The Need for Revising Asanga’s Presentation of Karma

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We are continuing our discussion of what karma actually means. We discussed the presentation the Indian master Asanga made within the context of the Chittamatra system of tenets. If we translate Chittamatra literally, it means “mind-only.” We saw that, in this system, karma refers exclusively to the mental factor of an urge. An urge is the mental factor that, while focused on an object, draws our consciousness and its accompanying other mental factors to engage in a specific action toward or with that object or another object. In keeping with the Chittamatra emphasis on “mind-only,” all three types of karma – the karma involved with actions of body, speech and mind – are the mental factor of an urge.

Now, in the case of the mental continuum of a Buddha, of course, it would be drawn to engage in doing something beneficial to some specific being or beings by the force of compassion. But consider the case of all limited beings – a term usually translated as “sentient beings” – this means somebody with a limited mind and body, and not a Buddha – not only are their minds limited, but also their bodies are limited as well. We can’t multiply into countless forms, can we? We don’t live forever either. So, a Buddha is not a sentient being or a limited being. In English, the word sentient means having the ability to perceive or feel things. Since a Buddha obviously perceives things, it might be hard to understand why a Buddha is not still a sentient being. In any case, in our situation as limited beings, our urges are compulsive and this is what karma is all about.

“Compulsive” means that we have no control over it. These urges are tainted in the sense that they are brought on by disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and also accompanied by them. These disturbing factors are defined as factors which, when they arise, make us lose peace of mind and lose self-control. In this system, with karma we’re talking about a compelling mental factor that drives us into thinking, speaking, or acting in a certain way. This is also tainted and mixed with disturbing emotions and so on.

Karma is not referring to the actions. It refers to the compelling urge that brings on our thoughts, words or actions. In this particular system, it’s not that we have to stop thinking, saying and doing anything at all to gain liberation from karma; we have to get rid of the compulsiveness of our behavior.

We also saw that we can’t just speak in terms of actions, but rather we need to speak in terms of a pathway of karma, which is a complex of several factors. There is a basis toward which our behavior is directed; a motivating framework – a distinguishing of that basis, an aim or an intention, which also requires a distinguishing of what we intend to do and to whom or what we intend to do it, and a motivating positive or negative emotion. Then, there is the application of these into our behavior, which means an implementation of a method for carrying out the action. The texts don’t use the word “action” here. It’s the word “to apply” – to apply that motivating framework to the basis. 

Then there is the finale, which is that what we do needs to reach its intended aim. For example, if we intend to kill somebody and we shoot and miss, then we haven’t killed anybody obviously. All that we’ve done is shoot at somebody and what we’ve done has turned into something else, not a killing. If we say what is untrue, we lie to somebody with the intention to deceive them, and if they don’t believe us, we haven’t actually deceived them. Our action turns into just idle chatter or basically making a fool of ourselves.

In terms of this whole complex, it goes through a continuum. There is the complex involved with starting the action, with continuing it and maintaining it throughout the course of the action, and then the whole complex to stop doing it. The pathway of karma refers to all of these things. Karma is what brings it on. The karma is the compelling urge to initially think something, the compelling urge to actually get into action (a physical action), the compelling urge to continue it, and the compelling urge to stop doing it. The karma driving the whole process is considered distinct from the actual pathway, as is the person who is the agent carrying out the action. Of course, all the factors that are involved can change during the course of this whole event. That’s quite complex, isn’t it?

Why Tsongkhapa Accepted a Different Explanation of Karma

Now, what’s the problem with Asanga’s formulation? Why would Tsongkhapa reject it and give a different explanation within the context of the Gelug Prasangika view? The most obvious reason is that Tsongkhapa is a strict follower of Nagarjuna, who predates not only Vasubandhu but also Asanga. Therefore, it is totally reasonable that Tsongkhapa accepts Nagarjuna’s basic premise about the karma of physical and verbal actions, that they are forms of physical phenomena, and rejects Asanga’s assertion that they are mental factors. This is the biggest difference between these two systems’ explanations of karma. 

That being true, I think there must be some deeper reasons as well for Tsongkhapa sticking to Nagarjuna’s assertion about the karma of physical and verbal actions, elaborated by Vasubandhu, but modified by Tsongkhapa’s Prasangika interpretation of Nagarjuna. Personally, I find this a very important point to analyze. Otherwise, we just learn that there are different systems, this and that system, and so what? We can work with one system or another and we don’t think that it makes so much difference, except that one is more complicated than the other.

The reason is that Tsongkhapa obviously felt that there is something that needs to be refuted, something that is a problem in Asanga’s system. Then we have to analyze. Although Vasubandhu points out in his autocommentary and Chittamatra texts the problems that arise with his Vaibhashika explanation from the Sautrantika point of view – although not as deeply as the critique from the Prasangika point of view – I have not seen or heard any Prasangika refutations of the problems with Asanga’s Chittamatra explanation, so what I will present is from my own analysis. It is a tentative analysis and needs to be further investigated. Although it is complicated and my analysis may not be easy to follow without a strong background of Dharma education, please bear with me and try to follow as best as you can. We will come back to it at the end of this seminar, but I’d like to introduce it first.

What is the problem with Asanga’s system? We have to remember that Asanga presents his view of karma in the context of the Chittamatra tenet system. So, what are the problematic features of the Chittamatra system that would be relevant here? I believe that the problem lies in the Chittamatra assertions of everything involved with karma having substantially established existence, its formulations of voidness and of Buddha-nature, and the various types of causes, and how all these features affect its explanation of the arising of the Form Bodies of a Buddha. This is why I said that whenever we study any topic in the Dharma, we need to try to have a very broad study of many, many aspects of the Dharma. When we fit them all together, then things start to make sense. Otherwise, they are just disjointed pieces of information. 

In terms of karma, both Chittamatra and Prasangika assert dependent arising, but the Chittamatra understanding is more limited than that of Prasangika. There are the twelve links of dependent arising, but we’re not discussing that at this moment. Both systems accept that, as do the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika systems, although how the twelve links work is going to be explained in each system with a different level of sophistication. However, if we really want to understand karma on a deeper level and how it is involved with uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we need to understand the twelve links, but that is not the topic for this weekend.

When Chittamatra speaks about dependent arising philosophically, it only presents the dependent arising of nonstatic phenomena in terms of cause and effect and the dependent arising of all phenomena, both static and nonstatic, in terms of a whole and its parts. Prasangika accepts these two usages as well. With karma, obviously we have cause and effect, and a pathway of karma is a complex of many things. Therefore we have the whole and its parts.

But remember, in our previous session we mentioned substantially established phenomena. The definition of this term is “something that performs a function” and Chittamatra accepts that all nonstatic phenomena have substantially established existence. Chittamatra also asserts that such phenomena have truly established existence, which means their existence is established independently of the mental labels for them that are applied in the conceptual cognition of them. In addition, their existence is established from their own sides by their findable self-natures, almost as if they were encased in plastic as some solid findable entity. 

Although there can be complex systems of these individual nonstatic and static items, they are all individual items, each of which is self-encased. Even the whole, as we saw, is a substantially existent thing, as in the example mentioned about how my trip to India had a big influence on me. My trip to India was made up of many, many different events and many different things, but, taken as a whole, it performed a function. It is something we can point to as “my time in India.” 

So, if we want to use an example – although examples are never completely precise so we shouldn’t push it – think of it like a chess game. All the various items that are involved in karma and pathways of karma are like the different pieces on a chess board. There they are, this piece and that piece, this pawn and that bishop and so on, as if separate. Each chess piece has its own function and way of moving, and the game arises dependently on all these pieces performing their functions. So, in this example, we have cause and effect and dependent arising, in that the outcome of the game is dependent on all these causes and the results of all the movements. The game as a whole arises dependently on all the parts and what is happening in each moment. In addition, the game itself is its own entity because I won the game or I lost the game. It performed a function of making me very happy or unhappy – going further in the competition or not. It itself is a substantially existent thing, “the game.” And it arose dependently on all the causes and conditions and parts, didn’t it?

We can extend that understanding to various events in our life, of course. Examples of this are our time at this job, our time in this relationship, and so on. There are all the parts, the interactions, and then there is the whole thing itself, and this makes for a very attractive way of looking at things that is helpful. So, in this Chittamatra system of Asanga, karma is one piece in the whole complex of our experience of so-called “behavioral cause and effect.” The way in which all the pieces in this example of a chess game function and occur is going to be very strongly affected by that one piece in the chess game, the karma. But we can’t just focus our strategy to win the game on just this one individual piece. We need to work with all the pieces – our karmic urges, intentions, disturbing emotions, behavior, and so on. We can’t win if our strategy is piecemeal and fragmented. Think about it.

We have to understand that all these different pieces make a unified system. We understand the Chittamatra view of dependent arising, the causes, conditions, parts, and the twelve links. All this is fine and okay. We can even understand that unawareness or ignorance is underlying the whole thing. So, we can point to that as something that we need to work on to get rid of. But when we assert that pathways of karma have substantially established existence as whole, truly established entities and that karmic tendencies also have substantially established true existence and even the tendency that will transform into and give rise to the Form Bodies and Omniscient Mind of a Buddha also has substantially established true existence, then we have a problem. Upon closer analysis, we realize that nothing is encased in plastic, although it might seem like that or appear like that. Things aren’t really like that.

Prasangika View of How to Establish the Existence of Karmic Cause and Effect

According to Prasangika, just the fact that a karmic urge, a karmic pathway, and a karmic tendency function as causes and so produce effects doesn’t establish the existence of these nonstatic phenomena as substantially, truly established phenomena, with self-establishing natures findable on their own sides. Nagarjuna argues that if their existence were established like that and so each were encased in plastic – if that were the case, cause and effect could not function. It is only because none of the components in the nexus of karmic cause and effect is encased in plastic that they can have contact with each other and interact. Because of that, cause and effect works. 

In this Prasangika analysis of karma, all the various items are still functioning, causes and effects arise dependently on each other as do wholes and their parts. But their existence can only be established merely as what the mental labels for them refer to – in other words, merely as what the words and concepts for them refer to. Their existence can only be established merely in terms of so-called “mental labeling.” 

This is a very important point that needs to be precise; it’s the crucial point. There are all these various items that we could analyze that are all functioning. There are karmic urges and, in pathways of karmic urges, there are a basis, a threefold motivating framework, an implementation of a method for carry out an action, and a finale, and then there are the various types of karmic aftermath, and various results. Prasangika is not denying any of these, but none of them exist concretely – if we want to use a simple term – concretely with plastic around it. But how do we establish or affirm that there are all these items? How do we affirm it?

They are affirmed through a conceptual framework, a conceptual framework including karma, pathways, basis, motivation, and all these things. That conceptual framework doesn’t create any of these items, not at all. But we can only establish their existence in this way. “Yes, it’s like that. How do I know it’s like that? There’s this conceptual framework and through this conceptual framework I can make sense of it and understand it.” In very simple terms, that is what it means to say that everything arises dependently on mental labeling.

Voidness and Dependent Arising in Regard to a Conceptual Framework

Existence established merely in terms of mental labeling is jargon of course, but we have to understand what it means. Everything in the entire system of karma, all the aspects of it, arise dependently merely in terms of the conceptual framework of that system. It has nothing to do with time or sequence; everything in the system arises dependently merely in terms of a conceptual framework. It is only in terms of the conceptual framework that we can establish the existence of these things in this manner. There is nothing on the side of the objects, like plastic encased chess pieces, that establishes that there are all these things involved. It’s not a chess game. There aren’t findable pieces and movements, and things having their own individual function within the whole game, and so on. You can’t point to any of these things separately. Think of that. This is reasonable if you think about it.

For example, we experience something. I experience yelling at you. Now, afterwards I want to understand what went on, and therefore we have the whole analysis of karma and all the pieces that are involved. So, what happened? Were there these helium balloons that arose somewhere in my brain? That helium balloon was my motivation, and here’s the helium balloon of my compulsion, and there’s the balloon of the person I yelled at. Did it happen like that? There aren’t any helium balloons in our heads that we can point to and say, “That was the balloon of our motivation.” There were all these items. All of them were involved, but they weren’t helium balloons separately encased and interacting with each other. 

As opposed to that, there is a conceptual framework of this whole analysis, and the words and concepts of that framework establish the existence of these items as what those words and concepts refer to. They affirm that there were such things. There is nothing on the side of any of the components of karmic cause and effect that has the power to establish the existence of such things, because there is nothing on the side of the objects that can be found upon analysis on either the deepest level or conventional level. Only in terms of the conceptual framework of karma can we establish that there were these components, and the framework allows us to understand it.

We can conceptually isolate and discuss each of the components of karmic cause and effect individually, but that’s a conceptual process used to merely understand them. That’s called an “isolate” – something isolated, merely conceptually, from everything else. But none of the components actually exist isolated from everything else. If they were actually isolated from each other, they could not interact. 

So we can conceptualize and discuss the mechanism of karmic cause and effect in terms of words and concepts, but none of the components is a self-encased entity. Because the entire system of karmic cause and effect is devoid of existing as individual encased pieces – because it is impossible for anything to exist as an individually encased entity – karmic cause and effect can dependently arise. 

Why? Because the whole system dependently arises only in terms of a conceptual framework, it is devoid of impossible ways of existing. So, we understand voidness and dependent arising to be equivalent. We can only establish that things arise dependently on a conceptual framework. Why? It is because they don’t exist in the impossible way as these individual findable items. That’s why dependent arising is the supreme reason for proving voidness. The perfect topic to understand this with is the topic of karma.

The Chittamatra View of Voidness

If Chittamatra accepts the substantially established true existence of nonstatic phenomena, what then is its assertion of the voidness of them? One of the main assertions of the Chittamatra system is that in any moment of sensory cognition, the object, the consciousness and all the accompanying mental factors for that cognition arise from one so-called “seed” or “karmic tendency.” The voidness of all nonstatic phenomena in this system is the voidness, or total absence, of their coming from different natal sources. 

A “natal source” is what something springs from and Chittamatra refutes an external natal source for objects of cognition that are forms of physical phenomena. That means that, in each moment, all the components in the complex of a pathway of karma come from one and the same karmic tendency. So, in each moment, the appearance of the basis at which our karmic action is aimed, our distinguishing, intention and accompanying motivating emotion, our body, speech or mind’s implementation of a method to carry out the action and, after the completion of implementing a method, the appearance of the action reaching its intended finale all come from the same karmic seed. 

According to the Prasangika view, that is incorrect. Chittamatra refutes that there are any external phenomena, whereas Vasubandhu’s Vaibhashika system and Prasangika say that there are external phenomena. They spring from their own external natal sources, for instance their component elements. Prasangika and Vaibhashika also say that each component in any moment of cognition as well comes from its own individual tendency, not all coming from just one tendency, the karmic tendency for that cognition. Vaibhashika asserts that all phenomena nevertheless have substantially established existence, whereas Prasangika asserts that nothing has this impossible type of existence.

Thus, although Tsongkhapa accepts Asanga’s formulation of the list of items comprising a karmic pathway, he rejects, with his Prasangika view, the mode of existence of these items. They each come from their own natal source, and the object at which a physical action is directed comes from a natal source that is external to the mind of the agent of that action. This is a relevant point when we discuss, in a moment, Buddha-nature and the causes for the Form Bodies of a Buddha.

In relation to that, Nagarjuna presents his assertion about karma in his chapter that analyzes the relation between the agent, the body and speech, and karma. Without going into detail, Nagarjuna’s Prasangika presentation of karma, as accepted by Tsongkhapa, fits with the Prasangika view of voidness and dependent arising, and not with Asanga’s Chittamatra view, nor with Vasubandhu’s Vaibhashika or Sautrantika views.     

The Chittamatra View of Buddha-Nature 

Buddha-nature refers to those factors on the minds of limited beings, sentient beings, that transform into or allow for the Bodies of a Buddha. I call these factors “Buddha family-traits.” Specifically, relevant here are the evolving family-traits, which are those nonstatic factors that transform into a Form Body and an Omniscient Mind of a Buddha. In addition, there are naturally abiding family-traits. 

In the Chittamatra system, the naturally abiding family-traits are the seeds, or tendencies, that, without beginning, are imputation phenomena on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being. There, they serve as factors allowing that being to attain one of three purified states – those of either a shravaka arhat or pratyekabuddha arhat – or that of an enlightened being (bodhisattva arhat, Buddha). Here, the relevant seed is the one that allows for the attainment of the Form Bodies and Omniscient Mind of a Buddha. Such a seed abides, with no beginning, as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of foundation consciousness, alayavijnana. In the UttaratantraThe Furthest Everlasting Continuum – a Chittamatra text on Buddha-nature dictated by Maitreya to Asanga – this naturally abiding seed embedded on foundation consciousness is likened to a treasure hidden in the earth.

In addition, there are the evolving Buddha-family traits, which are the seeds, or tendencies, that, newly gained by listening to, thinking about, and meditating on Buddha’s teachings, serve as factors allowing the attainment of the arya pathway minds of seeing, accustoming and needing no further training as a shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva. Note that the actions of listening, thinking and meditating on the Dharma are brought on by karmic urges.

In the case of bodhisattvas, these karmic tendencies build up as enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness. These are usually called the “collections of merit and wisdom.” A network of positive force will build up and contribute to either more samsara, although a better and nicer samsara, liberation, or enlightenment, depending on the motivation and dedication. If the motivation is unlabored bodhichitta and the positive force is dedicated to our attainment of enlightenment, then it acts as an “enlightenment-building” network of positive force. If it’s not dedicated, it just will contribute to a nicer samsara. “Unlabored” bodhichitta is bodhichitta that arises automatically without need to be built up through a line of reasoning.  

When these two networks are strong enough, they act as circumstances to activate the naturally abiding trait so that it gives rise to the Form Bodies and Omniscient Mind, the Dharmakaya or Dharma Body of a Buddha. That tendency, which is the naturally abiding trait, is the natal source, then, giving rise to both the Form Bodies and Omniscient Mind. In accord with the Chittamatra view of voidness, these two types of Buddha Bodies – one that is a form of physical phenomena and the other a consciousness with attendant mental factors – do not arise from different natal sources. They both arise from the same natal source, the naturally abiding Buddha-nature seed. 

Prasangika rejects this Chittamatra presentation of Buddha-nature and asserts, instead, that the Form Bodies and Omniscient Dharmakaya of a Buddha each derive from their own individual sources functioning together, namely the two enlightenment-building networks. Prasangika asserts these two networks as the evolving Buddha-nature traits. But as the naturally abiding trait, it asserts the voidness of the mind, in accord with its own assertion of voidness. The Chittamatra assertion of voidness – the absence of the object and the consciousness with its accompanying mental factors arising from different natal sources – would not work here.

Gelug Prasangika, then, with its views of voidness and Buddha-nature, avoids the fallacy of imagining that enlightenment exists complete already, hidden inside the naturally abiding seed, and is just waiting to pop out and become manifest when the obscuring taints are removed, and the enlightenment-building networks are complete.

The Obtaining Cause of the Form Body of a Buddha

In all one’s lifetimes before attaining enlightenment, the tendency, referring to some positive or negative karmic force from the networks of positive or negative force, gets activated and functions as the ripening cause for the attainment of the body of a next samsaric rebirth. Ripening causes can only ripen into unspecified phenomena, and all bodies attained through rebirth are unspecified. The Form Bodies of a Buddha, however, are specified as being constructive and so they cannot arise from positive force functioning as a ripening cause. They arise, instead, from an obtaining cause.

An obtaining cause is that which transforms into the result and, in doing so, may or may not perish. It is called an “obtaining cause” because it is that from which the result is obtained. For example, a seed is the obtaining cause for a sprout, and clay is the obtaining cause of a clay jug. According to the common assertion shared by all Mahayana tenet systems, the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha is an enlightenment-building network of positive force. 

There are two definitions of obtaining causes. One is “that which is the principal producer of its obtained result within the continuum of its substance.” The other is “that which, from among the essential nature and attributes (of its obtained result), gives rise primarily to its essential nature.” Chittamatra follows the first definition, while Prasangika the second. This difference is significant.

“Substance” is the Tibetan word rdzas, which is the word found in the term “substantially established existence.” In the explanation of rebirth, the obtaining cause for the body of a rebirth are the great elements – earth, water, fire and wind – of the sperm and egg of the parents, while the obtaining cause of the mind of a rebirth is the mind of the person taking rebirth. That means, the great elements of the parents’ sperm and egg and of the body of a rebirth that grows from them constitute one continuum, while a person’s mind during a previous rebirth and the next rebirth constitute a separate continuum. 

In other words, the sperm and egg of the parents are the source of a body of a next life. Only a body can be the source of a body. But only mind, a way of being aware of something, can give rise to mind in the next lifetime. It can’t come from physical matter. Physical matter cannot be a prior moment of a stream of continuity of a mental phenomenon; and a mental phenomenon cannot be a prior moment of a stream of continuity of a physical phenomenon.

Both Chittamatra and Prasangika assert this. Chittamatra, however, asserts that these two continuums are continuums of two different kinds of substantially established substances. Prasangika, on the other hand, rejects that there is such a thing as substantially established existence. Because of that, Prasangika asserts these two continuums to be continuums of two different types of items. All the items in each continuum have the same essential nature – on the one hand, a form of matter, and on the other, a mind. In both systems, however, only matter can give rise to matter and only mind can give rise to mind. 

Now, when we apply these different interpretations of obtaining causes to the obtaining cause of the Form Bodies of a Buddha, we find a possible reason for the Prasangika assertion of the karma for actions of body and speech being forms of physical phenomena. My hypothesis is that a positive karmic force that is a form of physical phenomena is much more appropriate as an obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha than is a positive karmic force that is noncongruent affecting variable – a nonstatic phenomenon that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something – as asserted by Chittamatra. This is because the two share the same essential nature. 

The Tibetan term rdzas, substance, is not only found in the term “substantially established existence,” but it is also the term for a natal source. According to Chittamatra, the natal source of both the Form Bodies and the Omniscient Mind of a Buddha is the naturally abiding Buddha-nature family-trait allowing for the attainment of Buddhahood, when activated by completed networks of enlightenment-building positive force and deep awareness. I would speculate that, in the Chittamatra system of Asanga, the seed, or tendency, that is this family-trait is the obtaining cause for both types of Buddha Bodies and forms a continuum of substance with them. Both the seed and the Buddha Bodies are substantially established; they perform a function. 

Prasangika does not accept the existence of a naturally abiding family-trait that is a seed giving rise to both the Form Bodies and the Omniscient Mind of a Buddha. It also refutes that there is such a thing as substantially established substances. Instead, it asserts that the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies is the enlightenment-building network of positive force and that the positive force in this network and the Form Bodies constitute a continuum of items having the same essential nature. The same is the case with the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness and the Omniscient Mind of a Buddha. By asserting the karma for actions of body and speech as not only having the essential nature of forms of physical phenomena, but also being positive forces, Prasangika comfortably asserts these forms and the Form Bodies as constituting a continuum of essential nature. 

But again, I must add the caveat that the above analysis is purely speculative, and I have not found or heard any authoritative confirmation of it.

The Benefit of Tsongkhapa’s System of Karma

I wanted to introduce Tsongkhapa’s position about karma with some deeper reasons, as best as I can analyze, why he would opt for this much more complex view of karma besides it having a source in Nagarjuna’s Root Verses. There has to be a reason and a benefit and, if we can understand that, then we will be more open-minded to trying to understand this more complex presentation. Otherwise, we might say that it is too complicated. “Who needs this? Let’s go with the simpler one.” So, I follow the strategy that we find in most Dharma presentations, in which first you describe the benefits of something in order to motivate someone to actually develop something and then you describe what it is.

For example, the first chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior first describes the benefits of bodhichitta, and then in the chapters that follow it describes all the methods and so on of how we actually work to develop bodhichitta and the far-reaching attitudes. First he described the benefits. That’s why I wanted to first explain the benefits and advantages of Tsongkhapa’s system first. Then you might be more interested in understanding the context and the explanation.

Again I go back to one of my main points, which is the main point that His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes repeatedly whenever he teaches. This is the importance of studying the Dharma, and learning it and remembering it in a very broad way. “Mindfulness” is that with which we hold something actively in our recall. It’s not just storing information in a memory bank. Mindfulness is holding it and not letting go. So, when we have learned many different aspects of the Dharma teachings, then we do what is called analytical meditation. Actually this is the thinking process in which we try to figure something out. We hold all these pieces together with mindfulness and then we try to fit them together.

Look what is put together here. We have the Chittamatra presentation of karma, Tsongkhapa’s presentation of karma, the Chittamatra view of how things exist, the Prasangika view of voidness, the various levels of dependent arising, and the Chittamatra and Prasangika assertions of Buddha-nature. We also have the presentation that we get from Vasubandhu of the six types of causes and four types of results, the presentation of how rebirth works, and we have logic. We put it all together and we try to figure out how does it make sense? What are the issues that are involved? We have to look at it in a holistic way in order to properly understand anything in the Buddhist teachings. Things don’t exist like these separate little chess pieces. Our understanding will dependently arise on the conceptual frameworks of all these different aspects of the teachings. It’s a perfect example.

There will be problems in integrating the different aspects of the teachings if we approach it in the manner of each teaching being like a separate chess piece and that we just need to move the chess pieces cleverly and we’ll win the game. Gaining insight doesn’t work like that. It may work to get some level of understanding, but our mind is too closed when we start thinking of all the Dharma aspects like substantially self-established, separate chess pieces. Here, what seems like chess pieces are the teachings. The teachings of karma and the teachings of Buddha-nature and the teachings of dependent arising and the teachings of voidness are not self-encapsulated chess pieces.

You might remember the analysis of contact from Shantideva and the teachings from Chandrakirti and Madhyamaka. How could these teachings interact with each other if they had self-established existence? How can there be any contact between the teachings in order to put them together? In order to really gain deep insight into the teachings, we need the Prasangika understanding of voidness and dependent arising. The teachings can’t really integrate with each other when we think of them as separate self-contained chess pieces interacting with each other. It’s much more open than that.

One further point, starting with the next session I will start to explain Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna’s view of karma and as I already warned you, it’s more complex than Asanga’s presentation. I will not present charts or PowerPoint or anything like that to make it easier. Although there is some tainted reason for that, mainly laziness, there is also a less tainted and a more compassionate reason for that. You’re not going to learn this stuff if somebody presents it already in a chart for you. You just look at the chart and think, “Oh yes, it’s nice.” Then you just go on. If you have to work it out yourself and make the chart yourself, then you actually have to think about the material and work with it. Then you develop perseverance. Without that perseverance and patience and so on, you are not going to get anywhere. Dharma shouldn’t be presented to you already cooked on a plate ready to eat. You have to prepare it yourself.

Working it out ourselves when we have correct information from the hearing process requires time and effort. What does putting in the time and effort depend on? It depends on motivation. If we don’t have the motivation to actually figure it out ourselves, we’re not going to get anywhere. We are not just training our knowledge base so that we have more information. We are also training our character to develop patience, perseverance, motivation and so on. We work on all of them simultaneously. Ever hear of building up the two collections simultaneously? There is the network of positive force and deep awareness put together.

Gaining an understanding is hard work and, rather than complain about it, we need to understand and appreciate why it has to be hard work. Otherwise, we don’t develop our character. Look at the biographies of the great masters. Marpa gave Milarepa a really hard time. It’s only because he gave him a hard time that he developed that motivation, that strength of character that it didn’t matter how hard it was, he was going to do it. He was going to get those teachings and practice them in order to reach enlightenment. So, Dharma teachers’ mode of operating is not to make things easy for you. For many of them, it’s to make things hard for you on purpose. There has to be a compassionate reason for them doing that.