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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > Details of Karma for Understanding Free Will versus Determinism > Session Two: Not-Yet-Happening Events and the Difference between Karmic and Non-karmic Actions

Details of Karma for Understanding Free Will versus Determinism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, July 2005

Session Two: Not-Yet-Happening Events and the Difference between Karmic and Non-karmic Actions

Unedited Transcript
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We’ve been discussing karma and we saw that there are various systems with which karma is explained, in general. But what we are speaking about when we talk about karma is our behavior, what brings on our behavior, and the effects of our behavior on ourselves, and how this builds up various habits and tendencies and so on which are going to then ripen into various things that we experience with, basically, suffering – various types of suffering of samsara, whether it’s the suffering of pain and difficulty, or the suffering of change which is our ordinary type of happiness (but it doesn’t last and doesn’t satisfy), our so-called worldly happiness, or just the all-pervasive problem of samsara: that we continue to have this type of basic aggregates (body and mind and so on) that is going to continue to bring on the other types of suffering. So if we speak in terms of feelings, what we have is the regular type of suffering of pain, our ordinary, so-called “tainted” happiness, and then the neutral feeling which is associated just with having a body and a mind. 

And so karma explains, basically, how this whole system gets perpetuated. And it has nothing to do with reward or punishment, which would imply some external figure from the system who is giving that reward or punishment. It is not deterministic, because it is possible to change what we experience; it’s possible to change what we do. And it’s not predetermined, because predetermined would imply that there is somebody external to the system who has decided what’s going to happen. It’s not total free will, which would imply that there is a “me” who is totally independent of everything that we experience, and is able to make decisions independent of everything. But rather, whatever we experience can be explained – there are causes. It’s not that what happens to us is without any cause. So there’s a big difference between something being deterministic and something being explainable, and this we will have to explore. 

Now when we start to look at what’s the difference between something being deterministic or something being explainable, deterministic, I think, has the connotation (maybe you can correct me from science) that once all the variables are given in a system, then the result is determined. Whereas explainable means that whatever happens can be explained. So I think the difference is the direction in which we analyze. If, given the variables in a system, we analyze forwards, then it’s determinist. If we analyze backwards from what’s happened, it’s explainable. 

Question: What’s the difference between deterministic and predictable? 

Alex: Deterministic means it’s definitely going to be this. The other one would be basically a probability based on statistics, based on average, that you could predict what is going to happen, but there’s no certainty that that definitely will happen. But it is within certain parameters – it’s not that anything could happen, but it’s, given the variables in the system, the various possibilities of what could happen. But in both cases we’re working from a given system to predicting what’s going to happen in the future. Whereas, everything is explainable is working backwards; whatever happens, happens for causes and you can figure out what the causes are. And I think from a Buddhist point of view – well in many ways we can discuss both – but certainly what is absolutely for sure is that whatever happens can be explained. 

Now the question is, given the variables, there are almost countless variables that affect what’s going on. What happens – and this is why we need to look a little bit more closely at the Buddhist analysis of the different kinds of causes, although that’s very complex. But we look at one type of cause, which is the acting cause (byed-rgyu) – it’s everything other than the result itself, which implies that everything is interconnected and everything affects everything. The whole universe is one interconnected system. Nothing is independent, which of course if you think about it logically, coming from the Big Bang, if we use that as a model, of course everything has to be interrelated. And so unless we’re a Buddha, we don’t have all the information. We don’t know all the variables. Only a Buddha is omniscient. So if we try to look at what’s going to happen, all we can do is give a probability of what’s going to happen, because we don’t have all the variables. A Buddha knows all the variables, so a Buddha knows what’s going to happen. But that then gets into a complicated discussion of past, present, and future; and as we’ve discussed in the past – that’s terrible, I’m sorry! – as we’ve discussed before, the past, present and future aren’t things that are existing somewhere in space-time. But rather, in Buddhism, we speak about the past as what’s no longer happening and [the future as] what has not yet happened. So the discussion becomes very, very complicated and very difficult in terms of what does a Buddha actually know. It says the Buddha knows the three times without impediment and without attachment

But the important thing, I think, is to understand that the system is dynamic that we’re talking about here. Dynamic system means that it’s not that given all the variables, the system is then closed and then you can say what’s going to happen. And then the question is, once the system is closed, then is there is choice that comes in there? There’s sort of this gap and there’s the choice, and then the result of the decision occurs of what you’re going to do or what’s going to happen. I mean, when we talk about determinism there’s two issues here for explainability. One is in terms of what we do; the other is in terms of what will be the result of our actions – although of course they are interrelated here. But what I wanted to say is that it’s a dynamic system, which means it’s never closed – that there are always more variables every moment which are affecting things. And not all these variables, as we were indicating yesterday, are coming from our own side, because everything is influenced by everything else – all the circumstances around – and that’s changing all the time. So it’s never a closed system. 

And also when we look at choice, we have to look at what’s actually happening. As we analyzed yesterday, there are mental factors of discriminating awareness, conviction and so on; so when a decision occurs, there’s no separate “me” making a decision. However, the way it’s experienced – it’s experienced in terms of “I made the decision” and, conventionally, that’s true. So again, we have to look in terms of what does it mean to say that I chose and yet Buddha knew or knows what I’m choosing? “I chose” is how I experience it. Buddha would experience it as a decision occurred on this mental continuum. Both of them are valid, unless we think in terms of a separate “me” making a decision, an independent “me” making a decision, which of course is not the case. 

Question: So is it also not the case that Buddha wouldn’t know beforehand what the decision was? 

Alex: Right, but it’s not the case that a Buddha didn’t know and just made a good guess of what’s going to happen. That’s why we need to have a clear idea of already passed, presently-happening, and not-yet-happened – and what that means. It says so in the qualities of a Buddha, that a Buddha knows the past, present and future without impediment and without attachment. It’s one of the ten qualities of a Buddha’s mind. 

Question: And is this to be taken literally? 

Alex: It’s to be taken literally, but with an understanding of the voidness of the three times. Not literally in terms of, you know… 

Participant: There’s no future there that the Buddha can cognize. 

Alex: Right, so this is why I’m saying it’s not very easy to understand what in the world the Buddha actually knows. 

Question: Another point is does he know tendencies? Could he be wrong or could he be undetermined about something that will happen or not? 

Alex: Could he be undetermined? What does that mean? Could he not know? 

Question: Yeah, could he know that there is no way to predict? 

Alex: Could he know that there’s no way to predict? That, I don’t know. Could he know that it can’t be known? No, because everything can be known from a Buddha’s point of view and it’s not the case – this is what’s so difficult – it’s not the case that the Buddha knows this by inference (i.e. given all the variables, the Buddha can infer what’s going to happen) because inference is conceptual cognition and Buddha does not have any conceptual cognition. So he knows it straightforwardly without relying on a line of reasoning. And this is very complicated and difficult to understand. 

Question: Does a Buddha know really what’s going to happen in the future? 

Alex: Yes, because you have so often in the tantric initiations that they speak about: Buddha will predict when our enlightenment will occur. So clearly a Buddha knows what has not yet happened and there are cases of clairvoyants where people know what has not yet happened. But, as I said, this is very complicated topic. When we speak about what’s translated as “future,” it means “not yet happened.” 

So remember we had negatingly known phenomena and affirmingly known phenomena. An affirmingly known phenomenon would be, for example, an apple. A negatingly known phenomenon would be, for example, not an apple. Now in order to know a negatingly known phenomenon, you have to beforehand have made two sets, a set and a counter-set, conceptually, such as, for instance, “apple” and “not an apple,” and then excluded something from one of the sets: “This is not an apple.” But to know an affirmingly known phenomenon, you don’t have to make these two sets (a set and a counter-set) and exclude something from it. All you need to know is “this is an apple.” 

Also, an affirmingly known phenomenon can have more than one element in it and one of those elements could be a negatingly known phenomenon. So for example, we could speak about a table without an apple on it. This would be an affirmingly known phenomenon. You just know the table. Now part of that is the negatingly known phenomenon “without an apple on it,” and for that you would have had to conceptualize, before that, two sets: something on something else, and something not on something else – here specifically with reference to things on the table and things not on the table. 

Now if we bring this to our example here, my enlightenment which is not yet happened is an affirmingly known phenomenon. It is just my enlightenment; it’s modified by “it’s not yet happening,” so it would be a “not-yet-happening enlightenment.” On the other hand, the not-yet-happening of my not-yet-happened enlightenment – this would be a negatingly known phenomenon. In other words, in order to know the not-yet-happening of something, you have to have conceptually beforehand made two sets: a set of what’s happening and what’s not happening, and then exclude this phenomenon from the set of what’s happening now so that you know the not-yet-happening of something. My not-yet-happening enlightenment is not happening now. 

So what do we know when we know my not-yet-happening enlightenment – my enlightenment which is not yet happening? Well, we can understand this by asking a similar question: what appears when we know a table without an apple on it? What appears is the basis – which is the table – and we know indirectly, in other words what does not appear, is an apple on it. So, what also appears is an absence of an apple on it. An apple doesn’t appear; an absence of an apple appears. So the absence of an apple is imputable on the table. 

Now for my not-yet-happening enlightenment, we also have to look at what is the basis upon which it is imputable? The basis is our mental continuum, for everything that’s imputable isn’t necessarily negatingly known. Like a person is imputably known on the aggregates. It’s not something physical and it’s not a way of knowing something. So we look at this result, namely my not-yet-happening enlightenment, and since it’s a result of what we’re doing now, it’s not happening now – it’s imputable on the mental continuum. Now something that’s imputable on the mental continuum – that just means that it’s what a word refers to on the basis of the mental continuum – now you can know that with straightforward cognition. For instance, I can see a person; it’s not that I have to infer a person. I can see a person, even though a person is just what can be imputed on a set of aggregates. So I think we have to use that way of thinking to analyze being able to know straightforwardly without relying on either a line of reasoning or a concept of a not-yet-happening enlightenment. We need to make a distinction here, however. In the case of apprehending a person imputable on a set of mental aggregates (for example, on a body), then the person actually does explicitly appear. But in the case of apprehending a not-yet-happening enlightenment on a mental continuum, then the enlightenment itself, which has not yet happened, is only implicitly known – it doesn’t actually appear. Only a presently-happening enlightenment could appear. 

Then we have to bring in the whole discussion of the voidness of cause and effect. One line of reasoning that’s used to refute the true findable existence of results or effects is that at the time of the cause, the result neither truly exists nor truly is totally nonexistent. If it truly and findably existed at the time of the cause, then there would be no need for its production or its arising; and if it were truly nonexistent at the time of the cause, then it could never arise, because there could be no arising of something that doesn’t exist at all on the basis of true findable existence. The position that the result already exists, findably and truly at the time of the cause – that’s the position of the Samkhya School of non-Buddhist Indian philosophy – and it’s certainly not like that. It’s not that the result exists already in the causes that’s waiting to pop out, to manifest. Presently-happening enlightenment is not existing in the presently-happening causes. The not-yet-happening enlightenment is not presently-happening, only the not-yet-happening of the not-yet-happening enlightenment is presently-happening. So one really has to understand, or at least try to understand, the voidness of cause and effect, in order to know what will be the result of something. 

Let’s say we have water put into minus twenty degrees; it turns into ice. So I have a glass of water and I know that if I put it into the freezer it’s going to turn into ice. Do I know the ice, the not-yet-happened ice? Well yes, that not-yet-happening ice is not present now, but I know it. Now do I know it through a law which would be conceptual, the law being a law of physics or something like that: water plus minus twenty degrees equals ice. Or can I know it without the medium of that law coming to my mind, which would be a conceptual thought. You don’t have to actually verbalize it, but it’s a concept. Buddha doesn’t have to apply the concept, although there is a concept that water with minus twenty degrees makes ice. 

Participant: But the concept is not what is causing the water to freeze. 

Alex: The concept is not what’s causing the water to freeze; the concept is just a way of explaining it, of understanding it. So these are the type of things we have to think about in order to try to approach the question of what does a Buddha know. A Buddha knows the not-yet-happening enlightenment, the not-yet-happening result of behavior. And there are laws of karma. 

Question: [inaudible] 

Alex: The question is if the Buddha knows the not-yet-happened enlightenment of Jorge, and Jorge decides that I’m not going to work toward enlightenment anymore – well, Buddha knew that. [Buddha] knew the not-yet-happening decision of not working to enlightenment and knew zillions of eons ahead that something was going to change. Now how does Jorge experience it? 

Mind you, there’s no independently existing Jorge in the system. So from the point of view of the mental continuum on which all the various actions are taking place from moment to moment, there is discriminating awareness, and conviction, and decision making, and stuff like that; that arises as a result of an incredible amount of causes that are connected to the mental continuum and many, many causes and conditions that are not connected to that mental continuum: the weather, an earthquake, God knows what – this is also happening. So from his point of view, from the one who experiences it subjectively, what’s happening? 

When we talk about awareness, mind, the arising of a mental hologram, which is equivalent to knowing something – that happens without an independent “me,” but it is experienced individually and subjectively. So of course it’s experienced as a decision, and it is a decision – conventionally, it is a decision. Nobody else is forcing you to do it. But whatever you decide has an explanation, and Buddha sees all of this because a Buddha has all the factors that are involved which can all be explained by laws – although laws are just an approximation, after all, to try to explain things. 

Participant: But that still sounds quite deterministic. I mean you made a comparison between deterministic being explaining in a forward way, whereas causation is more an explanation that’s directed backwards. But the point is that a Buddha, when we take the example of predicting enlightenment, then a Buddha does predict things. So, he’s also directed into the direction of things that are not yet happening and not back to the causes, but based on the causes directed at the results, or possible results. And so even when there are countless causes and when they are constantly changing, etc., he would still be experiencing all of them, and he still would be experiencing all of their interconnectedness, and would experience them in each moment of their change, and so on – so that would still sound pretty deterministic. And then Mark added, for example if the Buddha would know that Jorge attains enlightenment in a given amount of time – 6,438 eons – and would tell that to Jorge, then that would be pretty fine because then wouldn’t it be that Jorge wouldn’t need to do anything anymore because the point is that the Buddha would have predicted it, and how could it be more certain than having been predicted by a Buddha. So why do anything at all then at such a point? 

Alex: But a Buddha would know the effect of telling Jorge that his enlightenment will take place in 6,438 eons and so would have factored that into the equation. And obviously in the next life, Jorge will have forgotten what the Buddha said – might even forget it in this lifetime as well, or not believe the Buddha. But a Buddha would know all of that. 

Now I must say I’m just playing with the idea, but let me introduce my own ideas here and see if this makes any sense. Let’s just jump into it. There is a book which was written at the end of the nineteenth century called Flatland and in this it speaks about a two-dimensional universe, Flatland, and a three-dimensional being that visits the two-dimensional universe. And, of course, from the perspective of the three-dimensional being, he is above the plain of Flatland and can see much, much wider than people of Flatland. The people of Flatland can only see sort of directly in front of them; whereas, the three-dimensional being can see the whole thing. And when the three-dimensional being walks through Flatland, then all they see in Flatland is a two-dimensional shape; and of course that shape changes as the three-dimensional being lifts the leg up, and then all of a sudden it disappears, and then appears again in another place by putting the leg down; and then the size changes, and so on; and sometimes there’s two of them because there’s two legs, and so on. 

And so this I think is suggestive (at least maybe it’s suggestive) just by playing around with the idea of how we could understand these extraordinary powers of a Buddha. If we take seriously the concept that we are getting in the West that there are not just three spatial and one temporal dimension, but there are ten dimensions, or eleven dimensions, and who knows what they’ll decide in a few more years – how many dimensions there are. But if a Buddha would be able to operate in all dimensions, then the situation of a Buddha with respect to our view of three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension and what our limited awareness can perceive – remember this is a sentient being with a limited mind, limited hardware (the apparatus for perceiving); we can only perceive three spatial and one temporal dimension, like the Flatlanders can only perceive two spatial dimensions – so Buddha can perceive the whole thing and operates in the whole thing. 

And so when we hear about a Buddha manifesting in many, many forms simultaneously and a Buddha changing sizes (Milarepa as well; Milarepa fits into the tip of the yak horn) and these type of things – and manifests everywhere in the universe all at once, and so on, I think we can understand it or at least one way of understanding it would be by this example of the three-dimensional being seen from the perspective of Flatland. So if we can understand this in terms of the physical dimensions, I don’t think that’s so difficult to understand the physical dimensions and how a Buddha’s mind is omniscient and so is pervasive with the entire universe. So a Buddha can manifest in the entire universe in many, many different forms; so Buddha can also manifest in the three times. So I think that would be the same in terms of the temporal dimension as well. But this two-dimensional Flatland – one could also imagine the Flatland people can’t see somebody coming from far away distances, and stuff like that, that a three-dimensional being can see (has the perspective to see) that this one is coming but a car is coming in another direction, and so on. They can see what’s happening – all the things that are going on, you know, at the same time. 

And from the point of view of the Flatlanders, what the Buddha is seeing is the not-yet-happening of somebody arriving and that not-yet-happening is nonstatic. It’s coming closer and closer, and this is exactly what Buddhism says, that not-yet-happenings are impermanent or non-static phenomena. They’re changing every moment because each moment they are – instead of being x minus ten seconds, they’re x minus nine seconds, x minus eight seconds and so on. They’re coming closer and closer to becoming a presently-happening event. But of course that event is not a findable thing which is existing on its own and then modified by a time variant. It’s not like a suitcase on a moving conveyor belt coming closer and closer to us. So one has to connect this, of course, with the understanding of voidness, of true findable existence. So this whole issue (determinism is going forward, and explanation is going backwards) is from our point of view of being able to perceive three spatial [sic! temporal] dimensions one dimension at a time. From a Buddha’s point of view, a Buddha can perceive all three times simultaneously. I mean that’s what is said, but it doesn’t mean that the three times are all presently-happening. That’s what is important to add to this. It doesn’t mean that they are presently-happening, but a Buddha can perceive all of it. 

So then we use the example: I have an ice cube tray with water in it. I’m going to put it in the freezer. Can I know the not-yet-happened ice? Now, can you know the not-yet-happened ice? And I think that you could know it. Now, could you know it through visualization? Yes, but you wouldn’t have to visualize. But the not-yet-happened ice isn’t presently-happening; it’s not presently here. 

Participant: You can say ice will occur, but I don’t think I can imagine exactly how that ice will appear. 

Alex: So I mean your point is that I don’t know exactly the shape and so on. Well would I know it with my eyes, or would I know it through the mind, or how would I know it and how precisely would I know it? Well if I knew all the variables of the distribution of the temperature within the freezer, then I would know the formation of it; and if I knew the exact status of the freezer, and the electric grid of the city, and the building, and the country, and so on, I would also know the not-yet-happened electric failure. And if I knew the behavior of everybody, I would also know the not-yet-happened terrorist attack on the electric grid that would also cause there not to be a not-yet-happened ice (or the not-yet-happened ice not to be presently-happening for a very long time). So Buddha would know all these factors. 

So I’m just suggesting a line of thinking, a line of analyzing, of could I know the not-yet-happened ice, and would I be able to know it through a concept (water plus freezing temperature equals ice), or I don’t really have to know it through a concept. And when I know it, am I visualizing it? No, that’s conceptual. I could visualize it; I don’t have to visualize it. And so if a Buddha were operating in all dimensions and able to perceive all dimensions, probably this is what Buddha’s seeing in terms of seeing the three times simultaneously. But it’s not that they are all presently-happening. It’s very difficult for us to conceive of this other than with an appearance of true existence and adding in a spatial grid to it in the present, a presently-happening spatial grid. There it is, and if we go fast enough we can get to the future. Anyway, these are just ideas that I play with. I don’t know if they are helpful or relevant or if they are just complete garbage, but I find it useful for starting to deal with these very, very difficult issues of these extraphysical and extratemporal and extrasensory powers of a Buddha. 

Buddha does know all his previous lives and knows them all simultaneously, and all the not-yet-happened future activities that the Buddha is going to do. Although it’s an already-happened activity of the past and the not-yet-happened activity – we would have to say – of the future, all of those are affirmingly known phenomenon. So in a sense, the Buddha is appearing in the three times – we’re all appearing in the three times – by the continuity that has no beginning and no end. So the only problem is: could I change what already happened? No. Could I change what’s not yet happened? Well, if I could change it, I would know that already. 

Well what does change mean? This is the problem. What does change mean? As though the future was already truly existent – and then, could you change it? I must say that I don’t have complete clarity on all these issues. I’ll be perfectly honest with you. They are very, very difficult issues, some of the most difficult issues. But I think the most important point is how do we experience things? And we experience things in terms of choice, and so there are various gaps that occur. There is a gap between when we perceive information – if we can use that word, although that’s a difficult word in a Buddhist context; but we perceive things: sights, sounds, and so on. And when an intention occurs, we wish to do something. We wish to repeat what we have done in the past, we wish to not stop what we’re doing now, and we wish to do something in the future – it’s not yet happened. So there’s a gap between that, and so we experience does the intention happen or not; and then various intentions could come up, or various feelings. We described that we differentiated, you know, it’s a feeling. I feel like going to sleep; I feel like meditating. And then you think about it, so there’s indecisive wavering. Then you have an intention: “I’m going to meditate.” Then there’s another gap between when you have that intention and the karma which makes the mind think, “Yes I’m going to do that.” And when you actually do it, there’s another gap: are you going to act on the intention or not? And during these gaps, it’s not as though the system is closed, of course, because many, many other things are happening. Circumstances are happening as well. Memories come up, all sorts of things come up: habits come up, the telephone rings, a lot of things can happen. The Buddha knows it, but how are we experiencing it? We’re experiencing it from the point of view of choice. 

Participant: Then choice becomes not only like an illusion, it becomes an actual illusion. 

Alex: No, no, it’s like an illusion, but it occurs, so there is a choice that’s being made. How do you understand choice? What does the word “choice” mean? We’re not going to decide this issue so simply. We have all weekend to discuss this; we have a whole lifetime to discuss this. Remember that we started out the whole weekend with the statement that the Buddha said that karma was the most difficult thing to understand, of anything. And also, as we discovered, the correct understanding of voidness is just one part of what we have to understand in order to understand karma. We need to understand the voidness of cause and effect. We need to understand certainly the voidness of the self. And we need to understand what mind means. And there’s nobody outside of the whole system, neither Buddha nor us, that’s deciding what’s going to happen. 

Choice has to do with the issue of decisiveness: how indecisiveness goes to decisiveness – that’s where choice comes in. So we have to understand the connotation of the Western word “choice,” and is it really relevant here or is the whole concept of choice based on the concept of a truly independently existing “me”? And our concept of no choice is also based on a concept of a truly existing “me” who has no choice. This I think is crucial to our understanding this question of free will, determinism, choice, etc. I think the whole way that the question is phrased is from a point of view of considering the self truly existent and independent from the system, and either I have choice or I don’t have choice. You have to be careful that you’re not saying, “Yes, I understand voidness,” but actually you’re taking a Chittamatra or Svatantrika point of view as opposed to a Prasangika point of view. You’re saying you know there’s no independent me, but that’s not deep enough – that’s not a deep enough understanding of how the “me” exists. We’ve learned this from our study of the tenet systems. Okay? So basically we need to do a great deal of thinking. 

So, if you like, I can explain a little bit here about karmic and non-karmic actions so that we have some idea here of what we are actually talking about when we talk about karma and this whole thing of choice. In Theravada, for example, there are five systems of natural order. These are the five niyamas in Pali. They talk about physical order – physical order are the principles of physics that govern such things as the changing of seasons, temperatures, and weather. That’s not karmic, that’s just the physical order of things. Then there is botanical order – these are the principles of botany that govern the growth of plants, so this would cover the issue of leaves falling from a tree, which leaves fall and how they grow and so on. Mind you, all of these are dealing with movements of energy. Karma is a movement of energy. 

Then there is the karmic order; and the karmic order are the principles of karma that govern the physical, verbal and mental behavior of limited beings (kama in Pali). The fourth one is the cognitive order, and these are the principles of cognitive science that govern the sequence of moments that are involved in the process of sense perception. Theravada has an incredibly complex description of the sequence of moments involved with perceiving information, discriminating it, getting a concept, thinking about it, and so on – and there’s an order. So it would be our equivalent of all the steps of how the brain works. These are also movements of energies. So that’s the cognitive order; that’s also not karma. 

Then there’s the dharmic order. The dharmic order refers to the laws of the universe, specifically to the laws of causality and also refers to the fact that all conditioned phenomena (that is all phenomena that arise from causes and conditions) are nonstatic – they are impermanent; they arise, abide, and cease, and are in the nature of suffering, and lack an independent self. So, these laws are also not karma. So we have in the Theravada system already that there are many other movements of energy and actions that take place, such as the changing of the seasons, and plants growing, and the brain working – and things in general arising, abiding, and ceasing that are not karma. 

Now in Vasubandhu’s system – this is specifically in his Chittamatra texts he speaks of this – he says that there are “operational impulses.” We use the word – see I mean all these in this system are called with the word “karma” but it’s not our regular karma, so we have to talk about impulses, movements of energy. So there’s “operational impulses.” These are involved in the operation of, for instance, the sensory apparatus of the eye when seeing. So it’s a little bit equivalent to the Theravada cognitive order, although the analysis, how it operates, is different from the Theravada. It’s not talking about a sequence so much as just the energy involved, movement of energy involved. And then there’s “impulses entailing endeavor.” These are the impulses or movements of energy that are propelled by the motivating drive of an agent – that’s the system’s karma. The operational impulses of energy are non-karmic. This is what the commentator to Vasubandhu’s texts, the Indian commentator Sumatishila, in the late eighth century explains. 

Now since there are two types of movements of energy (one are impulses that are propelled by the motivating drive of an agent, and one that are not), then it becomes very important for us to understand, what does the word “motivation” mean? What does motivation mean in Buddhism? And this is also a very difficult and complex topic. Motivation in English comes from the same word as motion, and this is really the connotation of the Sanskrit word as well – and the Tibetan word (kun-slong). It means literally an inciter, something that causes something else to arise. Often in the West we use motivation to mean the aim or why we did something. Like we usually use the word in the West, you know, my motivation for going to university is to be able to get a good job and support my family. That’s not really the meaning in the original here. It’s much more the idea of something that causes something else to arise. 

So, it’s defined as a way of being aware of something that drives the primary consciousness and concomitant mental factors (in other words, the mental factors that go together with it in a package), it drives it to an action or a state of mind [and] that doesn’t necessarily endure throughout the action or the period in which the state of mind occurs. And so it has two meanings, two usages. In one context – in the list of destructive, constructive, and unspecified phenomena, different types of ethical status of karmic actions – motivation refers to the naturally destructive or naturally constructive or naturally unspecified emotions and attitudes which incite an action or a state of mind to arise. So it could be naturally destructive, let’s say anger drives the mind to a certain action. Or it could be a naturally constructive state of mind like absence of anger, non-anger, imperturbability, you can’t get angered; or a belief in what’s a fact, faith, this type of thing – that could drive the mind to a certain object or state of mind. Or it could be something unspecified, like hunger drives the mind to want to eat. So here I translate “motivation” as a motivating emotional or mental state. 

But elsewhere, particularly Asanga, uses the term in the expression “a motivating drive,” and this is the drive or the attitude, literally, to undertake an action, and it’s always accompanied by a motivating emotional or mental state. And so in many ways it’s the same as an urge, as karma. The difference is that karma as an urge, the mental factor of an urge, is always a mental factor; whereas a motivating drive can either be a mental factor or a primary consciousness. In the case of bodhichitta as a motivating drive, bodhichitta is a primary consciousness; it’s not a mental factor. Primary consciousness is what is aware of just the essential nature of a phenomenon; a mental factor qualifies it. So bodhichitta is just aware of the essential nature of Buddhahood – of our own not-yet-happened enlightenment – that’s a primary mind. So “motivating drive” is a wider term than “urge,” which is karma. 

When we talk about motivating drive, there’s a causal motivating drive. Vasubandhu explains, this – in his Chittamatra texts – has two aspects. This is the mental karma. Causal motivating drive – the urge to take an action – and then the urge that decides definitely to do so. And then the contemporaneous motivating drive is the urge that actually sets us into motion. There are these phases. So when we talk about karmic action, karmic action is something which is done with endeavor, endeavor means that there is a motivating drive. There is an urge – or in the case of bodhichitta, it’s a primary consciousness – but in most cases it’s an urge that has two phases. The first phase is to take a certain course of action and that decides definitely to do so, and then the urge that sets us into motion. We are talking about physical and verbal actions – the first phase is the mental; the second phase is the physical or verbal aspect here. So this is what karmic actions are talking about; that’s quite different from the variable of it being with intention or not with intention. Remember the urge is like a magnet, it just moves the mind to a certain object. Intention: we’ve thought about it and come to a decision – so that helps the motivating drive, but it’s not the same as the motivating drive. 

Another way of looking at it would be a causal motivation draws us to engage in an action in the first place, so it’s the drive to do or say something. And the contemporaneous motivation, it’s contemporaneous, it occurs right before the action, and it’s the drive with which you actually choose to engage in the action right now with a specific movement of the body or specific words. And mental actions have only this contemporaneous motivation, the second one. You can’t have the drive to think in a certain manner without actually doing so immediately when you have that drive, even if you decide to put off further thought until later. Now of course the motivating drive can change during the action. You could choose to do something else during the action. You’re hitting somebody and then you decide to hit him in a different place; or you have not so much anger, if we use the other meaning of motivating emotional state, and then it could change. You have more anger, or you have less anger, or you start to feel sorry for the person because they’re crying, whatever; it can change during the action. It has to obviously change during the action in order to stop doing the action. 

Just one final point here, which is very interesting, that this system of the causal motivating drive consisting of the urge to take a certain course of action, the urge that decides definitely to do so, and the contemporaneous motivating drive being the urge that sets us in motion – this comes from Vasubandhu’s Chittamatra texts – and when we apply this to bodhichitta, we have the exact divisions of bodhichitta that we are familiar with. So bodhichitta as the causal motivating drive is the wishing state (or aspiring state) of bodhichitta. That has two parts. The mere aspiring state is merely the aspiration, the urge to take a certain course of action to reach enlightenment. And then the promised state of aspiring bodhichitta is the urge that decides definitely to do so – I’m definitely going to do that, nothing is going to turn me back. Then the engaged bodhichitta would be a contemporaneous motivating drive; it’s the urge that actually sets us into motion, that we’re actually going to engage in the actions that will bring us to enlightenment. So actually this manner of division applies not just to bodhichitta and reaching enlightenment, but, as Vasubandhu points out, it applies to all types of actions (physical and verbal actions). That’s very interesting. 

So these are karmic actions: actions that are driven by the endeavor of an agent who does them. Whereas things that are happening more mechanically without endeavor, without a motivating drive, these are not karmic – like the operation of the eye. We can go into this a little bit further tomorrow, but Asanga has five categories that he speaks about of different types of movements of energy. We could list them just quickly so we don’t have to go through all of this again tomorrow. 

Focusing impulses are those involved when looking at a visual object, so it’s similar to these operational ones of Vasubandhu. Then he has functional impulses; those are involved when something performs its function, like the earth functioning to support a house is in the commentary, but that would also be the stomach functioning to digest things. So that would also come into Vasubandhu’s operational thing. And then there’s the impulses entailing endeavor, which is the same as what we had with Vasubandhu – that’s karma. And then there’s transformational impulses, those that are involved with a piece of gold transforming into a piece of jewelry. So that’s more in terms of just mechanical things with the elements; there’s an impulse of energy, a movement of energy, with which water transforms into ice, or gold is made into a piece of jewelry. And then attainment urges, which are those involved when actually attaining an arya pathway of mind (liberation or enlightenment). This is the movement of energy that actually brings you to the attainment of enlightenment. You can’t say that that’s karma, that that’s a karmic thing and it will result in suffering. That’s Asanga’s division. 

And Asanga says that of these, practically the only one that is karma are the impulses with endeavor. Now to understand this expression “practically the only one,” we have to look at the commentary, and Gyaltsab Jey in his commentary gives an explanation. The word “practically” there is saying that there’s debate over whether the functioning impulses and attainment impulses are karmic or not, because the functioning impulses (like with the stomach) actually does bring harm to others – you know, to the small creatures – so you could argue whether or not that’s tainted, whether that’s destructive by different categories that Asanga gives of what’s destructive. And the attainment ones – well at the moment before liberation you’re still in samsara, so is it tainted or not? So it’s just indicating that you can have quite a bit of debate on these points. 

But where this becomes very interesting is the whole issue of digestion, because eating is an unobstructive, unspecified action. So, unspecified – meaning that eating in itself is neither constructive nor destructive; it takes on the ethical status of the motivating emotion that accompanies it. You could be eating just because of greed – so it’s destructive. You could be eating so that you will have the energy to help others – it’s constructive. You could be eating just because it’s time to eat – it’s unspecified. And it’s unobstructive – it doesn’t obstruct liberation or enlightenment, but it still is tainted with grasping for true existence, so it still perpetuates samsara. That we have to differentiate from digestion, the functioning of the stomach, which is going to kill any beings, tiny creatures that are in the food; and that’s non-karmic, it would seem from this example. And the reason why this is pointed out and why they make this differentiation is to counter the Jain position. And in Jainism they say that the digestion and all these things, it’s all karmic. And so, you know, it’s killing creatures, and so in order to achieve liberation in the end you have to starve yourself to death – stop all karma. 

So, Buddha rejected that when he rejected these severe ascetic practices. The founder of Jainism came fifty years before Buddha. So this is one of the reasons why it’s important to make this differentiation. One has to eat, even if you’re doing it just because it’s time to eat. But eating is a karmic action, that’s because it’s tainted with grasping for true existence. But it’s an unspecified one: its ethical status depends on the motivation. And you can change eating into a cause for enlightenment – you know, I’m eating in order to have the strength to reach enlightenment and benefit everybody. So you do that with grasping for true existence, without grasping for true existence, and so on. Eating itself is not a problem: even though it may be tainted with grasping for true existence, it doesn’t obstruct liberation. Although if we just eat with our ordinary state of mind, neither constructive nor destructive, just mechanically you have to eat, still it perpetuates having this type of aggregates that will always need to eat, which generates into an unspecified – into a neutral feeling – neither happiness nor happiness, but it perpetuates samsara. The point is that it doesn’t obstruct liberation. This is why you have unspecified phenomena that are obstructing liberation and those that don’t. Eating doesn’t. 

Now on the other hand, a deluded outlook toward a transitory collection (in other words, identifying with our aggregates) can accompany any type of state of mind: constructive, destructive, or unspecified. So that deluded outlook toward a transitory collection is an unspecified phenomenon, but it’s an obstructive one: it obstructs liberation, and in order to achieve liberation we have to get rid of it. We have to rid ourselves of it, what’s normally called we have to “abandon” it with an understanding of voidness. But eating is not in the same type of category. It’s an unspecified phenomenon because it takes on the ethical status of whatever motivating state of mind accompanies it, but it’s not something which you have to purposely get rid of in order to achieve enlightenment. It’s not something which the understanding of voidness is necessary in order to rid yourself of it. Nevertheless, when you achieve liberation, you do get rid of it. It goes away automatically. That’s because you no longer have these tainted aggregates that require this type of eating. 

We have to point out certain things don’t obstruct liberation. That’s like conceptual thinking. It doesn’t obstruct liberation, because bodhichitta is always conceptual [before enlightenment]. This is the Gelugpa point of view. So it’s not something to be abandoned. It’s not something that obstructs liberation or obstructs enlightenment and it’s to be gotten rid of. You will automatically be rid of it [i.e. the conceptual type of bodhichitta] when you’ve gained enlightenment, like you will automatically be rid of eating when you gain enlightenment. A Buddha doesn’t have to eat, but it’s not something that you have to work on the path in order to get rid of; although in the case of conceptual thought you try to minimize it. Like when you have destructive conceptual thinking, just like you would try to minimize destructive eating when you eat merely out of greed; or eating out of anger: I don’t want you to have the cake; I’m not hungry but I’ll eat it because I don’t want you to have it. 

I should just add one small point which is that when we are studying things like karma, we don’t expect that we’re going to get a linear explanation. We’re going to get pieces of the puzzle and the task is to put it together ourselves. We’ll get different pieces of the puzzle at different times.