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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 Three: The Aftermath of Karma

After a Karmic Action: Karmic Aftermath

We have discussed the first two periods, immediately before doing, saying, or thinking something and while we are actually doing, saying, or thinking it. Now we are ready to discuss what happens after the karmic action has ended.

After a karmic action has ended, there are three things that follow according to the Mahayana tenet systems: Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. There is no general word for all three together so I have coined the word karmic aftermath to cover all three. We talked about nonstatic abstractions. That is what follows. We now have a network of karmic forces, karmic tendencies (sa-bon, Skt. bija, seed), and karmic constant habits (bag-chags, Skt. vasana) – all abstractions.

After the Karmic Action
(Karmic Aftermath)
Network of Karmic Force Karmic Tendency Karmic Constant Habit


As a Hinayana system, Vaibhashikia does not assert karmic constant habits. For them, there are only two types of karmic aftermath: networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies. Let’s limit our discussion to the Mahayana systems and within them, please recall we are discussing the general presentation accepted by all Mahayana tenet systems, as explained by all four Tibetan traditions, except the Gelug Prasangika.

Networks of Karmic Force

There are two aspects of karmic force, one for each of its two phases. The first phase of karmic force is the action itself. The second is karmic force that has taken on the essential nature of being a karmic tendency (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-ba). It is not the same as the second type of karmic aftermath, the actual karmic tendencies, however. This second phase of karmic force is still either positive or negative, still either constructive or destructive. The actual karmic tendencies, on the other hand, are unspecified to be either constructive or destructive: they are ethically neutral.

If we ask why is it necessary to have these two types of karmic aftermath – constructive or destructive karmic force and unspecified karmic tendencies, the answer is a bit complex. Only constructive or destructive karmic impulses bring on networks of karmic force. Neutral karmic impulses, such as the impulse to eat, which Buddha did not specify to be either constructive or destructive, do not bring on such networks. But since neutral karmic impulses also have karmic aftermath, it is necessary that there be a category of karmic aftermath that is unspecified as being constructive, destructive, or neutral. Thus karmic tendencies can be the aftermath of not only constructive and destructive karmic impulses, but also the aftermath of neutral karmic impulses. However, in terms of the Buddhist presentation of the various types of cause and effect, only constructive and destructive phenomena give rise to ripened results (rnam-smin-gyi 'bras-bu) and such results are always unspecified. The unspecified aggregate factors of a rebirth state are the ripened result of karmic aftermath. Therefore, there must also be karmic aftermath that is constructive or destructive – namely, networks of karmic force – to act as the ripening cause (rnam-simn-gyi rgyu) for these aggregate factors.

To make it easier to understand, let’s call the first phase of karmic force "positive or negative karmic energy" and the second phase "positive or negative karmic potential."

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 potential, 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.

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)].

Let us examine networks more closely. We could talk about a network connecting physical points in one moment, like all the different parts of a machine. That is how we usually think of a network, isn’t it? Here, let’s change dimensions and think of a network in terms of connecting different moments of time. We acted like this; we acted like that. I yelled then; I yelled another time; and then I yelled again. Each act has a karmic force, both before and after its occurrence. The karmic force of the action (the karmic energy) has a continuum of moments that lasts only as long as the action lasts. During the duration of the act, the karmic energy of each moment of the act networks together so that the longer the act continues, the stronger the network of karmic force becomes. Please bear in mind that this is the networking of moments of something and, naturally, only one moment happens at a time.

When the action ceases, the continuum of the karmic force changes its essential nature. It no longer is in the nature of a karmic energy; the subsequent moments of the continuum now are in the nature of a karmic potential. As a type of tendency, a karmic potential is merely an abstraction imputed on the mental continuum. Its continuum begins the moment the continuum of karmic energy (the action) ceases and generates next moments until it either finishes giving its results or is purified. "Purified" means eliminated without it giving rise to a karmic effect. Please note that one karmic action can ripen into one or into a series of karmic effects.

The moments of the continuity of that karmic potential, so long as they follow one after the next, also network together so that they have a cumulative effect. However, it is not that the network gets spatially larger, because networks are merely abstractions. They lack any physical form.

The effect that can ripen from this network can also grow in strength over time, as in the example of the negative karmic force of arguing with our partner that grows stronger the longer we go without apologizing. It can also weaken, as in the case when we counter our negative karmic force with positive karmic force from acting constructively.

The network of karmic force from a karmic action spans both phases – the karmic-energy phase and the karmic-potential phase. In addition, not only does the continuity of karmic energy and potential from one karmic action network together over time, but also the karmic forces of many similar actions network together. For example, each time I complain, the karmic force of that act networks with the karmic forces of previous times I complained. The more times I complain, the stronger the network of karmic force from complaining grows and the stronger its effects can be. Here, the abstraction becomes what we in the West might call a "karmic pattern."

This is what karmic networks are talking about, and I think this way of explaining it makes a lot better sense of the whole picture of karma than using such words as "collection of merit." It is certainly not a collection of points that we keep in a book and, with enough points or "merit," we win a prize. Let’s take a moment to digest this.

[Meditation]

Questions Concerning Networks of Karmic Force

Participant: Up to now, I have seen that when I repeat a negative action it adds to the network and makes it larger and larger.

Alex: In a sense, yes, but try not to think of it in a spatial way.

Participant: It is not adding one to other, but rather one reinforces the other or strengthens it. When I have repeated something, it gets stronger because it includes the second, third, and fourth times.

Alex: Correct. The karmic force of the first act networks with the karmic forces from the second, third and fourth repetitions. And not only that, but of course every time we do something, it is slightly different. It is not an exact repetition. This is why "pattern" is a helpful word here. It goes in that direction. This is not like filling a bag with more and more rice, as in a collection of rice.

Participant: That is what I thought about merit up until two minutes ago.

Alex: That is because of thinking in terms of spatial dimensions and material phenomena. We are working here with moments of doing something and with what happens over time. We have to change dimensions. We are talking about moments. Duration and repetition strengthen a karmic pattern.

Participant: Are these networks some sort of energy?

Alex: No, the networks of karmic force are not forms of energy; they are nonstatic abstractions imputed on a continuum. In the case of physical and verbal karmic actions, which is what we have been describing here, one of the two phases of the continuum that a network of karmic force is imputed on is karmic energy; the other is karmic potential, which is itself an abstraction.

In the more complicated Gelug Prasangika explanation, the network of karmic force from physical and verbal karmic actions is imputed on a continuum having three phases: one of gross karmic energy, one of subtle karmic energy, and one of karmic potential.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

In both explanation systems, the network of karmic force from a mental action is imputed on a continuum of two phases: one of karmic mental energy (moments of a way of knowing) and one of karmic potential.

In all cases, the networks are nonstatic abstractions labeled on continuums made up of moments of karmic force having two or three phases, each phase of which has a different essential nature. Each phase is karmic force as a different type of substance, like a continuity of water can be made of phases of water and ice, or phases of steam, water, and ice. Each phase is water as a different type of substance – gas, liquid, or solid.

The phase transition of water from a gas to a liquid or a liquid to a solid is occasioned by the water reaching a certain temperature. Similarly, in the case of the karmic force of physical and verbal actions that we have been examining here, the phase transition from karmic energy to karmic potential is occasioned by the action ceasing.

Participant: I need a picture or an analogy to understand what you mean by a network being an abstraction.

Alex: First of all, please note that we are not using abstraction here to mean something vague. Also, although an abstraction can be represented by an idea, an abstraction is not the same as an idea. We can think about an abstraction and then we are merely representing it with an idea. So, it is not that if we stop thinking about or imputing the abstraction, the abstraction no longer exists. It is not like when we forget the meaning of a foreign word and no longer have any idea of what it means.

What is an abstraction, then, in this context? Let’s use the analogy of a straight line. We could connect a series of points and make a line. The line is like an abstraction in the sense that it is what we construct to connect these points. In calculus, we would call the line the "first integral" – for those of you who are familiar with math. The line, however, is not merely an idea of a line.

Now let’s change dimensions and talk about time. We have points in time, moments. What do we have when we connect them? A pattern. A network of karmic forces. It is an abstraction, a way of connecting temporal points. It is what we can infer on the basis of these moments of similar actions. And yet a pattern is not an idea of a pattern, is it? Nor is it vague.

We can perhaps understand putting together an abstraction of moments over time by the analogy of an hour. There is a succession of sixty minutes. They don’t all happen at the same time, do they? One minute happens at a time and then it’s no longer happening. It is finished. However, as a mental label, we can put all the minutes together and speak about an hour. An hour is an abstraction based on a succession of minutes that each lasts a moment and then no longer is happening. Again, it is like a first integral, but of temporal points, not spatial ones.

It is not so strange or unusual. We make or "impute" these mental abstractions all the time. Likewise, we are labeling or imputing a network or pattern based on a series of occurrences of a similar type of action, each of which lasted for a succession of moments. An hour is not just an idea. We can say an hour actually exists, can’t we? It is the same with these abstractions.

As for the basis for labeling a network of karmic force, only during karmic-energy phases do we have a succession of moments of a certain type of action. In labeling a network here over a series of similar actions, we are not labeling it merely on the succession of moments when we acted that way. We are also labeling it on the succession of moments of the no-longer-happening ('das-pa) of our acting in that way. Since there were recurrences of a similar type of action, we need to say that there were successions of moments of potential for that kind of behavior during the periods in between the recurring episodes of when we had acted that way. When we connect a series of points to make a line, the line extends over the spaces in between the points, doesn’t it? The same is true here, only in the temporal dimension, not the spatial one.

The ongoing basis that provides the continuity throughout both the periods of similar behavior and the periods in between is the succession of moments of an individual mental continuum. Actually, each of the Indian tenet systems has a slightly different assertion here, but let’s speak just in general. The karmic potential during the moments when we are no longer acting in a certain way – in between a period that has passed (‘das-pa) when we had acted like that and a period that has not yet happened (ma-‘ong-pa) when we will act like that again – is itself an abstraction. It is imputed on the mental continuum.

The Complex of Behavioral Cause and Effect Is an Abstraction

Let us expand our discussion. In general, with karma we talk about cause and effect, or behavior and its effect. When we talk about behavioral cause and effect, we are also talking about an abstraction over time. However, we are not only talking about connecting moments of similar behavior and the periods in between when we are no longer acting that way, but still have the potential and tendency to act like that again. We are also connecting the moments of the impulses beforehand that led to the action and the moments of the results of those actions in our future experience.

That is the complex of behavioral cause and effect. It is an abstraction made on the basis of an entire sequence of cause and effect. Only one moment of the karmic cause and effect sequence occurs in any time, but we can impute the abstraction of the process at any time.

We have a continuum of a karmic impulse before an action and a continuum of karmic energy at the time of an action. Afterwards, we have a continuum of karmic aftermath in the form of networks of karmic force imputed on the continuum of moments of both the karmic-energy phase and the karmic-potential phase. The karmic aftermath also includes the continuum of karmic tendencies and karmic constant habits. Then we have the continuum of karmic results that arise due to the karmic aftermath, such as experiencing moments of repeating the action or experiencing moments of happiness or unhappiness. The karmic results that follow from one "packet" of karmic aftermath may occur only once, or they may occur several times, with intervals of varying length in between.

As long as a result has not yet occurred or has not yet finished recurring from a certain continuum, we can say that this continuum, as an abstraction, is a phenomenon of the present. Once it has finished occurring, that particular continuum becomes only a phenomenon of the past. For example, an hour is an abstraction imputed on a sequence of sixty minutes. Until the entire continuum of sixty minutes is finished, we are still experiencing the hour of the class. The hour is a phenomenon of the present that is still happening. Once those sixty minutes have finished and we are beyond that hour, there are no more presently-happening minutes on which to impute a present hour. The hour is now only a past hour. It is the same with a network of behavioral cause and effect. Once it has finished giving its results, it is no longer present; it is past.

In order for a result to arise, certain circumstances or conditions are needed to help cause it to happen. Technically, these are called "simultaneously acting conditions" (lhan-cig byed-rkyen). On one level, we can roughly say that what we experience and the way that we regard it (yid-la byed-pa, manner of paying attention) serve as the circumstances that trigger karmic aftermath to produce such results as feeling happy or unhappy. Underlying our attitudes, however, is grasping for true existence, confusion, specifically about "me" and how "I" exist. That is the main condition for networks imputed on continuums spanning karmic impulses, energy, and aftermath to produce their results. If we get rid of that confusion forever, then the networks of karmic cause and effect imputed on our mental continuums become only phenomena of the past. They are no longer currently present phenomena, because they cannot produce any results. They are now abstractions imputed only on continuums of moments that have passed.

More precisely, for a continuum of karmic causes and effect to be a phenomenon of the present, the effect itself has to be a presently happening phenomenon. Or, the effect has to be a phenomenon that has not yet happened (a phenomenon of the future), but which can happen. In between the past causes and the future effects, there must be karmic aftermath in the present that provides the continuity and connection. If the future effect can never happen, then the karmic aftermath that could have presently connected to this future effect is merely something of the past. It is no longer something of the present. So, when we speak of karmic potentials and karmic tendencies, we are speaking of potentials and tendencies to actually produce a result, not just some hypothetical potentials or tendencies.

That is how we purify karma. So long as a network of karmic aftermath can actually produce a result and has not yet produced or finished producing its results, it can be validly imputed as a phenomenon of the present: it is present on a mental continuum as a currently present abstraction. When it is finished giving its results or there is no longer any possibility for it to actually produce any results, it becomes something of the past and is no longer present.

That is why it is so important to understand that the complex of behavioral cause and effect is an abstraction. It is not based just on a pattern of behavior alone. It is an abstraction based on the entire sequence of moments of the impulse that brought on the behavior, moments of the behavior itself, moments of its aftermath, and moments of its result.

Karmic Relationships

Participant: Can I change the character of the network between myself and someone else by being compassionate toward this person?

Alex: I think we need to make a distinction here. First of all, we don’t build up a network of karmic force with only our actions toward one specific person. We may yell at many people. It is not just that we will experience the results of a certain type of action in terms of our relationship with this one person in future lives. It could affect many different relationships with those toward whom we have acted similarly before.

On the other hand, we of course do have networks of karmic force or karmic connections with individual beings. That is for sure. But with any person, animal, or being that we interact with, we perform a countless number of actions through what we do, say and think in relation to that being. All of those actions network with each other to form a relationship, which is also an abstraction. Certainly, we can change the character of that network by changing what we put into it – by changing our actions, communication, and thought. Just as we can strengthen a network of negative karmic force by repeating an action, we can also weaken it by applying opponent forces. Instead of yelling at somebody, we could be nice to the person.

Participant: If I don’t add any input, can a karmic network with a certain person change?

Alex: Well, no. I don’t know if we will get to it in this weekend, but one of the laws of karma is that these forces are not going to grow old and lose their power just by themselves. However, if you ignore the person, that is an input. Avoiding him or her is a type of action. It is input.

Participant: Is there is a difference between ignoring someone and not doing anything?

Alex: We need to differentiate several possibilities here. Purposely restraining ourselves from meeting someone and not making any effort to meet someone are different from just not happening to meet someone. In all three cases, we are not meeting the person. Only the first two add input into the relationship that affects how we will interact in the future. If we just don’t happen to meet someone for a long time and then we meet him or her, if the karmic connection is still there, the relationship will continue. Of course, that relationship will be affected by what has happened to each of us during the period we have not met. But what has happened to us has not affected that karmic connection itself, because our behavior during that period was not directed at each other. Only behavior directed at the person with whom we have a relationship affects the karmic connection with that person, even just thinking about him or her. Everything else that has happened simply provides the circumstances for how that relationship will manifest.

Participant: What about shamatha meditation with which we quiet down from actions and thought? Can that get rid of karma?

Alex: Shamatha is just to gain concentration. By itself, it does not lead to overcoming karma. It is just the tool of gaining perfect concentration, so that then we can work more efficiently with the understanding of reality, which is what will eliminate karma. We use the concentration we have gained in shamatha to focus on reality.

Karmic Tendencies

A network of karmic force is just one of the karmic aftermath from an action. There are two more: karmic tendencies ("karmic seed") and karmic constant habits. To specify what karmic tendencies are, we need to know how they differ from the other two types of karmic aftermath.

[For a detailed discussion, see: Logical Pervasions of the Technical Terms for the Different Types of Karmic Aftermath.]

Karmic tendencies give rise to their results only intermittently, whereas karmic constant habits give rise to their results continuously, all the time. Networks of karmic force also give rise to their results only intermittently and, in this sense, they are like karmic tendencies. Karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force give rise jointly to one group of results, while karmic constant habits give rise to something else.

Networks of karmic force, however, are either constructive or destructive. Karmic tendencies and karmic constant habits are unspecified. They are neither constructive nor destructive; they are "neutral." Thus, karmic tendencies are intermittently-ripening neutral phenomena, whereas karmic constant habits are continuously ripening phenomena.

As intermittently-ripening phenomena, karmic tendencies differ from networks of karmic force in regard to a second characteristic besides their ethical status. They differ in terms of the manner in which, jointly, each intermittently gives rise to karmic results. This requires close examination.

Buddhism differentiates at least six types of cause and five types of result. Sometimes, it speaks of even more varieties of causes and results, not to mention various types of conditions or circumstances that also contribute to the causal process. This makes the analysis of cause and effect very complex. Because anything that happens is the result of many different kinds of causes networking together, any one phenomenon may simultaneously be many different types of result. Each type of result that it could exist as would be the result of a different type of cause. Similarly, because any one phenomenon can function as many different types of causes, each type of cause that it could exist as would be designated in terms of the type of result that arises from it.

In this way, karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force serve as joint causes for several different types of intermittently-arising karmic results. Although each of the results is labeled as a certain type of result of karma, the label reflects simply the most prominent aspect of result that each of them is. For each result, the karmic tendency and network of karmic force involved function as different types of causes. Other, non-karmic factors also play a causal role in the arising of a karmic result. As Buddha taught, an effect does not arise from just one cause.

Two Manners of "Ripening"

The general technical term for the process whereby karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force give rise to karmic results is "to ripen" (smin-pa). "Minpa," however, like several other terms in the presentation of karma, is used here as a general umbrella term that covers two manners of producing a result and is also used for one of those manners. One is for a cause to mature and thus produce a result. This first manner is also called "minpa." "To mature" means for a cause to develop or grow to the point at which it can bear fruit, which means produce its result. This is ripening in its definitional sense. The other manner is for a cause to exhaust and finish (rdzogs-pa) as it produces its fruit. Although this manner is also called a "ripening," it is not a definitional ripening. "Ripen," then, in the discussion of karma, does not refer to the process whereby an unripe piece of fruit becomes a ripe one.

Both types of intermittently-ripening karmic aftermath exhaust and finish after they have completed producing their results. Karmic tendencies, however, do not mature; they simply exhaust. Let’s use a simplistic example to understand what it means for a cause to exhaust as it produces its results. A karmic tendency is like a certain amount of gasoline stored in the gas tank of a car. The gasoline starts to produce effects when it begins to flow to the engine. The gasoline in the tank continues to produce a flow of gas to the engine as it slowly runs out and exhausts itself. The supply continues to exhaust until it completely runs out and the gasoline is finished. At this point, there was only past gas in the tank, not any more present gas. Similarly, karmic tendencies continue to give rise to results until they become fully exhausted and finish.

Networks of karmic force also ripen to give a result in the manner of running out and exhausting. However, in the case of one of the several types of result that they can produce, these networks also mature to give this result. This specific type of result is called a "ripened result" (rnam-smin-gyi ‘bras-bu). Although karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force can both produce many of the same types of karmic result, karmic tendencies cannot give rise to ripened results. The ripened result of networks of karmic force is the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience – our five aggregates – but only the unspecified ones, not the destructive ones like anger or the constructive ones like patience.

One of the laws of karma is that, unless purified or somehow weakened, the karmic force of an act constantly grows. This means that the network of karmic force from an act constantly grows until it becomes mature enough to bear fruit. The maturing process most often takes several lifetimes, during which karmic forces from many similar acts may network together with it. Thus, the network of karmic force from an act grows not only from its own natural development, but also from the influence of other things we do. The network of karmic force of a specific act continues to be mature enough to bear fruit until it runs its course and exhausts.

In summary, in one respect, karmic tendencies resemble karmic constant habits in that both are unspecified phenomena. In another respect, they differ from karmic constant habits in that they produce results intermittently, not continuously, and, unless we achieve a true stopping of them, they will naturally end, not continue forever.

In one respect, karmic tendencies resemble networks of karmic force in that they both give rise to results intermittently, and in fact, they do so jointly. Also, unless we achieve a true stopping of them, both will naturally end. In another respect, they differ from networks of karmic force in that these networks are either constructive or destructive phenomena; karmic tendencies are unspecified. They also differ from these karmic networks in that, although they both exhaust after finishing giving their results, karmic tendencies do not mature to give rise to any of their results. Networks of karmic force do mature to give rise to ripened results.

  Networks of Karmic Force Karmic Tendencies Karmic Constant Habits

Ethical Status

constructive or destructive

unspecified

unspecified

Frequency of Giving Rise to Karmic Results

intermittently

intermittently

continuously

Manner of Giving Rise to Karmic Results

ripening

  • exhausting
  • maturing to give ripened result

ripening

  • exhausting

not called "ripening"

Manner of Naturally Ending

become exhausted

become exhausted

never naturally end

Karmic Constant Habits

Then there are the karmic constant habits, the third type of karmic aftermath. Like networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies, they too are nonstatic abstractions; but unlike them, they produce their results continuously rather than intermittently. Because of that distinction, the way in which karmic constant habits produce their results is not called "ripening." Moreover, karmic constant habits will never end naturally. They never become exhausted and run out. They go on producing their results continuously, forever, unless we attain a true stopping of them.

Differentiating What Arises Intermittently from Karmic Aftermath

To further appreciate the difference between karmic constant habits and the intermittently-ripening karmic aftermath, we need to differentiate what they give rise to.

One of the main things that karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force jointly give rise to intermittently is our experiencing tainted feelings of some level of unhappiness, happiness, or neutral. "Tainted" (zag-bcas, contaminated) means arising from and accompanied by unawareness (ignorance). Here, "happiness" means the problematic type of happiness, the kind that does not satisfy. We never have enough. We don’t know what will come next. All of these tainted feelings are intermittent. They are always changing from moment to moment, either in their intensity or from one to the other, and no one feeling ever remains constant.

Another thing that comes from networks of karmic force and from karmic tendencies is feeling like acting in a way similar to the way we acted before. It is a mental factor: wishing or feeling like doing something. I feel like smoking; I feel like yelling; I feel like being kind to someone. In this context, the English word feel refers to our experiencing the wish or desire. These also only ripen occasionally, not all the time. Based on the repeated but intermittent occurrence of feeling like doing something, such as smoking, we impute a pattern, which, in the West, we call a "preference" or a "liking" for that type of action. We like to smoke, for instance. From the viewpoint of Buddhist analysis, the contacting awareness that accompanies our seeing cigarettes is pleasant. When we see cigarettes, we "like" them.

It is very amusing. We know that karmic tendencies and forces can end because we can recognize when they have finished ripening. For example, I like Indian food and often I feel like eating it. As this karmic aftermath ripens, I eat Indian food repeatedly. Then eventually that karma is finished. I’ve had enough Indian food and the feeling to eat it doesn’t arise anymore. Due to various circumstances, such as falling in love with an Indian and getting married, I may build up a similar karmic force to eat Indian food again, but that particular karmic force from before is finished. The same thing happens with feeling like being with someone.

When we stop feeling like doing something anymore, that is not a true stopping of karma at all. It simply means that that particular network of karmic aftermath has fully ripened and is finished. A true stopping (true cessation) of something means that it will never come again; we will never build up any more. Just because one particular karmic package has finished ripening doesn’t mean that we are not going to build up another similar one. It just means that that particular package is finished. True stoppings only derive from the force of meditation; they do not naturally occur.

Another point is that just as the network of karmic force and karmic tendency of doing something ripen jointly into feeling like repeating that action, so too the network of karmic force and karmic tendency of avoiding doing something jointly ripen into feeling like not doing that action. This is indicated in the symbolism of the Kalachakra mandala.

The Kalachakra mandala contains three levels, known as the body mandala, the speech mandala, and the mind mandala. The body and speech mandalas have thirty-six offering goddesses each. In the speech mandala, they represent feeling like doing thirty-six things that everyone does, and in the body mandala they represent feeling like not doing these thirty-six things. For example, feeling like singing, spitting, running, or lying down, and feeling like not singing, not spitting, not running, or not lying down. Thus, they represent certain intermittent ripenings of karmic aftermath – compulsive, uncontrollable feelings to do something or not to do something – that we are normally under the control of and which we need to purify and overcome. Note that feeling like not singing – for instance, during a ritual when everyone else is singing – is not the same as the nonarising of a feeling to sing, which is the case at all times when we are not singing.

Participant: How does attachment fit in here? Maybe you stop smoking, but then you eat chocolate.

Alex: We may be attached to eating Indian food – in other words, the mental factor of attachment may accompany our feeling like eating it. Even when a particular set of karmic aftermath has finished ripening, however, attachment as a general mental factor may still be there. Positive and negative emotions also arise from their own tendencies (seeds). These tendencies also ripen intermittently, simultaneously with the ripening of various karmic tendencies and forces, not just with the ones of eating Indian food.

Another ripening of karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force is from time to time experiencing things happening to us similar to what we previously did to others. I stole in the past and now I experience other people stealing from me, I lose my wallet, or I experience being out of money or being poor.

A further thing that ripens intermittently from them are our tainted aggregates: our bodies, mental factors, and so on. This refers not only to the aggregates with which we are born, but to those that ripen each moment as the content of our experience. They too are intermittent. We are not always reborn with the aggregates of a human, for example. It is this type of ripening that is called the "ripened result."

Forms of Physical Phenomena as Karmic Ripenings

Please note, here, that when we say that our bodies or other forms of physical phenomena that are part of our form aggregate, such as a table or our friend, ripen from our networks of karmic force, we are only speaking of them as the conventional objects that we actually experience when we cognize them (tha-snyad spyod-yul). In a sense, what ripens from our karmic aftermath is their becoming objects of our experience. The table or our friend in the next room, before we see them, is not part of our aggregate of form. They did not ripen from our karmic aftermath. The table we see, when we see it, and our friend when we see him, is included in our form aggregate.

The table we see and our seeing of it both are ripened results of our networks of karmic force. The same is true of our friend that we see and our seeing of him. When we speak about our aggregates, we are speaking about all the nonstatic phenomena that make up each moment of our experience. Any form of physical phenomenon, such as a table or our friend, that is part of that moment of experience, is inseparable from our consciousness taking it as its object. We are not talking about the table or our friend in any other situation or context.

Since this can be so easily misunderstood, let me explain it a little further, although it is rather complex. In these cases, the natal source (rdzas) of our seeing of the table or our friend is the karmic tendency to see one or to see him. The natal source of something is what produces it or where it comes from, like an oven is the natal source of a loaf of bread. Only the Chittamatra school asserts that the table we see and the friend we see also comes from a karmic tendency as its natal source – in fact, this school says from the same karmic tendency as our seeing of them.

Everyone agrees, however – even the Chittamatra school – that although the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) of our seeing of them is a karmic tendency, the obtaining cause for the table we see is the tree and the obtaining cause for our friend that we see is the sperm and egg of his parents. The obtaining cause of something is what transforms into it and, in the process, ceases to exist. So, we have to be very careful not to misunderstand when we say that our bodies are the ripened result of our karmic aftermath. They still also came from our parents’ sperm and egg. But, to really comprehend and digest this takes a lot of thought.

The final thing that ripens intermittently from networks of karmic forces and from karmic tendencies is the tainted environment or general situation of the place in which we are born or stay. Again, this refers to the tainted environment that we experience when we actually experience it. This is a dominating result (bdag-‘bras, comprehensive result) of not just our own karmic aftermath, but of the collective karmic aftermath that many beings share together. As individuals, however, we only experience such environments sometimes, and not for all our rebirths, or not necessarily for our entire life within one rebirth.

Differentiating What Arises Continuously from Karmic Aftermath

As for what ripens continuously from the karmic constant habits, it is that, to put it very simply, we are experiencing life through a periscope. We are limited. We can only see or perceive what is in front of our noses. We can’t be aware of the causes and interconnections of what is happening, its results, and so on. We can’t see all the relations that everybody has with absolutely everybody else, all the influences on them and so on. We only perceive a little bit. This is the case in every single moment of our existence. It never takes a rest. It never goes away until we are enlightened.

The Gelug presentation just adds that what we see through the periscope appears to exist in an impossible manner – in the Chittamatra system, with an appearance of duality (gnyis-snang), and within the Svatantrika system, with an appearance of true unimputed existence (bden-snang). The non-Gelug systems assert that things do not appear to exist in impossible manners of existence during nonconceptual cognition. They only do so during conceptual cognition. Mind you, conceptual cognition usually follows a moment of nonconceptual sense cognition almost instantly. The general presentation, however, which everyone accepts, is that in each moment our cognition is limited periscope perception.

These are all the aftermath of karmic behavior. They are all abstractions and their continuums as present phenomena can still be imputed on our mental continuums so long as they can still produce their various results. The karmic intermittently-ripening karmic aftermath will naturally stop existing as present phenomena imputed on our continuums when they have finished giving their results and exhaust. After that, we can only impute past such aftermath on our mental continuums. Karmic constant habits will never naturally end their existence as present phenomena imputed on our mental continuums. The only way to be rid forever of networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies before they finish ripening and the only way to be rid forever of karmic constant habits is through meditation. To gain a true stopping of both of them, we need to rid ourselves forever of the factors also present on our mental continuums that cause or stimulate them to produce their results.

The most fundamental factor that stimulates both of them to ripen is our unawareness (ma-rig-pa), our confusion. This can be unawareness about behavioral cause and effect or about the true manner in which things exist. From the Hinayana viewpoint, both would be in regard only to ourselves. According to the Mahayana tenets, they are in regard to everyone and everything, including ourselves.

When a necessary cause for karmic aftermath actually to produce its results, namely confusion, can never arise again on our mental continuums, there is no possibility for any of the aftermath ever to produce any effects. At that point, there is also no possibility to create any new karmic aftermath, because it is just confusion that causes our impulsive karmic behavior and such behavior brings its aftermath. It is at that point that we have achieved the true stopping, the true cessation, of karma, this whole complex package.

Participant: Can one fall after having reached enlightenment?

Alex: No, a true stopping means it could never happen again. Otherwise, it is a temporary stopping.

Why to Consider the Consequences of Our Karmic Behavior

Let’s review the karmic results that ripen in the future from the karmic aftermath of the actions we do that are brought on by karmic impulses. Although we often speak of the "ripening of karma," it is actually the karmic aftermath that ripens, and not the karma itself. And, in the case of karmic constant habits, they give rise to their karmic results, but not through a process of ripening.

Participant: I thought that we don’t think of the future. We live now and forget it. So why be so preoccupied about what might happen then?

Alex: We live in the moment. That is true. However, it is very important to be aware that our behavior will have consequences in the future. If we don’t have that understanding, then we think it doesn’t matter what we do. If I feel like punching you in the face now, that is fine. The next moment is the next moment. That is not what we mean by living in the moment.

"Living in the moment" means not having expectations for the future, not dwelling on the past, and all of that. One of the disturbing emotions is naivety. One of the main types of naivety is that concerning behavioral cause and effect, thinking that what we do will have no effect on others or on ourselves. This could accompany acting destructively.

Staying in the moment means we keep our attention here. In keeping our attention here and now, we also understand that what we do, say or think will have consequences, though we do not mentally wander thinking about the consequences. Understanding that our present actions have consequences in the future doesn’t take us away from the moment.

Avoiding Naivety

Participant: What is the Tibetan word for naivety?

Alex: The Tibetan word is "timug" (gti-mug), in Sanskrit moha, which is a very difficult word to translate. I’ve tried several different words during my career. For a long time, I used "closed-mindedness." A lot of people simply translate it as ignorance, which does not differentiate it from the mental factor of unawareness – in Tibetan marigpa (ma-rig-pa), in Sanskrit avidya. Naivety is not precise either.

As I just explained, unawareness is in regard to two specific things. It does not refer to unawareness of someone’s name. We are talking about unawareness of behavioral cause and effect – as opposed to physical cause and effect: kick a ball and it will go over there – and unawareness of how things exist. There can be two ways of being unaware. It can either be not knowing at all or understanding incorrectly. This unawareness can accompany any type of action or experience, whether we were acting destructively, constructively, or in a neutral way – like scratching our heads. It can accompany a disturbing emotion or a constructive one, like love. For example, out of love I may do something nice for you, but I may be unaware of the effects of my actions, I am unaware of how I exist, how you exist, and so on.

A subcategory of unawareness is timug, one of the three poisonous attitudes. It occurs when unawareness accompanies a destructive action, which means that it necessarily also accompanies a disturbing emotion. We don’t really have a word for that specific category of unawareness. In English, naivety could accompany a constructive as well as a destructive action. Here, we are only talking about what accompanies a destructive one.

I have had great difficulty trying to find an exact word. As I often point out, different cultural frameworks do not cut the pie of experience into conceptual categories and words in the same ways. We need to try to understand the definition of the word timug rather than worry about the word timug. When we understand the definition, we understand what the word signifies and what Buddhism is talking about when it uses it. There is so much misunderstanding about Buddhism because there are not just one or two words like that; almost every single technical term has no exact correspondence with our words.

We are not the only ones who have that problem. The Chinese faced the same problem. The Tibetans had the advantage of not having a very sophisticated, technical language beforehand and so they made up a lot of words. That is the way the Tibetan language works. They could put two syllables together, each with its own connotation, and make a new expression. The Tibetans also used another system, which employed the completely literal translation of parts of Sanskrit words. Like translating understand as "under" and "stand." It did not make any sense in Tibetan whatsoever. That is how the Tibetans, for the most part, avoided this problem. Eventually, what happened was that most of the central Asian languages, including Mongolian, just borrowed many Sanskrit words.

The Ripening of Karmic Aftermath

Let us return to our discussion of the ripening of karmic aftermath in the future. Remember, "ripening" here is an umbrella term that covers several manners of giving rise to an effect. In our system, here, we have three periods of time to consider: until liberation from samsara when we become arhats, until death after liberation, and until enlightenment when we become Buddhas.

As a Hinayana system, Vaibhashika omits the third period since, according to the Hinayana tenets, the mental continuum ends with death from the lifetime in which we attained liberation. Gelug Prasangika omits the second period. According to its tenets, with the attainment of liberation, we rid ourselves simultaneously of both sets of what our system here asserts is gotten rid of in two stages.

Karmic Aftermath of the Action That Is Left on the Mental Continuum Once the Action Has Ended
  • Network of Karmic Force
  • Karmic Tendency
  • Karmic Constant Habit
What the Karmic Aftermath of the Action Ripens Into in the Future
Ripens until Liberation as:
  • Experiencing Tainted Feelings of Some Level of Happiness
  • Feeling like Repeating the Action


Ripens until Death after Liberation as:
  • Experiencing Things Happening Similar to the Past
  • Experiencing Tainted Aggregates and a Tainted Environment
Ripens until Enlightenment as:
  • Constant Limited Cognition


The two intermittently-ripening karmic aftermath – the networks of karmic force and the karmic tendencies – jointly give rise to our experiencing tainted feelings of some level of happiness, experiencing feeling like doing past karmic actions again, experiencing things happening to us similar to our past karmic actions, and experiencing tainted aggregates and a tainted environment. The karmic constant habits lead to constant limited cognition.

Tainted feelings are the mental factor made up of unhappiness, confusing happiness, and confusing neutral feeling. "Tainted" (zag-bcas), usually translated as "contaminated," means they are tainted by confusion, which means they all come from confusion. Feeling like doing something again or wishing to do it again is another mental factor. Remember our example of feeling like eating Indian food. Feeling like eating Indian food is a mental factor that we may experience while experiencing the physical sensation of hunger. Feeling like doing something, however, may or may not bring on an impulse to do it – another karma. But, the karmic aftermath itself does not ripen into karma; the aftermath of karma always ripens into some nonstatic phenomenon other than karma.

In other words, the karmic force and tendency to eat Indian food does not ripen directly into an impulse to eat it again. It ripens into the occasional experience of feeling like eating Indian food. The experience of that mental factor of feeling like doing something similar to what we did before, such as eating Indian food, may then lead to a new impulse to eat it, a new karma.

This is quite neat actually. While wandering in samsara – which means compulsively wandering from one uncontrollably recurring rebirth to another – we experience all these ripenings of karma. Our tainted feelings go up and down. This means our feelings of unhappiness, happiness, and neutral go up and down. At the same time, we experience moments of feeling like repeating similar actions to what we did before, as well as situations happening to us similar to what we did to others. We yelled at others and now others yell at us. We were nice to other people and others are now nice to us. It works both ways. They don’t happen constantly, though – only sometimes.

We also experience tainted aggregates, such as our bodies and minds, and tainted environments. Remember, "tainted" means they have come from confusion. This usually refers to our samsaric rebirth situation. We might experience a human body and mind, a dog body and mind, an insect body and mind, a crippled body or a crippled mind, and so on. We might experience being born in a very rich county, a very poor country, a country that is repeatedly at war, or one that is repeatedly at peace.

Until liberation, our experiences of them are also mixed with confusion and they lead to more confusion – more uncontrollably recurring rebirth. After liberation from samsara and until we pass away from that rebirth in which we attained liberation, we still experience the bodies and environments into which we were born. Although they still are tainted in the sense that they ripened from confusion, they no longer are mixed with confusion and do not lead to more confusion. They are no longer so-called "obtaining aggregates" (nyer-len-gyi phung-po). Please excuse the word obtaining: it’s awkward, I know, but I can’t think of anything better that would still be accurate to the meaning.

"Obtaining aggregates" are those that are accompanied by confusion and thus lead to more confusion. Consequently, we "obtain" from them more suffering and further samsaric rebirth. Before gaining liberation from samsara, our aggregates are both tainted and obtaining. After gaining liberation and before we die from that lifetime in which we gained liberation, our aggregates are only tainted. They are no longer obtaining.

Throughout all of this, in every moment, we are experiencing limited cognition. So, while in samsara, we are experiencing feelings of happiness and unhappiness, feeling like acting similar to how we acted before, different kinds of bodies, different types of environments, and things happening to us similar to what we did before – all going up and down and all through a periscope. That is our karmic package. That is the first noble truth, true suffering. It is disgusting. This is what we want to get out of. It is really boring! This has been going on with no beginning and it will go on with no end, unless we do something about it.

Stages of Ridding Ourselves of Karmic Aftermath

We get rid of it in stages. When we become liberated, we get rid of tainted feelings going up and down. We no longer have suffering. We also no longer have the compulsive wish to do this or that, similar to what we have done before.

In the lifetime in which we become liberated, however, and until we die, we are still left with our other four tainted aggregates, excluding feelings – a tainted body, mind, and so on – which came from confusion. The feelings we experience now are untainted (zag-med). They do not arise from confusion. During periods of total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) on voidness, we experience untainted happiness (untainted bliss); otherwise we may also experience untainted neutral feelings.

As arhats, we also still experience the tainted environments that we are in. Things also continue to happen to us similar to our previous actions. Arhats experience people throwing things at them, hitting them and so on, though they don’t experience any suffering from it and there is no compelling thought of throwing something back at the person. And, while arhats do not suffer or feel like striking back, they are still experiencing bodies that become injured and environments in which injurious things can happen, both of which come from confusion.

When we die from that lifetime in which we attain liberation, we get rid of, forever, our networks of karmic force and our karmic tendencies. We no longer experience things happening to us similar to the karmic actions we did before, even occasionally, and we don’t even experience tainted aggregates or environments again. According to the Hinayana tenets, at this point, the mental continuums of arhats cease: they become "extinguished like a candle." Mahayana, however, says that they go on.

Please note that when we say that arhats are free forever from the networks of their karmic forces, then in the case of networks of positive force, or "collection of merit," we are speaking here about networks of samsara-building positive force, not networks of enlightenment-building positive force. The latter derive from the positive force of constructive actions that we dedicate, with bodhichitta, to our attainment of enlightenment to benefit all beings as much as possible. Positive force that is not dedicated like this, or not dedicated to our liberation, is merely samsara-building. Only that type of positive force is a karmic force. Also, you know, there are stages of bodhichitta, part of it is mixed with confusion, part is not. Even the positive force mixed with confusion is enlightenment-building if it is dedicated with bodhichitta. It is a very complicated discussion.

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

Participant: This is so complicated!

Alex: Life is complicated. What do you expect? If you look at how the human body works, that is complicated also.

According to the Mahayana tenets, when arhats die from the lifetime in which they attained liberation, they are reborn in pure lands with mental bodies made of light. They no longer have any tainted aggregates, such as bodies, or live in tainted environments coming from confusion and, of course, they still have no tainted feelings. Nothing is happening to them similar to their previous karmic behavior and they certainly do not feel like repeating any of their previous karmic patterns. Their networks of karmic force and their karmic tendencies are completely finished. However, in those pure lands, they are still experiencing everything through a periscope. They are not aware of everybody’s karma or all the causes and consequences of every action. They are not aware of infinite previous lives and all the things that only Buddhas know. Why? Because they still have the karmic constant habits. It is only when we get rid of the karmic constant habits that we get rid of the periscopic vision. That only occurs with enlightenment.

Participant: Are the arhats’ pure lands the same as the god realms?

Alex: No, they are not god realms. They are pure lands like Tushita or Dakini Land. A god realm is a tainted birth with a tainted environment. It comes from confusion. It is characterized by experiences with a type of happiness that is not satisfying and we never know what will come next, there is no guarantee.

Participant: Do we get rid of the periscope when we perceive voidness directly?

Alex: This is actually a very complicated question to answer, since the various Mahayana tenet systems have quite differing assertions regarding the process and steps through which the nonconceptual cognition of voidness rids us of the obscurations preventing liberation and those preventing enlightenment. But, let us leave all these variations aside and simplify the discussion in order to answer your question now. Our discussion has been complicated enough.

[For a detailed discussion of the different assertions, see: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]

Briefly, it takes more than the first nonconceptual cognition of voidness to rid ourselves of this periscope perception. It takes a very, very long familiarity with it. It has to have a much stronger force behind it. The way in which this force can build up is the same as how the networks of karmic force grow. We have moments of cognizing voidness and when a moment is finished, it is finished. But, with each additional moment of cognizing voidness, the network of these moments is strengthened. What results from this process is usually translated as the "collection of wisdom" (ye-shes-kyi tshogs). I call it a "network of deep awareness." We have to have a tremendous force behind our nonconceptual cognition of voidness in order to get rid of the periscope. Our first nonconceptual seeing of it does not have sufficient force.

We will continue tomorrow. The next step is looking at how samsara continues out of this. How does new karma come from this? We have to understand how that happens because, otherwise, it will go on without control. The intended end result of all of this is that we feel how stupid all of this is. On the basis of realizing how stupid it is, we get renunciation.

Dedication

Let’s end with a dedication. By means of this, may we understand more and more about karma and how samsara works so that we have some idea of how to get out of it and can actually follow the path that Buddha demonstrated in order to reach enlightenment and be of best help to everyone.

How can we be of best help if our feelings of happiness and unhappiness are going up and down every minute of the day? We can’t predict our mood in the next few minutes. How can we help others if all sorts of things are always happening to us similar to what we have done before – people attack us and criticize us, we lose our jobs, and so on? How can we help others if our bodies are such a drag – we have to feed them, clean them, put them to sleep, and so on? How can we help others if we are born with such limited bodies and minds? We can’t understand all languages, or understand everything that is going on. We can’t understand others’ problems. We can’t multiply into a million bodies to help everyone at the same time. There are so many things that we would like to do to help others, but we cannot do them because we are so limited. We really want to get free from this whole karmic package, all of this karmic aftermath. May this understanding increase so we at least know this whole process and sincerely feel that we must get out of it so that we can be of fullest help to everyone.