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Karma Part 2: Mind, Samsara and the Emptiness of Karma

Sherab Namgyal / October 28, 2012

Karma Part 2: How Mind, Samsara & Emptiness relate to Karma


Detail - Chenrezig thangka, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, crowned by Amitabha, Tibetan Buddhism, Seattle, Washington, USAIn “Karma Part 1: What it is not – getting rid of common misconceptions” the myths of karma were dealt with and the process of creating karma was explained. In this article the relation between karma, mind, samsara and emptiness will be explained.

Samsara is created by karma.
It is a projection of karma.
Beings are created by karma.
Karma is their cause and what differentiates them.
– Mahakarunapundarikasutra

Mind & Karma

“Neither ordinary beings nor enlightened ones exist outside of the precious mind” (Vajrapanjara-tantra) and so mind is the basis of everything, both nirvana and samsara – enlightenment and delusion. Mind already have all the qualities required and so nothing needs to be added. However mind is veiled by delusion and the enlightened qualities are unseen much like the blue sky is concealed behind the clouds on a stormy day.

The most fundamental part of consciousness, the alaya, which is the eight consciousness that acts as a basis of the other seven, works much like a ground wherein seeds are planted by our actions. Once planted, the seed remains in the alaya until it ripens and gives rise to experiences in samsara.

“The various worlds are created by karma.” – Treasury of the Abhidharma

The imprints, or seeds, on the alaya conditions all experiences and so becomes the cause of samsara. Hence the process from cause to consequence is karma. Samsara (cyclic existence) causes beings to migrate from birth to rebirth in an unending cycle. Depending on the karma a being can be reborn in any of the six realms.

The Six Realms of Samsara

By whom and how were the weapons of hell created?
Who made its blazing floors?
And from where are its flames?
Sakyamuni taught: “All these are born of the deluded mind.
– Santideva, The Bodhisattvas way of life

Lower Realms

Buddhist thongka- Wheel of Life

  • Hell Realm – Is caused by anger and the experience is to be tortured in environments of extreme heat or cold.
  • Hungry Ghost Realm – Is caused by uncontrollable greed and the experience is to always want and never be satisfied, much like a drug addict.
  • Animal Realm – Is caused by mental dullness or stupidity and despite being the highest of the lower realms it gives cause to much torment.

Higher  Realms

  • Human Realm – Is caused by greed and gives rise to old age, sickness and death. This realm is considered to be precious as it is the only realm from where one can obtain Buddhahood because contains both pleasure and suffering.
  • Demi-God / Jealous God Realm – Is caused by the mixed karma of good deeds with jealousy and holds many pleasures but there is a perpetual struggle between the inhabitants. This is much like some parts of upper society.
  • God Realm / Divine Realm – Is caused by good deeds with very little negative karma and so contains excessive bliss but have with very little opportunity to practice the dharma to be reborn in this realm is considered a disadvantages rebirth.

The difference between throwing and conditional karma

Due to the mechanisms of the “12 links of dependent arising” karma can ripen as either throwing karma or conditional karma. If it ripens as throwing karma it will result in the being taking rebirth in one of the six realms. On the other hand if it ripens as conditional karma it results in what kind of conditions the being will experience in that realm. An example is a being getting reborn in the animal realm due to the karma of mental dullness but with some meritorious deeds of giving and so becomes reborn as a house pet of a rich and caring owner. To clarify this further here is how one set of 12 links of dependent arising could be completed in 3 life times:

Scenes from the West - Bhutan

1st Life time:

  • Ignorance
  • Compositional Actions
  • Consciousness

2nd Life time:

  • Craving
  • Grasping
  • Existence

3rd Life time:

  • Name and Form
  • Six sense spheres – The Sense Powers
  • Contact
  • Feeling
  • Birth
  • Aging and Death


Karma & emptiness

Dependent arising (Tibetan: “Tendrel”) is the interaction between karma and tendrel .Tendrel is translated as interaction or interdependent. Everything experienced is tendrel which means it “exist because of the relationship between interrelated factors” – Kalu Rinpoche. An example: When a tree falls in the forest what makes the sound? Is it the tree falling on the ground? Is it the air? Is it the ear hearing or the brain receiving chemical signals? To produce the sound all of these factors must to be present. Hence the sound depends on the interaction of these factors – this is what tendrel means. Furthermore samsara and consequently all conditioned life’s is the result of tendrel. All twelve factors need to be present simultaneously to cause conditioned existence. In fact “everything in samsara is karmically conditioned interrelationship” – Kalu Rinpoche; meaning all is tendrel. Hence nothing has inherent nature and so all is illusion or emptiness. This does not mean the world does not exist, but it does not in exist in the way it appears and as Mahasiddha Saraha puts it:

To consider the world as real is a brutish attitude.
To consider it as empty is even more savage

This concludes “Karma Part 2: Mind, Samsara and the Emptiness of Karma”. If you would like to read more Pure Teachings by Sherab Namgyal follow this link: http://pureview.dk/?cat=185 or for Dream Yoga http://pureview.dk/?cat=166

Further readings:
Luminous Mind: The Way of the Buddha
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings

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