The following is an excerpt from a BibleMesh Institute student essay written in preparation for future missionary service in Southeast Asia.
When Buddhism branched off from Hinduism in the 6th century BC, it brought with it the belief of karma and reincarnation. Karma in particular plays a very significant role in the day-to-day life of a typical Buddhist and teaches that we are either punished or rewarded for our moral activities. If we are good, good things will happen to us; if we are bad, bad things will happen to us. Additionally, karma is used to account for the state of life in which we find ourselves. Since Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, the life that someone is born into is determined by weighing the good with the bad that they did in their prior life.
The Dark Shadow of Karma
Unlike other worldviews that see fate determined by the will of the gods, karma does not depend on the moral judgment of a higher being, but rather stands independently as its own “iron law.”1 Often in the West the idea of karma is used in common phrases such as “what goes around comes around,” and “they got what they deserved.” Stories of good things happening to good people are heartwarming and popular and we cheer when we hear of such events. These Western beliefs about karma are thought to be rather lightweight and non-threatening and are thrown around casually with little thought that they are rooted in an ancient belief that has cast a dark shadow for several thousands of years.
One example of how we can be tempted to think fatalistically in the way karma operates can be seen in the attitude of the disciples at the beginning of Chapter 9 of John’s gospel. When Jesus and his disciples meet a blind man, the disciples ask him, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9:2). Clearly, they believed he must have done something to deserve his disability. But Jesus turns their expectations upside down when he says that neither the man nor his father had sinned, but rather he was born that way in order to demonstrate the power of God. Even the literal darkness that this man experienced becomes an opportunity for light in the hands of Christ.
Karma Says All Suffering Is Deserved
So, what is the darker side to karma that a common westerner does not consider? If one believes on one hand that good things happen to good people, then they must also believe that bad things happen to bad people. When tragedy strikes, therefore, it must have been deserved because karma teaches that there is no unjust suffering. All harrowing acts of injustice are somehow warranted and justified.
By this worldview, if a child is born with a severe disability, they must have done something in a prior life. Someone captured and sold into human trafficking often believes that they must deserve their fate, and they are living out their life for the pleasure of others to pay for moral wrongdoings they had done before. In India, people in the low caste system or part of untouchable groups are given little to no opportunity to build a better life because the belief is that “they must be there for a reason.” When the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean in 2004 many Buddhist teachers taught that the fishing communities were at fault for killing so many fish, and the 200,000+ deaths were justified in their view, and there was minimal local aid given to those affected from the tsunami.2
In Elizabeth Baker’s book on her experiences in a Buddhist culture, she gives an example of a Thai woman who married a successful western businessman. When she and her husband married and moved to Bangkok, her husband was struck by the signs of poverty around them and started many philanthropic events such as building schools and distributing food and resources to people in need year-round. When Baker asked the wife what she thought about her husband’s work the wife explained she didn’t understand it at first. Growing up Buddhist, the wife explained that she went to the temple to gain merit, and participated in Buddhist events and festivals, many of which included giving to those in need, and that was enough to ensure a “good next life” for her. Doing good works outside of that had not occurred to her.3 Karma and seeking merit had diminished her sense of compassion.
Karma allows its followers to “pick and choose” what good and bad they want to do. A typical Buddhist is not trying to attain nirvana in this life, but to ensure a next life that is at least a little better. That means that someone can justify stealing something, hurting someone, or taking advantage of unjust gain if they do a few good things later to offset the wrong they had done. They are not wronging a God or higher being, but rather taking a withdrawal out of their ‘karmic bank account’ to which they can replenish later back at the temple.4
Another result of karma and Buddhist teachings is that “suffering is a teacher second only to Buddha.”5 If someone has a tragedy in their life with subsequent suffering, it is up to them to get through the suffering and gain what they need out of it. As an outsider, the belief is that it is wrong to help them through their suffering as it may be robbing them of their own life lessons they need to be successful in their path towards nirvana. This too leads to a lack of compassion.
The Gracious Gospel of Christ
Jesus however taught about grace, which God gives generously. Grace teaches that everyone is deserving of punishment, and that God’s grace is what can bring us salvation, rather than by doing enough good works in our life. As the famous Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” reminds us, God’s grace can save a “wretch like me.” This is in contrast to Buddhism because in karmic law, a wretch is only deserving of a horrific fate. But Christ taught in direct opposition of karma, such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son in which the son of a wealthy man takes his inheritance and blows it on worldly and sinful things. After losing everything he sheepishly returns home and his father rejoices and throws a great party for him. This story does not make sense through the lens of karma, but seen in Christian perspective, it is a perfect example of the grace of God.
God gives us the gift of grace even though we do not deserve it. Grace brings hope and salvation to people who are spiritually broken. No matter how good or bad someone is, God’s grace is what provides them salvation. Instead of spending countless lives trying to build up enough ‘good’ in order to attain salvation, God has conquered the grave and offered forgiveness for our wrongdoings. Christ took on our suffering, so that we can approach God the same way the son approached his loving father in the Prodigal Son parable.
When tragedies occur in the world, Christ—who himself was full of compassion—teaches that we should have compassion on those who are suffering no matter how good or bad they have acted. Instead of seeking satisfaction in finding horrible atrocities affecting people we dub ‘horrible people’, Jesus teaches to pray for our enemies.
In ministry among Buddhists, it is important to approach the topics of idolatry, and karma vs grace in an educated and respectful way when engaging in evangelistic discussions. We should keep in mind that Buddhists hold a different worldview, and this can be a difficult barrier for them when it comes to understanding things like how the Bible portrays salvation through unmerited grace. But the great hope of the gospel is that Buddhists and Hindus and anyone else bound by either fear or fatalism can be set free by the gracious love of God.
1 Esther Baker, Buddhism in the Light of Christ: A Former Buddhist Nun’s Reflections, with Some Helpful Suggestions on How to Reach out to Your Buddhist Friend (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2014), 36.
2 Neena Mahadev, “Karma and Grace,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 9, no. 2 (2019), 422.
3 Baker, Buddhism in the Light of Christ, 35-36.
4 Baker, Buddhism in the Light of Christ, 37.
5 Mahadev, “Karma and Grace,” 427.