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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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

Alexander Berzin
October 2007

Part Five: A Buddha’s Omniscient Deep Awareness of the Three Times

The Relation between Objects of the Three Times

We have seen that there is no common-locus of a “result, which is not yet happening,” a “result, which is presently happening,” and “a result, which is no longer happening.” Moreover, although a continuum can be validly imputed on

  • a “karmic cause, which is presently happening,”

  • the “karmic tendency for the result of this karmic cause, which is presently happening,”

  • the “result of this karmic cause and tendency, which is presently happening,”

there is no continuum validly imputable on

  • a “result, which is not yet happening,”

  • a “result, which is presently happening,”

  • a “result, which is no longer happening.”

These three results do not arise sequentially from one another, with each in the sequence functioning as the obtaining cause for the next.

We cannot even say that the “result, which is not yet happening” is the similar-family cause for the “result, which is presently happening.” It is not like an external model of a clay pot functioning as the similar-family cause of a clay pot that someone makes. Nevertheless, the colored shape of a “clay pot, which has not yet happened” may resemble the colored shape of a “clay pot, which is presently happening.”

  • A similar-family cause (rigs-‘dra’i rgyu) is a “phenomenon, which is presently happening,” that serves as a model for something subsequent to it that resembles it. Such a cause may still be presently happening as a valid phenomenon at the time of the phenomenon modeled on it or it may have already perished and thus is an invalid phenomenon at that time.

  • For example, someone made a “presently-happening clay pot” in ancient Greece. The clay pot broke and disintegrated centuries ago. Today, the only valid phenomenon we can speak about in relation to that original clay pot is the “clay pot, which is no longer happening.”

  • Today, we make a “presently-happening clay pot” modeled after that original “presently-happening ancient Greek clay pot.” The similar-family cause of the “clay pot, which is presently happening and which is a valid phenomenon today” is the original “ancient Greek clay pot, which is presently happening and which is an invalid phenomenon today, but which was a valid phenomenon centuries ago.”

  • The similar-family cause or model of the “clay pot, which is presently happening and which is a valid phenomenon today” is not the totally imaginary “clay pot, which is no longer happening and which is a valid phenomenon today” or the totally imaginary “clay pot, which is not yet happening and which is a valid phenomenon today.”

What is the relation, then, between a “result, which is not yet happening” and a “result, which is presently happening?” Even if, at the time of a karmic tendency for a result,” we validly cognize a “result, which is not yet happening,” can we also know at this time the “result, which is presently happening,” which will arise from that karmic tendency? As we have seen, the answer is “no.” Not even an omniscient Buddha can validly cognize it, because it is an invalid phenomenon.

To understand the relation between these two results, we need to explore the issue of certainty or uncertainty of karma.

Certainty and Uncertainty of Karmic Results

Karmic impulses, as karmic causes, and thus karmic tendencies can have certainty (nges-pa) or uncertainty (ma-nges-pa) as to their time of giving rise to a “result, which is presently happening” and as to whether they will give rise at all to a “result, which is presently happening.” There is no discussion of certainty or uncertainty, however, concerning what the specific details will be of the “presently-happening result” that will arise from the karmic cause and tendency.

The specific details and time of arising will be affected by many circumstances, that are all variable; and whether the arising will happen at all depends on the application of opponent powers. Only some variants are possible, but there is a wide range of what is possible. However, a Buddha’s omniscient awareness (kun-mkhyen) cognizes simultaneously, in one moment, all phenomena which are not yet happening, which are presently happening, and which are no longer happening.

The question then arises: “When a Buddha cognizes a karmic tendency on someone’s mental continuum, does he also cognize

  • all possible results that maybe can happen in general, but he doesn’t know which one will happen?”

That seems unlikely, especially since a “result that can or will happen, but which is not yet happening” does not transform into a presently-happening result.

“Or does a Buddha cognize

  • the one result, which is not yet happening, but definitely will happen,

  • all the results, which are not yet happening and which could happen, but definitely will not happen, and

  • all the other results, which are not yet happening and which could never happen?”

Multiple Possible Results of a Karmic Tendency

As we have seen, one facet of a karmic tendency is its “ability to give rise to a result, which has not yet happened” and we have noted that its “giving rise to its result” is what is not yet happening, while the result that it gives rise to is a “presently-happening result.” A karmic tendency, however, has the ability to give rise to not just one fixed “result, which is presently happening.” It has the ability to give rise to many different “results, which are presently happening.” This is demonstrated by the fact that strong regret can affect the ability of the karmic tendency to give rise to its result, such that the “presently-happening result” that arises from it will be weaker in strength.

Thus, a karmic tendency has multiple facets of “ability to give rise to a result.” Each one is associated with another facet of the karmic tendency, its “temporarily not-giving-rise to its presently-happening result, so long as the circumstances for the arising of the result are incomplete.” Each of these facets of “temporarily not-giving-rise to its result” is a basis for labeling a “not-yet-happening of each of these possible results.” Consequently, there are many “results of this karmic tendency, which are not yet happening” that are valid phenomena, validly knowable at the time of the karmic tendency.

As we have noted, the actual “presently-happening result” that the karmic tendency gives rise to will depend on various circumstances. Thus, so long as the karmic tendency has a facet of “temporarily not-giving-rise to its presently-happening result, so long as the circumstances for the arising of the result are incomplete,” it is uncertain what the “presently-happening result” will actually be. What it will be will arise dependently on the circumstances. But, is it uncertain to everyone?

What Ordinary Beings Cognize

Ordinary beings (so-so’i skye-bo) – those who are not yet aryas – do not validly cognize the karmic tendencies and so on imputable on their own or others’ mental continuums. Nevertheless, as a feature of their rebirth state or as an aftermath of strong imprints from attainments gained from meditation done in former lives, they may validly cognize some “results, which are not yet happening.” However, most ordinary beings do not have such valid cognition.

When ordinary beings see someone experiencing something, such as the “present-happening of this person being hit on the head with a clay pot,” they may validly know, with inferential cognition based on confidence, that this presently-happening event is the result of a karmic cause.

  • Inferential cognition based on confidence (yid-ches rjes-dpag) is the valid way of cognizing extremely obscure phenomena (shin-tu lkog-gyur), such as the details of karma.

  • Extremely obscure phenomena are those that require reliance on authoritative texts or speech, such as the enlightening words of a Buddha, in order to validly cognize them.

[See: Obvious, Obscure, and Extremely Obscure Phenomena.]

Although ordinary beings might validly understand that this presently-happening event is the result of a karmic cause in general, they can only guess, with presumption (yid-dpyod), what the specific karmic cause for it was. If they imagined such a karmic cause, in the totally imaginary form of a “karmic cause, which is no longer happening,” what they would be imagining may not resemble at all the “presently-happening event” that eventually arises. Moreover, their presumptive cognition may be accompanied by indecisive wavering (the-tshoms), since they may lack certainty as to what the specific karmic cause was.

Further, regarding “presently-happening karmic tendencies, which are temporarily not giving rise to their results” on someone’s mental continuum and their karmic causes and karmic results, ordinary beings may only presume that such things exist when seeing someone. The totally imaginary forms of “karmic causes, which are no longer happening” and “results, which are not yet happening” associated with these “presently-happening karmic tendencies” are even more uncertain presumptive guesses, based on what Western cognition theory calls “intuition.”

Thus, from the point of view of ordinary beings, there is no certainty at all of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency.

What Arya Bodhisattvas Cognize

Arya bodhisattvas with first- to tenth-level bhumi minds lack the omniscient awareness of a Buddha. Nevertheless, with advanced awareness, they are able to cognize the karmic tendencies on someone’s mental continuum and even the various abilities each tendency has to give rise to a possible result. They may also validly cognize, in association with these various “abilities to give rise to a result,” a range of “possible results, which are not yet happening.” However, among all the “possible results of a specific karmic tendency, which are not yet happening,” they are unable to differentiate fully among those that will perish with

  • the arising (skye-ba) of a “result, which is presently happening” – such as the physical sensation of being hit on the head with a clay pot,

  • the attainment (thob-pa) of a nonanalytical stopping of a “result which never happened” – such as the physical sensation of being hit on the head with a clay pot – once that karmic tendency has ripened into something else that it also had the ability to give rise to – such as the physical sensation of being hit on the head with a feather, because of strong regret of the karmic cause for the tendency,

  • the attainment of an analytical stopping of a “result which never happened” – such as the physical sensation of being hit on the head with a clay pot – once that karmic tendency has been totally purified away with the attainment of liberation.

The inability of arya bodhisattvas to differentiate fully among these three groups is due to the limited range of their advanced awareness. Depending on the level of their bhumi minds, they are able to cognize these phenomena – karmic tendencies and so on – only within the range of a certain number of eons.

For arya bodhisattvas with a first-level bhumi mind, for instance, the range is from a hundred eons before to a hundred eons after the presently-happening moment. Such beings validly cognize a karmic tendency on someone’s mental continuum as having certainty concerning what it will ripen into, but only within the range of that number of eons. In the case of the first-bhumi arya bodhisattvas, this quality of mind depends on their valid cognition also of

  • the “causes and conditions affecting the ripening of that karmic tendency, but which are no longer happening” and the “no-longer-happenings of which” arose within the span of a hundred eons before the “presently-happening-moment” of the “present-happening of the karmic tendency,”

  • all the “results which that karmic tendency has the ability to give rise to within the next hundred eons, but which are not-yet-happening,”

  • from among those results, which ones will perish, within one hundred eons, as “not-yet-happenings” and which ones will not perish within that time span, with this differentiation being based only on the causes and conditions they have validly cognized,

  • from among those that will perish, which ones will perish as the result of each of the following three possibilities concerning the “result that it has the ability to give rise to”: (1) the arising of the “present happening of that result,” (2) the attainment of a “never-happening of it” as a nonanalytical stopping, or (3) or the attainment of a “never-happening of it” as an analytical stopping.

Thus, from the point of view of arya bodhisattvas, there is certainty of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency within a certain time span, but no certainty beyond that time span.

What Buddhas Cognize

The specific result of any karmic tendency, from among the numerous “presently-happening results that it has the ability to give rise to” can only arise when all the causes and conditions on which it depends are complete and simultaneously presently happening. Since the “present-happening” of each of those causes and conditions arises from its own causes and conditions, only the omniscient awareness of a Buddha can cognize all the causal factors that will determine which specific “presently-happening result” will arise from a karmic tendency having the ability to give rise to numerous results. Thus, a Buddha knows exactly what will ripen from each karmic tendency on the mental continuum of each being with a limited mind.

  • As we have stressed before, such “presently-happening results” are invalid phenomena that are not possibly occurring now and they lack findable true existence established from their own sides. They and the arisings that will follow from them are dependently arising phenomena.

Thus, from the point of view of Buddhas, there is certainty of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency.

The Validity of Different Points of View Regarding Certainty

Let us use an example to help us understand this seeming paradox concerning the certainty or uncertainty of what karmic results will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency.

A conventionally existent phenomenon may be cognized by humans as yoghurt, clutching ghosts as pus, as celestial beings as nectar, and each of these three cognitions are valid with respect to each of these classes of beings. Existence as yoghurt, pus, or nectar is not established from the side of the existent object, but arises dependently on being the referent object of valid mental labeling by a class of beings.

The same is the case with respect to a conventionally existent karmic tendency. Concerning what it will ripen into from among the various phenomena that it has the ability to ripen into, the karmic tendency may be validly cognized

  • by ordinary beings, as having no certainty,

  • by arya bodhisattvas, as having certainty only within a range of a specific number of eons,

  • by Buddhas, as having certainty.

Each of the three cognitions of karmic tendencies, concerning the certainty factor of what they will ripen into from among the “presently-happening results” that they have the ability to give rise to – the cognitions by ordinary beings, arya bodhisattvas, and Buddhas – is valid with respect to the group of beings that has it.

  • This differentiation into three valid cognitions – those by ordinary beings, arya bodhisattvas, and Buddhas – is equivalent to the analytical structure, commonly used in Buddhism, of basis, pathway, and resultant levels of a phenomenon.

There is nothing on the side of a karmic tendency that by its own power, or by its own power in conjunction with certain conditions being complete, that establishes this certainty.

  • Further, there is nothing establishing the existence of a certainty factor either on the side of the “presently-happening result” that will arise from a karmic tendency or on the side of the “not-yet-happening result” that resembles that “presently-happening result.”

The ripening of a karmic tendency into a specific result arises dependently on innumerable causes and conditions being complete.

The existence of any certainty factor concerning which result will ripen is established dependently merely as being the referent object of the mental label certainty, validly imputed by each of these three groups on different ranges of causes and conditions affecting the arising of the result.

Concerning the range of causes and conditions affecting the arising of a karmic result, we need to recall that any event that is experienced by anyone comprises five aggregate factors. As we have analyzed in the case of experiencing the event of being hit on the head with a clay pot by someone, the event includes, among many other factors:

  • a presently-happening body consciousness of the physical sensation and pain of being hit on the head with the clay pot,

  • the presently-happening mental factor of wanting to hit the person back who hit us on the head with a clay pot,

  • the presently-happening eye consciousness of seeing the person who hit us while wanting to hit him back,

  • the presently-happening feeling of unhappiness, congruent in five ways with that body and eye consciousness,a presently-happening disturbing emotion of anger, also congruent in the same five ways with the body and eye consciousness.

  • our human body, its physical elements, and its body sensors, but only in the context of their serving as the physical basis for the above-mentioned cognitions,

Each of the items in the above list is the result of a different tendency as its obtaining cause. Each of these tendencies has numerous “abilities to give rise to one or another result,” as well as numerous facets of “temporarily not-giving-rise to one or another of these results.” Each such facet is the basis for labeling the “not-yet-happening of each of these results.”

From among all of the “results, which each of these tendencies has the ability to give rise to, but which are not yet happening,” is, for each of the tendencies, a “result, which has not yet happened” that resembles the “presently-happening result that actually arises from that tendency.”

  • Recall that none of these “results, which have not yet happened” transform into its corresponding “result, which is presently happening,” which will comprise one component of an event in someone’s later experience.

Buddhas simultaneously cognize all the “no-longer-happening phenomena,” “presently-happening phenomena,” and “not-yet-happening phenomena” that are valid phenomena either occurring on the mental continuum of each being, including himself, or occurring as external phenomena.

  • Such cognition is the omniscient cognition of the three times.

  • Buddhas do not cognize the “presently-happening causes” of any of the above phenomena when, at the time of the Buddha’s moment of cognition, these “presently-happening causes” are invalid phenomena. This is because these “presently-happening causes” are not presently happening then.

  • Similarly, Buddhas do not cognize the “presently-happening results” of any of the above phenomena when, at the time of the Buddha’s moment of cognition, these “presently-happening results” are invalid phenomena. This is because these “presently-happening results” are also not presently happening then.

Moreover, for a Buddha’s omniscient awareness, there is no limit to the range of when the entire scope of those “presently-happening causes” were presently happening and when the entire scope of those “presently-happening results” will be presently happening. Consequently, Buddhas cognize the full basis for labeling of the certainty factor of which result will ripen as a consequence of the “presently-happening causes and conditions.” Moreover, this certainty factor pertains to every component that will comprise every future event. In this way, only a Buddha knows the full extent of karma and, in general, the full extent of cause and effect.

Because ordinary beings are unable to cognize any significant extent of a basis for labeling of this certainty factor, then, for them, it is uncertain what will happen. Consequently, because ordinary beings experience uncertainty concerning “the future,” they experience the decisions they make as being the consequence of “choice.” That is because they do not know the full extent of the factors that influence their so-called “choices.” Nevertheless, their cognition of choices and choice is valid for them, just as the Buddhas’ cognition of certainty is valid for them.

Further Analysis of the Validity of Different Points of View Regarding Certainty

It is not that the conventional truth (kun-rdzog bden-pa, relative truth, superficial truth) is that there is no certainty about what result will arise, but the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa) is that there is certainty.

  • According to Gelug Prasangika, the conventional or superficial truth about something concerns its manner of appearance (snang-tshul);

  • the deepest truth about something concerns its manner of abiding (gnas-tshul), which refers to what establishes its existence.

It is not that it deceptively appears as though there is no certainty, but actually there is certainty. The facts that it appears (1) from the basis point of view of ordinary beings that there is no certainty, (2) from the pathway point of view of arya bodhisattvas that there is some certainty and some uncertainty, and (3) from the resultant point of view of Buddhas that there is certainty, are all conventional, relative, superficial truths about causal sequences.

  • From the point of view of the manner of appearance of the extent of what they are (ji-snyed-kyi snang-tshul), all three appearances are concordant conventional truths (tshul-bzhin kun-rdzob bden-pa): they accurately accord with what validly appears to each of these classes of beings.

  • From the point of view of the manner of appearance of how their existence is established (ji-ltar-gyi snang-tshul), to ordinary beings and arya bodhisattvas, uncertainty or both certainty and uncertainty appears to be truly established from the side of causally related phenomena, while to Buddhas certainty appears not to be truly established from the side of causally related phenomena.

  • These manners of appearance of how the existence of the certainty factor is established are, in fact, what actually appears to each of these classes of beings. In the case of ordinary beings and arya bodhisattvas, this manner of appearance is deceptive (khrul-ba). It is a discordant conventional truth (tshul-min kun-rdzob bden-pa). The manner of appearance does not accord with the actual manner of abiding. In the case of Buddhas, this manner of appearance is a concordant conventional truth.

In short, the certainty of what result will arise from a network of causes and circumstances is not established on the side of the causes and circumstances, on the side of all the possible “results, which are not yet happening,” or on the side of the actual “result, which is presently happening” that arises. The certainty factor dependently arises in terms of mental labeling. More specifically,

  • the certainty factor arises dependently on the extent of the basis for labeling the certainty.

  • That extent, in turn, arises dependently on the range of what the mind that validly labels this certainty factor can cognize.

  • That range, in turn, depends of the level of attainment of the mind that mentally labels the certainty factor and to which that certainty factor appears.