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Details of Karma for Understanding Free Will versus Determinism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, July 2005

Session Five: Various Types of Results and Summary

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:26 hours)

We were speaking about the different types of causes and conditions and in order to finish that discussion, let’s just give the five types of results.

First of all, there are ripened results. Ripened results are the unobstructive, unspecified items conjoined with the mental continuum of a limited being, such as the body, the consciousness, the feelings, which come from a ripening cause that was conjoined with his or her mental continuum. This is one of the results of karma. It comes only from constructive and destructive actions. Those were ripening causes. So, unspecified actions don’t give any ripened result. Buddha didn’t specify that it was constructive or destructive. So, ripened result would be the body, the mind, feelings of happy or unhappy – I’m a little bit unsure about a feeling of neutral, because that should be what comes from unspecified phenomenon, so that’s not too clear here. But they speak particularly of happiness and unhappiness that we feel. Those are unspecified, which is quite interesting. So suffering is not something which is destructive – suffering itself, being unhappy. Something is destructive if it ripens into unhappiness or some further suffering; and suffering itself, or unhappiness itself, does not necessarily ripen into more suffering. Otherwise, if that were necessarily the case, it would be impossible to ever get rid of suffering. The same thing would be true of happiness. Happiness isn’t necessarily constructive. Happiness is unspecified. Something is constructive if it ripens into further happiness and, again, our ordinary happiness isn’t something which necessarily brings us more happiness. If you call samsara, the suffering, the all-pervasive problem, then you could say that that’s destructive. But just the feeling of unhappiness is neutral, it’s unspecified. So we have ripened results.

Then we have results that correspond to their cause. These are of two types: the results that correspond to their cause in our behavior, and the results that correspond to their cause in our experience. This we have very much discussed in karma. They can arise from either destructive, tainted constructive, or unspecified actions. So any of these are going to ripen into that. The ones that correspond to their cause in our behavior are the mental factor of liking to do an action in a particular moment similar to what we’ve done in the past. So that would be feeling like repeating the action. Or it could be even stronger – wishing to do an action, in which case it’s equivalent to an intention, where you thought about it and you really wish to do it. And the results that correspond to their cause in our experience would be the experience of a situation in which something similar to our previous action happens back to us – and with that, there’s always a problem. Some people say you hurt somebody, and so they hurt you back on some future life, and from what I’ve heard it’s quite specific with a specific individual being. It’s not that I hurt somebody and then in the future somebody totally different is going to hurt me back; but rather I’m going to get into a situation in which I am hurt. That’s more like it. The fact that somebody else hurts me, it’s from their karma. The fact that I experience that being hurt would be the result of my karmic actions, but it’s specific.

So, for instance, we know this from the example of, for instance, many of us might have had the experience of meeting somebody and instantly we feel some sort of karmic connection with the person, either a positive one or a negative one, and although lust or hostility may also be involved here, the fact that the object for these is this particular person could in many cases be due to a previous life connection. So, it’s that specific; it’s not that I was friends with somebody in a previous life and now in this lifetime I’m going to be friends with somebody else. It’s with that specific mental continuum. So the same thing – if we’ve hurt another being, then in another lifetime we’re going to experience being hurt by that other being.

But this is not so simple; there can be a lot of misunderstanding or confusion about this. Let’s say, for instance, I am in an accident. I go outside of my house, I cross the street and somebody driving a car at that time hits me. Is it that I caused the other person to hit me? Well, there’s many things happening from their side. How did that person know that I was coming out of the house at just that time so that they would hit me? Well, it isn’t like that. Everything arises from all these different types of causes and conditions, and when the causes and conditions are appropriate, then a certain type of karma will ripen. So this is why, for instance, in the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices it says that when you have in your homeland (or in your home village, or in your family home, or whatever), when there’s circumstances that are going to cause you to have attachment, or anger, or to stay naive, uneducated and so on, that it’s a bodhisattva practice to leave, so that one avoids the negative circumstances, the negative influences which would be the circumstances for more negative karma to ripen.

So we can change the circumstances. So the circumstances are very important. So when circumstances are correct, then things happen. You know people say well, how did the lightning know to strike me? And it’s not that the lightning knows to strike me – there’s circumstances of weather, and so on, that are affected by so many other things. So we have the experience of a situation in which something similar to our previous action happens to us. So this is our experience of something, but the thing that is experienced by us is caused by its own prior causes and conditions.

Question: We experience what?

Alex: Being hit by a car. When we experience being hit by a car, this is the result that is similar to its cause and its experience from having hurt, in some previous lifetime, that same person who hit us with the car. It’s not that we necessarily hit him or her with a car, but we certainly did cause harm to that person; and it’s not just to any person – it’s to that specific person. But it’s not that our karma has caused this person to decide on that day to drive their car. Our karma hasn’t created the car; it hasn’t created the person. So we need to understand these things.

Then we have the overlord results, or the overriding results, or comprehensive results. That’s the type of environment or society in which we are born or enter: being in a poor country, a rich country – these type of things, and the way it treats us and how it affects us. Or it also can ripen into objects, such as our possessions and what happens to them. From stealing, we buy things and they instantly break – this type of thing. They are called overlord results because, like an overlord, they extend over and dominate everything that we experience in a particular rebirth; and in many cases these results extend out to dominate the lives of many others who, for example, share an environment because of having built up the karmic causes for being born and are living in it.

Then we have man-made results or results made by a person, literally, and these are two types: man-made results that are produced or develop, and man-made results that are attainments. And both of them arise as a direct result of effort of a limited being. They don’t ripen from karma. For instance, when you bang your foot, the bruise is the man-made result of banging your foot. Or you do business and you make a profit; the profit is the man-made result from the business. Why does one person succeed in business and the other doesn’t succeed in business? Well, that’s a result that corresponds to their cause in terms of our experience, but that’s the result of something different. In other words, whatever profit we make, that’s the man-made result of making business. It doesn’t ripen as a karmic result from doing business. The only thing that ripens as a karmic result is the actual amount that we make: whether our profit is large or small.

An example of the second type of man-made result (a man-made result that’s an attainment), would be the attainment of a seeing pathway of mind; in other words, a path of seeing, which would be nonconceptual cognition of voidness as the result of the prior moments or sequence of meditation with a conceptual understanding of voidness. That attainment is the man-made result of the meditation. It’s not something that ripens from the meditation as its karmic result. You have to bear in mind that man-made results are things which follow immediately from their causes in most cases. So, for instance, you bang your foot and you get a bruise; or you sell something for a price higher than what you paid for it and you make a profit; or you sit down and you do a meditation and at the end of the meditation you achieve an attainment of another level of mind. These are things that follow immediately from the action that is their cause, and they’re not something that ripen through a long process of karmic tendencies or seeds and habits and so on which are laid on a mental continuum.

And then the last one are results that are states of being parted. These are static states that are attained by means of effort, but which are neither produced nor ripen from that effort. In other words, you meditate nonconceptually on voidness and it acts as a circumstance for a true stopping – being parted from a portion of the disturbing emotions – but that being parted lasts forever. A true stopping lasts forever; it’s static. So meditation on voidness is the circumstance for the attainment of that state, but it doesn’t create that state. You see, a mental continuum has never been stained or tainted by the fleeting stains of the disturbing emotions and their tendencies. By nature, the mental continuum is pure of all these things or parted from all these things. And so when we meditate on voidness nonconceptually, then that acts as a cause for an attainment, but what is that state that we attain? That state that we attain or that situation that we attain is the state that was always the case with no beginning and no end: that state of being naturally pure or parted from any type of fleeting stain or disturbing emotion. That state is a static phenomenon. It’s not produced by anything; it doesn’t affect anything, or produce any effects. It was always the case and always will be the case, so it’s not technically a result of anything. So here, when we call that state of being parted a “result,” that’s only being given the name of a result, it isn’t actually a result. All that we can say is that meditating is the cause for bringing about the attainment of this state. That attainment is a man-made result, that’s an attainment, and the actual state itself is a separational result which is just given the name of “result,” but is not actually a result because it was always there, it was always the case.

What we can see from this presentation of causes, conditions, and results is that only some causes of things are karmic causes, which lay karmic forces and tendencies and habits on the mental continuum which after a long period of time will then ripen. And we’ve also seen that only certain results are karmic results that come from such a mechanism. But there are some causes which are not karmic and there are some results which are not karmic. And so the whole process is very complex, and not everything that happens is explainable by karma or is a hundred percent karmic. Moreover, one phenomenon can act as many, many different types of causes for many different things, and one result can be many different types of results of different things. This is the point here. It’s not that one cause causes one result, and one result comes from only one cause. But to be more precise, one action, one movement of energy can be different types of causes for different things. Then it’s not the same type of cause for many different things, although it could be, but it’s different types of causes for different things, and one thing that happens is different types of results of different types of causes.

And all of this is very important for trying to understand, well, why does something happen, and do we just explain it in terms of my karma? Well it’s far more complex, especially when we consider the whole issue of choice, and one phenomenon of course is the result of many other things and is the cause for many further things. And as we had, many of the causes are even simultaneous with the phenomenon, like the elements that make up a material object, or the mental factors that accompany a moment of cognition. So while you’re hitting somebody, there’s anger as well. So what is the cause for something happening in the future? Is it the anger? Is it the hitting? Is it the combination of the two? Do each of them come from different causes? How can we affect the result of that hitting somebody? Can we affect the bruise that it gives to the other person? Well obviously no. Can we affect the karmic results of what we did? Well, then we have to analyze. Can we affect the result of the anger? Can we affect the result of the hitting? And how much choice do we have in that, and how much choice did we have in terms of the anger arising, and how much choice did we have in the hitting arising or in acting out that anger? And where are the gaps in this whole process where we can actually affect the situation and what can we actually do?

All this gets very interesting, doesn’t it; and of course extremely complex. Now to understand this we have to bring in everything that we’ve discussed so far, particularly in terms of voidness. The most important gap, I think, is between when there is the experience of a ripening of karma. So let’s say we see a beautiful person. Now of course, they’re not inherently beautiful; it’s our own way in which we consider them beautiful. A pig wouldn’t consider them beautiful, and the one that the pig considers beautiful we probably wouldn’t consider beautiful. So there’s the experience of that, and then there’s also the way that we consider it, which is another factor which comes in. But I mean where the gap is, is when we experience something, we see a person and a certain feeling to do something arises. “Feeling” here I’m using in the Western sense. From a Buddhist technical point of view, you would say it’s a wish arises, and this would be to repeat something similar to a pattern of what we have done before. This would be a result that ripens from karma that corresponds to its cause in terms of our behavior. So let’s say the feeling comes up to go over to this person and start talking to them in a seductive type of way in order to try to seduce them into having inappropriate sexual behavior with us.

The first gap occurs between when this feeling or wish to go over to the person arises and when the urge or mental karma arises for us to actually think with decisiveness that, “Yes, I’m going to go over this person and I’m going to engage them in conversation with the seductive aim to get them to commit a certain sexual act with me.” So there’s a gap there; we don’t actually have to start thinking that way even though the feeling comes up to go over and speak to the person. There’s a difference between that wish and then actually thinking, “Yes, I’m going to go over.” There’s a gap between the two. At that point we could either start thinking in that way or not think in that way. So which one is going to happen? Which one are we going to choose to do and is this ripening from something?

Let’s look at it a little bit more carefully. In terms of what has already ripened here and what will ripen next? There’s seeing the person. There is a feeling of happiness that also ripens from different karmic aftermath, not from the same one. And the feeling to repeat a certain action, feel like doing it; it also could come from a different karmic aftermath. Now of course there has to be certain things that go with this. So there’d be a certain type of way in which we consider the object – that comes from a different type of tendency. And there could be the influence of other people that are involved here as well. A friends says, “Ah, go over and try to pick up this person in a sexual liaison.” So there are many, many different things that could influence it. So there’s a gap there, and so then you start to think, “Ah, yeah, I’m going to do it.” Then it is the mental karma comes up, that impulse, that urge with which we think about it. As a result of having thought about it and decided, we now have the intention, “Yes I’m going to go do it.”

And then there’s another gap between when we think to do it and we actually go and do it. There’s another gap there when many other things could happen and influence. We could remember the teachings on karma. We could remember the teachings on the dirtiness of the human body, or our cell phone rings, or the other person’s cell phone rings, or somebody comes up to the other person, or the other person walks away, or it starts to rain. I mean all sorts of things could happen. And whether or not there’s longing desire here is something else. It could just be that we were goaded on by our friends; you know, “Go do it; go do it!” And I have to be a man and I have to do it. But I don’t actually have desire. There’s many, many factors that come up. So there are these gaps that are there in which many different circumstances also have to come together. And depending on lots of different circumstances, different things will ripen at that time: whether we remember, whether we don’t remember the teachings, whether there’s the influence of others around us, the circumstances, what the other person does, the one that we find attractive. There’s lots and lots of things that affect here.

So there is this gap. There’s an interval in the sequence of moments here in which the outcome could be different. And then we get back into our whole discussion of choice. But, this is the whole point of our discussion of the causes and conditions and the different types of result. Everything that’s happening in each moment is the result of so many different types of causes, and there’s so many different causes and conditions happening in each moment that it’s enormous.

Question: The question is can meditation make that gap longer, that interval longer, so that we can actually affect what’s going on?

Alex: Sure, that’s exactly the point of meditation here, so during that gap we could, for instance, remember the teachings on ethical self-discipline and all about the disturbing emotions and their disadvantages and the negative consequences that come from them and so on. But, “Oh this person looks so pretty to me.” And then, even though you remember these teachings, you go anyway and try to seduce the person. But then the power of the motivating emotion will be less and if the power of the motivating emotion is less, then that affects the result of what will ripen from it. And many other things will affect the result as well, a tremendous amount of things affect the result not only during the action, but afterwards as well.

So what we want to do, through what’s called in the West “mindfulness meditation,” is to try to notice, when we feel like doing something, that there is this interval: I feel like doing something; I feel like getting up from meditation and going to the refrigerator – and when we actually decide to do it. You deliberate and you think about it, “Yeah, I’m going to get up and go,” or we might not even deliberate. We might, “I feel like it,” and you just go to refrigerator. But there was a gap there between those two steps, and during that gap other variables could occur and other states of mind could arise, and we would experience that as a choice. We decide (there’s decisiveness) to really think about it and decide to go or not. We could decide not even to think about it, or having thought about it we could decide not to go, or even without consciously deliberating about it we could decide not to go – and when that happens, that decision occurs on the basis of many, many, many different causes and conditions.

It’s not, as we were explaining before, that there’s a separate “me” from the whole incident, and there’s separate choices that are existing somewhere sort of in front of us that we can push a button and choose this one or choose that one. That’s not the way that it exists. But choices occur; decisions occur. Decisive discriminating awareness between two alternatives – when we have indecisive wavering – that decisiveness occurs. And also, if you think about it and decide, “Okay I’m going to get up,” between when you decide to get up and when you actually do get up there’s another gap in which you could affect what you do and change. When you have that piece of chocolate in your hand, am I really going to put it in my mouth or not?

So this is where the so-called mindfulness meditation is helpful. If you can notice each moment in the sequence, then you notice that at any of these moments you could change what you do, or at least you could change the way in which you regard the object. Let’s say if it’s to eat the chocolate, that really isn’t going to bring me ultimate happiness and once I chew it several times it’s going to turn into vomit. If we change the way in which we regard the object, then the motivating emotion or attitude with which we actually eat the chocolate, with which we actually put it into our mouth, is going to be far less disturbing then that original motivating emotion of greed with which we decided that we were going to eat it and went over to the refrigerator and actually put it in our hand. And so, consequently the karmic results of eating this piece of chocolate with greed are going to be far lighter.

This is why there’s such an importance placed to making a difference between the causal motivation which initially drives us to do a certain action and the contemporaneous motivation, which is the motivation with which we actually enter into the action. So it is in all these various gaps that we actually are able to make choices that can affect what we do and can also affect the outcome or result of what we do.

So this our discussion, then, of karma, free will, predetermination and determinism. And we’ve seen that this is not a very simple topic. This is something that requires a deep understanding of voidness: voidness of the self, voidness of the choices that we have – that none of these exist independently from the entire system, a complex system of causes and effects which are occurring in each moment, some of which are karmic and some of which are not karmic, some of which we can affect, some of which we can’t affect. And it’s on the basis of these choices that we can make, within the context of voidness and karma, cause and effect, that we can actually make the choices to work toward enlightenment for the benefit of everybody.

And so let’s end our discussion here with the dedication. We think whatever positive force and understanding has come from all of this, may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of everyone.

Thank you very much.