Dhamma & Kamma


      The Sanskrit word, Dharma, has made it’s way into western pop-culture, with the help of Beat writers and tacky sitcoms, but if I were still living in the west, I doubt I would yet have any idea what it actually means. “Dhamma” in Pali, the assumed language of Gotama Buddha, refers to his teachings, and Buddhist teachings that have developed since. It means ‘law’ or ‘natural law’ and can be taken as simply “truth”. It’s kind of the Buddhist version of a combined theory of relativity, and if they ever come up with one, I’m sure the laws of Dhamma would not contradict it. Dhamma is the law of the universe as explained by Buddha. Everything in the universe, along with us, is within it.

      Kamma on the other hand (Sanskrit, Kharma), we’ve got a basic, superficial idea of. We’ve all heard or spoken of our “good” or “bad” Kharma, but it goes a little deeper than that. The root of the word Kamma is “action”. Your Kamma is your action. Since all actions begin with the mind, your thoughts and intentions are also your Kamma. You are responsible for your action, you are responsible for the reaction. If we want to live in an more idealistic world, we should start with our own Kamma, our own actions. One of my favorite analogies is, if you want a pear tree, you have to plant a pear seed. You can’t plant thistle then complain that its fruit is not sweet and juicy. When we are able to see the results of our Kamma unfold before us it’s easy to understand, but when the residue of past Kamma suddenly arises, it can make life seem unreasonable or unfair. But, from a Buddhist perspective, the universe is as it should be, the world is as it should be, “good” or “bad”, because nothing has ever happened that wasn’t preceded by its own cause. It doesn’t mean that all of the things that happen are ideal, just it is as it should be. Nothing that happens to us is by chance. We are all right here, at this moment doing exactly what we are doing because of a series of endless decisions that took us to this action or situation at this moment. The culmination of all my Kamma has lead me to typying this post right now, in a few minutes, or hours, or days your Kamma will culminate in reading it. I will be off creating or dissolving more Kamma elsewhere, and your Kamma will decide to continue reading or not then proceed elsewhere. Whatever happens then and after, good or bad, is the result of your Kamma.

      Our habits are also Kamma. It’s pretty easy to see how that can be true; when you do something one time, you are more likely to do it again, and again, and again. When you do it enough times then it becomes your habit, and difficult to stop. With this in mind, I try to control my habits. I don’t smoke, I rarely drink, but I do a lot of things that are pretty much a waste of time instead of using my time productively. Meditating is a habit I would like to have, so I try to meditate at least 30 minutes each day. If I didn’t take time one day, I will at least sit for 5 minutes before going to sleep to keep my habit of doing it. Not doing can also become a habit. I had never meditated for more than 5 days in a row in the past but over the past few weeks I’ve only missed one day. With just a small effort good habits can be made. 

      I think if you want “good kamma” you can’t worry about “my” good Kamma, but just proper Kamma. I hadn’t thought too much about this before. I was only focusing on my good Kamma or my bad Kamma. I was in India having my breakfast, talking to the young Indian man who was managing the guest house for his mother. There was one huge fly buzzing around my plate, so I nonchalantly asked him, “Will it give me bad Karma if I kill that fly?” I wasn’t really expecting a response, but he immediately shot back, “That’s not the right reason not to kill the fly.” It only took me a sort moment to see what he was saying, and at that moment I had never been more profoundly affected over the life of a fly! Maybe it was just the simple, slightly indirect way he said it, Indians have had several thousands of years to think about Karma, I had only been working on it for a few months, but I realized I wasn’t actually concerned with the life of the fly, I was only thinking about my own personal Kamma. With that mind, I wasn’t creating any worthwhile Kamma at all, I was only propagating selfishness.

      I once heard a story that Buddha’s most advanced student had a habit of playing in puddles like a child. Buddha said it was because he still had some past Kamma from a previous life that he had yet to dissolve. According to Buddhist teachings, our Kamma is carried along with that part of us that is reborn when it leaves the flesh. In the end, it’s best to have no Kamma at all, to dissolve everything. There was a monk in China who, after realizing enlightenment, took all the families gold and valuable things, put them in a boat then sunk them into the bottom of a lake. If he would have given all that gold away, he would have been creating a huge amount of Kamma that would have had to come back to him, but by throwing it into the lake he was keeping himself free from that obligation.


19 responses »

  1. Hi Joseph,

    Another very interesting and wonderfully written post, thank you so much, but one I have a few disagreements with – probably due to my own misunderstandings! LOL

    “Actually, I don’t think Kharma can really be good or bad. Good and Bad/Good and Evil, it’s kind of a western way of looking at things. ”

    I’m sorry, I really don’t think there is a western/eastern divide at all. Differences in perspectives there certainly are, but it doesn’t boil down to which continent you are born in.

    Neither do I think good and bad are just western catagories! I mean, how does the Buddha famously sum up his teachings?:

    ‘Do good, avoid evil, and purify the mind’.

    And, unless you believe in a direct lifetime to lifetime karmic link, I have some problems with your view that “Nothing that happens to us is by chance.”

    Being born in a diseased and famine prone refuge camp on the borders of some failed African state, or being born in a poor family headed by a man who is driven to abuse his own children are, surely, both ‘bad’ and due to ‘chance’.

    The only way they can’t be both bad and due to chance is if, and I do have some sympathy towards this point of view, you hold that these terrible things happen to people because of past-life Karma. Still, there is a quite awful danger there of complacancy, of saying, ‘well, nothing is good or bad, nothing is by chance, the world is as it should be’.

    The antidote to that is, as you point out, compassion.

    Which calls for engagement in the world.

    Is the action of a Bodhisattva to sink the gold and seek non-existence? Or is it to willing take on existence, to put off Nirvana, in order to save all sentient beings?

    Namu Kwan Seum Bosal,


    • haha, thank you Marcus.
      I was actually thinking about removing the good/bad part then kept on typing and didn’t think about it again.
      I was more tempted to say “Christian” than “Western”. It’s something I had heard a long time ago, that the church really pushed the idea of good/evil during the days of the witch hunt so we ended up with a stronger sense of that in society. I try to think of there being correct or incorrect actions. Actions that cause suffering or, yes, compassionate actions.

      Didn’t the Buddha coin the term “Bodhisattva” when referring to his past lives as a seeker? And even if he entered Nirvana, never to return, hasn’t his example and his teachings still helped many? Haven’t others attained similar awareness and taught the same truth? Even in our lifetime we have Thich Nhat Hanh, HH the 14th Dalai Lama (a good case for lifetime to lifetime karma ^^), or DaeHaeng KunSumin. We just missed being in Korea at the same time as SeungCheol or SeungSan DaeSa. If you think of the countless amount of sentient beings in Samsara, it’s reasonable that a few go into Nirvana at a time. If given the choice, I think I would take it!

      The last time I went to Sangha we actually talked a lot about what appears to be good or bad from unenlightened eyes may be very different in the end. ChongGo talked about the man who had a flat tire on the way to the airport and missed his flight. Seems like pretty bad Karma. The flight he missed then crashed with no survivors. Seems like pretty good Karma! In the end, few really know. DaeHaeng KunSumin herself was born into a family that had lost everything and and the head of the family was abusive.

      To me it makes sense that there could be a direct Karmic link from lifetime to lifetime. I can’t say to anyone else that they should believe it. Wouldn’t a Bodhisattva have to carry their Bodhisattva Karma from their past life? I used to sometimes wonder if all the animals being slaughtered everyday for lunch, dinner, and fur coats might be former Nazi officers or something like that, but I came to the conclusion that even if that were the case, it isn’t correct to propagate it. That Karma should be dissolved and ended. Since neither of us do have any direct wisdom on the subject, it is really difficult to debate though, isn’t it?? The best we can do it take care of our actions and find peace in this life, right?

    • Hi Marcus,
      I was stepping just a bit beyond my actual understanding there, I just figured I should go with what I believe, even though it could be a bit risky.
      I have a lot of faith in what Gotama Buddha experienced. It’s strange because I don’t like chanting “Namu Shakyamuni” or anything like that, I usually chant “Namu Amitabha” even though I’m not really interested in Pure Land. Devotionally it makes more sense that chanting someone’s name who is utterly gone! I feel maybe through the collective conciousness of we can manifest GwanSaeEum watching over or Amitabha waiting to meet us in a Pure state of mind. Maybe there is a JiJang helping in the Hell realms now. As for Shakyamuni, he worked hard to get where he is, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for him! ^^

  2. Thank you for your fresh and illumined explanation of those words “Dhamma and Kamma”. I have often heard them as “Dharma and Karma” – any idea why the west adds the R? Buddhism has a lot of wisdom and we can learn a lot from it. I am learning through you!

  3. I often wonder about the act of giving selflessly, and if I do it for the pleasure of that reward in itself, or to create positive effect if whatever capacity.. it’s amazing how the chain of actions propagate different perceptions and levels of awareness and the ability to control our own is such a fundamental part of its continuation, whether good or bad.

    • Here’s the way the Dalai Lama solves it… basically (I’ll try not to miss quote him too much) the more advanced your state of mind is, the better off we all are, so practice with a strong sense of self knowing that you will be helping others in the end. when I have it I’ll try to find the quote… gotta have tea and run to work!!
      thanks for reading!! ^^

  4. Hi Joseph,

    Not sure what we’re talking about here now, except maybe we’re just chatting, and that’s perfect!

    Like I say, the only question I have is with that whole western/eastern thing, but I know that you probably agree with me here! After all, you’ve spent enough years in Asia with all kinds of people!

    As for the other question of re-birth. Yes, I also agree that what we have here and now is partly as a result of our previous lives. But the Buddha also told us that how it actually works is an imponderable and that we shouldn’t waste effort thinking about it too much.

    The danger is, like I say, that it might lead to complacency. Not in your case of course, but a mechanicalistic view of rebirth and karma might sugest that suffering is little more than due retribution and therefore nothing need/can be done about it.

    Better, perhaps, to keep it an imponderable and have a basic attitude of compassion. The chicken currently being kept in a crowded darkened shed with no sunlight, earth or grass, and destined for a painful horrible death might well have been a nazi officer in a past life, or perhaps he is suffering no more than the accumulated karma of a dozen lives eating chicken burgers?

    Who knows? The point isn’t to figure it out but to have compassion (as you say) for that chicken.

    Oh, and yes, I feel just the same as you about the chanting! I much prefer ‘Namu Amitabul’ or ‘Kwan Seum Bosal’ – the fact that they are non-historical makes them more meaninglful objects of devotion for me somehow too.

    Likewise, I tend not to think too much about rebirth in the Pure Land. I chant in gratitude for the spiritual care I recieve from the Budhas and Bodhisattvas, and have faith that they will do all they can for me. I can’t remember who said it but I agree with the idea that if I am reborn in the Pure Land that is wonderful, and if I am reborn in hell, still, Namu Amitabul!

    Thanks again Joseph and all the very best,


    PS – do you remember the string of 108 Kwan Seum Bosal beads you gave me once? They sit on my altar now and I use them most days to chant Kwan Seum Bosal. The beads are a real spur to my practice and they were a gift from you. Helping me like that, thank you so much, well, that’s got to be Bodhisattva action hasn’t it? Thank you Joseph.

    • good point about not thinking about it too much…
      I did go a bit off the topic.. ^^

      I read your post when you mentioned the beads, I started an email to you, and haven’t finished it yet.. It was nice to read the part about the mala. I noticed your writting is back to your old self a little too, I liked it! ^^
      I started a morning job on top of my evening job, came down with a cold this weekend as a result of adjusting the new schedule, so it’s been busy… I hope I can keep it up for the next 6 months then head to Canada and the States to see my family.

      Namo Amitabah (^_^)
      I , ~~~~

      • haha
        I made a little buddha sitting on a lotus for you but he got a little shifted in the process..

        ………………………………I , ~~~~

  5. Cool!

    That’s so brilliant! The Buddha I mean. Excellent!

    Yes, I have just one more week left on my blog until the Heart Sutra posts are complete, and then I think perhaps I’ll get back to the old personal posts again.

    Well, thanks again for a lovely discussion, and don’t work too hard!

    All the very best again mate,

    Kwan Seum Bosal,


  6. I am in a search for spiritual growth. I am brought up by a very traditional Filipino Catholic family. Though my parents are very open-minded, faith and Catholicism is very important in the family. I once brought up to my mama what if I want to be a Buddhist, she said dont mention it again. I understood that really because being a Catholic is essential to our family. I have always have been drawn to the Buddhist faith. My mama doesnt really mind if I buy Buddha icon and place it all over the house, but to me that is indeed significant. I have always been drawn to Buddha ever since, and I dont have any explanation for it. I was browsing online about blogs about Buddhism and found yours and find it more than interesting. I believe it will help me to grow spiritually.

    Maraming Salamat (Thank you very much)


    • Hello,
      I wrote a quick response to you last week but just noticed it doesn’t seem to have made it through…
      I was just reminded of a teaching I’d read by the Dalai Lama where he suggested that if converting might cause problems within the family it’s probably best not too. But most of the Buddhist teachings can be followed easily without having to “become” Buddhist. The devotional aspect of Buddhism is very similar to Catholicism and the psychological aspect of it doesn’t even need a label like “Buddhism”, it doesn’t have to be called anything. I think the biggest difference is that Buddhism teaches to look within, not to an outer source, except for devotional Mahayana Buddhism.

      So, basically, I think it’s possible to apply Buddhism to your life without causing strife with your mother or anyone else in your family^^
      Best wishes,I hope it’s can work well for you~

  7. Beautiful! You manifested true zen mind. I am not sure if the Indian is a sort buddhist but his answer isn’t christian one since “doer “and “object” are always discriminated against each other. I really like this story. Thanks.

    • Hello, thank you^^ I’m glad you enjoyed reading!
      I don’t know if I’ve quite achieved a Zen mind yet, but hopefully some day! I don’t mention many of the unenlightened moments of my life here~ haha

      My friend was Hindu. The word “Karma” does come from India, but Buddha put a slightly different twist on it. A think it might have to do with the Indian idea of a self that is reincarnated vs. the Buddhist idea of ‘rebirth’ where the self is gone but some residue of life energy continues.

      In India, I listened to Ramesh Balsacar explain his idea that there really is no “doer”. Everything we do is a consequence of our experience and conditioning, therefore everything that happens is predetermined and impersonal. I was nearly convinced, and I can see how that could be, but something about it seems too empty somehow. After thinking about it, I felt sort of hopeless. Maybe if I had more insight into emptiness I could understand better, but it’s not something that can be realized with reason, is it? Or it could just the ego that doesn’t want to admit that it’s anything less… ^^

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