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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > Logical Pervasions of the Technical Terms for the Different Types of Karmic Aftermath

Logical Pervasions of
the Technical Terms
for the Different Types
of Karmic Aftermath

Alexander Berzin, January 2004

[As background, see The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika.]

The Chittamatra and Madhyamaka Systems Other Than Gelug Prasangika

Karmic Impulses and Karmic Actions

There is no common locus (gzhi-mthun) between a karmic impulse (las, Skt. karma) and a karmic action; there is nothing that is both. All karmic impulses are mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness) – namely, the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa). Some karmic impulses immediately precede a physical, verbal, or mental action, and draw us to engage in that act. Others accompany the action itself, as the urges that initiate, sustain, and eventually stop the action. Karma, however, is not the action itself.

Karmic impulses may be constructive (dge-ba, virtuous), destructive (mi-dge-ba, nonvirtuous), or unspecified (lung-ma-bstan, neutral). The standard texts usually discuss only the constructive and destructive varieties.

Two Aspects of Karmic Force and Two Types of Karmic Force

Like karmic impulses, karmic force may also be constructive, destructive, or neutral, but only the first two varieties have specific names. They are positive karmic force (bsod-nams, merit) and negative karmic force (sdig-pa, sin). For ease of discussion, we shall speak only about them.

Karmic force has two aspects, one for each of its two phases:

  • the action itself, whether it be a physical, verbal, or mental karmic action,
  • karmic force that has taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-ba). This second phase of karmic force is both a karmic force and a karmic tendency (sa-bon, Skt. bija). It is still either a positive or a negative karmic force, and thus still either a constructive or a destructive phenomenon. This is because if something is a positive or a negative karmic force, it is pervasive that it is constructive or destructive.

We must differentiate this type of karmic tendency from the second type of karmic aftermath – karmic tendencies that are neither a positive nor a negative karmic force and thus are neither constructive nor destructive. They are unspecified to be either constructive or destructive: they are ethically neutral phenomena.

Both types of karmic tendency are nonconcomitant affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonstatic abstractions), neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of anything. They arise after the action has ceased. To make it easier to understand, let us use different terms for the two. Let us call the karmic tendencies that are karmic forces karmic potentials – either positive or negative karmic potentials. Let us call the karmic tendencies that are not karmic forces simply karmic tendencies. As a general term for both types of karmic tendency, let us use the term karmic legacies.

Also, to avoid confusion, let us use the term karmic energy for the karmic force that is simply the action and not its legacy. Thus, the first phase of a karmic force is the positive or negative karmic energy; the second phase is the positive or negative karmic potential.

Two Types of Karmic Habit

There are also two types of karmic habit (bag-chags): karmic constant habits and karmic legacies – referring to both karmic potentials and karmic tendencies. Both are unspecified phenomena. The difference is that, unless we achieve a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of them, karmic constant habits give rise to their results continually, forever; while karmic legacies give rise to their results intermittently until they naturally end. Here, "bagchag" (karmic habit) is a term used for both a general category (karmic habit) and a specific item in that category (karmic constant habit). As a general term for both types of karmic habit, let us use the term karmic latencies, to minimize confusion.

Summary and Chart

In summary, there are two types of karmic force: what we shall call a "karmic energy" and a "karmic potential." There are two types of karmic legacy: what we shall call a "karmic potential" and a "karmic tendency." And there are two types of karmic latency: what we shall call a "karmic legacy" and a "karmic constant habit."

During the
Physical,
Verbal or
Mental Act

Karmic
Energy

karmic
force

     

Karmic
Aftermath

Karmic
Potential

karmic
force

karmic
egacy

karmic
latency

Network of
Karmic Force

karmic
force

Karmic
Tendency


 


karmic
legacy

karmic
latency

Karmic
Constant
Habit





karmic
latency

 

Other Applications of the Technical Terms

This terminology can also help us to make sense when the terms sabon (seed) and bagchag (habit) are used in conjunction with disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, afflictive emotions), grasping for true existence (bden-‘dzin), and what we call in the West "memories." They all are latencies (bagchag) and unspecified.

  • Disturbing emotions and attitudes have both kinds of latency: tendencies (sabon) that give rise to results intermittently and constant habits (bagchag) that give rise to results constantly.
  • Grasping for true existence only has latencies (bagchag), but they are only the type of latency that are constant habits, since the results they give rise to arise continuously.
  • Memories are only called latencies (bagchag), but they are only the type of latency that are tendencies, since they give rise to results only intermittently.

Further Terms

The term network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) appears as a technical term only in reference to an enlightenment-building network of positive force, built up with bodhichitta and resulting in enlightenment. However, to make the explanation of the mechanism of karma easier to understand, I think we can also speak of a "samsara-building network of positive force." If we accept that convention, then we can also speak of a "samsara-building network of negative force" and, as a general term for both, we can speak of "networks of karmic force." A network of karmic force would cover both phases of karmic force: when the karmic force is karmic energy and when it is karmic potential. They are either constructive or destructive.

I think "network" gives a clearer understanding than "collection." A network connects a lot of different points so that there is some sort of collective interaction. All of them connect with each other in different ways.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

As a general term, the term I have coined, karmic aftermath, includes not just the karmic legacies – the karmic potentials, tendencies, and constant habits. It also includes the full networks of karmic force, which span both phases of karmic force, not just the karmic-potential phase, but also the karmic-energy phase during the action itself.

The Gelug Prasangika System

The Gelug Prasangika tenet system accepts the same use of technical terms and pervasions as do the Chittamatra and other Madhyamaka systems, but with two major differences. For both points of difference, Gelug Prasangika follows the presentation of the Vaibhashika-Sautrantika system.

Two Phases of Karmic Energy

The karmic energy of physical and verbal actions has two phases, not just one.

  • The gross karmic energy phase of karmic force is the physical or verbal action itself – technically, the revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) of the action. It undergoes its phase transition to a karmic potential when the physical or verbal action ceases.
  • The subtle karmic energy phase is the nonrevealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) of the physical or verbal action. Somewhat like a subtle "vibration," it continues with the mental continuum as a karmic aftermath even after the physical or verbal action has ceased. It undergoes its phase transition to a karmic potential when the intention is no longer present to continue acting in a similar way.

Gelug Prasangika accepts the Vaibhashika-Sautrantika assertion that division of the karmic energy phase of mental actions has only one phase. It undergoes its phase transition to a karmic potential when the mental action ceases.

Karmic Impulses and Karmic Actions

The two phases of karmic energy for physical and verbal actions are not only karmic forces, they are also karmic impulses (karma).

In mental actions, the karmic impulse is not the same as the karmic energy (the action of thinking). Mental karmic impulses are exclusively the mental factor of the urges that immediately precede any physical, verbal, or mental action, bringing it on, as well as the mental urges that initiate and sustain each type of action. Thus, as in the Vaibhashika-Sautrantika system, mental karmic energy (the mental action) is not a karmic impulse; it is not a karma.

During the Physical or Verbal Act
Gross Karmic Energy

karmic force

karma
Subtle Karmic
Energy

karmic force

karma

 
    
     
Karmic Aftermath
Karmic Potential
karmic
force

karmic
legacy

karmic
latency
Network of Karmic Force

karmic
force
 
Karmic Tendency






karmic
legacy
karmic
latency
Karmic Constant Habit
 
 
karmic
latency
Karmic Potential
karmic
force

karmic
legacy
karmic
latency