Asanga’s Chittamatra Presentation of Karma

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This evening, we shall be beginning a seminar on what does karma actually mean in terms of Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s presentations. This is an extremely important topic, since karma is one of the things that we need to overcome. We need to rid ourselves completely of it so that it never arises again, because it is a cause of suffering. Therefore, it’s extremely crucial to identify what exactly karma is. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly rid ourselves of it? It’s something within our own mental continuums, so we need to be able to identify karma within ourselves.

Karma in the Context of the Four Noble Truths

The context of our discussion, of course, is the main context that all of Buddha’s teachings fit into: the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that we have true suffering, of which there are three types. The first is the so-called suffering of suffering, which refers to unhappiness. Next is the suffering of change, which refers to our ordinary type of happiness – happiness that never lasts or satisfies. We always want more, and if we have too much, it actually turns into unhappiness, like when we eat too much of our favorite food in one sitting. We call this “tainted happiness.” The third type is the all-pervasive suffering, which refers to our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That is the word samsara: rebirth with the type of body and mind that will be the support or basis with which we experience unhappiness or tainted happiness. If we didn’t have a body or a mind, we wouldn’t experience happiness or unhappiness, obviously. We are, without any control, born with the type of body and mind that will be able to experience this type of happiness or unhappiness. Buddha’s body and mind don’t have that.

If we look at the second noble truth – the true causes of these three types of suffering – unhappiness comes from destructive karma; tainted happiness comes from constructive karma; and uncontrollably recurring rebirth comes from karma all together. Of course in the three cases, the karma is accompanied by disturbing emotions and attitudes. Underlying both of these is our unawareness of how we exist and how everything exists. In this network, in a sense, of causes of suffering, karma is very prominent. So, we need to identify it.

The third noble truth is the true stopping, which means the state of being rid completely forever of true suffering and its true causes so that they never recur. What do we want to stop forever? We want to stop unawareness, karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes.

The fourth noble truth is the true pathways of mind, referring to levels of realization, that will rid us of true suffering and its true causes. The so-called true path is actually referring to true understandings.

The Varying Presentations of Karma

So, what then is karma? There are two basic presentations of it in the Buddhist teachings, as followed by the Tibetans. The Theravada tradition has yet another explanation of karma, but the Tibetans don’t study that, and we won’t discuss that this evening. However, you should be aware that it’s quite a different presentation of karma – although the general idea of what karma is is not dissimilar. Nevertheless, the explanation of the mechanism is quite different.

The two traditions that the Tibetans study are firstly the presentation of Vasubandhu, who explained it in his text called Abhidharmakosha, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge. Vasubandhu explains it there in the context of the assertions of the Vaibhashika school of Indian Buddhist tenets, which is one of the Hinayana tenet systems. The Sautrantika tenet system, which is also a Hinayana system, has many objections to the Vaibhashika system. Vasubandhu presents these in his own commentary to his abhidharma text. Sautrantika accepts the basis presentation that Asanga gives in the context of the Chittamatra system.

Several centuries before Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna had already presented, in chapter 17 of his Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called Discriminating Awareness, the distinctive feature of karma that Vasubandhu elaborated into an entire system, namely that the karma for actions of body and speech are forms of physical phenomena. Later Indian Prasangika masters, such as Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita, accept this assertion, as does Bhavaviveka, the Indian source of the Sautrantika-Svatantrika branch of Madhyamaka. Tsongkhapa follows this basic assertion of these masters with his Prasangika system, modifying Vasubandhu’s explanation in accordance with his understanding of the Prasangika assertions of voidness and supplementing it with features explained more fully in Asanga’s system.

The other presentation of karma is the Mahayana one that we find in the abhidharma text by Asanga, called Abhidharmasamuccaya, Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge and in the various sections of his Levels of Yogic Conduct, Yogacharabhumi.

Anyway, perhaps that’s just interesting information and not so useful. But it can help us to understand that there are many different views of karma. Nothing in the Buddhist teachings exists by itself. In fact, nothing in the universe exists by itself. The only way that we can really understand karma and work with it is in the context of a particular system of tenets, with all the various other assertions in that system and how karma fits into that whole philosophical system.

When we study the Dharma, it’s very important to have a very broad study and knowledge, so that we can fit any particular topic that we study into the context and larger picture of all the teachings. That’s why the Tibetans study for twenty or thirty years, so that they have as large a context as possible with which to understand any of the particular points of the teachings.

Asanga’s System

What I would like to do this evening is present the basic tenets of Asanga’s system, which gives a simpler explanation of karma. “Simple” is a relative term. Simple means less complicated than Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s, but still extremely complicated. Still, it is a bit easier to understand. But the main thing that I would like to explain on this weekend is the Gelug Prasangika system, based on Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna, since that is not so frequently explained. Again, you have to remember that Asanga’s system is formulated in terms of the Chittamatra school – the Mind Only school – so that’s relevant to the whole presentation of karma.

According to Asanga, karma is a mental factor; it’s the factor of an urge (sems-pa, Skt. cetana). An urge is one of the five ever-functioning mental factors that accompany every moment of our cognition. In order to understand anything in the Buddhist teachings, you need to know the definitions of the technical terms. The monastic training to master these terms is usually referred to as the debate tradition, but the actual Tibetan word for it means “definitions.” The definitions are what they primarily work with and study.

Defining Technical terms: The Mental Factor of an Urge

An urge is a mental factor. This means that it’s one little part of each moment of our cognitions. It is the mental factor that, while focused on an object, draws the consciousness and its accompanying other mental factors to engage in an action, in the next moment, toward or with that object or some other object. I don’t know how the word “urge” is used in German, but for example we say in English, “I have an urge to look at the wall”; “I have an urge to scratch my head”; “I have an urge to look at you”; “I have an urge to say something to you.”

So, an urge is a mental factor that draws us into doing something with some object in the next moment. An urge can be constructive, destructive, or unspecified. “Unspecified” means that it can go in either direction, constructive or destructive; or “unspecified” can also just be neutral. For example, there’s nothing constructive or destructive about scratching my head – unless I scratch it too much, obviously.

Now in the case of karmic urges, they have a compelling, almost compulsive quality to them. It’s as if we have no control over them. That, I think, is the most important thing to understand about karma. There is this compulsiveness and that’s really what we need to overcome – this compulsiveness that is almost like it’s in control of us.

Mental Karma

To continue with defining terms, “mental karma,” in other words the karmic urge for an action of mind, is that which brings on a train of thought. Now, here we can talk about the destructive trains of thought. This would be to think about how I can get something that I covet. For example, “How I could steal that money.” Other destructive thoughts would be how I can hurt somebody, or how I can refute what another person is saying or doing when it is true and proper. So, the mental karma is that compulsive urge, that compelling urge, to start to plot like that and start to think like that.

There are more innocent types of compulsive mental urges, like the compulsive urge to sing a song in our head. This is what you call an “ear worm” in German, when the song goes on and on. That’s a compulsion, isn’t it? A karmic urge is what starts us on that train of thought. Another example is when we are trying to go to sleep and, compulsively, that mental urge is there to think and worry and we can’t stop our minds from racing.

So, here what we’re talking about is the compulsion – that compelling urge that gets us into these trains of thought. We’re not talking about the trains of thoughts themselves. It’s that compulsion that leads to it that we have no control over. That actual line of thinking is called the pathway of the mental karma. It’s not the karma.

Physical and Verbal Karma

Now, physical and verbal karmas are also mental factors in this system. They are also compelling urges, but here they are the compelling urges that draw our consciousness and other accompanying mental factors into engaging in an action of body or speech toward a specific object in the next moment. They may or may not be incited beforehand by an urge for an action of mind to think about committing the action and deciding to do it. The compelling urge for an action of body or speech brings on a pathway of such an urge, and that pathway is equivalent to the physical or verbal action.

For example, there is this compelling urge to think about how I can get something that I want. It could be stealing something; it could be getting a job; it could be getting something from the refrigerator. It could be anything. I think to get some object and the pathway of the urge for this mental action of thinking concludes with deciding to get it. What gets incited by that pathway of thought is now the urge that sets our body in motion to actually do it. Again, that’s compulsive, as in the example, “I think I’ll go to the refrigerator and get something to eat,” and then compulsively we go and do it. Another example: “I’m going to go over there and talk to him,” and then compulsively I go and start speaking.

So, karma is not the action. It is the compulsion, the compelling urge, that brings on the action. The problem is that the Tibetan word for karma happens to be the colloquial Tibetan word for action. Therefore when people translate the Tibetan word las into a European language, then naturally they translate it as “action” because that’s what the colloquial Tibetan word means. It leads to a completely wrong understanding. If we analyze it, karma is something that we have to rid ourselves of and stop completely. So, if karma means action, then it’s easy: just do nothing and we’ll be liberated from all suffering. Obviously, it does not mean action, at least not in our ordinary way of understanding it.

Karma is a true cause of suffering, therefore it has to be something that really is a trouble maker. Just doing something or talking is not the problem, is it? It’s the compulsiveness of it that is the problem. The actions themselves are known as the “pathways of karma.” In other words, what that compulsive, compelling urge leads to or what follows from it. Then we have a compulsive train of thought, compulsive speech, or compulsive action.

Both the urge and the behavior that follow from it could be destructive, so they’re accompanied by some disturbing emotion such as anger, greed and these sorts of things. They can also be what are called “tainted constructive,” meaning that they’re constructive, without a disturbing emotion, but they still have grasping for a big solid “me.” For example, asserting ourselves as a solid “me” that is always good, then being helpful in order to be a really good person, a really good Dharma person; or a compulsive do-gooder who can never say “no.” The urge and behavior can also be unspecified. For example, I could just talk about politics and it could go either way: it could be with a lot of anger or it could be to try to find a solution to some political problem. It can go either way and is therefore unspecified.

Pathway of Karma

Now, what is a pathway of karma or, more fully, a pathway of a karmic urge? First, before we get into this, perhaps we take a few moments to just let that sink in – that what we’re talking about in this system of karma is that compulsive urge. It’s not talking about the action; it’s that compelling urge to think something, to say something, or to do something. It’s the compulsion that’s driven with some disturbing emotion like anger or attachment, or just driven by some big ego trip as in, “I have to be good,” “I have to be perfect,” “I have to have everything under control with everything going my way.”

“I’m in control” indicates a big “me,” where everything has to be clean and perfect. There’s a compulsion about it. There’s nothing wrong with things being clean. It’s the compulsiveness that’s the problem, feeling that I have no control over it and I have to clean my house or wash my hands again and again. This is suffering: to be happy for a moment that it’s clean but then, all of a sudden, to feel unsatisfied and have to clean it again. I think that’s a perfect example actually.

Let that sink in. And, by letting it sink in, what we mean is to try to recognize that in yourself. That is what this is all about: to identify that compulsiveness within ourselves, which is one of the main troublemakers that we would really like to get rid of. It’s not only that we want to get rid of it because it causes problems and makes us neurotic, but it really prevents us from helping others. Compulsively we might say the wrong thing, or compulsively we become attached to them, or we lose our patience. These are problems in terms of helping others.

Obviously, if we think about it a little further, it’s going to require a little bit more than just self-control. That’s a start. At the beginning, we can use self-control not to be so compulsive, but really we have to go deeper into what is driving that compulsion and where it is coming from in order to rid ourselves of it. That’s not the topic that we will speak so much about this weekend. That’s another topic: how do we rid ourselves of karma? Now we just want to understand how karma works. First, we have to understand all the ways in which karma, in a sense, makes a web that traps us. Then, we can understand how to deconstruct it and how to get rid of it.

To repeat, we said that thinking, speaking, acting, doing something – these are pathways of karma and not the karma. What we also need to understand, then, is what a pathway of karma is. A pathway of karma is a noncongruent affecting variable – something nonstatic that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something – and, as such, it is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of four factors.

An imputation phenomenon is something that is, literally, “tied” to a basis and cannot exist or be known independently of its basis, for instance a person and a body, mind and emotions. Another example is age and some person or object.

That’s what an action as a pathway of karma is. It is a noncongruent affecting variable. The four factors that are its basis need to be complete in order for the pathway that is an imputation on them to be complete and for the result of the action to be the fullest. If one or more of these factors are missing or change, then the pathway or action that is an imputation on them as its basis also changes. It becomes something else and is not the same pathway of karma. So, what are these factors?

Four Factors for a Pathway of Karma to Be Complete

(1) First, there has to be a basis, somebody that I kill or hurt, something that belongs to someone else that I take for my own, somebody that I lie to, and so on. That’s the basis.

(2) Then, there needs to be a motivating mental framework and that consists of three mental factors.

  • First of these three is distinguishing. Distinguishing focuses on a defining characteristic of some object in a sense field and differentiates it from what is other than it. It is usually translated as “recognition,” which is not very accurate, because this mental factor does not include knowing what it distinguishes is. When I look in front of me and see a field of colored pixels amassed into shapes, I have to distinguish these shapes of color as constituting the body of a person and not the shapes of color of the wall in the background. If we can’t distinguish something from something else, we can’t possibly deal with it in any way. We don’t have to know what something is in order to distinguish it from the background. In this case, we’re talking about distinguishing the basis toward whom the action will be aimed, as in wanting to speak to this person and not that other person, or wanting to shoot this person and not that person or the wall. We need to distinguish the basis from everything else.
  • Next is the motivating aim and that refers to the intention. The intention is the wish to engage in a specific action toward a specific object. So, it is always in conjunction with distinguishing the intended object and the intended action. It’s the intention of what I want to do, or what I want to say – what I intend. I intend to try to get that job, so now I intend to think about what I could say. There’s an intention.
  • There’s also an accompanying emotional state that’s also driving the pathway, and it can be destructive, constructive or unspecified. It’s the combination of these three mental factors that is covered by a bigger term, the motivating framework, but that’s usually referred to as just our motivation.

Let’s look at the example of our motivation for coming to this talk. We distinguish that we want to learn about karma and not about voidness, or impermanence, or something else. We distinguish correctly. The intention is not to just listen carefully but to learn something that can help us in our lives to overcome problems and be of more benefit to others. That’s the intention or the aim. Why do we want to achieve that aim? What is the emotion behind it? Ideally, it’s compassion for others.

When we talk about motivation in Buddhism, it’s the complex of these three factors. That’s why, when we need to examine our motivation and correct it, we need to examine these three factors. What did we come here for? Was it for social interaction? What do I expect from it? What’s the aim? What’s the emotion behind it? Is it curiosity, compassion, loneliness, or wanting to be with friends? All these things come together to make the motivation.

To repeat, we have the basis, the motivating mental framework, and then (3) we have the application of these. The choice of Tibetan words is very interesting here. It’s not the word action. It’s the application of that motivation to implementing a method for carrying out the action. So, we apply that motivation to actually implement a method for getting here – for instance, getting into our car, driving here, parking, coming into the building and this room, and sitting down.

Suppose we have the intention to come here and we knew the right place and address, but we were caught in traffic and we didn’t get here. In that case, the pathway of the urge to come here was not completed. For it to be complete, we have to actually get here. Or perhaps we never left because the phone rang and something happened, so we never even left our house to come. The intention has to be applied by actually implementing it.

(4) Then the implementation of that method has to actually reach a successful finale. We have to actually get here. An example might be that we shoot somebody with the intention to kill them. For the pathway of committing a murder to be complete, the victim would have to actually die, otherwise we’ve only wounded somebody; we haven’t actually killed somebody. In this case, what we’ve done has devolved into a completely different action, wounding someone. Another example is that we wanted to say some nasty words to someone and hurt their feelings, but they didn’t hear us. It didn’t have any effect and so saying cruel words to someone didn’t reach its finale of hurting the person. Perhaps the telephone connection got broken and they never heard what we said. Or we sent a nasty email and it got caught in their spam filter and they never read it. It happens.

If we speak in terms of a pathway of karma, these four factors are always there and, although the finale only occurs at the end, we have an entire sequence. There is the urge to start the action, there’s the urge to keep it going or we could stop in the middle, and there’s the urge to stop the action. The pathway covers that whole sequence, including the reaching of the finale, which may occur either immediately after implementing the action or sometime later.

If we think about it, it’s very nice actually. For example, there’s an urge to call this person up and complain and yell. So, there might be a compelling urge to think to do it. After we have thought about it and decided to call, there’s the compelling urge to start the action of speaking. But, of course, we could just have the compelling urge that draws us into spontaneously calling even without having to think it over first.

Actually, there’s the compulsion for us to dial the number and then there’s the compulsion to start speaking. There can be the compulsion to dial the number, but perhaps we didn’t distinguish the number correctly and we dial it incorrectly. That happens as well. Distinguishing has to be correct. That’s interesting because our temper could quiet down a little bit if we get the wrong number to start with, or it could flare up even more with frustration. Finally, we start to speak.

You must have experienced something like this, how you can’t stop yourself from going on and on. There’s the compulsion of each moment going on and on, saying more and more without thinking. It just comes out compulsively and then finally we shut up.

Finally, there’s that compelling urge to end the conversation – enough already. Of course, everything could change during our harangue. Our emotional state could change. Perhaps we hear the person on the other side crying and we feel a little bit sad because we’re causing them to cry; or perhaps they yell back at us and we get angrier. Each of the factors in that whole complex that’s involved in the pathway can change.

The Nature of a Pathway of Karma

A compelling urge, then, drives the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors to engage in a pathway of karma, which means, with correct distinguishing, intention and some motivating emotion, this urge drives the consciousness to implement an intended method for carrying out an intended action toward an intended object and that action reaches its intended finale. Can we call the entire complex of that pathway an “action,” an “event”? It’s hard to find a term that accurately fits this noncongruent affecting variable, which is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all these components.

In Asanga’s system, that whole pathway of karma is itself a substantially established thing. What does that mean? That means that that entire pathway of karma involved in you saying something nasty to me constitutes one findable entity that really upset me. What upset me? There are all these little parts and so on, but your saying what you did, as a whole, constitutes a findable event that I can point to and remember. What do I remember? According to this system, what I remember is something substantially established and, upon investigation, findable as some seemingly solid entity whose existence is established by its self-nature as “the event of your saying something nasty to me.”

The actual technical term is “substantially established existence and it is asserted in Asanga’s Chittamatra system and the Svatantrikas accept that as well. The existence of something is substantially established if its existence is established by its self-nature and it performs a function. So, all nonstatic phenomena, including this substantially established pathway of karma, are self-established and perform some function and, here, the function was making me upset.

What was the upsetting event? Was it just the sound of the words, was it just you speaking them, was it the nasty emotion behind it or your intention to hurt me, was it the fact that you spoke them to me, was it the fact that I got upset by hearing them? What was this event? It depended on all of these. The event is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the complex of all of these. And that “event,” which was a pathway of your karmic urge to say those things to me, is a substantially established thing that, being self-established as “that event,” performed the function of making me upset. That’s Asanga’s system. It makes sense.

A pathway of karma, then, is not just committing the action. That’s just one little piece of it. What do you call the whole thing? It’s difficult, isn’t it? If we analyze anything that we do or that someone else does or says, it really is a complex. That’s a good word. It’s a complex of all these different factors, but to us it performs a function as an entity unto itself. Think about that.

Examples of other substantially established imputation phenomena even more complex than just one pathway of karma might be, “I remember that conversation,” “I remember that trip to India,” or “I remember when I had that job.” What are we remembering? Doesn’t it seem that it’s one thing that we’re remembering? But actually each is made up of a complex of an unbelievable amount of different things that happened. Yet, “Going to India made a big impression on me.” What had a big impression on me?

Our topic is not the analysis of voidness, but obviously although it seems as if these events are solid things, Prasangika would say that there is nothing solid there on the side of any of them that makes it a substantial event. Conventionally, we call them events, of course, but there’s nothing solid there. But the other Indian Buddhist schools would say, yes there is. It functions. For example, “I learned a lot from that relationship.” What did you learn from? This word, that word? What?

So, in Asanga’s presentation, compulsive urges bring on and drive pathways of karma.

Destructive, Tainted Constructive and Unspecified Karmic Urges and Pathways of Karma

Now, since karma and the pathways of karma as well can be either destructive, so-called tainted constructive, or unspecified, we should look to see the definitions of these. According to Asanga, “tainted” primarily means something that is derived from a disturbing emotion or attitude or is related in some way with a disturbing emotion or attitude.

Now, we need to understand what the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes are. It’s hard to find a word that covers them all. It’s this word klesha in Sanskrit. What in the world can you call it, a delusion, an affliction? There isn’t a good word. These klesha can be with or without an associated outlook. The ones that come without an outlook I’m calling “disturbing emotions,” although emotion doesn’t really cover the five main ones. The other ones, those with an associated outlook, I’m calling “disturbing attitudes.”

To repeat, there isn’t a good word to translate them. Be aware that in the West we do not divide mental factors into these categories in the way that Buddhism does. We really don’t have words that cover them properly. We don’t group them in the same way.

But the definition of a disturbing emotion or attitude is very helpful – as are all the definitions. A disturbing emotion or attitude is a state of mind that, when it arises, causes us to lose peace of mind and self-control. If we are very sensitive, we can usually detect that with just the feeling of nervousness inside. The energy is disturbed.

“Destructive” is defined as a karmic urge or pathway of karma that is brought on by and accompanied by unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, and accompanied as well by other disturbing emotions. In other words, we are unaware of what the effect of what we are feeling and of what we are going to say or do will be. We are confused. If I yell at you, I really am unaware. Although I have that urge to yell and to say something nasty, I’m really unaware of what the effect of that is going to be on me, and that it’s going to make me lose my peace of mind and is not going to make me feel any better. I also am unaware of the effect that it’s going to have on you. I’m not sensitive to that at all and don’t care if it hurts your feelings. This is unawareness of behavioral cause and effect.

A destructive urge or pathway of karma has this unawareness and also a disturbing emotion – specifically desire, attachment, or greed – accompanying it. Desire is for something that we don’t have. Attachment is that if we have it, we don’t want to let go. Greed is that even if we have it, we want more. Then there is the disturbing emotion anger, or there is simply insensitivity in that I’m naive about my compulsive urges or my behavior and its effects.

In addition, there is no moral self-dignity. I don’t have any self-pride. “I don’t care what I do.” Besides that, “I don’t care about how my actions reflect on others.” This is a very Asian concept actually. If we act improperly, it’s going to bring shame on our family. Also, it would be if we go and get drunk and so on, it reflects badly on Buddhists if we are Buddhist. People might think badly about Buddhists. Another example might be if I were a woman and acted in a certain way, people might think badly of women and it might reflect badly on all other women. When it’s a destructive karmic urge, we just don’t care about that.

Then, a karmic urge or pathway of karma is constructive if it’s brought on by and accompanied by detachment. Detachment is when I don’t want to get anything from you. I don’t want to hold on to what I have and not share, and I don’t just want more and more. That’s detachment. This doesn’t mean that we’re totally free of attachment completely, but it is a good step. In this moment, I just want to help you and I don’t want anything from you. I may have attachment for chocolate but that’s something else. In this moment, I’m not holding anything back and I don’t want more and more of your time and attention. The accompanying emotion could be non-anger, meaning that I don’t want to reject you or cause harm or hurt anybody. It could also be not being naive about the effect of my behavior on myself or others. In addition, there is moral self-dignity and care about how my actions reflect on others. In all these cases, however, we still might be confused about how we and others exist, and so our behavior is “tainted” constructive – tainted with this unawareness – but still it’s constructive.

It’s interesting to identify these in ourselves. There are a lot of words but, to really know what we are talking about here, we need to recognize them in ourselves; otherwise it’s pointless. We might as well be learning names of insects. Once I asked my students in Berlin why they don’t cheat or lie. Why? Seriously, are you afraid of going to hell? Well, nobody was afraid of going to hell for that. So, why don’t you cheat or lie? Just think for yourself. If we had a lot of time, it would be interesting to discuss it among ourselves, but we don’t unfortunately. So, I’m sorry.

The conclusion that most of my class came to was that it just doesn’t feel right. It wasn’t because there was a law against it or because we are thinking in a deep philosophical way. It just doesn’t feel right. That is the sense of moral self-dignity, “I wouldn’t act like that. I think more of myself that I wouldn’t act like that.”

Do you recognize that? If, for instance, I’m very angry, why don’t I make a big scene and yell and carry on in front of everybody else? It’s because I think more of myself that I’m not going to make such a scene and cause others to think badly of me. It just doesn’t feel right and therefore I will control myself until later. Somebody who makes a big scene and screams and yells at the person next to them on the U-Bahn [subway] causes a disturbance for everybody on the car. That person doesn’t care what anybody thinks when they make a scene. They are out of control. Being out of control is the definition of a disturbing emotion. It’s important to recognize these things within ourselves and know what we are really talking about.

What Makes Constructive and Destructive Behavior Be Tainted?

Now, both tainted constructive and destructive karmic urges and pathways of karma are brought on by and accompanied by unawareness of the second kind of unawareness. That is the unawareness of how we and others exist as persons. This is underlying both constructive and destructive phenomena. What are we talking about? Let’s look at tainted constructive karmic urges.

Even when these urges are also motivated by compassion, they are compulsive in the sense that these constructive things are done in a futile attempt to make our self feel secure, or in a sense to confirm our existence. An example is compulsively correcting other people’s grammar. We have a disturbing attitude as well here. This is called a “deluded outlook toward a transitory network.” Basically this is a deluded outlook toward our aggregates.

What is happening is that this attitude searches for something in our aggregates, what we are experiencing, in order to latch onto it as a basis for grasping for a truly established “me” – in this case, our knowledge of grammar. With this attitude, then, comes projecting and grasping onto that basis as “me” or “mine.” It is accompanied by this outlook. It’s seeking this to make it a basis on which grasping for an impossible type of “me” is going to project that it’s “me” or mine – a truly solid “me.” This disturbing attitude doesn’t do the projecting; the grasping does the projecting. The disturbing attitude just latches onto things like my intelligence as mine, and this grasping is what projects. That’s why this disturbing attitude is one with an outlook. And with it, of course, unawareness of how we exist is also there.

There is the combination of these three troublemakers. They are this deluded outlook toward a transitory network, grasping for a “me,” and the unawareness of not knowing how we exist – all coming together. Each has a slightly different function and they work together. So, in the case of some physical action, we have the compulsive tainted constructive urge to do something constructive like clean our house and get everything in order. Why do we do that? In order to feel secure, safe, and that everything is under control and in order. We latch onto the clean house, “That’s me. I’m a good housekeeper.”

This supposedly solid “me” now hopes to feel secure and good because this house, which is mine, is clean, and I’m good. All is good. In actuality, we feel insecure, which is how the unawareness of how we exist manifests. If a piece of paper falls off the desk, it’s a small disaster because, I have to be clean and good compulsively. I have to clean again and again. It’s compulsive. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning our house, but here we’re doing it with the delusion that if my house is clean, then I exist and I am good and I am clean. Do you see how these factors are there?

Another example is that we have the compulsive urge to help others. We want to help our married daughter in how she brings up her children. She doesn’t even want us to do this, but compulsively we have to give our unsought advice. Why do we do it? We do it in order to feel useful, in order to feel needed, and to feel good that we are helpful persons. “This good advice, this good help is mine.”

In a sense, what is underlying it is the hope that it will affirm our existence, because we’re insecure. We’re insecure because we think that there’s this solid “me” that has to be made secure by being good, by being useful. This is what we mean by a tainted constructive type of compulsive behavior. It’s compulsive. Why? It’s compulsive because it’s tainted with this confusion. We’re doing it in order to make ourselves feel good, feel that we exist, and feel that we are useful.

There are compulsive constructive verbal actions. We recite mantras and things like that in order to be a good practitioner. “The recitation and accumulation of 100,000 mantras are mine. I’m good. I’ve proven that I’m a good practitioner because I’ve done 100,000 of them.” Now it makes me feel secure, this solid “me,” as if it could be made secure by reciting something 100,000 times. It could be the same thing with a mental activity such as reciting the mantras in your head. It is the same thing. The action itself is not the problem. It is the compulsiveness behind it and the whole mechanism of “me” and “mine” – imagining that this is going to make “me” feel secure and make “me” feel good. That’s the problem. That’s what is making it compulsive and basically you would say “neurotic” in the West.


This is the basic presentation of what karma means and what it is talking about in Asanga’s system. The important thing to remember out of all of this is that the biggest troublemaker in us is the compulsiveness that drives us to act in compulsive neurotic ways that are either destructive or constructive. That compulsion that is accompanied by these disturbing emotions brings unhappiness, basically, when acting in a destructive way. It leads to our unhappiness because compulsively we have that urge to yell; compulsively we have that urge to be selfish or to be demanding. It’s out of control and causes our unhappiness.

There is also the compulsive constructive behavior, such as always having to clean our house, to always try to be perfect and so on. It makes us feel happy, but that happiness doesn’t last because we’re never satisfied. Then we have to do something else to prove that we’re perfect. We can never be perfect enough. It’s completely neurotic. Each time that we get things a little bit perfect, it feels okay. But it isn’t okay. I think perfectionism is the perfect example of what we’re talking about in terms of this compulsive constructive behavior. Being a perfectionist can drive you crazy, especially when we apply it here in our Dharma practice. We have to be perfect, we have to sit properly and all of this. We are never relaxed.

Then, because of all of this, we have all-pervasive suffering. Because of this compulsiveness, then compulsively we take rebirth and have a body and mind with which we can experience more compulsive urges. Maybe the following example is not an exact analogy, but it’s a nice analogy.

We are in an unhealthy relationship with somebody with all sorts of compulsive behavior in it. The relationship ends and getting out of it is analogous to dying from one rebirth. Then compulsively we look for another relationship and then we get into that one. That’s the compulsion. We have to have a relationship. Then, we get into it and we have the same compulsive habits again. It just repeats and ends, and we never learn. We just compulsively get into another and another and another relationship and they are all unhealthy.

This is all-pervasive suffering. Unless we learn something from them, the more unhappy relationships that we get into, the more it makes the habit of being unhealthy and compulsive stronger, doesn’t it? This is pathetic. This is samsara. We want to get out of that because it just makes us crazy and miserable and, even more so, because it really prevents us from being of any constructive help to anybody.