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What Does a Buddha Know
in Knowing the Past,
Present, and Future?

Alexander Berzin
October 2007

Part Three: Analysis of the Gelug Prasangika Assertions

Further Background Material

Range of the Analysis

Since the issue of free will versus determinism hinges on the understanding of “ not-yet-happenings,” let us focus our analysis, for the moment, primarily on them.

Moreover, let us limit our discussion to the Gelug Prasangika assertion of “not-yet-happenings” as nonstatic implicative negation phenomena. Unlike Gelug Chittamatra and Yogachara-Svatantrika, Gelug Prasangika accepts the existence of external phenomena. Thus, “not-yet-happenings” can be specified in terms of internally or externally occurring sequences of cause and effect. Internally occurring sequences refer to sequences of moments occurring on someone’s mental continuum.

  • Internally occurring sequences may be sequences of karmic experience, such as of acting destructively as a karmic cause and experiencing suffering as a karmic result.

  • They may also be sequences of episodes of the arising of mental factors, such as anger or patience, as a result of causal tendencies for them.

  • Or they may be cognitive sequences, such as when seeing a leaf fall from a tree to the ground.

Externally occurring sequences include a leaf changing position as it falls from a tree to the ground and unfired clay becoming a clay pot.

Let us first speak of sequences of someone’s experiencing of karmic cause and effect, such as the causal action of hitting, with anger, someone with an object and experiencing, as its karmic result, being hit on the head with a clay pot by someone and then wanting to hit the person back who hit us.

Karmic Impulses and Karmic Tendencies

Karma is a complex topic that entails many variables. Karma (las) is a tainted impulse on the mental continuum of someone either committing a constructive or destructive mental, physical, or verbal action or causing someone else to commit a physical or verbal act.

  • Karma is tainted (zag-bcas, “contaminated”) in the sense that it derives from a disturbing emotion or attitude, or is related in some way with a disturbing emotion or attitude.

According to Gelug Prasangika:

  • The karmic impulse of a mental action is the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa) to think, do, or say something.

  • The karmic impulse of a physical action is the revealing form (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) of the shape of enacting the physical action and the nonrevealing form (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) or “subtle vibration” contemporaneous with and subsequent to the physical action.

  • The karmic impulse of a verbal action is the revealing form of the sound produced in enacting the verbal action and the nonrevealing form or “subtle vibration” contemporaneous with and subsequent to the verbal action.

Unlike physical sequences of cause and effect, such as kicking a ball and the ball moves as its immediate result, the connection between a karmic impulse as a cause and a “ripening” as its result is not an immediate sequential one. The intermediary stages entail “karmic aftermath,” consisting of several factors. Let us limit the presentation of karmic aftermath to discussion of only karmic legacies (sa-bon, Skt. bija, “karmic seed”) and simplify the explanation by not differentiating karmic tendencies from karmic forces.

  • “Karmic legacies” is a general term that includes (1) karmic tendencies (sa-bon), which are always ethically unspecified (lung ma-bstan), and (2) both constructive karmic forces (bsod-nams, Skt. punya; merit) and destructive karmic forces (sdig-pa, Skt. papa, “sin”), when these two have taken on the essential nature of a karmic tendency (sa-bon-gyi ngo-bor gyur-ba).
  • A karmic legacy is a noncongruent affecting variable imputed on a mental continuum.

[See: Logical Pervasions of the Technical Terms for the Different Types of Karmic Aftermath.]

Since the main emphasis in the following sections is “not-yet-happenings,” and since the term karmic legacy connotes a relation with the past and karmic tendency a relation with the future, then for ease of expression and understanding, on this occasion we shall call karmic legacies “karmic tendencies.”

The Ripenings of Tendencies

Karmic tendencies from karmic impulses ripen into such things as:

  • the primary consciousness (rnam-shes) involved when experiencing a result similar to its cause in our behavior or our experience, such as the body consciousness of the physical sensation of being hit on the head with a clay pot by someone,

  • the mental factor of liking or wishing (‘ dod-pa) to do an action similar to one we did before, such as wanting to hit the person back who hit us on the head with a clay pot,

  • the eye consciousness of seeing the person who hit us while wanting to hit him or her back,

  • the feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or in between that accompanies the primary consciousnesses in each of the above cases,

  • our human body and its physical elements, but only in the context of their serving as the physical basis for the above-mentioned primary consciousnesses and mental factors,

  • the body sensors of our human body, but only in the context of their serving as the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) of the body cognition of the physical sensation of being hit on the head.

The above phenomena do not all ripen from the same karmic tendency. Feelings of happiness and the bodies of the better rebirth states ripen from constructive actions in general, while feelings of unhappiness and the bodies of the worse rebirth states ripen from destructive actions in general. The other phenomena mentioned in the above example ripen from the specific destructive action of us hitting someone else on the head with something.

[See: Causes, Conditions, and Results.]

Karmic tendencies are not the only type of tendencies on our mental continuum. There are

  • tendencies from the mental factors that have accompanied previous moments of cognition,

  • tendencies involved with memory – namely, tendencies to think something similar to what we have previously experienced or to carry out an action, such as signing our names, in a manner similar to how we have done it before.

The first of these two is relevant here – tendencies for mental factors. Such tendencies may be for

  • destructive mental factors, such as anger,

  • constructive mental factors, such as patience,

  • ethically unspecified mental factors, such as concentration.

Let us speak here just of the first of these three. A tendency for a disturbing emotion, such as anger, would give rise to the disturbing emotion of anger that accompanies the primary consciousness ripening from a karmic tendency. In our above example, this would be the anger we have while experiencing the physical sensation of pain from having been hit on the head with the clay pot by someone and while wanting to hit the person back who hit us.

Karmic tendencies and tendencies from mental factors do not ripen, however, into the forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) that are the objects of our cognition, but which are not conjoined with our mental continuums, such as the clay pot itself.

  • External objects, such as a clay pot, cast an impression of themselves on a consciousness.

  • The impression is a mental aspect (rnam-pa) that resembles the external object. It arises in the cognition somewhat like a mental hologram representing that external object.

[See: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation.]

The clay pot itself arises as a result of numerous causes and conditions, such as the unfired clay, the firing oven, the heat of the firing oven, the potter’s wheel, the potter, and so on. The relation between our karma and the clay pot is established merely in the context of our cognition of the physical sensation or sight of the pot.

  • Karmic causes on the mental continuum of the person who hit us on the head with the pot ripened into that person’s wanting to hit us, and that led to his or her action of hitting us with the pot.

  • Karmic causes on our mental continuum ripened into our cognizing the physical sensation of the pot hitting us on our head. They did not ripen into that other person’s wanting to hit us or into his or her action of hitting us.

Moreover, even though our body that is hit on the head with the clay pot by someone has ripened from a karmic tendency, our body did not pop out as a material object from a karmic tendency on our mental continuums. Our bodies have many other causes, such as the sperm and egg of our parents and our mother’s womb.

Points to Analyze

During the temporal interval between a presently-happening karmic impulse, a presently-happening karmic action, a presently-happening karmic tendency, and a presently-happening karmic result all occurring on an individual mental continuum, there is also imputable on that mental continuum, after the occurrence of the presently-happening karmic action and before the occurrence of the presently-happening karmic result," the “not-yet-happening of the result.” But, in our example:

  • Is the “not-yet-happening of the result” the “not-yet-happening” of the body consciousness of the physical sensation and pain of being hit on the head with a clay pot by someone?

  • Is it the “not-yet-happening” of the unhappy feeling that will accompany that body consciousness?

  • Is it the “not-yet-happening” of the anger that will accompany that body consciousness?

  • Is it the “not-yet-happening” of the clay pot that will hit us?

  • Is it the “not-yet-happening” of our body at the moment that it will be hit by the clay pot?

  • Is it the “not-yet-happening” of the person who has not yet hit us with the clay pot, but will hit us, or the “not-yet-happening” of his or her body, or the “not-yet-happening” of his or her act of hitting us with the clay pot?

  • Or is it the entire “not-yet-happening” event of being hit on the head with a clay pot by someone, imputed as a “whole” on all these parts?

Moreover, what is the presently-happening status of

  • that body consciousness that has not yet happened,

  • that unhappy feeling that has not yet happened,

  • that anger that has not yet happened,

  • that clay pot at the moment it is about to hit us, when presently it has not yet hit us,

  • our body at the moment it is about to be hit, when presently it has not yet been hit, and so on?

To answer these questions, we need to differentiate further subtle points concerning what exactly is a “not-yet-happening of something” and how we would cognize one.

Further Points to Differentiate

Noncongruent Affecting Variables and Labeling

Gelug Prasangika accepts the distinction, made by the other Indian Buddhist tenet systems, between some phenomena being self-sufficiently knowable and some being only imputably knowable, but asserts the manner in which they make this distinction as referring merely to the coarse level of these two sets of phenomena. According to that coarse level of understanding:

  • Self-sufficiently knowable phenomena (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod) are validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, do not rely on actual cognition of something else.

  • Imputedly knowable phenomena (btags-yod) are validly knowable phenomena that, when cognized, do rely on actual cognition of something else.

“Actual cognition of something else” refers to explicit cognition of the object’s basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi, basis for imputation). On the subtle level, Prasangika asserts that all validly knowable phenomena are imputedly knowable, and that the set of self-sufficiently knowable phenomena is a null set.

[See: The Distinction between Self-Sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena.]

Noncongruent affecting variables, such as “not-yet-happenings,” are imputedly knowable in this coarse sense. This means that in order actually to cognize a “not-yet-happening of something,” either conceptually or nonconceptually, the basis for labeling the “not-yet-happening” needs also to be simultaneously cognized.

Note that:

  • The phrase not-yet-happening is the mental label (btags).
  • The “basis for labeling” or “basis for imputation” is that on which the mental label is imputed.
  • The “referent object” (btags-chos) is that to which the mental label refers on this basis – in other words, the actual “not-yet-happening.”
  • According to Gelug Prasangika, what establishes the existence of a “not-yet-happening” is its merely being the referent object of a validly labeled mental label. It is devoid of being established as a “referent thing” (btags-don) findable on the side of its basis for labeling.
  • The conceptual act of mentally labeling something does not create the referent object of the mental label, let alone the findable “referent thing” corresponding to the mental label.

The Basis for Labeling

While a “karmic tendency for a result” is imputable on a mental continuum – the tendency’s “ facet of temporarily not giving rise to its result” (re-zhig-gis ma-skye-pa’i cha) is the “not-yet-happening of the result.” Thus, the basis for labeling the “not-yet-happening of the result” is a facet or, literally, a part (cha) of the karmic tendency for that result. That facet or part is the karmic tendency’s “ temporarily not-giving-rise to its result,” or, more specifically, the karmic tendency’s “ temporarily not-giving-rise to its result so long as all the contributing circumstances for giving rise to it are incomplete.”

  • Like the “not-yet-happening of the result,” the “temporarily not-giving-rise to its result” is a nonstatic implicative negation phenomena and a noncongruent affecting variable, imputably knowable on the basis of a karmic tendency.

  • The karmic tendency is a nonstatic affirmation phenomenon. Moreover, it too is a noncongruent affecting variable, imputably knowable on the basis of a mental continuum.

  • Here, in identifying the basis for labeling a karmic tendency as the mental continuum (sems-rgyud), we are identifying it only in the most general sense. The Gelug Sautrantika and Svatantrika tenet systems specify the mental continuum as a continuum of mental consciousness, the Gelug Chittamatra system as a continuum of all-encompassing foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana, storehouse consciousness); while Gelug anuttarayoga tantra specifies it as a mental continuum of clear-light mind. Gelug Prasangika identifies the basis for labeling a karmic tendency specifically as the mere “me” (nga-tsam), which itself is also a noncongruent affecting variable, imputably knowable on the basis of a mental continuum. The mere “me” is equivalent to the conventionally existent “me” (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i nga)

Thus, to cognize the “not-yet-happening of the result,” we must rely on actual simultaneous cognition of the presently-happening mental continuum on which is imputable the karmic tendency for the result that has, imputably knowable on it, a “facet of temporarily not giving rise to its result.”

The Object Being Negated

According to the definition of a negation phenomenon, to know the “not-yet-happening of the result,” we need to apprehend and then cut off the object being negated in the negation phenomenon. The object being negated in the negation phenomenon the not-yet-happening of the result is a “present-happening of the result,” which is a nonstatic affirmation phenomenon. As we have seen, it is not necessary to know the details of the result in order to negate the “present-happening of the result.”

The Basis for the Negation

The “basis for the negation” (dgag-gzhi) is the item that is devoid of an object to be negated. In the case of the negation phenomenon the not-yet-happening of the result on the mental continuum, the basis that is devoid of “ the presence of a ‘present-happening of the result on the mental continuum’” is the “absence of the ‘present-happening of the result on the mental continuum’” (sems-rgyud-sgang-la da-lta-ba’i ‘bras-bu med-pa).

  • That absence is a static nonimplicative negation phenomenon, also imputably knowable on the basis of the mental continuum. To cognize the “absence of the ‘present-happening of the result on the mental continuum,’” we need also to cognize the presently happening mental continuum.

  • So long as this absence is imputable on the mental continuum, this absence is a fact that does not change: the result is not happening now. After the sounds of the words that express this absence exclude their object being negated the presence of the “present-happening of the result on the mental continuum,” they do not leave anything behind in their wake, either explicitly or implicitly.

For the negation phenomenon an absence of the “present-happening of the result on the mental continuum,” the mental continuum is both the basis for labeling and the basis for the negation.

  • Only if there is an “absence of the ‘present-happening of the result’ on the mental continuum,” can there be a “not-yet-happening of the result on that mental continuum.”

But, even if there is an “absence of the ‘ present-happening of the result’ on the mental continuum,” there can only be a “not-yet-happening of the result on that mental continuum” if there is also imputable on that mental continuum a “ karmic tendency for that result, which is temporarily not giving rise to its result.”

Once the karmic tendency for the result has finished ripening or has been purified away from that mental continuum, a “karmic tendency for that result, which is temporarily not giving rise to that result” can no longer be imputed on that mental continuum. Consequently, a “not-yet-happening of the result” can no longer be associated with that mental continuum. This is the case despite the fact that an “absence of the ‘present-happening of the result’ on that mental continuum” can still be imputed on that mental continuum.

  • Thus, the “karmic tendency for the result, which is temporarily not giving rise to its result,” and which is imputable on the mental continuum, is the basis for labeling the “ not-yet-happening of the result on the mental continuum,” but it is not its basis for negation.

Natal Sources and Obtaining Causes

The natal source (rdzas) of something is what gives rise to it. For example, a potter’s wheel is the natal source of a clay pot; an oven is the natal source of a loaf of bread; and a womb is the natal source of a baby.

  • A natal source may give rise to two inseparable things, such as a clay pot and the belly of the clay pot – a whole and its parts. Alternatively, it may give rise to two separable things, such as two clay pots.
  • Some natal sources cease to exist after they give rise to something, such as a seed as the natal source of a sprout. Some continue to exist, such as a potter's wheel after it produces a clay pot.

An obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu, material cause) is the item from which one obtains the result. It functions as the natal source giving rise to the result as its successor and ceases to exist simultaneously with the arising of its result. Thus, if something is the obtaining cause of something else, it is also the natal cause of that item; but if something is the natal source of something else, it is not necessarily also the obtaining cause of that item.

  • For example, a seed is both a natal source and obtaining cause for a sprout. It ceases to exist with the production of the sprout.

  • A potter’s wheel, on the other hand, is a natal source for a clay pot, but not its obtaining cause; whereas the unfired pot is both the natal source and the obtaining cause of the clay pot. The unfired pot ceases to exist with the production of the fired clay pot; the potter’s wheel does not.

An obtaining cause is not the same as a simultaneously-arising cause (lhan-cig ‘byung-ba’i rgyu), which refer to the elements, for example, from which a seed or a clay pot are made. The earth and water elements of a clay pot, for example, arise simultaneously with the clay pot.

An obtaining cause requires simultaneously-acting conditions (lhan-cig byed-rkyen, accompanying condition), however, in order to give rise to its result. For example, a seed requires moisture, heat, and sunlight to give rise to a sprout.

Analysis of the Causal Relation between a Karmic Tendency and Its Result in General

The “karmic tendency for a result, which is temporarily not giving rise to that result,” is the natal source for that result.

Recall that, in our previous example, one karmic tendency would be the natal source for the body consciousness of the physical sensation and pain of being hit on the head with a clay pot. The same karmic tendency would be the natal source for the mental factor of wanting to hit the person back who hit us. That mental factor may accompany that body consciousness or may arise later.

  • The karmic tendency may give rise to these results only once or several times.

  • Although the karmic tendency for these two results is also the obtaining cause for them, it only passes away after it has finished giving rise to all of its results.

A different karmic tendency would serve as the natal source for the feeling of unhappiness that accompanies the body consciousness of the physical sensation and pain. The anger that accompanies that body consciousness arises from yet another tendency as its natal source; and that tendency for anger will continue intermittently to give rise to further incidents of anger until that person attains liberation.

The karmic tendency that is the obtaining cause for the body consciousness of the physical sensation and pain of being hit on the head with a vase is only the simultaneously-acting condition for the physical sensation of the vase. It is also the simultaneously-acting condition for our body, body sensors, and the physical elements of both – but only in the context of our body and its physical elements serving as the basis for the body consciousness, and our body sensors and their physical elements serving as the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen ) for the body cognition. It is necessary for the karmic tendency to exist beforehand in order for the physical sensation to arise as the involved object ('jug-yul) of that body cognition; but the karmic tendency for the body consciousness of the cognition does not transform into the physical sensation itself or into our body serving as the basis for the body cognition of that physical sensation. The karmic tendency is not the obtaining cause for these. 

If we differentiate unspecified karmic tendencies from constructive of destructive karmic forces, then:

  • the karmic tendency is the equal-status cause (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu ) of the body consciousness, body, body sensors, and their physical elements, since both the karmic tendency and these forms of physical phenomena have the same ethical status as unspecified phenomena.
  • The body consciousness, body, body sensors, and their physical elements are the ripened result (rnam-smin-gyi 'bras-bu ), however, of the destructive karmic force of the destructive act of having hit someone ourselves. The destructive karma force is the ripening cause (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu ) of the body consciousness, body and so on.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika, Session Three: The Aftermath of Karma.]

Moreover, according to Gelug Prasangika, the body consciousness of the physical sensation of the clay pot cognizes not only the physical sensation, but also the clay pot itself as a commonsense object.

[See: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation.]

As we have seen, the natal source of the clay pot is the potter’s wheel; the obtainng cause as well as another natal source is the unfired pot, and the elements of the clay pot are the simultaneously-arising causes. The karmic tendency that is the natal source for the unhappiness and the tendency that is the natal source for the anger that accompany the cognition of the clay pot are not even simultaneously-acting conditions for the physical sensation of the pot hitting our head, let alone for the clay pot itself.

Further conditions also contribute to a karmic tendency and a tendency for a disturbing emotion giving rise to their results.

  • In the case of the result being a way of being aware of something (shes-pa), such as the body consciousness of the physical sensation of the pot hitting our head, and the unhappiness and anger that accompany it, the previous moment of cognition serves as the immediately-preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen).

  • In the case of the anger, previous moments of anger are the equal-status cause (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu) and a prior moment of a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (jig-lta), such as identifying a truly existent “me” as the possessor of a truly existent painful head, is the driving cause (kun-‘gro‘i rgyu).

[See: Causes, Conditions, and Results.]

Analysis of the Causal Relation between a Karmic Tendency and Its Result

We have seen that in a not-yet-happening event, such as being hit on the head by a clay pot, there are numerous components of the event. Moreover, each of these components is the result of several causes and conditions, many of which are different for each component. For ease of explanation, let us analyze further the more general case simply of a karmic tendency for a result, but keeping in mind that a result does not arise simply from one cause, a karmic tendency for it.

When we speak of a “karmic tendency for a result,” we are speaking, more precisely, of a “karmic tendency with the ability to give rise to a result, which has not yet happened” (‘ ma-‘ong-pa’i ‘bras-bu skye-nus-pa’i sa-bon). Such a tendency has a facet of “temporarily not giving rise to its result” and that facet is the “not-yet-happening of the result.”

  • In the expression a karmic tendency with the ability to give rise to a result, which has not yet happened, “ not yet happened” qualifies the arising and not the result. What has not yet happened is “the arising of the result.”

  • Thus, a “karmic tendency with the ability to give rise to a result, which has not yet happened” does not give rise to a “result, which is not yet happening.” It is the natal source and obtaining cause that can only give rise to a “result, which is presently happening.” This is because when the karmic tendency gives rise to its result, that result will be presently happening.

  • The karmic tendency’s “facet of temporarily not giving rise to its result” – equivalent to the “ not-yet-happening of the result” – is not the natal source or obtaining cause of the “result, which is presently happening.” In other words, the “not-yet-happening of the result” is not itself giving rise to the “result, which is presently happening.” It is not like a potter’s wheel or an unfired pot giving rise to a clay pot. It is the karmic tendency that is giving rise to the “result, which is presently happening.” The “not-yet-happening of the result” is merely a facet or a part of the karmic tendency, albeit an inseparable part of the tendency.