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The Mechanism of Karma:
The Mahayana Presentation,
Except for Gelug Prasangika

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, March 9 – 11, 2001
Revised January 2004, August 2008

Session Two: Mental Factors Associated with Karma

Summary Review

Yesterday, we started our discussion of karma by pointing out the various preconceptions or misconceptions that we can have about it. This concerns karma specifically and, in general, it concerns why what happens to us happens. With those misconceptions cleared away, we are in a better position to look at the actual Indo-Tibetan Buddhist explanation of karma without projecting irrelevant ideas onto it.

I mentioned that there are several different discussions of karma in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. I should also point out that all of them are quite different from the Theravada presentation of how it works. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are three basic explanations. We are going to discuss only one of those, the one that is the less complicated – it is complicated enough!

This presentation is the one followed by the Kagyus, Sakyas, and Nyingmas as their general assertion. It is their basic explanation of the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka Indian tenet systems, with slight variations in accord with the differing tenets of these two Mahayana schools. The Gelugpas also accept it for these Indian schools, except that within Madhyamaka, they say that only Svatantrika-Madhyamaka asserts it. In our discussion of this less complicated system, we shall follow the Gelug presentation of the philosophical details when there is a discrepancy between Gelug and non-Gelug.

According to this explanation, karma, as an impulse, is exclusively a mental factor. A mental factor is a way of experiencing something. This is specifically the mental factor of an urge. It is the impulse or urge that draws us to a particular action – to do, say, or think something. It is also the impulse or urge to initiate the action, to continue engaging in it, and eventually to stop doing it.

Categories of Phenomena in Buddhism

To understand what types of phenomena are involved in the discussion of karma, I think it will be helpful to have a brief review of the different categories of phenomena presented in Buddhism.

We can speak in terms of what exists and what doesn’t exist. What exists is what can be validly known – whether it is the presence of something or the absence of something. Anything that cannot be validly known does not exist. Something that exists may not be something that we can validly know very easily with our usual type of minds, such as voidness, but as long as it can be validly known by some level of mind, it exists. Chicken lips do not exist because one cannot validly know them. We could imagine human lips on a chicken or a cartoon drawing of lips on a chicken, but we can’t validly picture chicken lips on a chicken because there is no such thing. Any manner of picturing them would be an invalid cognition.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

What can be validly known (what exists) is divided into static and nonstatic phenomena. They are usually translated as permanent and impermanent phenomena. The distinction here, however, is not in terms of how long something exists, whether it is eternal or exists for a short time, but rather in terms of whether something changes while it exists. Static phenomena, to put it very simply, are like facts that don’t change: one plus one equals two. That fact is not caused by anything, it didn’t grow from anything, it doesn’t produce an effect – it is just a fact.

Nonstatic phenomena are those that change from moment to moment. They arise from causes and produce effects. There are three categories: forms of physical phenomena (gzugs), ways of being aware of something (shes-pa), and nonstatic abstractions that are neither (ldan-min ‘du-byed, noncongruent affecting variables).

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

These three types of nonstatic phenomena are what make up every moment of our experience, and each moment of our experience is slightly different. In other words, our experience changes from moment to moment. We can organize the components of each moment of our experience into the five aggregates, but we won’t do that today. Let’s speak more simply.

[See: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregate Factors of Experience.]

Basically, in each moment there will be some form of physical phenomenonsights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations – and also the cognitive sensors of the sense-organs, the body, and so on – the photosensitive cells of the eyes, sound-sensitive cells of the ears, and so on.

Then we have ways of being aware of or experiencing things. These are usually referred to as "mental phenomena," but that is really quite a misleading term, since in a Western framework, mental phenomena would include objects of mind, and those are not meant with this category. All of the members of this category are actually different sorts of mental activity. To make it simple, ways of experiencing things can be divided into two: primary consciousness and mental factors.

The first division of them is primary consciousness (rnam-shes). This may be sensory consciousness, like seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling a physical sensations such as hot, cold, pain, motion, and so forth. Or it may be mental consciousness, such as thinking, dreaming, and so on. Primary consciousness is, basically, the "channel" that the experience is on, as in a channel on television. There is the seeing channel, the hearing channel, and so on.

With any primary consciousness, there are always accompanying mental factors. Sometimes I call them types of subsidiary awareness. There are many of them. The usual lists are of forty-eight or fifty-one, depending on the text. Those are just the most noteworthy ones; there are many more than that. What these mental factors do is to qualify the experience of something. The primary consciousness just experiences what kind of phenomenon the object is – is it a sight, a sound, etc. These other factors fill out more details about the experience of the object, such as attention, interest, and emotions.

As we have seen, an impulse of karma is an urge, and an urge is a mental factor. It is the way of experiencing an object that draws us to that object or to the next object. There is the urge to look at something, the urge to listen to something, the urge to do something, and so on.

I don’t think it is the appropriate time to go through all the mental factors, so let us just look at one more: feeling (tshor-ba). This only refers to feeling a level of happiness, unhappiness or neutral. It could be anywhere on the spectrum. Whenever we are experiencing something, it is accompanied by experiencing some level of happiness. Emotions are other mental factors. These could be disturbing or nondisturbing emotions, destructive or constructive. We experience seeing someone with anger or we see someone with love, we are happy or unhappy to see them, and then there is the compelling urge or impulse to say something nice or something nasty to them.

[See: Mind and Mental Factors: The Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness.]

Questions Concerning the Mental Factors Associated with Karma

Karma as an Impulse To Do Something

Participant: Is this impulse always karma?

Alex: Yes, karma is referring to this impulse. The laws of karma explain why the impulse comes to our minds to look at one person or another, to say one thing and not something else, or why the impulse comes to get into a situation or to meet a new person. It doesn’t have to be a conscious intention to go and meet someone we have not met before.

Participant: Is the impulse to help my children also karma?

Alex: Yes, as opposed to the impulse in a mother spider to eat her children.

Participant: Both positive and negative impulses are karma?

Alex: Right, as well as neutral impulses like the impulse to scratch your head. We need to be aware that when the word karma is used in general discussions, it refers to the whole topic of what happens and why it happens. But, when we speak more specifically, then, within the general topic, karma refers to the impulse. All the different aspects of the process are given different names.

Sometimes we will read "karma" translated as "action." This is a very rough way of translating the term that may be useful in some general discussions, but it is not precise. In the philosophical system that we are explaining here, karma is never the action. It is the impulse that brings us to an action, but it is not the action itself. In the Vaibhashika and Gelug Prasangika systems, karma includes physical and verbal actions, but it also includes the subtle energy left on our mental continuums afterwards from them. Yet even in those two systems, karma never includes the mental action of thinking. So, I think it is better not to use the word action to translate karma.

The Impulse To Do Something and Longing Desire for It

Participant:  Is an impulse toward something the same as attachment to it?

Alex: Attachment (‘dod-chags) is another mental factor. Liking to do something and feeling like doing it are yet other mental factors. Actually, we need to differentiate two meanings of dochag, the Tibetan technical term here: attachment and longing desire. "Attachment" is toward something we presently have and do not want to let go of. "Longing desire" is for something we do not have at the moment and long to have.

Participant:  What is the difference between an impulse and longing desire?

Alex: They are distinct mental factors. They can go together, but they don’t have to. Longing desire, the same as attachment, exaggerates the good qualities of things. We might see the chocolate and say, "Wow! This is the most delicious thing in the world!" but not have any impulse to eat it at the moment, because we are full.

Participant: Can there be an impulse without longing desire? What is the relationship?

Alex: An impulse accompanies every single moment of our experience. Longing desire, as a specific disturbing emotion, is intermittent. An impulse could be accompanied by anger, for example, rather than by longing desire. One could also be accompanied by love. Impulses, on the other hand, arise every moment – not just during our waking hours, but also when we are asleep. It is what draws us to having a dream, to rolling over, to continue to sleep, or to wake up. We can never take time out from karma. It arises every moment.

The Impulse To Do Something and the Intention To Do It

We also need to differentiate between an impulse and an intention (‘dun-pa), they are two different mental factors. An impulse is just what draws us toward a specific object or action. An intention is the wish to do something to that object or with it, or to actually commit that action or not to commit it.

An impulse and an intention are always related. This is why we always say that karma is intentional. That does not necessarily mean, however, that I intend to do harm or to help. We may not know if our actions will be harmful or helpful. It could just be the intention to look at someone, or the intention to walk toward her. There is the impulse to walk and the intention to walk, and they are distinct.

Participant: Impulse and intention, then, would imply what we call free will?

Alex: It is your choice how you describe it. I don’t think it is fruitful here, however, to distinguish in terms of free will or predetermination, because it entails bringing in a topic from a different conceptual framework.

Participant: How do an impulse and an intention work together?

Alex: They are always in accord with each other. We could not say that we had the urge or impulse to stay in bed, but an accompanying intention to come to class this morning. Those two mental factors could not be present simultaneously. In any one moment, the two factors focus on the same object or action and fit together harmoniously. There is the impulse that draws us to come and the accompanying intention actually to come. Or, there is the impulse not to come and the accompanying intention not to come. We may, of course, waver indecisively between the two choices until we finally decide what to do. Indecisive wavering (the-tshoms) is another mental factor that could accompany an impulse and intention.

The impulse and intention that caused us to get out of bed or the impulse and intention to stay there may or may not have been with attachment. Again, attachment exaggerates a thing’s good qualities and, based on that exaggeration, we want to get it. "This is going to be the most wonderful lecture in the world and if I miss it I am really missing something good." "Lying in bed is going to be the most comfortable thing in the world." That is attachment.

Another thing to remember is that when we experience all these mental factors, they all come in one package; they all interact with each other like a network. We could logically isolate one mental factor from another; but in actuality, they are all mixed together in one cognition.

Being Conscious of Something and Being Mindful of It

Participant: Is the impulse conscious or not?

Alex: It is not conscious. "Conscious" and "unconscious" are variables in a Western analysis. We are talking about something that is extremely subtle. And it occurs in every single moment of our experience. It is what draws us to the next moment of experience. We are talking about something very basic. Every living being has this in every moment.

Participant: Does the Western term conscious equate with the Buddhist term mindfulness?

Alex: We have to be a little bit more specific about which mental factors we are talking about in the Western discussion, like mindfulness. What we Westerners commonly call "mindfulness meditation" is not actually talking about the mental factor of mindfulness (dran-pa), but about completely different mental factors. If we analyze the Western presentation carefully, it is talking about various mental factors. There is the impulse that draws us to a specific object of focus, such as your eyebrows as opposed to your hands. That is the karma. There are also the intention to focus on them and the attention (yid-la byed-pa) that engages us with looking at them. All of these come together in one package. Mindfulness is what holds my attention on your eyebrows rather than think of something else. It is the mental glue and is also in the same package. This package may also include other mental factors as well, such as love – the wish for you to be happy – and unhappiness, because the way you are holding your eyebrows in a frown makes me unhappy.

Consistent with the system that we are explaining, there is a third way of experiencing that accompanies every moment. This is reflexive awareness (rang-rig), which is awareness of the experience itself. This is what allows us to remember something. This would be what you were referring to in terms of being conscious. In other words, it is knowing what is happening, knowing what our impulse is, knowing what our intention is. It could be very weak and have almost no certitude about what it is focusing on, so that we don’t remember it at all, or it could be very strong.


The problem is that our Western words do not correspond to the Tibetan. The way that German, English, and Tibetan cut the pie is different. The most important point is what the Tibetan words mean. Therefore, the most productive way to approach all of this is to not get stuck with the German or English words, but to try to understand the definitions of the words we are talking about.

Impulses and Patterns of Behavior

Participant: Could we say that karma is a subtle type of habitual pattern?

Alex: Karma is a huge topic. The word karma can be used as a general word. Habits, patterns, and so on are other aspects of karma. We will get into that discussion.

That brings us very nicely to the third category of nonstatic phenomena, nonstatic abstractions. The examples that you gave are the perfect examples: patterns of behavior, habits. These are abstractions. These are abstractions that are based on series of actions so we say there is a habit or a pattern. Obviously, these can change. They also affect what happens. In our more detailed discussion of the entire mechanism of karma, we will use these categories to understand it.

How Karma Works: Immediately Before an Action

Let us try to analyze a little more clearly how karma actually works. To do so, we need to break down the process into different periods. The first period is the moment immediately before doing, saying, or thinking something. At this point, we have an impulse, a mental factor, that draws us into the physical, verbal, or mental action. Depending on what type of action it draws us to do, it is a physical, verbal, or mental karma. Several other mental factors necessarily must accompany that impulse. Collectively, they are called the "motivating mental framework" (bsam-pa).

Immediately Before Committing an Action, Due to Karmic Aftermath of Previously Having Committed the Same Action
Impulse to Commit the Action

(physical, verbal, or mental karma)

Motivating Mental Framework
  • Distinguishing an Object
  • Causal Motivating Aim
  • Disturbing Emotion or Attitude

 

[For the full chart, see: Chart for Understanding Karma.]

An impulse to do, say, or think something may be either constructive (dge-ba, virtuous), destructive (mi-dge-ba, nonvirtuous), or unspecified (lung-ma-bstan), which means unspecified by Buddha to be either constrcutive or destructive, and so therefore neutral.

Let’s use the example of our neighbor in the next door apartment playing extremely loud music and the destructive karmic impulses that might arise. A destructive physical karma would be the impulse to bang on his door. A destructive verbal karma would be the impulse to yell at him to turn down the volume. A destructive mental karma would be the impulse to think nasty thoughts about him, or to think to go and bang on his door and yell. In each case, the impulse also draws us to focus on our noisy neighbor.

Urging and Urged Impulses

Mental karma is called an "urging impulse" (sems-pa’i las), while both physical and verbal karmas are called an "urged impulse" (bsam-pa’i las). The difference in terminology stems from the fact that physical and verbal actions are often built up to (bsags-pa) by a preceding mental action of thinking to do or to say something. After that, the physical or verbal action is actually committed (byas-pa). These are deliberated actions. Some physical and verbal acts, however, are not deliberate; they were not built up to by thinking to do or say it. Still, however, the impulse that draws us into the action is called an "urged impulse."

The Vaibhashika and Gelug Prasangika systems use the two terms a little more logically. The impulse immediately before doing, saying, or thinking something is always a mental karma and thus is always an urging impulse. Physical and verbal karmas are the actions themselves of doing or saying something. Since these actions are always preceded by an urging impulse that brings them on, they are "urged impulses." The issue of whether or not the physical or verbal action was deliberated beforehand by thinking about doing it makes no difference.

The Motivating Mental Framework

Accompanying the impulse is always a cluster of three other mental factors, collectively known as the "motivating mental framework." They are

  • distinguishing an object on which to focus the action,
  • the motivating aim of what we intend to do with or to that object, and
  • a disturbing emotion or attitude.

Distinguishing (‘du-shes) is the mental factor that is usually translated as "recognition." It means to distinguish some person, for instance, or to single him out from everybody else. Distinguishing does not imply that we know who he is or would recognize him if we met him in the hall. We may have never met the guy. We might not even know if it is a man or woman playing the music so loudly next door. As part of the motivating framework, we need to distinguish an object on which to focus our action. We need to distinguish the person whose door we have the urge to knock on, at whom we have the urge to yell, or about whom we have the urge to think nasty thoughts.

The second mental factor accompanying the impulse is the motivating aim (kun-slong), usually translated just as the "motivation." It refers to the mental factor of intention (‘dun-pa) – the intention to do, say, or think something. The motivating aim immediately before we do an action is the "causal motivating aim" (rgyu’i kun-slong). It is what we intend or aim to do just before starting to do something and it causes us to do it.

The Western concept of motivation is different from what is meant by the Buddhist term usually translated as "motivation." When we talk about our motivation in Buddhism, we are actually talking about our motivating aim, our intention, what we are aiming to do when we do anything. In a sense, it also implies what we intend to accomplish by doing it. The intention, here, might be actually to yell at our neighbor in order to make him turn down his loud music. Like when we say in the beginning of a class that our motivation or aim is to listen to the teaching in order to gain enlightenment to help everybody.

"Motivation" is not the best translation term here, because in our Western languages "motivation" emphasizes the motivating emotion that goes with the aim or goal. Buddhism also considers the motivating emotion important. It is the third mental factor of the broader term, the "motivating mental framework," but the word kunlong (motivation) is not used for it.

Accompanying the impulse to commit a destructive action, there is always a motivating disturbing emotion, for instance anger and lack of patience in the case of our noisy neighbor. With the impulse to commit a constructive or an ethically neutral, unspecified action, unawareness (ignorance) about how all phenomena exist accompanies the impulse. We may help someone while grasping for her to exist solidly as our "true friend," whom I, as a solidly existent "me," "truly love." Sometimes a disturbing emotion may also accompany the constructive action, such as longing desire for her to love me back. On the other hand, we may engage in a football game while grasping for a solidly existent "me," who needs to win to "prove myself." A disturbing emotion may also accompany an unspecified action, such as playing the game with hatred of the other team.

In the system we are examining, unawareness of how all phenomena exist is not classified as an actual disturbing emotion. The Sakya school calls it a "nominal disturbing emotion." Karma Kagyu, however, agrees with the Gelug Prasangika system regarding this point and considers this type of unawareness an actual disturbing emotion.

Before engaging in a constructive action, positive emotions may also accompany the motivating aim and the impulse that draws us to do the action. Before listening to a Dharma teaching, for example, the motivating emotions would optimally be the positive ones of love and compassion. The motivating aim is to reach enlightenment to help everybody. Why? Because of love for all beings to be happy and compassion for them not to suffer. Before actually helping our friend, however, we also need to discriminate whether or not she wants our help, and whether or not we are capable of helping her. We could have correct or incorrect discrimination (shes-rab) regarding these points, which is yet another mental factor.

A positive emotion may also accompany the motivating aim and impulse to do something unspecified. We may bake cookies for our children out of love for them.

This is the analysis of what is going on when the impulse comes to mind to yell at someone, or to do, think, or say anything. There are four mental factors involved, which all come together in one sort of "package": an impulse to yell, a distinguishing of the object toward whom to yell, a motivating aim of what we intend to do, and a motivating disturbing emotion. Each of these is a distinct and crucial factor in any deep analysis of karma, so it is important not to confuse the impulse with these other factors that constitute the motivating mental framework that accompanies it.

There could be mistakes in either of the first two factors. We could distinguish the wrong person and yell at the wrong neighbor. We might have no intention to yell, and yet it just happens, as if by accident, that we start to yell when we speak with him. The first one was a mistake. The second was an uncontrollable accident, because we did not intend it. The motivating disturbing emotion could be very strong, it could be very weak, or it could be only a nominal disturbing attitude. All of this is going to affect the results of the impulse.

While Actually Doing an Action

First, we have the impulse that draws us into and thus causes us to do, say, or think something. This occurs in the moment immediately preceding our engaging in an action. The next step is when we are actually doing, saying, or thinking it. In the first moment of the action, we have the impulse with which we begin to act. After that initial moment and up until the moment just before we stop doing the action, we have consecutive impulses to continue doing the action. In the last moment of the action, we have the impulse to stop doing it. Accompanying these impulses while doing an action are the same three mental factors of the mental framework as when just before doing it.

While Committing the Action
Action Itself

(karmic force)

Impulse to Start and to Continue the Action

(physical, verbal, or mental karma)

Accompanying Mental Framework
  • Distinguishing an Object
  • Contemporaneous Motivating Aim
  • Disturbing Emotion or Attitude

 

The motivating aim that accompanies the impulse to start and to continue an action is called the "contemporaneous motivating aim" (dus-kyi kun-slong). The causal motivating aim was the intention to do a certain action, like to yell, in the first place. The contemporaneous motivating aim is the intention, while we are actually speaking, to say each individual word that we choose to say. For the physical action of banging on the door, the contemporaneous motivating aim is the intention to make each individual motion involved with banging, starting from the intention to lift our hand in order to bang on the door. For mental actions, such as thinking nasty thoughts about our neighbor or thinking to go and yell at him, we do not differentiate causal and contemporaneous motivating aims.

For physical and verbal actions, the causal and contemporaneous motivating aims may not be in harmony, usually because the motivating emotion has changed. For example, we intended to yell at our neighbor, and we might even have thought about it before going over to his apartment door. But, a beautiful young woman opened the door and we were so enchanted by her that when we started to speak, we couldn’t yell at all.

Or, perhaps when we intended to yell at our neighbor, the motivating emotion that accompanied our causal motivating aim might have been love and compassion. We had love and compassion for our baby who was trying to sleep and for the other neighbors. Originally, the emotion was not anger. But then, when we actually started to yell, the anger came up with the experience of yelling. It is difficult to yell and maintain the emotion of compassion. It is very easy to get into it and become angry. This is why, when we talk about the results of an action, we have to analyze all these different factors: what was the causal motivating emotion, what was the contemporaneous one? Were they the same or different? Did the motivating emotion change in strength during the action, and so on?

Karmic Force

Now we have to introduce two more terms. They are usually translated as "merit" (bsod-nams, Skt. punya) and "sin" (sdig-pa, Skt. papa). As you know, I don’t care for those translation terms, since they carry connotations from non-Buddhist religions, which do not apply here. In Tibetan, we differentiate between something that is positive and something that is negative. We want a word that will cover both, so we will call it a "karmic force." "Merit" would be a "positive karmic force" and "sin" would be a "negative karmic force." In the system we are looking at here, the two refer to the action itself, the karmic force of the physical, verbal, or mental action. The karma itself (the impulse to do, say, or think it) is not a karmic force.

Previously, I used "karmic potential" as the general term here, but that can be misleading. Only one phase of the karmic force is actually a potential, but more about that later. "Karmic force" is better as the general term for all its phases according to all systems of explanation.

I think this scheme is very important to understand more precisely. Often, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about it and, in many cases, it is due to the imprecision of the terms used. Mind you, I am explaining the less complex presentation. If we can understand this, we can attempt the more complex Gelug Prasangika one later. Basically, it is the same system, but with some variations.

Observing the Mental Factors Accompanying an Impulse

Question: Can one learn to observe all the factors that accompany a karmic impulse without being in a monastery?

This happens all the time. It is not necessary to be a monastic on retreat. We are not used to this analysis, but that does not mean it is impossible. First, we need to know what to observe. What do we look for? The impulse arises to go to the refrigerator. The motivating aim or intention is actually to go there and find something to eat. What is the motivating emotion? It could be because we are craving to get rid of the hunger we feel and will eat anything we find in the fridge. Or, it could be greed: we want some chocolate even though we are not really hungry. The motivating aim could have been to clean the refrigerator, but when we opened it, we saw this delicious looking chocolate and another intention came: to eat it! The motivating emotion has now changed from the emotion of attachment to everything being spotlessly clean to greed for the chocolate. It could even now be naive compassion. "The expiration date is tomorrow and I don’t want to waste anything, so I’ll eat this chocolate. People are starving in India." The accompanying motivating emotions can be quite varied.

These are the things that we observe. Of course, it requires slowing down. If we can differentiate that there are these two factors, the motivating aim and the motivating emotion behind it, it can be very helpful in and of itself. If our intention is to make the neighbor stop playing music so loudly, we can work on the motivating emotion that accompanies this aim. There is nothing wrong if our causal intention is merely to make him turn down his music. But, we need to make sure that when we begin to speak with him, our contemporaneous motivating aim remains to speak politely and doesn’t change to yelling. Furthermore, we have to be careful to distinguish correctly which apartment the noise is coming from. This just gives us some idea of what to check. I do not think we have to be in a monastic retreat in order to start doing this.

The real issue here is mindfulness, which is to remember to do this and, when we are doing it, not to forget about it and stop. That is what we mean by "mindfulness" in Buddhism. We remember to do something and we stay with it. Our big problem is that we don’t remember – we forget.

Participant: So karma itself is just a technical expression and what we have to watch is the intention?

Alex: The main things to watch are not only our intention or motivating aim, but also our motivating emotion. The impulse comes up automatically. We have no control over that – at least at our stage. You have to be very advanced to affect that. This is what we call "samsara." We have uncontrollable impulses to do this and that, and it goes up and down.

Participant: So you don’t have to worry about the impulse?

Alex: It is not that we don’t care about the impulse. I will deal with that later. This is a deeper problem, so let’s stay with something that we can deal with at this stage. First, we have to recognize the impulse and then we have to recognize the intention and the accompanying emotion. All three come together.

Participant: If I am suffering, how can I stop it?

Alex: We try to develop the mental factor of ethical discipline (tshul-khrims), which is the mental factor that is involved with restraint from acting destructively. This has to accompany any watching that we do of our intentions. What is the intention or motivating aim of watching our intentions? From a Buddhist point of view, it needs to be to avoid suffering. It needs to be renunciation – the wish to be rid of the suffering and its causes, the wish to give them up. An additional intention could be to be able to help others more because we will be suffering less from our own problems.

What are the motivating emotions accompanying that? It could be boredom and disgust with our uncontrollably recurring suffering, or it could also be compassion for others. On the other hand, it could be fear of punishment in a hell because of being bad.

This combination of motivating intention and motivating emotion accompanies the impulse that arises to observe our motivating intentions and motivating emotions to do, say, or think something. They also accompany the actual action of observing them. That action of observing is also a karmic force. And that karmic force has effects.

Participant: We are talking about what we can do to restrain ourselves. In the example of the chocolate in the fridge, I don’t think that just being aware of the impulse to go and pick it up and eat it is normally strong enough to prevent us from acting out that impulse.

Alex: Correct. When that happens, it is usually because the accompanying motivating emotion for refraining is not strong enough.

Participant: Therefore, my understanding of this whole subject is that if you look at the motivating intention and the motivating emotion, then you have a chance. I can see what I am doing, what the motivation is. Perhaps there is always greed. Slowly it comes up. Perhaps I want a little joy or something. It is like in vipashyana. If you carefully look at it, it disappears.

I don’t know if it necessarily disappears when we look at it carefully. There are other approaches that bring the thoughts to disappear, such as the mahamudra method of seeing thoughts as passing clouds in the sky. However, it can also be the case that the vipashyana or mahamudra practice may be coming from the self-centered thought, "I am unhappy. Poor me. I want to be happy." This gets into what we will discuss later in the analysis, which are the factors that cause the ripening of the karmic aftermath, and the subsequent sequence for an impulse to come up in the first place.

My experience is that just observing is not enough. We have to do something. We could observe, but if the motivating emotion to do something about what we observe is not strong enough, we don’t accomplish much. Even though that particular moment of greed for chocolate, for instance, will naturally pass – we don’t need to do anything to make it pass – that doesn’t prevent the greed from arising again in the next moment. We need to increase our mindfulness, which means our mental glue, to stay with the restraint, with the discipline of not eating the chocolate. When we have the determination to not eat the chocolate and the motivating aim is to lose weight, that is how a diet works. There needs to be a motivating aim. What are we trying to accomplish?

Participant: The motivating emotion could be different.

Alex: Yes, we look to see what is the motivating emotion accompanying our aim to lose weight. Is it vanity? Is it to become healthier and live longer to be able to help others?

Please note that we are not using the word sin or crime here for breaking our diet and stuffing ourselves with the whole bar of chocolate. A negative karmic force is a destructive action that is motivated by a disturbing emotion and which will ripen into an experience of unhappiness. By negative karmic force, we don’t mean breaking a divine or civil law. That is why it was very important to recognize that the Buddhist discussion of karma is not about being good or bad.

Summary

The whole discussion of ethics in Buddhism revolves around the motivating aim and motivating emotion that go with an action. That aim and emotion are the main things that will affect or influence the karmic results of the action. This is the important point. The whole discussion of ethics in Buddhism is really a discussion about the motivating mental framework with which we do an action. There is this whole package of distinguishing some object, the motivating aim or intention to do something toward it, and the motivating emotion behind the aim. In the West, we call the last two factors the "motivation." In Buddhism, we are always trying to "check our motivation."

The cause of suffering is karma (compelling impulses) and the disturbing emotions that go with them, all interacting with each other. They are both included in the fourth aggregate, the aggregate of other-affecting variables (‘du-byed-kyi phung-po, Skt. samskara skandha). More precisely, the combination of a compelling impulse to do, say, or think something, accompanied by a motivating disturbing emotion, brings on the karmic behavior that results in suffering.

I think it is fine that we are going slowly. I think it is better to understand these basic principles than to try to cover a lot of territory. Even if we only accomplish some understanding of this whole system this weekend, that is fine.

Let us try to think about what we have heard and let it sink in. This is not just a nice intellectual scheme. It is a very practical way for understanding what is happening to us – what we experience and what we impulsively do. It is very helpful and practical because it gives us an indication of how to modify what is happening to us, so that we can bring about more happiness for not only ourselves, but also for everyone.

[Meditation.]