Revealing Forms of Physical and Verbal Karma

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Brief Historical Background of Non-Gelug and Tsongkhapa’s Systems

Now we’re ready to look at Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s presentation of karma as asserted by Tsongkhapa. This is in accord with Tsongkhapa’s special way of explaining the Prasangika system of Madhyamaka. Someone asked the question whether this presentation of Tsongkhapa was also accepted by the other Tibetan traditions and their understandings or assertions about Madhyamaka. In answer to that, all of the Tibetan traditions follow Nagarjuna and, in their commentaries on his Root Verses, expand on Nagarjuna’s verse in which he asserts the karma for actions of body and speech as being forms of physical phenomena. Since they all assert Madhyamaka as their philosophical position, none of them refute and discard Nagarjuna’s point about the karma for physical and verbal actions. 

Nagarjuna, however, does not provide any further detail about karma other than regarding this central point. For details about karma, all of the Tibetan traditions turn to the abhidharma texts of both Vasubandhu and Asanga and have written commentaries explaining them. Although Vasubandhu expands on Nagarjuna’s statement of the karmic impulses for the actions of body and speech being forms of physical phenomena, it does not follow that Vasubandhu derived this point from Nagarjuna. Such an assertion can also be pieced together from sutra sources, such as The Sutra on Repaying the Kindness of the Buddha, the Great Skillful One in Methods, The Sutra of the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Noble Hallowed Dharma and The Noble Great Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

When, outside of the context of their abhidharma commentaries, the masters of the various Tibetan Buddhist schools write about karma, they all present Asanga’s explanations of certain points when they are more complete than what Vasubandhu asserts. But they also all refute and reject the Vabhashika and Chittamatra philosophical contexts in which Vasubandhu and Asanga present their systems. When discussing the operation of karmic cause and effect, each of the Tibetan systems explains in accord with its own understanding and assertion of Madhyamaka. That’s where the differences arise. As for how these differences concerning Madhyamaka came about, it helps to understand the historical background.

Both Shantarakshita and Kamalashila came to Tibet from Nalanda Monastic University in India and established Indian Buddhism and, specifically, Madhyamaka as the basic Buddhist philosophical system there. They both were proponents of the so-called Yogachara branch of Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Similar to Chittamatra, this tenet system accepts that the object, the consciousness and accompanying mental factors in any moment of sensory cognition all arise from the same natal source, referring to a single karmic tendency; they are devoid of deriving from different natal sources. Although being Madhyamaka, these Yogachara Svatantrika masters modified the Chittamatra understanding of reality of how things exist or voidness. They do accept this non-dual aspect of natal sources, but they understand non-duality in an additional, more sophisticated way than Chittamatra. I am not sure how this impacts their understanding of the mechanism of karma. The Tibetan masters who followed in lineage from them explain Prasangika as merely refuting all concepts and as not making any positive assertions of its own. 

Whether they call it Maha Madhyamaka, self-voidness and other voidness Madhyamaka, or any other of the many different variants, nevertheless, within the non-Gelugpa traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the emphasis is very much on this non-duality of object and so-called subject, the consciousness. It’s coming out of this Yogachara Svatantrika background. Tsongkhapa, on the other hand, reinterpreted Prasangika and came up with his own unique presentation. 

I always find it quite helpful to understand why there are these differences and where they come from. It helps us to not develop a sectarian view about these things. OK, let’s get back to karma.

Similarities and Differences in Asanga’s and Vasubandhu’s Systems

Both Asanga and Vasubandhu differentiate two types of karmic urge:

  • Inciting karmic urge (sems-pa’i las)
  • Karmic urges for what are being urged (bsam-pa’i las).

Their usage of the terms is quite different and quite complicated, so no need to go into great detail. But just for reference for your future study, let me summarize the differences. Here, to avoid awkward language, we may call karmic urges “karmic impulses.” 

According to Asanga’s system, both types of karmic impulse are the mental factor of an urge. If we go back to our description of karma as compelling, then both are compelling urges.

  • Karmic impulses for actions of mind may be either simply a karmic impulse for what is being urged (or simply, an “urging karmic impulse”), namely just that action of mind, or, if the mental action they bring on is thinking about, deliberating and deciding to carry out an action of body or speech, it would be both an inciting karmic impulse as well as an urging karmic impulse. 
  • Karmic impulses for actions of body and speech are urging karmic impulses and may or may not be preceded by an inciting karmic impulse and a mental action. 

In Vasubandhu’s system, as accepted by Tsongkhapa, the mental factor of an urge is still what brings on a pathway of a physical, verbal or mental action. But the similarity ends there. 

  • Karmic impulses that bring on actions of mind that do not lead to actions of body or speech are simply the mental factor of a karmic urge and are not considered either an inciting karmic impulse or a karmic impulse for what is being urged.
  • Karmic impulses that bring on actions of mind that think and decide to commit an action of body or speech, as well as the karmic impulses that directly bring on actions of body or speech, are inciting karmic impulses. Both are the mental factor of an urge and both are considered mental karma.
  • Karmic impulses of what are being urged are forms of physical phenomena that rely on the body or speech. In this system, we may call them “urged karmic impulses” for short.          

The main difference in all this is that, for Asanga, both inciting and urging karmic impulses are the mental factor of a compelling urge, whereas Vasubandhu accepts only inciting karmic impulses as this mental factor. For Vasubandhu, in accord with Nagarjuna’s assertion, urged karmic impulses are forms of physical phenomena and so are compelled impulses. Both, however, assert that the mental factor of an urge brings on actions of body, speech and mind. 

Both also explain that some, but not all, actions of body or speech are preceded by a mental act of thinking about, deliberating and deciding to commit the action – for example, how I can get something, how I can hurt someone, or how I can refute another position. These are these three types of destructive mental activity. Plotting how I can get something is an example of coveting. This goes in harmony with the three so-called “poisonous emotions”: longing desire and greed, anger and hostility, and naivety. Such a pathway of karma becomes complete with making the decision to enact what we have thought to do.

Some physical activities and some verbal activities have deliberation beforehand, thinking something through; and others do not. We know that from our experience. We can think about something before we say it or we can just be so-called spontaneous and say something without having thought it out beforehand. So, a differentiation is made here. We don’t have to go into the details of that.

However, what is relevant in terms of a physical or verbal action is that we can have one motivation when we start to deliberate, and we can have a different motivation that is involved with actually carrying out the action. Vasubandhu makes this distinction in his discussion of causal motivations and contemporaneous motivations.

Causal and Contemporaneous Motivations  

An example from my own experience is from when I was in India. At one point, my house was infested with bed bugs in the walls, in the furniture, and everywhere. I lived in a very primitive hut of mud and stones. They were driving me crazy and I couldn’t do any of my work. So, out of consideration for what would be most beneficial in terms of my work and wishing that the bed bugs would have a better rebirth, I decided I was going to exterminate them by spraying a poisonous chemical to get rid of them. Otherwise, I would have had to give the house to the bed bugs and move, and I am not at that stage where, like Buddha in a previous life, I could offer my body to the hungry tigress. I wasn’t about to offer myself to the bed bugs to suck out my blood.

I had a fairly positive causal motivation for my mental action, although I was going to take lives by killing. My mental action, to clarify, was thinking or deliberating about how I am going to kill those bed bugs: thinking about what I am going to do: I have to buy the poison, and I have to do this and I have to do that with it. But I was shocked at my mental state when I was actually doing the extermination because then, it became more like, “Die, you bastards.” I really wanted to kill the bugs when I saw them running around. This aggression developed during actually doing the killing and it was quite different from my causal motivation. This aggression is known as the “contemporaneous motivation.” As you’re doing it, this is what drives you into actually doing it and sustains the action. That could be quite different from the initial motivation. 

You can see in so many examples. We have a disagreement with somebody. Out of wanting to make peace, we attempt to talk, but then during the course of the conversation we get really angry at the person. That happens. The point is that the ethical status of the behavior is determined according to the contemporaneous motivation, not the causal one. So, our good intentions to start with don’t necessarily carry through. If, while discussing something with that person, we get angry and very hostile, despite our good intentions to make peace, it’s a destructive type of verbal behavior because we are actually speaking with anger.

Asanga doesn’t actually use the terms causal and contemporaneous motivations, but this distinction could easily fit in to his assertions of karma. The analysis of a pathway of karma, however, is similar in both systems – with for Tsongkhapa, of course, the Madhyamaka understanding of how they exist. In both systems there is this whole complex of a basis, a motivating framework, an application or implementation of a method for carrying out the action, and a finale or reaching the intended conclusion. The motivating framework consists of a distinguishing, an intention, and an accompanying emotion, either positive or negative. The motivating urges that bring on, drive and end the actions are distinct from the pathways of karma in both systems, as is the agent of the action. None of these factors, however, exist like independently existing chess pieces.

Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s System Classifies Physical and Verbal Karma as Forms of Physical Phenomena

In regard to physical and verbal actions, there is the big difference between Vasubandhu’s view and Asanga’s. To recap, in Vasubandhu’s system, the mental factor of an urge that gets us into some physical or verbal behavior is an inciting karmic impulse and is still classified as the karmic impulse of a mental act. It is a mental thing, isn’t it? Asanga classified these karmic urges as urged karmic impulses, not inciting ones. They are the urged karmic impulses for physical or verbal actions and not, like Vasubandhu asserts, simply the karmic impulses of a mental act. 

The karmic impulses of physical and verbal actions in Vasubandhu’s system – the urged karmic impulses – are not ways of being aware of something, like the mental factor of an urge. They are forms of physical phenomena and classified as urged karmic impulses. 

Revealing and Nonrevealing Forms

There are two types of karmic impulses in the case of physical or verbal actions that are forms of physical phenomena: revealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs, Skt. vijnaptirupa) and nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs, Skt. avijnaptirupa). If we look at the Sanskrit words for these and analyze the grammar of the Sanskrit words, then we can understand what they mean. What I’m translating as “revealing,” vijnapti, literally means “something that causes us to know something.” It’s a noun made from the causative form of the verb. It’s very helpful to have studied Sanskrit grammar. It’s one of the topics of the five major Buddhist sciences that are studied and is very helpful. 

What does a revealing form cause us to know? First of all, the term is talking about the revealing form of the body or speech while implementing a method for carrying out some karmic action. The revealing form causes us to know that there was a destructive mental karmic urge that caused the destructive revealing form to arise or a constructive mental karmic urge that caused the constructive revealing form to arise. Note that even actions, such as walking or eating, that are, by nature, unspecified – which means not specified by the Buddha to be either destructive or constructive by nature – have a revealing form, although they can become destructive or constructive in accord with the emotion that immediately brings them on.

“Something that causes something else to arise” is the literal translation of the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms usually translated as “motivation.” Sometimes, the term is used for a motivating emotion, but since the same karmic action of body or speech may arise from any of the three root disturbing emotions – longing desire, anger or naivety – or any of the three root constructive emotions – detachment, imperturbability or lack of naivety –the revealing form does not make known the specific emotion behind it. 

Unlike a revealing form, which can be seen or heard, a nonrevealing form can only be known by the mind. As such, it does not indicate or reveal that there was the mental factor of a destructive or constructive karmic urge that caused it to arise. We’ll discuss that in our next sessions.

One further point: revealing and nonrevealing forms are features that apply only to animate objects – people and animals – and not to inanimate objects or our bodies when we fall like an inanimate object. Another important point is that all the Indian tenet systems accept that there are revealing forms and nonrevealing forms, although each asserts them differently. Their being forms of physical phenomena is not the point of dispute. The issue is whether or not these forms are types of karma. Only Vaibhashika and Prasangika accept that. 

The Compulsive Shape of Physical and Verbal Actions According to Vasubandhu

Let’s get more specific now. According to Vasubandhu, the revealing form of an action of the body is the compelled shape of the body when acting. The revealing form of an action of speech is the compelled sound of words when spoken. The main discussion of revealing forms, however, focuses on the revealing forms of the body when committing an action.

According to Vasubandhu, the revealing form of the body when acting is not the shape of the actual gross physical body, but actually is a shape that permeates the gross body and is the same size as it is. It cannot be the shape of the gross body, Vasubandhu argues, because the gross body is an unspecified object, and the revealing form must be either constructive or destructive. 

Forms of physical phenomena have color and shape, but Vaibhashika asserts that color and shape are substantially established as separate substances (rdzas); therefore, this revealing form is only a shape, with no color. It is translucent and without weight, like light. This revealing form is compelled or made to arise by a compelling, inciting mental karmic impulse. The inciting mental karmic impulse shapes this form and not the gross physical body itself. 

Further, as a distinct substantial entity pervading the entire body, it is a monad, not made of separate substantial parts, and lasts only a moment. In the next moment of a physical action, there is a different shape; otherwise, if the shape didn’t change in each moment of committing a destructive or constructive action, there could not be any motion of the body while committing it. Thus, according to Vaibhashika, the revealing form is not the movement or motion of the physical body that lasts over a sequence of moments. 

In his Autocommentary, Vasubandhu himself presents the Sautrantika objections to this Vaibhashika set of assertions concerning revealing forms. Shape is not a separate substantial entity from color. Shape is merely an imputation phenomenon, albeit still a form of physical phenomenon, on the basis of a configuration of an assemblage of particles having a certain color – what we would call “colored pixels.” A bunch of pixels of the same color, grouped together, constitute a colored shape. Also, just one moment of the shape of a body while committing a destructive or constructive action, like a still photo, cannot, by itself, reveal that there was a destructive or constructive mental urge that gave rise to it. Only a sequence of moments, like a video, can reveal that.   

Vasubandhu’s Chittamatra texts and their Indian commentary by Sthirmati provide further objections to the Vaibhashika formulation of revealed forms. For example, because shape is an assemblage of colored particles, it is not a monad.

According to these above texts, Sautrantika and Chittamatra both assert that the revealing form of the body while implementing a method for carrying out a physical action is the movement or motion of the body while committing the action and, as such, spans the shape of the body over a sequence of moments. Neither Sautrantika nor Chittamatra, however, assert that such a revealing form is the karmic impulse for an action of the body.

Nagarjuna asserts that the revealing form that is the karmic impulse for an action of body is the movement or motion of the body as the implementation of a method for carrying out the physical action, while that for an action of speech is the utterance of words as the implementation of a method for carrying out the verbal action. Thus, a revealing form is a form of physical phenomenon that is an imputation phenomenon on a sequence of consecutive moments of the body in different positions or consecutive moments of the sounds of speech making up words. Revealing forms defined in this way are the Madhyamaka reformulation of the Vaibhashika assertions of them as being shape and sound. 

Prasangika Analysis of “Shape”

Let’s analyze the term “shape” more deeply from the point of view of Gelug Prasangika. This word “shape” is a little bit difficult to translate into German. It is not equivalent to the German word “Gestalt,” so please don’t interpolate that psychological meaning on to it. It does not mean a pattern of behavior. 

To understand the Prasangika usage of the term, we need to look at the Tibetan word for “shape,” dbyibs, and then search our internal search engine of Madhyamaka teachings for where this word appears elsewhere. What we come up with is Chandrakirti’s seven-point analysis of the chariot. That’s where that word also appears. 

No need for me to explain the whole seven-point analysis of the chariot in detail. That’s a big complex topic. But in brief, a chariot is not identical with its parts or totally different from its parts; it does not possess its parts nor is it possessed by its parts; it is not something that relies on its parts nor something on which the parts rely; nor is it the shape of the parts. 

If we disassemble a chariot and put all the parts – the wheel, the axel, and the seat – and all these things on the ground, is that the chariot? No, it’s not. We can think in terms of our automobile; we don’t have too many chariots these days. The shape of the chariot refers to when all the parts are assembled and functioning. However, that’s still not the chariot. That’s because if none of the parts are the chariot individually, then how, if we put them together and they are functioning, can they now be the chariot? 

If none of the parts are the chariot, and neither are the parts when put together and functioning as a whole, then what is a chariot? From the non-Prasangika view, as we discussed a bit before, each of the parts is a self-established entity and each has findable on its own side its own individual defining characteristic mark. And, in addition, the whole is also a self-established entity, with its defining characteristic mark also findable on the side of the parts. 

How do we establish the existence of a chariot – or, in other words, how do we establish there is such a thing as a chariot? According to the Gelug interpretation of the Svatantrika Madhyamaka position, a chariot is what the word or concept “chariot” refers to when it is conceptually labeled on this defining characteristic mark of the chariot as a whole, findable on the side of the parts, or findable on the side of the functioning of the chariot – in other words, on the side of its movement, its so-called “shape.”    

Tsongkhapa rejects this explanation. According to Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the Prasangika assertion, as propounded by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, a chariot as a whole is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of its parts and its functioning. And although the existence of such a thing as a chariot can only be established in terms of the concept “chariot” conceptually labeled on the basis of the parts and their functioning, there is no findable defining characteristic on the side of the parts or the functioning on which the concept is labeled. If the defining characteristic mark of a chariot were findable on the side of the functioning or movement of the assembled parts of the chariot, then the movement of the chariot would be both the movement and the chariot as a whole. This is absurd. A chariot is merely what the word or concept “chariot” refers to on the basis of the parts and their functioning.  

I’m saying this in just a few words. It’s very difficult to understand and very profound. I’m sorry. The relevance of this, however, is that a karmic action, for instance taking someone’s life, like a chariot, is not equivalent to the revealing form of the body – in other words, the motion of the body as an implementation of a method for carrying out the killing. Karma is not an action. An action is an imputation phenomenon, like a whole, on the basis of all the parts and their functioning. That means a victim, a perpetrator, a correct distinguishing of the victim, an intention to kill, an emotion such as anger, the implementation of a method to carry out the killing such as the movements of the body involved in shooting a gun, and the reaching of a finale, namely the victim dying. An action is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of that. Neither the destructive karmic action of killing nor any of its parts, including the revealing form of the movement of the body to shoot the gun, is a self-established entity encased in plastic.

Let’s look at another example. If none of the pieces of a chess game are encased in plastic, how can there be a whole entity, the chess game, encased in plastic that we can call “the game?” There’s nothing findable on the side of any of the pieces that establishes the existence of the game as a whole. There’s this piece and that move, and that piece and that move, and only one occurs at a time. If  we lay out all the moves on a piece of paper, writing it all out, that’s not the chess game. None of the moves are the whole chess game, and if none of them are the chess game, when we put them together and they function, how can that be the chess game? We could play a movie of it and say that was the game, but there’s nothing establishing the existence of a game from the side of the pieces or any of the moves. In addition, the entire thing as a whole doesn’t ever occur in one moment anyway. Does the entire game happen in one moment? So, how can we talk about the whole as a findable, substantially established entity?

The Benefit of Broadening Our Understanding of Karma

If we extend and broaden our understanding of karma as compulsiveness beyond just the compelling urge that brings on our physical, verbal and mental behavior, then we see that, in the case of physical and verbal behavior, there is a compulsiveness about the movement our body makes and about the utterances of the sounds of words that our speech makes when we carry out these actions. These are the revealing forms, the compelled karmic impulses of the movement of the body and of the utterances of speech. They reveal that they were compelled by destructive or constructive karmic mental urges, rendering them as destructive or constructive movements or utterances. We have compulsive movements of our body when we hunt or when we take care of the sick, and we have compulsive utterances of the sounds of words when we say things that cause division or try to bring about harmony.  

So, with Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s explanation of karma, we’re broadening our understanding of what it means to assert karma as compulsiveness. We can do this because we are comfortable in the assertions of the Prasangika tenet system, and we are not looking at all the items that are involved with destructive or constructive behavior as chess pieces. There is a compulsiveness about the form of our bodily movements and the form of our verbal utterances, and not just a compulsiveness about the mental urges that bring them on. Do you understand the significance of that?

When we are working to try to rid ourselves of karma and our karmic behavior, it’s like working to rid ourselves of compulsively playing chess. We’re not just trying to take one piece off of the chess board. What we’re trying to get rid of is the whole complex syndrome of all the things that are involved. The strategy that we use depends on the conceptual framework with which we understand what is happening with our compulsive behavior. Our strategy can only be devised and carried out in terms of the conceptual framework with which we analyze and understand what’s going on. The Prasangika framework of Nagarjuna, with revealing and nonrevealing forms, is the most effective one to use for ridding ourselves of the compulsiveness of karma and the suffering it brings us. It is a far more effective conceptual framework then the ones Vasubandhu or Asanga provide in their abhidharma works.

Do you understand? The conceptual framework is the framework of the whole process here of karma, and we’re not talking about some isolated pieces. Therefore, if we want to get rid of karma, we have to deal with the entire conceptual framework of the entire thing, not just one piece of it existing on the side of what we do. It’s very profound if you follow that in terms of our strategy.

It’s not going to be a viable solution to just change the conceptual framework, or not to use any conceptual framework and just attempt to become non-conceptual. That is not going to free us from suffering. Karma is still operating whether we understand it through a conceptual framework or not. But if we have this Prasangika conceptual framework, we understand the enemy on a very profound level, and if we understand the enemy, then we know how to defeat the enemy.

Buddhism loves to use this sort of military terminology. Buddha came from the warring caste, so we have that kind of talk. Shantideva uses it throughout his work. The real enemy is the disturbing emotions in our mind. Don’t be shocked by the military terminology here. We want to defeat these internal enemies that are causing us so much trouble, not on the basis of aggression and hate, but with compassion. Compassion is not for our anger but for other people, because our anger prevents us from helping them. Compassion is not for the disturbing emotions. Shantideva says very clearly that they are not the object of compassion, as in, “Poor anger; I’ll be nice to you.” They just come back and hurt us even more, he says. Because of our anger, we think, speak and act in compulsive destructive ways and that brings all our problems.

Brief Summary

To summarize:

  • In the case of karmic impulses for actions of the mind, the karmic impulse is merely the mental factor of a compelling urge that brings on the action of mind, which is thinking about something.
  • Actions of body and speech are also brought on by the mental factor of a compelling urge. Such an urge is also considered the karma of a mental action and, specifically, an inciting mental urge – one that incites or brings on an action of body or speech. 
  • The karmic impulse of an action of body that is its revealing form is the compelled movement or motion of the body as an implementation of a method for carrying out the physical action.
  • The karmic impulse of an action of speech that is its revealing form is the compelled utterances of the sounds of words by our speech as an implementation of a method for carrying out the verbal action.
  • Such forms of physical phenomenon reveal that they were brought on or compelled by a destructive or constructive compelling urge rendering these movements and utterances as destructive or constructive themselves. 
  • The revealing forms of the body and speech in carrying out a karmic action are not the same as the action itself. Neither in the case of mental actions nor in the case of physical or verbal actions is karma equivalent to the action. 
  • The ten destructive actions and ten constructive actions are imputation phenomena on the basis of the ten destructive pathways of karma and ten constructive pathways of karma.    
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