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Manual of Abhidharma - Reading Five: How Karma is Carried, According to the Mind- Only School

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Selection One: The Mind-Only School on how mental seeds cause our perceptions


The selections are all taken from Illumination of the True Thought, written by Lord Tsongkapa:

. . .The second part has two sections of its own: stating the position of the other school, and then denying this position. Here is the first.

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This is how the presentation was made. Then those of the Mind-Only School come back, considering and then presenting a position which by itself reflects the primary belief of their entire system.

They speak first of the mental seed, the energy, from which the “mind of the eye” (which refers to the consciousness of the eye) comes forth. Another case of consciousness, as it is in the process of stopping, in the next moment plants this mental seed in the foundation consciousness. When this seed ripens later, it produces that consciousness of the eye, one which takes after the earlier one.

Consider now this energy as it exists immediately before producing the consciousness of the eye related to it; consider the energy which acts as the immediate basis for this eye consciousness. Normal people, out of ignorance, conceive of this as the physical faculty of the eye. In truth though a power of the eye which is something separate from consciousness is something that doesn’t even exist. This same explanation applies to all the remaining physical faculties.

Here the cause behind the consciousness of the eye, the mental seed, is the primary factor behind it. The faculty of the eye is the component of the body that provides a contributing circumstance.

Here when the physical faculty of the eye is presented as the direct cause of the consciousness of the eye, the real intent is to refer to the situation where the mental seed which produces the eye consciousness is ripening. They are not talking here of what we normally think of as the physical faculty of the eye.

Regarding this the text called Middle and Extremes states,

The combination of the objects and the person,

The base consciousness, is a consciousness that appears;

In reality this is not the being.

Here the wordobjects” refers to form and the rest, and “the person” refers to the five faculties; the lines are describing a consciousness that arises and which appears to be them, but which is actually foundation consciousness. Master Stiramati also explains the physical faculties as the object of foundation consciousness. The point then is that those of the Mind-Only School who accept the idea of a foundation consciousness believe that the physical faculties of the eye and so on are actually the condition of the foundation consciousness appearing as the physical faculties.

Once they have demonstrated that there is no such thing as physical faculties of the eye and so on that could ever be anything separate from consciousness itself, then they must show how form as well is nothing other than consciousness. To do this they give the following description. Consider now the five types of consciousness that, according to general belief, arise from the five physical faculties. It is not that there are any outside physical objects such as the color blue and so on which the consciousness has to grasp to. Rather, blue and the rest are only an appearance which occurs through the ripening of the very mental seed which was planted in the foundation consciousness and from which consciousness itself has arisen. Not realizing this fact, people look at the mind appearing as blue or whatever and accept or interpret these appearances as being outer objects.

Selection Two: How the Middle-Way School says the mental seeds of karma work


Here is the second part [of a different] discussion [about where the Madhyamika school believes the mental seeds from karma are planted, since they do not accept the concept of foundation consciousness). One may begin with the following question:

Suppose you deny then the existence of a foundation consciousness. Nonetheless you must accept that mental seeds from virtue or non-virtue do get planted, and that consequences do arise from the ripening of these mental seeds. After all, the autocommentary to Entering the Middle Way does state that “For time without beginning, in the suffering cycle of life, the mental seeds for things have been planted, and have then ripened, and have then been interpreted by people as the things themselves.” There are as well many other quotations which mention the same thing. And it would be incorrect to say that there existed no basis or place where these mental seeds were planted. What then, according to your view, provides this place for the seeds to be planted?

According to those who accept the idea of a foundation consciousness, the thing called “afflicted mind” focuses on foundation consciousness and holds it to be “me”; they say that this foundation consciousness then is the place where the mental seeds stay. In our (Madhyamika) school too we have a similar concept; we say that the base which is stained with the mental seed is exactly that thing that you focus on with your simple, natural awareness of yourself and call “me.”

One may ask the following:

The autocommentary to Entering the Middle Way states that the stream of the mind is the basis where the mental seeds are planted. How does this fit into what you have just said?

The very thing we call the simple “me” is something which results from a label being applied to the mind, or consciousness. It also goes on in a stream. From this point of view then we can also refer to it as the “stream of the mind.” And even if what you mean by a “stream” is the continuation of later, similar instances of mind itself, you can say that it too is the basis which is stained by mental seeds of particular occasions.

Here is how the mental seed for ignorance works. The autocommentary to Entering the Middle Way says,

That thing which tends to stop, and yet still stain, and then continue on in the flow of the mind is what we refer to as a ‘mental seed.’ The expressions ‘continuity’ and ‘habit’ and ‘root’ and ‘mental seed’ for the state of mental affliction all refer to the same thing. This is something that Listeners and Self-Made “Buddhas” are unable to eliminate even though they may already have eliminated the state of mental affliction itself through using the unstained path. It’s similar to what happens with sesame butter or flowers; you may already remove these things from the scene, but the vase in which the flowers were, or the piece of cloth that the butter stained, still retain some subtle trace of them due to the previous contact.

How then could there be any sense to saying that there is another basis, a second one, on top of the one mentioned here, where other types of mental seeds, like those of virtuous deeds and non-virtuous deeds and the rest, are planted?

One might wonder about something else:

Let’s talk about the period while you are in the “uninterrupted” stage of the path of seeing [the actual direct perception of emptiness). I can accept that at this point the negative thoughts eliminated by this path are no longer present, but we would have to say that the negative things eliminated by the path of habituation are still there, in a dormant way. At this particular point in time, the consciousness of the mind is unstained, unaffected by the mental seed which causes the mistaken state of mind where the appearance and actuality of things are different from one another. As such none of these things could lie dormant here, due to its very quality at the time. There is no consciousness of the senses that could act as the basis for those mental seeds, and it would be improper to say that physical form could ever provide such a basis either. According to you, moreover, there’s no foundation consciousness. I would have to think then that there is no basis at all where these dormant things could stay.

And yet there is no such problem, for at this point in time it is the simple “me” which is providing the basis for the dormant things eliminated by the path of habituation to stay. You can apply this reasoning as well to all the other cases involving things to be eliminated, and the antidotes which eliminate them.

Selection Three: The Middle-Way School on the question of where the seeds of karma stay until they give their result


Here is the second point [of still another discussion). One may ask the following:

Those who believe that entities have no natural existence [meaning the Madhyamika Prasangika (or Consequence) School] do not accept the concepts of a foundation consciousness and the like; how then is it that they can still assert that all the workings of karma and its consequences are totally right and proper?

All the Buddhist schools, whether higher schools or lower schools, accept the principle that the consequences of pleasure and pain and so on arise from virtuous and non-virtuous karma or actions, even though the original karma and its eventual consequences may be separated by a very long period of time. The problem though is that, if the karma stays around during the entire period up to the point at which it gives its consequence, it would have to be unchanging. An unchanging thing though is incapable of affecting anything, and so you could never have a relationship where karma gave rise to any consequence.

From the moment after you complete a karma or deed, that deed is finished and gone. During the entire period from that point up to the point at which the consequence actually occurs, the deed no longer exists. A deed which is already gone is no longer a thing that can have any affect on anything. How then does a deed or karma ever produce any kind of consequence? Here is how we explain this problem:

Let’s consider the deed or karma as it exists up to the point right after the moment in which the deed is completed; that is, let’s consider the deed as it approaches its end. The energy of the deed has to be stored somewhere, and so some thinkers have invented the idea of some kind of foundation consciousness for it to stay. Others have said that there is something which is changing but neither mental nor physical, something they call “the fact of not just going away”; they say it is something that exists separately from the two types of deeds (virtue and non-virtue), and that it resembles the document written up for a loan that has to be repaid. Still others have invented the idea that there is another changing thing which is neither mental nor physical, again different from the two kinds of deeds themselves, something they call a “hold.” Others finally have invented the idea of a stream of consciousness which is stained with the mental seed of the deed. This then is why, they say, that it is no contradiction for the deed to produce its consequence later, even after a very long time. The deed or karma plants a mental seed in the foundation consciousness, and so the mental seed is the result of the deed. This mental seed continues on in a stream of similar forms until eventually it produces the consequence. Thus, they say, the consequence of the original karma is something that is produced indirectly, via a medium. This same type of idea applies to the other three positions expressed.

The first of these positions belongs to a certain group within the Mind-Only School. The second position is explained by Master Avalokitavrata to be that of the Detailist School—of a certain section other than the Kashmiri Detailists. The third position also belongs to a specific group within the Detailist School. It is not completely clear where the fourth position belongs, but since it is consistent with the ninth chapter of the autocommentary to the Treasure House of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha), it would appear to be an alternate belief of the Sutrists and the Kashmiri Detailists.

Although the Kashmiris do accept the idea of a “hold,” they do not assert that a hold could be produced by the two types of karma as something retained by the hold. The position here though belongs to someone who does assert this, and this is the point of the phrase “according to someone.”

According to someone now of the Madhyamika Consequence school, the deed or karma is not something which arises in and of itself, and so, for this very reason, neither is it something which finishes through any nature of its own. Nonetheless it is no contradiction to say that something which never finishes through any nature of its own can still produce a consequence. As such a consequence can come from a deed even if we never accept the idea of a foundation consciousness or the like.

You must understand then that this is why the two kinds of karma can already have finished in the mental continuum of any given sentient being, and yet still after a long time—even after the passing of many millions of years—these deeds can nonetheless produce their consequences “perfectly,” which is to say, without any confusion. [That is, good deeds lead to pleasure, and bad deeds lead to pain, and there is never any case where this law somehow goes wrong, and good deeds lead to pain, or bad deeds to pleasure.]

Given all this, the connection between deeds and their consequences is, in this school, purely and totally correct.

The point of all this is that all four of the positions above, as they attempt to answer the problem raised, do so from a viewpoint of accepting that a deed has a beginning that exists by definition and an ending too that exists by definition. They are agreeing as well that the later condition of the deed’s having ended is something that exists by definition. The Master (Chandrakirti) is stating that it is improper to answer the problem raised above by saying that, “Even though the ending of the deed is that way, it’s no problem, because we believe in foundation consciousness.” He is denying all these positions, for the reason that there simply doesn’t even exist any beginning or ending of a deed that could occur through any nature of its own.

The Master, to demonstrate how this way of answering reflects exactly the position of the Arya (Nagarjuna), quotes the following statement from the Root Text on Wisdom:

Because the karma never begins,

Because it has no nature of its own,

And since it has never even begun,

Neither then can it simply go away.

The lines are saying that, because there is no such thing as a karma that exists through its own nature, no such karma could ever have a beginning that came in and of itself. Because of this, it is completely impossible for a karma ever to end by any nature of its own. It is illogical to think of the subsequent condition of the deed’s having ended and invent some idea of something that can never just go away.

Selection Four: What the Middle-Way School means when it says things are just the results of conceptualization


This section [still another one] has two parts to it. First we will show how it is that objects are established through the process of conceptualization, and then describe what it is to grasp to true existence, wherein one holds things as existing in the opposite way. Here is the first.

The Sutra Requested by Upali includes the following lines:

A splash of pleasing flowers open their petals,

Golden palaces blaze in breathtaking beauty;

Look for their maker, but you’ll never find him,

For all of these are built of conceptions—

The world is an invention of conceptions.

The verse is describing how objects are established through the process of conceptualization, and there are as well many other statements of the Buddha that describe how every single object in the universe is nothing more than a creation of conceptions.

The Sixty Verses on Reasoning say as well,

The world is something that ignorance causes;

Why? For the Buddhas say it is so.

And why then would it be wrong to say

That this world is only conceptions.

The meaning of this verse, according to the commentary, is that none of the many worlds that exist does so through some essence of its own: none of them are anything more than products of our conception.

The 400 Verses says as well:

Without conceptions, desire and such

Are nothing that can even exist;

Why then would anyone with a brain

Believe in reality and conception?

The commentary to the work states that—

Things that can’t even exist in the absence of conceptions are, beyond any manner of doubt, absolutely things that cannot exist through any essence of their own: they are like a coil of rope you label with “snake.”

The expression “reality” here refers to something that could exist through its own essence. “Conception” is the fact that things occur through the process of conceptualization.

When this commentary states that “desire and such” are like a piece of rope labelled “snake,” it is only giving a single example; what it means to say is that each and every other existing object is as well like a rope called a snake: they are all established through the process of conceptualization.

Here the colored pattern of the rope and the way it’s coiled make it resemble a snake; and if you’re in a place where you can’t see it very clearly, then you start to think to yourself, “It’s a snake!” The fact though is that there is nothing about the rope as a whole, nor anything about its various parts, that you could ever establish as being one kind of a snake; the snake of the rope, then, is nothing but a creation of conceptions.

The same thing happens when you get the idea of “me” about the heaps, the various components to yourself. There is nothing about these components as a whole, when you consider them as a continuum in time, nor as a whole considered in a single moment in time, nor as the various parts to a whole, that you could ever establish as being any kind of “me.” We’ll go into this in more detail further on.

Because of this fact, and since moreover there is not the slightest thing outside of the parts or whole of the components to yourself that you could ever consider any kind of “me,” this “me” is nothing more than a creation of conception, based on the components. There is no “me” which exists through any essence of its own.

Selection Five: What the Buddha really meant when He said that things were “mind only


Now the Sixty Verses on Reasoning says,

The world is something that ignorance causes;

Why? For the Buddhas say it is so.

And why then would it be wrong to say

That this world is only conceptions.

If one were to end his ignorance,

Then how is it that the thing that’s ended,

Despite our misunderstanding, could never

Disappear, even in conceptions?

The meaning of the lines is as follows. If things existed in their very essence, then they would exist as some independent reality. If this were so, then when you finally stopped your mistaken states of mind, they would never disappear, although they should have.

The mind is the main thing; and to show this, the following explanation appears in the scripture:

The world, in the form of those who live in it, finds its very being through the power of the karma they have collected with their minds, and through the bad thoughts in their minds. All the vast multitude of worlds too, in the form of the places where these beings live, have been put there, have been produced, by the collective karma of these same beings, and no one else—by the karma within their own minds. This refers to everything up to the farthest reaches of the world, from the great disc of wind that underpins our planet up to the highest temporary heaven, the one named “Below No Other.”

On this subject, the intricate patterns on a peacock and other such objects are produced by each one’s personal karma. The intricacies of the petals and colors of a lotus flower and other such things are produced by the collective karma of living beings. You can apply these principles to all other cases as well.

As the verse goes,

It’s through the karma of living beings

That the great dark mountains arise in their time.

It’s like the hells, and the heavens above,

And swords, and jewels, and trees in the world.

The great books of the Mind-Only School also discuss whether the two worlds [of beings and the place they live] are produced by karma that is collective or not, and so it’s not as though the system of the Mind Only denies the existence of the world where beings live.

And so it is spoken, that all the living beings of the universe are produced by karma. And if somehow you could stop all minds, then karma itself would cease to be, for it is only through mind and what comes along with it that karma can be collected. Therefore karma itself depends on the mind. So the statement from the Sutra of the Ten Levels, where it says that there is no great master of all things, and no great maker of all things, conveys one meaning of the word “only” in the expression “mind-only”; the point is that there is no other creator of things than the mind itself.

It is stated in scripture as well that each and every one of the twelve links in the chain of interdependence depends on a single thing: the mind. These references convey yet another meaning of the word “only” in the expression “mind-only.” Here the point is that mind is the main thing. The former scriptural references are putting their point in a negative way, and the latter references are putting their point in a positive way.

Thus we can see that it’s the mind which is the one single principal cause that sets all life into motion. The principal cause is not something other than the mind. Therefore when the sutras speak of “mind only,” they are making the point that mind is the main thing, and not matter. Although we do of course admit that physical matter exists, this matter is not the one prime creator of sentient beings in the way that mind is.

Therefore all these scriptural references are denying that the opposite of the mind, something other than the mind, could be the creator. They are not though saying that there are no outside physical objects at all.

See also