Nonrevealing Forms of Physical and Verbal Karma

Other languages

Review of the Revealing Forms of Physical and Verbal Karma

We’ve seen that one aspect of the karmic impulses for physical and verbal actions is their revealing form. In the case of a karmic impulse for an action of the body, according to Vasubandhu, the revealing form is the shape of the body while enacting a method for committing the action. Nagarjuna and the Indian Prasangika masters who followed clarify “shape” as referring to the movement of the body while implementing a method for carrying out the physical action. That means not just each moment of the shape individually, but rather the continuum of the movement of the body throughout the entire enactment of the action.

In the case of a karmic impulse for an action of speech, Vasubandhu asserts that the revealing form is the sound of the voice while enacting a method for committing the action. He explains that since the revealing form of an action of body arises from body consciousness and an accompanying mental urge being focused on the body, whereas the revealing form of an action of speech arises from ear consciousness and an accompanying mental urge being focused on the sounds of speech, the revealing form of an action of speech is not the movement of the lips and tongue. 

Nagarjuna and his followers clarify that the revealing form for an action of speech is the utterances of the sounds of words while implementing a method for carrying out the action. Again, this means the continuum of the utterances of the sounds of speech throughout the entire enactment of the action and not just each moment of sound individually. As we explained before, for actions of both body and speech, the revealing form reveals that there was a destructive or constructive mental urge that brought on the revealing form and rendered it destructive or constructive. 

Please note that we’re not talking about the sound that comes out of a mechanical device. And even if we only consider here the utterances of the sounds of words as we’re speaking and not those that we hear on our phones, , those utterances don’t arise only on the basis of the mechanical movement of our mouth and tongue, and the mechanical movement of air through our lungs and vocal chords. None of them exist by themselves, do they? The utterances of our speech can only arise driven by a consciousness that is accompanied with an urge to speak, an intention, a distinguishing of what words to say, and some motivating emotion. In those ways, they are very different from sounds that come out of a mechanical device.  

These utterances, which we can hear, reveal that there was a mental urge that caused them to arise. If these utterances were destructive, they reveal that there was a destructive urge that brought them on; and if they were constructive, they reveal that there was a constructive urge that brought them on. 

The revealing form of the physical or verbal action ends when the movement of the body or utterances of the speech end. When there are no longer any movements that can be seen or utterances that can be heard, there is no longer a revealing form of the action. When I stop hitting somebody or petting the dog, and when I stop saying nasty or nice things, the revealing form of that action is finished.

Definition and Characteristics of Nonrevealing Forms

For some karmic actions of body and speech, in addition to the revealing form of the action there is also a nonrevealing form. A nonrevealing form is a subtle form of physical phenomenon that arises simultaneously with a revealing form accompanied by a strong disturbing emotion or a strong positive emotion and so it must be either constructive or destructive, and unlike a revealing form, never unspecified. But, unlike the revealing form with which it arises, it does not reveal that there was a destructive or constructive mental urge that brought it on. 

The nonrevealing form of the physical or verbal action continues as part of the continuum of aggregates after the revealing form is no longer present but cannot be sensed on that continuum. It’s not made of particles and so, lacking color or shape, it is not demonstrable to eye consciousness – it can only be an object of mental consciousness – and does not impede anything solid. It does not degenerate or wear out from moment to moment, but rather it gets strengthened as it continues to perform its function of affecting our behavior or to be affected by what we have done. It doesn’t naturally wear out like a battery in a phone. Those are its characteristics.

Types of Nonrevealing Forms According to Nagarjuna

Nagarjuna mentions four types of nonrevealing forms: (1) the avowed restraints of having given up committing a set of destructive actions, (2) the avowed restraints of having not given up committing a set of destructive actions, and (3 & 4) the positive and negative nonrevealing forms associated with others making use of something we have given to them or made for them. 

The avowed restraints of having given up committing a set of destructive actions refer to vows. They arise together with the revealing forms of our body and speech when receiving these vows: we repeat certain verses while kneeling on one knee. The nonrevealing forms that are these vows continue to perform their continuous function of restraining us from committing a set of destructive actions toward all beings so long as we do not give up these vows. In the case of pratimoksha vows, we lose them at death; whereas with bodhisattva vows and tantric vows, they continue until our attainment of enlightenment, unless we give them up before.

The avowed restraints of having not given up committing a set of destructive actions refer to negative vows. They arise together with the revealing forms of our body and speech when receiving these negative vows, like when we join the army and vow to kill the enemy, or they can arise with our birth in a specific Indian caste such as the caste of fishermen. Similar to the case of vows, the nonrevealing forms that are these negative vows continue to perform their continuous function of not restraining us from committing a set of destructive actions so long as we do not give them up. The longer that the vows and negative vows continue with our mental continuums and continue to perform their function, the stronger the positive force or negative force of them becomes.   

The positive and negative nonrevealing forms associated with others making use of something we have given to them or made for them arise from the revealing forms of others repeatedly making use of them with a strong motivating emotion and thus building up on their own continuums positive or negative karmic force. Examples are the nonrevealing forms that arise, for instance, from building or giving to others a stupa or dharma study material on the one hand, or a slaughterhouse for killing cattle on the other, and then others making use of them. The more that others make use of what we have made and given to them to bring benefit or harm, the stronger the positive or negative force of these nonrevealing forms on our own continuums become. These nonrevealing forms continue with our mental continuums so long as others continue to make use of these objects as they continue to bring benefit or harm, even after we have passed away from this lifetime. 

Types of Nonrevealing Forms According to Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu presents three types of nonrevealing forms. The first two types are the same as those asserted by Nagarjuna, namely avowed restraints and avowed non-restraints – in other words, vows and negative vows. The third type is called “intermediate nonrevealing forms,” which are nonrevealing forms that are neither vows nor negative vows. There are three types: (1) those that are obtained from their field, (2) those obtained from their being received and (3) those obtained from a fervent undertaking. 

“Field” refers to either a substance that is made and given, such as a temple for worship or a slaughterhouse for killing cattle, or to the persons to whom it is given, such as the monastic community or a community of slaughterers. This is Nagarjuna’s category of nonrevealing forms associated with others making use of something we have given them or made for them. Such nonrevealing forms are initially caused by and subsequently strengthened by the revealing forms of the repeated use of what has been given by those to whom it has been given. Vasubandhu also mentions the nonrevealing forms on the continuum of someone who orders and forces others to commit destructive actions, such as ordering soldiers to go into battle and kill the enemy. The nonrevealing form of killing arises on the continuum of the commander and is strengthened from the revealing forms of the soldiers’ repeated kills. 

The second method for obtaining a nonrevealing form, and which was not mentioned by Nagarjuna, is through receiving them, like with an oath. Examples are promising to prostrate three times before eating or to hunt only during the day and not at night, and then repeatedly acting in accord with this promise. Vows and negative vows are taken for an entire lifetime and have as their scope of application 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Here, these so-called “intermediate vows” are taken for just a limited period of time and applied also on just limited occasions during the day or year. 

The third method is through implementing a repeated action with fervent respect and faith or a strong disturbing emotion, such as doing thousands of prostrations or joining a gang of hooligans and beating up people.     

Speculation about Nonrevealing Forms

Now you have to sit and figure out what in the world is this referring to, this non-revealing form. That’s not so easy, is it? We have the lists of its characteristics and types and it’s rather complex. It must be referring to something and something that we want to get rid of. We have to figure out what it actually is. We need to identify the object of refutation or, to be more technically precise, the object that we want to rid ourselves of. Unless we identify it correctly, we can’t get rid of it. We get rid of something different.

From my own analysis, this is my best guess, as it were, as to what nonrevealing forms refer to from our Western point of view. I’ve never heard anyone actually explain it in words that we could understand beyond the definition. Five years ago I would have explained it as some sort of invisible vibration like good vibes or bad vibes. Now, in 2016, I have perhaps a more sophisticated understanding. Five years from now, what I explain now might seem as simplistic as the vibration. This analysis, then, is only provisional. [In fact, now in 2021 when I am re-editing this, I shall point out difficulties in this analysis. The point is, we all need to analyze more deeply.]

It is important to remember that only a Buddha understands karma and, specifically, nonrevealing forms completely accurately. Whatever understanding that we have before we are a Buddha is provisional. This offers great hope because we can refine it more and more. In this way, we don’t become so attached to our understanding and insights. We realize that it’s never going to be completely accurate and, that way, we avoid the arrogance of thinking we don’t need to learn anything further. It’s part of the bodhisattva vows not to think like that. We can always go further in our understanding until we become a Buddha.

So, my present, provisional, 2016 understanding is that this nonrevealing form is like an invisible form of a neural pathway built up by and corresponding to the revealing form of the movement of the action of body or the revealing utterances of the sounds of words of the action of speech. It arises dependently and simultaneously with and accompanies the revealing form. It continues afterwards as well. I’m using a way of understanding based on a lay person’s understanding of brain science. I’m not a medical doctor so this is not so accurate. 

The problem with this hypothesis is that a neural pathway is still something that can be seen by eye consciousness and something that obstructs solid objects. So, this hypothesis has to be modified and clarified to make it explicit that the nonrevealing form of a physical or verbal action cannot be referring to the material neurons themselves of the pathway. Even considering the neural pathway as a flow of energy is also a bit problematic. Nonrevealing forms can only be known by mental consciousness, whereas energy can be measured mechanically. 

Asanga, for instance, accepts the existence of the type of nonrevealing forms that are received, namely vows and negative vows, but does not consider them a type of karmic impulse. He includes them among the five types of forms of physical phenomenon that can only be known by mental consciousness, along with the forms that appear in dreams or the imagination. Although Vasubandhu did not assert them, Tsongkhapa also accepts these five types of forms of physical phenomenon and includes them in the Prasangika system.  

Still, think about it. When we act in a certain way, there’s a certain neural pathway of a type of behavior that occurs with that way of moving or way of speaking. In a sense, it has been almost imprinted on the brain. That pathway is still there after the action finishes. It is greased, in a way, so that the more that we repeat that action or that way of speaking, the more that pathway is there. It is descriptive of the compelled ways with which we act and speak. Whether or not these correspond to nonrevealing forms, this is something we cannot say with any certainty. 

Shortcomings of This Hypothesis of Neural Pathways

But let’s analyze further. When we talk about karmic impulses, the karmic impulses that are the mental factor of an urge are compelling in the sense that they compel actions of the mind as well as actions of the body and speech. The revealing and nonrevealing forms of the actions of body and speech are compelled by them, with no control. This is the case whether the karmic impulses are destructive, or they are tainted constructive, meaning that they are mixed with unawareness of how we exist. Nonrevealing forms arise together with the revealing ones. 

This explanation of nonrevealing forms in terms of neural pathways, however, makes sense only in the case of nonrevealing forms that arise from revealing forms on our own mental continuums. This includes the nonrevealing forms deriving from obtaining either vows, negative vows, or intermediate vows, or from undertaking doing or reciting something repeatedly out of strong faith or strong disturbing emotion. It is much more difficult to explain how neural pathways are built up on our mental continuums from revealing forms on the continuums of others, as in the case of others making use of something we have made or given them or in the case of others enacting a destructive action that we have ordered or forced them to do. Perhaps some form of entanglement is involved in these cases between our own continuum and the continuums of others, but how that works is hard to explain.

Also, unlike karmic potentials that are the aftermath of karmic impulses and which give rise to results in the future by ripening, nonrevealing forms actively do something now. So, they are not only compelled by compelling karmic urges, but they themselves are also compelling with respect to our behavior. In the case of vows and negative vows, these nonrevealing forms either restrain or do not restrain us, in every moment, from committing a set of actions. The nonrevealing forms of intermediate vows and the nonrevealing forms obtained from a fervent undertaking also actively commit us to engage in certain actions of body or speech at certain times. The nonrevealing forms that are obtained from others making use of something that we have made for them or given to them or that are obtained from ordering others to commit destructive acts actively provide the circumstances for others to engage in certain actions of body or speech on occasion. We need to come up with a better hypothesis then neural pathways to explain nonrevealing forms from our Western point of view. 

The Compulsiveness of Karmic Impulses 

One way to summarize the fact that we have compelling karmic urges that give rise to the compelled revealing and nonrevealing forms of our actions of body and speech is to say, as we have explained before, that our behavior is compulsive. This is the case whether our behavior is destructive or whether it is constructive but accompanied by unawareness, ignorance. When our behavior is destructive, it is accompanied by unawareness of the suffering consequences of that behavior – in other words, unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. When our behavior is so-called “tainted” constructive, as well as when it is destructive, it is brought on by and accompanied by unawareness of how we exist – in other words, the ignorance of grasping for ourselves to exist as self-established entities. Such grasping can render constructive actions, such as keeping vows, into an act done out of a sense of obligation or guilt, rather than it being motivated by bodhicitta, or it can make keeping vows purely mechanical. 

Why can we describe our karmic situation as being compulsive? It is because, firstly, our destructive and tainted constructive actions of body, speech and mind are brought on by the mental factor of a compelling karmic urge. Once such a compelling urge arises, then like a locomotive drawing the cars of a train along with it, it drives the consciousness together with its accompanying mental factors to engage, in the next moment, in an intended action with or directed at an intended object. In this sense, these karmic urges are compelling and out of control. 

The revealing forms that are the karmic impulses for our actions of body and speech are compelled by these compelling karmic urges. In other words, the movements of our body are compelled by a karmic urge to enact a method for committing a physical action, such as picking up a knife and stabbing and killing someone. Similarly, the utterances of our speech are compelled by a karmic urge to enact a method for committing a verbal action, such as communicating the sounds of harsh words to someone. 

The movements of our body and utterances of our speech are compelled by the nonrevealing forms of our vows or negative vows to refrain from or not refrain from a set of destructive acts. They are similarly compelled by the nonrevealing forms of our intermediate vows or our fervent undertakings to engage in certain acts some of the time. 

The nonrevealing forms gained from others utilizing something that we have made or given them, or from others following our orders, compel us to build up more and more positive or negative karmic force the more that others use of what we’ve given them or follow our orders. This is the case whether or not we continue to want them to use it or follow them. Again, we have no control over what they do. But, as I said before, my understanding and analysis of this type of nonrevealing form is really provisional and not totally satisfactory. 

In any case, because we have no control, we experience our behavior as being compulsive. That’s why I think it is quite descriptive and helpful to refer to karma in terms of compulsiveness.  

Ridding Ourselves of Karma 

In terms of strategy, we have to work to somehow stop the urges that draw us into actions from being compelling and somehow stop the movements of our body and utterances of our speech, as well as the nonrevealing forms that shape our behavior, from being compelled by them. We have to somehow get rid of this compulsiveness that’s there and functioning all the time. To do this, we need to work with all of the components involved, especially unawareness and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and understand how they function, how they interact, and how they arise. In addition, we need to also understand the further complexity of the entire system of karmic cause and effect, which is best described with the twelve links of dependent arising. In that system, after all, the second link, affecting variables, refers to karma, and that arises from the first link, ignorance. 

We need to stand back and analyze our behavior and face the fact that we have a problem. For example, I’m very compulsive. Compulsively, when someone asks a question, I answer for much too long. There’s compulsiveness about that. His Holiness the Dalai Lama answers in one or two sentences so that everybody has a chance to ask questions. On the other hand, compulsively, I give a whole teaching for every question that’s asked. I don’t really have control over it. It’s a problem because not everybody gets to ask their questions. How do I experience that? It’s compulsive; I can’t control myself. It just comes out.

To get rid of this compulsive problem, first, we need to correctly identify the conventional “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates involved in this syndrome. Objectively speaking, people can validly hear me speaking compulsively when I answer a question. They are hearing the conventional “me” speaking. If I conceptually label that person compulsively speaking as “me,” that is conventionally correct. It’s not somebody else speaking. But if I conceptually label on the conventional “me” the category “me” with the defining characteristics of a Hindu atman – a self that is static, monolithic, and can exist independently of the aggregates – and identify myself with such an impossible “me,” then I have problems because of the ignorance of grasping for “myself” to exist in this impossible manner. It becomes very difficult to get out of this compulsive karmic syndrome unless I rid myself of the unawareness of not knowing that I do not exist in this impossible way.   

But, conventionally speaking, descriptively, I am compulsive when it comes to answering questions. This is correct. What kind of “me” am I conceptually labeling in this case and what kind of “me” am I labeling it onto? That is an important issue. I’m not labeling either the concept of a false “me” or even the concept of a conventional “me” onto a false self, an impossible “me,” as the person who is compulsive. In order to overcome karma and rid ourselves of its compulsiveness, we need to base our analysis on understanding what Buddhism calls the “mere me.” The mere “me” is the “me” that actually exists, but merely as a dependently arising phenomenon and not as something established as existing in an impossible way.

So, what is the valid basis for labeling the conventionally existent mere “me” as being compulsive in this regard? What is the karmic syndrome? First, somebody asks me a question and, with that as a circumstance, a compelling urge drives me to compulsively respond with utterances of the sounds of words of an answer, compelled by that urge. These utterances are revealing forms in the sense that they reveal that they were compelled by a constructive compelling urge to be helpful, but one that was tainted with the grasping for myself as having to be perfect, always answering in the fullest way, without consideration of what would be appropriate for the questioner’s level of understanding. The endless utterances of sounds that come out of my mouth reveal this compulsiveness, don’t they? I can’t stop myself from giving long explanations as the answer. 

Because I have fervently undertaken to answer questions as fully as possible, based on my full understanding, there is also a compelled nonrevealing form to this compulsive karmic syndrome. Compelled by the original karmic urge with which it arose, this nonrevealing form actively compels me always to answer with unnecessarily long explanations whenever asked a question. So, even when I stop explaining and finally realize I should shut up because other people have more questions, still, there’s an unconscious compulsion there, this compelling nonrevealing form. If somebody asks me the next question, I will compulsively give another long complicated answer again. The compulsion, the unconscious compulsion continues. 

It’s on the basis of all of that that I can validly label myself and say that I’m a compulsive person in terms of my way of answering Dharma questions. If I want to become a more effective teacher like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I have to overcome the compulsion that is shaping the way that I answer Dharma questions. There are a lot of people who have questions. My ability to deal with each person’s questions is limited because of my compulsion. Therefore, what I need to rid myself of is that whole compulsive syndrome. To do that, I need to rid myself of conceptually labeling myself with the concept of a false “me” – one that always has to be perfect and thorough regardless of the circumstances – and identifying with it. 

We’re not talking yet about the full karmic syndrome that includes how results follow from these karmic impulses. That’s a further development. The compulsive syndrome itself, however, includes the compelling urges to give a long answer, the compelled speech consisting of utterances of the sounds of words going on and on explaining as a method for answering, and the both compelled and compelling unconscious nonrevealing form that’s there all the time just waiting for something to trigger it by asking a question. However, none of these components or features are things that you could point to and find inside me. Again, this scheme is just a conceptual framework to explain what is going on.

Top