Dharma and Karma

The two words which make up the title of this article have perhaps the longest history of all philosophical and religious terms. They are age-old as words, but as ideas their life is still older. If we were to read history from the mystical or occult point of view, we would trace the curve of cycles according to the rise and fall of the real understanding of these two terms. Dharma and Karma, if rightly understood and rightly applied, make a person's life prosper, spiritually speaking; a misunderstanding, a faulty application, and the person falls from the heaven of Spirit into the hell of matter. What is true of the individual is also true of nations. Right conception of Dharma and Karma builds a wonderfully prosperous civilization; wrong views make the world err and blunder and sin. These words provide a single key by which we get at the meaning of the sorry condition of our civilization. The Dharma of our civilization is expressed in one word—competition; and Karma expresses itself in desire for status quo on the part of the rich, and in lawlessness on the part of those who want to become rich.

To turn for a moment from our civilization to the era of the Buddha: If one wishes to interpret his moulding and shaping of Indian history, one can best do it by noting the method he employed to elevate the concepts of Dharma and Karma that prevailed when he began his great mission. Our particular era can rightly be compared to the era that immediately followed the passing of the Buddha. It took more than two centuries for the flower to burgeon forth on the tree that he planted. The Empire of Asoka was the wonderful result of Buddha's preaching. That Empire was reared on the purified and elevated concepts of Dharma and Karma. We have before us, presented in a garb suited to the modern mind, pure and elevated concepts of Dharma and Karma which we can utilize to improve our own selves, to create spiritual homes, and to rear a prosperous state—rich in commerce and in art as well as in philosophy and religion. We can reproduce in the India of tomorrow the conditions of peace and prosperity that existed in the days of Asoka—beloved of the people.

Let us consider the corrupted views of Dharma and Karma that flourished when the Buddha began his mission of mercy. Dharma was identified with sectarian religion. From the degrading butchery called animal sacrifices to less objectionable superstitions, the same wrong views and practices of life passed under the name of Dharma-Religion. Religion had become formalism; mere outer observances, performance of rites and ceremonies unrelated to life, character and conduct, passed for Dharma or Dhamma. People consulted priests, for it was supposed that they knew everything in reference to outer formal religion. Salvation depended upon rites and ceremonies and their performance depended upon priests.

Out of this false conception of religion arose the false view of Karma: people believed that Karma was fatalism and the only way to propitiate fate was to do obediently what the outer Dharma or religion advocated. By the performance of religious rites and ceremonies, people could overcome their fate or destiny—such was the degrading belief that enveloped the people like a thick fog when the Great Master Buddha rose like a Sun and by his powerful light dispelled the fog that had gathered during the long night of some 2000 years of ignorance. Since Krishna purified and elevated the degrading conception of Dharma and Karma, the ideals they represented had once again fallen into wrong usage and the Buddha tried to restore those ideals to their pristine pure form.

What is Buddha-Dhamma, the Religion or Dharma that Buddha gave? To understand the real spirit of the Dhamma that the Master taught, we have to go to his very first sermon. We have to use our imagination and recreate the situation, the atmosphere of India of 600 B.C. Picture the Great Master after his enlightenment proceeding on his mission of human service; read his first sermon to the five recluses at the Deer Park near Benares. Did he quote any book? Did he talk like a priest, claiming authority? Did he offer prizes of heaven or threats of hell? What was the preaching that is held in reverence by all students of religious philosophy even today? Look at the very name given to it in which this very term Dhamma is used—the turning of the Wheel of Dhamma. He preached: (1) avoidance of two extremes—life of passion and luxury on the one hand, and life of torture and rigid asceticism on the other; (2) the Middle Path, which he described as composed of the Four Noble Truths.

Turn from that to the description given by the Lord about the Bearers of Dhamma. In Anguttara-Nikaya we are told that the monk or nun or lay-disciple, who lives according to the Dhamma and who is accomplished in Wisdom, is the Dhamma-Bearer. In the same Nikaya, four factors of Dhamma are mentioned and it is said that they are "reckoned as ancient, of long standing, as traditional, primeval, pure and unadulterated now as then." What are they?—"Not coveting; not-malice-bearing; right-mindfulness; right-concentration." The four important factors of Dhamma are not some canonical texts, nor the performance of ceremonial rites. Similarly, the Bearers of Dhamma are not holy books but are living men and women, monks or nuns or lay-disciples—those who live the Dhamma. Let us consider one more reference from this same Nikaya (II, 253).

It is narrated that the Venerable Malunkya's son came to visit the Buddha. He was a broken-hearted man, who very probably had not lived righteously. He approached the Lord with what sounded like a strange request, but really was not so strange. He requested to be taught the Dhamma "in brief." The Lord did not define Dhamma in any other way than as a mode of living. He did not tell him to read this book, perform that ceremony; nor even did the Lord say, "You should do thus-and-so." What he taught was the Way of Life, i.e., true Dhamma.

So the stupendous difference between the religion of beliefs—of tenets, rites and ceremonies that prevailed—and the Religion of Life, of actual Living, has to be recognized. In course of time, as in other religions so in Buddhism, the Way of Life has given way to the Way or Rites. Dharma, Religion as a way, a mode or method of living, has to be re-established in the India of today. What the Buddha said about the orthodox and ritualistic Brahmins of his day applies to the orthodox of every religious creed of our own times. Turn to the Dhammapada:

Not by matted locks, not by lineage, not by caste does one become a Brahmana. By his truth and righteousness man becomes a Brahmana. He is blessed.

What avails thy matted hair, O fool? What avails thy deer skin? Outwardly you clean yourself, within you there is ravening. (Verses 393-394)

Is not this equally true of all castes and creeds? One is not a Christian by reason of wearing a cross, or a Brahmin by wearing the sacred thread. This is an important point of practical value. It affects the future of our country and the stability of our civilization. Outer show for mere effects corrupts the very soul of man. Who is a Christian? He who goes to church and wears a cross, yet breaks the grand ethical tenets of the Sermon on the Mount? Or he who regardless of churches practises the ethics of Jesus? How many missionaries are there today in this country who can be called followers of Christ, though all of them wear a crucifix and attend church? There are those, few though they be, who try to live according to the Sermon on the Mount—all honour to them. But the large majority do not think it a practical proposition to live in thought and feeling as Jesus taught. The same is true of other religions. The world today needs more than ever to follow the way of the True Religion. Let people practise the Religion of Life, true Dhamma, and prosperity of every kind will follow most naturally.

The basis of this mode of living is in the second term of our title—Dharma. Dharma is the subjective aspect of Karma, the manifested, objective aspect of Life. A person acts, now and here, according to his Dharma, his inner conviction, vision and aspiration. Karma is not destiny; it is not fatalism. Karma means action—that which we do. There are two simple ideas connected with this doctrine and applicable to our subject, which are commonly accepted but which are not really understood and still less practised. First, that which is our own real Dharma or Religion, within ourselves, and which is the basis of our thought and feeling, our speech and action, is the result of our previous Karma, action in the past. In this life a person is born into a particular religion because of his own past views and deeds—religious views and religious deeds. But this religion and these views and deeds have a dual aspect—a seeming and superficial aspect and a true and veritable aspect. One is born a Brahmin or a Mohammedan—that is an outer and superficial aspect of his religious Karma; his religion or Dharma is made up of his own ideas about Spirit and Soul, about God and Nature, about right and wrong, good and evil. A person has two religions—by birth he is a Brahmin or a Mohammedan, but he may be a liar or truthful, a good or an evil person. There are liars among Brahmins and Mohammedans, and there are good and bad persons.

It is to this real inner religion or Dharma that we have to learn to pay attention. That is what the Buddha meant when he said in the Dhammapada (396): "I call him not a Brahmin because of his origin or his mother." Whom to call a Brahmin? "He who is detached and possessionless, he is a Brahmin." This real religion, this inner Dharma, is the result of past actions or Karma.

The second factor is this: in the present, by our own actions, whether they be mental actions, word-actions, or body-actions, we are transforming and creating a new inner religion for ourselves. A Muslim fanatic, for example, brings back from the past his fanaticism; and if he continues in his fanaticism, in another life once again he will be a fanatic, though not a Muslim fanatic; he may be a Hindu fanatic! A Christian priest may be born as a Jewish rabbi; it is his priestliness that continues. Therefore this second factor is very important. Unless we transform and transmute our inner Dharma, our beliefs and feelings, our thoughts and convictions, our words and deeds, we are not able to make progress, either rapidly or substantially.

So our present real Dharma, inner religion, is an effect from the past; it is the result of past Karma. As we act in the present, we are forming our future Dharma. The Buddha is reported to have spoken about his own sublime achievements. In the Maha-Sudassana-Sutta he says to Ananda: "Now this thought occurred to me, Ananda: 'Of what Karma may this be the fruit, the result, that I am now what I am?' Of three qualities is this the fruit—of giving, of self-conquest, and of self-control." Controlling the self, conquering the self, giving of his self to all in wisdom and charity, the Buddha won for himself his sublimity, his high, wonderful status. So religious life, if it is to be a really spiritual and beneficent life, must be active, not passive; must be dynamic, not static. Present actions, as causes of future results, are rooted in the soil of the past.

It is an inspiring thought that we are growing within ourselves; but it is a hundredfold more inspiring to participate consciously in the work of growth. This aspect of Karma, as positive, active experiencing of Religion or Dharma, is very well brought out in what the Buddha said to people with different capacities and differing temperaments. To the philosopher he talked profoundly; to the devotee he spoke practically; to the simple-minded, simply; to Malunkya's son, very briefly; and to the carping and argumentative his response was profound and eloquent silence.

The Buddha was as strongly against formalism and ritualism among Bhikkhus as among Brahmins. In the Dhammapada, in the Canto of the Bhikkhu (verse 363), we come upon the idea that the Bhikkhu should bring out the Dhamma of the events of ordinary life. This means the spirit of inwardness of the events, which can only be comprehended by a study of and meditation upon the teachings of the Great. But we should never overlook that those teachings are ancient and existed before the Buddha, that he was but one of a Mighty Chain and called himself Tathagata—he who follows in the footsteps of his predecessors. Two verses of the Dhammapada (256-57) sum up the truth of Dharma and Karma for us:

A man is not righteous who carries out his purpose by force and arbitrarily. He is wise who distinguishes both right and wrong. He is wise and righteous who guides others not by force and violence but equitably. He is the guardian of the Law.

to return to the table of contents