Revealing Forms of Physical and Verbal Karma

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Brief Historical Background of Non-Gelug and Tsongkhapa’s Systems

Now we’re ready to look at Tsongkhapa’s presentation of karma. This is in the Prasangika system but within Madhyamaka. For that, the Gelugpa school following from Tsongkhapa has its own special way of asserting the Prasangika assertions. Someone asked the question if this presentation of Tsongkhapa’s was also accepted by the other Tibetan traditions and their understandings or assertions about Madhyamaka. I explained that although I have not studied the other tradition’s assertions about karma in any depth, as far as I understand, they accept Asanga’s system, each with modifications based on their own understanding of Madhyamaka. Tsongkhapa accepts Vasubandhu’s system with his modifications based on his understanding of Madhyamaka. It helps to understand the historical background.

Both Shantarakshita and Kamalashila came and taught the basic philosophical system and then invited Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. They both come from the so-called Yogachara branch of Svatantrika Madhyamaka. According to this view, they accept (similarly to Chittamatra) that the object, the consciousness, and mental factors all arise from the same natal source and karmic seed; with non-duality. Although being Madhyamaka, they modified the Chittamatra understanding of reality of how things exist or voidness. They do accept this non-dual aspect and understand non-duality in a more sophisticated way than Chittamatra.

Whether they call it Maha Madhyamaka, self-voidness and other voidness, Madhyamaka – or any other of the many different variants – nevertheless, within the non-Gelugpa traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the emphasis is very much on this non-duality of object and so-called subject, the consciousness. It’s coming out of the Yogacara background. Within their presentations, the Asanga system fits quite comfortably, with their own modifications of course. But basically they can work with modifying Asanga’s system, whereas Tsongkhapa has problems with that and goes back to Vasubandhu’s system.

I always find it quite helpful to understand why there are these differences and where they come from. It helps us to not develop a sectarian view about these things.

Similarities and Differences in Asanga’s and Tsongkhapa’s Systems

Now, in Tsongkhapa’s system, when we talk about mental karma, it is basically the same as Asanga’s presentation. There is the compelling urge that brings on the pathway of mental karma, of deliberation or plotting; for example, how I can get something, how I can hurt someone, or how I can refute another position. These are the three types of destructive mental activity. Plotting how I can get something is an example of coveting. This goes in harmony with the three so-called "poisonous emotions:" longing desire and greed, anger and hostility, and naivety.

However, in Tsongkhapa’s system, mental karma includes not only the urge that brings on a pathway of mental behavior, but physical or verbal behavior as well. In Asanga’s system it is differentiated. Mental karma was only for mental karma and physical and verbal karma was the urge for physical or verbal behavior. Here, Tsongkhapa accepts that, but now calls all three of these "mental karma." This is different labeling and different names in a different conceptual system. Still, it’s talking about the same thing. Some physical activities and some verbal activities have deliberation beforehand, thinking something through; and others don’t. We know that from our experience. You can think about something before you say it or you can just be so-called spontaneous and say something without having thought it out beforehand. So, a differentiation is made here. We don’t have to go into the details of that.

However, what is relevant in terms of a physical or verbal action is that you can have one motivation when you start to deliberate, and you can have a different motivation that is involved with actually carrying out the action. An example from my own experience is from when I was in India. At one point my house was infested with bed bugs in the walls, in the furniture, and everywhere. I lived in a very primitive hut of mud and stones. They were driving me crazy and I couldn’t do any of my work and so out of consideration for what would be most beneficial in terms of my work and wishing that the bed bugs would have a better rebirth, I decided I was going to exterminate them by using a chemical to get rid of them. Otherwise I would have had to give the house to the bed bugs and move and I am not at that stage where, like Buddha in a previous life, I could offer my body to the hungry tigers. I wasn’t about to offer myself to the bed bugs.

I had a fairly positive motivation although I was going to take lives by killing. But I was shocked at my mental state when I was actually doing the extermination because then, it became more like 'Die, you bastard.' I really wanted to kill it and the bug is running, and this aggression developed during actually doing which was quite different from the so-called "causal motivation." This is known as the "contemporaneous motivation." As you’re doing it, this is what drives you into actually doing it and sustains the action. That could be quite different.

You can see in so many examples. You have a disagreement with somebody. Out of wanting to make peace you attempt to talk, but then during the course of the conversation you get really angry at the person. That happens. The point is that the ethical status of the behavior is determined according to the contemporaneous motivation, not the causal one. So, your good intentions to start with don’t really carry. If while discussing something with that person you get angry and very hostile, despite your good intentions to make peace, it’s a destructive type of verbal behavior because you are actually speaking with anger.

Now, the analysis of a pathway of karma is another similarity in both systems with, of course, the Madhyamaka understanding of how they exist. In both systems there is this whole complex of a basis, a motivating framework, an application or doing something, and a finale or reaching the intended conclusion. To review briefly, in the motivating framework, we had distinguishing, intention, and accompanying emotion, either positive or negative. So, in the case of mental behavior, the motivating urge or karma and the pathway of karma are two conceptually isolated things. They are not the same. That’s the same as Asanga’s view of mental karma. Mental behavior, to clarify, is thinking or deliberating, for example about how I am going to kill those bed bugs: thinking about what I am going to do, I plan that I have to buy the poison, and I have to do this, and I have to do that. The point is that you can conceptually isolate the karma and the pathway of karma and discuss them separately, although they don’t exist like chess pieces.

Tsongkhapa’s System Categorizes Physical and Verbal Karma as Forms of Physical Phenomena

But in regard to physical and verbal actions, there is the big difference between Tsongkhapa’s view and Asanga’s. In Tsongkhapa’s system, the compelling urge that gets us into the physical or verbal behavior is mental karma. It’s still in the category of mental karma. It is a mental thing, isn’t it? But the physical or verbal karma are no longer ways of being aware of something, like an urge, a mental factor. They are forms of physical phenomena. This becomes complicated. Rather than calling it a compelled urge, since urge sounds very mental, I think we can understand it a little bit better with the word impulse. I don’t know if you have a different word in German for it but impulse, in English, is more physical. So, it’s a compelled impulse that’s brought on by a compelling urge.

Revealing and Non-revealing Forms

We have two aspects of physical and verbal karma – this impulse. There’s the revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) and the non-revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa'i gzugs). If we look at the Sanskrit words for these and analyze the grammar of the Sanskrit words, then we can understand what this means. What I’m translating as "revealing," vijnapti, literally means something that causes us to know something. It’s a noun made from the causative form of the verb. It’s very helpful to have studied Sanskrit grammar. It’s one of the topics of the five major Buddhist sciences that are studied and is very helpful. What does it cause us to know? It causes us to know that there is some motivation behind the action. That’s why I call it "revealing." It reveals that there is a motivation behind it. You might not know what the motivation is, but there is some motivation behind it.

The non-revealing (avijnapti) form is one that is so subtle that it doesn’t reveal anything. You can’t tell from it that there is a motivation, or if so what the motivation behind it might be. You can tell from the revealing form that there is a motivation behind it, and you can probably guess what the motivation is. However, you might be wrong and won’t be sure unless you are a Buddha. In a non-revealing form, it is very subtle and you can’t tell from its shape what the motivation is. So, a revealing form is something you can see or hear. The non-revealing form is something that is only known mentally.

Remember, with motivation, it’s this motivating framework. There are the three factors of distinguishing, intention, and some emotion. Think about, for example, a ball or a rock falling down a hill. There is something that you can see. Is that a revealing form or not? When you have a discussion like this about a revealing form and a non-revealing form, it doesn’t mean that this is a dichotomy and that all visible things can be divided into these two. It’s not that way because there are things that are neither. The rock falls down the hill or I run down the hill. What is the difference? Did the rock distinguish that it is going to roll over here and not over there? Did it do that? No. Did the rock decide before hand that it wanted to go down the hill and then goes down the hill? No. Did the rock have some emotion, like being bored staying up the hill and wanting to go down the hill where it is more interesting? I don’t think so.

But if I run down the hill, then that form, that shape of that motion reveals that I distinguished that I want to go there. It wasn’t arbitrary. My intention was to get there and I had a reason. I was dissatisfied with where I was and wanted something from over there. So in terms of visible behavior or motion, some are revealing and some are just the motion of inanimate objects. So if it’s a revealing form, we’re talking about something animate here. We’re referring to what a sentient being, something with a mind, does. Do you follow what we mean here?

The Compulsive Shape of Actions and Verbal Karma

So, in the case of physical actions, the revealing form is the compulsive shape of our actions and the shape that our actions take. You really have to analyze what in the world is being talked about here. They use the word "shape," which, as we discussed beforehand, is a little bit difficult to translate into German. We’re talking about what animate objects do. And don’t go into Gestalt theory and interpolate all of that when we use the word "Gestalt" in German for the English word "shape." We’re talking about the compulsive shape, and this is one aspect of physical karma. It’s not just the compulsive shape of behavior, but includes the larger complex.

If you look at the Tibetan word for "shape," dbyibs, and then you search your internal search engine and search for where this word appears elsewhere in the Buddhist teachings, then you come up with Chandrakirti’s seven-point analysis of the chariot. That’s where that word comes. No need for me to explain the whole seven-point analysis of the chariot. That’s a big complex topic. However, within that, the word "shape" is defined. Tsongkhapa defines and explains it very nicely. One of the seven alternatives or possibilities is that the chariot is all the disassembled parts. If you disassembly the chariot and put all the parts, the wheel, the axel, and the seat, and all these things on the ground, is that the chariot? No, it’s not. You can think in terms of your automobile; we don’t have too many chariots these days. The shape is when all the parts are assembled and functioning. However, that’s still not the chariot. If none of the parts are the chariot then how, if you put them together and they are functioning, how can the whole thing be the chariot? If none of the parts are the chariot, then where is the whole thing coming from? That’s coming from what I introduced before. From the non-Prasangika view: that each of the parts is a self-established entity, and the whole is also a self-established entity, and the chariot is labeled on that.

Tsongkhapa’s Prasangika is saying that there is nothing self-established in the parts or in the whole, or anything like that just sitting there as the basis for imputing the chariot. I’m saying this in just a few words. That’s very difficult to understand and very profound. I’m sorry.

If the pieces of the chess game are not encased in plastic, how can you have the game encased in plastic that we can call "the game?" There’s nothing on that side. If you put together in chess that there’s this piece and that move, and that piece and that move, and only one occurs at a time, and you just lay it out on a piece of paper, writing it all out, that’s not the chess game. None of the moves are the whole chess game, and if none of them are the chess game, when you put them together and they function, how can that be the chess game? You could play a movie of it and say that was the game, but there’s nothing establishing it from the side of the pieces or any of the moves. In addition, the whole thing as a whole doesn’t ever occur in one moment anyway. Does the entire game happen in one moment? So, how can you talk about the whole?

In this context, from the analysis of the chariot, we apply it to the shape of the game. I know you can’t use the word "Gestalt" in the German language to an inanimate object, but let’s be flexible in our use of language in translating and have it mean the shape of the game. If we put all the moves and all the pieces together, there was a certain shape that the game took and you could see it. You could watch it. Here, we apply this to the analysis of karma, then what we are talking about the shape of the pathway of physical karma.

Remember, we had the pathway of the physical karma that is a complex of these four pieces that are interacting with each other. There is the basis, motivating framework, application, and a finale over a sequence, over time. That’s the pathway and it has a shape when all these pieces are gathered together and functioning. Taken as a whole, you can say that there is a shape. You can say that it is a compulsive shape and that shape reveals that there was some motivating framework operating as part of it.

The Benefit of Broadening Our Understanding of Karma

If we extend and broaden our understanding of karma as compulsiveness beyond just the one piece in this chess game, called the urge that brings on the behavior, then you see that there is the compulsiveness about the urge that brings on our behavior, and also there is a compulsive shape that our behavior takes. Examples of compulsive shapes are that compulsively, I talk too much; or compulsively, I argue; or compulsively, I run. There’s a certain shape that the behavior takes and it reveals. It’s an animate object doing it, so you can mentally label a person on this as well. The entire sequence here is compulsive: the urge that brings it on and the behavior is also compulsive.

So, we’re broadening our understanding of what it means to assert karma as compulsiveness. We can do this because we are comfortable in the philosophical system, and we are not looking at all the items that are involved here as chess pieces. It’s an open system, and this is just our conceptual framework for understanding what is going on. There is compulsiveness about the whole thing, not just compulsiveness of the urge as the one piece in the chess game. Do you understand the significance of that?

When we are working to try to rid ourselves of karma, we’re not just trying to take one piece off of the chess board. What we’re trying to get rid of is the whole complex syndrome of all the things that are involved. It’s quite a different strategy in our understanding of how we become liberated from samsara, because all the items that are involved dependently arise in terms of the conceptual framework to analyze and understand what’s going on. Do you understand? The conceptual framework is the framework of the whole process here of karma, and we’re not talking about some isolated pieces. Therefore, if we want to get rid of karma, we have to deal with the entire conceptual framework of the entire thing, not just one piece of it existing on the side of what we do. It’s very profound if you follow that in terms of our strategy.

It’s not going to be a viable solution to just change the conceptual framework, or not to use any conceptual framework and just attempt to become non-conceptual. That is not going to free us from suffering. Karma is still operating whether we understand it through a conceptual framework or not. But if you have this conceptual framework, you understand the enemy, and if you understand the enemy, then you know how to defeat the enemy.

Buddhism loves to use this sort of military terminology. Buddha came from the warring caste, so you have that. Shantideva uses it throughout. The real enemy is disturbing emotions in your mind. Don’t be shocked by the military terminology here. You want to defeat these internal enemies that are causing us so much trouble, not on the basis of aggression and hate, but with compassion. Compassion is not for the anger but for other people, because the anger prevents us from helping them. Compassion is not for the disturbing emotions. Shantideva says very clearly that they are not the object of compassion as in poor anger; 'I’ll be nice to you.' They just come back and hurt you even more, he says.

The Revealing Form of Verbal Karma is the Sound

One last point is that when we talk about the revealing form of verbal actions, it’s the sound. There is the entire complex of the pathway, the verbal karma, and you can hear it. For example, if you have an argument and so on, that sound – that pathway as a whole, that whole complex with the motivation and intention and so on – that is the revealing form of the verbal karma. If you think about it, it makes sense. If I do something strongly, you can see that there’s some aggression behind it as part of it. If I speak in a certain way, you can tell that there’s some aggression in my voice from the sound, just as you can tell that there’s aggression in the way I might move my body.

Brief Summary

To summarize:

  • In the case of verbal or physical karma, the physical or verbal karma is the whole pathway of the physical and verbal karma.
  • In the case of mental karma, the urge and the pathway of karma are two different things. In the case of physical and verbal karma, they are the same.
  • In the case of physical karma and verbal karma, the pathway of karma is one aspect of the karma. But physical and verbal karma are more than just the pathway of karma. There is something else as well – the non-revealing form. That we will discuss after lunch.

Karma, if you think of it as compulsiveness – compulsiveness is not just the urge, but in the case of physical and verbal behavior, it is also the pathway. There is compulsiveness about the whole thing from the urge – from everything if you’ve thought about it, from the urge to start the action, and then what you do. This includes the whole pathway with the motivation and intention and all of that. There’s compulsion about the whole thing. So, the basis for labeling karma now is much more expanded than in the system of Asanga.