Dharma and Karma
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
In the language of Buddhism no words deliver more bang for the lexical buck than Dharma and Karma. The reference to ordnance is appropriate: we Buddhists are everywhere assailed by legions of conflicting definitions which engage us in futile Dharma combats and troublesome Karmic tributes and retributions. Yes, for want of one Thin Blue Line's semantic coherency even the most simple of Sutra discussions can turn into a verbal assault. A religion as friendly as Buddhism deserves better.
I know that everyone has his own definitions of these terms and that when he gathers them together, he's usually got all the bases covered. So I'm not speaking here about anyone's lack of information. The problem is that one person's set of definitions seldom matches-up with another's.
We always have to start with our own understanding of terms - and that means that when presenting our particular definitions, we proceed without the advice or consent of consensus. But if we don't achieve accord, we may at least be able to clarify the rules of engagement.
Dharma is a multifaceted gem of a word. We find it in capitals and lower case, singular and plural, and hyphenated wherever possible. For the purpose of this discussion we'll limit ourselves to Dharma-kaya as cosmic Body of Buddha; Dharma as Buddha Mind; dharmas as physiological processes or events; Dharma as Buddhist Law; dharma as a sentient being's duty to obey Buddhist law; and dharma as "nature" or natural characteristic of any non-intelligent species.
Apprehending divinity isn't like grasping the various attributes of ordinary creatures or entities. In Zen, by our account at least, we begin with the Divine Body of Buddha in its entirety: the Svabhavika-kaya. This Divine Totality is divided into three bodies (kayas) according to the specific manner or stage of spiritual development in which it is encountered: The Nirmana-kaya; the Sambhoga-kaya; and the Dharma-kaya.
Nirmana-kaya: This experience of the divine is constituted by an exhilarating first-and-second person visionary experience, "I and Thou", the "I" being the meditator merely as witness, and the "Thou" the divine Symbol (person, animal or inanimate object) encountered. In Zen these celestial figures can be Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or their agents, called Directional Kings or Dhyani Buddhas which, in Jungian terms are considered agents of the archetypal Self. Again, Nirmana-kaya visions are not limited to anthropomorphic figures. In fact, some of the most significant visions are those of sacred animals such as the hummingbird, eagle, snake, bull, bear, tiger, horse or, curiously, the dog. Additionally, those who historically witnessed the presence of Siddhartha as Tathagata (a human being whose human personality has been totally purged and who therefore radiates only the pure Buddha Self) are said to have experienced the Nirmana-kaya.
Sambhoga-kaya: This is the most esoteric body of Buddha, the bliss body which is the meditative, androgynous/bodhisattva experience of consummate ecstasy given us during the Great transsexual Alchemical Opus: - the union of opposites or divine marriage on through to the production of the immortal foetus/divine child or lapis/pearl. In this rapturous state, the meditator enters the Tushita Heaven's realm of the various buddhas and bodhisattvas for what are usually many years worth of spiritual adventures. Most Buddhist monastic complexes have special apartments set aside for devotees who have reached this stage of divine union. The fortunate person may stay in blissful isolation for up to three years. His meals are brought to him and he may take them without having to be disturbed in any way by human intruders. At night, however, when the world is quiet, he may leave his apartment and sit under the stars and chat with others who are similarly sequestered. I'd like to emphasize that this transsexual/androgynous identity is realized only when the meditator is traversing the Sambhoga realm and in no way indicates that he has become homosexual or bisexual in his ordinary life. (He will, in fact, have no "human" sex life at all.) This exalted state evidences Rumi's love for Shams, the various male saints' becoming brides of Christ, and so on. The details of the experience are beyond the scope of this discussion.
Dharma-kaya: At the outset let me say that this is one of those philosophical hot topics that amateurs can't resist playing with. I know. I'm one of those amateurs. A few weeks ago, in a telephone conversation with Chuan Zhi, our Nan Hua Webmeister, the subject of the Dharma-kaya came up. Zen people are given to discuss strange topics, and so that he and I would sit on opposite sides of the hemisphere and chat about the Dharma-kaya is not, I suppose, all that unusual. As I say, it's a hot topic.
"You see," I babbled, "what is today an acorn, is tomorrow an oak tree, and the day after, a wine cork." "Yes," Chuan Zhi said softly. "Now," I continued, boldly going where I seemed to think no man had gone before, "if you took the sum total of the matter and/or energy in the universe, all these dharma events and interactions, you'd have this constantly changing body of stuff. What's a molecule today is a couple of atoms tomorrow and the next day a bunch of protons and neutrons." "Yes," Chuan Zhi said softly, "...and electrons." "Yes. Yes," I said, shifting into warp drive, "It's an illusion - Maya! - to see anything as fixed and unconditional. What we arbitrarily decide, by mere empirical evidence, to be a permanent 'thing' has thingness only in an ephemeral, perceptual sense." "Yes," said Chuan Zhi softly, "....and quarks... and leptons." It took me a moment to recall I was talking to somebody with a degree in physics. So I hissed, "Smartass..." and we laughed as I tried to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself.
We moved on to other topics about which I could speak if not with the authority of the informed then at least with certainty of the zealous.
But... let me back up a bit to comment on the question of the intuitive wisdom of at least one of India's great sages. Did Siddhartha anticipate nuclear physics? It is foolish to think so. H.G. Wells, among others, doubted that the Buddha even knew how to write. His world was not high tech. We can hardly imagine that he, Shariputra and Ananda, clever as they were, ever tinkered with quantum mechanics. But The Buddha did notice that, as his contemporary Heraclitus observed, "All things are in flux." In fact, it is precisely change that The Buddha became famous for noticing. He saw the healthy sicken, the young age and the living die.
Experiencing the Dharma-kaya "as such" is entering the egoless Void; a spiritual region which, with one exception, no one should expect to enter without first having passed through The Fullness, i.e., the Nirmana-kaya and the Sambhoga-kaya.
The exception is the specific, discreet and punctuated Satori experience which functions as a preview of The Void inasmuch as one encounters the world for a brief moment through the eyes and ears of his Buddha Self. Contrary to a commonly held view, Satori is not one's "everyday" mind, unless, of course, the mind in question belongs to one who can rightfully be called Tathagatha.
The ancients were fond of using the macrocosmic/microcosmic concept in describing the Great Alchemical Opus. This pairing theme informs most ancient spiritual literature. "As it is in the heavens so it is in the individual man." In keeping with this concept, we can compare the great Dharma-kaya to the human body in its entirety. As the Dharma-kaya is composed of atoms and such, the human body is composed of cells and such. Of particular interest are the cells that comprise the various sensory systems. These "skandas" or conglomerations are the eyes, ears, tongue, etc., that transmit data to our brains, which are also part of the skanda network as is ego consciousness, itself. These, then, are the existential or physiological "dharmas".
Just as the constituents of the Dharma-kaya are in constant flux, forming and reforming, the data transmitted by the dharmas constitute a never ending stream of conditioned information that is itself constantly forming and reforming usually in accordance with the priorities of the ego's interpretations. Despite being made in the image of a cosmic God, i.e., as an organizer of the otherwise chaotic events in its environment, man's ego is merely one of these dharma events. It is illusory just as the acorn or the oak tree or the cork are arbitrary interceptions of an ongoing ageing process. As there is no precise moment in the infinite series of samsaric time when one form becomes another, there is no fixed and unconditioned psychological event. We cannot remove a single knot from the karmic net without involving the whole network. All perceived entities and events comprise Samsara, Maya, the world of illusion.
The Heart Sutra, dutifully recited each day by millions of Buddhists, insists that "All dharmas are marked with emptiness." It further assures us that these dharmas neither appear nor disappear, are neither soiled nor pure, and neither increase nor decrease. These assertions, it must be admitted, are not distinguished by their clarity; and not a few of those who recite this chant understandably wonder what it is they are chanting about. It helps to know that what the dharmas are empty of is a substantial "I". The ego is as non-existent as the illusory events the ego apprehends.
Again, to enter the Dharma-kaya and witness the purity and stillness - the silent music of its spheres - is to experience Nirvana, the Void's Ultimate Reality, Sunyata. This, of course, is the union of the individual person's Buddha Self with the Universal Buddha Self or Dharma, for, as the Dharma-kaya is the universal Buddha Body, then the universal Buddha Mind is Dharma.
Buddhism is a religion. There is a god in the machine. There is One great cosmic principal, One Absolute Being, One Ultimate Reality. This Absolute Being resides in all sentient beings. It is our Buddha Self or Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature.
When we ascribe intelligence and Nature to this Buddha Mind things get tricky.
It is obvious that if the same Mind is in each of us, the same Mind cannot act preferentially. It is as it must be: "impersonal" and utterly disinterested. The Buddha Self observes us passively. We may tap into its strength to strengthen ourselves, but it does not deliberately interfere in our history. It does not wreak vengeance on our enemies (in whom it also lives) or select us by some connivance of birth to be rewarded with worldly favors. In Buddhism, the Real world is Nirvana. Buddha Mind exists in the real world and, as such, it is permanent, unconditioned and, therefore, eternal, i.e., outside of time. Where time does not exist, space is meaningless. Since the Buddha Mind is "headquartered" in each of us, we don't go into outer space to encounter Dharma. We need only turn our attention inwards to experience Buddha Mind in meditation or samadhi. There is no place to go. And it is said, therefore, that Samsara and Nirvana occupy the same place, Samsara being the world as seen through the eyes of the ego and Nirvana being the world as seen through the Buddha Self's eyes.
Again, to experience the Dharma-kaya is to enter an egoless dimension that is beyond good and evil, right or wrong, or judgments of any kind. There are no tales to tell of it. It is outside of history - history being the province of Samsara, the world of illusion.
In Zen the complementary or interdependent qualities of Yin and Yang are a given. The universal body of matter and energy is Yin. But this material, physical body does not act without constraint. Its structure and dynamics are governed by the laws of physics which constitute the Yang complement. Yin/Yang. Shakti/Shiva. Eros/Logos. Power and the Law power obeys.
Which brings us to Dharma as the standard of ethical conduct (the rules or laws) which Buddha Mind imposes on all sentient beings; dharma as duty to conform to this standard; or, in non-intelligent species, the simple fulfillment of nature or characteristic behavior.
We cannot act unrestrainedly, indulging ourselves as we please and then ascribing our actions to (alas!) our all too human nature and let it go at that. We all know that human beings are capable of much virtue and not a little vice. However, when that human being is also a Buddhist, he has a duty to conform his conduct to Buddhist Precepts.
There's an old story about a scorpion and a holy man that sheds light on this meaning of Dharma: A holy man is sitting by a river into which a scorpion falls. The scorpion begins to thrash about in the water, starting to drown, and the holy man, seeing its distress, lifts it out of the water and puts it safely on the ground; and as he sets it down, the scorpion stings him.
Again, the scorpion falls into the water and again the holy man rescues it and again gets stung for his trouble.
This happens yet a third time... and a fellow who is standing nearby watching all this is incredulous. He can't understand why the holy man so calmly continues to participate in such a predictably nasty series of events. He wants an explanation.
"Well," says the holy man, "it's a question of dharma. It is the scorpion's dharma to sting... just as it is a human being's dharma to help a creature in need."
Therefore, just as the material body of Buddha is governed by the laws of physics, so the spiritual body of the ethical man is governed by the truths and laws promulgated by that Dharma and revealed by the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddhist Dharma. Acquiring this sense of dharma doesn't necessarily come naturally. Some hardship is often involved, yet, God is merciful and meets us more than half way in the task. To illustrate the problem and its solution, the Buddha used the parable of the Merchant and His Wayward Son:
In a town near Benares, there was once a merchant who lived with his son, whom he loved very much. As the merchant prospered, he looked forward to the day when he could transfer ownership of all that he owned to his son, but the boy grew restless and rebellious and dissatisfied with his life. "I am bored and yearn for excitement and adventure," he announced, as indeed so many of us have also done, "and therefore I shall leave home and find happiness elsewhere." So he left his father and went into the world where he soon fell into hardship. He was set upon by thieves and all manner of brutal people until he, too, became like them. As the years passed he became a vagrant, traveling everywhere but finding peace nowhere at all.
His father never ceased to pray for him and search for his face in the crowds of people he encountered. Daily his sorrow increased, as did his wealth. He bought a fine house in Benares and hoped that his fame would attract the boy and induce him to return. But years passed and the father grew old despairing that he should never see his beloved son again. Then, one day, looking out the window, he glimpsed the face of his son. "Can it truly be my boy," he wondered, doubting that after so many years his eyes could still be faithful to that original face. Immediately he sent his servants to question the stranger. "Ask him his name and where he was born," he said. "And if you think he could be my son, invite him to come into my house as my guest and I will question him further. I have waited for him a very long time." The servants approached the stranger but when they learned his identity and invited him to enter the house, he grew angry and suspicious. "Are you mocking my poverty?" he asked. "Or are you trying to trick me for some evil purpose?" He quickly turned and ran away. When the servants returned and reported what had happened, the father told them to go after his son and to treat him as though he were a stranger. "Tell him that he misunderstood you and that you were only trying to offer him a job in the stables," he said. This seemed more reasonable to the son and he accepted. The father paid close attention to the son's progress, daily giving him a little more responsibility so that his self confidence increased and he became a competent stable master. Then the father gave him responsibility over the lawns and gardens and when he learned this, he entrusted him with management of the house, itself.
When the son, his self-worth restored, was firm in righteousness and skill, the father revealed his true identity and bestowed the entirety of his fortune upon him.
In the course of our life, we sin and we are sinned against. It is as if we alternate between being little fish that are preyed upon by big fish and being big fish that prey upon little ones. But sooner or later we tire of the constant struggle and all the horrors of the feeding frenzy. We yearn for peace, and it is then that we discover the safe harbor given us in the Buddha's refuge. It is then that we turn our attention inwards.
No discussion of Dharma would be complete without reference to the Mahabharata (from which the Bhagavad Gita is taken). In the following selection, we see a reiteration of the Buddha's Merchant parable:
The God Dharma has fathered a son, Yudhishthira, who is the rightful monarch of a kingdom which he has foolishly gambled away and then has regained in a disastrous battle in which everything he ever loved was lost. Yudhishthira, destitute and disheartened, wanders alone through the desolate ruins, surveying the immeasurable destruction. Dharma, seeing this, changes himself into a dog and becomes Yudhishthira's only companion, walking beside him and sharing his fate without criticism or complaint.
And after Yudhishthira's long travail, all the mistakes he has made, all the hardships and suffering he has had to endure, he is finally given the opportunity to enter Heaven. The God Indra comes down in his chariot and tells the exhausted Yudhishthira to get into the chariot. He will take him to Heaven... only... he can't bring the dog.
Yudhishthira refuses to get into the chariot. He begs Indra, "Please, my Lord. This little dog has been my faithful companion. He must come with me." "No," says Indra. "You can't enter Heaven with a dog! He's unholy. He has no soul!"
Yudhishthira protests. "He is devoted to me and looks to me for protection. Left alone here he would die."
But Indra will not yield. "There is no place for dogs in Heaven. They are unclean. It cannot be!"
"It cannot be otherwise," counters Yudhishthira. "I will not abandon this dog." Indra shouts. "Don't you understand? You have won Heaven! Immortality and prosperity and happiness are yours! Only leave this animal and come with me! Leaving him will not be cruel. I'll put him to sleep. It will be painless." And with a gesture of secrecy, he whispers seductively, "No one will know."
Yudhishthira looks around. "Are we still inside my kingdom?" he asks. And Indra says yes. Then Yudhishthira says, "Then I am the one who must decide what will be done here. I will not turn away this dog. I will instead turn you away." And he turns and resumes his sad wandering when suddenly his little dog vanishes and in his place stands the god Dharma... who is naturally very happy with his son. Yudhisthira enters Heaven forthwith. The dharma of a king is to preserve the commonweal, to protect all those who live under his aegis, regardless of how great or small they are. A king does not sacrifice his subjects to his pleasure. He sacrifices his pleasure to his subjects.
Every Path has its Dharma, its sacred responsibilities, its Canon of Ethics, its Wu Shi Dao (Bushido), its Hippocratic Oath. The dharma of a Buddhist is to live in accordance with the Precepts and to emulate the life of the Awakened One who first revealed these Precepts.
With a little luck, we can then qualify to enter the Dharma-kaya.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts