afterwards, it’s a non-congruent affecting variable. This is the same in all three. Then, in addition, there’s the non-revealing for both during the action and afterwards and that’s a subtle form. It’s not that complicated.

The karmic tendencies and constant karmic habits are unspecified, meaning that they are not constructive or destructive, so they are not included in the network of positive potential.