Karma and Karmic Traces

~Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche 

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 grow 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 results 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, habitual conceptualizations. 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 aggrieved 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 toward 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 lives in a positive direction. Or, if we know how, we can allow the emotion to self-liberate as it arises, in which case no new karma is created.

[From: Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep]