Actions and Results: Karma and Karmic Traces

(The following article appears to be the material of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk. It contains a lucid and probably accurate account of karma with its practical meaning in life. A few slight changes have been made to correct grammar or syntax.)

The culture in which we live conditions us, but we carry the seeds of conditioning with us wherever we go. Everything that bothers us is actually in our mind. We blame our unhappiness on the environment, our situation, and believe that if we could change our circumstances we would be happy.  But the situation in which we find ourselves is only the secondary cause of our suffering.  The primary cause is innate ignorance and the resulting desire for things to be other than they are.

Perhaps we decide to escape the stresses of the city by moving to the ocean or the mountains. Or we may leave the isolation and difficulties of the country for the excitement of the city. The change can be nice because the secondary causes are altered and contentment may be found--but only for a short while. The root of our discontent moves with us to our new home, and from it grows new dissatisfactions.  Soon we are once again caught up in the turmoil of hope and fear. Or we may think that if we just had more money, or a better partner, or a better body or job or education, we would be happy.  But we know this is not true.  The rich are not free from suffering, a new partner will dissatisfy us in some way, the body will age, the new job will grow less interesting, and so on. When we think the solution to our unhappiness can be found in the external world, our desires can only be temporarily sated. Not understanding this, we are tossed this way and that by the winds of desire, ever restless and dissatisfied. 
We are governed by our karma and continually plant the seeds of future karmic harvest.  Not only does this mode of action distract us from the spiritual path, but it also prevents us from finding satisfaction and happiness in our daily life. As long as we identify with the grasping and aversion of the moving mind, we produce the negative emotions that are born in the gap between what is and what we want.  Actions generated from these emotions, which include nearly all actions taken in our ordinary lives, leave karmic traces.

Karma means action. Karmic traces are the result of actions, which remain in the mental consciousness and influence our future. We can partially understand karmic traces if we think of them as what in the West are called tendencies in the unconscious. They are inclinations, patterns of internal and external behavior, ingrained reactions, and habitual conceptualization. They dictate our emotional reactions to situations and our intellectual understandings as well as our characteristic emotional habits and intellectual rigidities. They create and condition every response we normally have to every element of our experience.

This is an example of karmic traces on a gross level, though the same dynamic is at work in even the subtlest and most pervasive levels of experience: A man grows up in a home in which there is a lot of fighting. Then, perhaps thirty or forty years after leaving home, he is walking down a street and passes a house in which people are arguing with one another.  That night he has a dream in which he is fighting with his wife or partner.  When he wakes in the morning he feels aggravated and withdrawn.  This is noticed by his partner who reacts to the mood, which further irritates him.

This sequence of experiences shows us something about karmic traces. When the man was young, he reacted to the fighting in his home with fear, anger and hurt. He felt aversion towards the fighting, a normal response, and this aversion left a trace in his mind. Decades later he passes a house and hears fighting; this is the secondary condition that stimulates the old karmic trace, which manifests in a dream that night.

In the dream, the man reacts to the dream-partner's provocation with feelings of anger and hurt. This response is governed by the karmic traces that were collected in his mental consciousness as a child and that have probably been reinforced many times since.  When the dream-partner -- who is wholly a projection of the man's mind -- provokes him, his reaction is aversion, just as when he was a child. The aversion that he feels in the dream is the new action that creates a new seed.  When he wakes he is
stuck in the negative emotions that are the fruit of prior karmas; he feels estranged and withdrawn from his partner. To complicate matters further, the partner reacts from her karmically determined habitual tendencies, perhaps becoming short tempered, withdrawn, apologetic, or subservient, and the man again reacts negatively, sowing yet another karmic seed.

Any reaction to any situation -- external or internal, waking or dreaming --  that is rooted in grasping or aversion, leaves a trace in the mind.  As karma dictates reactions, the reactions sow further karmic seeds, which further dictate reactions, and so on. This is how karma leads to more of itself. It is the wheel of samsara, the ceaseless cycle of action and reaction.

Although this example focuses on karma on the psychological level, karma determines every dimension of existence.  It shapes the emotional and mental phenomena in an individual's life as well as the perception and interpretation of existence, the functioning of the body, and the cause and effect dynamism of the external world.  Every aspect of experience, however small or large, is governed by karma.

The karmic traces left in the mind are like seeds.  And like seeds, they require certain conditions in order to manifest. Just as a seed needs the right combination of moisture and light and nutrients and temperature in order to sprout and grow, the karmic trace manifests when the right situation is encountered. The elements of the situation that support the manifestation of the karma are known as the secondary causes and conditions.

It is helpful to think of karma as the process of cause and effect, because this leads to the recognition that the choices made in responding to any situation, internal or external, have consequences. Once we really understand that each karmic trace is a seed for further karmically-governed-action, we can use that understanding to avoid creating negativity in our life, and instead create conditions that will influence our
life in a positive direction. Or, if we know how, we can allow the emotion to self-liberate as it arises, in which no new karma is created.

Negative Karma

If we react to a situation with negative emotion, the trace left in the mind will eventually ripen and negatively influence a situation in life. For example, if someone is angry with us and we in turn react with anger, we leave a trace that makes it more likely for anger to arise in us again, and furthermore it becomes more likely for us to encounter the secondary situations which will allow our habitual anger to arise. This is easy to see if we have a great deal of anger in our lives or if we know someone who does. Angry people continually encounter situations that seem to justify their anger, while people with less anger do not.  The external situations may be similar but the different karmic inclinations create different subjective worlds.

If an emotion is expressed impulsively it can generate strong results and reactions. Anger can lead to a fight or some other kind of destruction. People can be harmed physically or emotionally. This is not true just of anger; if fear is acted out it too can create great stress for the person who suffers it, and can alienate that person from others, and so on.  It is not too difficult to see how this leads to negative traces that influence the future negatively.

If we suppress emotion, there is still a negative trace. Suppression is a manifestation of aversion. It occurs through tightening something inside of ourselves, putting something behind a door and locking it, forcing part of our experience into the dark where it waits, seemingly hostile, until the appropriate secondary cause calls it out.  This may manifest in many ways. For example, if we suppress our jealousy of others, it may eventually manifest in an emotional outburst, or it may be present in the harsh judgment of others of whom we are secretly jealous, even if we deny this jealousy to ourselves. Mental judgment is also an action, based on aversion, which creates negative karmic seeds.

Positive Karma

Instead of either of these negative responses -- being driven in our behavior by the karmic tendency or suppressing it -- we can take a moment to stop and communicate with ourselves and choose to produce the antidote to the negative emotion. If someone is angry with us and our own anger arises, the antidote is compassion.  Inducing it may feel forced and inauthentic at first, but if we realize that the person irritating us is being pushed around by his own conditioning, and further realize that he is suffering a constriction of consciousness because he is trapped in his own negative karma, we feel some compassion and can start to let go of our negative reactions. As we do, we begin to shape our future positively.

This new response, which is still based on desire -- in this case for virtue or peace or spiritual growth -- produces a karmic trace that is positive; we have planted the seed of compassion.  The next time we encounter anger we are a little more likely to respond with compassion, which is much more comfortable and spacious than the narrowness of self-protective anger. In this way, the practice of virtue cumulatively retrains our response to the world and we find ourselves, for instance, encountering less and less anger both internally and externally.  If we continue this practice, compassion with eventually arise spontaneously and without effort. Using the understanding of karma, we can retrain our minds to use all experience, even the most private and fleeting daydreams, to support our spiritual practice.

Liberating Emotions

The best response to negative emotion is to allow it to self-liberate by remaining in non-dual awareness, free of grasping and aversion. If we can do this, the emotion passes through us like a bird flying through space; no trace of its passage remains. The emotion arises and then spontaneously dissolves into emptiness.

In this case, the karmic seed is manifesting -- as emotion or thought or bodily sensation or an impulse toward particular behaviors -- but because we do not respond with grasping or aversion, no seed of future karma is generated. Every time that envy, for example, is allowed to arise and dissolve in awareness without our becoming caught by it or trying to repress it, the strength of the karmic tendency toward envy weakens. There is no new action to reinforce it. Liberating emotion in this way cuts karma at its root. It is as if we burn the karmic seeds before they have an opportunity to grow into trouble in our life.

You may ask why it is better to liberate emotion rather than to generate positive karma. The answer is that all karmic traces act to constrain us, to restrict us to particular identities. The goal of the path is complete liberation from all conditioning. This does not mean that, once one is liberated, positive traits such as compassion are not present. They are. But when we are no longer driven by karmic tendencies we can see our situation clearly and respond spontaneously and appropriately, rather than be pushed in one direction or pulled in another. The relative compassion that arises from positive karmic tendencies is very good, but better is the absolute compassion that arises effortlessly and perfectly in the individual liberated from karmic conditioning. It is more spacious and inclusive, more effective, and free of the delusions of dualism.

Although allowing emotion to self-liberate is the best response, it is difficult to do before our practice is developed and stable.  But however our practice is now, all of us can determine to stop for a moment when emotion arises, check in with ourselves, and choose to act as skillfully as possible.  We can all learn to blunt the force of impulse of karmic habits. We can use a conceptual process, reminding ourselves that the emotion we are experiencing is simply the fruition of previous karmic traces. Then we may be able to relax our identification with the emotion or point-of-view, and let go of our defensiveness. As the knot of emotion loosens, the identity relaxes and grows more spacious. We can choose a more positive response, planting seeds of positive karma. Again, it is important to do this without repressing emotion. We should relax as we generate compassion, not rigidly suppress the anger in our body while trying to think good thoughts.

The path is not meant to benefit only the far future or our next life. As we practice training ourselves to react more positively to situations, we change our karmic traces and develop qualities that effect positive changes in the lives we are leading right now. As we see more clearly that every experience, however small and private, has a result, we can use this understanding to change our lives and our dreams.

Karmic Traces and Dream

All sams(k)aric experience is shaped by karmic traces. Moods, thoughts, emotions, mental images, perceptions, instinctive reactions, "common sense," and even our sense of identity are all governed by the workings of karma. For example, you may wake up feeling depressed. You have breakfast, everything seems to be all right, but there is a sense of depression that cannot be accounted for. We say in this case that some karma is ripening. The causes and conditions have come together in such a way that the depression manifests. There may be a hundred reasons for this depression to occur on this particular morning, and it may manifest in a myriad of ways. It may also manifest during the night as a dream.

In dream, the karmic traces manifest in consciousness unfettered by the rational mind with which we so often rationalize away a feeling or a fleeting mental image. We can think of the process like this: During the day the consciousness illuminates the senses and we experience the world, weaving sensory and psychic experiences into the meaningful whole of our life.  At night the consciousness withdraws from the senses and resides in the base. If we have developed a strong practice of presence with much experience of the empty, luminous nature of mind, then we will be aware of (Self and be silently content) in this pure, lucid awareness. But for most of us the consciousness illuminates the obscurations, the karmic traces, and these traces manifest as dream.

The karmic traces are like photographs that we take of each experience. Any reaction of grasping or aversion to any experience -- to memories, feelings, sense perceptions, or thoughts -- is like snapping a photo. In the darkroom of our sleep we develop the film. Which images are developed on a particular
night will be determined by secondary conditions recently encountered. Some images or traces are burned deeply into us by powerful reactions while others, resulting from superficial experiences, leave only a faint residue. Our consciousness, like the light of a projector, illuminates the traces that have been stimulated and they manifest as the images and experiences of the dream. We string them together like a film, as this is the way our psyches work to make meaning, resulting in a narrative constructed from conditioned tendencies and habitual identities: the dream. This same process continually occurs while we are awake, making up what we commonly think of as "our experience." The dynamics are easier to understand in dream, because they can be observed free of limitations of the physical world and the rational consciousness. During the day, although still engaged in the same dream-making process, we project this inner activity of the mind
onto the world and think that our experiences are "real" and external to our own mind.

In dream yoga, this understanding of karma is used to train the mind to react differently to experience, resulting in new karmic traces from which are generated dreams more conducive to our practice. It is not about force, about the consciousness acting imperially to oppress the unconscious. Dream yoga relies instead upon increased awareness and insight to allow us to make positive choices in life. Understanding the dynamic structure of experience and the consequences of actions leads to the recognition that every experience of any kind is an opportunity for spiritual practice.

Dream practice also gives us a method of burning the seeds of future karma during the dream. If we abide in awareness during a dream, we can allow the karmic traces to self-liberate as they arise and they will not continue on to manifesting in our life as negative states. As in waking life, this will only happen if we can remain in the non-dual awareness of rigpa, the clear light of the mind. If this is not possible for us, we can still develop tendencies to choose spiritually positive behavior even in our dreams until we can go beyond preferences and dualism altogether.

Ultimately, when we purify the obscurations until none remain, there is no film, no hidden karmic influences that color or shape the light of consciousness. Because karmic traces are the roots of dreams, when they are entirely exhausted only the pure light of awareness remains: no movie, no story, no dreamer and no dream, only the luminous fundamental nature that is absolute reality. This is why enlightenment is the end of dreams and known as "awakening."


Since he was thirteen years old Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche practiced Dzogchen with his masters from both the Bon and Buddhist schools: Lopon Sange Tenzin, Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, and Geshe Yungdrug Namgyal. He completed an eleven year course of traditional studies in the Bon tradition at the
Bonpo Monastic Center, Dolanji, HP, India, whereupon he qualified for the Doctorate Degree of Geshe. He is also an accomplished scholar in the Bonpo and the Buddhist textual traditions of philosophy, exegesis, and debating. Upon graduation in1986, he was employed at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives at
Dharamsala, India. That same year he was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be the representative of the Bon school to the assembly of deputies of the government in exile.