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Details of Karma for Understanding Free Will versus Determinism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, July 2005

Session Four: The Analysis of Causality and Karma

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:23 hours)

Our discussion has brought up several questions and several topics, which more pieces of the puzzle can be added to by looking into these topics, so that we have a larger picture of what’s involved with karma. One of these topics is the topic of the different types of causes, conditions, and effects. What actually are causes for what happens to us, causes for what we experience, causes for what we see? And there’s a list of six types of causes. We find this in Abhidharmakosha from Vasubandhu. Asanga gives more detail on them. I don’t want to go into tremendous detail about this because it’s really quite complicated, but just to give you a general idea of what’s involved.

We have, first of all, acting causes and these are all phenomena, other than the result itself, which did not impede the production of the result, which did not prevent the production of the result. Asanga includes even those that do impede the production of the result, so everything other than the phenomenon itself. The example is hail and a crop – a hailstorm. Hail, from Vasubandhu’s point of view, would impede the production of the crop; but Asanga would include it as a cause for the crop, because the crop will be smaller or will be damaged or it’ll be this or that. So it impedes the production of it, but it influences it. And Vasubandhu divides that into potent acting causes – such as a seed for a sprout; and impotent acting causes – such as the space that allows a sprout to grow; or the mother or the clothes of the farmer who planted the seed. So he divides like that.

Asanga actually gives twenty divisions of this and it becomes incredibly full and complex: all the different types of causes that there can be. I don’t really want to list the twenty since we don’t have time for that. If you’re interested in that, you can find the full list on my website in an article called “Causes, Conditions, and Results.” You can find it in the “Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism” section, level four, under the topic “Types of Phenomena.” But, just a few examples: The ground is something that we rely on, so it’s a cause for us to be able to live; or water for a fish; or light for being able to see; or fire for being able to change wood into charcoal; or parts of a syllogism that cause us to be able to understand inference; or seeing the defining characteristics of a basis for labeling; or hearing the sound of a word as a cause for understanding what the object is or what the word means. And there’s a list of twenty of these acting causes, and it becomes really quite complex. That’s the most general type of category and a lot of the karma aspects come into this, the acting causes.

Then there’s the simultaneously arising causes, and these are the causes that arise simultaneously with their results. So that starts to become a little bit strange. Can you have the cause and effect simultaneously? And remember we had a lot of discussion in Shantideva refuting that, but this is referring to two phenomena that mutually contribute to the production or arising of each other. One can’t exist without the other. For example, the elements of a material object and the object that’s made out of them. They mutually cause each other and they’re at the same time; or the defining characteristics and a basis having those defining characteristics, they’re at the same time. This is a table because of the defining characteristics of the table. The defining characteristics of the table don’t exist first – they’re simultaneous with the table; or the mental factors and the primary consciousness that are together. You can’t have one without the other, and they support and cause each other. So we have simultaneously arising causes.

And then we have equal status causes. These are causes for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomena as they are. They have to be in the same ethical category of constructive, destructive, or unspecified; or it would have to be in the same realm: desire, form or formless. So this would be like prior moments of something, like patience, is an equal status cause for later moments of it. This provides continuity. Or it can also be for moments of something of equal status causes the next superior level of it. So you get: the discriminating awareness from hearing the teachings acts as a cause for the discriminating awareness of thinking about the teachings acts as a cause for discriminating awareness of meditating on the teachings. It’s equal status cause.

Then there are concomitant causes: this is a subcategory of the simultaneously arising causes. These are the things that share five things in common. Remember we had the primary consciousness and the mental factors that accompany them have five things in common: the same focal object, the same mental hologram, the same cognitive sensor that they rely on, the same time, and the same slant (they are working harmoniously together). This is the list that Vasubandhu gives according to the Vaibhashika theories, and Asanga gives a slightly different list according to the Chittamatra theories, but you can find that detail on my website as well.

And then there are driving causes. Driving causes are the disturbing emotions and attitudes that generate other subsequent disturbing emotions and attitudes in the same realm. And so you can have, for instance, anger could lead to bearing a grudge and wanting revenge; or the deluded outlook toward our aggregates (the transitory network) can be a cause for attachment, leading to more and more types of disturbing emotions.

And then the ripening causes are the destructive and the tainted constructive phenomena that have the power to produce the aggregates of future rebirth states. So this would be the body, types of consciousness, feelings, and so on – that they could produce. These are all unobstructive, unspecified. So this is basically referring to the mechanism of throwing karma. We talk about completing karma, what completes the circumstances of a rebirth – that would have to go into the acting causes.

So these are the six types of causes. But we see from this that there are many different types of causes for what we experience. The material (the elements) of some object are not a karmic cause. In this list, the karmic causes are just limited to the ripening causes and one aspect of the acting cause. And a lot of these aspects are having to do with how things continue, how disturbing emotions continue; and how the various aspects of our mental phenomena actually work.

We have this in the discussion of the four conditions. There’s the causal conditions – these are all causes that have the power to produce a specific result. This refers to the five types of causes other than the acting causes – one category.

Then the second is immediately preceding conditions; so it’s the immediately preceding moment of awareness that produces the appearance-making and cognizing of the next moment of awareness as its result. Because of this type of condition you have beginningless and endless mind. This is because each moment of cognition has to have an immediately preceding condition, in other words another moment of awareness or cognition in order to account for the fact that it is an awareness, that it has an awareness aspect. And likewise each moment of cognition acts as an immediately preceding condition for the next moment of cognition and so, like this, there can be no beginning and no end to any individual specific mental continuum. So only primary consciousness and mental factors have this.

Then there’s a focal condition, that which presents an aspect of itself to be an object of cognition. We’re talking about conditions for cognition. And then there’s the overlord condition or dominating condition, that which produces the essential nature of something, such as the eye sensors for the visual consciousness and the attendant mental factors of the visual cognition. The eye sensors referring to the photosensitive cells of the eyes; they rule what the result of them will be, namely that the cognition or consciousness that results from them will be visual. The causal conditions, on the other hand, produce the special features of something, such as the mental factor that accompanies a visual consciousness being attachment. So the eye sensors will make a cognition, a visual cognition; and things like prior moments of disturbing emotions and stuff like that will make the cognition have this special feature of being with attachment. These are conditions.

And then you have a discussion of additional types of causes and conditions. So here you have the obtaining causes of something. The obtaining causes are that from which one obtains the item as its successor and ceases to exist when its successor arises. This is referring to what we had before – the seed or karmic legacy, you know, a seed producing a sprout. It’s that from which you obtain the result as its successor, but it no longer exists when the successor arises. We’re not talking about higher moments and later moments of the same thing, like disturbing emotions producing the next moment of disturbing emotion. So the same thing in [the example of] an uncooked dough is the obtaining cause for a loaf of bread. We’re not talking about the material, the elements of the bread. We’re talking about that from which we obtain the result and which then cease to exist when you get the result. So the seeds for cognition as well.

Then you have simultaneously arising contributing conditions. These are items that must exist prior to the arising of something, and which assist in making the arising happen, but don’t transform into what arises – so the water and fertilizer for a sprout. The karmic seed is the obtaining cause for the consciousness of a cognition, and it’s the simultaneously arising contributing condition for the visual form in the non-Chittamatra system. The obtaining cause for the visual form, in other words for the appearance of a form in a visual cognition would be the elements of the external object, the visual form of which (or representation of a visual form of which) is appearing in the cognition. It is from that previous moment of the external elements that one obtains the visual appearance, and that previous moment of the external elements cease to exist at the time of the actual visual appearance. And, moreover, the previous moment of the external elements would also be the focal condition for the visual cognition of this form to arise. But remember, focal conditions are only for cognitions, they’re not for objects that appear in cognitions. On the other hand, the simultaneously arising cause of that visual appearance or mental hologram in the visual cognition would be the subtlest energy wind that accompanies that mind, or that is the basis for that mind. This is, in a sense, what that mental hologram is made of.

So we can see from this that the analysis of what are the various causes and conditions for a particular cognition are extremely complex. The obtaining cause for the cognition would be, of course, the karmic seed or the karmic tendency. When that karmic seed or tendency has finished producing its cognition as its result, then it ceases to exist. But you have to keep in mind that one karmic tendency or seed can give rise to a whole series of cognitions, or it could give rise to only one cognition. But in any case, when it is finished giving rise to its cognitions then it ceases to exist. And that karmic seed itself, if we ask what was its obtaining cause – it was the karmic action. That also has ceased when that karmic tendency arises. That karmic seed is the contributing condition for the visual appearance (the mental hologram) that arises in the cognition, in the sense that you couldn’t have a mental hologram unless there were a seed of karmic tendency that produces a consciousness that is aware of the mental hologram. But that karmic seed or tendency is certainly not the obtaining cause for the visual appearance, in the non-Chittamatra systems of course.

Another example of simultaneously arising contributing conditions would be that you have, let’s say, a karmic tendency for something terrible to happen to you, but you could have contributing conditions like regret, purification practices, not repeating the action again – these sort of things, which will contribute then to what will ripen. So it affects what will ripen; so the effect is much less than if you didn’t have these contributing conditions. That’s like the water and fertilizer; you don’t have too much water and fertilizer, the sprout that grows is going to be very small. That’s the whole point here: the results that happen are affected by a huge number of different types of causes and conditions, not all of which are karma. That’s the point of this whole analysis, the relevance of it.

Then you have a similar family cause, which are items in the same category of phenomena as the results which serve as the models for them. So you have to have a model of a clay pot in order to get a pot; a previously existent external model of a visual form of a clay pot. That’s a similar family cause for the visual form of a clay pot.

Then, finally, you have the natal sources of things: that which gives rise to something or from which it arises, so a womb for the natal source of a baby; an oven for a loaf of bread; or a karmic seed in the Chittamatra system for both the consciousness and the form. And a natal source can give rise to two inseparable things, like a whole and its parts of the clay pot; or it can give rise to two separable things like two clay pots; the natal source here being the potter’s wheel. And some natal sources cease to exist after they give rise to something. A seed is the natal source of the sprout, it ceases to exist; or others can continue to exist, like the potter’s wheel after it produces a clay pot.

So when one gets this brief list of causes and conditions – Asanga gives great detail of various different types within these, subcategories – then we start to appreciate that what happens, what we experience, is not all explained by karma. Many, many different causes and conditions which are affecting what happens. And obviously these are systems that you have to really write down, study, work with, analyze, debate, try to figure out. These are very, very complex, but I think one can start to appreciate the sophistication of the Buddhist analysis of cause and effect. It’s not so simple.

And then I’ll finish this discussion with the different types of results. There are five different types of results and those are important to understand in terms of karmic results – what kind of results come from things. And then when you study abhidharma, you get into what causes can produce what results, and how many causes. That’s where you really start to understand this, when you work all of that out in the abhidharma studies. It’s very complex, and it’s the last thing they study in the Geshe training because it’s so complicated. Well, also, not only because it’s so complicated, but it’s explained in the Vaibhashika system and Chittamatra system and so you want to have Prajnaparamita and Prasangika very well under your belt before you get into this, otherwise you will get attached to the Vaibhashika system – was what Serkong Rinpoche explained, the young Serkong Rinpoche. He said that’s why they study it last.

I mean, you see the relevance of all of this. I hope you see it’s not just boring details. But when we talk about karma and karma is accompanied by disturbing emotions that makes it destructive, constructive or so on; well, where do these disturbing emotions come from? What are the causes of them? Is it karma? Well, it’s much more complicated than that. I see something, a person, and it’s accompanied by attachment. Well, what are the causes for that? This is why when you start to talk about karma and do I have choices, then you have to see, well, where’s everything coming from that I’m experiencing. Do I have a choice that the consciousness that relies on the eye sensors is going to be visual consciousness? Obviously not. And what’s the cause of a previous moment of attachment producing another moment of attachment? Do I have a choice over that? So I mean this is why this analysis of all these causes and conditions is relevant here, although it might seem incredibly boring. But one has to get the basic principles of how Buddhism analyzes cause and effect in order to be able to then apply it. So it’s just another piece of the puzzle.

So I hope as a result of this discussion here of the different types of causes that one doesn’t get discouraged. The point is if we really want to try to understand karma, we need to have respect for the topic and realize how many different things we really need to have an understanding of before we can really tackle this question. You know, I have anger. Where did that anger come from? Or desire; I see somebody and have desire or attachment. Well, there’s a seed of attachment; did that seed cease to exist after I’ve had the attachment? Does it get more attachment? What was the cause of seeing this person? How much is involved with the karma of the other person? How much is involved with my own karma? How much is involved with the elements? How much is involved with the weather? There’s just so many different things. And other things can influence, you know, I might normally have a lot of attachment with this person, but then there’s another circumstance, that it starts to rain, we run inside or something like that, or we have to run somewhere, or another person comes along that we meet, and it changes completely that interaction. And so although we have that seed of attachment, and we’re meeting the other person who would be the object of attachment, well it’s not arising because there are other things which are interfering.

So it becomes incredibly full when we try to understand; and then what can I add into this? Well, I’ll see the ugliness of the body when I visualize the bones. Well, where did that habit come from? The influence of others, and why did that ripen at that time? Well, because of this practice and that practice that I’ve done before. So is all this karma? From one point of view, yes. But it’s not a simple karmic transaction that’s happening here. It’s very complex. Can you find the origin of any problem you have? Let’s say you have anger or something like that, well can you find the ultimate origin of it? Yes, Buddhism says if we go deeply enough, the ultimate origin of it is grasping for true existence, that all of it comes out of that. And that’s what you need to work on, you can work on the temporary things: of overcoming attachment, of lessening what’s going to ripen from karma (with regret and purification and things like that), but ultimately what you have to have is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. If you’re focused on that and totally absorbed on that, then as long as you can sustain that, there’s nothing that will activate any of these tendencies and habits and so on. It’s finished. And so you want to be able to do that forever, which is as a Buddha; and it’s not just going into some Never Never Land that you can come back from. This is the actual opponent, not just an escape from the grasping for true existence.

So if we have a problem, then how do we do it? Do we just go to work in an orphan house to collect more positive force? Or do you work specifically on the problem where you just attack it from a point of view of grasping for true existence? It’s a multiphase attack. So you do all of them. Work on a temporary solution to the problem, a temporary opponent, work on gaining a deeper opponent to it, work on building up more positive force, work on purification, a multidirectional, multiphasic attack; because unless we’ve built up a tremendous amount of positive force we’re not going to understand voidness at all. And where does all that come from? Is that based on karma that we’re able to do that? Well, not completely. Yes and no. Is this based on previous habits? Well, not necessarily; there’s a first time that you develop bodhichitta. That development of first time of bodhichitta is not based on a previous habit of bodhichitta, a previous tendency of bodhichitta. You didn’t have one. It has risen by the influence of teachers, and influence of teachings, and your community, and the circumstances, and a lot of positive force that one has built up before. That’s why Shantideva has the seven part practice before the development of bodhichitta; and on the basis of that, without there being a prior seed or tendency to develop bodhichitta, you develop bodhichitta for the first time. So this is a very clear example of how we can develop, how there can arise progress on the path without there necessarily having been that we’ve done it before; and how things arise through the causes of so many conditions without there being a seed for it before.

So now I’m just thinking, because you just throw out as a teaser, then one could debate is there a first Buddha. There is no first Buddha. There always has to have been an enlightened being. There can’t be a first time when anybody in general became an enlightened being. That’s one of the teachings in Buddhism in terms of beginningless mind and so on. So how do we reconcile that with that you could develop bodhichitta for a first time? That you can debate with each other and try to figure that one out. That’s the type of thing that one debates about and tries to figure out.