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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 Four: Further Samsara


In this formulation, which is from the point of view of the Indian Mahayana tenet systems and all Tibetan traditions of them, except Gelug Prasangika, karma is exclusively a mental factor, an impulse. It is the impulse that draws us toward a specific experience or object. More specifically, it is the impulse that brings us toward an activity, whether doing, saying, or thinking something. It is accompanied by many other mental factors, but there are three in particular. They constitute the motivating mental framework.

One is distinguishing a specific object toward which we aim our action. Then, there is the motivating aim or intention, which is the aim or goal of our action, what we intend to do to or with this object. Then there is an accompanying motivating emotion. This could be a disturbing emotion, like anger, greed, or naivety, which usually accompanies the impulse to do a destructive action. Or, it could be a disturbing attitude, namely identifying the ever-changing aggregate factors of our experience with a solid "me," which would accompany any type of action – destructive, constructive, or neutral. Constructive actions are usually also accompanied by positive emotions like love and compassion.

These motivating emotions are sometimes reversed. So we could do a destructive action like killing a mosquito with a positive emotion like love that wishes to protect our baby. We could also do a constructive action with a disturbing emotion, like giving someone a very expensive present because we are attached to her and greedy for her love in return. The disturbing attitudes accompany all karmic actions.

We differentiated the moment immediately before doing, saying, or thinking something and the period when we are actually doing the action. The karmic impulse during this first causal phase draws us to the action in general; while the karmic impulse during the second contemporaneous phase draws us to actually start and then continue the action in a specific way. In neither case is the karmic impulse the action itself.

The motivating mental framework may alter from the first phase to the second, specifically in terms of the motivating aim and the motivating emotion. During the causal phase of the action of hitting someone, our intention might have been just to scare him. But, when we began to beat him, our contemporaneous intention changed to aiming really to hurt him. In terms of our motivating emotion, we might have first wanted to kill the mosquito out of compassion for our baby. But, when we actually got into the action of running around and trying to kill it, anger and hostility came up.

There are three types of karmic aftermath that follow when the karmic action ends: karmic potentials, karmic tendencies, and karmic constant habits. The action itself is a karmic force, either positive or negative, usually called "merit" or "sin." In other words, the action itself is a positive or negative type of karmic energy. When the action ends, the karmic force of the action takes on the nature of a tendency. We have called it a "karmic potential." Like a karmic tendency, the karmic potential is an abstraction; but unlike an actual karmic tendency, it is still constructive or destructive, because it is still a positive or negative karmic force.

A continuum of karmic energy and potential networks together. This is like having a continuum of minutes and imputing an hour. Thus, we have a continuum of karmic energy and potential and impute a network of karmic force on them. A network of karmic force, then, spans a sequence of karmic cause and effect: the karmic-energy phase is a cause and the karmic-potential phase is what results from it.

The network implies the karmic results that will ripen from this karmic aftermath, even when they have not yet ripened. This is because karmic force and karmic potential refer only to a force that will actually produce a further effect and to a potential actually to produce that effect. Also, karmic networks can grow in strength as we perform further similar karmic actions and thus build up more karmic force. The basis for labeling the network gets larger.

From the Buddhist point of view, nonstatic phenomena exist only as long as they are able to perform a function. If a changing thing can no longer produce an effect, it no longer exists. So, if a potential, tendency, or habit can no longer cause us to act in a certain way or to experience a certain something any more, it’s finished. It no longer exists as a present potential. The potential, tendency, or habit becomes something of the past. We had the habit before, but now we no longer have it. We have merely a past habit, no longer a present one. It is finished.

Most Buddhist truths are self-evident if you think about them. A static phenomenon does not produce an effect. One plus one is two. That is a fact. It is static. On the other hand, if, for instance, sometimes seeing a live example of a certain species of animal continues to happen, it means that the potential and tendency for this nonstatic impermanent phenomenon, the seeing of one, is still there. The potential and tendency exist because they produce results: seeing live animals of this species. If the animal becomes extinct, we can never see a live one again. Then we can no longer say there is a potential or a tendency to see one, can we? If the potential for something can never again bring about the occurrence of it, the potential becomes merely a past potential, not a present one.

Seeing a certain species of animal alive depends on the presence of certain conditions, such as the necessary ecosystem. Let’s leave aside the possibility of seeing one in a zoo. If we destroy forever the necessary ecosystem, then not only do the animal and seeing one become extinct, the potential for seeing one also becomes extinct. There is no chance of seeing one again. They all become things of the past, not of the present. Similarly, when we rid ourselves forever of confusion – the main necessary condition for karmic potentials and so on to ripen and produce results – not only do the results become extinct, the karmic potential also becomes extinct. That means that the karma is gone. That is a simplified description of how we purify karma.

These three karmic aftermath, these three abstractions, are differentiated on the basis of the different results they give and how often they give them. Two of them – networks of karmic force and karmic tendencies – give their results intermittently. One of them, karmic constant habits, gives them all the time.

The two intermittently ripening karmic aftermath are differentiated according to when they come into existence and on their ethical status. Karmic force begins at the time of the action and then continues after the action has ended. Throughout its continuity, karmic force is either constructive or destructive. Karmic tendencies begin only after an action has ceased and are ethically neutral; they are unspecified as being either constructive or destructive.

The intermittently ripening karmic aftermath ripen as tainted feelings of happy, unhappy and neutral, which come from confusion. They are problematic. They do not last. We don’t know what is coming next and they don’t satisfy us. They also ripen into our experiencing of a tainted environment, a tainted body and mind, and things happening to us similar to what we have done before, as well as feeling like repeating what we did before.

These things that ripen from the karmic tendencies and networks of karmic force ripen intermittently, which means they ripen some of the time, not always. From our ordinary points of view, we cannot predict what is going to ripen in the next moment. We don’t know if we will be happy or unhappy in the next minute, nor what we’ll feel like doing. This is what is so terrible about karma. It goes up and down. It is coming from these intermittently ripening karmic aftermath.

Predicting What Will Happen to Us Personally

Participant: There is no way to predict what is coming?

Alex: Only a Buddha is able to predict. From our personal points of view, we have no idea.

Participant: I can predict that whenever I walk in the mountains, I will feel good.

Alex: But, it may not always happen. Is it a question of probability? Is what happens to us just a mathematical probability, or what? All we could say is that we usually feel good, but we cannot predict that this time will be the same. We chose to go to the mountains. And, what happens: there is a terrible storm when the weather report said something else. That would be meeting circumstances similar to the past and experiencing an environment. All of this is explaining our experience.

It is not that it rains as a result of the ripening of my personal karma. The development of the environment itself is a ripening of collective karma shared by many beings, but that is a complicated discussion, so let’s leave it aside, since there are many other causes involved, not just karmic factors. What is relevant here is that, from a personal karma, I felt like going at a certain moment and, from a collective karma shared with many others, it rained while I was there. Moreover, from my personal karma, I was caught in that rain. The rain became an object of my experience and so the rain I experienced was a result of my karma. That’s what ripens from my various types of karma, as well as from others’ karma and from many other causal factors.

One result of karma is going into a situation in which something happens to us similar to what we did in the past. A person who is murdered may not have murdered anyone in this lifetime, but he or she must have caused some sort of taking of a life previously. It could have been a million lifetimes ago. The question we can ask ourselves is, "What are the alternative explanations?" This is what we talked about on the first night. Do things happen for no reason, or because of luck, or at random?

Participant: The murderer is acting under the influence of karma, but not the victim. The victim is just killed by chance.

Alex: Well, if things happen to us by chance, then there is absolutely nothing we can do about it and there is no reason to follow any sort of spiritual path. If someone wants to believe that, fine. But what is the consequence of this worldview? We have absolutely no ability to affect what happens to us in life. From the Buddhist point of view, there is something we can do about it.

Participant: The quality of the experience is what is karmic.

Alex: Exactly. That is why we differentiate experiencing the environment from experiencing feelings of happiness or unhappiness. All of these components do not come from the same karmic cause. Each component of the experience comes from different causes and they all come together in one experience. Going to the mountains just when it rains comes from one karmic cause, feeling happy or unhappy has another karmic cause, and feeling like staying there or leaving from yet another.

So, please bear in mind that just because we have a karmic cause to be caught in the rain and just because we feel like going at a certain moment and just because we actually go then, doesn’t guarantee that we actually will get caught in the rain. The result does not exist already inside the cause and will pop out as soon as we open its "karmic box." Many other karmic factors could ripen and affect the situation at any moment before the result actually happens.

Participant: But the rain is not coming from a karmic cause.

Alex: We are not saying that the rain comes from a personal karmic cause. We are saying that one of the causal factors contributing to the rain is the collective karma of everyone born into that environment. Life on this planet could evolve into life forms that require water only in conjunction with the evolution of an ecosystem that could provide that water. Thus, the evolution of a particular set of life forms and the evolution of the environment in which they could live both come inseparably from the collective karma of the beings that will be reborn in that supporting environment in one of those supported life forms. What comes from our personal karma is the feeling to go to the mountains at that particular moment, our own personal experiencing of the rain, and the rain as we personally experience it.

Let me give the real example of a friend of mine. She was on a train, sitting across from someone. At one moment, the feeling came to her mind to ask the person to switch seats with her. She did so, and five minutes later, there was a train accident. The person who took her seat got killed and she did not. This is what we are talking about: the feeling to get into a situation. Why did the feeling come up for her to ask to change seats? Buddhism says that that is not chance.

At that moment, nothing triggered any karmic causes for her to die, such as experiencing being on that train. In rather oversimplified language, she didn’t have the karma to die there and then. But her experiencing something else, such as sitting in the shade and feeling like having the sun on her face, triggered other karmic tendencies she had – for example, one to refrain from being shy and one to ask others to change seats with her, perhaps fueled by selfish concern. This would start to explain the karmic process.

But please bear in mind, it wasn’t the case that the feeling to ask to change seats had inherently predetermined in it the result that she would not die in the accident. Two different sets of personal karmic aftermath ripened under the influence of the same circumstance: her being on the train. One ripened into feeling like asking to change seats and one ripened into experiencing being in a train accident. Being on the train, however, did not act as a circumstance for ripening a personal karmic aftermath to die. All these things happened together, and even their happening together was not by chance. They were all interrelated. In Buddhist jargon, they "interdependently arose."

No one is saying that we have to accept the Buddhist explanation. However, it’s very helpful to look into the alternative explanations we might believe and what type of worldview and lifestyle they generate.

Things Happening by the Physical Laws of Nature

I have heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama say that not everything that happens is necessarily based on karma. There are physical laws of nature. The example he used was the leaves falling from a tree. Which leaves fall first from a tree and the order in which they fall and where they land on the ground is not from karma. The tree doesn’t have karma. The leaves don’t have karma. It is following physical laws. However, what happens to a person is occurring from karma. Karma explains what we experience, what happens to us.

Participant: Are those physical laws chance?

Alex: His Holiness didn’t say it was by chance, but by the laws of physics. I know a little about His Holiness’ way of thinking. What I think he meant in this discussion, which was with quantum physicists who were saying it is all by probability or chaos, is that you have to say from a Buddhist point of view that the creation of the universe and the type of universe that it is, with its particular physical laws and so on, have a cause in terms of the collective karma of all the beings who are not yet born into it, but who have the causes for rebirth in such physical conditions. Once a universe comes into existence from collective karmic causes, then all the laws of science, all the laws of physics will follow. Those laws will dictate what actually happens with the falling of leaves, the revolving of planets, and so on.

This is how His Holiness usually explains it. Collective karma causes the type of universe we are in and then the laws of physics of that universe take over. When a rock falls, it is not the karma of the rock to fall, but it is my karma to feel like walking then and it is my karma that I get hit. Getting hit, however, was not inherently existent already in the walking, or in the karmic aftermath that ripened into feeling like walking then. The collective karma shapes the type of universe that comes from a Big Bang. What physically happens in that universe comes from the laws of physics. What each being experiences comes from karma, behavioral cause and effect.

Mental Continuums Lack Inherent Identities

Our mental continuums or mind-streams do not have inherent identities of one life form or another. That is why we say that the experience of a tainted body comes from a set of karmic aftermath. If one is constantly nervous and moving from one thing to another and can never settle anywhere, the karmic aftermath of that will ripen as a type of body that will suit that mentality, like a fly, for example. This example is not from a text. The examples from the texts might make some of you freak out. What causes one to be reborn in a male body and the attitude one has to have toward females in order to achieve that doesn’t suit a Western mentality. It says that by admiring the male form and seeing the disadvantages of a female rebirth, one is reborn as a male.

Participant: It is questionable whether a male body is that much of an advantage.

Alex: It is the same with a female body. Why is one reborn as a female? Attachment to the female body, thinking the male body is terrible. The texts also mention that people who are extremely attached to their bodies can be reborn as worms who eat their past bodies. We can be so attached to someone, that we can be born as a louse in their hair or a worm in their stomachs. These are examples in the texts. One uses simple examples as an educational tool to understand a principle. Then one can go into increasingly complicated explanations.

We need to be openminded about all of this. What we try to do in learning the Dharma is to remove the three faults of a vase. If a vase has a hole in the bottom, whatever we pour in, goes out. We don’t remember it. The second is that if a vase is upside down, it is closed, so nothing goes in. This is like immediately saying "No!" to anything we hear. The third is that if a vase is dirty, then whatever we pour into it gets dirty. If we have all sorts of preconceptions, then we project them onto what we hear. We don’t really listen. Please try not to reject a presentation before listening to it. Listen to the whole system. Try to understand it. Don’t just reject every difficult point.

Participant: How can a small child who is abused have anything to do with it?

Alex: The problem here is mistakenly identifying this mental continuum with the particular rebirth in which the karma ripens. Many things ripen in each lifetime. One particular set of karmic aftermath, or a combination of them, will cause a rebirth and millions of other sets of karmic aftermath will ripen into what happens in that lifetime. Each mental continuum has no beginning, which means that the mental continuum experiences being every possible life form and doing every possible type of constructive or destructive action. If we look at the abuse as "the poor little girl didn’t deserve this," it is looking at it from a very limited perspective, really identifying with just that form and just that lifetime and thinking that nothing else affects it. To say that she is to blame for what happened adds further misconceptions, the whole idea of guilt and punishment, which is alien to the Buddhist view of Karma. To say she deserved it implies there is somebody else sending punishment. Buddhism never says that.

Only a Buddha Knows Karma Fully

Participant: Since there are a million causes, what happens comes down to being random.

Alex: It is not random. It comes down to only the omniscient mind of a Buddha being able to consider every single factor in the universe that is affecting us. That is why only a Buddha can really understand karma. This does not mean that Buddha determines what is going to happen. It is not Buddha’s choice. It is not that it is predetermined, which implies that someone else has decided what is going to happen and it can’t be changed. It can be changed. Buddha knows what we need to do to be able to change it in such a way that if we make this tiny little change now, the consequences will be enormous for us and for all future generations and everybody that we meet. It is unbelievable.

Skillful means entails a Buddha’s knowledge of the effects of saying or suggesting something. We try our best at our levels, but we are limited with our periscope vision. For example, we don’t know the full effects of some aspect of raising our children and how they will then interact with their friends. Yes, it is very complicated and yes, it looks to us as if it is random. But, this is what is so horrible about samsara: from our points of view it does look as though it is random. Our minds make things appear in this limited way because the hardware – this limited body and brain – can’t make things appear in any other way. It is mixed with confusion. We think that it is random because it appears like that, but it is not. What happens is influenced by a million different things. It is unbelievably complex because everything in the universe is interconnected.

The Universe Lacks Inherent Justice

Participant: If I am sincerely practicing, then by this explanation it can still happen that, because of millions of causes, something terrible ripens. With all my goodness, I am not able to change anything of what happens. That is frightening.

Alex: That is absolutely correct. Look at the example of all the great monks and nuns and masters of Tibet who were thrown into concentration camps and tortured to death. Many of them were great practitioners.

Yesterday, we discussed how we get rid of karmic ripenings. There are three stages. The first is liberation. It is unbelievably advanced. It is not just the first moment of the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, when we become aryas. We are talking about liberation from samsara. Then we have to die from that lifetime to get rid of the next part and then get enlightened to get rid of the whole thing. So, just by leading a good life, meditating, and even becoming an arya, we could still get killed in a car accident.

That feels unjust because we feel that there is inherent justice in the universe, which some judge or higher authority is in control of. That authority should mete out justice and we got the wrong verdict from the judge. Justice and injustice come from a totally non-Buddhist conceptual framework that we find very strongly in Western thinking. The concepts of innocence, guilt, fairness, and forgiveness also come from the same framework. Many disturbing attitudes arise based on a conceptual framework that we have acquired from our upbringings – from our families, our cultures, our education, political propaganda, commercial advertising, the media, and so on. One of them is that the universe should be just and fair, and that there is such a thing as justice. This is culturally specific. It is not a universal law. According to the Buddhist analysis, there is no such thing as justice existing inherently in the universe from its own side or put into the universe by its creator.

Participant: What about a baby who dies?

Alex: It makes absolutely no sense if we look at just this lifetime. No baby should ever die and every meditator should have a happy ending, but it doesn’t work like that. This is one of the big dilemmas that arise in Biblical thinking. We have so much discussion in our Western religious traditions about the Book of Job. Job was such a good person, why did God punish him? Why is there suffering if there is an omnipotent God who is just and fair? This is a major problem in Western thinking. Buddhism gives the answer: omnipotence is impossible and there is no reason why things should be fair. If there were an omnipotent creator, who was also compassionate, such things as what happened to Job make absolutely no sense.

Is There Order in the Universe?

Participant: If there is no justice, doesn’t this imply that there is no order?

Alex: No, it doesn’t. Buddhism has no problem with saying that there is order in the universe. Order is not the same as justice. Justice means that someone makes a judgment. It implies a judge who could give the right or wrong judgment. It is not like that. The causes are beginningless; so if one only looks at this lifetime we cannot explain what happens. There is order in the long run, structured by cause and effect, but justice introduces a judge, and there is no judge.

Participant: It feels unjust.

Alex: Exactly. It feels as though it is random, or as though it should be just, or as though poor me has been given the wrong sentence. It does feel like that. This is what is so terrible. This is what is called an "appearance of true existence."

It is impossible for there not to be order in the universe, but if you introduce the idea of justice, it is possible that what happens is unjust. With Job, his family died, all these horrible things happened to him, and yet he still had faith in God. "Why have you sent this to me if you are compassionate?" Then there are theories like God is testing me in order to see if I still believe and still have faith. There are all these Judeo-Christian solutions to this contradiction in the system of thinking.

Participant: From the New Testament point of view, Jesus took the sins of the world onto his shoulders so we don’t need to suffer so much to be tested.

Alex: This is my whole point: this idea of justice is totally from the point of view of a system that believes in God the Judge. God is the one who sends whatever happens to you. Whereas the idea of order in the universe does not depend on there being a judge or a God.

Let me add something to that. We in the West are heirs not only of the Biblical background, but also of the Ancient Greek worldview. So, from the ancient Greeks we inherit the idea of civil justice: that things have to be just on a civil level. To function properly, a society needs to base itself on laws coming from a legislature, from the people. We have a whole history of the dynamic between civil law and divine law here in the West.

Activating Karmic Aftermath for Further Samsara

Let’s turn, now, to the mechanism through which karmic aftermath ripens. In the case of the karmic aftermath that ripens into the aggregates of a future rebirth, three factors are involved. As explained in the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising, the three are craving (sred-pa), an obtainer (len-pa, grasping), and further existence (srid-pa, becoming) – links eight, nine, and ten.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]


Craving is a form of longing desire (‘dod-chags). The original Sanskrit term, trshna, means thirst. While experiencing feeling some level of tainted happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling accompanying our cognition of something during the moments right before death, we crave to experience something in the future. In the case of experiencing tainted happiness, we crave not to be parted from it – in other words, not to lose it. When feeling pain or unhappiness, we crave to be parted from it. When experiencing a neutral feeling, such as when we are asleep or in a coma, we crave for it not to degenerate.

In each of these cases, our craving is a disturbing emotion that accompanies a cognition in which we are experiencing the karmic results that have ripening from some previous karmic aftermath. The karmic results we’re experiencing include much more than just the tainted feeling of happiness and so on that accompany our cognition during our dying moments. They include also experiencing the other four tainted aggregates (our body and mind), things happening to us similar to what we have done in the past, and so on. Our craving is a necessary simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-rkyen) for obtaining a future rebirth.

Craving serves as the support for an obtainer, which is another simultaneously acting condition that needs to be present for obtaining a rebirth. An obtainer refers any one of a set of other disturbing emotions or attitudes that, along with craving, would be accompanying our experiencing of tainted aggregates. It is due to the presence of one of these obtainers that our tainted aggregates are also "obtaining" aggregates in this situation.

An Obtainer

The obtainer may be attachment to some desirable sensory object we are now experiencing, or longing desire for some desirable sensory object that presently we are not experiencing. Alternatively, the obtainer may be one of the five disturbing attitudes, the most prominent of which is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (‘jig-lta). Thus, feeling, craving, and an obtainer constitute a single cognition. That moment of cognition could be, for instance, hearing the voice of a loved one while lying on our deathbed, accompanied by:

  • a happy feeling,
  • craving not to be parted from that happiness, and
  • one, two, or all three of the following:
    1. attachment to the sound of the voice,
    2. longing desire for the touch of our loved one’s hand,
    3. grasping at what we are experiencing – the loved one, this happiness, and so on – as part of the seemingly solid identity of a seemingly solid "me."

Further Existence

As simultaneously acting conditions, our craving and obtainer arouse (gsos-‘debs) the tenth link of dependent arising, further existence, usually translated as "becoming." The word that I translate here as "further existence" means, literally, "existence," referring to a future rebirth. Here, the name of the result is being given to the cause. Thus, what craving and an obtainer arouse is the impulse – a mental karma – that actualizes a future existence, namely our next rebirth (yang-srid sgrub-pa’i las). For this reason, I call it a "survival impulse."

This further existence impulse, still accompanied by craving and an obtainer, activates (nus-pa mthu-can-du byed-pa) the karmic aftermath of a throwing karma (‘phen-byed-kyi las). The activated karmic aftermath then ripens into our next rebirth, with its four phases: bardo existence (bar-do’i srid-pa), conception existence (skye-srid), predeath existence (sngon-dus-kyi srid-pa) (the period from the moment after conception until death), and death existence (‘chi-srid).

According to the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka tenet systems, this mechanism describes only the activation of the throwing karma that ripens into the aggregates of our future rebirth. In the context of the presentation of the twelve links, the three links only refer specifically to what happens during the moments immediately preceding our deaths. However, I think that we can use it to describe the mechanism for the ripening of our karmic aftermath in each moment, although I have never read or heard it explained in this way.

My reasons for thinking this are that the samsaric existence thrown by the further existence impulse has the four phases of existence, one of which is predeath existence – every moment of our existence after conception until we die. Also, it is because the Vaibhashika tenets assert that all twelve links can be complete in each moment of our samsaric existence, although Vaibhashika defines the twelve links quite differently from this description. Thus, I often have explained that the further existence impulse is the compulsive impulse to continue existing, which draws us into the next moment in which the karmic aftermath it activates will give its results.

So, let’s use this description to explain how we further our samsara in each moment, not just at the time of our deaths. In terms of it, we need also to understand that the specific set of karmic aftermath activated at any moment depends on many other mental factors that also accompany that moment of experiencing some past karmic ripening with craving and an obtainer. Most significant is the manner in which we pay attention to or regard what we are experiencing. This involves the mental factor of attention or regard (yid-la byed-pa).

Chart for Understanding the Generation of Further Samsara

    The Period of Time Four Steps before Committing Action #1B
Action #1A, Due to Karmic Aftermath #1A of Action #1 and Resulting in Karmic Aftermath #1B   Karmic Aftermath #2 of a Completely Different Action #2
Committing Action #1A, Which Will Lead to the Tendency to Repeat Action #1   Tendency for Tainted Feeling #2 of Some Level of Happiness


    The Period of Time Three Steps before Committing Action #1B
Karmic Aftermath #1B   Experiencing the Ripening of Karmic Aftermath #2 as Activators, Aimed at Tainted Feeling #2 and Which Activate Karmic Aftermath #1B
Tendency to Repeat Action #1, Which Will Lead to Feeling Like Committing Action #1B   Tainted Feeling #2 of Some Level of Happiness
  • Regard
  • Craving
  • Obtainer Disturbing Attitude
  • Further Existence Impulse


    The Period of Time Two Steps before Committing Action #1B
Experiencing the Ripening of Karmic Aftermath #1B as
Feeling Like Repeating Action #1, Which Will Lead to the Impulse to Commit Action #1B


    Period of Time One Step before Committing Action #1B
Karma Causal Motivating Mental Framework for Committing Action #1B   Karmic Aftermath #3 of a Completely Different Action #3
Impulse To Commit Action #1B, Which Will Lead to Committing Action #1B
  • Distinguishing an Object
  • Causal Motivating Aim
  • Disturbing Emotion or Attitude
  Tendency for Tainted Feeling #3 of Some Level of Happiness


    While Committing Action #1B
Action #1B Contemporaneous Motivating Mental Framework While Committing Action #1B   Experiencing the Ripening of Karmic Aftermath #3 as Activators, Aimed at Tainted Feeling #3 and Which Activate Karmic Aftermath #4 Karmic Aftermath #4 of a Completely Different Action #4
Committing Action #1B, Which Will Lead to the Tendency to Repeat Action #1 Yet Again
  • Distinguishing an Object
  • Contemporaneous Motivating Aim
  • Disturbing Emotion or Attitude
  Tainted Feeling #3 of Some Level of Happiness
  • Regard
  • Craving
  • Obtainer Disturbing Attitude
  • Further Existence Impulse
Tendency to Repeat Action #4, Which Will Lead to Feeling Like Repeating Action #4


    After Committing Action #1B
Karmic Aftermath #1C   Experiencing the Ripening of Karmic Aftermath #4 as
Karmic Tendency to Repeat Action #1 Yet Again   Feeling Like Repeating Action #4

A More Detailed Analysis

Let us look more closely. In the present moment, we are experiencing the ripening of several sets of past karmic aftermath. We are experiencing happiness or unhappiness, this body, things similar to what we did to others before, and so on. One of the possible configurations of karmic ripenings that we might be experiencing could be explained in terms of the eight transitory things in life (‘jig-rten chos-brgyad), usually translated as the "eight worldly dharmas." These are either feeling happy or unhappy with praise or blame, pleasure or pain, gain or loss, or hearing good news or bad news, which can also mean things going well or not going well. All of those – receiving praise, blame, and so on – are the ripenings of one set of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath; they are things happening to us similar to what we did to others before. These are going up and down and we cannot predict what will happen next. Although the texts talk about eight such transitory things, I am sure we could count many more, just as the ten destructive actions or fifty-one mental factors are not limited to ten or fifty-one.

[See: Dispelling Discomfort at the Eight Transitory Things in Life.]

The happiness or unhappiness that accompanies our experiencing of receiving praise, blame, and so on is the ripening of a different set of intermittently ripening karmic aftermath. They too go up and down. This is samsara, this is what we experience, the ripening of karmic aftermath.

Accompanying our experiencing of this moment of karmic ripenings, we have the mental factor of craving. We crave not to lose the happiness we are now experiencing while receiving praise, pleasure, gain, or hearing good news. Or, we crave to be rid of the unhappiness we are now experiencing while receiving things we don’t like – blame, pain, loss, or hearing bad news. On the other hand, maybe we don’t care what other people say or what happens to us. Yet, we might still crave for that neutral feeling not to degenerate.

An obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude also accompanies our experiencing of this transitory thing in life. The most common form here is a deluded outlook toward a transitory network. This is a disturbing attitude that regards our aggregates – our bodies or minds – as a solid "me" or as solidly "mine." Basically, we regard what is happening as happening to a solid "me, as "my" experience. This person is praising "me," or he is blaming "me."

From craving and this deluded outlook arises a further existence impulse to continue existing in the next moment. Note that since we have craving and this deluded attitude all the time, we are continuously experiencing further existence impulses. The further existence impulse, still accompanied by craving and a deluded outlook, activate a new set of intermittently-ripening karmic aftermath that will ripen into what we experience next, right after hearing this praise or blame. For example, the combination of (1) feeling unhappy at hearing blame, (2) craving to get rid of that unhappiness, and (3) identifying with a seemingly solid "me" that will continue free of that unhappiness activates the next configuration of karmic aftermath that will ripen.

The specific set of karmic aftermath that this combination activates depends on the other mental factors that accompany our experience of hearing this praise or blame, especially how we pay attention to it, how we regard it. We might hear blame with unhappiness while regarding it as something unbearable and horrible, and feeling anger. But, we might also experience hearing it with happiness, while regarding it with patience as an opportunity to learn about our faults and to correct them. The two different clusters of mental factors will cause our craving and obtainer to activate different sets of karmic aftermath.

Another Example

Let’s look at another example, to make sure that we understand the principle. We were feeling happy as the ripening of some past karmic aftermath and then we craved not to lose that happiness, while identifying with the experience as a solid "me." What does the anxious dissatisfaction of that craving do? It acts as a condition for a further existence impulse to arise – an impulse to go on existing in the next moment so that this seemingly solid "me" can survive and continue experiencing happiness, which we were afraid of losing. This activates another set of karmic aftermath so that, in the next moment after that, the aftermath ripens and our mood changes. Now we might feel unhappy or something else.

If I am sitting here thinking I exist as a solid "me" and I really want some happiness to continue, it often just destroys it, doesn’t it? It’s like being with a friend and saying, "Aren’t we having a good time?" In the next moment, I am unhappy. My mood changes. Why does my mood change? Why do I stop feeling happy? Why do we feel like doing this in one moment and in the next we don’t feel like doing it anymore? Something else ripens. Why? Because I am grasping for a solid "me" and I want that solid "me" to continue existing. It causes something else to ripen. Someone is praising us and we feel happy. We want this to continue. Me, me, me, I am so wonderful. That activates something and we start to doubt the sincerity of the praise and think they don’t really mean it and so on. Each moment, something else is ripening so that our level of happiness or unhappiness continuously goes up and down. It changes. Otherwise, the level of happiness should stay the same or just gradually end like a flower wilting. But it doesn’t do either, does it? This explains how samsaric ups and downs happen.

Participant: I can feel good when someone praises me, but it can also change when someone blames me.

Alex: The thing is that we are feeling good and we crave not to lose that feeling. We want it to continue. It could trigger a next moment of happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling, regardless of whether we hear blame. Each moment’s experience is ripening from different sets of karmic aftermath. The happiness we were experiencing was the ripening from some past karmic network. All the rest of the things we were experiencing – the words that someone said and our hearing of it, someone coming in and interrupting, the telephone ringing – all of them are ripenings from a million different other things. All of our karmic aftermath activates and ripens based on craving, an obtainer attitude such as identifying with a solid "me," and an impulse to exist further into the next moment to sustain this seemingly solid "me." This is very profound.

Remember, what we are talking about is how karmic aftermath ripens into the next moment of happiness or unhappiness that we experience and into our experiencing of whatever that tainted feeling will accompany. We are explaining how when we are in a conversation with someone, for example, our level of happiness changes every moment. It does not stay the same. All of this is the activation and ripening of karmic aftermath and it is all coming because during the experience of each moment of the conversation there is this craving, an obtainer, a further existence impulse, and a certain way in which we are regarding what we are experiencing. When the conversation is going well, we consider it as interesting and want it to continue. When it is not going well, we consider it a waste of time and want it to end; and we identify with what is happening throughout.

Participant: Something can also be so beautiful, we can’t stand it.

Alex: That is right, we can destroy our happiness in many ways.

At the moment, we are only talking about what causes karmic aftermath to activate and ripen. Unactivated karmic aftermath is not karma. It takes another karmic impulse, a further existence impulse, to activate it and, when it is activated, the activated karmic aftermath is still not karma. What ripens from the activated karmic aftermath is also not karma. Karma, meaning karmic aftermath, never ripens into karma.

What ripens from karma is happiness, everything else that we experience, what happens to us, and what we feel like doing. Based on how we regard what we are experiencing in the moment, our continuing craving and an obtainer attitude arouse a further existence impulse and that further existence impulse activates another set of karmic aftermath. Then we experience something else as the next karmic ripening. At any point, what we feel like doing (which is a ripening of karmic aftermath) may lead to the impulse actually to do it (another karma), and then to our actually doing it. It is not that we just act.

The Arising of Further Karmic Impulses

Let me give a more detailed explanation of how further karmic impulses arise. Suppose we are experiencing the ripening of some previous sets of karmic aftermath – one, for example, has ripened into hearing the loud noise of a neighbor and another has ripened into experiencing this with unhappiness. We have probably disturbed others with our loud noise in some previous life and, as a previous ripening of the karmic aftermath of that, we felt like moving into a neighborhood that happened to have loud neighbors. Not only did we feel like moving there, but also, because of many other contributing causes and circumstances, we actually moved there. Hearing the noise with unhappiness, we have the craving to get rid of this unhappiness. We also have an obtainer disturbing attitude: we identify with a solid "me" who cannot tolerate the situation, and this brings on a further existence impulse to continue solidly existing free of it.

What does the combination of all of this do? It activates another set of karmic aftermath and so some tendency and potential to make a big scene ripens into feeling like banging on the door of our neighbor and yelling at him. Many mental factors accompany this moment of cognition. One of the most important in this context is the manner in which we pay attention to the loud noise we hear while feeling like making a big scene. We might pay attention to it as a horrible intrusion on our peace of mind, or we might regard it as a welcomed challenge to our practice of tolerance and patience. This depends on previous tendencies we have built up.

Our regard for the noise as an intrusion, our continuing identification with a solid "me," and our craving to go on living free of the noise would act as circumstances for another set of karmic potentials and tendencies to activate. The potential and tendency to feel unhappy in such situations would ripen into our continuing to feel unhappy. On the other hand, our regard for the noise as a challenge, along with the other causal factors, would do the same for now feeling happy because we welcome the challenge.

Our experiencing of the feeling to bang on the door is now accompanied, in the first case, with regarding banging on the door as beneficial and, in the second, as detrimental. In the first case, with continuing regard of banging on the door as a good solution, continuing to identify with a solid "me," and continuing craving to be parted from the unhappiness we feel, our feeling like banging on the door brings on an impulse to actually go and do it. That impulse to do it, when still accompanied by this craving, obtainer, and regard, brings on our actually banging on the door.

In the case of regarding the noise as a welcomed challenge, feeling happy, regarding banging on the door as an unhelpful solution, and our impulse to go on existing as a solid "me" with peace of mind activate a different set of potentials and tendencies. It might activate the potential and tendency to refrain from making a scene; and then that activated potential and tendency would ripen into feeling like refraining from banging on the door. The feeling like refraining brings on the impulse to hold ourselves back, and then we actually sit back and don’t go. The mechanism is the same as with going and banging.

Thus, we see that craving and an obtainer attitude, mainly identifying with a solid "me," play the crucial roles in activating and ripening karmic aftermath and in bringing about the arising of further karmic impulses. If we get rid of the craving and this obtainer, which come from the first of the twelve links – unawareness or confusion about how we exist – so that they never recur, then there is no longer any activating and ripening of karmic aftermath and no more production of any more karma. That is how to attack this whole system; this is its weak point. We must rid ourselves of our identifying with a solid "me" that underlies our craving and our obtainer disturbing attitude. To be rid of identifying with a solid "me," we need to rid ourselves of grasping for a solid "me," which we can only do if we realize fully that there is no such thing. We need to realize voidness: the fact that our conventionally existent "me" is totally devoid of existing in impossible ways.

Let us take a few moments and try to digest this.



Time is up for the weekend seminar and I must apologize. I prepared a much larger amount of material for this weekend, but I think if we can get a basic understanding of what I have presented, it is helpful as a start. Only if we understand the system of karma and the weakness in the system – craving not to be separated from happiness and to be parted from suffering, and an obtainer disturbing attitude such as identifying with a solid "me" – can we understand the process of purification.

Let us end here with a dedication. Whatever we have learned, may it go deeper and deeper. May it act as a cause for eventually overcoming being under the control of this mechanism of karma so that we may achieve enlightenment and be of best help to everyone.