Kamma and a drowning Mother


When discussing Kamma with Sandima, he made a point that through constant awareness and right action, eventually our negative Kamma will disappear and we are left with only our positive Kamma, or perhaps no Kamma at all. This reminded me of a story I’d heard about a Zen monk in China who let his mother drown in the river rather than create Kamma for himself by dragging her onto the shore. The more I considered this story, the more it bothered me. Where is the compassion? Every stem of Buddhism that I’m aware of emphasises the importance of compassion for all sentient beings. Being a Chinese monk, he should have been well aware of Kwan Yin Bosal, and possibly even taken the Boddhisattva Vows. The story of the monk dumping his family’s fortune into a lake rather than giving it to someone to avoid generating Kamma made sense to me, but not saving the life of a drowning person, let alone his own mother, felt very different. Something about it just doesn’t feel very “Buddhist”. When I asked Sandima his opinion of this story, he didn’t seem very impressed, and had a similar reaction as mine, “That’s not Buddhism.” He made a remark that Buddhism changed in China in ways that he doesn’t agree with and left it at that. It leaves me with an even stronger sense that the term “Buddhism” is swaying a bit further on the empty side of form. It is common to see a distinction between Zen and Buddhism though, or something described as being about “Buddhism and Zen”.

Thinking about mothers, I’ve hardly felt an ounce of homesickness in my life, but having a child of my own has made me realize what’s been lacking in my life during the past four years of living and traveling in Asia. Before my parents visited Korea for my wedding, I hadn’t seen them in nearly three years. It’s now been well over three years since I’ve seen my home. Of all the illusions I’ve been confronting, I’ve realized the sense of home is a strong one. This morning, thinking and anticipating our trip home in July, I realized how much I’ve missed having a mother over the past few weeks. Even though I have a habit of reacting against being very mothered at times, it will be nice to be home. Koreans have a lot of extreme views about how to care for a baby, and every middle aged woman we encounter doesn’t mind telling us how we should be doing it. Even if some of our opinions in Canada might not necessarily be correct, it’ll be relieving to at least be in a place that agrees with me.

And don’t worry Mom, if you were drowning in the river, I would definitely pull you out!

the farmhouse on Lower Mill Road


8 responses »

  1. Hi Joseph,
    Nothing like living in Korea for a while to make one think about the topic of being a good son or daughter!

    About the monk and his mother, I heard a different version. The monk was being pursued by his mother, who wanted him to come back to lay life (and a life of worldly obligations). She fell in the river, but the monk knew that if he went and saved her, he could never bring himself to leave her again and return to a life of spiritual practice. So he continued on, and in the end became deeply enlightened, and was then able truly to help her.

    Still, should your mom fall in a river… 🙂

    • Thanks Chong Go,
      There is a fair amount more depth to that version. I had seen it on a blog where the point of their telling it was that Westerners wouldn’t get it but an Eastern practitioner would understand letting his mother drown. Maybe if they explained the story better, it would have been more understandable… ;D

  2. Hi,

    An aspiring monk lets his mum drown in a river , and a Buddha-to be throws his body down as food for a hungry tigress and her cubs…

    …thank goodness these are not ‘holy books’ that we need to justify, defend, or emulate, they are just powerful stories designed to make us sweat a bit – and push us along the path!

    All the best,


  3. I also believe the monk in the story did not avoid, but rather created, major kamma by his omission. And I’m glad you would rescue me from the river, if need be! I’m sure you already have, Joseph, many times …

    I just picked up my copy of the Tao Te Ching and this time it opened to the first passage:


    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
    The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
    Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
    Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
    These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
    this appears as darkness.
    Darkness within darkness.
    The gate to all mystery.

    I guess what this makes me feel is that everything is enough, just as it is, but we intellectualize, complicate and resist the simplicity of being that is the natural state …of being.

    The nicest part (in my perception) of your visit with Sandima was the exchange of empathy you had with him. He was relieved of the burden of his other visitors by your appearance and willingness to listen and feel for him. I really appreciated that! I hope you understand that you are as special to others as they are to you!

    Home is now also waiting for you!

    Love, MOM

  4. I think that understanding the story depends upon knowing about the very intense attitudes of some Korean parents. A nun at the temple where I work was kidnapped in the middle of the night by her father and brothers, all of whom were armed with machetes. She did become a nun at another temple, but couldn’t ever tell her parents where because of this attitude.

    On the other hand, the great Korean seon Master Kyongho kept his mother with him at the temples he stayed at, and looked after her until her death.

    My teacher once said that sometimes giving something is medicine, and sometimes withholding something is medicine.

  5. Hi Joseph,

    Indeed yes, that’s what I was trying to say! LOL! Thanks for putting it so much better than I ever could Chong Go Sunim! This story, though terrible on the face of it most of the time, can be medicine for some in certain circumstances, encouraging them along the path.

    Enjoy the trip home mate!


  6. No matter how it is described, the monk turned away from his mother out of self-interest. The Korean nun turned away from her parents out of self-interest.

    This doesn’t mean that one must forgo monastic training in order to satisfy the cravings of family and society.

    But it does mean that we must find a way to bring our vows alive in every situation.

    If we truly vow to “save all beings from suffering,” then we’d better include our parents – no matter how objectionable they might be.

    Our work, as practicing people, is to respond with wisdom, compassion, equanimity, and empathy to our mothers, teachers, friends, spouses, and – finally – our own deluded selves. Because all lives are precious.

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