This is the second article in the Engaging Buddhism series which explores different facets of Buddhism and how Christians can engage with and minister to Buddhists.

What is karma?

Ask Taylor Swift and she’ll tell you, “Karma is my boyfriend / Karma is a god / Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend / Karma’s a relaxing thought.” It’s all the good things she gets for keeping “my side of the street clean.”

Justin Timberlake would respond that for his heartless ex, “What goes around, goes around, goes around / Comes all the way back around.”

Even Maria, the nun turned nanny from The Sound of Music, would argue that “somewhere in my youth or childhood / I must have done something good” to deserve the love of Captain Georg von Trapp.

Clearly, the idea of karma is part of the American consciousness. The idea of reaping what you sow is found in everyday life as well as passages in Scripture, such as Proverbs 22:8, “Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.”

Yet the worldview implications of the Buddhist belief in karma result in something far from a “relaxing thought.” For Theravada Buddhists, for instance, “karma means you get what you deserve, and we all know that we don’t want to get what we deserve,” said Kelly Hilderbrand, a missionary and Buddhism expert at Bangkok Bible Seminary.

In this installment of Engaging Buddhism, we will look at how the same concept of karma shapes two Buddhist worldviews—those of Thai Theravada Buddhists and Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhists—in very different ways. We will also see how Christians can speak into this Buddhist belief by providing deliverance from endless striving, hope in the face of weighty consequences, and true justice in a broken world.

‘Beings are owners of their actions’

The concept of karma originated in Indian philosophy and religion and has been adopted by Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Taoism. While beliefs about karma differ depending on the religion and context, the word karma is derived from the Sanskrit word karman, which means “act,” and refers to the result of that action. Unlike in Christianity where God dispenses justice, Buddhist scholars see karma as a part of nature, “like the law of physics: What you put into it is what you get out of it,” Hilderbrand said.

In Buddhism, karma is concerned more about a person’s intentions than their actions—our karma is the result of our hearts’ motives. Karma can be reaped in one’s lifetime as well as in a future rebirth. Doing good deeds that adhere to the Eightfold Path leads to good karma, while transgressing those rules leads to bad karma.

According to some Buddhist traditions, the balance of our works determines whether we are reborn in a higher realm as angels or gods, in a lower realm as hungry ghosts, or even in hell. The goal is to move up through different life cycles until one reaches nirvana, which is the end of suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

In the Pali Canon, the Buddhist scriptures, Buddha says that karma is “the way that leads to short life … the way that leads to long life … the way that leads to sickliness … the way that leads to health. … Beings are the owners of their actions, heirs of their actions. … It is actions that distinguish beings as inferior or superior.”

As Buddhism has developed and spread over thousands of years, different schools have formed, with adherents viewing karma differently. Some don’t believe in rebirth but still retain belief in karma in this lifetime. How karma works also differs from country to country, as various cultures integrate their traditional religions with Buddhism.

How karma plays out in Thailand

About 95 percent of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, the oldest tradition of Buddhism, which hews closely to Buddha’s teaching and emphasizes reaching enlightenment through one’s own efforts.

Hilderbrand, who moved to Bangkok in 1999, found that the idea of karma is enmeshed in everyday life, regardless of how familiar a person is with Buddhist texts. When a car accident, natural disaster, or sickness occurs, people will mutter “karma,” resigned that it was the result of a person’s actions in this life or a past life.

“In a truly Buddhist worldview … if you are born ugly or crippled or poor, it’s because you deserve it,” Hilderbrand said. “And so, there’s not a tendency to help other people, except insomuch as it gets you brownie points or earns you merit for doing so.”

If the news reports that a rich person hit a poor person with his car, it’s accepted that the poor person did something wrong in her past and deserved what happened to her, Hilderbrand said. Unlike in Christianity, there is no concept that people are equal and have special value.

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People who are born poor or disabled accept that their role is to live off their karma while doing good to impact their future lives. Some parents won’t permit their child born with a cleft palate to have surgery because it would take away the “karmic duty that the person has to bear through this life and therefore wouldn’t get the merit for the next life,” said Paul De Neui, a former missionary to Thailand and professor of missiology at North Park Theological Seminary.

At the same time, De Neui has found that often people born with physical disabilities are the most joyful people he’s met and are treated with a special kind of reverence despite their difficulties. They recognize their duty based on what has been passed on from a past life.

Thais are very self-aware of who they are and what their limits are, said Hilderbrand, unlike Westerners who have been taught that they can achieve anything. The challenge is that “it’s difficult for them to establish a way of how they can better themselves,” Hilderbrand said. For instance, if individuals aren’t good at math, they just accept that as part of who they are and don’t naturally try to change their situation.

At the same time, monks must be physically perfect—with ten fingers, ten toes, no disabilities, and no birth defects—because it means they have good karma from their past lives. When Hilderbrand’s friend and fellow missionary came to Thailand, the government refused to give him a missionary visa because he was blind; in their worldview, being blind meant he had bad karma and couldn’t be a religious teacher.

To escape their bad karma and make merit, Buddhists perform good deeds like giving money to the temple or helping the poor. Some feel overwhelmed by the constant striving to ensure the good outweighs the bad. Yet there isn’t a concept of sin as Christians would understand it, Hilderbrand said; rather, it’s about balancing the scales.

So as a Christian speaking with Buddhists, Hilderbrand doesn’t start with sin. Instead, he talks about how one’s debt can be paid. “We give them the good news: There was somebody who died to wipe your slate clean, to wipe the karma out … so that you can be reborn again and live with God,” Hilderbrand said. “Whenever I tell that good news to most people, they’re excited; it sounds great.” The larger hurdle missionaries face is how integral Buddhism is to the Thai identity.

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A more compassionate Buddhism

The outworking of karma plays out differently in Taiwan, the heart of the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist world. Buddhism, especially a philosophy known as Humanistic Buddhism, has grown unimpeded on the island, unlike in mainland China where the Communist government tried to eradicate all religions during the Cultural Revolution. Buddhists make up about 35 percent of Taiwan’s population.

Humanistic Buddhism emphasizes integrating Buddhist beliefs into everyday life and caring for issues in this world. It’s embodied in the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation: Formed in Taiwan in 1966 by a Buddhist nun and 30 housewives saving money to give to needy families, it’s now an international humanitarian aid group working in 100 countries and territories around the world. Tzu Chi volunteers engage in medical aid, environmental protection, and disaster relief—at times showing up to a disaster site before the government.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that bodhisattvas are higher beings that delay nirvana out of compassion to help the suffering. Karma and rebirth are still central tenets, but the doctrine has a different emphasis. While all Buddhists seek to alleviate suffering, Theravada Buddhists seek to accomplish this over cycles of lifetimes and reaching nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists are more concerned about alleviating suffering in the here and now.

Even if karma dictates that individuals did something bad in their past lives and deserve their situations, “what always builds up good karma, regardless, is to help them in their suffering,” said Easten Law of Overseas Ministries Study Center. “If your priority is enlightenment, what’s always good is to be compassionate: It’s good for your karma, and it’s good for their karma.”

In the late 19th century, Chinese Buddhists wanted to reform their religion and move beyond funeral rites, says Lai Pan-chiu, a religious studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They saw the work Christians were doing in building hospitals, starting schools, and engaging in social issues and began developing their own. They even started youth fellowships and Sunday schools.

As these reformers transformed Chinese Buddhism “from a religion for funerals to a religion that benefits daily life,” more and more Taiwanese became adherents.

Humanist Buddhists see karma in a social or collective light.

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“When you do something, you will affect not only yourself but others,” Lai said.

For instance, when people commit crimes, they face the punishment of prison, yet it also affects their family members, friends, and the larger society. So, it is difficult to seek liberation in isolation: “We are living in a web of causality or karma; we are interdependent.”

As a longtime scholar of Buddhism, a pastor, and a participant in interfaith dialogue, Lai believes that Christians can learn from Buddhists’ compassion toward not only those within their own circles but also all people as well as animals and the environment. He also finds that Buddhists are clear-eyed about the expectations of facing hardships and suffering in their lives in a way that Christians are not.

Yet one thing he’s found in Christianity that is lacking in Chinese Buddhism is a satisfactory answer to the question of justice. “I think the Christian understanding of love and compassion is combined with the work of justice,” Lai said. “Buddhists will advocate that if you have some sort of hatred with others, the way to overcome it is to overcome your desire, overcome your hatred and forgive others.”

Hatred causes bad karma, so it is in your best interest to forgive others. Buddhism can provide meditation techniques to overcome anger. However, Lai doesn’t believe that this can achieve real peace, as it doesn’t address the wrongdoing or create a system to prevent future conflicts. “If you don’t have justice, it’s very difficult to have reconciliation,” he said. “And justice … can be an expression of compassion, of love.”

A Christian view of karma

Although passages like Galatians 6:8, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life,” can sound like karma, they present a completely different concept. In Buddhism, karma is like a law of nature, a reality that exists without any god setting it in motion or being in control. We deserve all that happens to us.

Yet Christianity teaches that God is the creator and sovereign over all. “God shows mercy and does not punish us as our sins deserve,” Hilderbrand said. Rather, on the cross Jesus died on our behalf in the ultimate act of justice and mercy.

Over and over, the Bible pushes back on the idea that every bad event is caused by a previous action: At times we face the consequences of our actions, but sometimes suffering isn’t deserved or can’t be explained. Hilderbrand points to two examples: the story of Job, where a cosmic debate between God and Satan reveals that Job’s sufferings were not caused by his actions, and Luke 13:2–4, where Jesus explains that the Galileans killed by Pilate and those who died when the tower in Siloam fell did not die because of their sins.

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When the disciples asked Jesus in John 9:1, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they were expressing a karmic view of the world. Yet Jesus’ answer reveals a more complex understanding of suffering—one that is in the hands of a loving, caring, and just God, not an impersonal force: “Neither this man nor his parent sinned … but this happened so that that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3).

Hilderbrand saw this play out in his missionary friend in Thai: Although he was blind, he was a great evangelist, and many people in Thailand listened to him because they saw how he had overcome so many obstacles. “For those who belong to God, God can take that suffering and use it for good.”

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]