The Need for Revising Asanga's Presentation of Karma

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We are continuing our discussion of what karma actually means. Yesterday we discussed the less complex presentation presented by the Indian master Asanga within the context of the Chittamatra system of tenets. If we translate Chittamatra literally, it means "mind-only." We saw that, in this system, karma is referring to the mental factor of an urge. An urge is the mental factor that draws our mental continuum toward a particular object. It’s not just to the object, but also includes entire thing that is going to occur in the mental event with that object.

Now, in the case of the mental continuum of a Buddha, of course, it would be drawn to any particular object at any particular time by the force of compassion. But in the case of all limited beings – a term usually translated as "sentient beings" – this means somebody with a limited mind and body, and not a Buddha – not only are their minds limited, but also their bodies are as well. We can’t multiply into countless forms, can we? We don’t live forever either. So, a Buddha is not a sentient being or a limited being. If he were a sentient being, by the meaning of sentient, it might be hard to understand why a Buddha is not still a sentient being. In any case, in our situation as limited beings, our urges are compulsive and this is what karma is all about.

"Compulsive" means that we have no control over it. These urges are tainted in the sense that they are brought on by disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and also accompanied by them. These disturbing factors are defined as factors which, when they arise, make us lose peace of mind and lose self control. In this system we’re talking about a compulsion, a mental factor that drives us into thinking, speaking, or acting in a certain way. This is also tainted and mixed with disturbing emotions and so on.

Karma is not referring to the actions. It refers to the compulsion that brings on our actions or words. In this particular system, it's not that we have to stop doing anything at all to gain liberation from karma; we have to get rid of the compulsiveness of our behavior.

We also saw that we can’t just speak in terms of actions, but rather we speak in terms of a pathway of karma, which is a complex of several factors. There is a basis toward which our behavior is directed; a motivating framework – a distinguishing of that basis, an aim or an intention, which also requires distinguishing of what you intend to do, and a motivating positive or negative emotion. Then, there is the application of these into our behavior. They don’t use the word "action" here. It’s the word "to apply" – to apply that motivating framework to the basis. The finale is that what we do needs to reach its intended aim.

In other words, for example, if we intend to kill somebody and we shoot and miss, then we haven’t killed anybody obviously. All that we’ve done is shoot at somebody and what we’ve done has turned into something else, not a killing. If we say what is untrue, we lie to somebody with the intention to deceive them, and they don’t believe us, we haven’t actually deceived them. Our action turns into just idle chatter or basically making a fool of ourselves.

In terms of this whole complex, it goes through a continuum. There is the complex involved with starting the action, with continuing it and maintaining it throughout the course of the action, and then the whole complex to stop doing it. The pathway of karma refers to all of these things. Karma is what brings it on. The karma is the urge to initially think something, the urge to actually get into action (a physical action), the urge to continue it, and the urge to stop doing it. That is considered separate from the actual pathway. Of course, all the factors that are involved can change during the course of this whole event. That’s quite complex, isn’t it?

Why Tsongkhapa Offered a Further Deeper Explanation of Karma

Now, what’s the problem with Asanga’s formulation? Why would Tsongkhapa reject it and give a further, deeper explanation with the Gelug Prasangika view? Personally I find this a very important point to analyze. Otherwise you just learn that there are different systems, this and that system, and so what? We can work with one system or another and we don’t think that it makes so much difference except that one is more complicated than the other.

The reason is that there is something that needs to be refuted, something that is a problem in Asanga’s system. Then you have to analyze. What is the problem? We have to remember that Asanga presented this view of karma in the context of the Chittamatra tenet system. The problem lies in the Chittamatra formulation of karma. So, what is one of the most basic features of the Chittamatra system that would be relevant here? This is why I said that whenever we study any topic in the Dharma, you need to try to have a very broad study of many many aspects of the Dharma. Then you can fit it together and things start to make sense. Otherwise they are just disjointed pieces of information. The main tenet of the Chittamatra system that is relevant here is that in any moment of cognition, the object and the consciousness and all the mental factors arise from one karma so-called "seed" or "karmic tendency." That’s the problem.

Also, the cognitive sensors – the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes or the sound-sensitive of the ears – are considered to come from that same karmic tendency. Even the body is coming from one karmic seed in each moment. So, when we spoke about all the factors in the complex of a pathway of karma, that’s all coming from one karmic seed or one karmic tendency in the Chittamatra system. That means the appearance of the basis in our cognition as well is coming from the same karmic seed as our mind, all the mental factors, and what we’re actually doing. Everything is all in one lump.

But according to the Prasangika view, that is incorrect. Chittamatra refutes the external natal source. A natal source is what something springs from. Chittamatra refutes that there are any externally existent phenomena, and Prasangika says that there are externally existent phenomena. That is bad enough, but there is another big problem because of this. This other issue refers to the Bodies of a Buddha. How do you get a Form Body and Omniscient Mind of a Buddha? What are the causes or sources for these? In other words, although the Chittamatra system has its own explanation of how we get the body of a Buddha, there’s a problem if you say that the object and the consciousness both come from the same source. There’s a problem there. You have to get a different explanation. You can’t just go with the Chittamatra explanation in Prasangika. There’s also a problem in terms of how everything exists in the whole formulation.

Both Chittamatra and Prasangika are going to assert dependent arising, but their definition and understandings are different. There’s the twelve links of dependent arising, but we’re not discussing that at this moment. Both systems accept that as do the Hinayana systems, although how the twelve links work is going to be explained in different levels of sophistication. However, if we really want to understand karma on a deeper level and how it is involved with uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we need to understand the twelve links. That is not the topic for this weekend.

In Chittamatra, when we speak about dependent arising philosophically, we are speaking about how we have the interdependence of cause and effect, and we also speak in terms of the interdependence of the whole and its parts. So, with karma obviously we have cause and effect, and the pathway of karma is a complex of many things. Therefore we have the whole and its parts.

But remember, yesterday we mentioned self-sufficiently established phenomena. The definition is of this term is "something that performs a function." The implication is as if these are self-established, almost as if something is encased in plastic by itself. It’s self sufficient and there it is. Although you can have complex systems of these individual items, they are all individual items that are self-encased. Even the whole, as we saw yesterday, is a self-sufficiently existent thing, as in the example mentioned about how my trip to India had a big influence on me. My trip to India was made up of many many different events and many different things, but, taken as a whole, it performed a function. It is something we can point to as "my time in India."

So, if we want to use an example – although examples are never completely precise so don’t push it – think of it like a chess game. All the various items that are involved in karma and pathways of karma are like the different pieces on a chess board. There they are, this piece and that piece, this pawn and that bishop and so on, as if separate. Each chess piece has its own function and way of moving, and the game arises dependently on all these pieces performing their functions. So, in this example, you have cause and effect and dependent arising in that the outcome of the game is dependent on all these causes and results of all the movements. The game as a whole arose dependently on all the parts and what happened in each moment. In addition, the game itself is its own entity because "I won the game" or "I lost the game." It performed a function of making me very happy or unhappy – going further in the competition or not. It itself is a self-sufficiently knowable thing: "the game." And it arose dependently on all the causes and conditions and parts, didn’t it?

We can extend that understanding to various events in our life of course. Examples of this are our time at this job, our time in this relationship, and so on. There are all the parts, the interactions, and the whole thing itself, and this makes for a very attractive way of looking at things that is helpful. So, in this system, karma is one little piece in the whole complex of our experience of so-called "behavioral cause and effect." However, the way in which all the pieces in this example of a chess game function and occur is going to be very strongly affected by that one piece in the chess game, the karma. It makes the focus at our efforts aimed at this one individual piece, and our strategy for gaining liberation or enlightenment is thereby quite fragmented. We want to get rid of this piece, the karma and that piece, the disturbing emotion. It’s all these little pieces. Think about it.

We have to understand that all these different pieces make a unified system. We understand the Chittamatra view of dependent arising, the causes, conditions, parts, and the twelve links. All this is fine and okay. We can even understand that unawareness or ignorance is underlying the whole thing. So, we can point to that as something that we need to work on to get rid of. That fits very nicely with this way of thinking that everything in our cognition all comes from one seed of karma or one karmic tendency. But that whole view of reality is not really accurate, is it? Things aren’t encased in plastic, although it might seem like that or appear like that. Things aren’t really like that.

Prasangika’s Definition of Karma

So, we need a strategy for overcoming uncontrollably recurring rebirth and the obscurations preventing omniscience or enlightenment. We need to have a strategy that is not so fragmented and working with all these little pieces that are self-sufficient things. They each have their own function and interact with each other, but still they are self-sufficiently findable functioning things. Because we need an understanding of karma and its functioning in an un-fragmented way, Prasangika broadens the definition of karma very much. It is much more than just that karmic urge, and none of the items involved are going to be self-sufficient. Nothing is encased in plastic here. There is the entire Madhyamika explanation about how if things are encapsulated in plastic, they couldn’t interact or perform a function, etc. It is only because they aren’t encased in plastic that they can have contact with each other and interact. Because of that, cause and effect works. Of course, we have to understand Madhyamika.

In this analysis of karma, all the various items are still functioning and they each dependently arise on each other simultaneously in relation to a conceptual framework. This refers to so-called "mental labeling." This is a very important point that needs to be precise; it’s the crucial point. There are all these various items that we could analyze that are all functioning. There’s the basis, the motion, and the urge. Nobody is denying that but none of them exist concretely – if we want to use a simple term – concretely with plastic around it. But how do you establish or affirm that there are all these items? How do we affirm it?

They are affirmed through a conceptual framework, a conceptual framework including karma, pathways, basis, motivation, and all these things. That conceptual framework doesn’t create any of these items, not at all. But we can only really, at our level, understand it and establish it this way. 'Yes, it’s like that. How do I know it’s like that? There’s this conceptual framework and through this conceptual framework I can make sense of it and understand it.' That is what it means to say that everything arises dependently on mental labeling.

Voidness and Dependent Arising in Regard to a Conceptual Framework

That’s jargon of course but you have to understand what it means. Everything in the entire system, all the aspects of it, arise dependently upon the conceptual framework of that system. It has nothing to do with time or sequence; everything in the system arises dependently upon a conceptual framework. It is only the conceptual framework that establishes these things in this manner. There is nothing on the side of the objects, like plastic encased chess pieces, that establishes that there are all these things involved. It’s not a chess game. There aren’t findable pieces and movements, and things having their own individual function within the whole game, and so on. You can’t point to any of these things separately. Think of that. This is reasonable if you think about it.

For example, we experience something. I experience yelling at you. Now, afterwards I want to understand what went on, and therefore we have the whole analysis of karma and all the pieces that are involved. So, what happened? Were there these helium balloons that arose somewhere in my brain? That helium balloon was my motivation, and here’s the helium balloon of my compulsion, and there’s the balloon of the person I yelled at. Did it happen like that? There aren’t any helium balloons in our heads that we can point to and say, "That was the balloon of our motivation." There were all these items. All of them were involved, but they weren’t helium balloons separately encased and interacting with each other. But we have a conceptual framework of this whole analysis, and that framework establishes or proves or affirms that there were such things. This is the word in Tibetan and Sanskrit. Nothing else will affirm that there were such things. The conceptual framework itself affirms that there were these things, and the framework allows us to understand it.

We can conceptually isolate them from everything else. That’s another technical term in Tibetan. We can conceptually isolate and discuss each of them individually, but that’s a conceptual process used to merely understand them. That’s called an isolate – isolated from everything else. But it doesn’t actually exist isolated from everything else. It’s conceptually isolated so that we can discuss it as if it were self-encased entity. But it’s not. The entire system, because it is devoid of existing as individual encase pieces, and because it is impossible to exist as individually encased pieces, it can dependently arise. Why? It is because it dependently arises only in terms of conceptual framework. It is devoid of impossible ways of existing and we understand voidness and dependent arising to be equivalent. Things arise only dependent on a conceptual framework. Why? It is because they don’t exist in the impossible way as these individual findable items.

So, that’s why dependent arising is the supreme reason for proving voidness. The perfect topic to understand this with is the topic of karma. So, if we have a much larger dependently arising system for explaining behavioral cause and effect, then we can add into the system and adjust it, so that we have a more reasonable set of causes for the Form Body of a Buddha. Remember, that was a problem in Chittamatra in that the object and the consciousness have to come from the same karmic seed. When we broaden our understanding of karma based on dependent arising, that will account for how in the world do we get the Form Body of a Buddha.

The Obtaining Cause of the Form Body of a Buddha

The general teaching on the Bodies of a Buddha is that the so-called "obtaining cause" or that from which you obtain the result – the obtaining cause of the Form Bodies of the Buddha – is the so-called "collection of merit." I call this the "network of positive potential." "Merit" is a whole Western concept that brings in all sorts of misunderstanding such as having to earn it. Our understanding of karmic potential has to be made more sophisticated in order to understand how untainted positive potential can be the obtaining cause of the Form Body of a Buddha. Even if it is the obtaining cause, still we have to understand what does that mean and how we reconcile that with another very important point in the Dharma: the explanation of rebirth.

What does it say? It says that you have a stream of continuity, and that stream must remain retaining the same essential nature. "Essential nature" refers to what type of thing it is. The essential nature of bodies, a physical thing, is that only a body can be the source of a body. The sperm and egg of the parents are the source of a body of a next life. But only mind, a way of being aware of something, can give rise to mind in the next lifetime. It can’t come from physical matter. To put it in basic simple words of Buddhist teachings, physical matter cannot be a prior moment of a stream of continuity of mental phenomenon; and mental phenomenon cannot be a prior moment of a stream of continuity of physical phenomenon.

The Benefit of Tsongkhapa’s More Complex System of Karma

Even though the Form Body of a Buddha is not our ordinary type of physical matter, nevertheless it is a form of physical phenomenon. It’s not gross physical matter, but it is a form of physical phenomenon. It has color and it has shape. So, if the obtaining cause is still the network of positive force of the Form Body of a Buddha, what’s going on here? How do I reconcile these two things? There is the obtaining cause of positive force, which is not physical, and yet the stream of continuity for some physical phenomenon has to be physical.

It’s to solve this problem of two seemingly contradictory points in our analysis within the Prasangika understanding of dependent arising that Tsongkhapa reintroduces, with modifications, Vasubandhu’s Vaibashika view of certain aspects of karma being a form of physical phenomenon. This point is that an aspect of karma in this whole view of dependent arising is a form of physical phenomenon.

I wanted to introduce Tsongkhapa’s position about karma with the reasons, as best as we can analyze, why he would opt for this much more complicated view of karma. There has to be a reason and a benefit and if we can understand that, then we will be more open-minded to trying to understand this more complex presentation. Otherwise, you might say that it is too complicated. 'Who needs this? Let’s go with the simpler one.' So, I follow the strategy that we find in most Dharma presentations, in which first you describe the benefits of something in order to motivate someone to actually develop something and then you describe what it is.

For example, the first chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior first describes bodhichitta, and then it describes all the methods and so on of how we actually work to develop bodhichitta and the far-reaching attitudes. First he described the benefits. That’s why I wanted to first explain the benefits and advantages of Tsongkhapa’s system. Then you might be more interested in understanding the context and the explanation.

Again I go back to one of my main points, which is the main point that His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes repeatedly whenever he speaks. This is the importance of studying the Dharma, and learning it and remembering it in a very broad way. Mindfulness is that with which you hold something actively in your recall. It’s not just storing information in a memory bank. Mindfulness is holding it and not letting go. So, when we have learned many different aspects of the Dharma teachings, then we do what is called analytical meditation. Actually this is the thinking process in which we try to figure something out. We hold all these pieces together and then we try to fit them together.

Look what is put together here. We have the Chittamatra presentation of karma, Tsongkhapa’s presentation of karma, the Chittamatra view of voidness, the Madhyamika view of voidness, and the system of twelve links of dependent arising. We have the presentation that we get from Vasubandhu of the six types of causes and four types of results, the presentation of how rebirth works, and we have logic. We put it all together and we try to figure out how does it make sense? What are the issues that are involved? We have to look at it in a holistic way in order to properly understand anything in the Buddhist teachings. Things don’t exist like these separate little chess pieces. Our understanding will dependently arise on the conceptual frameworks of all these different aspects of the teachings. It’s a perfect example.

Our understanding will not simply arise, and in fact there will be problems if we approach it in the manner of each teaching being like separate chess pieces. Our understanding will dependently arise on moving the chess pieces properly and winning the game. It doesn’t work. It may work to get some level of understanding, but our mind is too closed when you start thinking of all the Dharma aspects like the chess pieces. Here, what seems like chess pieces are the teachings. The teachings of karma and the teachings of the twelve links and the teachings of voidness are not chess pieces.

You remember the analysis of contact from Shantideva and the teachings from Chandrakirti and Madhyamika. How could these teachings interact with each other? How can there be any contact between the teachings in order to put it together? So, you see, in order to really gain deep insight into the teachings, you have to have this broader understanding of voidness and dependent arising. You can play the chess game as if all the teachings are pieces on the board, but the various systems of the teachings won’t really have contact with each other that way. They can’t really integrate when you think of separate chess pieces interacting with each other. It’s much more open than that.

It’s only with this understanding of dependent arising of all the factors involved with karma and the results that you can possibly understand how the result is not another chess piece on the board. The result is not there inside the cause. Can you infer a not-yet-happening cause that is not happening now? Yes, but it’s not inside a chess piece sitting in there. Then you have pre-determination and it’s never that. Anyway, I get a bit carried away when we talk about such things. These are obviously points that we have to work with and we have to broaden our understanding and our Dharma education, and then keep it in mind.

One further point, starting with the next session I will start to explain the Prasangika view of karma and as I already warned you, it’s more complex than Asanga’s presentation. I will not present charts or power point or anything like that to make it easier. Although there is some tainted reason for that, mainly laziness, there is also a less tainted and a more compassionate reason for that. You’re not going to learn this stuff if somebody presents it already in a chart for you. You just look at the chart and think, "Oh yes, it’s nice." Then you just go on. If you have to work it out yourself and make the chart yourself, then you actually have to think about the material and work with it. Then you develop perseverance. Without that perseverance and patience and so on, you are not going to get anywhere. Dharma shouldn’t be presented to you already cooked on a plate ready to eat. You have to prepare it yourself.

So, to work it out ourselves when we have correct information from the hearing process requires time and effort. What does putting in the time and effort depend on? It depends on motivation. If we don’t have the motivation to actually figure it out ourselves, we’re not going to get anywhere. We are not just training our knowledge base so that we have more information. We are also training our character to develop patience, perseverance, motivation and so on. That you work with simultaneously. Ever hear of building up the two collections simultaneously? There is the network of positive force and deep awareness put together.

Gaining an understanding is hard work and rather than complain about it, you have to understand and appreciate why it has to be hard work. Otherwise you don’t develop your character. Look at the biographies of the great masters. Marpa gave Milarepa a really hard time. It’s only because he gave him a hard time that he developed that motivation, that strength of character that it didn’t matter how hard it was, he was going to do it. So, Dharma teachers’ mode of operating is not to make things easy for you. For many of them, it’s to make things hard for you on purpose. There has to be a reason.