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Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma with Ethical Self-Discipline

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, September 2012

Session Three: The Mechanism of Karma

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:30 hours)

This morning we looked at how karma and ethical self-discipline are involved with the three scopes of the lam-rim, the graduated path. So if we are going to work to try to overcome karma, to rid ourselves of this compulsiveness in our behavior, we need to know how karma works. There are several very detailed explanations of how karma works that we find in the Buddhist literature. We have, in general, the explanation you find in the Pali tradition and the explanations that you find in the Sanskrit traditions. These are the two ancient Indian languages. What I will explain is from the Sanskrit tradition. The Theravada tradition follows the Pali version. And in the Sanskrit tradition, there are two versions as well, so I will try to present the variations that we find in these (but without too much emphasis on that, because there’s a lot that they accept in common).

When we find several different explanations of phenomena such as karma in Buddhism, it’s important not to approach it from the attitude that we inherit from our biblical thinking – one God, one truth (it’s only one that has to be right; the others are wrong) – but rather each of these explanations looks at karma from a different angle and helps us to understand it by explaining it in various ways. They’re all helpful for enabling us to overcome suffering. That’s the whole purpose.

Feeling Like Doing Something

In the Sanskrit abhidharma tradition – abhidharma is the type of literature that discusses karma – in terms of explaining what we experience, we would start with this word feeling. It’s a very difficult word because in our Western languages it has so many meanings. Here I’m not using feeling in the sense of feeling happy or unhappy. I’m using it in our Western sense to mean what you feel like doing, what you would like to do. Well, I don’t know if you say that in German. You say that in English. If you don’t say that in German, wonderful. It’s confusing in English. “I wish to do it.” The actual word in Tibetan (‘dod-pa) is a wish, a desire to do something.

So in our daily life we feel like doing something, we feel like saying something, we feel like thinking something. And why do we feel like it? It is supported by many things.

  • It’s supported by the circumstances that we’re in – for instance the weather, the people that we’re with, etc., the time of day.

  • It is also affected by whether we’re feeling happy or unhappy. “I feel unhappy, so I want to go do something else,” this type of thing.

  • And also because of past tendencies to act or speak or think in certain ways.

  • And some motivating emotion is going to be there. I feel like yelling at you because I’m angry or I’m unhappy.

  • And the circumstance. You just said something nasty to me. I’m angry and I’m unhappy and you said something nasty to me, and my tendency is to yell when somebody says something nasty to me, so that’s supports this feeling – I feel like yelling at you – saying something really nasty.

  • And there’s also a grasping for a solid “me.” “Me, me, me. You said something nasty to me,” a big strong feeling of “me.” “How dare you say that to me?”

So all of that, the mixture of that, is involved with feeling like doing something – saying something, doing something, thinking something. Right? Thinking could be plotting “What can I say that’s really going to hurt you?” So this type of thinking.

The Compulsion to Do It

Then, based on that, comes mental karma, and this is the compulsion arising. Compulsion here is a mental urge (sems-pa) that draws us into thinking to act out what we felt like doing (it can be either conscious or unconscious). So it draws us in the direction of the physical or verbal action. And it’s accompanied by the motivating emotion and grasping.

If we really slowed things down in terms of what we are sensitive to in observing in meditation, you can differentiate these steps. Usually all of this happens very, very quickly. That’s why I say you have to slow it down.

Let’s use our example: I feel like yelling at you. So I would like to yell at you, basically. And then that compulsion comes up, that compulsiveness that will then lead us into the action of yelling. And of course the anger and so on will continue in this step as well.

Carrying out the Action

Then we get either the physical or the verbal karma, and for this we have two explanations (as I said there are two different Sanskrit versions or traditions).

The first explanation is that still we’re talking about a mental urge, a compulsion, that draws us into actually starting the action, continuing it, and eventually stopping it (we stop yelling; we don’t yell for the rest of our life). So there’s a difference here between what’s called the motivating urge and the causal urge (in other words, I think to yell at you; and then at the actual time when I start to yell, it gets me into how I choose my words). And the emotion that accompanies this, and accompanies all the stages of the action, can be quite different. It can change.

My baby is sleeping, for example, and there are a lot of mosquitoes in the room, and maybe the baby will get bitten and even get malaria if we’re in a malaria area. So the emotion that is starting us to get into the action could be compassion for the baby. Right? “I’m going to kill the mosquitoes to help my baby.” But then when you actually are about to smack the mosquitoes and you’re actually doing it, there’s a lot of anger that’s there. There has to be a lot of hostility toward the mosquito; otherwise you wouldn’t do it. You really want to kill it. You don’t want to just scare it; you want to kill it. So your emotion has changed.

It’s actually very interesting if you really slow things down to see how your emotional state can change. For instance, if you step on a cockroach, originally there could be, “Oh, I don’t want the cockroach on my baby.” And then “Grr, I really want to kill this cockroach.” And then you step on it and “Yuck!” so there’s sort of a disgust at what you’ve done, at seeing the mess that’s there. And then you might stop because “Oh, I can’t take it.” So your emotion has changed very much during the whole process. So all of that affects the strength of the compulsiveness with which you’re acting and will affect the results that will follow from that.

So this is one of the explanations – that whether it’s mental, verbal, or physical, karma is a mental state. It’s this mental urge, this compulsiveness that is mental. So it’s very important not to confuse the karma (the compulsiveness) with the emotion, either a positive or negative emotion. They’re not the same. There’s nothing that’s both. Karma itself is – I keep on using the word compulsion – is like the magnet that is drawing us without control into thinking to act, acting, continuing to act, and stopping. So that’s one explanation.

The second explanation is that what I described is the mental karma, right? There’ll still be a differentiation of thinking to do something, actually getting into it, continuing, and stopping. That’s still there. But physical karma now is referring to the compulsive shape that our actions take. There’s a compulsion about the shape. We can “Grr!” hit like this, or we can hit very gently. There’s a compulsive way or form which the action takes, which our body takes while doing the action. Or in terms of verbal actions, it’s the compulsive sound of our voice. It’s the sound. So this is referring to the tone of voice that we use. There’s a compulsiveness that the tone of our voice is harsh and yelling, or it’s soft and gentle.

Basically what we are amplifying here, or expanding on, are different aspects of what forms compulsiveness takes. There’s the compulsive mental thing, there’s a compulsive way in which we do things, there’s the compulsive tone of voice that we use, and so on. Think about that for a moment while the airplane is here. Can you think of examples?

A good example. People who constantly are drumming their fingers on the table, or when they’re talking they’re slapping the table to make points and so on? This is the compulsive shape of their actions, isn’t it? It’s compulsive. And some people, no matter what they’re saying, there’s an aggressive tone to their voice. All of this is what’s involved with karma when we talk about karma in this tradition. That is the karma. It’s the compulsiveness.

Participant: You can be sitting somewhere and then think about wanting something from the fridge, and then you go there, open it, and take something out. Or you might already be in the kitchen, and the fridge is already open, and you happen to see something which you would like to eat. Is that the difference that you want to explain?

Alex: No, both cases can be analyzed in the same way. Whether you see the refrigerator open or you don’t see the refrigerator open, those are the circumstances that are going to accompany, first of all, the wish (“I’d like something to drink”) and then also the urge to go and take something. Now, going to take something could involve walking into the kitchen, or it can involve just taking it from the open fridge. It’s the same.

And there can be a compulsive aspect in which you take it and you slam the refrigerator closed, or you do it very gently, and so on. There’s a compulsive aspect about how you do it, and it reveals – it’s called a revealing shape – it reveals your motivation behind it or your state of mind behind it. There’s some anger or hostility as you slam the door of the refrigerator closed, or “Ooh!” you have to run and get it, this type of thing.

There’s also a non-revealing form, but that’s a little bit complicated. I didn’t want to go into too much about that. The closest thing that we have to that in our way of thinking is a subtle vibration. There’s a vibration about the way that we act that continues afterwards. So it’s a very unconscious compulsion that’s still there afterwards, a compulsiveness. When we talk about somebody having a quality of compulsiveness about them, this is what it’s referring to. This very subtle vibration is about the closest I can think of in our way of expressing it. Not so much in the room – in yourself; it’s about the person. “I’m a very compulsive person,” you might say. Well, I’m not doing anything now. But what is that compulsiveness that we’re talking about that characterizes me as a compulsive person? It’s this very subtle level. In English sometimes there’s confusion. I don’t know about the German words. A compulsive person and an impulsive person, those are different. The words sound similar in English. We’re not just talking about impulsive, that you just do whatever comes to your head. Compulsive means you have no control over what you’re doing, and you follow a certain pattern over and over and over again, like tapping your fingers on the table. Okay.

Potentials and Tendencies for a Karmic Result

What happens after the action is finished is that it leaves a certain aftermath on our mental continuum. And we have either a negative potential (sdig-pa, Skt. papa) or a positive potential (bsod-nams, Skt. punya). That’s these words that are translated as merit or sin. These I find really very, very misleading translations. From destructive actions there’s a negative potential, from constructive actions there’s positive potential, and in addition we have negative or positive tendencies. If we translate the word literally, these are the karmic seeds (sa-bon, Skt. bija).

Participant: Would you give us that in Sanskrit quickly?

Alex: We’re talking about punya and papa for potentials, and we’re talking about vasana (karmic constant habit) for seeds.

Now, it’s not so easy to understand the difference between the two, between potentials and tendencies, since they jointly give rise to the karmic results. The potentials are what’s known as the ripening causes, like a fruit on a tree which when it’s ripe enough can be eaten. So the fruit grows gradually until it becomes ripe and brings about its result. So these potentials build up until it gets ripe enough to bring about a result, like a fruit ripening. And the tendencies are what’s known as the obtaining cause, what you obtain or get the result from, like the seed for a sprout or the uncooked dough for a loaf of bread. So in a sense this is what transforms into the result. So these two, the potential and the tendency, work together to bring about the result. Potentials are building up, networking with each other. And the seed is what will transform into the result. Now, the potentials network – the so-called collection of merit and so on – they network with each other, they reinforce each other, until the result comes about. And the seed, this tendency, is what then will transform into the result. Okay?

Another difference is that the action itself already functions as a potential for experiencing its result. For instance, you yell at somebody. Yelling itself already has, as an aspect of it, a potential already to yell again. As you are yelling, there’s the potential already there that you are going to do it again. But only when the action is completed is there then going to be a tendency to repeat the action.

So there’s a slight difference, and there are many other differences. It’s quite complex. But as you go deeper and deeper, you find really a very thorough explanation of how things happen in our experience.

Okay. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on that. If I’m acting in a certain way, there’s a certain pattern that I have, and there’s a potential certainly to repeat it, and there’s also a tendency that I have to act in that way. This is when we’re acting compulsively. How is it that it’s compulsive? It’s compulsive because it’s coming again and again and again, no control. And the more we act like that, there’s a stronger potential to repeat it, and there’s a tendency that I do that. The stronger the potential, the more quickly that we will actually yell again. But it will require circumstances for us to actually then yell. Okay. Do you start to get the picture?

For example, I lose my temper a lot very easily, and I yell at people, and there’s a compulsiveness about that that is almost like a vibration about me that people can sense if they’re very sensitive – that “Ooh, I have to be careful when I’m with this person because they can lose their temper very easily.” And you would say in describing me that I have a tendency to lose my temper and yell. And there’s always this potential that actually I will yell. And when I yell, there’s a compulsive aspect to my voice that’s harsh and really nasty. And there’s that compulsion that if you say something nasty, then I feel like saying something nasty back to you. And that compulsion just draws me into actually yelling.

We’re describing the mechanism of karma, how it works. Right? It’s not necessary that you memorize and understand everything now. It’s complicated. But just appreciate how it works and the sophistication that’s here, how sophisticated it is. And what we will try to do in introspection (there’s a certain type of meditation which is introspection) is to try to identify these things within ourselves – slow things down and identify these things. Then we can work on them. What are my tendencies? What are the patterns that I have that I follow compulsively? And remember we’re talking either positive or negative, yelling or being a perfectionist.

How Potentials and Tendencies Ripen

Okay. Now ripening. When the circumstances are complete, then these potentials and tendencies bring about our experiencing of one or more things. It’s very important to understand we’re not talking about the karmic potentials bringing about the things that we experience. They bring about our experiencing of them.

For instance, if I’m hit by a car, my karmic tendencies don’t create the car, and they don’t create the car driving – from the point of view of the car – and hitting me. That’s the responsibility of the driver. What my karma is involved with is the fact that I experience being hit. Do you see the difference? We’re talking about what I experience. My karma doesn’t create the weather. I experience the weather.

Participant: Are we speaking of a psychological reality rather than a reality that involves, say, neurology or physics?

Alex: He says we’re talking about a psychological causality rather than a physical causality. I wouldn’t use the word psychological. I would use experiential.

Participant: I’d say this is a very crucial point, isn’t it?

Alex: Yeah. Psychological has to do with the emotions that go with it. That’s something else. Here we’re talking about simply my experiencing seeing something, my experiencing the weather, my experiencing getting wet when I go outside. My karma doesn’t create the rain. The rain of course is responsible for me getting wet in one aspect. But also the fact that I go outside, that I experience going outside, that’s also part of why I’m wet. Do you know what I mean?

Things arise from many, many different causes. Karma is only responsible for my experiencing it, what happens to me. Obviously the water of the rain is responsible for me being wet, but that’s like the material cause. There was some sort of reason why I went out in the rain, and a certain pattern and compulsion that I forgot to take an umbrella, which is why I got wet. Right? That’s the karmic aspect. I’m always forgetting my umbrella; I always leave it in the restaurant and so on. And so, because of that, I experience going out and getting wet. Of course the water of the rain is what makes me wet. That’s something else. It’s another level. You see the difference here, what we’re talking about? And there’s a compulsive habit that’s there. We don’t have any control over it. Okay. So we experience many things, depending on the circumstances. We just gave the circumstance of it raining.

What Do We Actually Experience?

So what do we experience? We experience a feeling of happy or unhappy. That’s very interesting because all sorts of nice things can be going on around us and still we feel unhappy. We could be doing the same thing two times, and one time while we’re doing it we feel happy, and the other time we don’t feel happy. This is coming from karma, the karmic tendencies and potentials.

We experience certain situations that are specific to ourselves. We experience seeing something or hearing something, and we experience various emotions together with that, right? So why is it that you see an act of violence or we see this type of movie or that type of movie… That’s a very good example actually. Obviously my karma didn’t create the movie, but yet compulsively I always go to see violent films or I always go to see sexy films. So because of that tendency and potential, I experience seeing a violent film and the various emotions that we will experience at that time.

Thirdly, we can experience in some of these situations the wish to repeat our previous actions. So that would be – what we were talking about initially – I feel like yelling at you. I feel like hugging you. What do you feel like doing? What would you like to do? This is part of a karmic ripening. It’s what do you feel like doing, what do you like to do. Karma doesn’t ripen from karma. First what is ripening is the wish to do something. Then comes the compulsiveness, the karma aspect to act out that wish. First comes the wish. That’s what ripens. What would you like to do? I would like to yell. So that comes from the tendency and the potential.

Then, fourthly, we experience in some other situations things happening to us similar to what we did to others. So we experience from yelling – from that tendency and habit to yell – we experience other people yelling at us. If we cheat others, we experience others cheating us. If we are unfaithful to our partners, then we find that our partners will be unfaithful to us.

This is not always so easy to understand, but it’s very interesting to analyze within ourselves. Like for instance divisive language, saying nasty things about others to cause them to separate from their friends. So this aspect is that we experience our friends leaving us, our friendships don’t last, our partnerships and so on don’t last; people leave us. We caused others to part, and we experience that our own relations don’t last. You could understand that on a karmic level but also understand it on a psychological level. When I am always saying nasty things about other people to you, my friend, especially when I’m saying nasty things about your friends to you, what do you think? You would think, “What does he say about me behind my back?” So naturally we would experience that friendship ending. So if we think more deeply about these karmic causal relationships, they start to make sense.

So we experience things happening to us similar to what we did. We’re talking about what I experience. We’re not talking about the other person doing that. That’s for their own reasons, why they did it.

And then another possibility is that we experience things along with others, being in certain types of environment or society and the way it treats us. Like being born in, or living in, a place which is very polluted or in a place where there’s very little pollution. We experience living in a society where there’s a great deal of corruption and cheating, or we live in a society where people are very honest. So this is something that we experience together with others. Or the quality of things. If you’re in a society in which the quality of things is very poor – the food has no nutritional value, everything that’s made breaks very easily, these types of things – or in a place where everything is excellent quality.

So these are all things that we experience – experience feeling happy, feeling unhappy – we experience seeing things, things happening to us, and all of those together will be circumstances in which also we feel like repeating our previous patterns of behavior. And if we act out that wish, there’s a compulsiveness. In fact often it feels as though we have no decision, we don’t even consider that you could make a decision. And just “I feel like yelling at you” and then just compulsively I yell, so I repeat the pattern. We feel like yelling, and although we could make the decision not to act out that feeling, things happen so quickly that just compulsively we yell. We repeat the pattern and strengthen the potential to yell yet again and again. Right? Because that tendency is there, and there’s a certain compulsiveness about how we speak and a certain compulsiveness just about the way that we are. That is how karma works.

Take a moment to digest that.