The Twelve Links: Karma, Mind & Next Life Aggregates


We were talking about how mind in Buddhism refers to an activity that goes on with no break, with no beginning and with no end. It is the mental activity of experiencing things and it is an individual, subjective experiencing of things. We are not talking here about experiences as events accumulating one after the other. Nor are we talking about experience as an emotional event, as in, "I had a great experience yesterday." Nor does experience have to be conscious. When we sleep, we are usually not conscious of being asleep, but still we experience being asleep. Something is happening. That is what we are talking about. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking are all ways of experiencing things. Sleeping, dreaming, being born, and dying are all instances of experiencing something. Even if we are in a coma, we are still experiencing something, the coma.

This experiencing of things is individual and subjective. My experience of seeing the same movie as you do is different from your experience of seeing it. Our experiencing has unbroken continuity, which does not just come from nothing at the moment of conception and end without a next moment of continuity at the time of death. It makes absolutely no sense to say that a nothing can become the experiencing of something and that an experiencing of something can become a nothing. We are led to the conclusion that this subjective, individual experiencing of things has no beginning and no end. This means there is a continuity of lifetimes, rebirth.

Our experiencing of things can be mixed with confusion or it can be free from confusion. When it is mixed with confusion, we have samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Our experiencing of things is filled with problems of various sorts. When our experiencing of things is without unawareness, we are liberated from samsara. Once we are free of unawareness such that it never recurs, the continuity of our experiencing of things still goes on from one lifetime to another, but no longer under the control of unawareness. If we are working toward enlightenment or if we are enlightened, the continuity is driven by compassion. The driving force for continuing to experience things in samsara is the drive to try to make a seemingly solid "me" exist and be secure. We want to continue living. When we are free from confusion, the driving force to continue to live is the wish to be able to help others.

The unawareness that is the first link of dependent arising is the unawareness of how we and others exist – primarily of how we exist. It feels as though we exist as some sort of solid, concrete "me." But we don’t really know that this is just an appearance or a feeling that does not correspond to reality. Or we think that it does correspond to reality. This unawareness makes us befuddled. Our mind is unclear about how we exist and so we are unsure of ourselves and indecisive. Being unsure of ourselves, we stubbornly stick with whatever we decide in order to try to gain some security. Because we are insecure about how we exist and feel we are a concrete "me," we want to make this imagined solid "me" secure. In fact, our entire lives are driven by the compulsion to try to make that solid "me" secure. This compulsion is strongest at the time of death. We desperately want the solid "me" to continue existing, no matter what. That is the driving force that leads us to further rebirth with continued unawareness about how we exist.

We saw yesterday that this confusion about how we exist has two levels. There is doctrinally based unawareness and automatically arising unawareness. The doctrinally based unawareness is something that we learn. The authentic form of it is acquired from concepts we have learned and accepted from one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. An analogous form may come from being conditioned by our families, society, television, various ideologies, propaganda, advertising, and so on. This conditioning leads to deeply rooted neuroses. Automatically arising unawareness is not something that anyone has to teach us or influence us to have. Everyone has it all the time, simply because of the limited way in which our mental activity makes things appear. It makes it appear as though we exist as a solid "me," the so-called false "me," and it feels like that.

We saw that if we wanted to describe this feeling of a solid "me," we would describe it as having three characteristics. The surface feeling about how we exist is that there is a solid "me" that is unaffected by what happens, is always one and the same, and is a separate entity from our experiences. On the basis of these three characteristics, there is a subtler one. Although the actual explanation of this subtle form of unawareness is much deeper and more complex, it is often explained in a more simplistic manner. We feel that this type of "me" is the boss that is controlling what is happening. It is the observer, the decision-maker, the controller that has to be in control or else it is out of control.

We looked at some examples of this confusion about how we exist. In terms of doctrinally based unawareness, we are told and we think, for instance, "Just be yourself. Be true to yourself." That makes absolute total sense to us. Being yourself means being unaffected and separate from any situation. Likewise, we are told to be unique and to find ourselves – a self that will always be one and the same, no matter what.

The three aspects overlap. We feel: "I am separate from my experience, but when I go into experiences, I must be myself, unique, always one and the same." That type of solid "me" needs to be in control. We hear, "Control yourself." "Don’t let anyone step on you." "Be in control." All of this is deeply rooted. We say, "I have to protect myself from being hurt," as if there were some little entity over here inside us and another separate entity also inside us, but over there, who has to protect the first entity from being hurt. If we look at this, we can see how it is the source of self-preoccupation, worry, nervousness, and so on. All of that multiplies from this unawareness. "I have to put on a good act, because if I don’t, they are going to see the real ‘me.’" It is based on thinking there is a real "me." Or, we say, "You say you love me, but you don’t know the real ‘me.’ If you did, you wouldn’t love me." Consequently, we can’t accept that anyone loves us. Or, we come home from work, take off our shoes, and think, "Ah, now I can be ‘myself.’" It’s strange, isn’t it?

The opposite of this is to experience things from moment to moment with awareness of our motivation and of what is going on with other people, and, with compassion, refrain from acting harmfully. We just act, communicate, relate, feel emotions, and experience things from moment to moment, without self-consciousness and without elaborating anything on top of bare experiencing.

The problem is that it feels as though there were a solid "me" in our experience. This is the automatically arising unawareness. It automatically seems as though there is a solid "me" that is not affected by anything. We eat a huge piece of chocolate cake and because we do not get fat in the next moment, we say, "I was not affected by it. I am not affected by anything." "I hurt myself, but here I am. It didn’t really affect me." We go to sleep and, when we wake up in the morning, it feels as though "Here I am again!" The same "me," always the same.

It feels as though we are separate from what happens to us because we can dissociate ourselves from our experiences. I remember once falling down on a concrete walk and cracking my ribs. There was such a strong experience of a "me" separate from the experience, who did not want to relate to it. When our partners begin to cry or yell, often we completely dissociate. It really feels like there is a separate "me" who does not want to experience what is going on. The morning after we get drunk, we say, "I wasn’t really myself last night." Or, we sometimes automatically say, "I’m not in good health; I really don’t feel like myself today." And there is this little voice going on in our heads all the time. It feels as though the voice is that of this solid "me," the controller, who is obviously separate from what is going on because it is always commenting. This voice in our heads makes the phenomenon of worry even more concrete. It reinforces our confusion. It is automatically there. We didn’t need to learn how to do it.

That is what is so terrible about samsara: this unawareness about how we exist is self-perpetuating because of the automatically arising mechanism that reinforces it. The more we understand what is going on, the more disgusted we feel. It is like thinking that our office situation is okay and then finding out that the boss was dishonest. When we discover the fraud, we become disgusted. We develop the determination to be free from it. This is usually called "renunciation." It is the determination to be free of samsara and the full willingness to give it up.

With "Dharma-Lite," our attitude is thinking, "I want to be free," but we don’t think that we have to give up anything. Dharma-Lite is like Coca-Cola Lite, it is delicious but not "The Real Thing." There is nothing wrong with Dharma-Lite, it can be useful, but we have to go further. To get out of our problems, we have to give them up. We have to give up the unawareness that is causing them and the patterns and habits that are reinforcing our unawareness.

[See: Dharma-Lite Versus the Real Thing Dharma]

A Deluded Outlook toward a Transitory Network

Then a very fundamental disturbing attitude arises and accompanies our experiencing of things. It is called, in technical jargon, a "deluded outlook toward a transitory network" (‘jig-lta). This attitude is aimed at our experience. Specifically, it is aimed at a particular configuration of the five aggregates that compose each moment of our experience and takes it or considers it to be the solid, false "me." In simple words, it is the misleading attitude with which we identify solidly with a particular moment of our experience, whether it be a mood, an incident, or whatever. Unlike unawareness about how a person exists, which can be confusion about how we exist or about how others exist, a deluded outlook toward a transitory network only concerns how we exist.

"Transitory" means that the content of our experience is changing all the time: our experience is made up of many changing parts. The deluded outlook takes the configuration of the parts that make up some experience and considers it to constitute a solid identity for the solid "me." Not only do we do this with any configuration of elements that constitute our experience, we replace one self-identity with another during the course of a day. Sometimes we identify with something that lasts just a few moments, like hearing the sound of words of an insult. We feel insulted and, identifying with experiencing that, we feel, "You just insulted ‘me.’" We may also identify with something that we experience over a long period of time, such as being young, old, a man, a woman, married, single, and so on.

The deluded outlook toward a transitory network has two aspects, often translated as regarding our experiences in terms of "me" and "mine." Based on feeling and believing that we exist as a solid "me," we not only sometimes identify with what we experience as "me," we sometimes also identify what we experience as the possession of that solid "me." It is "mine." For example, we may not only believe that we solidly exist as someone sexy, we may also believe that our body is the possession of that sexy "me." It is a further solidification of our so-called false "me," since now there are objects that it owns, controls, and can use as it likes. In the case of the body, there is a place where the solid "me" lives. Or, we experience giving birth to children and base our identity on being a parent. Then we feel "My children are mine," as if we owned them and they were ours to control.

According to the Gelug Prasangika interpretation, the deluded outlook toward a transitory network focuses on the conventional "me," rather than on the aggregates. Like the aggregates, the conventional "me" is also transitory and also is a network of many moments and facets. This deluded outloook regards the conventionally existent "me" either as a solid "me" having the solid identity of the aggregates or as a solid possessor of the aggregates as "mine."

Further Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

Once we start thinking of the "me" as having a solid identity and as being a solid possessor of things and regarding them as solidly "mine," we develop many further disturbing emotions and attitudes. They motivate us to assert our identities, to prove those identities, because the accompanying unawareness still makes us insecure. Often the process is completely unconscious. For example, we may unconsciously think, "I am a mother. I possess these children as ‘mine.’ I have to have their attention and obedience. They have to be the way I want them to be, because they are ‘ mine.’ Only then will I be a good mother. I have to defend my identity as a parent by telling them what to do; otherwise, I am not really in control as the mother or the father. That is my whole identity."

Attachment or greed is to gather something that we hope will substantiate our solid identities as parents, such as obedience. We become angry to get rid of anything that we think might threaten our solid identities as parents, such as disobedience. If we are really angry, we may beat our children because their disobedience is so threatening.

All of this occurs together with the disturbing emotion that I like to translate as "naivety" (gti-mug, Skt. moha). Naivety is a subcategory of unawareness. Unawareness can accompany any moment of experience, whereas naivety is the unawareness that accompanies only moments of destructive behavior – destructive thinking, speaking, or acting. Naivety is perhaps not the best translation for the term, but I cannot yet think of anything better. In the past, I translated it as "closed-mindedness," but closed-mindedness emphasizes only the stubbornness aspect of unawareness. "Naivety" is a broader term. It also implies innocence, which is appropriate since the concept of being bad or guilty when acting destructively is alien to Buddhism.

As with unawareness, naivety can concern behavioral cause and effect and how we, others, and everything exists. In our example, there is naivety about being the parent who needs to be obeyed. We feel that our self-worth comes from being the parent. There is naivety about the child and naivety about the effects of our behavior, if we think that beating the child is going to make the child obey us, for example. Underlying the whole scenario is the naivety that a solid "me" can only be worthy in terms of how the child that it possesses acts.

Here is another example. We experience seeing our child sitting in front of the television. A disturbing attitude comes up: "I'm supposed to be the parent and have a successful child. This child is my possession, I possess him as 'mine,' and my identity depends on being a successful parent. I have got to get the child to stop disobeying me and get him to obey me in order to feel secure about who I am." These thoughts may be conscious or unconscious. They are usually unconscious.

The urge then comes to say something to the child. With attachment to getting him to obey us, we have to tell him to do something, even if there is nothing to do. "Stop looking at the TV and pay attention to me!" There could also be anger there. "What are you doing, you lazy bum! Get a job! Get married (to make me secure because my friends are asking why my child is not married yet)!" When the feeling and then the urge to say or do something comes up, we then act it out. Either we say something harsh or we walk over and hit the kid because we experience what he is doing as threatening to us. In addition, we are naive about how the child is going to respond.


The first link is unawareness about how we and others exist. We think we exist as a solid "me" and others exist as a solid "you." This unawareness is both doctrinally based as well as automatically arising. It arises automatically because it feels like there is a solid "me" in here and a solid "you" out there.

This works in stages. First, there is a feeling of a solid "me" and a solid "you." Then there is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network in which we give a solid identity to the solid "me" based on what we experience. Based on this disturbing attitude, this distorted way of seeing things, our confusion gets deeper and deeper. This brings up disturbing emotions and attitudes. Because of this, the feeling arises to think, speak, or act in certain ways, followed by the urge to do so. We then act out the urge with an impulse of energy in which we actually say or do something. That furthers this whole process of samsara and gets us into the second link of dependent arising.

We need to recognize that the entire process occurs in terms of our disturbing attitudes, principally toward ourselves. We also need to recognize that other people have the same unawareness as we do. We are not unique. Moreover, this whole process usually happens unconsciously. We do not even know that we have these deeply rooted, disturbing attitudes. Nor do other people know that they have them.

The first step in getting out of this is being conscious of what is going on. Yesterday, we talked about becoming self-aware. That is a very important aspect of taking safe direction or refuge in the Dharma. We need to look inside and see what is happening in order to find the causes of our problems and not to blame them on others. We tend to blame others for our problems, but as the saying goes, "It takes two to tango."

If somebody gives us a present and we don’t accept it, who does it belong to? Likewise, if we give a present to someone and she doesn’t accept it, who does it belong to? If someone throws all sorts of garbage at us in terms of his disturbing emotions and attitudes and we catch it all with a big catcher’s mitt, we are participating, aren’t we? We have accepted the garbage. "Yes, I am a bad parent." In any problematic relationship with others, it is important to notice that both sides are participating. It is very difficult to get the other person to stop throwing garbage at us. But, if we don’t accept it and if we know that it is coming from deeply rooted unawareness in the other person, we can handle it in an emotionally mature way.

This is a very delicate procedure. We are sitting there quietly watching TV and our father comes in and gives us a horrible look like "Get up and do something worthwhile!" Maybe we start to feel guilty. With some understanding, we would realize that there is no reason to feel guilty. Even if we feel guilty, we wouldn’t believe that we really are a bad person. It takes a long time to stop guilt from automatically arising. It is deeply psychologically rooted and it automatically arises. Then we have to be careful not to be naive, denying the reality of what our parent is feeling or that we have anything to do with it. We can get into a different dimension of confusion by identifying with everything being just fine and then getting angry that our father is wrecking this.

We need to be sensitive to understand what the parent is feeling. In addition to not accepting that we are guilty and bad, we could respond in a way that might help our parent. We have to examine ourselves deeply. "What am I doing sitting in front of the TV? Am I in fact being lazy?" If we are just being lazy and wasting our time, we need to be mature enough to acknowledge that and admit it to the parent. Or, we can be mature enough to explain that we have been studying or working hard all day and are taking a break. We need to take the other person and his or her feelings seriously and respond in a mature way, a way that is both considerate of the other person and of ourselves. That is called acting with "skillful means."

And, we need to respond with some emotional feeling. I remember coming back to the U.S. to visit my family after my first two years in India. My sister said to me, "You are so calm I could throw up!" I was not showing any strong emotional response to what was going on. In going in the direction of Buddhism, especially in terms of calming ourselves down, we have to be careful not to be so calm that we respond to others in an impersonal way.

Our introspection is not just in terms of our motivations and emotions. We need to go deeper and deeper to uncover our basic, fundamental unawareness about how we exist. This is the basis upon which all further confusion arises. If we can clear out this automatically arising unawareness, all the other confusion will stop following. As the great Indian master Shantideva said, "If you don’t see the target clearly, you cannot hit the bull’s eye." Although it may be a bit shocking to uncover our unawareness, it is a necessary first step in order to start working to rid ourselves of it. We should not expect that our unawareness will disappear instantly. What we can hope for is suggestions and guidelines of what to look for when we engage in the process of introspection.

Let’s take a few minutes to think about what we’ve been talking about. Don’t just think about this as some sort of theoretical framework. Try to relate it to your personal experience. I think all of us are able to recognize this unawareness and these patterns in our behavior. We don’t need to be depressed by it. It is just seeing the target. As we become more and more familiar with it, we start to see it operating all the time in ourselves and in others.

Questions about Future Rebirth

Does the aftermath of throwing karma ripen in the very next life or in a lifetime after that?

The aftermath of a throwing karma can ripen into the immediately following rebirth or into any rebirth after that. However, once it is activated, it throws us into the immediately following rebirth. We have the aftermath of millions of throwing karmas on our mental continuums. When the aftermath of a particular throwing karma is activated at the time of death, it throws us into the next rebirth, starting with the bardo in-between state. In the bardo, we have a subtle body made of light, which already has the form of our next rebirth. If we are to be reborn as a human, that body has the form of what we will look like at the age of eight.

There are teachings that the consciousness in the bardo sees its future parents in sexual embrace. How does it know when to dive in?

As we said, a big question is when does the next rebirth begin. It is a difficult question. There are classic descriptions of the consciousness observing the father and mother in union and then entering through the father’s mouth and going through his organ with his sperm into the mother’s womb and joining the egg. If it will be reborn as a male, it feels repulsion for the father and attraction for the mother, and if as a female, vice versa. I think logically we can differentiate that a little bit further to include homosexuals and bisexuals. One could be born into a male body with repulsion for the mother, and so on. The throwing karma determines whether it is a male or female and completing karma determines the sexual preference.

The question is, is this description to be taken literally or is it metaphorical? In any case, whether the consciousness joins this sperm and egg at the moment of conception or later, it is not consciously thinking, "Where is my mother and father? Oh, there they are!" It does not choose. It is not standing around in the bardo watching couples and waiting for the right ones to begin fornicating. Rather, it is almost like a magnetic attraction. There is no control at all. A consciousness is just drawn to a particular physical basis. I tend to think that the classical description of going through the father’s mouth and so on is not to be taken literally. But if we argue some point in the Dharma, we have to argue it with Dharma reasons, not just say, "I don’t think so."

This description of rebirth is primarily found in tantra sources. In anuttarayoga, the highest class of tantra, we want to purify the process of death, bardo, and rebirth. Therefore, we meditate in a process that is analogous to death, bardo, and rebirth in order to transform and purify them. The description of the universe in The Guhyasamaja Tantra, with Mount Meru, the four continents, the elements, and so on, is the same as that found in the abhidharma texts of sutra. The Kalachakra Tantra has a different description, in which Mount Meru and the element mandalas are in proportion to the human body. Based on this presentation, we can meditate in such a way that the mandala of Kalachakra has the same proportions as the universe and the same proportions as the human body. In this way, we can purify both our external and internal situations at the same time. Similarly, when we want to purify the birth process in anuttarayoga tantra, we meditate in analogy to the birth process. We meditate that our consciousness enters the mouth of the male deity and goes through the male organ into the womb of the female deity, with an experience of bliss. All the figures in the mandala are generated from drops in the womb of the female deity and these figures then come forth from the womb and take their places in the external mandala.

So, just as the description of the universe in Kalachakra is a convenient description for meditation and is not to be taken literally, likewise, the description of the rebirth process that we find in The Guhyasamaja Tantra is not to be taken literally. It is just giving a convenient analogy for the purpose of meditation. I think this is a valid argument, consistent with Buddhist logic, for asserting that the description of rebirth as starting with the moment just before the future father ejaculates into the future mother’s womb is not to be taken literally.

What about test-tube babies or fertilized eggs that are frozen?

In the traditional presentation, we can be born by womb, egg, heat and moisture, or transformation. The classical texts even say that humans can be born in all four ways. We have to think about what this could possibly be referring to. Maybe some of these modern ways of being born are what they were talking about. Being born from an egg is referred to as being "twice-born," because one is born into an egg and then is born again from the egg. We can imagine a similar two-step process when an egg is fertilized in the womb of one mother and then implanted in the womb of another mother. That is being twice born. If a sperm and an egg are joined in a test tube and then implanted in a woman’s womb or even developed in some artificial environment, which for sure will come at some point, such artificial situations could be similar to birth form heat and moisture. Birth from transformation sounds like cloning to me; there is transformation from a cell into another body, without the fertilization of a sperm and egg. Using our imaginations, we could agree that there are these four different types of birth even among humans. Obviously, we would need the karma to be born in one way or the other.

In terms of frozen embryos, it is difficult to say whether a consciousness has entered an embryo or not. Obviously, there are both possibilities. But even if it has entered, it is just another experience. There would be the subjective, individual experience of being in a state of suspended animation or coma because of the circumstance of the physical basis being frozen. It is a remnant of a previous rebirth in a cold hell. Such phenomena are described in the laws of karma.

In which moment does the fetus start to generate new karma?

In response to feeling happiness or unhappiness, disturbing emotions come up because we are attached to the happiness and don’t want to let go of it, or we don’t like the unhappiness and we want to get rid of it. Disturbing emotions such as attachment and aversion come up as a response to feelings of happiness or unhappiness. Those disturbing emotions motivate us to do something about it. There is an intention there as well. Then, there is an impulse of energy with which the fetus kicks the mother. That starts to build up more karma.

We can see that the whole scenario has started again. If the mother becomes resentful of this being inside her womb that is kicking and making her feel uncomfortable all the time, it could be the beginning of a bad relationship between the mother and the child. The father as well may resent the baby for making the mother so uncomfortable that she is not able to be affectionate and show attention to him. Karma is ripening in the circumstances that the baby experiences. In this example, it is born into a situation where the parents already resent it because it was kicking all the time. It will probably kick and cry all the time because it is experiencing everything as unpleasant and it is unhappy and angry. The parents then might wish even more strongly that the baby would shut up, which the baby would experience as being even more unpleasant and get even more freaked out. This whole package is the ripening of karma. The baby is just making it worse, uncontrollably. Welcome to samsara!

But if the mother is already engaged in the process of purification, it acts as a favorable condition for the child, right?

Not necessarily. Remember we said that karma doesn’t ripen in a linear way. We can be practicing well and meditating everyday and still get cancer and die. What ripens can be from many lifetimes ago. A mother might be a very good practitioner and have a baby who screams and cries and is always miserable. It doesn’t follow that a practitioner will have a nice little Buddha.

An enlightened mental continuum keeps taking rebirth out of compassion, with total control instead of out of confusion, into wherever and whenever and under whatever circumstances he or she wants, correct?