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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 Three: The Relation between Karma, the Origin of the Universe, and What Has Not Yet Happened

Details of Karma for Understanding Free Will versus Determinism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, July 2005

Session Three: The Relation between Karma, the Origin of the Universe, and What Has Not Yet Happened

Unedited Transcript
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In our discussion of karma yesterday, we were speaking about the issue of free will or choice versus predetermination or determinism, in general. And we saw that there are many, many factors which are involved here and many pieces of the Buddhist teachings that we have to put together in order to understand what’s going on with this whole issue. And we saw that free will implies that there is a “me” which is truly existent, independent from everything else that is going on, that could then make choices just based on itself, not relying on all the various circumstances, conditions, mental factors, and so on. And we saw this basic fallacy in this way of thinking, that choices do take place and they’re based on various habits of, not only manners of behavior, but also habits – I’m using habits here in a very loose sense – from our disturbing emotions or positive emotions and so on. It could also be influenced by things that are not connected with our mental continuum, like various external circumstances: the physical circumstances of what’s going on, of the weather, or the universe, or the circumstances from the influence of other people, people that we meet, society in general, governments and so on. And, similarly, the various teachings that we might come in contact with which also obviously derive from other people’s mental continuums. And that choices do take place in terms of the mental factors of discriminating awareness, indecisiveness, and so on, intention, etc.; and of course these are experienced subjectively as making a choice. The problem of course is the connotation of our Western concept of choice: that it implies an independently existing “me” that is making choices – and so I think to understand the whole issue, we need to try to stop thinking, or not approach it thinking in terms of the variable of choice. 

And predetermination is excluded because there is nobody there who’s decided what is going to happen, which is the connotation of pre-determination. They’ve decided before it’s going to happen, and although a Buddha knows what is not yet happened, what has already happened, and what is presently happening – all of which of course are changing constantly, because presently-happening is changing – nevertheless, the Buddha hasn’t determined it. And it’s not that it’s determined or fixed. This is very difficult to understand and requires really deep understanding of voidness: voidness of cause and effect, voidness of the three times, and so on. 

And we’ve also seen that there are a number of movements of energy, some of which are karmic and some of which are not karmic. If a karma is talking about movement of energy – which can either be a mental urge or it could be physical energy, depending on the system that we use for our understanding karma – it’s the movement of energy that brings the mind and the body and speech into a certain action – then there are many movements of energy. And we’ve seen that there are movements of energy (if we look at the Theravada system) in the physical order of the universe, like with weather and so on; the botanical order with the growth of plants; the cognitive order, in terms of how brain and cognition functions one step after another; and the dharmic order about how impermanent phenomena in general arise, abide, and cease; then the actual karmic order. So the other ones (excluding the karmic order) are movements of energy which are not karmic. 

Karma – we can see this more clearly in Vasubandhu’s discussion – these are movements of energy that are propelled by the motivating drive of an agent that with endeavor, that want to actually do something, put effort into doing something. And that of course is what’s involved with karma as opposed to what Vasubandhu calls operational impulses – operational movements of energy which are just involved, for instance, with the eye seeing, or we’ve spoken yesterday about the stomach digesting. 

Asanga makes it a little bit more full when he speaks about the focusing movements of energy – that’s what’s involved with perception. The functional ones, which are the ones in which something is performing a function; so the earth supporting a house. But here we put the stomach digesting food and obviously killing little creatures in terms of that. Transformational movements of energy, which a piece of gold transforms into something else – a piece of jewelry. And then attainment movements of energy, with which you actually attain liberation, enlightenment, or an arya pathway of mind. And so, again, in all of this, it’s only the movements of energy that entail endeavor, a part of an agent doing it. Endeavor means an effort, there’s a movement of energy driving a physical, verbal, or mental action from the side of the agent. Only that is what we’re talking about when we speak of karma. And so obviously a Buddha knows all these various variables in the system, and everything that happens to us is not based totally just on our karma. The fact that we meet with it and how we experience it of course is based on our karma, but what happens in the universe is not just based on our individual karma. 

Now there’s a problem here. The problem is that, first of all, if we look at the Kalachakra teachings, the Kalachakra teachings speak about the winds of karma and says that there are external and internal winds of karma. And so the internal winds of karma are driving the body and this is referring to movement of the energies in the subtle energy system; and here it seems as though it gets a little bit into functional type of things within the body. But usually when we talk about the movements of the subtle energies in the energy system, these are being moved by disturbing emotions and attitudes, and the conceptual thought that will be accompanied by that, but also the regular perceptions that are accompanied by that as well. So this is a little bit difficult to reconcile because included in the movements of the subtle energy system are the movements of the energy involved with perception, which the commentaries to Vasubandhu said were not karmic. So how do we understand this? I really must say that I don’t know. 

The same thing in terms of the external winds of karma; this is speaking about the winds of karma that are involved with the planets. And so again that seems to be in one of these categories here of functioning of things, or in the Theravada system the physical order, which are not karmic. So now how do we reconcile this? How we reconcile the teachings in Kalachakra with these general teachings here on karma, and likewise the teachings that we find in many other tantra systems (and particularly in mahamudra and dzogchen) is that all appearances are the play of the clear light mind. And so, in this sense, we have the entire universe being the play of the clear light mind. 

So how do we put these things together? The same thing with astrology. And in Kalachakra it’s correct that they speak about the external and the internal winds of karma being parallel to each other so that we can work with the understanding of voidness, with the subtlest level of mind, in order to get rid of these movements of karmic wind which are causing samsara, basically, and are impeding us from being able to be of best help with others. There is certainly the presentation that the configuration of the planets and so on mirrors the karma. The position of the planets when we are born and how they move during the lifetime also mirrors what is going to happen in the lifetime. So then this gets into really a discussion of causality that we’ll have to go into a little bit: the different types of causes and conditions and results that are discussed in Buddhism. 

But the point being, in terms of how we reconcile this, the question is what is the relationship of the clear light mind, or mind in general, with matter and energy? And we can say, for example, that our experience of matter and energy is an appearance of the mind, the clear light mind. That’s one way of saying that, because the energy-wind which is making that appearance, in terms of the mental hologram, is the subtlest energy of the clear light mind which then takes on grosser forms. 

Now it is possible, of course, to interpret this view of everything coming from the clear light mind in terms of a Chittamatra explanation. In the Chittamatra explanation they would say that appearances and the mind (or consciousness) that perceives these appearances both come from the same natal source (rdzas). They both come from a seed of karma (what we’ve been calling a karmic tendency) that is on the alayavijnana (the storehouse consciousness); and they would call the clear light mind the “storehouse consciousness” when you have a Chittamatra interpretation of tantra. In the sutra system, Chittamatra doesn’t speak about the clear light mind. But in any case when they say that both the appearance and the consciousness of the appearance come from the same karmic tendency or seed as its natal source, a natal source is like the oven out of which a loaf of bread comes. And Chittamatra asserts that both the appearance and the consciousness of true findable existence, and that appearances of an external world – these do not actually refer to something external. It’s not that these appearances come from their own natal source outside of, or separate, from the mind. 

Now this is very different from the Prasangika point of view of tantra as is explained in the Gelug system. According to Prasangika, nothing has true findable existence; and they do assert external phenomena in the sense that the appearances of external phenomena do come from the external elements as their natal source, although the appearance of these external phenomena are made of the subtlest wind. The subtlest wind is what makes up the mental hologram that represents external phenomena in our cognition or perception. In this way, everything that we perceive is the play of the clear light mind. So external objects are asserted by Prasangika, so they would be asserted in tantra. Now an “external object” means it’s not coming from a natal source which is the mind. It’s coming from its own previous natal sources in its own continuity. So when we talk about the relation with mind, everything is related to mind, meaning that what things are are what the words and concepts for them refer to, it doesn’t mean that the mind creates them. This is how we have to understand everything is the play of the clear light mind from a Prasangika point of view. 

So we have to get back to the discussion of the universe. You can say that the way that the universe evolves is due to the collective karma of everybody, and there is the condition of the clear light mind in which there are the potentials and so on for the various things to happen. It can be imputed on the continuity here (we speak just in the Kalachakra system). And they say that you have space atoms that in-between universes – you know, universes evolve and then collapse and then evolve and then collapse – so in that period in-between (it’s like the clear light mind period in death) you have a space atom. And the space atom is understood in several different ways; not only the space between things or the smallest component of things, but it’s also the condition in which the various laws of physics are not operating. And so you have [within this space atom] a trace – here I like to use the word “trace” for “seed” – so you have a trace of the elements, but the elements are not working with each other. The laws of physics are not combining them; they’re not combined. And it’s only with the effect of karma on them, from the mental continuum of others, that they will then start to come together again. 

Just as the same thing happens with death existence, then making another lifetime; and depending on one’s karma, the throwing karma, then in a lifetime the mental continuum is going to connect, or more specifically, the subtlest energy that supports the clear light mind of that mental continuum plus the subtlest creative energy drop which (analogous to the space atom) has within it the traces of the various elements, but in a situation or state in which they are not coagulated with each other or combining with each other. This package of a clear light mind, subtlest energy, and subtlest creative energy drop is going to connect with various external elements and the form of the body is going to be determined or shaped by the karma. It’s going to be an insect body, a human body etc. 

And so, similarly, the formation of the universe – how the universe is going to be – is similarly going to be affected by the collective karma of everybody that would have the karma to be born in that universe. And so then you get the winds of karma regulating the revolution of the planets and so on, how long a year is going to be, there are going to be seasons, day and night – these sort of things. The origin of it is going to be affected by the collective karma of the beings; but the substance of it is in that space atom in terms of traces of the elements. Now how do those traces exist? What establishes them is just what the concept or name for them refer to. So it is connected to the mind in that way, but not literally coming out of the mind. So there’s an intimate relation between matter and energy and mind, but it’s not so straightforward. 

And the way His Holiness explains it is that although you could say that the collective karma from clear light mind – and not some universal clear light mind, but from everybody’s clear light minds operating together – that that in a sense helps to shape the universe; you can’t say create the universe out of nothing, but shape the universe. Nevertheless, once it starts in a cycle, then you get the type of thing that you have in the Theravada or in Vasubandhu and Asanga, that there are various things that start to operate which are then not affected by this specific karma of the individual beings. Like the example His Holiness always uses is which leaf falls off a tree, at which time, and where it falls on the ground. So that then, His Holiness says, the laws of physics, the laws of botany, the laws of weather – and these sort of things – take over. Now of course we are not independent from that. We experience weather, but we’re not creating the weather in the most fundamental sense. Now of course we affect the weather – the greenhouse effect and stuff like that. So we’re not independent of it. The causal relationship here is very complex, but there are laws of physics and laws of nature and they take over; although the laws of physics and the laws of nature will be, in a sense, shaped by the beings that will be affected by them. But then they take over, in an impersonal way. So that’s the way His Holiness tries to resolve this real dilemma here, without it becoming a very solipsistic type of thing where everything is just created out of my mind. 

Question: [inaudible] 

Alex: Do the people who come at the end of a phase of the universe have input to the beginning? Not necessarily. It’s the same thing as saying are all the people who were born in Tibet and suffered under the Chinese occupation, were all of them Tibetans before in previous lifetimes; and it was because of what the Tibetans did in the past to the Chinese at the time of King Tri Songdetsen, that there’s this happening to them now. No. They could be born from any other place, any other life form, and be born in Tibet at the time of the Chinese takeover. That doesn’t discount the historical causes that have caused what has happened. So then these are different types of causes. So it’s the same thing in terms of the universe. 

In Buddhism, they talk about countless universes; so it’s not just that there’s one universe. A universe is pretty big – I mean that’s what we think of as a whole universe. Well there’s many of those, countless of those, and they’re all going through their phases at a different rate. So when one universe is expanding, another universe is contracting. And so there’s always a place where mental continuums can take rebirth. It’s not just that there’s an empty eon and everybody is just sort of hanging out in a bardo, or something like that, waiting for the universe to evolve. So you would say that the beings who would have the karma to be reborn in that universe – and not just at the beginning, because at the beginning there aren’t any beings in the universe; it takes quite a long while before beings, the universe has to form first before there can be beings, and at the end there’s going to be a long period without any beings as well – so those who would have the karma to be born during the whole time when there’s going to be beings in that universe, who have built up the karma for that, would affect the structure of that universe. 

Now then it becomes a really difficult metaphysical question. How can you say that they have built up the karma for a not-yet-happened universe? Then we have to get into the discussion of the reality of the future; the not-yet-happened universe is not happening now, but it is an affirmationally known phenomenon and it exists. It exists in a sense that it is knowable; “exists” doesn’t mean that it is happening now. We have to make the differentiation here which often we don’t: for something to exist doesn’t mean that it’s happening now. According to Buddhism, what exists is what can be validly known, and this means either by valid bare straightforward perception or by valid inferential cognition

So, for instance, the no-longer-happening fall of ancient Rome can be validly known, or the no-longer-happening living dinosaurs can be validly known. That doesn’t mean that we can validly see dinosaurs walking around on the Earth now. Presently-happening or presently living dinosaurs – that doesn’t exist, that can’t be known. But dinosaurs that no longer live – that can be validly known. They would be validly knowable by valid inferential cognition based on valid perception of their bones (which would be their remains), and then the valid inferential cognition that the bones of something must have been produced by a living being. Now the same thing is true for the not-yet-happened universe to be validly knowable – that also for us this is something that can be validly knowable on the basis of valid inferential cognition. 

And so the not-yet-happened universe does exist. And we’ve already discussed in quite a lot of detail how a Buddha knows what is no longer happening and what is not yet happened through valid nonconceptual straightforward cognition. There’s no need for us to repeat that now. But please recall our discussion of how cause and effect actually exist, and that at the time of the cause, the result neither truly exists findably, nor truly does not exist. That means that at the time of the cause, it can be validly known. It does exist in terms of what the word or concept “result” refers to on the basis of all the causes and conditions. And as such, the result can be validly known at the time of the causes despite the fact that the result is not happening at the time of the cause. 

Question: [inaudible] 

Alex: Well, in different universes are there different physical rules or different physical laws? We would have to say that probably that could be the case. I mean if we look at the dimension of desirable objects, the dimension of ethereal forms, and the dimension of formless beings (the so-called desire, form, and formless realm), there are different laws which are operating. For example, there’s nothing destructive in the form and formless realms; and there’s no smell and there’s no taste in the form realm. I mean there’s lots of different factors that are involved in those realms. So if that’s the case with this particular universe, it could be – I mean I think that there would still be the six realms of beings, that seems to be fairly constant, but I don’t really know. I mean certainly there are so many different planets in which there are undoubtedly life forms in this universe and they would have different temperatures, different types of things in which they could live. We have beings that can live in water. We have beings that can live in air. Maybe in other universes there are beings that could live in ice, or who knows what? Let’s not even say that the laws of physics are for sure in this universe. And what I wanted to go on to say: the laws of the universe, the physical laws of the universe, are not inherent in the universe. They’re not findable in the universe. They’re just mental constructs that help us to understand something. To say that the laws of the universe are operating – physical order, and so on, is operating – it’s not saying that those laws exist anywhere, that they’re findable. It’s just that we can understand them. 

So we’re talking about the operation of things and this thing gets into the deterministic thing as well, which I wanted to bring in the discussion of quantum physics here. But when we talk about “what is anything?” anything is what the concept or label of things refer to. So can you say that actual tables and chairs and things like that exist? Are there tables and chairs? Well we say conventionally there are tables and chairs, so, well, what is there? Is there undifferentiated sort of mega-soup out there; and that when we label them – that it then appears as that object or becomes that object – certainly not. So the same thing in terms of quantum mechanics; it’s not that there’s a certain prescribed amount of quantum possibilities and it’s actually truly existing out there; and when we perceive it, then it makes it into the object in a certain location and so on. I mean that’s the same as saying that things are created by mental labeling. It’s just a different form of saying that, and so we have to then eliminate this idea of true existence in terms of, well it truly is that – all these quantum possibilities. It truly is the particle being over there and that now I just saw it; or that it truly is in all these places simultaneously, and my seeing it just sort of fixes it. So if you start to think about that, now we have to start putting that together with all the karmic possibilities; and is it that they’re all the karmic possibilities and then when we actually do it, one karmic possibility then happens? And so all these karmic possibilities are actually existing somewhere and Buddha knows them all; or is it that there’s really only one karmic possibility, like there’s the object is only one thing and when we see it we find it out. So Buddha knew what it was going to be, and when we do it we find it out. So these are all fallacies. 

But then how it actually is, it’s not so easy; but we have to try to avoid these extremes, because it is true that as soon as we see something – in a sense, it’s what Tsongkhapa said – our [limited] mind makes an appearance of it as truly existent. And so in terms of the quantum possibilities of particles being in several places simultaneously, and then you see it and then it’s in one place, so what is that? The mind has made an appearance, a truly existent appearance, of it being in one place, hasn’t it? So the whole quantum physics and quantum mechanics explanation of things is, in a sense – when you put it together with the Buddhist teachings, it fits into the description of how our mind makes appearances of true existence, which is very interesting. And then what one has to do, as I said, is now transpose that whole discussion into the discussion of karma and karmic possibilities, and the whole discussion of determinism or free will, and so on. And that’s why I say that the whole discussion of determinism, free will, what the Buddha sees, and so on, what a Buddha knows – it’s hard for us to even consider the questions because just the way that we are approaching it implies true existence to the whole thing. You see the problem here? 

If we speak about choices, it sounds as though the choices truly exist. That there are choices, and they’re not-yet-happening choices, and now we choose one and then we make it happen, and then the others are no longer possible. And that’s a false way of looking at things, in terms of things having true existence, but as soon as we start to conceive or just try to ask the question “Do we have choices?” it implies that the choices truly exist somewhere. They’re not yet happening, and either they are somewhere inherent in the universe and then they have to just manifest, you know sort of a Samkhya type of thing, or the whole idea is a bit strange here. And that was the connection that we made with quantum physics. There’s no need to go into great detail about quantum physics. It’s just that particles – there’s just a huge probability function of where they are, and you can’t know the location and the speed at the same time, and so in a sense you can say that they’re simultaneously everywhere. So all of them are truly existent, in a sense; but when we actually perceive it then we finally locate it in one particular place, and so the perceiver interacts with the system. But this one has to be very, very careful of. 

Let’s not talk about it in terms of physics, let’s talk about it in terms of karma. It’s the same thing – that there’s these limited amount of choices given the variables that could be made; they actually exist, and now we’re going to choose one. It’s like, here are all the things on the menu, and we’re going to choose one, and then that makes it happen. Or did Buddha know there was a menu, and Buddha knew the menu, and Buddha knew beforehand what we’re going to choose. 

There’s no menu. Things don’t exist that way. And even if we speak in terms of tendencies, or seeds, it’s not that the result is existing already in the seed, because it can be affected. There are all these factors that affect the ripening of karma, even after we’ve done an action – I’m using “karma” in the loose sense of that it will ripen from the karmic aftermath. If we repeat the action or we never repeat the action, if we regret, if we purify it. Even other people’s prayers can affect, for instance, what’s going to happen in the bardo in terms of the next rebirth. There are many, many things that can affect what’s going to happen, even after we’ve done an action; what’s going to ripen. So were all those possibilities already present and existent? No. 

So then it still becomes very difficult to know, well, what does a Buddha know? And unfortunately the answer is well you have to become a Buddha before you’ll know what a Buddha knows. That’s not a very comfortable answer, but when we have difficulty answering a question (such as free will, determinism, predetermination, and so on), often the problem is that the concepts involved with asking the question are faulty. And so it goes back to the fourteen questions that Buddha didn’t answer, he didn’t specify an answer to, because the way it was formulated was one in which no matter what he answered, people would misunderstand it. Does the universe have a beginning or doesn’t it have a beginning? Well, obviously there are teachings that it has no beginning; but when someone’s talking about a truly existent universe, whether you say it has a beginning or no beginning, there you’re going to misunderstand it. So when you talk about truly existent choices – do we have a choice or we don’t have a choice – again, no matter what we answer, it’s going to be misunderstood. So this adds onto what we were saying yesterday in terms of one has to understand how the self exists in terms of decisions happening.