Contributor post (fee-based)
Sid Kemp, is a highly experienced life coach and devoted Zen practitioner with 40 years of dedicated practice. He is the author of multiple Amazon bestselling books published by prestigious publishers like McGraw-Hill and Entrepreneur Press. In addition to sharing Buddhist meditation since 1987, Sid has also contributed articles to Entrepreneur.com and his wisdom has attracted a loyal following of over 6,000 people on Quora.
Question: What is the main difference between Dharma and Karma?
Sid’s Answer: The view I present here is the central view in Buddhism, and one of the accepted views in Hinduism. I will mention some alternate beliefs, as well.
Karma means action, and it is short for three related ideas. In addition to action, we have karmaphala, the fruit of the action, and karmavipaka, the maturation of karma. What is being said here is simply that each intentional action is a seed that will grow (mature) into a fruit along an inevitable path. As Gandhi put it, cause and effect are one. One result of this is that the end never justifies the means, the means will determine, and be present in, the end. So, for example, violence can never bring about peace. Only peaceful action will bring about peace.
Dharma is a word with many translations, including Truth, Teaching, and Way. It is similar to Torah in Hebrew, Logos, the Word, in Christianity, and the Tao is Taoism.
The Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha. And one very important part of the Dharma is a correct understanding of karma and karmaphala. Once we understand that we will receive the fruits of our actions, then we take care to take actions that will give us the results we want. That is the lesson, the Dharma about karma.
It really is that simple. It’s common sense. If I yell and get angry, people will obey me out of fear. I may get what I want, but I am also getting the illness of tension and anger in myself, and the suffering of fear in my relationships. If I speak gently and ask for what I want, I get a relaxed experience of life and kindness in return. That is the Dharma about karma.
In core Buddhist teachings, what we do with karma is be aware of it, pay attention to it, and act with common sense. I like pizza, but cheese gives me a headache. So now I know: eat pizza, and feel sick. So I choose not to eat pizza. It’s that simple. In Buddhism, karma is all about learning.
Now, you will hear a lot of other ideas that have been added to the idea of karma. Some have been around for thousands of years. Let’s take a look at a few of the common ideas that may make things too complicated:
- Good karma (or merit) and bad karma. There was a generally accepted idea that karma is good or bad. If you do something harmful, harm will happen. If you do something good, good will happen. The Buddha did not oppose this idea, but he also did not support it. He did not encourage labeling anything good or bad.
- Accumulation of karma. There is an idea that if you keep doing bad things, then a pile of bad karma piles up against you. Or you can do good things and gain merit, that is, collect good karma. This is a big part of Buddhist culture. Donations that feed monks and build temples are given, often, because lay people believe they gain merit by giving these donations. In fact, an idea grew up that lay people could not attain enlightenment. All the could do is gain merit. Throughout the history of Buddhism, the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and other great teachers have opposed this view. Lay people can attain enlightenment, and merit does not accumulate. The resolution of karma is not balancing karma, it’s learning from karma and it’s fruit, and doing healthy things from now on is the resolution of old karma.
- Balancing karma. Another idea that is part of Hindu tradition that the Buddha opposed was that if you have done bad things, you have accumulated bad karma, and you have to be punished for what you have done. Some spiritual practitioners would actually whip themselves, engaging in self-injury, to pay their dues. One of these monks joined the Buddha’s order and spoke to him. The Buddha asked if he knew how much bad karma he had accumulated. The monk said he did not. Then the Buddha asked if he knew when to stop whipping himself, and he said no. The Buddha pointed out that, at some point, by his own logic, he would finish with his punishment and keep beating himself. At that point, he would be beating an innocent man (himself) and accumulating bad karma again. The monk asked the Buddha what to do. The Buddha taught him how to be aware of his karmaphala and behave in ways that created no harm from now on, and not worry about his past.
- Rebirth and reincarnation. In the time of the Buddha, just about everyone believed in reincarnation. When the Buddha introduced the idea of no-self (an-atta), they weren’t really willing to let go of a belief that was thousands of years old. So they took an idea the buddha did teach, the idea of the continuity of qualities of experience through phenomena – the re-birth of qualities of experience – and built the idea of rebirth through lifetimes.
Our simple conclusion is that a true understanding (Dharma) about karma, our actions and their consequences tells us to pay attention to what we do and what happens. Then we learn to act in ways that the Buddha called the Four Right Efforts. We nourish the karma that lead to joy and peace. When joy and peace arise, we make an effort to maintain it so it will last a long time. When we see an action that would create suffering, we do not do it. When we see that we are doing things that cause suffering, we stop. It’s a very simple, common sense approach to living in awareness and creating a life free of suffering and full of joy and peace.