Questions about Collective Karma and Continuums

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Just to clarify some points, a pathway of a karmic impulse is defined as what a primary consciousness having congruent with it the mental factor of an urge engages in. In Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s system, the mental factor of an urge is a karmic impulse of the mind. Vasubandhu states that karmic impulses of body and speech, namely their revealing forms, are both karmic impulses and pathways of karma, since karmic impulses of mind engage in them; whereas, karmic impulses of mind themselves are only karmic impulses and not pathways of a karmic impulse. Buddhapalita, however, commenting on Nagarjuna’s presentation, explains that karmic impulses of body and speech are only nominal pathways of karma, since actual pathways of karma entail a basis for an action, a motivating framework consisting of a distinguishing, an intention and an emotion, the implementation of a method for committing the action, and the reaching of a finale.

Vasubandhu’s point can also be explained in terms of Asanga’s system. Here, the karmic impulse for an action of body or speech is the mental urge that brings on the pathway of a physical or verbal action. When that karmic impulse for the physical or verbal action is brought on by an inciting karmic impulse of the mind, then that karmic impulse for the physical or verbal action can also be considered a pathway of karma, namely the pathway of the karmic impulse of the preceding action of mind. This is because, as mentioned just a moment ago, a pathway of a karmic impulse is defined as what a primary consciousness having congruent with it the mental factor of an urge engages in. But again, these karmic impulses for physical and verbal actions are only nominal pathways of karma.

Whether we speak in terms of Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s system or Asanga’s, in neither of these systems is a karmic impulse an action. As we’ve seen in our previous session, an action is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all the components of a pathway of karma – namely, a basis for an action, a motivating framework, an implementation of a method for committing the action, and the reaching of a finale.

When we are clear about the difference between karma or a karmic impulse and an action then we can focus on what I find is the most important aspect about karma, which is its compulsiveness. We need to examine and try to understand what is actually compulsive about the various karmic events in our life regarding what we do, what we think and what we say. The problem is not just what we think, do, and say, it is the compulsiveness of them. They uncontrollably repeat and, over and again, bring us suffering and problems. That’s what we need to get rid of.

Question about Collective Karma

What is the difference between the karma of an individual and the karma of a group? For example, if you have an airplane accident and a lot of people die in that crash, then what is the relationship of the individuals to each other?

The technical term is “shared karma,” often called “collective karma.” The classic explanation for so-called shared karma is that everybody experiencing this ripening of karma had participated in a certain action or a certain event beforehand that brought about their experiencing together this result. Now, how that actually works is of course a bit complex. I don’t think that it’s helpful to think of it as one sort of collective karma that everybody plugs into. It doesn’t exist by itself somewhere. Also, of course, everyone who experiences the results of collective karma also has their own individual karma that affects their experience. 

We will get into the discussion of karmic aftermath and the whole process by which a result arises from the aftermath in our further sessions. But think about it. Let’s say you have a battle in a war. Now, everybody in that battle is actually doing something different and individual, aren’t they? The whole event, namely the battle, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of that. But actually, what is the battle? How do we establish that there was such a thing as the “battle” that everyone participated in? We can only say that the battle is what the word and concept “battle” refers to when mentally labeled on all of these participants and what they did. There’s no solidly existing “the battle” somewhere and then everybody is experiencing the consequences for participating in that thing, “the battle.” It’s not that the concept of a battle creates the battle. The battle isn’t the concept. There’s the category of battle, which could be applied to many different events. There’s a word, an inherently meaningless sound that a group of people have agreed to assign to that category and designate all the items that fit in it. That’s the word “battle.” What is the battle? The battle is what this category and the word refer to on the basis of what everybody did.

How do we affirm or establish that there was a battle? It is only in terms of this conceptual framework of battles. But the conceptual framework doesn’t create the battle and it’s not the same as the battle. In this battle, everybody did something different, didn’t they? In terms of the result as well, everybody’s experience of the crash, to get back to the example in your question, is quite individual. Somebody is injured in this way, somebody in that way, and somebody survives, for example. Experiencing the crash doesn’t just occur isolated from the whole emotional component of that experience. That is also a part of each person’s experience. Still, we can label onto what everybody experiences the category of “plane crash” and the words “plane crash.”

It is very important to understand what a category is. Categories are static phenomenon. They don’t grow and change, but we can replace one category with another category. It’s through categories that we make sense of things. They are what are involved with conceptual thought. Conceptual thought is through the medium of categories. Everybody has this. We can’t function without categories. Even the worm has this. How does a worm know food? It doesn’t have a word for it, but it certainly perceives all these different things through the category of food and there’s some meaning to it.

Returning to the point about collective karma, actually there’s a dependent arising of what everybody does in the so-called battle and a dependent arising of what everybody experiences in the crash. All of these components are related to each other and arise dependently on each other through a conceptual framework used to make sense of the connections here. We’re talking about shared karma and the shared result of shared karma. That’s a conceptual framework, isn’t it? We use a conceptual framework to establish a way of understanding what happened. What happened did happen.

Cause and effect dependently arise. It doesn’t mean that they are simultaneous. Something cannot be a cause without there being an effect. Something can’t be an effect without there being a cause. They are dependent on each other. The fact that there was a shared event in terms of the cause and a shared event in terms of the effect – that also dependently arose in terms of everybody’s individual experience at the time of the cause. All the people involved in the battle, for instance, didn’t do what they did all at the same instant or time of the cause or experience what they did at the time of the result. There’s a grand network here of dependently arising phenomena.

When we try to establish what was going on, we have the conceptual framework of shared karma. Each person, and the fact that they participated in the battle, or the fact that they actually took that particular airplane flight, all of this also arose from many other causes and circumstances. Each complex is individual for each person. So, you see how we have a much broader dependently arising network here.

It’s just a convenient framework to say “collective karma,” but it’s not as though there’s one chess piece in each person’s mind that got put in there from the event and that’s the collective karma. It’s not that there it is, carried in their mental continuum and it pops out as the plane crash. We can understand it in a much more sophisticated and complex way. There is nothing concrete there.

Question about Continuums

If you have a continuum of moments of awareness or ways of being aware of things and a continuum of forms of physical phenomena, then how do you have a mental urge, which is a way of being aware of something, give rise to a physical form as the karmic impulse of a physical or verbal action? 

In order to explain that, we would need to go into a tremendous complexity of different types of causes and different types of effects. The fact that the urge brings on, let’s just say for simplicity sake, a form of behavior, doesn’t mean that the form of the behavior is the next moment in the continuity of that mental activity. The physical behavior is of course arising from many other causes. There is a certain cause that drives or initiates an action, but there are other causes involved, such as the physical condition of the body, the elements of the body, and the previous habits of how we have acted and so on. The actual arising of the movement of our body when we do something or the utterance of the sounds of our speech when we say something follow as parts of a continuum of our body’s previous movements and our speech’s previous utterances. There are also many internal and external circumstances that also affect what we do or say. We don’t act or speak in a vacuum.

When we speak about continuums, there are many different types of continuums. We don’t just think here in terms of what occurs in moment A, moment B, and moment C. We’re not just speaking about temporal continuums. Our body has a certain continuum based on the elements of the body. All of the various emotions and mental factors that are involved, each of them have their own continuum. For example, in terms of anger and a tendency to anger and previous times of anger, there’s a continuum of that. The urges themselves have a continuum. For example, I always have the urge to go somewhere, the urge to explore, the urge to do this or do that. They have their own continuum. All of these are going to interact in any particular moment. Various items from each of these are going to manifest, in a sense, or occur simultaneously in any moment, each from its own causes.

If we want to make sense of it, we can use the conceptual framework of the five aggregates. It’s not that all these various aspects exist in these five boxes, but it just helps us to organize all the various items within each moment of our experience. Then, if we want to be a little bit more organized, we can take that flow of all these different components organized in terms of five aggregates and organize it further in terms of the imputation phenomenon on its basis, “me,” the conventional “me.” But there’s no findable “me” substantially existing anywhere in this incredible complex that makes up the basis. There’s not any self-established “me,” permanent or impermanent as the agent of our actions. Furthermore, on the basis of that “me,” there are karmic potentials and tendencies as further imputation phenomena. And, on the basis of those karmic potentials and tendencies, there is the not-yet-happening of their result as yet a deeper imputation phenomenon. 

So, all of this is established merely in terms of this conceptual mental framework of karma that allows us to understand what is going on. What’s happening is happening and it doesn’t matter whether we use this conceptual framework or not. It’s just helpful in establishing or affirming and understanding what is happening. Here is one way of understanding it. And I have to emphasize again, we can’t really understand karma independently of understanding something about voidness.

Perhaps, since I feel quite strongly about this, although we see this in English and not in German, I will mention why I object to the use of the word “emptiness.” “Empty” implies that there is an existent basis like a glass, and something is missing inside of it. The glass is empty. Sorry, but that’s not the meaning of voidness. It may fit the Svatantrika system, but certainly it doesn’t fit the Prasangika system. 

The word for voidness in Tibetan or Sanskrit is the same word that is used for zero. It’s a total absence; no such thing. No such thing; that’s what it means. It doesn’t affirm that there is a findable container that is missing something that doesn’t exist inside it. It doesn’t affirm anything at all. That’s why I use “voidness” and not “emptiness.” “Emptiness” gives the wrong impression, specifically for the Prasangika system. In many languages this problem doesn’t arise. But it does arise in English. There’s nothing findable on the side of the object. There never was. It’s totally absent. It’s not that there is a findable object and it’s empty of something that you couldn’t find inside it.

Karmic Results Dependently Arise

In a karmic action, we have the urge and the karmic pathway and there are instances where, for example, you have a certain urge to kill somebody and then, during the course of the karmic pathway, there are external or internal conditions that change the course of the action. Are the karmic results the same if you intend to kill somebody but then, during the karmic pathway, conditions change and it doesn’t happen? Do you experience the karmic result of having killed somebody or not?

No, because you haven’t killed somebody. The pathway of a karmic impulse has to be complete with all the four factors for the result of the original urge to occur. For example, I plan to kill you. I have the urge to kill you and I aim the gun at you with the intention to kill you. But then I take pity on you and I change my mind, or my cell phone rings, or somebody else walks into the room, or there’s an earthquake. Something happens and the act is not completed. What has actually occurred is simply the plan. What it deconstructs into is mainly a mental event. I planned to kill you and that will have its result from having deliberated, thought, and planned killing you. There is also the result from starting to carry it out. But there will not be the result of killing you because I didn’t actually kill you. What physical action have I done? I’ve threatened you and probably scared you terribly and that will have its result. But it will be the result from threatening and scaring you, not the result of killing you, because I didn’t kill you.

Now, this gets into a very good point. There is no inherent identity to what is occurring in any point during the continuum of the event. It’s not that now I am carrying out the murder and it exists as a murder somewhere inside each moment of what I’m doing leading up to it. It doesn’t have an inherent identity, does it? That is where we get confused because we think that it has this fixed identity somewhere established inside it. It doesn’t.

A murder can only arise dependently on all the component factors having occurred. It is not an appropriate basis for labeling a murder if somebody doesn’t die. So, that it is dependently arising is a very important point. A basis for a label, a mental label, and what the label refers to, arise dependently on each other. Nothing is a basis for labeling independently of a label and what a label refers to. It’s a very profound point actually. The label is a category and a name applied to something. A murder is not the category of murder and it’s not the sound of the word “murder.” The category and word do refer to something. What do they refer to? That’s the murder.

To clarify, mental labeling usually involves a category and a name ascribed to it; and mental labeling refers to the combination of these two applied to a basis. Without the category of a meaning, a word is just a meaningless sound. A category, however, does not need to have a word associated with it. For instance, a worm understands all eatable items to be food through the conceptual category of “food,” but does not designate that category with the sound of a word. 

A category and word refer to something, but what they refer to is not found inside the basis. There’s nothing in that basis of all the things I did, pointing the gun and so on and that’s what establishes the murder; but the basis for labeling a murder and what the category “murder” refers to, they dependently arise upon each other. You can’t have one without the other.

So, dependent arising is a very profound topic and we really need to understand it in its many levels of meaning and implication.

The Carrier of Karma

What carries these seeds of karma from one life to another?

First of all, we’re not talking about concrete things like a suitcase being put on a conveyor belt and then it moves form one lifetime to another. That’s not the Prasangika view. In the non-Prasangika views, in general, without getting into the differences of the different tenet systems, things have self-established existence like entities encased in plastic. These other systems will say that what goes from lifetime to lifetime is a mental continuum. This is a sutra system, not an anuttarayoga tantra system or a dzogchen system. It’s not the clear light mind or rigpa, pure consciousness; we’re talking about a sutra system today.

So, Sautrantika and Svatantrika will say that it is mental consciousness that provides the continuum. Chittamatra will say that it is the alayavijnana, the foundation consciousness. The karmic tendencies, the karmic potentials, and all of that are imputation phenomenon on the basis of those continuums. The conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental continuum as well. According to these systems, however, the defining characteristic of a self is found within the cluster of the defining characteristics of the continuum of the mental consciousness or foundation consciousness as well. This is the basis of imputation and the basis of labeling. There’s something findable in this continuum that makes me “me,” and distinguishes me from you. It’s an uncommon defining characteristic.

The Prasangika view is, first of all, that, although everything has its own individual defining characteristic, otherwise it would be impossible to distinguish one thing from another, nevertheless, you can’t find the defining characteristics of anything on the side of the basis. The defining characteristic of something does not have the power to establish the existence of that thing. The basis for labeling, what’s being labeled on it, and the defining characteristic as well all arise dependently. There is nothing from the side of the object. This is part of the conceptual framework.

We have a conceptual framework of emotions, for example. What do we experience in terms of our emotional life? There are no little balloons of things that are different emotions. We have a conceptual framework of different types of emotions with which we can explain our so-called emotional life and what we experience. We have this conceptual framework of love, loyalty, jealousy, and so on and each of these has its defining characteristic. That is also part of the conceptual framework. 

But what loyalty means to a modern Western person, what it means to somebody in medieval Europe, and what it means to somebody in traditional Japan, these are quite different concepts, aren’t they? The defining characteristics are different. The defining characteristic is part of the conceptual framework. There’s nothing self-established and findable on the side of anybody’s experience that establishes these things. They are all established as parts of a conceptual framework and dependently arise.

On the side of the basis, mental consciousness or foundational consciousness, you don’t find defining characteristics of the consciousness. You don’t find defining characteristics of the tendencies. You can’t find those. You can’t find the defining characteristics of a “me” either. It doesn’t matter how we conceptualize rebirth, whether we think in terms of mental consciousness going through the death process, bardo, and rebirth; or, as in anuttarayoga tantra, we think in terms of the subtlest clear light mind being what provides the continuity; or we think in terms of the dzogchen system of rigpa, pure awareness, providing that continuum. 

On the flow of that continuum as a whole, there’s no defining characteristic as we explained in the chess game or the battle. There is no defining characteristic or a findable shape of a flow inside this, regardless of whether it’s just mental consciousness or it’s with a body and so on that’s flowing. It doesn’t matter. There is a continuum of many changing components, and “me,” the conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on that basis. That “me,” as the conventional agent of my actions, does not exist as some self-established entity either identical with or totally separate and different from the components of the continuum.

In the sutra system, at the moment of death there’s only subtle mental consciousness. In the anuttarayoga tantra system, there’s clear light consciousness and subtlest wind. It doesn’t matter what level of analysis we use. During a life there are a body, all the emotions and all the aggregates. Each moment of the continuum of this complex has slightly different components and, on the basis of these different complexes, there is the imputation phenomenon “me.” And we can designate that “me” with the word “me” and label it with our concept of “me.” Although there is no findable characteristic of “me” inside any of the constantly changing components of this continuum, nevertheless, there is a conventionally existent “me” as the basis for the imputation phenomenon of the karmic tendencies and potentials. The mere “me” provides the continuity in the Prasangika view. In everyday life there is always something to ascribe the “me” on, but there’s no findable characteristic on the side of the basis.

It’s the question, what makes me “me”? That’s the question. Is there something inside me that makes me “me”? Taking it further, is there something findable, establishing itself on the side of the basis, that makes “me” not just an individual, but also someone special. To analyze this requires deconstruction of what the “me” is. 

These non-Prasangika schools would say that there is something findable inside “me” that makes me “me” and you “you.” It doesn’t make “me” into “you.” Prasangika says no. There’s just the continuum of the aggregates, based on cause and effect, and the conventional “me,” which does exist, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that continuum. It can be conceptually labeled as an individual “me,” but whether labeled or not, it is individual.

The “me” of each person is individual; Prasangika does not deny or refute that. But what is the basis for the individuality? It’s the dependent arising of this whole continuum. The self that is an imputation phenomenon and can be conceptually labeled on the basis of the continuum as “me” is a dependently arising phenomenon. The defining characteristic of a self dependently arises as well. It all dependently arises. Individuality also dependently arises. Nothing is sitting there by itself. They all arise relative to and dependently on each other.

Understanding the Four Noble Truths through a Conceptual Framework

Part of this continuum of aggregates is the mental factor of feeling a level of happiness. It’s going to have a suffering tainted feeling of either unhappiness, tainted happiness that doesn’t last, or a neutral feeling in the higher planes of existence of the form and formless realms. Let’s not get into the discussion of those higher planes. There’s a continuum of this, and it goes on and on. Therefore, there’s the all-pervasive suffering with which there is always a basis – a body and mind – that compulsively and uncontrollably occurs one moment after another. In a sense, it perpetuates itself. This is the all-pervading problem. That’s the suffering that we want to get rid of that is part of the flow of the continuum of the aggregates. 

How do we understand and make sense out of the content of each moment in this flow, in the continuum? Is it chaotic or is there a certain understandable sequence of what happens in each moment and the contents of each moment? For this, we have a whole analysis of karmic cause and effect to explain what is happening in each moment. It’s more complex than just karma because there are all the mental factors and they all have a cause and an effect sequence as well. Within a grand scheme of cause and effect, some of which is karmic, some of which is dealing with just the various mental factors, we can account for and understand how each of the items within the content of the five aggregates of each moment dependently arises together with the others in any particular moment. And it’s not that they all come from one seed of karma as is presented in the Chittamatra system. Each of the components comes from its own source. 

This whole scheme of karma and the karmic tendencies and potentials and results and the “me” and all of that is very helpful because it gives us a conceptual framework within which to understand our experience and to understand the four noble truths: suffering, its cause, that it can be gotten rid of, and how we get rid of it. This conceptual framework of the four noble truths has to be held together with the understanding that none of these things exist like separate chess pieces or helium balloons inside the individuality of the flow of a continuum. 

The individuality is because there is a conventionally existent defining characteristic of an individual person and a logical scheme for being able to understand the sequence of what happens. And “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of this. Yes, I’m experiencing what is occurring with the five aggregates. I’m not like the rock rolling down the hill. Still, there is no such thing as a plastic coating around anything. There’s nothing inside any of the components of the five aggregates that is generating that plastic coating, making it an individually knowable thing.

We have to overcome our false view of reality as if everything were like a children’s coloring book in which there are black lines around a colored shape that separates it from the next colored shape and you can just color in the qualities and individualities and so on. Things don’t exist like in a coloring book. It’s the same thing in terms of karma – that now there is a karmic urge and we’ll color it like this with a black line around it. Now, there is the tendency and we’ll color it like that. Now, there is the result and we’ll color it like that. There are no black lines around things. There are no plastic coatings even though it looks like that, seems like that, and worst of all, it feels like that and we believe it.

Even though things don’t exist encapsulated in plastic, with an identity established inside, nevertheless, everything does have a conventional identity agreed upon by a group of beings who have adopted and learned the same conceptual framework of a language or a culture or whatever. Conventionally, we have agreed on certain ways of describing what we experience. We may come up with new conventions such as “attention deficiency syndrome” and so on. Now, we have a new convention. We learn the definition. Where does the definition come from? It comes from the conceptual framework. Attention deficit disorder – we called it bad concentration before. Can you see how everything dependently arises merely in terms of mental labeling?

Questions about Conceptual Frameworks

Why do we have these conventional frameworks and conventions if they cause problems and make things seem to exist with lines around them?

These conventions are useful because otherwise we can’t communicate with each other. It’s the basis for language. Then, we could get into a whole analysis of the relation between language and reality, but that’s a whole different topic.

What is the sequence in terms of cause and effect? If we have the convention of attention deficiency disorder, does that then cause further manifestations of it?

I think some things are getting a bit confused here between cause and effect, a basis for labeling a concept and a term, and what is labeled. The basis for labeling doesn’t cause what is being labeled on it. The two arise dependently on each other in the conceptual framework. It wasn’t that within our mental continuums there existed already the helium balloon called attention deficiency disorder and it is only now that we finally discovered it and gave a name to it. People had difficulty concentrating forever, always. Only now, we have the conceptual framework of attention deficiency disorder, in order to explain it and possibly deal with it and try to find a way to overcome that suffering. But it didn’t already exist as attention deficiency disorder inside our continuum and that caused the concept.

Now, can thinking in terms of this conceptual framework then produce further effects? Yes. We have something called doctrinally based disturbing emotions. Having learned a doctrinal system – and this refers to one of the non-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems – we then believe ourselves to exist like the type of atman, or self, asserted by that system. We then develop disturbing emotions based on that. However, we wouldn’t automatically have these disturbing emotions. It’s based on learning, accepting, and believing in a doctrinal system. We wouldn’t automatically think of ourselves as an atman the way that it is defined in these Indian systems. We wouldn’t automatically conceive of ourselves as an atman experiencing suffering and that we could become liberated from it.

So, similarly, if you didn’t teach your child that there were ghosts, your child would not be afraid of ghosts. Because the child has learned this conceptual framework of ghosts and believes it, then it produces the effect of the child being afraid of ghosts or monsters. The child wouldn’t automatically think in terms of ghosts and monsters unless somebody taught that child these things. 

So, it’s similar to a doctrinally based disturbing emotion. We’re all like that. We look up a disease we’ve never heard of before on the internet in Wikipedia or Google and now we think that perhaps we have it. It happens, doesn’t it? We never would have thought that we had it before, until we learned about it on the internet. Learning the conceptual framework and believing in it has effects. The conceptual framework by itself doesn’t have that effect; it’s only our belief in it that has an effect. It’s not that the effect of the framework is existing already somewhere inside our experience.

The Need for a Broader View of Karma

We tend often to think of the continuum of mental activity, the continuum of consciousness and so on, but we’ve learned that there are continuums of many things such as the body, the mind, the various emotions, mental, physical and verbal behavior, and so on. What type of strategy do we use in order to overcome suffering and gain liberation from suffering? Do we sometimes work on our behavior, sometimes on how we speak, or sometimes work with our emotions? How do we actually plan a working strategy?

To answer that we need to get a much more complex description of the whole karmic cause and effect process in order to understand if there is some sort of multi-level strategy. First, we use self-control. But then we go deeper and look at what is the ignorance and confusion that is underlying the whole process and how does that unawareness, confusion, or ignorance enter into the process. We need to understand the whole conceptual framework of how it all works, which would entail a deep Prasangika explanation of the twelve links of dependent arising.

But in general, if we have a broader view of karma, then we understand that this compulsiveness is not just the one little chess piece of the urge. We have a broader basis for identifying and understanding the object of refutation, or what to get rid of. So, that helps to have a more sophisticated understanding of karma as being compulsiveness, and the many aspects of that compulsion that we need to get rid of. Karma is a cause of suffering. We need to understand how it is a cause of suffering. What is it that is a cause of suffering? It’s much broader than one little chess piece.