Difficulties with Terminology When Studying Karma
One of the difficulties in studying karma is that the Tibetan terminology has many different meanings. For example, in Tibetan, the potentials and tendencies can also be called habits. It’s very confusing that the Tibetan terms can be used interchangeably for many of the different items that we have been discussing. I have limited the use of the terms for potential, tendency, and habit to just one meaning for each. You may get confused when you read the literature because the terms will be used almost interchangeably. You have to look at the definitions of a specific type of item that can be called by many different names.
Karmic Results Arise from a Complex Nexus
Now, karmic results: let’s just talk about the karmic results that ripen from the karmic forces and karmic tendencies. If you recall, nonrevealing forms affect our behavior, but those effects do not ripen from those nonrevealing forms. Since nonrevealing forms, if we give them up, undergo a phase transition and become a karmic force, and that karmic force in turn will ripen, then sometimes the nonrevealing forms are called the “causes of the causes” of these results. Also, the process whereby karmic constant habits give rise to appearances of self-established existence is also not called a ripening. So, when we talk about behavioral cause and effect, we’re referring specifically to the ripenings of the karmic forces and karmic tendencies that are the aftermath of our karmic impulses and pathways of karma.
There are four types of karmic results. Actually, it’s usually discussed as three types and one of them has two parts, so four. We have (1) ripened karmic results, (2) karmic results that correspond to their cause in our behavior, (3) karmic results that correspond to their cause in our experience, and (4) dominating karmic results.
First of all, what we really need to understand is that cause and effect is the most complicated topic. Only a Buddha knows it in full. Any result rises from a nexus, a complex of many causes and conditions. Nothing comes from just one cause, and one phenomenon can function as many different types of causes for many different things. It’s not a linear process where one cause has one effect and that one effect comes from only one cause. It’s an incredibly complex nexus. For, something to occur, there need to be many causes.
Ripened Karmic Results
Let’s look at the definitions of these four types of karmic results. Ripened karmic results, the first type of karmic result, are the non-obstructive unspecified items conjoined with our mental continuum as a limited being. The term “unspecified” means that they are neither constructive nor destructive though they can be accompanied by or accompany either constructive or destructive phenomena. They stay unspecified by nature, yet they can become constructive or destructive by association.
Some ripened karmic results obstruct liberation and some of them do not. Our body doesn’t obstruct liberation nor does our mind, although we can be engaged in tainted constructive or destructive behavior with our body or mind. Whereas, for example, grasping for self-established existence or grasping for an impossible “me” is unspecified and can accompany either so-called tainted constructive or destructive phenomena, and it does obstruct liberation.
What are we referring to here by ripened karmic results? They would be the body, consciousness and feelings of happiness and unhappiness included in the five aggregates. Concerning the other mental factors, only the unspecified ones would be ripened karmic results. Examples of this are concentration, distinguishing, and attention. So, the constructive and destructive mental factors, such as anger or love, are not ripened karmic results. They have their own tendencies and continuums that they are coming from.
Ripening Karmic Causes
Ripened karmic results come about from ripening karmic causes. Such causes are also conjoined with our mental continuum. In Vasubandhu’s system, we have six types of causes and four types of results plus some more that are not included in that list. Prasangika accepts this scheme. In Asanga’s system, one of these six causes is expanded into twenty further types of causes. The analysis of causality and the different types of causal factors is very complex and sophisticated.
A ripening karmic cause is one that is conjoined with our mental continuum and has to be either tainted constructive or destructive. That means that only karmic force can function as a ripening karmic cause. Karmic tendencies cannot function like this because they’re unspecified. So, only constructive or destructive karmic forces, as ripening causes, give rise to the unspecified ripened results that are our body, consciousness, and so forth.
But, to add more to the definition, ripening causes are not devoid of the moisture of thirsting. That word, which I am translating from the Sanskrit word for “thirst,” is usually translated from the Tibetan as “craving.” However, the original Sanskrit word means “thirst.” Therefore, it goes better together with the word “moisture”: thirst has a low level of moisture, although the expression “moisture of thirsting” is still a bit awkward.
Thirsting is the eighth link in the twelve links of dependent arising. Along with an obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude, usually translated as “grasping,” it is one of the two links in the twelve links of dependent arising that activate karmic force to become what is called a “throwing karmic impulse.” Such a mental karmic impulse will hurl the consciousness into a future rebirth, for instance as a human or a dog. I believe that these two links also activate the completing karmic impulses that will ripen into the specific details of that rebirth, for instance into a rebirth in a kind family or a cruel one or with or without a handicapped body. So, that means that karmic force needs to be activated in order to function as a ripening cause and that it is the ripening cause of only the unobstructive, unspecified nonstatic phenomena of a future rebirth. And karmic forces are activated by the disturbing emotion of thirsting. Let me define and describe what thirsting means in this context.
When we are very thirsty and we have just a little bit of water, then we thirst not to be parted from that water. We want more. Like that, when we experience tainted happiness, we thirst not to be parted from it. We are thirsty for more and more and we don’t want it taken away. When we experience unhappiness, then it’s like being thirsty and we want to be parted from that unpleasantness of being thirsty. If we have a neutral feeling, which is referring to the deep states of meditative absorption of the higher planes of existence, then we thirst for it not to decline or weaken. Thirsting, then, is focused on a feeling of tainted happiness or unhappiness or on a neutral feeling.
So, this eighth link plus the ninth link, an obtainer emotion or attitude, activate karmic force. There’s no need to explain in full an obtainer emotion or attitude. It can be one of several different mental factors, such as grasping for the impossible “me” to either not be parted from this happiness, to be parted from this unhappiness, or not to have this neutral feeling decline or weaken. Remember, thirsting is focused on the feeling itself.
The word for this group of disturbing emotions and attitudes means, literally, “to obtain.” It is what obtains the next rebirth. It is not the same word as “grasping,” as it is often translated, although grasping for an impossible “me” is one of the varieties. But it is a completely different word from grasping and includes four other varieties, for instance longing desire for the object that we are focused on when we have this feeling of tainted happiness and so on. That’s why it is confusing to translate it as “grasping.” Then we get confused. It is not that word.
To continue, ripened results are what ripen from ripening causes; and ripening results are unobstructive unspecified phenomena, while their ripening causes are constructive or destructive karmic forces. These karmic forces are the karmic aftermath transformations of the constructive or destructive karmic potentials of constructive or destructive karmic impulses and karmic pathways. On the other hand, karmic tendencies are unspecified and they do not function as ripening karmic causes.
What are the ripening results of karmic forces? In general, as I’ve mentioned, they refer to only the unobstructive unspecified phenomena that are obtained with a future rebirth. So, it’s the karmic forces that are the ripening causes that give rise to a body, consciousness, feelings and things like concentration and attention as ripened results. But, in addition, the feelings of happiness or unhappiness or neutral feelings that we experience in each moment of that rebirth are also the ripened results of our karmic forces.
We’ve all heard a million times that tainted happiness ripens from positive karmic force or merit and unhappiness from negative karmic force. That happens through the mechanism of ripening causes and ripened results. Tainted happiness and unhappiness are unspecified phenomena. We can be happy or unhappy while doing something constructive or while doing something destructive.
When we talk about the body being a ripened result, what does that mean? In terms of the twelve links, we’re talking about the obtaining of a body in a future life and what type of body we are going to obtain. Will it be a body of an animal, or a ghost, or a human for example? Will it become very tall or stay very short; will it be blind or deaf; will it have a naturally strong or naturally weak immune system, and so on. So, in a sense, it has to do with genetic features. The body itself, in the case of humans, comes from a sperm and egg of the parents. The sperm and egg are not the ripening causes. We’re talking about what causes us to have that type of rebirth and not what makes the body and it’s genetic features.
Buddhism refers to the constituent elements of the body as their simultaneously arising causes. They arise simultaneously with the body that is their result and are not ripening causes that precede their result. The solid and liquid constituents of body – for example, our internal organs and blood – don’t exist first on their own and then they make up our body. Other genetic features, such as intelligence, natural level of concentration, attention and so on are also ripened results of karmic force.
Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s systems are not the Chittamatra one of mind only. They do not assert that the forms of physical phenomena that arise in a moment of cognition, as well as the consciousness, feeling and other accompanying unspecified mental factors all arise as the ripened results of one and the same karmic force.
Karmic Tendencies as Equal Status Causes
So, then what role do the karmic tendencies play in this? They are unspecified phenomena and so they are not the ripening causes of the body, consciousness, and feelings. They are called the equal status causes. That is a different type of cause, and they function in a different type of way to contribute to body, consciousness, and feelings.
“Equal status” means that they are a type of cause for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomenon as they are – in this case, unspecified. Body, consciousness, and feelings are unspecified. Karmic potentials are constructive or destructive, so they can only be the ripening causes of these unspecified phenomena. Karmic tendencies are unspecified, so they can only contribute to the causal process of their arising by functioning as equal status causes of them. Each type of karmic aftermath functions in a slightly different ways participating in the causal complex.
Karmic Results that Correspond to the Causes in Our Behavior
The next type of karmic result is the karmic result that corresponds to its causes in our behavior. That refers to the mental factor of intention – our wish and intent to repeat a previously committed karmic action. Remember how we started the whole sequence of how karma unfolds. First, we had the mental factor of intention, our feeling like doing something: “I would like to do this, and I am intent on doing it.” That mental factor is the karmic result that corresponds to its cause in our behavior. We would like to do something specific again, directed at an intended object, similar to a karmic pathway that we have enacted before. And then based on that, if we have the karmic urge, we do it.
If I would like to yell at you, it doesn’t mean that I have to yell at you. I could decide not to and that’s where we could stop the sequence and self-control comes in. Once the compelling urge arises, it’s hard to stop it from engaging the consciousness and its accompanying mental factors into the action that is its karmic pathway. We can stop the sequence at the earlier point when we simply feel like repeating a previous action: “I feel like going to the refrigerator,” or I pass the bakery and “I would like to have a piece of chocolate cake.” Yet, it doesn’t mean that I will inevitably go in to get it.
But, liking or wishing to repeat some action will continue to arise sometimes so long as I have on my continuum its karmic causes. For example, if I stop smoking, I still might sometimes like to have a cigarette, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to smoke. That wish that is intent on doing or saying something that is similar to something we’ve done or said before is the karmic result that corresponds to the cause in our behavior. That’s what it is referring to.
So, what are the karmic causes of these results that correspond to these causes in our behavior, namely our wish and intent to repeat a previous action? Some arise as the result of karmic forces and others as the result of karmic tendencies. Feeling like doing something destructive, like yelling at someone, arises from the negative karmic force that is the karmic aftermath of previously having yelled at others. Feeling like doing something constructive, like helping someone, arises from the positive karmic force from previously having helped others. On the other hand, feeling like doing something unspecified, something neutral like having an ice cream, comes from an unspecified karmic tendency from previously having eaten ice cream.
All three cases are the results of previously built-up karmic aftermath as their equal status cause. Remember, an equal status cause is one whose result follows in sequence with the same ethical status as it has. So, a constructive or destructive intention to do something similar to what we’ve done before is the result of an equal status cause that is either constructive or destructive, so a karmic force. It can’t be a ripened result of these karmic forces because ripened results are exclusively unspecified phenomena.
On the other hand, an intention to do something unspecified similar to what we’ve done before cannot be the ripened result of a positive or negative karmic force, because an unspecified action is not similar to the constructive or destructive karmic action that resulted in this karmic force. In addition, an unspecified intention to repeat a previously committed unspecified action cannot be the ripened result of a karmic tendency from that previous action, because ripened results come only from ripening causes and ripening causes must be either constructive or destructive.
So, the karmic cause for the wish or intention to repeat an action similar to what we’ve done before is an equal status cause. In the case of wishing to repeat a constructive or destructive action, the equal status cause must be a karmic force and, in the case of wishing to repeat an unspecified action, the equal status cause must be a karmic tendency.
Karmic Results That Correspond to the Causes in Our Experience
Then, we have karmic results that correspond to the causes in our experience. We experience something happening to us similar to what we did or said to others. There are several different types of these results. For example, from taking the lives of others, we might experience being born with a body that is weak, always get sick and is subject to an early death. Or, from stealing the wealth of others, we might experience being born into an extremely poor family. Such happenings are unobstructive unspecified phenomena and are the ripened results of destructive or constructive karmic force, when activated at the time of death, functioning as a completing karmic impulse.
Remember, at the time of death we activate karmic force by means of thirsting and an obtainer emotion or attitude, so that an activated throwing karmic impulse hurls our consciousness into a next rebirth. Activated completing karmic impulses then complete the circumstances of that rebirth. The karmic force that gets activated as a throwing karmic impulse has as its ripened result a human consciousness and body of the next rebirth. The karmic forces that get activated as completing karmic impulses have as their ripened result that body being weak and so frequently getting sick or that body experiencing the effects of poverty in that next lifetime. Such experiences are neither constructive nor destructive; they’re unspecified.
Another type of karmic result that corresponds to its cause in our experience is, from killing as an example, experiencing being hit by a car, or, from stealing and cheating, our business failing. Our experiencing such things arise from a large nexus of many causes and conditions, many of which are external, such as the driver of the car that hit us not being careful or even the fact that this person was driving their car at that spot where they hit us, or strong competition coming along and taking business away from us. The karmic causal component here affects why we felt like crossing the street just at that moment when we would be hit by a car or why we felt like taking bad business decisions that contributed to our business being unable to withstand strong competition. Of course, there are many other internal and external reasons besides karma to account for the fact of why we needed to cross the street then and why we needed to make those business decisions. But, in the same circumstances, some people don’t get hit by a car and some do, and some people’s businesses succeed and others’ don’t. The difference is due to karma.
As we saw with karmic results that correspond to their cause in our behavior, the wish or intent to do something, like cross the street, that brings about our experiencing of an immediate result that corresponds to its cause likewise arises from a karmic force or karmic tendency as its equal status cause, depending on whether that wish was destructive, tainted constructive, or unspecified. Our intent to cross the street could have been in order to hurt or help somebody on the other side or simply to go to the store. So, it was a preliminary action for either a destructive, constructive or unspecified main action. Preliminary actions take on the same ethical status as the main actions that follow them.
Please keep in mind that this type of result just refers to our experiencing of something. It’s not referring to what somebody else does to us. It refers to our experiencing of what somebody else does to us. What others do is the result of their own karmic tendencies or potentials. It’s not the result of our karmic tendencies and potentials. What comes from our karmic tendencies and potentials is just to experience that. Your karma is responsible for you hitting me with your car. I’m only responsible for experiencing that. I didn’t cause you to hit me with your car.
This is very important actually in terms of our whole Western syndrome of guilt. I didn’t cause you to hit me with your car. Your karma caused you to hit me with your car. My karma just caused me to be hit by a car. If it wasn’t your car, it would have been somebody else’s car if I had the karma to be hit by a car.
Next, we have dominating results. They refer to our experiencing the type of environment or society in which we are born or enter, such as a very rich or poor society, or a very violent or peaceful one. These are unspecified results that affect many individuals, not just us, and they dominate our experience of a specific lifetime. In such cases, our experiencing of this is the ripened result of karmic forces activated as completing karma at the time of death, similar to what we’ve discussed before.
Dominating results can also refer to our experiencing feeling like going into such an environment at some time during our lifetime. They can also refer to our experiencing feeling like or wishing to buy an item that quickly breaks or that lasts a lifetime. As in the example of experiencing being hit by a car when we crossed the street, these types of dominating results arise from karmic potentials and karmic tendencies as their equal status cause.
The environment, of course, arises from all sorts of external causes, such as in the case of pollution. The karmic aspect of it is our experiencing that environment. Of course, we could have contributed to the pollution. That’s something else and is called a “man-made result.” Here, we are talking about the reason why we experience being in this environment.
Now, besides these four types of karmic results and their various types of karmic causes, there are also obtaining causes. As we discussed earlier in the seminar, the obtaining cause is that from which one obtains the item as its successor and thus it ceases to exist when its successor arises, or a series of successors finishes arising. The seed is the obtaining cause for the sprout. When the sprout arises, there is no longer the seed. The sprout is the successor of the seed. It comes next.
In hypothesizing why Tsongkhapa chose Vasubandhu’s assertion about physical and verbal karma in the context of Nagarjuna’s system instead of Asanga’s presentation, we spoke about how Nagarjuna and Asanga, as Mahayana masters, asserted Form Bodies of a Buddha and, as their obtaining cause, accepted that it is the enlightenment-building network of positive force. Analyzing this in the context of the Chittamatra and Prasangika assertions of Buddha-nature and their presentations of voidness, we concluded that a form of physical phenomenon as the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies makes far more sense than a noncongruent affecting variable. There is no need to repeat that entire discussion here, but now we can understand this point perhaps a bit better.
In Nagarjuna’s system, the enlightenment-building network of positive force is comprised of not only positive force, which is a noncongruent affecting variable, but also the nonrevealing forms of bodhisattva vows and constructive actions undertaken with and dedicated with bodhichitta. These nonrevealing forms are, obviously, forms of physical phenomena and so long as we do not give them up, they continue with our continuums all the way to enlightenment. This is why there is such an emphasis placed on never giving up bodhichitta and thus never giving up the bodhisattva vows, even at the cost of our lives. If we do give them up, we lose its nonrevealing form and no longer have that which is going to give rise to the Form Bodies of a Buddha. So, this is a disaster.
Similar Family Cause
There is one more type of cause that we need to mention. This is a similar family cause. It refers to something that serves as a model for a result that has the same essential nature as this cause. Constructive actions motivated by and dedicated with unlabored bodhichitta and so on are the similar family causes for the “32 excellent signs and 80 exemplary features of a Supreme Nirmanakaya.” For example, what is the similar family cause of a Buddha having a long tongue or any of the major or minor marks of a Buddha? It’s because as a bodhisattva, for example, Buddha took care of others with as much kindness as a mother animal licking her young.
That positive potential of the action is known as a similar family cause. It’s like a model for the physical features of a supreme Nirmanakaya. It makes sense to me, then, that the immediately preceding cause – what is present on the continuum the moment right before the arising of the Form Bodies of a Buddha – as a similar family cause for it, should also be a form of physical phenomenon. That’s why I think the obtaining cause and similar family cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha are nonrevealing forms.
This, I believe, is the main advantage of Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s system, and why Tsongkhapa asserted it, rather than Asanga’s system. This is because it offers an immediately preceding cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha as the obtaining cause and similar family cause that is also a form of physical phenomena and part of that whole network of positive force. Our gross body, our tainted body, even with its subtle channels and winds, doesn’t transform into a physical body of a Buddha. The Form Bodies of a Buddha are not anything like that.
In the Prasangika system, tainted phenomena are those that appear when not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, whereas untainted phenomena are those that arise when totally absorbed. Before attaining enlightenment, we always still have a tainted body because we are not always totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness. As a Buddha, however, we are totally absorbed like this all the time. This point leads to a discussion in the anuttarayoga tantra system, of what the nonrevealing forms are made of and the presentation of the subtlest winds of the untainted clear-light mind. That’s a further refinement for another time.
Conclusion and Dedication
This has been a fairly detailed explanation, although obviously it could be more detailed. We need to work with it and, as we’ve seen, Tsongkhapa’s Prasangika version of karma helps us to understand many other things in the Dharma teachings. It makes sense.
So, now when we say the dedication, “whatever positive force and whatever understanding,” that phrase is referring to positive potential and deep awareness. By saying, “May that act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment,” what we are doing is strengthening our enlightenment-building network because it is with bodhichitta. Even if our bodhichitta is still labored and doesn’t automatically arise, still by dedicating it with that level of bodhichitta, we build up what’s known as a “facsimile of enlightenment-building networks.”
We started with the motivation and now, with the dedication to enlightenment, we build and strengthen more and more our enlightenment-building positive potential. This is with both the noncongruent affecting variables of positive force that are the phase transition of our thoughts and of the revealing forms of our utterances of these words and also with the nonrevealing forms of those utterances. These are what get strengthened each time that we make a proper dedication. The enlightenment-building network will continue all the way to enlightenment and be responsible in a very complex way for the Form Bodies of a Buddha.
So, we think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone, not just me, but everyone to attain the enlightenment of a Buddha. Thank you.