Mere karmic appearance of mind

There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.

nature of realitySo, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?

Mere appearance

It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)

Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.

Karmic appearance

So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.

I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…) Cheesman Park

Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)

In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.

Imputation of mind
cat looking at Denver
What is she actually looking at?

Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.

Forest example

For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.) squirrel

So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?

The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.


If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.

If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.

If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — denver capitol building lit up whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.

(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “Mere karmic appearance of mind”

  1. Hi Luna!
    I read this a few months ago and it helped me alot! Reading it again today helps even more!
    Thank you so much for sharing with everyone!

  2. Hello Luna,

    I have a question regarding appearances. I have been training in making a lot of offerings in meditation and along with other beneficial effects, my visualizations are becoming more clear and vivid. However, during meditation break, the things I used to enjoy like the appearance of the city, now comparatively seem so dull and ordinary. I tend to be very visually focussed and I feel constrained by ordinary appearances to eye sense awareness in meditation break . Even transforming eating doesn’t compare to the experience in the sadhana of making offerings to the Buddhas or to self-generation. There is a widening disconnect between my experience in the sadhana and meditation break. That is a contrast to Lamrim meditations where I am able to translate Lamrim minds into meditation break much better (like renunciation and love). I may be practicing incorrectly! Do you have any advice?

    Thank you!

  3. Hi I just read your article on emptiness. I have been studying this subject for a little while at Kadampa Centre and your article helped clarify the issue. Your realisation of Denver sounds very nice.

    Kind Regards

  4. I’ve been trying to work out what it is I’m experiencing in my daily life. I’ve concluded that it’s ‘the mere incessant momentary (fluid) karmic flux of countless aspects of (illusory) phenomena’. I partly based this on what Buddha was meditating on whilst expounding the Heart Sutra:- the countless aspects of phenomena, profound illumination. I’ve been trying to see profound as emptiness and illumination as appearence. It bugged me how the omniscient Buddha could’nt count the aspects of phenomena, then I sort of realised that its because of emptiness, I think!
    It’s helped me to see that my life is like one of those fuse wires in the old films leading to a bomb. It’s ignition was my conception, it’s sparkling flux is my life and it’s explosion my death…….. I’m not sure if I’m over complicating things, but I feel I’m heading in the right direction. Thank you for all these wonderful articles.

    1. I like how you meditate creatively.

      Countless because it is not lots and lots of discrete things but a totality that Buddha realizes.

  5. Could it have been a sly visual pun whilst writing about conventional truth you placed a photo of the Convention Center?

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