Introduction to the Mind and Mental Factors
Session Two: The Five Ever-Functioning Subsidiary Awarenesses
Let’s look at the five ever-functioning ones, ones that accompany every moment of cognition. These are really quite important ones to be able to recognize.
(1) Feeling a level of happiness (tshor-ba, feeling)
First of these is feeling, but you have to really add something into that: feeling a level of happiness. Our word “feeling” in English is much too big. It can be used for a physical sensation—I feel hot, I feel cold. It can be used, as it is here, for feeling different levels of happiness—I feel happy or I feel sad, I feel pleasure or pain (which could be physical or mental, of course). But also we use it to mean intuition—I have a feeling it’s going to rain. Or we can use it to mean experience—try to feel what it’s like to fly. These types of things. And then we use it to mean just any emotion—passion, passionate feeling. Or then we could use it for aesthetic sensitivity—this artist has great feeling. Or you hurt my feelings, that’s even another meaning of it. So it’s a really big word. And there is certainly no equivalent that covers all of those meanings. Just as there’s no Tibetan or Sanskrit equivalent for the word “emotions.” They talk about positive ones, they talk about negative ones, but they don’t have a word that covers all of them. Whereas we talk about mind and heart, and they have a word that does cover both of them. So it works both ways. It’s very interesting. When we choose to translate this word “mind-heart,” to put it very simply, into our Western languages, we always choose “mind.” The Chinese, who face the same problem in their language, always chose “heart.” It says something about the civilization.
Anyway, here we’re talking feeling a level of happiness. And this is a very, very interesting mental factor. It’s defined as how we experience the ripenings of our karma. Very profound. How we experience the ripenings of our karma. Karma is talking about… We have various types of impulses, and karma is actually talking about the impulse, the urge to do something, from one point of view. From another point of view, it can be talking about the energy that’s involved with that urge. But, in any case, let’s talk about it as the urge to do something. Why do you have the urge to run over and hit somebody or run over and hug somebody? The urge to say something. The urge to think something. The urge to scratch your head. Where is all this coming from?
And this is coming basically from a legacy. It is sometimes translated as a “seed,” but that’s too graphic. And “potential” is how I used to translate it; that also is pretty vague. It’s not a potential to do it; it’s a legacy—coming from the past. Or we can call it a karmic tendency, in terms of how we’ll act in the future based on how we’ve acted in the past. You did this type of action and so, as a legacy from it, what comes up is not the urge itself, but a feeling. Which is sometimes translated as a “wish” or “liking” to do something. What we would call “feeling” in the West. It’s confusing in terms of the word “feeling” because we’re not talking here about what Buddhism means when it uses the word “feeling,” which is to feel a level of happiness or unhappiness. Here our Western thing is to feel like doing something. “I feel like going over and giving you a hug.” So it’s the wish to do it; it’s the liking to do it. That’s what actually in most cases ripens from karma, from the legacy of the karma. And then, based on feeling like doing it, you get the urge to act on that feeling and do it, then you actually do it, then there is that action that follows.
And so we have these various urges to repeat situations similar to what we’ve done in the past. We have urges to get into situations in which something happens to us similar to what we did to others. That urge to go down the street at just that moment when we would be hit by a car, or something like that. Why do we have the urge to buy the stock today rather than yesterday and we lost all our money? Or we got a lot of money. These sort of things. So we’re talking about these urges—where they come from. And the urge to live in a certain environment, the environmental things, and the type of body that we have, and so on. There’s lots of aspects of karma.
But that’s usually, when we have the presentation of karma in the lam-rim (graded stages of the path), that’s primarily what it’s talking about, these type of ripenings. But there’s a whole other dimension of what ripens from karma and karmic legacies, and that’s feeling a level of happiness. In each moment of our mental activity—in other words, each moment of our experiencing things—there’s some level of happiness or unhappiness, on that spectrum from miserable all the way up to ecstatic, from extreme pain to extreme pleasure. It’s the same spectrum. And it can be physical. It can be mental. It can be a neutral feeling, but that’s fairly rare. That’s fairly rare because, if you want to be technical about it, you would have to be exactly in the middle—exactly in the middle—to be totally neutral.
[For a more precise discussion, see: The Relationship between Happiness and Unhappiness, and Pleasure and Pain.]
Usually what we experience is a low grade of happiness or unhappiness. And we know that we have that, just from the point of view of, again, the definitions: Happiness is that feeling which, when it stops, we wish to meet with it again. And unhappiness or suffering is that feeling which, when it arises, we want to be parted from it. So if you are looking at something… This is the example that I use to show people that you have feeling all the time. Some people say, “I don’t feel anything, like my mind is on Novocain,” especially after some really traumatic experience—they sort of go numb. So I point out you can realize it for yourself if you’re looking at something. So I say to look at anything in the room. Now, if you want to continue looking it, then that looking at it is accompanied by a very low level of happiness—you want that type of experiencing to continue. If you want to look away, well, that’s a very low level of unhappiness—you’re dissatisfied with looking at, you’re bored or whatever, and so you turn away from it.
We always experience some low level, low grade, of happy or unhappy. And the happiness is the ripening of constructive karma; the unhappiness or pain, the ripening of destructive karma. And this is what is so horrible about samsara, is that we never know what we’re going to feel in the next moment. That our so-called samsaric happiness is problematic; it’s a form of suffering. Why? Because it doesn’t eliminate the suffering of pain forever, and there’s no certainty about how long it’s going to last, and there’s no certainty of what we’re going to feel the next moment. It’s totally unreliable. It may feel nice while it lasts, but the next minute I might be very unhappy. And it could seemingly have nothing to do with anything else that I’m experiencing. I’m talking to you, and I’m enjoying it. And then, all of a sudden, I’m bored; I don’t enjoy it. I mean, it changes. It changes from moment to moment. We’re sitting in a chair and it’s comfortable, and then we have to move—we don’t like it—to change our position. It happens even when we are sleeping, which is really strange. But that happens. This is what really is a drag about samsara, it’s that this is always ripening, all the time.
So we always have a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. It may or not be upsetting; it all depends on whether there’s grasping for true existence, and these sort of things. It’s whether or not it has, together in that same moment, craving, basically: craving for aggregate factors when they’re mixed with confusion. So it’s upsetting—that happiness can be upsetting—when we’re craving to what we are experiencing, and I don’t want it to end, and I want it to continue. And then that happiness is really not satisfying. Of course, unhappiness is always upsetting, in the sense that you want to be rid of it. One can try to approach unhappiness with equanimity. That’s something else. But, even when there’s equanimity, still you would prefer not to be unhappy, surely. You would prefer for your back not to hurt, even though you have equanimity about it and you are calm about it.
So we have feeling a level of happiness. That’s one mental factor. What’s interesting is that these mental factors or subsidiary awarenesses are changing all the time. They’re changing at different speeds as well. So it starts to deconstruct our experience when we get into the discussion of the five aggregates; these are talking about what constitutes each moment of our experience. And, in each moment of our experience, there’s one or more factors in each of these five categories or bags. They don’t exist somewhere; it’s just sort of a categorization. But this feeling a level of happiness is very important—it makes a whole aggregate by itself—because it’s really what’s very, very much involved with karma and experiencing karma, or how do you experience what you are experiencing—this dimension to it of happy or unhappy.
(2) Distinguishing (’du-shes, recognition)
Then the next one is distinguishing. This is usually translated as “recognition,” but recognition is far too sophisticated and advanced a term. Recognition implies that I see this, and I remember that I’ve experienced similar things before, and then I fit the two things together, and then you remember, and then you recognize, “Ah, yes. That’s so-and-so. I saw them before.” Or you recognize your house. So that’s quite sophisticated. That’s quite complex. We’re not talking about something so complex here. We’re talking about something that the worm has as well. One always has to get down to basics here. This constitutes every moment of mental activity, and so that means the worm has it too. So you try to get it more basic—that it covers our friend the worm’s experience as well. Or ourselves when we were a worm, somewhere on our mental continuum, depending on the karma, the urge that connects that mental continuum with a physical basis and rebirth. And then when we feel happy, if we’re a dog, we wag our tail. If we are human, we have other ways of expressing our happiness. It’s quite interesting.
So what is distinguishing? This is a much more fundamental term. If we describe it in just the most general way first, rather than specific, according to the definition, it is: within a sense field, you have to distinguish one thing from another in order to be able to focus on it. I need to distinguish this colored shape—this round flesh-colored shape—from the shape of the wall and the door and all these things in the background. If you can’t distinguish it, how can you possibly know it, cognize it? Some people put together colored shapes in different ways. I connect the colored shape of your hair with the colored shape of the door behind you and make that into one object.
Actually it’s quite complex how we distinguish objects, how you put together this field of colored shapes into objects. That’s really quite wild, actually, if you think about that. If you were to just take it, let us say as a computer graphic of colored shapes, what happens with us is that… It’s very interesting. It’s a way of initially understanding “grasping for true existence.” It’s like we make a coloring book out of everything and put a big solid line around objects, the colored shapes. Let’s put these colored shapes together into a truly existent object and put a big line around it, separate, as if it were existing by itself, on its own. That coloring book mentality. That’s an appearance; that’s the arising of an appearance. It appears like that to us, as if there were solid lines around things, whereas there’s not. It’s just a field of colored shapes that we’re seeing, isn’t it? It’s far out, yes. However, there are conventionally existent objects. Things do go together conventionally. How we’re taught that is pretty interesting also, but we somehow know that. But I think with certain brain injuries people can’t do that, so it’s not an absolute given.
And if we look at a more specific definition of it, then what does it do within the sense field? It takes an uncommon characteristic feature of the appearing object of a nonconceptual cognition—so there’s something special, an uncommon characteristic—and in a conceptual cognition it takes what’s called an outstanding feature of the appearing object, and in both cases it ascribes a conventional significance to it. This is a technical definition of it. So you look at it. You always have to work with these definitions: What is it actually talking about? And, first of all, what’s not included here? What’s not included here, whether conceptual or nonconceptual, is ascribing a name or mental label to the object. When the definition says that distinguishing ascribes a conventional significance to the object, a conventional significance just means that it cognizes the object as something—as a conventional object—it signifies an object, a thing. Or, in the case of a thought, it signifies a meaning. Now that doesn’t specify which meaning or which object it is. It doesn’t give a name, and it doesn’t compare it with previously cognized objects. Associating things with words, and comparing it to previous experience, that’s a whole other, much more complex mental activity. Here we’re simply distinguishing.
So, in sense cognition, it’s distinguishing something within the sense field. This is something that even a baby can do. A baby can distinguish light from dark. A worm can distinguish light from dark. It doesn’t know the word “light” or “dark.” A baby can distinguish hot from cold. No words are needed. So we can distinguish the surface of the table from the space next to it. We can distinguish these things. You see, it sort of allows you to specify something within the sense field. And if we are talking about conceptual, which means thinking something, it’s not that all thoughts are happening simultaneously and we distinguish one—like we distinguish the table from the background—but it is taking some sort of outstanding feature of this particular thought, as opposed to other ones. So it’s sort of an eliminative process. It’s excluding something else. I am thinking of my mother, not my father or somebody else. It’s not that you actively go through and exclude: “Well, not going to think about my father. I’m not going to think about my aunt and my uncle. I’m going to think about my mother.” But if we’re thinking about our mother, that’s distinguishing my mother from anything else that I would think about. That’s distinguishing. That’s how it works. And in neither case do we have to give a name to it; in neither case do we have to remember something from the past and recognize it. It’s a very, very fundamental mental factor. And that as well gets a whole aggregate to itself, a whole aggregate to itself. That’s usually called the aggregate of recognition, because in our field of sense perception, or whatever, you have to distinguish. Or an action: I distinguish this, and do this, rather than something else. So it’s a very central one.
(3) An urge (sems-pa)
Then the third one of these five ever-functioning ones is an urge. In Asanga’s system, this is equivalent to karma. The urge. What does it do? It’s a subsidiary awareness—it’s a mental factor—that accompanies your mental activity and it causes the mental activity to face an object or go in its direction. It’s that urge. It sort of moves it, moves a mental continuum to cognitively take an object. It’s that urge to go to the refrigerator. It moves the continuum—What’s going to come next? It sort of writes the next scene in the script. The next scene is: “Go to the refrigerator and hunt for something to eat.” Or the urge to telephone somebody, or to say something, or to do something, or to think something.
So it’s what moves us, causes the mental activity to go in the direction of something, to face in the direction of an object. So that’s equivalent to mental karma. That comes from feeling like doing it, which comes from a legacy. I feel like going to the refrigerator, so that urge comes to actually go, and then you go. I mean, even when the urge comes, you don’t have to act it out. Here the mental karma, it’s like the mental thought: “I’m going to go to the refrigerator.” Then there’s the physical urge with which you actually start walking there. So you can stop it; I mean, you don’t have to carry it out. That’s a very important point about karma. I have the urge to say something really dumb, but I won’t, because I discriminate that this would be irrelevant, or hurt your feelings, or just be stupid. So I don’t say it, but the urge is there. That’s karma.
(4) Contacting awareness (reg-pa)
And then the next one. I translate it as “contacting awareness.” It’s often translated as “contact,” which is very misleading because contact is a physical thing. We’re not talking about a physical thing. We’re talking about an awareness, a mental activity. And it’s contacting. And what it is—it differentiates that the object of the cognition is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and thus serves as the foundation for experiencing it with a feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling.
Let’s say there’s a certain type of cheese, smelly cheese. What is my contacting awareness with that? My contacting awareness with it could be that it’s pleasant contacting awareness, and that would form the basis for feeling happy as I eat this. What channel are we on? We’re on the tasting channel. So it’s pleasant contacting awareness with the taste of the smelly cheese and I feel happy. Or it could be unpleasant contacting awareness, and I hate this cheese—feel really unhappy—that accompanies the tasting. The tasting is the same. Tasting is just tasting. What’s the essential nature of it? It’s a taste; it’s nothing more. Nothing special. Taste is a taste. But then, based on all this karmic stuff, you either like it or you dislike it. You either experience it with happiness or you experience it with unhappiness. And, even if you like it, you’re going to reach a point where you don’t want to eat any more. So then you’re unhappy with eating more; you don’t want it to continue, so you stop. It’s very interesting.
So we have this contacting awareness—because that’s there all the time.
(5) Paying attention or taking to mind (yid-la byed-pa)
And then the fifth one is paying attention. Paying attention or “taking to mind” literally. This is a fairly subtle one, and it has several different manifestations. What it does, according to the definition, is that it engages the mental activity with the object. So it could be paying some level of attention to it: either hardly any attention, or full attention. Or it could be: what type of attention are we paying to it? This comes up in the concentration meditations. Is it painstaking attention, really squeezing, trying to stay with it? Is it the type of attention that’s required like when you bring your attention back to something? That’s a type of intention that’s restoring, in a sense, one’s focus on something. Or is it an attention that’s unbroken? There’s a paying of attention—how you pay attention. There’s this whole dynamic, one aspect of this—how you pay attention: effortlessly, and so on, or a lot or a little attention. So it’s how you take it to mind, literally.
The other aspect of it is a different way of how you pay attention. How do you pay attention to it as—as what? Do you pay attention to something which is impermanent as permanent? Do you pay attention to something that’s nonstatic—that’s changing all the time—as something that is static, like youth or beauty, or something like that. It’s how you pay attention to it—as what? Do you pay attention to something in terms of correctly or incorrectly are the basic parameters here. That’s paying attention.
And all five of them are necessarily present in each moment of our cognition; otherwise our—now here’s a technical term, it’s a difficult one—“using,” I would say, our using the object as an object of cognition would be incomplete. (Or “using” it is sometimes translated as “enjoying,” but that’s not really what it means here. Using it. Experiencing it.) Using it as an object of our cognition would be incomplete. So the explanation that the text gives is: we don’t actually experience an object unless we feel some level of happiness, on the spectrum from happiness through neutral to unhappiness. It’s an interesting point—you can think about that—you wouldn’t really be experiencing it.
I mean, you compare that to a computer. Does a computer experience data? It takes in the information, but it’s not really experiencing that information. Or a camera takes in information, but it doesn’t experience it. So what makes it different, in terms of an individual’s mental activity? It’s that we experience it with some level of happiness or unhappiness—liking, disliking, pleasure, pain, or neutral. That’s sort of the dynamic that makes it alive, and not just taking in information. That’s very interesting, really, if you think about that. We are different from machines. That’s the key difference that Buddhism points out.
Then we don’t cognitively take something within a sense field as an object of cognition unless we distinguish some characteristic feature of it. You can’t really engage in some object in the sense field unless you distinguish it from the background and from other things in that sense field. So that’s always there.
And we don’t even face or go in the direction of an object of cognition unless we have an urge toward it. Why would I look at the window? Why would I look at this person or that person? It would never occur as an object of cognition if there weren’t an urge that draws you to it—in that direction.
And we wouldn’t have any basis for experiencing the object with a feeling of happy or unhappy unless we had contacting awareness that differentiates it as pleasant contacting awareness, unpleasant, or neutral. Sort of the basis—how is that contacting with it?
And then we don’t actually engage with a specific object unless you pay some level of attention to it, even if it’s minimal—even if it’s what we would call inattentive perception.
Question: So these five support each other?
Alex: These five support each other, and they’re absolutely essential for experiencing in general. Experiencing anything. And it’s also happening with the worm.
So it’s important to know these things. Why? Because they’re not things that you throw away, in terms of our meditation, in terms of our practice. We may be able to adjust where on the spectrum these things are occurring, but we’re not just sitting there; we’re alive. So there is some feeling when we’re focusing on an object and there’s pleasant contacting awareness and we’re happy to focus on it. If you’re not, if it’s unpleasant and you’re not happy to focus on it, then it’s going to be pretty tough in meditation. So one has to choose an object, even if it’s in terms of suffering as an object. It’s not that I feel happy focusing on suffering, but in order to really meditate on suffering you have to feel something. It’s not just, what we would call in the West, dry intellectual thinking about the suffering of somebody in Iraq during the war. So it brings in empathy and all these sort of things; those are other mental factors. But you have to actually feel something, so it’s an important thing, so it is unpleasant contacting awareness and you feel some sort of sadness—it moves you.
And of course in meditation you have to be able to distinguish your object; otherwise you’re not choosing anything. And there has to be the urge to meditate and the urge to continue meditating; it has to go on, each moment, to continue there. And you have to pay some attention; otherwise you’re not focusing on anything.
So all these things are there, and you sort of start to see: “Well, what is it that I could improve?” It’s not that I want to throw these things away, but they’re there all the time. So what I want to improve is to try to feel something a little bit more intensely. Or I want to be able to distinguish it more clearly. Or I want to try to continue having urges to stay on this object. Or I want to increase my attention. Or, if I haven’t been paying attention to it as something positive, for example, then focus on how do I pay attention to it.
So these are the five ever-functioning mental factors. And it’s not just interesting information, but it’s something that we then can apply. Maybe we’ll leave it here for this evening and then Friday we can speak about some of the others.
What questions might you have?
Question about Someone Who is Brain-dead or in a Coma
Question: These five ever-functioning ones, we all experience them, including the worm. The worm can distinguish hungry from not hungry, for example, or hot from cold. So is there also the functioning of these five with somebody who is brain-dead or in a coma?
Alex: Well, that’s very difficult to answer. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t really know what’s going on with brain-dead. Would you say that the mental continuum is still connected to that physical basis or not? Well, the question is: If the person hasn’t yet died, would it be there? I mean, this is a big problem. What is the actual dividing point of being alive or dead? If the body is being kept [by machines] with the heart beating and oxygen is going in and out, but it’s brain-dead, is that alive or is it dead? What has to be functioning to be alive and what has to stop functioning in order to be dead? That’s not a clear issue.
So I think that perhaps a clearer analysis could be made in terms of somebody in a coma. Now, somebody in a coma—in a sense, I’d think you’d have to say that these are functioning. There are certain trances that you can be in, in which the distinguishing and the feeling are temporarily suspended. But that’s hardly ever going to be the case—a very, very deep, deep meditative absorption. But, other than that, in a coma you’d have to say that there’s… Mind you, the feeling could be neutral; the urge would be to continue to stay in the coma. What are you experiencing? You’re experiencing a darkness, an absence of activity, an absence of something. Distinguishing an absence of object, a darkness, from anything else that you might think of—we’re not thinking of anything. So it’s distinguishing nothing from something. There’s attention to it—totally sunk in it. Contacting awareness is neutral. The feeling is neutral. So you’d have to say that those were occurring during the coma. But brain death itself, that’s a difficult one.
Debate about the Urge to Be Hurt
Question: A question on the urges. Let’s suppose that someone does something terrible to someone else, sometimes on a daily basis, unfortunately. Does the person who, let’s say, hurts someone do this because they have an urge to do this and the person who receives this has an urge to be hurt? Or isn’t karma created?
Alex: The question is: When somebody—we’re talking about karma—person X hurts person Y. So person X has the urge to hurt person Y, and person Y had the urge to get into that situation in which they would be hurt? Okay? Well, that is the case, otherwise it wouldn’t happen. Is there the creation of any new karma? Sure, in terms of…
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But karma is different from the result of karma. You’re putting it together. If person X is creating the action, person Y is experiencing the result. If we say we have the urge to be hurt, it makes it sound like he has a conscious intention to be hurt, and that’s not...
Alex: Okay. So let’s clarify then. So the clarification here is with the term “urge,” that the word in English implies that it’s a conscious urge. In the actual Buddhist presentation, that’s not conscious. Conscious would be the mental factor of attention. But it’s not that you’re paying attention to it—that urge just comes up. And here we’re not talking about the action itself, but about the urge. So it’s like an impulse. It’s not conscious at all. But there’s the feeling. The feeling is what ripens—the feeling to hurt somebody. You like to do it; you wish to do it. That comes from a habit. Then the urge itself is not the ripening of the karma. The urge itself is a new karmic urge, so that creates more legacies and habits from that. In the case of the person who is hurt, there was, for instance, the feeling to go visit you—something like that—which would bring about the urge to actually go, wouldn’t it? The feeling is the result. The urge to do it is the next karma.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Yes, but the person who is being hurt isn’t necessarily—It’s just that the suffering feeling is the result of the karma. I don’t think urge has anything to do with it at that point. I mean, they may have had the urge: “I’ll go walk there”…
Alex: That’s what we’re talking about.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But that’s not the ripening; that just has something to do with the ripening of the karma.
Alex: Well, there are two karmas that are ripening here. There’s the karma to get into the situation, and the karma to feel hurt by it. Those are two different things; each of them are the ripenings of other things. So you wouldn’t say that to feel the pain, that’s how you experience the ripening of your karma and how you experience each moment. Because you’d have to differentiate—you’d have to analyze it more deeply—that’s correct.
Again, “to get hurt” is a vague English expression, because that could mean both these things—of actually feeling the suffering, or getting hit. So, if you talk about getting hit, then that getting hit is not a new karma, that’s for sure; that is the ripening. But there was an urge to get there so that you would be hit. That’s something which is different, in terms of the karmic analysis. And then of course there’s the karmic ripening which would be to feel unhappy with the experience of being hit.
So it gets quite complex. Quite complex. So you are correct in pointing out the complexity, that’s for sure. But you’re building up more new karma? Well, certainly the person who hits is building up more karma. What about the person who goes into situations in which he or she is hit? I don’t know.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: If you’re driving a car and somebody rams into you, you didn’t have an urge to get rammed into.
Alex: But you did have an urge to—When you’re driving a car and somebody hits you, there wasn’t the urge necessarily to… Well, you see, it depends on how you define it, how you specify it. There is that urge that got you on the road at that time and that speed and that location.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But that’s a different ball game.
Alex: Right. So, I mean, which karmic action are we talking about? So does that one...
Ven. Thubten Chodron: The person who gets hit, okay. The ripening of their karma is the experience of getting hit and suffering?
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Then how they react to that is their creation of karma. If they get angry and return then they could create the karma of anger—or they yell or they scream, or they get out of the car and hit the other guy back.
Alex: Now you’re adding something completely different.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But you said… Your question was...
Alex: But then we were talking about...
Ven. Thubten Chodron: We’ve got a debate going. We’re having a debate!
Alex: Right. Now you’re adding something extra. What’s being added here is the person’s response, the person who was being hit. We were talking just about feeling pain. That’s the result of karma. Now, on the basis of that, then how they react—in terms of getting angry—that creates more karma. But the question that we were analyzing—that I was analyzing, maybe nobody else was analyzing—was: There is an urge… I mean, now we have so many different karmic aspects and just one little act. That’s significant, to see how detailed it can become.
What about that urge to actually get into that situation in which something will ripen similar to what you did in the past. That karma, for something to ripen similar to the past, that’s finished. Unless it’s a karma to repeatedly experience something similar to the past. (There are some karmas that are repetitive; you experience it several times.) So just the fact of experiencing it, certainly doesn’t create karma. But you’d have to say that there was an urge to get into that situation. Now is that a type of urge that moves you? (Definition. Urge: mental activity to face an object or go in its direction.) Is that a karma?
Ven. Thubten Chodron: You have an urge to get in the car and go somewhere. That’s a karma.
Alex: Right. What’s the result of that?
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But you don’t have the urge to get in the car and go somewhere and get hit. That’s what I’m saying. Because otherwise you bring in this whole thing that you find sometimes in the New Age of, you know, “You made yourself sick.” The person had the urge to get in the car, but they didn’t have the urge to get hit and get hurt.
Participant: I’ve heard the argument before that all the people on an airplane that went down had the consciousness of “plane crash.” Every individual on that airplane had the consciousness of “plane crash.” And I think that’s what you’re trying to say now. The person doesn’t have the consciousness of getting hit, doesn’t have the urge of getting hit.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Yes. Because then it’s like blaming the victim. “You have cancer because of your anger”—like you intentionally made yourself have cancer—and that’s rubbish.
Alex: Well, let me repeat for the tape. The problem here is the urge to get into the situation in which you’re going to be hit by a car. How do we specify that urge? Is it simply the urge to get into the car at that time and to drive on the street at a certain time, and then there is a ripening which happens as a result of that circumstance of, let’s say, an accident of being hit? Or would you specify the urge to get into the car in a larger sense of specifying it as the urge to get into the car so that you will be hit? This is the question. And the reply—not the emotional response—the reply is that you have to differentiate the two, and that the urge was simply to get into the car and drive, and so the karmic legacy of that would be to continue to want to drive.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Or whatever your motivation was for getting in the car.
Alex: Motivation is something separate. Motivation is something separate. We’re talking just about getting into a car and driving—as a karmic act, as an urge to drive. You have to say that reinforces—the more you drive, the more you’re going to continue to drive. Karmic action has to have some sort of result, some sort of ripening, some sort of habit that it reinforces. So that would reinforce driving the car, or going down a certain street, taking a certain route.
So the debate is whether or not that urge is specific for what will ripen. In other words, is a circumstance integrally connected with what it will be a circumstance for? And your position is that it’s not. And I think that what you say makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense, but I’m not convinced yet, 100% decisively, that you can speak about a circumstance totally—It can be a circumstance for anything. So why did you get in the car at that time? And the whole thing about responsibility, and then I’m guilty, and so on, that’s bringing in the whole grasping to the ego and the self on top of that. If you take that away, so that you don’t get this guilty bit—“I’m responsible for the cancer,” “I’m responsible for getting into the car and being hit. It was my fault”—if we eliminate that side, which is the deluded side which causes the suffering and all of that, that is separate from the question of the actual ripening of the karma.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: First of all, if you say that he got in the car and there is like some kind of subconscious...
Alex: No, there’s no subconscious.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: But there’s the urge to get in the car to have the accident. That’s thinking in line with predetermination. That as soon as he gets in the car, it’s predetermined to have the accident, to get hit. And that’s a totally different thing.
Alex: Now let’s analyze. Now the response—in the debate—is that in getting into the car, if we take the position that the urge is the urge to get into the accident, then that implies predetermination. Well, one has to then look at the definition of predetermination and the definition of the future, in order to be able to analyze that.
So predetermination implies that somebody has determined it. It’s taken from a theological system in which that something… In normal parlance, the convention of predetermination is that some higher being has determined, has written a script of what is going to happen. So, if you take away the theological aspect of it, of predetermination, then you have to say: are certain things avoidable or are they inevitable? If we look at the definition of the future, the future is defined as “what has not yet come.” So it doesn’t exist yet. Now if you say “is something avoidable?” then you would have to say to that, “Yes.” From the Mahayana point of view it’s avoidable, because you could do some sort of purification practice, or some sort of other circumstance—prayer, or somebody else prays and dedicates it—in which you would avoid the ripening. What have you purified? You’ve purified the karma to be hit by a car. You’ve purified the karma to die a so-called untimely death.
So, in terms of purification—if one is talking about the purification of specific karmas for sickness, or for this or that—you’d have to say that the urge was for something to happen. It wasn’t just an urge. In other words, during that process there was the urge to get into the car to drive at exactly the time when that could act—not that it will, but it could act—as the circumstance to be in the accident. And that could be purified; that could be changed. It’s not inevitable.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: You’re confusing the karma and the result of karma. They’re two different things. In the West, people often use the word “karma” just any old way. And karma’s referring to the cause, not to the result. Because we talk about karma and then we talk about the four results of karma—they’re different—karma and its results.
Alex: So the objection is that we’re confusing karma (which is a cause) with the results. So show me what in the analysis is the karma and what is the result. Where is the confusion? (This, by the way, is how a debate goes. So you’re getting a little bit of an illustration.)
Participant: This was planned, right?
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Except they usually don’t repeat it into the microphone.
Alex: One thinks of other sentient beings who might want to listen to this who are not present, and so we repeat into the microphone.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: I think the important thing when we’re talking about karma is the person who has a negative intention to hurt somebody else—they’re creating the karma. The person who’s hurt is experiencing the result of the action of harming others that they’ve done in the past.
Alex: I would object.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: Their karma is what they’ve done in the past.
Alex: So the reply in the analysis (which is still not analyzing which part of this is the cause and which part is the effect) is that the karma is integrally connected with the intention, and so there’s the intention to hurt. And the person who is experiencing being hurt is experiencing something that is the result of previous actions with the intention to hurt.
However, I would object to that because here we have a situation in which I don’t think the person who rams into your car by accident had the intention to hurt you. I’m still differentiating here, in terms of my original question, the urge to get into the car and the result (which is being hit). Those are not the same. I’m not saying that they’re the same. We’re analyzing the urge, and is it the urge just to get into the car, or is it the urge to get into the car at such a time in which it will act as a circumstance for a ripening? And if you talk about the purification of karma, you’d have to be able to specify that it’s a purification of that particular action—that karmic urge to get in the car and then the action that follows it. (The action is not the urge from the Chittamatra point of view. The urge was just to get into the car. The action is something else. And there’s the urge to continue driving; that’s something else.) But what we are purifying is whether or not that particular action will act as a circumstance for another karma to ripen. I’m saying that that could be purified so that that action of driving in the car, which is the result of the urge to get in the car, will not act as a circumstance for the ripening of being hit. That’s possible. But I think you’d have to specify that the urge was an urge for something to act as a circumstance—it’s not yet come; it’s not inevitable.
Ven. Thubten Chodron: I am not convinced. I think let’s drop it, because we’re not getting anywhere.
Alex: Okay. They don’t do that on the debate grounds. They don’t do that on the debate grounds—of saying, “Let’s drop it because we’re not getting anywhere.” But it is getting tedious. It’s getting tedious. But I think this gives you an idea. It illustrates the complexity in terms of dealing with karma, and analyzing, and these mental factors. And it starts to bring in many, many things in terms of purification, in terms of what actually is going on—conscious, unconscious, responsible, not responsible; those are other mental factors.
So, in an analysis, one tries to stick to one particular thing and not mix. So, yes, in some of the discussion when you speak vaguely—And that is exactly what is the purpose of the debate, is to correct vague thinking, vague statements. The way that that’s done is to point out the absurd conclusions. The absurd conclusion is that you just made the cause into the result. And so then you have to clarify. It’s not so much defend—“Well, oh…” like that—but you have to then clarify. So you restate it. And then the other person tries to find inconsistencies. The end aim is not to defeat the other person, to show you’re really dumb and I’m so smart, but rather to get both sides to really think and understand, clearly in great detail, what actually is the issue. So you’re working it out together, in a sense.
Is Each Moment of Mental Activity Either Primary Conscousness or Subsidiary Awareness?
Question: Can I ask one question?
Alex: One last question because it’s really late.
Question: Totally unrelated to karma. When you talked about the primary consciousness and the subsidiary awarenesses, and you made the statement—okay, I wrote it down—“each moment of mental activity is one of these,” I guess you were talking about one of either the primary or the subsidiary.
Alex: No, I don’t think that that was... I mean, if I said that, that wasn’t what I meant. The question is: Did I say that in each moment the mental activity is either primary consciousness or subsidiary awareness? No, I was saying… That phrase “one of these” was in connection with the aggregates. That in each moment there’s one element from each of the five aggregates. But that would include one primary consciousness and some cluster of subsidiary ones or mental factors.
Let’s end here and then we’ll continue tomorrow.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)