How does karma work in Buddhism?

The Buddhist concept of karma has entered the English lexicon over the past few decades, and its use has exploded. People use it in casual conversation, and it’s a popular and practical term for that saying, “what happens happens” which means people get what they deserve. Karma is the Sanskrit word for “action” or “doing” and is an integral part of many religions in East and Southeast Asia such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In these religions, karma is the consequence of actions, but it is more than the fundamental sense of cause and effect. In Buddhism, karma is a natural moral law which, like gravity, operates with or without consciousness. Karma is not fate or predetermination, both of which suggest that there is nothing an individual can do to change things. In Buddhism, change is always possible. Each life bears the karmic results of past lives, but the actions of each life can make future lives better or worse.

Every bad action creates bad consequences, but those consequences can be experienced in the short term or across multiple lifetimes. Karma accumulates through many reincarnations, and yet from a Buddhist perspective karma can be changed. The karma that people accumulate in this lifetime may not catch up with them in this lifetime; it may not even affect them in their next life. However, each determines its own realities. Those who experience bad karmic consequences from an unknown past can contribute to a better future by seeking enlightenment and doing good. One such way to change karma is by gaining merit by studying Dharma, supporting Buddhist monasteries, practicing meditation, taking vows, or in some cultures, making a pilgrimage to various Buddhist shrines.

Someone who has lived a good life or accumulated merit will be reborn in a good situation, perhaps in a higher social position, in greater wealth, in a more secure family situation, or a life with less hardship and of challenges. On the flip side, a person who has lived a life of greed and cruelty might be reborn with serious health problems, in inferior social or economic conditions, or even more trapped in bad habits developed in past lives.

Some Buddhist traditions teach that there are realms of existence. Some of these realms are the existence of gods or demigods, while others are the existence of hungry beasts or ghosts. These terms represent only experiential states. For example, those who are reborn as gods experience an easy life, full of wealth, power, and status. This is not necessarily good, however, because such people rarely achieve enlightenment. Their concerns about pleasures prevent them from seeking Dharma or achieving merit, and when they die they have no good karma to prevent a more unhappy reincarnation. On the other hand, some are reborn as hungry ghosts, constantly suffering from cravings and dissatisfaction. They too find the pursuit of enlightenment difficult. The best rebirth is that of a human, totally vulnerable to suffering, but also able to acquire good karma, earn merit, and seek enlightenment.

There is debate in different Buddhist traditions about what happens to a person’s accumulated karma once enlightenment is achieved.

Some claim that any remaining karma simply goes away. Others claim that when a person achieves enlightenment, they stop creating any karma because it is karma – both good and bad – that keeps a person trapped in samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Instead, an awakened being lives long enough to play out all remaining karma, and upon death, he or she attains nirvana – a complete release from the cycles of death and rebirth.

Learn more about the Buddhist concepts of karma and merit here.