Difficulties with Terminology When Studying Karma
One of the difficulties in studying this is that the Tibetan terminology has many different meanings. For example, in Tibetan, the potentials and tendencies can also be called habits. It’s horrible that the Tibetan terms can be used interchangeably with many of the different items that we have been discussing. I have limited the use of the terminology to just one meaning for potential, tendency, and habit. You may get confused when you read the literature because the terms will be used almost interchangeably. You have to look at the definitions of a specific type of item that can be called many different things.
So, we have potentials which can be constructive or destructive and with a simplified terminology, that’s referring to the actions, the imputations afterwards, and the non-revealing forms. We have tendencies which are unspecified and are also imputations. Both potentials and tendencies, other than the non-revealing forms, will transform into constant karmic habits when they are finished giving their results. The constant karmic habits are unspecified and give rise to the appearance of true existence. These constant karmic habits give rise to that appearance every moment. The potentials and tendencies only give rise to their results sometimes and not every moment.
Karmic Results Arise from a Complex Nexus
Now, karmic results: let’s just talk about the karmic results of the potentials and the tendencies. That’s usually what we discuss when we talk about behavioral cause and effect. We talk about these results. There are four types of results. Actually it’s usually discussed as three and one of them has two parts, so four. We have ripened karmic results, karmic results that correspond to their cause in our behavior, karmic results that correspond to their cause in our experience, and dominating karmic results.
First of all, what we really need to understand is that cause and effect is the most complicated topic. Only a Buddha knows it in full. Any result rises from many combinations, a nexus, a complex of many causes and conditions. Nothing comes from just one cause, and one phenomenon can function as many different types of causes for many different things. It’s not a linear type of thing where one cause has one effect and that one effect comes from only one cause. It’s an incredibly complex nexus. For, something to occur, you need many causes.
Ripened Karmic Result
You have to know the definitions of all of these in order to understand. The ripened karmic result, the first type of karmic result, is the non-obstructive unspecified items conjoined with our mental continuum as a limited being. The term unspecified means that it is neither constructive nor destructive. They can accompany either constructive or destructive phenomenon. They stay unspecified by nature, yet they can become constructive or destructive by association.
Some ripened karmic results obstruct liberation and some of them don’t. Our body doesn’t obstruct liberation nor does our mind. We can be engaged in constructive or destructive behavior. Whereas, for example, grasping for true existence or grasping for an impossible me is unspecified and can accompany either so-called tainted constructive or destructive things and it does obstruct liberation.
What are we referring to here? We are referring to ripened karmic results. That would be the body, consciousness and feelings of happiness and unhappiness in terms of the five aggregates. Concerning the other mental factors, only the unspecified ones would be ripened karmic results. Examples of this are concentration, distinguishing, and attention. So, the constructive and destructive mental factors such as anger or love, they are not ripened karmic results. They have their own tendencies and continuum that they are coming from.
Ripening Karmic Causes
Ripened karmic results come about from ripening karmic causes. They are also conjoined with our mental continuum. In Vasubandhu’s system we have six types of causes and four types of results plus some more that are not included in that list. In Asanga’s system, we have twenty types of causes. The analysis of causality and the different types of causal factors is very complex and sophisticated. A ripening karmic cause is conjoined with our mental continuum and has to be either tainted constructive, or destructive. So, constructive or destructive ripening causes give rise to unspecified ripened results by definition.
But, to add more to the definition, the ripening causes are not devoid of the moisture of thirsting. That word, which I am translating from the Sanskrit word for thirst, is usually translated from the Tibetan as craving. However, the true original Sanskrit word means thirst. Therefore it fits the definition for the low level of moisture for thirst. That is the eighth link in the twelve links of dependent arising. Thirsting, the eighth link is one of the two links in the twelve links of dependent arising that activate karmic potential. Therefore, we are talking about how this ripening cause has to be activated. Potentials have to be activated and they are activated by thirsting. I will define and describe what thirsting means in this context.
When we are very thirsty and we have just a little bit of water, then we thirst not to be parted from that water. We want more. When we experience happiness, we thirst not to be parted from it. We are thirsty for more and more and we don’t want it taken away. When we are unhappy, when we experience unhappiness, then it’s like being thirsty and we want to be parted from that unpleasantness of being thirsty. If we have neutral feeling, which is referring to these deep states of meditation of the higher panes of existence, then we thirst for it not to decline or weaken.
So, this eighth link plus the ninth link, an obtainer emotion or attitude, these things activate karmic potential. I will not explain the obtainer attitude because it is a complex of many different factors. The word is literally to obtain. It is what obtains the next rebirth. It is not the same word as grasping or grasping for true existence as it is often translated. It is a completely different word. That’s why it is confusing to translate it as grasping. Then we get confused. It is not that word.
To continue, what we are referring to here is that the karmic potential and we need to remember what that is referring to. The karmic potential is the thinking, speaking, and acting, the imputation after that, and the non-revealing form. That’s the karmic potential. It’s constructive or destructive. The karmic potential can function as a ripening karmic cause. On the other hand, karmic tendencies are unspecified and they do not function as ripening karmic causes.
What do karmic potentials give rise to? They give rise to a body and consciousness and feelings and things like concentration and attention. But, let’s just focus on body and consciousness and feelings. We’ve all heard that a million times. Happiness is brought about from constructive positive potential or merit and unhappiness from negative karmic potential. That’s the mechanism of ripening causes and ripening results. Happiness and unhappiness are unspecified. You can be happy or unhappy while you’re doing something constructive or while you are doing something destructive.
When we talk about the body being a ripened result, what does that mean? In terms of the twelve links, we’re talking about the obtaining of a body in a future life and what type of body we are going to obtain. Will it be a body of an animal, or a ghost, or a human for example? The body itself, in the case of humans, comes from a sperm and egg of the parents. The sperm and egg are not the ripening causes. We’re talking about what causes us to have that type of rebirth and not what makes the body. It’s not the Chittamatra system of mind only.
If we speak in terms of a moment of cognition, then in this moment what is responsible for consciousness, a feeling of happiness, attention, and so on? With the body as the basis for this, what parts of the body are going to be involved in a moment of doing something? Am I going to hurt you with my hand or with my foot? That sense of the body is one thing, but the body itself, it’s coming from its own causes and its own different types of causes. What cognitive sensors are going to be involved in a moment of cognition? Is it going to be the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes or the sound-sensitive of the ears? Which ones are going to be involved? The important point is that it doesn’t create these ripening causes.
The object of cognition, for example, that I’m going to kick you, your body, this is called a simultaneously acting condition of the cognition. It’s not ripening from that potential like it would in the Chittamatra system. It is a condition that is acting simultaneously with what is coming from my side. To continue, this body, that is a simultaneously arising cause of the body. This means that the cause is occurring at the same time as the result. This refers to the elements of the body such as the liquid, the solid, the air, the digestive and circulatory systems etc. These obviously, in some sense, cause a body. They simultaneously arise with the body. Without them, we wouldn’t have a body but that’s a different type of cause. It’s not that first we have the liquid and solid things and then we have our bodies. They are at the same time.
Karmic Tendencies are Equal Status Causes
So, then what role do the karmic tendencies play in this? They are unspecified and they are not the ripening causes of the body, consciousness, and feelings. They are called the equal status causes. That is a different type of cause, and they function in a different type of way to contribute to body, consciousness, and feelings. Equal status means that they are a type of cause for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomenon as they are. In this case, unspecified. Body, consciousness, and feelings are unspecified. Potentials are constructive or destructive so they can only be ripening causes. Tendencies are unspecified so they can only be equal status causes. Each functions in a slightly different ways participating in the causal complex.
Karmic Results that Correspond to the Causes in Our Behavior
The next type of karmic result is the karmic result that corresponds to their causes in our behavior. That refers to the mental factors or liking or wishing to repeat a previously committed karmic action. Remember how we started the whole sequence of how karma unfolds. First we had the mental factor of liking to do something. I like to do this. So, that mental factor is the karmic result that corresponds to the cause in our behavior. We like to do it, and then based on that, if we have the urge, we do it. If I would like to yell at you, it doesn’t mean that I have to yell at you. I could decide not to and that’s where we stop and self-control comes in. Once the compelling urge is there, it’s hard to stop. We can stop it at the earlier point when we simply feel like it. I feel like going to the refrigerator or I pass the bakery and I would like to have a chocolate cake. Yet, it doesn’t mean that I will go in to have it. But, liking or wishing to repeat the action will continue to arise. For example, if I stop smoking, I still might like to have a cigarette but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to smoke. That’s the karmic result that corresponds to the cause in our behavior. That’s what it is referring to.
Equal Status Results
So, where are these results of wanting to repeat a previous action coming from? That is coming from the karmic potentials. But, the wanting to do something can be constructive or destructive based on whether what we want to do is constructive or destructive. For example, liking yelling at people or liking to eat chocolate that is destructive or constructive so they cannot be ripened results. Ripened results are only unspecified.
These are equal status results of karmic potentials. Karmic potentials are constructive or destructive and the karmic result that corresponds to the causes in our behavior, the wanting to do something, is constructive or destructive. So, the relation between the two has to be one of equal status. It can’t be a ripening relationship. For example, I want to help you or I want to make it more difficult for you. What would I like to do? Torture you or help you?
Karmic Results that Correspond to the Results in Our Experience
Then, we have karmic results that correspond to the results in our experience. They refer to the consciousness that experiences something happening to us similar to what we did before. Since consciousness is an unspecified phenomenon, this result is also a ripened result of our constructive or destructive karmic potential and an equal status cause of our karmic tendencies. This result is just referring to the consciousness of experiencing something. It’s not referring to what somebody else does to us. It refers to our experiencing of what somebody else does to us.
What others do is the result of their karmic tendencies or potentials. It’s not the result of our karmic tendencies and potentials. What comes from our karmic tendencies and potentials is just to experience that. Your karma is responsible for you hitting me with your car. I’m only responsible for experiencing that. I didn’t cause you to hit me with your car. This is very important actually in terms of our whole Western syndrome of guilt. I didn’t cause you to hit me with your car. Your karma caused you to hit me with your car. My karma just caused me to be hit by a car. If it wasn’t your car it would be somebody else’s car.
Next, we have dominating results. They refer to the consciousness that experiences the type of environment or society in which we are born or enter. The way it affects us is the consciousness that experiences objects such as our possessions and what happens to them. For example things always break or things never break. They are dominating in the sense that they extend over and dominate everything that we experience in a particular rebirth.
So, the environment arises from all sorts of external causes. The karmic aspect of it is our experiencing that environment. Of course we could have contributed to the pollution. That’s something else and is called a man-made result. Here, we are talking about the reason why we experience this. That is referring to the mental consciousness but consciousness could be seeing it as well. Consciousness is an unspecified phenomenon so again it’s the ripened result of our karmic potentials and the equal karmic cause of the karmic tendencies.
Now, besides this system, we also have something caused obtaining causes. The obtaining cause is that from which one obtains the item as its successor and thus it ceases to exist when its successor arises or a series of successors finishes arising. The seed is the obtaining cause for the sprout. When the sprout arises you no longer have the seed. The sprout is the successor of the seed. It comes next.
The karmic potentials, which have the essential nature of a tendency, and the karmic tendencies, these are the obtaining causes for all four types of results that we were discussing except the body. The obtaining cause for the body is not the karmic potentials. A karmic potential does not turn into your body. It turns into the consciousness or the feelings, these sorts of things. It’s from which you obtain. To say it turns into is not so accurate either.
The body doesn’t come from the karmic causes and potentials being their obtaining cause. An obtaining cause would be like the uncooked dough is the obtaining cause for the bread. So the karmic tendencies and potentials are the obtaining cause for the consciousness and feelings and so on but they are not the obtaining cause for the body.
So, we have one other aspect that we need to bring in here and that’s called a natal source. The natal source is like the womb that gives rise to a baby or the oven giving rise to bread. In many cases the obtaining cause and the natal source will be the same. The seed is the obtaining cause of the sprout and it’s also the natal source of the sprout in that the sprout comes out of the seed.
Similar Family Cause
Now, here’s where non-revealing forms come in. First of all, I should mention in terms of the network of positive potential, it will build up or contribute to either more samsara, although a better and nicer samsara, liberation, or enlightenment, depending on the motivation and dedication. If the motivation is bodhichitta and it is dedicated to bodhichitta, to our enlightenment, then it acts as an enlightenment building network of positive force. If it’s not dedicated, it just will contribute to a nicer samsara.
The network of enlightening positive potential, this imputed non-congruent variable, this network is the obtaining cause for the form bodies of a Buddha. Remember, the positive potential of the actions are finished. They are not happening anymore. These non-congruent variables are what are imputed on our mental continuum and come with us all the way to enlightenment unless we ruin it. We want to build more and more bodhichitta. That network is still there right before you attain enlightenment and is going to be the obtaining cause for the form bodies of a Buddha.
To clarify, while the actions are also potentials, they are finished. They are gone and are no longer happening. But, you still have the non-congruent variables that can continue, imputed on your mental continuum, all the way to enlightenment unless you totally exhaust them. That is why you want to build more and more positive potentials and why you dedicate everything until enlightenment. Without the motivation and dedication, it just gives rise to having a nice time in samsara and then it’s finished and turns into a constant karmic habit.
The positive actions of bodhichitta and so on, these are called similar family causes known as the "32 excellent signs and 80 exemplary features of a Supreme Nirmanakaya." For example, what’s the cause of a Buddha having a long tongue or any of the major or minor marks of a Buddha? It’s because as a bodhisattva, for example, Buddha took care of others with as much kindness as a mother animal licking her young. So, that positive potential of the actual action is known as a similar family cause. It’s like a model for the features of a Supreme Nirmanakaya. You can’t say that it is the obtaining cause because it is no longer happening and is no longer present.
Of course, we also need to have a network of deep awareness as the simultaneously arising condition for the attainment of a form body. But, we won’t make it even more complicated by discussing that.
Non-revealing Forms as a Natal Source for the Form Body of a Buddha
Now, here is what all of this is leading to. In the Chittamatra system of Asanga, remember the body and the mind, the consciousness and the object, all come from the same natal source. This is not the case in the Prasangika system. The natal source for the form body and the natal source for the mind of a Buddha have to be different. This is my own analysis and I may be wrong. What makes sense to me is that the natal source, as the immediately preceding cause, what is there the moment right before the form body of a Buddha, should also be a form of physical phenomena. Therefore, non-revealing forms and the bodhisattva vows as a non-revealing form of the positive potential, I think that is one of the reasons why Tsongkapa reinstates this whole explanation from Vasubandhu about the non-revealing forms. That way you can have an immediately preceding cause for the form body of a Buddha as its natal source which is also a form of physical phenomena and part of that whole network of positive force.
So, our gross body, our tainted body, even with the channels and winds and so on, that doesn’t transform into a body of a Buddha. But you have these non-revealing forms and bodhisattva vows in the sutra system. In the anuttarayoga tantra system, you would also then discuss what the non-revealing forms are made of and the discussion of the subtlest winds and so on. That’s a further refinement.
Now, we can understand why there’s such an incredible disaster to give up bodhichitta, or bodhisattva vows, or for example, that I’m never going to work to help others and so on. Then you lose the non-revealing form and you lose the vow. You no longer have that which is going to give rise to the form body of a Buddha. So, this is a disaster.
Conclusion and Dedication
This has been a fairly detailed explanation, although obviously it could be more detailed. We have to work with it and as you’ve seen, Tsongkhapa’s Gelugpa version of karma helps us to understand many other things in the Dharma teachings. It makes sense. We can understand why he rejected the system for explaining karma that was prevalent at his time and went back to Vasubandhu and modified that presentation with his Madhyamika Prasangika understanding.
So, now when we say the dedication, “whatever positive force and whatever understanding,” that phrase is referring to positive potential and deep awareness. By saying “may that act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment,” what you are doing is strengthening the enlightenment-building network because it is with bodhichitta. You started with the motivation and now, with the dedication to enlightenment, you build and strengthen more and more that enlightenment-building positive potential. This is both in terms of that non-congruent variable with imputation and the non-revealing form. This is what is getting strengthened each time that you make a dedication. The enlightenment building network will continue all the way to enlightenment and be responsible in a very complex way for the Form Bodies of a Buddha.
So, we think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone, not just me, but everyone to attain the enlightenment of a Buddha.