Karma in Buddhism

Karma in Buddhism

Karma is originally an Indian word which has been borrowed by English, but many people don’t really know what it means.  In this article, I’ll define what Karma means in the original context of Buddhism.

Karma in the Buddhist context is NOT a kind of fate nor is it some kind of cosmic justice system where everyone gets what they deserve.  This is not a correct view, nor does it make much sense when exposed to the scrutiny of Buddhist logic.

I’ve also noticed that some people confuse karma with the effects (or fruits) of karma when people say that something happened to someone because of their “bad karma”. This is also an incorrect view of karma in the Buddhist context.karma in buddhism


Karma comes to us from Sanskrit and is commonly translated as “action, work, deed”.  Ultimately the word karma comes from the root word “kr” meaning “do, make, perform, accomplish”.

Defining Karma

Karma is action which is driven by intention (cetana in Sanskrit) which leads to future consequences of those actions.  This is similar to the law of cause and effect.

We reap what we sow, and our present thoughts and actions shape our reality and circumstances.  We need to take personal responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds and acknowledge that our present circumstances are the result of all that we have thought and have (or have not) done.

This is one level of what we mean by the word karma.

It is also seen as an evolutionary force.  Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman defines karma in this way: “Mental, verbal, and physical actions that lead to life-affecting and life-constituting consequences. The Buddhist worldview considers the structures of our present lifetimes to be caused by the spiritually genetic re-embodiment of our own experiences from millions of previous lifetimes, subtly encoded in a spiritual gene we bring with us, combined with the physical genes we receive from our parents, in a complex process of spiritual and biological evolution.”

Karma and Rebirthkarma in buddhism

The Buddhist belief is that we carry our karma or “karmic tendencies” from one life to the next.  Although not every Buddhist school believes in the literal rebirth, it can also be understood metaphorically.

For example, if you are kind and compassionate in this life or were so in past lives, then you will be reborn into favorable conditions.  But if you were or are a selfish person who has committed acts of cruelty then this person will be “reborn” into unfavorable conditions.


The most important thing about karma is that our thoughts, words, and actions in the present moment help to determine what happens to us.  We live and we die with each breath, we are born and reborn in every moment of now.

With this understanding we can come back to the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada:

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
AS the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable”


Thanks for reading this article on karma in Buddhism. If you have any thoughts or questions on karma, then please feel free to leave a comment below.

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6 Responses to Karma in Buddhism

  1. Manimekalai says:

    Hello Ian, I am happy to see Buddha’s one the principles ‘Karma’ explained in the right context as an Indian. I like proverb “We reap what we sow” as it applicable to each and everyone. Can you make an separate article on karma and rebirth (or pointing right source) as many people would be keen to know more about. Besides, I am eager to know what motivated you to write out about Buddha’s principle.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks! I will definitely write another article about Karma and Rebirth in the future. There are so many misunderstandings in the world regarding Buddhism and Indian philosophy in general, which is one reason why I created my site.

  2. Gem says:

    Very interesting. I knew very basic information about Buddhism and the constant use of the term Kama never did seem to sit right with the ideaology of the belief system. This has clarified a few points that I had wondered about at some point.
    I love the site. The reading matter menu at the foot of the page was a nice feature. Excellent.

  3. Dawn says:

    Hello Thanks for sharing this insight on the word Karma and what it means in Buddhism. I really appreciate the short poem it really resonates with me, and has an uplifting message to it. 🙂

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