The other day I heard a quite intelligent Buddhist complain that kamma (karma) just isn’t fair. The argument goes like this: anicca means that means that everything is constantly changing. Therefore when I experience the consequences of my actions, I am a different person than I was when I committed those actions. If I am experiencing the consequences of actions in previous lives, that’s literally true! So, is kamma fair?
Ironically, I hear the opposite argument even more frequently, usually from the more agnostic crowd. That argument goes like this: the world isn’t fair, and kamma is just a story that we tell to make it seem so. Bad things happen to good people all the time. “Past lives” are only there to sweep the obvious incorrectness under the rug. So is kamma suspiciously too fair? Is it just a comforting story that we tell ourselves when murderous dictators die in their sleep in their 90s? And when children die of cancer?
It seems to me that both of these ideas imply that the Buddha made up kamma. He didn’t! The Buddha merely observed kamma and reported back. Karma isn’t some arbitrary rule imposed by God. It’s more like gravity. It’s simply a force of nature that can be described in different ways. Gravity isn’t to blame if I fall off my ladder and break a leg. It is simply and impersonal force of nature. And we don’t blame Newton for describing the features of that natural phenomenon.
So is it fair that I have to experience the results of actions committed in the distant past? I have a friend who works with young drug addicts. She is amazing effective, partly because she was an addict herself in her teens and twenties. If you meet her know, she’s a very wonderful, together person. But now, 25 years later, she is still experiencing health results for what she did as a teenager. Is that fair? Why should a wonderful woman who has dedicated her life to helping others experience so much suffering based on the actions of an idiot teenager?
So is it too fair that we always experience the results of our actions? Well, again, fair just doesn’t enter into it. Actions are just the kinds of things that produce consequences. Besides, it’s definitely not the case that everything we experience is the result of kamma. There is still bad luck, or just natural processes other than kamma. An earthquake is just an earthquake. And, present actions can mitigate the consequences of past actions. Is it fair that Angulimala became an arahant?
Check out this post where I ask the question Does kamma explain everything?