Essential Points on Karma

“The teaching of karma, or action, forms the cornerstone of the whole Buddhist doctrine: action is the ultimate explanation of human existence and of the physical world, and it is in terms of karma that the Buddhist masters have constructed their philosophy.” 1 - Etienne Lamotte

Karma is indeed the foundation of Buddhist thought, but it is often misunderstood. In the present day English speaking world despite having gained currency in colloquial speech few know the actual meaning of term. The semantic warping of the idea of karma in recent decades is perhaps a topic worthy of investigation, but my purpose here is to provide the basic details of what precisely karma means in Buddhism. Many Buddhists themselves only have a vague idea of what the term means, and more often than not it is cloaked in nebulous sentiments. Nevertheless, as the great Lama Tsongkhapa of Tibet stressed, understanding of karma is important:

“Attaining certain knowledge of the definiteness, or nondeceptiveness, of karma and its effects is called the correct viewpoint of all Buddhists and is praised as the foundation of all virtue.”2

Being that understanding karma is absolutely essential for a practitioner of Buddhadharma it would be wise for any interested individual to thoroughly study the subject. It is my hope here to provide the basics as well as resource texts from which further study can be undertaken.

In discussing karma (Pāli: kamma) it would be best to begin with how the term was specifically defined by the Buddha himself. Action (karma) is volition (cetanā) from which a process of activity is carried out via body, speech and mind. The word karma itself is derived from the verb-root kṛ in Sanskrit which is related to the English word create, where the relatively same syllable fulfilling the same function is found. Both Sanskrit and English are Indo-European languages and hence having descended from the same prehistorical language they have such similarities as this. Consider the following quote by the Buddha in the Aṅguttaranikāya:

"Oh monks, I say that action is volition; after having willed it, one accomplishes action by means of the body, the voice and the mind."3

Karma produces effects (vipāka-phala) and this is certain according to the Buddha. Furthermore, those actions do not perish.

Action does not perish, even after hundreds of millions of cosmic eras. When the complex [of conditions] and [favourable] times come together, they ripen for their author.”4

The result of karma is primarily, though not exclusively, experienced as agreeable or disagreeable sensation. Tsongkhapa emphasizes this as follows.

All happiness in the sense of feelings of ease - whether ordinary or noble beings, including even the slightest pleasures such as the rising of a cool breeze for a being born in a hell - arises from previously accumulated virtuous karma. It is impossible for happiness to arise from nonvirtuous karma.

All sufferings in the sense of painful feelings - including even the slightest suffering occuring in an arhat's mind-stream - arise from previously accumulated nonvirtuous karma. It is impossible for suffering to arise from virtuous karma.”5

In other words, good deeds lead to ease while evil deeds bring about suffering. When the Buddha speaks of action not perishing even on a scale of cosmic time he is referring to karmic effects experienced in a future lifetime. Karma is intricately linked to the process of rebirth (punarbhava), whereby postmortem one's psycho-physical continuity re-emerges as a new life due specifically to the ripening of one's past karma. It goes without saying that karma and rebirth are intrinsically related and one may not be deprived of the other.

The quality of karma is threefold consisting of meritorious action (puṇyakarma) / favourable action (kuśalakarma), demeritorious action (apuṇyakarma) / unfavourable action (akuśalakarma), and immovable action (āniñjyakarma), which is favourable action associated with the form and formless realms (rūpārūpyapratisaṃyukta). The form and formless realms are the two higher planes of existence in Buddhist cosmology. These three kinds of karma are karmic formations (saṃskāra), that is to say things arisen due to action, conditioned by ignorance (avidyā). Ignorance is further twofold: ignorance of results, which produces demeritorious formations (apuya-saṃskāra), and ignorance of reality (tattvārtha-avidyā), which produces meritorious and immovable formations (puya-āniñjya-saṃskāra).6

Now, in simpler terms, these three types of karma foster existence through karma (karmabhava) and these are all conditioned by ignorance, which can be divided into two types. The first is ignorance of result, whereby one is unaware of the effects of deeds driven by such mental afflictions as hatred and greed, resulting in suffering. The second is ignorance of reality, whereby although one has awareness of good and evil (and consequently the causes of ease and suffering), one still continues to produce karma, albeit resulting in favourable circumstances such as being in a state of ease or in dhyāna (meditative stabilization).

It is important to understand that even so-called good karma, while still producing favourable results such as ease (sukha), is conditioned by ignorance and results in further effects propelling one's saṃsāra (i.e., one's involuntary rebirths). In other words, you cannot liberate yourself from saṃsāra on good karma alone. Amassing vast amounts of good karma would result in being reborn as some high deity beyond what most humans could conceptualize, but such a state would be impermanent and when the effect of that karma expired one would fall down into a lower realm on the cosmological ladder.

That being said, the conditions for liberation from saṃsāra of course will be more available if one is in a state of ease and possessing both the mental capacity and circumstances, such as having the time, resources and teachers, to pursue liberation. Such a capacity and circumstances are unavailable to beings reborn in the lower realms, the cause of such rebirths being demeritorious actions. On the reverse, the causes for being reborn as human and having access to means appropriate for pursuing liberation are meritorious actions. Again, good deeds do not bring about liberation – they only foster the conditions unto which that liberation is made possible.

This is why in Buddhist cultures you see individuals, both lay and monastic, frequently engage in activities that generate merit (puṇya) such as making offerings, circumambulating stūpas clockwise (in ancient India this was a way of venerating someone or something) and prostrating themselves before images of buddhas and/or bodhisattvas. The purpose of this is to karmically cultivate favourable conditions whereby one at the most basic level can live a life free of as much distress as possible as well as to foster circumstances, either in this life or in a future life, where one can actively work towards achieving complete liberation from saṃsāra. In liturgy and in prayers practitioners will often dedicate the merit they have accumulated from their recent activities either towards all sentient beings, hoping that they will all without exception karmically benefit from the virtuous deeds recently carried out, or towards their own enlightenment, whereupon they will be liberated from saṃsāra and, at least in the case of Mahāyāna traditions, they will be in an optimal position to be of benefit to others having experientially understood exactly how liberation from suffering was achieved.

It is important to understand that ignorance (avidyā) is not some kind of substance or force from which action occurs. Ignorance here is the antonym of knowing. It is the absence of knowing the consequences of results and/or reality itself. When full knowledge of consequences is present, one does not commit unwholesome actions, the results of which will be experienced as suffering. When full knowledge of reality is present, there will be, at least in the case of an individual seeking cessation of rebirth, simply no more karma produced which would result in rebirth. To obtain such knowledge includes a process of ridding oneself of mental afflictions such as malice and greed which hinder attainment of wisdom – namely, wisdom of how reality is and how ones own existence works within it. To do this demands attainments in meditation whereby perceptual objects experienced within the mind are stopped while simultaneously the effect of ceaselessly flowing defilements (pravāha) and their outflow in accordance with the state of the mind (anusraveyus) end. At that point insight, not tainted by perceptual objects which give rise to defilements, manifests.

This raises the question why an individual who completely rids themselves of the aforementioned ignorance still visibly continues to live until physical death. In the case of an arhat, one who has rid themselves of the aforementioned ignorance, they produce no new karma, but are still subject to their old karma for the duration of their physical life. This is called “nirvāṇa with remainder” (sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa). Upon passing away they attain “nirvāṇa without remainder” (nirupadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa), whereby having cut away all causes for future rebirths and their old karma finally expiring, they pass into final nirvāṇa like the flame of candle being blown out.

In the case of a Mahāyāna bodhisattva there would still be full knowledge of reality, though she would still take rebirth, albeit voluntarily, as cessation of rebirth would result in being unable to be of aid to anyone. In some traditions of Mahāyāna it is said that an arhat still suffers subtle ignorance and will eventually re-emerge within reality, albeit in favourable circumstances and walking the bodhisattva path. However, such a view is not universal.

I said above that the result of karma is primarily, though not exclusively, experienced as sensation. As explained above an arhat lives out their old karma while producing no new karma. This is an example of an effect of karma not specifically being sensation. As recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha made the distinction between “old karma” and “new karma” as follows.

"Monks, I will teach you new & old kamma, the cessation of kamma, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”

"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.”

"And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.”7

Old karma is the fruition of past actions in the form of being or existence. New karma are the actions carried out by way of the existence one has obtained via past action.

At this point there is a distinction to be made between karma that produces rebirth and the karma that will define the qualities of that existence. Asanga defines these two types as follows in the Abhidharmasammucaya:

The results of favorable and unfavorable actions are produced in the good and bad destinies (sugati, durgati). This also, through the projecting action (ākṣepaka-karma) and the completing action (paripūraka-karma). What is projecting action? It is the action by means of which the result of fruition is produced. What is completing action? It is the action by means of which, after having been born, one experiences good and bad results.”8

In other words, good and evil deeds dictate one's destiny post-mortem – one can be reborn in any of the six realms on the cosmological ladder which includes the hell realms through animal and human embodiments up to celestial existence as a deity. Evil deeds drive a being into the hell realms. Good actions lead one into more favourable kinds of existences. There is action which specifically “projects” or specifically produces a future life while there are other actions which dictate what kind of life it will be.

It is often asked if there is such a thing as collective karma. In other words, is it possible for a group of individuals to collectively produce karma and mutually experience its effects? While there might be some who would contest this, Vasubandhu in the Abhidharmakośa explains the reality of collective karma using the example of an army or group set on killing.

When many persons are united with the intention to kill, either in war, or in the hunt, or in banditry, who is guilty of murder, if only one of them kills?

As soldiers, etc., concur in the realization of the same effect, all are as guilty as the one who kills.

Having a common goal, all are guilty exactly as he who among them kills, for all mutually incite one another, not through speech, but by the very fact that they are united together in order to kill.

But is the person who has been constrained through force to join the army also guilty?

Evidently so, unless he has formed the resolution, "Even in order to save my life, I shall not kill a living being."9

The magnitude of this is potentially frightening as an individual participating in a military of a million personnel at war has the potential to suffer immeasurably in the future even if they themselves do not harm anyone. It is not just the pilot dropping the bomb who commits an evil deed, but every member of logistics and command supporting the action is equally guilty of the act.

This being said, a simple examination of Buddhist nations will reveal such ideas are not visibly accepted. Most Buddhist countries or countries with significant Buddhist populations support the death penalty with minimal opposition to it. The supporting participants in a justice system which executes a criminal support the act of killing, and it is not simply the executioner and judge which condemns the convict to death who are guilty, but a whole organization of individuals who support and aid in carrying out the deed, both by condoning the act and actively aiding in it by their own free will. Nevertheless, justice systems in places like Thailand and even Japan are notoriously inhumane and brutal to prisoners, despite their ancestral religion attempting to teach compassion.

On a cosmological scale karma also plays a key role. In contrast to theists who assert the universe was created by a supreme deity, in Buddhism it is said that the universe and all its variety comes into existence due to karma. In other words, intelligent design by way of a deity is flat out rejected. Again, quoting Vasubandhu:

Who created the variety of the world of living beings and the receptacle-world which we have described in the preceding chapter?

It was not a god who intelligently created it.

The variety of the world arises from action.

The variety of the world arises from the actions of living beings.

But in this hypothesis, how does it happen that actions produce at one and the same time, pleasing things, - saffron, sandalwood, etc. - on the one hand, and bodies of opposite qualities on the other?

The actions of beings whose conduct is a mixture of good and bad actions produce bodies resembling abscesses whose impurities flow out through the nine gates, and, in order to serve as a remedy to these bodies, they also produce objects of pleasing enjoyment, colors and shapes, odors, tastes and tangibles. But the gods have accomplished only good actions: their bodies and their objects of enjoyment are equally pleasing.10

Sentient beings, which includes both human and non-human beings, collectively create reality via their volitional activity. This is of course quite alien to prevailing ideas in the modern western world, which at their core are inherently materialistic and deny ontological legitimacy to the mental sphere of our reality. In one sense this is to be expected of ordinary people who accept their sensory experience as solid and real, though in Buddhism such experiences are seen in a much different light. Mental activity is the basis of reality, not innate physical matter and insentient physical processes.

The process of how karma comes to fruition as vipāka was historically a long debated topic amongst Buddhist intellectuals in India. In other words, everyone agreed that volitional action resulted in the effects as outlined above, but the actual process of how that occurred was never something everyone agreed upon.

For example, the early Theravadins asserted that actions persisted in an unripened state until meeting with the causes for fruition, though they failed to account for a link of continuity between the cause and effect. The Sarvāstivāda school in Kashmir conceived of the result of karma persisting like a debt. The Sautrāntika school of thought said that actions created traces (vāsanā) within the continuum of mind, whereby they came to fruition when the mind encountered specific circumstances which enabled the ripening of a past action. The Saṃmitīya school taught the existence of a dharma which they called “indestructible” – while not mental, it followed the mind until it came to fruition via cause and condition, or death. When an individual died, one special “indestructible”, based at the moment of death on the state of mind of the dying, would determine whether they took rebirth in a higher and lesser realm.

The nature or mechanism of how karma ripens into a result experienced by the original agent was never unanimously agreed upon. This fostered a lot of scholastic debate in ancient India and influenced later doctrines and practices. In any case, everyone did agree with the original assertion of the Buddha that volitional action results in either suffering or ease depending on the quality of the original action. The mechanism of how this occurred was left to later thinkers to ponder and discuss.

Ultimately, the whole point of understanding karma is soteriological in nature – that is to say liberation from suffering. It is through understanding and penetrating karma that one abandons those actions and mental inclinations towards nonvirtuous ends, whereupon one then fosters favourable circumstances in which spiritual practices may be directed towards liberation. Here I will conclude with another quote from Tsong Khapa:

At this point master the classifications of virtue and nonvirtue, as well as their effects. You must then make it your practice to properly cast aside nonvirtues and adopt virtues. For, unless you reflect at length on the two kinds of karma and their effects, and then properly cast aside the nonvirtuous and adopt the virtuous, you will not stop the causes of miserable rebirths. Thus, you may fear the miserable realms and yet not be able to escape what you fear.

Consequently, in order to be protected from the miserable realms at the time when you must experience the effects, you have to restrain the mind from engaging in nonvirtue at the time when you are creating the causes. This, in turn, is contingent upon attaining conviction about karma and its effects.11

Suggested Further Reading:

The following texts are essentially classical textbooks written by erudite Buddhist masters which go into great detail elucidating not only karma, but all aspects of Buddhadharma. Historically they have played a key role as foundational reference works which were thoroughly studied. They are all available in English translation.

Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. An extensive treatise on the prevailing theories of karma in Vasubandhu's time. See Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated into French by Etienne Lamotte. English translation by Leo M. Pruden. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press: 1987.

Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya by Vasubandhu. There is a chapter in this work specifically dedicated to discussing karma. See Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Translated into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, English translation by Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

Abhidharmasamuccaya by Asanga. Another work worth investigation as it explains karma in fine detail. See Asanga, Abhidharmasamuccaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy). Translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English translation by Sara Boin-Webb. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001.


1Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated into French by Etienne Lamotte. English translation by Leo M. Pruden (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press: 1987), 15.

2Tsongkhapa, Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Volume One. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), 211

3Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā. See Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu, 15.

4Na praṇaśyanti karmāṇi kalpakoṭiśatair api sāmagrīm prāpya kālaṁ ca phalanti khalu dehinām. Ibid., 16.

5Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, 210.

6See Asanga, Abhidharmasamuccaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy). Translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English translation by Sara Boin-Webb (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001), 116-117

7See Kamma Sutta: Action, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

8Abhidharmasamuccaya, 115-116

9Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Vol. 1. Translated into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, English translation by Leo M. Pruden (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991), 649.

10Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya, 551

11Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, 209.

Tibetan and Chinese Buddhisms

Reading through the section entitled “Refuting Misconceptions About Meditation” in Lamrim Chenmo by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) he discusses the erroneous idea, which as he states was common in his time, that analytical meditation is contrary to stabilizing meditation. He also states that this line of thinking is also the system of thought of the Chinese monk Ha-shang (in Chinese Heshang 和尚), who personifies in Tibetan Buddhist history the perceived inferiority of Chinese Chan. See the following quotes:

"There are persons who have not begun to recognize that the classic scriptures and their commentaries constitute personal instructions, and who, therefore, might have the following qualm.
Qualm: When you meditate on the path, you should do only stabilizing meditation rather than repeatedly analyzing your object of meditation, for repeated analysis with discerning wisdom is only for times of study and reflection. Moreover, repeated analysis will prevent you from future attainment of buddhahood because conceptual thought apprehends signs of true existence.
Reply: This is nonsensical chatter of someone who is utterly ignorant of the crucial points of practice, for Maitreya's Ornament for the Mahāyāna Sūtras states:

Proper attention is based upon prior study. Sublime wisdom, which takes reality as its object, arises from your cultivation of proper attention.

Here Maitreya teaches that you should use the wisdom that comes from reflection to attend properly to the meaning of what you have studied. From this there will arise the wisdom that comes from meditation and perceives reality."1

He draws a parallel between this wrong conception of meditation with the infamous Chinese Ha-shang. As the story goes he lost the debate at Samye Monastery to Indian monks, whereupon it was decided that Tibet would only receive and adopt Indian forms of Buddhism. Whether this debate actually occurred or not is subject to debate, but as far as Tibetan cultural memory goes it happened.

"Moreover, to claim that all conceptual thought involves the apprehension of signs of true existence, and thus prevents enlightenment, is the worst possible misconception as it disregards all discerning meditation. This is the system of the Chinese abbot Ha-shang. I explain its refutation in the section on serenity and insight. This misconception also interferes with the development of deep respect for classic texts, because these texts are mainly concerned only with the need to use discerning analysis, whereas Ha-shang's system sees all analysis as unnecessary during practice."2

Reading this it occurred me that another author of note Cheng'guan 澄觀 (738-839 CE) in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), who lived in the same general era as when the Samye debate occurred where the infamous Ha-shang was brutally refuted, addresses the same issue in a rather small work of his entitled Examining the Five Aggregates 《五蘊觀》 where he outlines the practice of analyzing the five psycho-physical aggregates and in the concluding remarks refutes the same objection that Tsong Khapa does.

'It is asked, “Seeking liberation is only just understanding delusion and realizing the truth. It is merely being able to realize the principle of tathātā – in quietude without thoughts and then binds are removed. How does one provisionally arouse the mind, examine the aggregates and then seek liberation? Is this not in opposition to the principle?”
We answer: with what do you stand without aggregates, truth and delusion? Furthermore, the five aggregates are a different name for the body and mind. Supposing the practitioner is not aware of the truth and delusions of body and mind, how could they completely understand them? They do not reach the source of truth and delusion and practises are vainly undertaken. Thus the scripture states, “It is like in emptiness ultimately nothing being able to be established.”3 Furthermore, the conception of a self of a person is a delusional attachment for the ordinary person. The conception of the self of a phenomenon is an obstruction for the two vehicles. Thus we have them practice the two examinations and then they are able to understand delusion and realize the truth. How could you do without this?'4

This is noteworthy because the Samye debate is said to have occurred in the same time period as Cheng'guan was writing (8th century). We can indeed assume that some Buddhist thinkers in China at the time, perhaps those Cheng'guan had in mind, held the view of Ha-shang, but this was by no means a universal view held east of Tibet. I gather that in Tibetan Buddhism the views of Ha-shang are commonly thought of as “Chinese Buddhist views” and hence the whole of Chinese Buddhist thought can be easily dismissed and regarded as essentially defective. However, if we should just imagine that it was the scholar and yogi Cheng'guan who attended the debate at Samye, rather than this notorious Ha-shang character, then the perception of Chinese Buddhism in the general Tibetan Buddhist perspective might have evolved into a more positive image.
Fortunately, there has been some progressive development in recent times in clarifying long-held misconceptions between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. There was a discussion held between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Chan Master Sheng Yen in May 1998. Their discussion is recorded and translated in the publication Meeting of Minds. In the following quoted section the Dalai Lama notes the probable existence of two Chinese monks active in Tibet in the early history, and points out the source of the long-standing issue that, in general, Tibetan Buddhism has seemed to have had with Chinese Buddhism. He also notes Tsongkhapa's vocal criticism of Chan as he understood it.

His Holiness:
Earlier today in our private meeting, I was very impressed and pleased to hear that Venerable Sheng Yen once spent six years in solitary retreat. Listening to your presentation of Chan Buddhist teachings, my immediate and very profound feeling was that I was listening to words of wisdom from someone who is very experienced and a great practitioner. For all of us, to have knowledge of Dharma is indeed very important, but perhaps what is more important is to put that knowledge of Dharma into practice.

Listening to your explanation of Chan Buddhism, I jotted down a few questions that I would like to ask. First, in which century did Master Huineng live?

Venerable Sheng Yen:
He lived in the eighth century of the Common Era.

His Holiness:
The reason I ask is that there is some historical connection to Chan in the origin and development of Tibetan Buddhism. We know that Lama Tsongkhapa had been one of the most vocal critics of the sudden teachings of Chan in Tibet, and there was a great debate surrounding Chan and the teachings transmitted from Indian Buddhism.

However, in the Samye Temple during the formative era of Tibetan Buddhism in the reign of King Tri-song-Deutsen, different wings were devoted to different practices. One section is devoted to the Vajrayana practitioners-the tantricas. Another section is dedicated to the lozawas and the panditas-the translators and the scholars. The third section is called the dhyana hall, the place of meditation. This is supposed to have been the residence of a Chinese master referred to as Hoshang. It was during the eighth century, when Samye was built, that the Indian masters Santarakshita and Kamalashila were active in Tibet and were part of the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

My feeling is that if Santarakshita built a separate wing in the Samye temple for the residence of the Chinese Chan masters, he must have welcomed that tradition and recognized it as an important element of Buddhism in Tibet. However, it seems that during the time of his disciple, Kamalashila, certain followers of Chan in Tibet perhaps promoted a slightly different version of the original doctrine. They placed tremendous emphasis on rejecting all forms of thought, not just in the context of a specific practice, but almost as a philosophical position. This is what Kamalashila attacked. Therefore, it seems to me, there were two different versions of Chan that came to Tibet.

Venerable Sheng Yen:
I am very grateful to His Holiness for bringing up the subject of the Chinese master Hoshang. From the story, it seems that those Chinese monks during the time of Kamalashila were not qualified to represent Chan. In the Dun Huang Caves, a place where many Buddhist texts were excavated, Buddhist scholars have found ancient texts relating a similar story about the first Chinese monk who greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism, in particular the practice of meditation. So maybe the first Chinese master who went to Tibet wasn't so bad after all!

His Holiness:
In the Tibetan story, the first Chinese master was welcome; the second master supposedly lost the debate!

Venerable Sheng Yen:
So maybe the problem will not be with me, but with my successor who will again lose!

His Holiness:
Yes! From the Tibetan viewpoint, we welcome the first Hoshang. To the followers of the second Hoshang, we will have to say "good-bye!" If the Chinese masters that we encounter now are followers of the first Chinese master in Tibet, we will gladly receive them. If they are followers of the second Chinese master, we will have to say "farewell."5

Unfortunately, despite His Holiness' positive remarks, I do not foresee much serious interaction between Chinese and Tibetan traditions. I understand that in Taiwan Tibetan Buddhism is somewhat popular and I once met a Kagyu-pa Lama in 2010 when I was visiting the National Palace Museum in Taipei, who told me he was teaching in Taiwan. In the same afternoon I also saw some people handing out anti-Tibetan Buddhist literature, bilingual with Chinese and English, complete with shock images of tantric coupling deities, denouncing this as absolute heresy. The Dalai Lama has also been warmly received in Taiwan before, despite the objections of at least one major Buddhist leader in Taiwan, namely Venerable Xingyun of Foguangshan, objecting to his visits.
Still, while individuals themselves might take an interest and even practice Tibetan Buddhism, and there might be scholars who study Tibetan, I don't think an orthodox Chinese lineage would readily absorb many practices from their Tibetan cousins. Although at one point most of the Sinosphere (China, Korea and Japan) had its own form of Vajrayāna developed during the Tang Dynasty, it was eradicated on the mainland and only survives today in Japan with Shingon and Tendai, with small pockets of it also in Taiwan and America. However, it is yoga-tantra, and not being anuttara-yoga-tantra it lacks consort visualizations and practices. The former would be acceptable, but not the latter. Consort practices and even the artwork would not go over well, even for non-monastics, as orthodox Chinese Buddhism tends to be puritanical at times, really stressing celibacy even for ordinary laypersons.
This all said, I am speaking of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism as I understand it outside of the PRC – there might be some positive interaction between the two traditions in provinces like Gansu and Sichuan where you have both Han Chinese and Tibetans living in close proximity to each other.

In any case, I hope people can realize the value in taking an ecumenical approach to Buddhism. One need not limit oneself to just one cultural development of Buddhism as there is wisdom to be found all over the world.


1 Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Volume One. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), 109.
2Ibid., 112.
3Citation from the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra. 《說無垢稱經》卷11 序品〉:「若於虛空終不能成」(CBETA, T14, no. 476, p. 559, a25)
4(CBETA, X58, no. 1004, p. 425, b23-c6 // Z 2:8, p. 303, a17-b6 // R103, p. 605, a17-b6)
5Meeting of Minds. Translated by Wang Ming Yee, Geshe Thubten Jinpa and Guo-gu. Edited by Lindley Hanlon and Ernest Heau. Dharma Drum Mountain, 35-38.

Kūkai's Vajra and Bell

Today I had the good fortune to be able to see the original vajra and bell bestowed unto Kūkai 空海 (774–835) by his teacher Huiguo 惠果 (746–805) in the early 9th century in China. The Tokyo National Museum is presently running an exhibition of esoteric Buddhist art and artifacts until September 25th, 2011.

(Click for larger view)

The craftsmanship of the artifacts is indeed superb, but moreover the history of these items summons visions of an enlightened master in Tang China passing them to a humble disciple. The reality of course is that this really happened. Huiguo gave these items to Kūkai, who brought them back to Japan and his lineage has taken good care of them ever since. These are classified as a national treasure in Japan. It is also interesting that they are still used on special occasions.

The exhibition also contained the following intriguing sculpture which was originally made in China and brought back to Japan in 847 by E'un 惠運 (798-869), a disciple of one of Kūkai's chief disciples. It is Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva 虛空藏菩薩, or more specifically the Lotus Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva.

It is in quite good condition considering its age. Japan is blessed with many aged old wooden sculptures that have been well preserved over the centuries. This particular piece was imported from China in the late Tang Dynasty. Interestingly, E'un brought this over in 847, just two years after the great persecution of 845, which saw a sweeping state ordered destruction of Buddhist institutions across the empire. I have to wonder if this sculpture was made before or after the persecution. If it was before, then it fortunately survived the chaos.

The exhibit also included a few genuine examples of Kūkai's own handwriting. Again, we are quite fortunate that such items were so well preserved over time. There are a number of extant documents personally penned by Kūkai, which enables scholars to study his calligraphy style. We also have some of his notebooks, which include notes in the margins and blotted out patches where he made an error.

I greatly appreciate these kinds of exhibitions. I have always enjoyed history and when it comes to Buddhist artifacts I relish them all the more. Buddhism has always valued its own history and whether it be Buddha relics or a lineage founder's personal possessions the tradition has been to preserve items of the past so that future generations can venerate them while cultivating both emotional and spiritual ties to one's lineage.

Ācala Vidyārāja 不動明王 (Japan, 11th century)

Suffering in Buddhism

In Buddhism one often hears of the three kinds of suffering (tri-duḥkhatā). This is one broad classification for categorizing the general characteristics of suffering (duḥkha) in Buddhism. For the purposes of this post I want to consider the meanings of these terms as well as the potential ramifications this concept has on a person. I would argue that two conclusions are easily drawn if one accepts the reality of suffering as described below. Firstly, that there is no lasting happiness in life. Secondly, the only logical course of action to take is to seek liberation.

Let us begin by examining the words of Asaṅga (4th century) in his work the Abhidharma-samuccaya.

It is said there are three forms of suffering. The eight kinds of suffering are included in them [birth, ageing, disease, death, association with the unpleasant, separation from the pleasant, not obtaining what one desires and five aggregates of attachment]. In that case are the eight included in the three, or are the three in the eight? They are grouped according to their own order: the sufferings of birth, ageing, disease, death, and association with what is unpleasant are mere sufferings (duḥkha-duḥkhatā); the sufferings of separation from what is pleasant and and not obtaining what one desires are sufferings caused by transformation (vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā); in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering as suffering caused by conditioned states (saṃskāra-duḥkha).1

The “suffering of suffering” (duḥkha-duḥkhatā) is easily understood as the common physical pains we experience throughout life such as disease and dying. Most would agree that such experiences cause mental unease and are undesirable.

The “suffering of change” or otherwise known as the “suffering of transformation” (vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā) is the suffering experienced due to the immutable fact that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent and subject to decay. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines the word vipariṇāma as “change , exchange , transformation”. As Asaṅga points out the separation from what is pleasant is included within this type of suffering. Put another way this is the failure of happy moments to last.

The analysis taken further will have one conclude that ordinary states of happiness or pleasure are actually just states of suffering. This is because upon ending they either result in a state of suffering or because they condition a being to attempt to reproduce the same experience, amplifying addiction to sensory pleasures. This is not say one should abandon anything that brings about pleasure, but it is best to identify and understand these states for what they are rather than what we would normally want them to be.

The “suffering caused by conditioned states” (saṃskāra-duḥkha) is, according to Asaṅga, the five aggregates of attachment, which are cause for agitation. The “five aggregates” (pañca-skandha) here refer to the five psycho-physical components which make up a person. They are form (rūpa), sensation (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā), mental formations (saṃskāra) and consciousness (vijñāna). This might also be called a “mass of suffering” because every ordinary aspect of it fosters future conditioned existence which is ultimately unsatisfying. When I say “ordinary” this is in contrast to aspects directed towards liberation, such a willed intention to be liberated, whose result would be cessation of this mass of suffering, otherwise known as a sentient being.

After considering the three kinds of suffering it is clearly apparent that life is full of suffering. There is to be found no lasting or ultimately satisfying happiness in mundane pleasures and pursuits as it is all subject to decay and moreover conditions future unsatisfying existence. It is the desire for sensory pleasures (kāma) which propels a being through cyclic existence, otherwise known as saṃsāra, as it predisposes the psycho-physical process, which is the sentient being, towards action (karma) directed at the experience of agreeable sensation. All worldly pleasures and favourable sensations experienced are merely palliative opiates that dull the pain of existence without remedying the root source of the disease. There should never be an expectation that worldly pleasures and temporal success will ever be satisfying. They should be seen for what they are, rather than what we would want them to be.

It would be best here to point out that because rebirth or reincarnation is a core component of Buddhism there is no point in suggesting that “if you have nothing to live for and all is suffering, you might as well die” because death does not rob a person of the causes of suffering. In modern times the general conception of death, owing to influences from materialist thinking, is that upon cessation of activity in the brain there is a kind of oblivion awaiting the individual when all sense of subjectivity and awareness are effectively terminated and erased. This position has been argued against by numerous schools of thought, including the Buddhists, over the centuries in India and elsewhere but I shall not go into that discussion here. If you are interested in empirical evidence of rebirth I recommend looking into the research conducted at the University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies. The point I should like to emphasize is simply that in the Buddhist model rebirth is a reality and unless one cures the causes for suffering then death will be of little aid to a person seeking relief.

Fortunately there is relief and liberation – known as the Third Noble Truth – the truth of nirvāṇa. This indeed is the goal of any Buddhist tradition. Nirvāṇa is to saṃsāra as health is to illness. Being that there is no ultimately satisfying happiness to be found in life and being that the process of birth and death will continue indefinitely life after life, one may be inclined to investigate a remedy to the illness. There really is no other alternative. In the Buddhist context this is the primary driving force behind what in English is termed “practice”. Buddhists like to talk about their “practice” and this refers to activities directed at the cessation of their suffering. These activities are generally classified into three categories called the “three trainings” (śikṣā-traya), which are moral disciple or ethics (śīla), meditation (samādhi) and wisdom (prajñā). Wisdom is generally only possible through having gained mental stamina via meditation, which is only possible if one lives a proper lifestyle free from harmful behaviours.

Liberation being the only goal worth seriously pursuing in life many dedicated Buddhist practitioners can and will engage in activities that most ordinary people would find unreasonable and intolerable. One such example would be extended meditation retreats, which might be done in a cave or deep in a forest, where one is free from all human interaction and entertainment. However, such activities are not necessarily painful. Someone adept in the yogic arts will experience bliss in meditation. In a more down to earth context another example of what ordinary people might find unreasonable would be the practitioner's willingness to forsake money, career, position, power, sex, romance and/or worldly success in favour of yogic endeavours.

While it may seem unreasonable to many people, the reality is that upon understanding the nature of suffering and the precarious situation we as unliberated beings find ourselves in there is no other alternative but to seek liberation and do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. The more one tastes the bitterness of saṃsāra, the more one seeks the liberation from it.


1Asaṅga, Abhidharmasamucaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy) by Asaṅga, translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English version from the French by Sara Boin-Webb (Fremont: Asian Humanities Press, 2001), 85.

Fazang on the Fate of Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas

In Mahāyāna thought there are numerous theories on the eventual fates of arhats and pratyekabuddhas. In Śrāvakayāna thought it is said that arhats, having eliminated all causes for future rebirth anywhere in the three realms, are forever free from saṃsāra and enter nirvāṇa. However, some strains of Mahāyāna have alternative ideas.

In my reading of the works of Fazang 法藏 (643–712) I have come to understand his position on the matter. Fazang's position is essentially that arhats and pratyekabuddhas are under the mistaken notion that their nirvāṇa is an absolute cessation of existence and that in fact they are reborn outside the three realms in a pure land, whereupon they receive a 'transformation body' and start the Mahāyāna path. Fazang cites numerous sūtras and śāstras to prove his point. He also makes use of a metaphysical explanation, asserting that if a sentient being had an ultimate end, it should have an ultimate beginning from which a 'non-sentient entity' would become a sentient entity.

Here I will outline in brief his canonical citations and his metaphysical reasoning.

First of all let us consider his summary of canonical citations proving his assertion that arhats and pratyekabuddhas are reborn outside the three realms.

《大乘法界無差別論疏》卷1:「又勝鬘經。無上依經。佛性論。寶性論。皆同說三界外。聲聞緣覺及大力菩薩。受三種變易身。又智論九十三。引法華第三釋云。有妙淨土。出過三界。阿羅漢當生其中。是故定知入滅二乘。滅麁分段名入涅槃。實有變易在淨土中。受佛教化行菩薩道。若不爾者。未迴心時既無變易。迴心已去。即是漸悟菩薩。不名二乘。故知於三界外所受變易。小乘以為涅槃。大乘深說。實是變易。本無涅槃。勝鬘云。聲聞緣覺。實無涅槃。唯如來有涅槃故。此論下云。應知唯有一乘道。若不爾者。異此應有餘涅槃故。同一法界。豈有下劣涅槃。勝妙涅槃耶。以此當知二乘之人既無涅槃。無不皆當得菩提故。一切眾生皆是所為也。」(CBETA, T44, no. 1838, p. 62, a26-b11)

Furthermore, the Śrīmālā-sūtra, Anuttarāśraya-sūtra, Treatise on Buddha Nature and Ratnagotravibhāga-mahāyānōttaratantra-śāstra all likewise explain [the rebirth of arhats and pratyekabuddhas] outside the three realms. Śrāvaka, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas of great power receive three kinds of transformation bodies. Furthermore, the Mahāprājñā-pāramitôpadeśa, quoting the third scroll of the Lotus Sūtra, explains that there is an excellent pure land beyond the three realms. Arhats are born within it. It is thus that we know for certain that the cessation of the two vehicles is the cessation of the coarse delimited saṃsāra which they call entering nirvāṇa. In truth they will possess a transformation body in the pure land, receive the Buddha's teachings and practice the bodhisattva path. If this were not so, then at the time they had not turned their minds [to the Mahāyāna] they would have no transformation [body], but upon turning their minds [to the Mahāyāna] they would be gradually realized bodhisattvas. They would not be called 'two vehicles'. Thus we know that it is outside the three realms that they receive the transformation [body]. The Hīnayāna thinks this is nirvāṇa. The Mahāyāna [has] a deeper explanation. In truth it is a transformation [body they receive]. Fundamentally there is no nirvāṇa [as the Hīnayāna would understand it]. The Śrīmālā-sūtra states that śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas in truth have no nirvāṇa. It is only the tathāgata who has nirvāṇa.(1) This treatise [the Dasheng Fajie Wuchabie Lun 大乘法界無差別論] states below, “It should be understood that there is only the single vehicle path. If this were not so, it would be different from this as there would be another nirvāṇa. The same dharma-dhātu – how could there be an inferior nirvāṇa and a most excellent nirvāṇa?”(2) It is through these [citations] that we should understand that since those of the two vehicles [arhats and pratyekabuddhas] have no nirvāṇa, they will all attain bodhi, and thus all sentient beings are the object [of the aforementioned teaching].

These are potentially shocking statements – saying that there is no nirvāṇa. However, we need to keep in mind in this context 'nirvāṇa' refers to the absolute cessation of rebirth and existence, which is the goal of Śrāvakayāna teachings. The idea here is that there really is no absolute escape from our common reality, which for the unenlightened being is experienced as saṃsāra. This is not to deny the truth of the cessation of suffering. In Mahāyāna thought it is asserted that one can operate within common reality – even being reborn time and time again – without suffering, even experiencing it as bliss, provided wisdom and compassion are manifest.

The statement from the Mahāprājñā-pāramitôpadeśa he is citing is as follows.



(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 714, a9-15)

Question -- Arhats in their past lives must have extinguished all the conditions and conditions to receive a new body. Where do they abide and perfect the Buddha's path?

Answer -- When one attains arhatship all contaminated causes and conditions of the three realms are extinguished and one is no longer reborn in the three realms. There is a pure Buddha-land beyond the three realms, even being without the word 'defilements'. In this realm, the place of the Buddha, they hear the Lotus Sūtra, and perfect the Buddha's path. As the Lotus Sūtra says, "There are arhats who, if they have not heard the Lotus Sūtra, think of themselves as having attained cessation. In another realm I explain this - you all will become buddhas."

One will notice that the text does not explicitly say arhats are reborn in this pure buddha-realm outside the three realms. However, it seems logical to read it as such given that the question is where arhats reside after they pass away and how do they achieve buddhahood. Other writers like Jizang (549–623) 吉藏 interpret this passage in the same way.(3) I think this is the logical way to understand this passage as well. The other thing to note is that there is no mention here of a 'transformation body' (變易身), which is actually an idea obtained from other texts.

As to his metaphysical reasoning for absolute cessation of all existence being untenable he explains in greater detail why there is no 'end of ashes and eternal cessation' (無灰斷永滅) for the two vehicles in his work entitled the Commentary on the Undiscriminated Mahāyāna Dharmadhātu Śāstra 《大乘法界無差別論疏》 by citing a passage from the Ghana-vyūha-sūtra 《密嚴經》 and elaborating the metaphysical reasons why such a permanent cessation is untenable.

《大乘法界無差別論疏》卷1:「密嚴第一頌云。涅槃若滅壞。眾生有終盡。眾生若有終。是亦有初際。應有非生法。而始作眾生。解云。此亦是聖教。亦是正理。若入寂二乘灰斷永滅。則是眾生作非眾生。若令眾生作非眾生。則應有非眾生而始作眾生。」(CBETA, T44, no. 1838, p. 62, a18-23)

A verse in the Ghana-vyūha-sūtra states, “If nirvāṇa were cessation, then a sentient being will have a complete end. If a sentient being has an end, then there should also be a beginning time. There should be a non-sentient dharma that starts being a sentient being.” Interpretation – This is the holy teaching and is also the right principle. If one were to enter into extinction, the two vehicles' 'end of ashes and eternal cessation', then this sentient being would become a non-sentient being. If a sentient being is made into a non-sentient being, then there should be non-sentient beings beginning to be sentient beings.

Fazang is arguing here that arhats and pratyekabuddhas cannot achieve an absolute cessation – that is to say, using his vocabulary, becoming a non-sentient entity – because it would follow that since a sentient entity could become a non-sentient entity, then a non-sentient entity should be able to become a sentient entity. If a sentient being has an ultimate absolute end, then it should also have a beginning according to him. For Fazang this would be equal to saying that an uncontaminated dharma could give rise to a contaminated dharma. He references the Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi-śāstra to demonstrate this point.

《大乘法界無差別論疏》卷1:「唯識論中。說有漏生於無漏。則難勿無漏法還生有漏。今亦例同。既眾生入滅同非眾生。勿非眾生法而還作眾生。」(CBETA, T44, no. 1838, p. 62, a23-26)

In the Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi-śāstra it is explained that [if it is suggested that] the contaminated is produced in the uncontaminated, then the criticism is that there are no uncontaminated phenomena still producing the contaminated. Now the precedent is the same since sentient beings would enter cessation and be the same as a 'non-sentient being', [but] there are no 'non-sentient being' phenomena that still produce sentient beings.

One could respond by asking if a sentient being is doomed to exist as such without any possibility of transcending the state of being a sentient being. Moreover, how is it a sentient being becomes a buddha which is not a sentient being? Again, one must take into consideration the context in which this argument is being put forth. Fazang is arguing that sentient beings by virtue of being sentient entities cannot become non-sentient entities completely detached from reality, isolated in a nirvāṇa apart from all other beings. Sentient beings can, however, attain buddhahood where while not being a 'sentient being' they still actively interact with reality and all the sentient beings within it. This is an emotionally charged idea that one can still work within saṃsāra without being adversely affected by it.

Fazang's own sentiments are clear in the following statement by him:

《修華嚴奧旨妄盡還源觀》卷1:「觀色即空成大智而不住生死。觀空即色成大悲而不住涅槃。以色空無二。悲智不殊。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1876, p. 638, b1-3)

Seeing that form is emptiness manifests great wisdom and one does not abide in saṃsāra. Seeing that emptiness is form manifests great compassion and one does not abide in nirvāṇa. When form and emptiness are non-dual, compassion and wisdom are not different.

Still, I think his arguments would not satisfy a lot of people and raise many more questions. For example, from a Śrāvakayāna perspective one could argue that sentient beings do not become 'non-sentient beings', but rather just that upon attaining arhatship and passing away the causes and conditions for a sentient being to arise simply cease like a candle light being snuffed out. However, the Mahāyāna proponent could defer to canonical scriptures which indeed state arhats are reborn outside the three realms and eventually achieve buddhahood, though the Śrāvakayāna proponent would not accept this.

As I said above there are multiple theories on this matter. Fazang's ideas outlined above represent the views of just one thinker. He was a prolific writer and over the centuries many others read his works not only in China, but also in Korea and Japan. He no doubt influenced his posterity and so his ideas are worth special consideration.


1 See the following. 《勝鬘師子吼一乘大方便方廣經》卷1:「阿羅漢辟支佛有怖畏。是故阿羅漢辟支佛。有餘生法不盡故。有生有餘梵行不成故。不純事不究竟故。當有所作。不度彼故。當有所斷。以不斷故。去涅槃界遠。何以故。唯有如來應正等覺得般涅槃。成就一切功德故。阿羅漢辟支佛。不成就一切功德。言得涅槃者。是佛方便。唯有如來得般涅槃。成就無量功德故。阿羅漢辟支佛。成就有量功德。」(CBETA, T12, no. 353, p. 219, c1-9)

2 See the following. 《大乘法界無差別論》卷1:「復次應知。唯有一乘道若不爾者。異此應有餘涅盤故。同一法界豈有下劣涅盤勝妙涅盤耶。」(CBETA, T31, no. 1626, p. 894, a18-20)

3 See the following. 《勝鬘寶窟》卷2:「問。無漏云何是業。...答。即此無漏作意之義。故名為業。生羅漢業。是變易果。生相云何。如智度論云。有妙淨土。出過三界。是阿羅漢當生彼中。」(CBETA, T37, no. 1744, p. 54, a18-21)