Summary of Vasubandhu’s analysis of karma
Let us now recapitulate Vasubandhu’s account of karma in the light of the four challenges that were outlined towards the beginning of this section. The first challenge facing the abhidharma analyst is to describe exactly what it is that acts if there is no stable and enduring person. According to Vasubandhu, the primary action is always an intention to do something, which is an action of the mind. An intention to act that is not associated with wisdom is bound to be associated with the belief in a continuing self. Such an unwise intention is bound to be accompanied by such conditioning characteristics as selfish desire or anger, and it becomes either an unprofitable intention, in case it is accompanied by a desire to bring harm to another, or a profitable intention, in case it is accompanied by a desire to bring benefit to another. Therefore, an unwise intention becomes profitable or unprofitable owing to its association with profitable or unprofitable conditioning characteristics.
A wise intention to act gives rise to an actual bodily or vocal action. That is, one either does something or says something. The physical or vocal action that follows it can be motivated only by a wish to bring benefit to others, for wisdom can never be accompanied by a desire to do harm. Moreover, an act that is motivated by wisdom can never be accompanied by a desire for continued existence, for wisdom is the very realization that nothing endures. In the absence of a desire for continued existence, the root cause for continued existence does not exist, and therefore an act that stems from a wise motivation does not have the consequence of continued existence. In other words, a bodily or vocal action that is performed as a result of a wise intention is not a karma and therefore does not lead to karmic fruition (karma-vipāka) in the future. The causal sequence set into motion with a wise intention to act ends when the intention is carried out. Once the intention is carried out, it is completely exhausted and does not give rise to further intentions.
An unwise intention, on the other hand, is an intention that is accompanied by a belief in and desire for the continued existence of the agent. This desire acts as the cause of future properties to arise in the causal continuum. When this unwise intention gives rise to a bodily or verbal action, it gives rise not only to the action itself but also to its own successors, that is, to further unwise intentions. Moreover, the bodily or vocal action performed as a result of the unwise intention brings about a subtle physical change in the physical organ that serves as the seat of thought.
We have then, according to Vasubandhu, two causal chains set in motion by an unwise intention. The first is the formation of a habit, that is, a tendency to want to repeat the intention. This habit transforms the group of conditioning characteristics (saṃskāra-skandha). And the second is a physical change in the heart. When the heart, the seat of thought, is transformed by an action of the body or the speech, it becomes inclined by this change to act as a support of the same kinds of intentions it has had in the past. Thus when one acts in anger, for example, the heart becomes just a little more physically hardened, and this hardening of the heart makes it more difficult for both kind thoughts and contentment to occur in it in the future. But when one acts out of kindness, the heart becomes a little more physically pliant, and this pliancy makes it more easy for both kind thoughts and contentment to occur in it in the future. According to Vasubandhu, this physical change in the heart takes two forms. One is an immediate change, which determines the kinds of experiences that are likely to arise in the heart for the remainder of the current life. The other is called a projection. It is this projection that determines the form of life that the heart will enter into in future births. About this more will be said later.
The second challenge facing the abhidharma analyst is to describe what it is that experiences the consequences of the original karma. Vasubandhu’s answer to this is that it is the mind, which has the form of an awareness of either mental contentment or discontent, which are respectively the natural consequences of intending to help and to harm others. The physical seat of the mind is the heart, which as was described above has undergone physical changes in accordance with the accumulation of past profitable and unprofitable intentions.
The third challenge to the abhidharma analyst is to give an account of the sense in which the agent of the original deed is the same as the eventual experiencer of the consequences of the deed. According to Vasubandhu, the heart, like all other complex things, is a causal continuum of momentary properties, and the properties that it has at any given moment is the cumulative effect of previous karma. So it is just the fact that the heart is a causal continuum, an unbroken chain of momentary causes giving rise immediately to subsequent effects, that makes it in a sense the same heart when it serves as the seat of resultant contentment or discontent as it was when it served as the seat of the original profitable or unprofitable intentions.
As to the fourth challenge, which is to explain how and where the potential consequences of an action are stored until they reach fruition, Vasubandhu’s answer is that karma is not really stored anywhere at all. Rather than karma being somehow stored up for future fruition, it is more a matter, as we have seen above, of the physical heart being altered in such a way that it becomes capable of being the seat of only certain kinds of experiences. A “hardened” heart, as we have seen, is much less likely to be able to be the seat of contentment than a pliant heart, and so one who has had ill intentions in the past is much less likely to be happy than one who has had benevolent intentions. It is really only in this sense that karma appears to be stored until such time as it comes to fruition.