Questions about Collective Karma and Continuums

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Just to clarify some points, in Asanga’s system, karma and the pathway of karma are always indicated separately. There isn’t anything that is both karma and the pathway of karma. In Tsongkhapa’s Prasangika system, that is only true with respect to mental karma and pathways of mental karma. But, with respect to physical or verbal karma, physical and verbal karma will include the pathway of physical and verbal karma. That pathway of physical and verbal karma is the revealing form of the karma. But also included in the physical and verbal karma is the non-revealing form. If we look at just mental karmic events, then the only karma that is part of that system is the urge that brings on the train of thought. If we look at physical or verbal karmic events, then it includes the mental karma, the urge that brings it on, and the revealing form which is the pathway of the physical or verbal karma. That’s also part of the karma here. This is actually referring to the shape of the path or the sound of the path. Also included is the non-revealing form.

This is just a conceptual framework and I think that the only significant point perhaps for us at this stage of our understanding is to realize that karma is certainly not equivalent to the action. There’s much more in this Prasangika system. Therefore, when trying to understand karma, I find it far more helpful to think of compulsiveness or compulsion, and then to understand what is actually compulsive about the various karmic events in our life regarding what we do, what we think and what we say. It’s not just what we think, do, and say. The compulsiveness is much broader than that and that’s what we need to get rid of.

Question about Collective Karma

What is the difference between the karma of an individual and the karma of a group? For example, if you have an airplane accident and a lot of people die in that crash, then what is the relationship of the individuals to each other?

The technical term is shared karma, often called "collective karma." The classic explanation for so-called shared karma is that everybody experiencing this ripening of karma had participated in a certain action or a certain event beforehand that brought about their experiencing of this result. Now, how that actually works is of course a bit complex. I don’t think that it’s helpful to think of it as one sort of collective karma that everybody plugs into. It doesn’t exist by itself somewhere.

We will get into the discussion of the karmic aftermath and the whole process by which a result arises from the aftermath. But, think about it. Let’s say you have a battle in a war. Now, everybody in that battle is actually doing something different and individual, aren’t they? We could label on top of that a whole event, namely, the battle. But, actually, what is the battle? We have the concept of the battle which is imputed on what everybody did. There’s no solidly existing “the battle” somewhere and then everybody is experiencing the consequences for participating in that thing, “the battle.” It’s not that the concept of battle creates the battle. The battle isn’t the concept. There’s the category of battle, which could be applied to many different events. There’s a word, a sound which a group of people have agreed to assign to that category. That’s the word battle. What is the battle? The battle is what this category and the word refers to on the basis of what everybody did.

How do we affirm or establish that there was a battle? It is because there is this conceptual framework of battles. But, the conceptual framework doesn’t create the battle and it’s not the same as the battle. In this battle, everybody did something different, didn’t they? In terms of the result as well, everybody’s experience of the crash is quite individual. Somebody is injured in this way, somebody in that way, and somebody survives, for example. Experiencing the crash doesn’t just occur isolated from the whole emotional component of that experience. That is also a part of each person’s experience. Still, we can label onto what everybody experiences, the category of plane crash and the words plane crash.

It’s a category and that’s a very important concept to understand. Categories are static phenomenon. They don’t change. You can replace one category with another category. That’s how we make sense of things. That’s what is involved with conceptual thought. It is through the medium of categories. Everybody has this. We can’t function without categories. Even the worm has this. How does a worm know food? It doesn’t have a word but it certainly perceives all these different things through the category of food and there’s some meaning to it.

Returning to the point about collective karma, actually there’s a dependent arising of what everybody does in the so-called battle and a dependent arising of what everybody experiences in the crash. All of these components are related to each other and arise dependably on each other through a conceptual framework used to make sense of the connections here. We’re talking about shared karma and the shared result of shared karma. That’s a conceptual framework, isn’t it? We use a conceptual framework to establish a way of understanding what happened. What happened, did happen.

Cause and effect dependently arise. It doesn’t mean that they are simultaneous. Something cannot be a cause without there being an effect. Something can’t be an effect without there being a cause. They are dependent on each other. The fact that there was a shared event in terms of the cause and a shared event in terms of the effect, that also dependently arose in terms of everybody’s individual experience at the time of the cause. They didn’t do things in the same instant or time of the cause or in the time of the result. There’s a grand network here of dependently arising phenomenon.

When we try to establish what was going on, we have the conceptual framework of shared karma. Each person, and the fact that they participated in the battle, or the fact that they actually took that particular airplane flight, all of this also arose from many other causes and circumstances. Each complex is individual for each person. So, you see how we have a much broader dependently arising network here.

It’s just a convenient framework to say collective karma, but it’s not as though there’s one chess piece in each person’s mind that got put in there from the event and that’s the collective karma. It’s not that there it is, carried in their mental continuum and it pops out is the plane crash. We can understand it in a much more sophisticated and complex way. There is nothing concrete there.

Question about Continuums

If you have a continuum of moments of awareness or ways of being aware of things and a continuum of forms of physical phenomenon, then how do you have a mental urge, which is a way of being aware of something, give rise to a physical form or shape of a pathway of physical karma or a verbal pathway of karma?

In order to explain that, one has to go into a tremendous complexity of different types of causes and different types of effects. The fact that the urge brings on, let’s just say for simplicity sake, a form of behavior, doesn’t mean that the form of the behavior is the next moment in the continuity of that mental activity. The physical behavior is of course arising from many other causes. There is a certain cause that drives or initiates an action, but there are other causes such as the physical condition of the body, the elements of the body, and the previous habits of how you act and so on. The actual arising of the shape of your action, what you do, we speak of in terms of a continuum of previous moments of your body, not previous moments of your mental activity.

When we speak about continuums, there are many different types of continuums. We don’t just think here in terms of what occurs moment A, moment B, and moment C. We’re not just speaking about a temporal continuum. Our body has a certain continuum based on the elements of the body. All of the various emotions and mental factors that are involved, each of them have their own continuum. For example, in terms of anger and a tendency to anger and previous times of anger, there’s a continuum of that. The urges themselves have a continuum. For example, I always have the urge to go somewhere, the urge to explore, the urge to do this or do that. It has its own continuum. All of these are going to interact in any particular moment. Various items from each of these are going to manifest, in a sense or occur simultaneously in any moment each from its own causes.

If we want to make sense of it, we can use a conceptual framework of the five aggregates. It’s not that all these various aspects exist in these five boxes, but it just helps us to organize all the various items within each moment of our experience. Then, if we want to be a little bit more organized, we can take that flow of all these different components organized in terms of five aggregates and organize it further by saying that the flow has a certain shape. That’s the shape of the flow of that whole continuum. It’s usually called mental continuum. In addition, in the shape of the flow of the five aggregates we can impute “me,” the conventional “me.” But, there’s no findable “me” substantially existing anywhere in this incredible complex that makes up the basis. There’s not any self, permanent or impermanent. Furthermore, because on that “me” we can impute karmic potentials and tendencies and so on. Because on those tendencies, you can impute the not-yet-happening of the result.

So, all of this is established by this conceptual mental framework that allows us to understand what is going on. What’s happening is happening and it doesn’t matter whether we use this conceptual framework or not. It’s just helpful in establishing or affirming what is happening. Here is one way of understanding it. You can’t really understand karma independently of understanding something about voidness.

Perhaps, since I feel quite strongly about this, although we see this in English and not in German, I will mention why I object to the use of the word "emptiness." Empty implies that there is an existent basis like a glass and something is missing inside of it. The glass is empty. Sorry, but that’s not the meaning of voidness. It may fit the Svatantrika system, but certainly it doesn’t fit the Prasangika system. The word in Tibetan or Sanskrit is the same word that is used for zero. It’s a total absence; no such thing. No such thing; that’s what it means. It doesn’t affirm that there is a findable holder that is missing something that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t affirm anything at all. That’s why I use voidness and not emptiness. Emptiness gives the wrong impression, specifically for the Prasangika system. In many languages this problem doesn’t arise. But, it does arise in English. There’s nothing findable on the side of the object. There never was. It’s totally absent. It’s not that there is an object and it’s empty of something that you couldn’t find.

Karmic Results Dependently Arise

In the karmic path we have the urge and the karmic path and there are instances where, for example, you have a certain urge to kill somebody and then in the karmic path there are external or internal conditions that change the course of the action. Are the karmic results the same if you intend to kill somebody but then during the karmic path conditions change and it doesn’t happen. Do you experience the karmic result of having killed somebody or not?

No, because you haven’t killed somebody. The pathway of karma has to be complete with all the four factors for the result of the original urge to occur. I plan to kill you. I have the urge to kill you and I aim the gun at you with the intention to kill you. But, then I take pity on you and I change my mind, or my cell phone rings, or somebody else walks into the room, or there’s an earthquake. Something happens and the act is not completed. What has actually occurred is simply the plan. What it deconstructs into is mainly a mental event. I planned to kill you and that will have its result from having deliberated, thought, and planned killing you. There is also the result from starting to carry it out. But, there will not be the result of killing you because I didn’t kill you. What physical action have I done? I’ve threatened you and probably scared you terribly and that will have its result. But, it will be the result from threatening and scaring you, not the result of killing you because I didn’t kill you.

Now, this gets into a very good point. There is no inherent identity to what is occurring in any point during the continuum of the event. It’s not that now I am carrying out the murder and it exists as a murder somewhere inside each moment of what I’m doing leading up to it. It doesn’t have an inherent identity, does it? That is where we get confused because we think that it has this fixed identity somewhere established inside it. It doesn’t.

A murder can only arise dependently on all the component factors having occurred. It is not an appropriate basis for labeling a murder if somebody doesn’t die. So, that it is dependently arising is a very important point. A basis for label, a mental label, and what the label refers to, arise dependently on each other. Nothing is a basis for labeling independently of a label and what a label refers to. It’s a very profound point actually. The label is a category and a name applied to something. A murder is not the category of murder and it’s not the sound of the word murder. They do refer to something. What do they refer to? That’s the murder.

To clarify, a label is a name and a category that the name is ascribed to; the label is the combination of these applied to a basis. Otherwise it’s just a word. The category and word refer to something, but what it refers to is not found inside the basis. There’s nothing in that basis of all the things I did, pointing the gun and so on. That’s what establishes the murder; but, the basis for labeling a murder and what the category murder refers to, they dependently arise upon each other. You can’t have one without the other.

So, dependent arising is a very profound topic and we really need to understand it in its many levels of meaning and implication.

The Carrier of Karma

What carries this seed of karma from one life to another?

First of all, we’re not talking about concrete things like a suitcase being put on a conveyor belt and then it moves form one lifetime to another. That’s not the Prasangika view. In the non-Prasangika views, in general, without getting into the differences of the different tenet systems, things have self-established existence like entities in plastic. These other systems will say that what goes from lifetime to lifetime is a mental continuum. This is a sutra system, not an anuttarayoga tantra system or a dzogchen system. It’s not that; we’re talking about a sutra system.

So, Sautrantika and Svatantrika will say that it is mental consciousness that provides the continuum. Chittamatra will say that it is the alayavijnana, the foundation consciousness. The karmic tendencies, the karmic potentials, and all of that are labeled onto those continuums. The conventional “me” is labeled onto the continuum as well. In fact, the defining characteristic of a self is found within the cluster of the defining characteristics of the continuum of the mental consciousness or foundation consciousness as well. This is the basis of labeling. There’s something findable in this continuum that makes me “me,” and distinguishes me from you. It’s an uncommon defining characteristic.

The Prasangika view is, first of all, that you can’t find the defining characteristics of anything on the side of the basis. The basis for labeling, what’s being labeled on it, and the defining characteristics as well all arise dependently. There is nothing from the side of the object. This is part of the conceptual framework.

I have a conceptual framework of emotions, for example. What do we experience in terms of our emotional life? There are no little balloons of things that are different emotions. We have a conceptual framework of different types of emotions with which we can explain our so-called emotional life and what we experience. We have this conceptual framework of love, loyalty, jealousy, and so on and each of these has its defining characteristic. That is also part of the conceptual framework. What loyalty means to a modern Western person, what it means to somebody in medieval Europe, and what it means to somebody in traditional Japan, these are quite different concepts aren’t they? The defining characteristics are different. It’s part of the conceptual framework. There’s nothing on the side of anybody’s experience that establishes these things. They are all established as parts of a conceptual framework and dependently arise.

On the side of the basis, mental consciousness or foundational consciousness, you don’t find defining characteristics of the consciousness. You don’t find defining characteristics of the tendencies. You can’t find those. You can’t find the defining characteristics of a “me” either. It doesn’t matter how we conceptualize rebirth, whether we think in terms of mental consciousness going through the death process, bardo, and rebirth; or, as in anuttarayoga tantra, we think in terms of the subtlest clear light mind being what provides the continuity; or we think in terms of the dzogchen system of rigpa, pure awareness, providing that continuum. Regardless of how complex the five aggregates are that have as their common point in each moment of mental consciousness, clear light, rigpa, or whatever, it has a certain shape. Remember? It’s called the shape of the flow.

On that flow as a whole, there’s no defining characteristic as in the chess game or the battle. There is no defining characteristic or a findable shape of a flow inside this regardless of whether it’s just mental consciousness or it’s with a body and so on. It doesn’t matter. There is this shape, a continuum of the shape of the flow and “me,” the conventional “me” is an imputation on that basis. This changes the complexity of the basis for the shape of the flow. In the sutra system at the moment of death there’s only mental consciousness. In the anuttarayoga tantra system there’s clear light consciousness and subtlest wind. It doesn’t matter what level of analysis we use. In life there are a body, all the emotions and all the aggregates. On the shape of the flow, for each moment there’s a continuum with a different basis and on that we can ascribe or designate “me.” There is no findable characteristic of “me” inside this. However, that “me” is the basis for the imputation of the karmic tendencies and potentials. The mere “me” provides the continuity in the Prasangika view. In everyday there is something to ascribe the “me” on; but, there’s no findable characteristic on the side of the basis.

It’s the question, what makes me “me?” That’s the question. Is there something inside me that makes me “me?” Taking it further, it makes “me” special. This requires deformation of what the “me” is. But, these non-Prasangika schools would say that there is something findable inside me that makes me “me” and you “you.” It doesn’t make “me” into “you.” Prasangika says no. It’s just the shape of the flow based on cause and effect that can be labeled as an individual “me” and has its individuality. But, what is the basis for the individuality? It’s the dependent arising of this whole continuum. The self that is labeled on the continuum of the shape dependently arises. The shape that is labeled on all the changing factors of the five aggregates also serves as a basis for a self, and this all dependently arises. The defining characteristic of a self dependently arises as well. It all dependently arises. Individuality also independently arises. Nothing is sitting there by itself. They arise relative to each other.

Understanding the Four Noble Truths through a Conceptual Framework

Part of this flow is going to be a mental factor of feeling a level of happiness. It’s going to have a suffering tainted feeling of either unhappiness, tainted happiness that doesn’t last, or a neutral feeling in the higher planes of existence such as the form and formless realms. Let’s not get into that discussion. There’s a continuum of this, and it goes on and on. Therefore, there’s the all pervasive suffering in which there is always a basis, a body and mind, that compulsively and uncontrollably occurs one after another. In a sense, it perpetuates itself. These are the problems. That’s the suffering that we want to get rid of that is part of the shape of the flow.

How do we understand and make sense out of the content of each moment in this flow, in the continuum? Is it chaotic or is there a certain understandable sequence of what happens in each moment and the contents of each moment? So, we have a whole analysis of karmic cause and effect to explain what is happening in each moment. It’s more complex than just karma because there are all the mental factors and they all have a cause and an effect sequence as well. Within a grand scheme of cause and effect, some of which is karmic, some of which is dealing with just the various mental factors, we can account for and understand how each of the items within the content of the five aggregates of each moment, how they dependently arise together in any particular moment. And it’s not that they all come from one seed of karma like it is presented in the Chittamatra system. It comes from various sources.

This whole scheme of karma and the karmic tendencies and potentials and results and the “me” and all of that is very helpful because it gives us a conceptual framework within which to understand our experience and to understand the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, that it can be gotten rid of, and how we get rid of it. This is with the understanding that none of these things exist like separate chess pieces of helium balloons inside the individuality and shape of the flow of a continuum. The individuality is because there is a logical scheme for being able to understand the sequence of what happens and “me” is labeled on it. Yes, I’m experiencing it. It’s not the rock rolling down the hill. Still, there is no such thing as the plastic coating around anything. There’s nothing inside the object that is generating that plastic coating making it an individually knowable thing.

We have to overcome our view of reality as if it were like a children’s coloring book in which there are black lines around a colored shape that separates it from the colored shape of the wall. You can just color in the qualities and individualities and so on. Things don’t exist like in a coloring book. It’s the same thing in terms of karma; that now there is a karmic urge and we’ll color it like this with a black line around it. Now, there is the tendency and we’ll color it like that. Now, there is the result and we’ll color it like that. There are no black lines around things. There are no plastic coatings even though it looks like that, seems like that, and worst of all, it feels like that and we believe it.

Even though things don’t exist encapsulated in plastic, with an identity established inside, nevertheless, everything does have a conventional identity agreed upon by a group of beings who have adopted and learned the same conceptual framework of a language or a culture or whatever. Conventionally, we have agreed on certain ways of ascribing what we experience. We come up with new conventions such as attention deficiency syndrome and so on. Now, we have a new convention. We learn the definition. Where does the definition come from? It comes from the conceptual framework. Attention deficit disorder; we called it bad concentration before. Can you see how everything dependently arises?

Questions about Conceptual Frameworks

Why do we have these conventional frameworks and conventions if they cause problems and make things seem to exist with lines around them?

These conventions are useful because otherwise we can’t communicate with each other. It’s the basis for language. Then, you can get into a whole analysis of the relation between language and reality but that’s a whole different topic.

What is the sequence in terms of cause and effect? If we have the convention of attention deficiency disorder, then does that then cause further manifestations of it?

I think some things are getting a bit confused here between cause and effect, a basis for labeling and what is labeled. The basis for labeling doesn’t cause what is being labeled on it. The two arise dependently upon each other in the conceptual framework. It wasn’t that within our mental continuums there existed already the helium balloon called attention deficiency disorder and it is only now that we finally discovered it and gave a name to it. People had difficulty concentrating forever, always. Only now, we have the conceptual framework of attention deficiency disorder, in order to explain it and possibly deal with it and try to find a way to overcome that suffering. But, it didn’t already exist as attention deficiency disorder inside our continuum and that caused the concept.

Now, can thinking in terms of this conceptual framework then produce further effects? Yes. We have something called doctrinally based disturbing emotions. Having learned a doctrinal system and this refers to the non-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems, we then believe ourselves to exist like an atman. We have disturbing emotions based on that. However, we wouldn’t automatically have these disturbing emotions. It’s based on learning, accepting, and believing in a doctrinal system. We wouldn’t automatically think of ourselves as an atman the way that it is defined in these Indian systems. We wouldn’t automatically conceive of ourselves as an atman experiencing suffering and that we could become liberated from it.

So, similarly, if you didn’t teach your child that there were ghosts, your child would not be afraid of ghosts. Because the child has learned this conceptual framework of ghosts and believes it, then it produces the effect of the child being afraid of ghosts or monsters. The child wouldn’t automatically think in terms of ghosts and monsters unless somebody taught that child these things. So, it’s similar to a doctrinally based disturbing emotion. We’re all like that. We look up a disease we’ve never heard of before on the internet in Wikipedia or Google and now we think that perhaps we have it. It happens, doesn’t it? We never would have thought that we had it before until we learned about it on the internet. Learning the conceptual framework and believing in it has the effect. The conceptual framework by itself doesn’t have that effect. It’s not that the effect of the framework is existing already somewhere inside our experience.

The Need for a Broader View of Karma

We tend often to think of the continuum of mental activity, the continuum of consciousness and so on, but we’ve learned that there are continuums of many things such as body, the mind, the various emotions, mental, physical and verbal behavior, and so on. What type of strategy do we use in order to overcome suffering and gain liberation from suffering? Do we sometimes work on our behavior, sometimes on how we speak, or sometimes work with our emotions? How do we actually plan a working strategy?

To answer that we need to get a much more complex description of the whole karmic cause and effect process in order to understand if there is some sort of multi-level strategy. First, we use self-control. But, then we go deeper and look at what is the ignorance and confusion that is underlying the whole process and how does that unawareness, confusion, or ignorance enter into the process. We need to understand the whole conceptual framework of how it all works. I hope we have enough time to explain it.

But, if we have a broader view of karma, then we understand that this compulsiveness is not just the one little chess piece of the urge. We have a broader basis for identifying and understanding the object of refutation, or what to get rid of. So, that helps to have a more sophisticated understanding of karma as being compulsiveness, and the many aspects of that compulsion that we need to get rid of. It is the cause of suffering. Karma is the cause of suffering. We need to understand how it is the cause of suffering. What is it that is the cause of suffering? It’s much broader than one little chess piece.