On Karma

Thich Nhat Hanh Other Buddhists

INTRO: One of the few Hindu beliefs that Buddhism carried from northern India in its migration throughout Asia (and the world) was Karma. It was based on the observation that all human actions — by body, speech or mind — have consequences. Moral causation is a principal in many religions, but Indian karma was distinguished by two strict corollaries: Karma is a law without exceptions and it continues through unending cycles of death and rebirth (called samsara). But the Buddhist appropriation of Karma engendered a strange adaptation. Namely, anatman, the absence of a self. So how can there be a continuity of Karma?  This essay refers to various responses to that metaphysical question, including the silence of the Buddha and the rejection of metaphysics all together, as the opening anecdote dramatizes.  

(This article first appeared, in Spanish translation, in the journal Iglesia Viva published in Barcelona by Teresa Forcades)


 By Larry Calloway

At a conference in Hanoi (Vietnam) on Engaged Buddhism that I attended in 2008, a young Asian woman asked Thich Nhat Hanh: “What is the purpose of life?”

He brushed the question aside as “just philosophy.” The sophisticated international audience of nearly 500 laughed in a loud burst, recorded on the CD I found recently.

The girl persisted in her second-language English:  “Think the cosmos. Why we are here must be a reason.”

photo by author

Nhat Hanh — the most published, most scholarly Buddhist in the world when he died in 2022 at age 95 — did not answer the question. He responded instead:

“This is the chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful to discover. And that practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity that is wanting to live, to be alive, to discover. Discover your self. Discover the cosmos. You might like to focus on the how (to live) and not be caught up in the why.”

He concluded: “Enjoy life. And don’t spend time asking metaphysical questions.” (More unanimous laughter.) 

Metaphysics is all about philosophy. The word was coined by scholars for the books “after Physics” in the conventional order of the works of Aristotle. Metaphysical is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective meaning “immaterial, incorporeal, or supersensible” and “based on abstract general reasoning; determined on theoretic or a priori principles.”

Buddhism is not all about philosophy. It is essentially a practice involving meditation, mindfulness and discipline. Yoga is sometimes translated as “discipline.” It is only “one percent book learning” as a yoga teacher I know puts it.

I have encountered Buddhism in various forms in Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, in Santa Fe at the Eastern Classics graduate institute of St. John’s College, and in the mountains of Crestone, Colorado, where I came to rest. In Thailand I had my head and eyebrows shaved by a monk, destroying self identity so I could “take refuge” in the Buddha, his teaching (dharma) and my Buddhist community (sangha).

What I have written here is discursive. Its main query concerns the validity of an á priori principle that originated in India: samsara, meaning the cycle of death and rebirth. Karma, defined as “action” of body, speech or mind, continues through samsara. This is metaphysical as hell.

I hear that Hanoi audience laughing.

The Definition

The 19th Century orientalist Max Muller said: “What the Buddhists call by the general name of Karma, comprehends all influences which the past exercises on the present, whether physical or mental.” 

His definition, which must exist somewhere in the 50-volume The Sacred Works Of The East, of which he was editor and a major contributor, was artful. He excluded the á priori principle of samsara. So for non-believers his causal definition is acceptable. Karma’s influence for them would be from this life, not past lives. And it is equally acceptable, though toothless, for those who adhere to the Indian belief of life after death.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said in his autobiography:  “The fundamental precept of Buddhism is Interdependence or the Law of Cause and Effect.” The subject of causation in karma is human consciousness, he asserts. (Consciousness, one of the five components, or skandas, of personality, is pure, empty.) 

“So, to give a simple example,” the Dalai Lama wrote, “a person who has spent his or her life mistreating animals could quite easily be reborn in the next life as a dog belonging to someone who is unkind to animals. Similarly, meritorious conduct in this life will assist in a favorable rebirth in the next.” 

Like Nhat Hanh, he has not been shy about diverting metaphysical questions into common sense. When the Dalai Lama was in Santa Fe some 30 years ago, a waitress asked him: “What is the meaning of life?” According to the writer Douglas Preston, who was there, Tenzin Gyatso focused completely on the young woman and answered immediately: 

“The meaning of life is happiness. Hard question is not. What is meaning of life? That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or … ” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” Preston in his recollection added, “He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.”

“Have a good heart” was the Dalai Lama’s theme in scheduled public appearances that I covered as a daily journalist during that Santa Fe visit (His spontaneous ride on the chairlift at Santa Fe Ski Basin was not scheduled.) He talked of loving kindness growing into compassion. It occurred to me in recalling this now, that he was evoking the Brahma-vihara, called The Four Immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy in the enlightenment of others and, ultimately, equanimity.

The Dalai Lama speaks for all Buddhism. His abundant endorsements occur at the beginning of books from every tradition. He speaks simply and openly. He does not evoke the metaphysical shyness of Buddhism, which was an element of its rebellious early history.

Buddhist Rebellions

A scholar, Troy Wilson Organ, writes that philosophical speculation “was almost rampant in the period just preceding the time of the Buddha” (around 500 BCE). In reaction to this “anarchy of thought,” the reformist Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya family rejected “abstract theorizing.”

In the ML 63, one of the Middle-Length sutras (which, for me, are the most accessible), he describes the confusion of rampant philosophizing. Nhat Hanh dramatized this sutra in a chapter of Old Path White Clouds, his novel-like story of the life of the Buddha. Addressing his followers as they rested in a royal forest, the Buddha  says, “Bhikkhus (monks), there are countless philosophies, doctrines, and theories in this world. People criticize each other and argue endlessly over their theories.”

He uses one of his instructional similes: “A good fisherman places his net in the water and catches all the shrimp and fish he can. As he watches the creatures try to leap out of the net, he tells them, ’No matter how high you jump you will only land in the net again.’ ” 

Two or three centuries later (about 300 BCE), Buddhism had become a wealthy and powerful monastic institution. It had been spread throughout Central Asia by the Indian emperor Asoka, whose preserved stone monuments express the rejection of war. And then in another three centuries came another reformation.

Donald S. Lopez Jr, the oft-published (Princeton University Press) scholar of Buddhism, observes that in the first centuries of the Common Era there was a movement “in reaction against the controls exercised by a powerful monastic institution.” The new Buddhism was called Mahayana:  the “Great Vehicle” for the enlightenment of the population outside of monastic religion. 

The movement produced new sutras almost a millennium after the Buddha’s death. Among them was the Lotus Sutra, which asserted there were multiple Buddhas in the world and that enlightened ordinary folks could become Buddhas. “The true entity of phenomena can only be shared between Buddhas,” the sutra says. But all Buddhas  are subject to the strict law of Karma.


The Lotus Sutra also proclaimed an ethic of “skillful means” or “expediency” in communicating Mahayana beliefs, therefore justifying indirect persuasion and different messages to different groups. A simile for this was the story of a father whose children inside his house were unaware that it was on fire. He told them there were toys outside if they would just come get them. When they ran out they found only a cart that carried them away. They were saved from the fire.

 The older Buddhist schools, which rejected the new sutras, were demeaned in Mahayana literature as Hinayana, the “Smaller Vehicle.” Mahayana went north to China and, eventually to Tibet and Japan. Hinayana went to Southeast Asia. It is now called Theravada, the “wisdom of the elders.” It is practiced successfully in Thailand, where it is the national religion. Thai children are relentlessly taught to respect the Buddha, the king and the military. Some skillful kings kept Thailand at peace and uncolonized in the 19th century and helped it prosper in the 20th. This has not been the good fortune of other, formerly colonized, Theravada nations — Burma, Sri Lanka, or Laos.

But all reformations of Buddhism included versions of Indian Karma.

Krishna on Karma

Buddhism appropriated Karma from India, and the Indian Bhagavad-Gita contains a synthesis of Hindu beliefs, including Karma.

J. A. D. vanBuitenen, a translator of the Gita, wrote in a preface: “According to this belief, all a person’s moral actions, whether good or bad, produce definite effects in the person’s life, though such effects may take some time before manifesting themselves. According to the Indian view, living beings pass through an endless cycle of death and rebirth.”

Lopez says in Buddhism in Practice: “Although there are significant variations among Buddhist cultures, Buddhists in Asia generally accept a view of the universe and of the afterlife that originated in India.”

The Bhagavad-Gita is a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna, avatar of God, on the field of battle where two extensive royal families are gathering for war. Arjuna in his chariot lays down his weapons and says he will not kill his relatives on the other side. 

Krishna, sitting as the chariot driver, counsels that there is no death — no killer, no killed — because of the reality of samsara. “As man discards worn-out clothes to put on new and different ones, so the embodied self discards its worn-out bodies to take on other new ones,” Krishna says in Barbara Stoler Miller’s poetic translation. The vanBuitenen translation has Krishna adding, “therefor, there is no cause for grief, if the matter is inevitable.” Inevitability is the core of Karma. It is law. There are no exemptions. 

Krishna tells Arjuna, “I created mankind in four classes, different in their qualities and actions.” The classes are: warriors, priests, merchants, and menial workers (khattiyas, brahmins, vessas, suddas). All have specific rights and duties in Indian society. There are others lower down, but they apparently were not even worth mentioning. Some were called the “untouchables.” 

Under the blind causation of Karma you cannot know what sins happened in your past lives caused your suffering or what merits caused your happiness. This belief can provide relief from the effort of explaining the problem of evil: why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. But politically it can be a cruel justification of misfortune in the world, a legitimization of political tyranny. The strict law of Karma determines what class you are born in. 

Arjuna, of the royal khattiya class, is dejected about the prospect of having to fight and kill his relatives in the approaching battle. Krishna’s counseling is that Arjuna has a “sacred duty” to fight regardless of his feelings. To obey this call to arms without regard to the karmic “fruits of action” is the epitome of virtue. There could be religious consequences if Arjuna fails to conform. He could be reborn in a lower class.

No tradition of Buddhism enforces a class system. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada monk who is the foremost translator of Pali-language sutras into English, says, however, “Contrary to popular notions, the Buddha did not agitate for elimination of the Indian class system.”  He only declined to observe it in his sangha.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are six karmic determinations of how you will be reborn. They are: a victim in Hell, a hungry ghost, an animal, a human, an afflicting demigod, a god. Hungry ghosts are a particularly relevant class in the current world of addictions. They hunger but have necks so thin they cannot swallow. The wheel of life, a popular graphic sold everywhere in Nepal, depicts these six realms.

The Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths declared by the Buddha in his first sermon, or “turning of the wheel” of dharma, after his enlightenment are Suffering, Its Cause, Its Cessation, and The Eightfold Path. We all suffer from lack of perfection, from sickness, old age and inevitable death. The world, it seems, is never right. 

The second Noble Truth actually has two parts:  there is a cause of suffering, and the cause is craving or desire. So it introduces the principle of Karma, which as I have said, is causation. And desire is not just sensual craving. It is the disposition of always wanting something (encouraged today by skillful advertising.)

Desire is often discussed as “attachment.” I can remember arguments about attachment in an Eastern Classics seminar. Does non-attachment mean you cannot own anything? Does it mean you cannot love anybody? Or make a commitment? I think the resolution was that this sort of attachment is obsession with possessing things and persons and fearing their loss. We also discussed attachment to habitual patterns of thought. 

The third Noble Truth is the admonition that renouncing attachment will ease your suffering. The fourth is the Eightfold Path (of right living) embracing action in body, speech, and mind. The last three specifics of the righteous path are right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. Right effort implies discipline, which as Krishna put it in the Gita, “subdues the self.” He tells Arjuna, “Renunciation is difficult to attain without discipline.” The Gita’s instructions for meditation and mindfulness, passed on to Buddhism, include: taking “a firm seat in a pure place,”  just sitting and “thinking nothing,” and restraining your “wandering mind.” This will “unbind the bonds of suffering,” and help you “find a higher way.” These are synonymous with Nirvana and Enlightenment in Buddhism.


Karma is blind. Its causation is law with no mercy and no exceptions — even the Buddha is not exempt. So how can it be argued that we have free will? If we are fated by external forces from past lives affecting body, speech and mind, how can we make choices in this life? We cannot even know what happened in past lives. 

Similarly, the advance of scientific physics in the 17th century inspired strict deterministic thinkers who argued that we are moved exclusively by external forces. Extended to philosophy, the power of classical mechanics was a fate like Karma (though Indian religion was barely understood then in the West). 

Along came the 17th Century philosopher Spinoza with his “streamlined approach to virtue or power,” says the philosopher Clair Carlisle, a Western Buddhist at Kings College London.  “He argued that our thoughts, our emotions, our moral activity and our philosophical work are as much a part of nature as our embodied life.” Which is to say if you are part of nature it is not an external force. This argument, similarly, might save Karma from the indictment that it takes away our freedom. 

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that you can forestall the effects of bad karma by accumulating merit. Gifting, morality, meditation and ritual service are prevalent public activities in Thailand. It is in some ways a contradiction of the Gita’s rule against acting with the fruits of action in mind. But laypersons in Thailand gather in temples on weekends to meditate, acquiring merit — sometimes called ritual merit. 

And so we can be free in the province of Karma. But the hero Arjuna, champion archer, leader of men, favorite of the beautiful polyandrous Draupadi (an avatar of of the goddess Lakshmi) is not free. He wants to drop his bow, step off his golden high-horsepower chariot and go in peace. But he cannot. He is bound by his class identity. This afflictive social pressure is another thing left behind when Buddhism took over Hindu Karma.

The Problem of Anatman

The Buddhist appropriation of Karma was not wholesale. There was a significant problem, as described by Huston Smith in his popular “The World’s Religions.”

“The most startling thing the Buddha said about the human self is that it has no soul,” Smith wrote. Anatman, or no-soul, plus suffering and impermanence (Dukha, Anyita) are the three characteristics of human life observed by Buddhism everywhere. Smith wrote that in Indian religion atman “had come to signify (a) a spiritual substance that, in keeping with the dualistic position of Hinduism (b) retains its separate identity forever. Buddha denied both these features.”

If the soul is not substantial, not a metaphysical substance, what transmigrates when our bodies break away? It is Buddhist contradiction. But Smith wrote:  “Authentic child of India, the Buddha did not doubt that reincarnation was in some sense a fact.” What was this sense? I turn here to Spinoza for a possible answer. 

In his non-dualistic metaphysics there is only one Substance, of  which individuals are modes. Philosopher Clare Carlisle writes: Spinoza “argued that our thoughts, our emotions, our normal activity and our philosophical work are as much a part of nature as our embodied life.” So the idea that free will “disturbs rather than follows the order of nature” is false.

Miller, the Gita translator, defines atman as “self,” avoiding the contention that if I have no self I don’t exist, a cogito ergo sum in the negative. The inseparable self is “the innermost reality of a person, the animate, spiritual principle of life, not to be confused with gross individuality,” Miller says.

Robert Langan of the Institute Of Contemporary Psychotherapy offers this unique argument about freedom: “Free will demands responsibility for the course of one’s life. We can deny free will, but from the vantage of free will that denial is a choice for which we are responsible: we have chosen victimization.”


The passivity of avoiding action, intentional or not, is still action, subject to Karma. A common mental health problem in the West, depression provides a market for a serotonin-targeting drugs and addictive pain killers. A Karmic model in Buddhism reflects early   awareness of depression in our suffering. The model is called The Five Hindrances, or blocks to effective meditation involving the mindful entry of dhyana — chan in China, Zen in Japan — which facilitates enlightenment and Nirvana. 

At the base of the model are two pairs of extreme opposites: pairing lust with hatred and restiveness with sloth. These last two would apply to the diagnoses of anxiety and depression in psychology. The fifth hindrance is Doubt (vicikista), defined in a dictionary of Buddhist terms as “a form of neurotic doubt, hindering resolve or intentional action, indecision, avoiding responsibility for choices.” 

Krishna says, “An ignorant man is lost, faithless, and filled with self-doubt; a soul that harbors doubt has no joy. Not in this world or the next.” 

I suppose one therapeutic suggestion for doubt would be: take responsibility! That is basically what Langan was saying:  you are responsible for your own salvation. Another would be: you can’t escape your family. But the admonition “You must have done something terrible in a past life” is not good therapy. 

There is a correlative idea on the cultural level a history is so contemptuous it forbids redemption. There is nothing that can be done but shrug — or is there?

William K. Mahony in his book, The Artful Universe, on the earliest literature of ancient India, the Rig Veda, says, “Sacrifice lies at the very core of the Vedic world view.”  And he means physical sacrifice: burnt offerings of animals including valued horses sent up to the gods in smoke.

The brahmins who presided over those sacrificial rites carried the rituals in their minds, and by the time of the next Indian literary era, of the Upanishads, Mahony says, “some Vedic thinkers had come to teach that one’s knowledge of the Brahman was more important than outward performance of the ritual itself.” Brahman is sometimes equated with God. And so ritual of sacrifice became verbal. 

Based on his reading of Vedic prayers and poetry, Mahony proposes that a profound religious belief emerged. The world of humanity was so fragile it “could be overtaken by the forces of falsehood and non-being.” That is, “Humankind could destroy itself; it could destroy the world; it could indeed destroy the gods themselves. . . Having taken so much from it, human beings had to offer something back to the universe.”  

Raul Moncayo, a Lacan analyst and Zen priest in Berkley, endorses the psychological opinion that there are no “inherent dispositions.” But there are inherited dispositions that arise according to causes and conditions. The inheritance, this view, can be interpreted to work in three ways: (1) “as a type of rebirth and as influences from previous lifetimes; (2) how dispositions are transmitted from one generation to the next, whether genetically or symbolically; (3) how life in the past (rather than the past life) influences life in the present and in the future.”

So there we are: another artful Karmic definition in the tradition of Max Muller more than 150 years ago. Perhaps we are responsible to make a choice between the three formats. But that would be trying to answer a metaphysical question.


The imagery of light and dark occurs often in Buddhist literature, as it did in ancient India. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the conservative translator, talks of “Bright Karma” versus “Dark Karma” stemming from wholesome or unwholesome action. And a Rig Veda prayer says:

Shine on us, Agni, powerfully,

Scattering evil with light. 

Mary Oliver’s source for her poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction  may have been the unverified statement by Gautama Buddha, “Be a light unto yourself.” But her poem’s opening verse is famous anyway: 

‘Make of yourself a light’

said the Buddha

before he died. 

I think of this every morning

as the east begins

to tear off its many clouds of darkness

The poem ends with him under a tree (as in the beginning of his 80 years) and:

Slowly, beneath the branches

he looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

A perplexed group called the Kalamas — apparently some sort of family — came to the Buddha with a complaint that they were being visited by diverse teachers who “expound and explain only their own doctrines” but, “the doctrines of others they despise, revile.” The Kalamas were confused and perhaps a little frightened.

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that in his reading of the Kalama Sutra “It is clear that the issues that perplexed them were the reality of rebirth and karmic retribution for good and evil deeds.”

The Buddha advises them not to judge by a guru’s reputation, or “repeated hearing” but to determine what things “lead to benefit and happiness” without doctrinaire acceptance or even á priori deduction. Seek out things “praised by the wise,” and so forth. It is a long “charter of free inquiry” without “fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance” in the words of one commentary. Investigate! Test!

Which is what Nhat Hanh was saying to the girl in Hanoi.