Karma: The Eastern doctrine of sin

As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that Shvetaketu, you are that.
– Chandogya Upanishad IV.10.1-3

The Upanishads

Even though the Upanishads do not offer a single comprehensive system of thought, they do develop some basic general principles. Some of these principles are samsara, karma, dharma and moksha. These principles form a metaphysical scheme which was shared . . . by most Indian religions and philosophers.

The concept of Samsara is reincarnation, the idea that after we die our soul will be reborn again in another body. Perhaps in an animal, perhaps as a human, perhaps as a god, but always in a regular cycle of deaths and resurrections.

Another concept is Karma, which literally means “action”, the idea that all actions have consequences, good or bad. Karma determines the conditions of the next life, just like our life is conditioned by our previous karma. There is no judgement or forgiveness, simply an impersonal, natural and eternal law operating in the universe. Those who do good will be reborn in better conditions while those who are evil will be reborn in worse conditions. . . . Ancient History Encyclopedia

* * *

Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā:

Because of the apprehension of a self and of what a self possesses, beings do not overcome birth-and-death. And why? It is because one views self and not-self that conditioned actions (karma-abhisamskara) come about. The foolish untaught common people who do not know that all dharmas are absolutely, completely empty seize self and not-self. Having seized that, they abide in it. Thereupon arises craving, anger and ignorance. Thereupon they bring about the threefold karma: by body, speech and mind. Discriminating, by superimposition, what does not exist, they say: I have craving, I have anger, I am ignorant. (Conze, p. 14)


“The stupid also say, ‘I committed a sin.’ The sage says, ‘What sort of a thing is your sin?’ All of this is conditionally arisen and has no nature of its own. If you know when it has arisen that there is no ego, who does it and who suffers  punishment? A sutra says, ‘Ordinary people insist on discriminating: I have craving, I have anger. Such foolish ones fall into the three evil paths.’ A sutra says, ‘The nature of a sin is neither within nor without, nor is it between these two’ (Vimalakirti). This shows that sin is unlocalized, and the unlocalized is the place of quiescence. When beings fall into hell, they create an ego from mind. They remember and discriminate, thinking: I commit evils and I receive punishments; I do good and I likewise receive rewards. This is evil karma. From the very beginning no such things have existed, yet  perversely they remember and discriminate, thinking that they exist. This is evil karma.” (Jorgensen, pp. 310-311; Broughton p. 34)

 D. T. Suzuki: (1953)

That we are sinful does not mean in Buddhism that we have so many evil impulses, desires, or proclivities, which, when released, are apt to cause the ruination of oneself as well as others. The idea goes deeper and is rooted in our being itself, for it is sin to imagine and act as if individuality were a final fact. As long as we are what we are, we have no way to escape from sin, and this is at the root of all our spiritual tribulations. This is what the followers of Shin Buddhism mean when they say that all works, even when they are generally considered morally good, are contaminated when they are the efforts of ‘self-power’, and do not lift us from the bondage of Karma. (Passivity in the Buddhist Life)

Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717):

I saw at this time, or rather experienced the basis on which God rejects sinners from His bosom. All the cause of God’s rejection is in the will of the sinner. If that will submits, howsoever horrible he be, God purifies him in his love and receives him into his grace; but while that will rebels the rejection continues. For lack of opportunity he may not commit the sin he is inclined to commit, yet he can never be admitted into grace until the cause ceases, which is this wrong will, rebellious against divine law. If that will once submits, God then completely removes the effects of sin that stain the soul, by washing away the defilements which he has contracted. (Autobiography)

Karma is a dharma

Karma is not a real thing: it is a way of understanding why good thoughts and actions bring about pleasure while evil thoughts and actions bring about pain. It is also a way of understanding why some beings are born into happier lives than others. But things have no self-nature, and this includes conceptual things like karma. The only thing that is, is Self: there is nothing else.

When one is identified with the ego-self, one’s thoughts create the world one experiences. The mind is an instrument of creation. When thoughts are of the self and how to survive, they are experienced as painful and unwholesome. Feeling bad, the ego-self expects ill fortune, and it comes. But when thoughts are not of the self, they are experienced as pleasurable and wholesome. Feeling good, the ego-self expects good fortune, and it comes. This is illustrated in the story about a man who tried to play a wicked trick on the great Swami Trailanga (see Swami Trailanga).

This principle of expectation also applies to the conditioning of rebirth. In the first place, there is rebirth because there is an ego-self, or soul. The Self has willed the arising of an ego-self capable of simultaneously creating and being aware of a world through its senses and thoughts. But for this to be possible, the ego-self must believe in the reality of itself and the world. The Self then experiences the joy of its creation through these sentient beings: without them, there would be no world for the Self to experience.

On all sides that has hands and feet;
On all sides eyes, heads and faces;
On all sides in the world it hears;
All things it embraces.  (Watts, p. 34)

From the point of view of the Self, everything is perfect. Beings appear to suffer, but they have no self-nature. If they suffer too much, they separate from the ego-self, and then either their lives become happier, or they make the decision to seek liberation — that is, the final extinction of the ego-self. If beings are not liberated, they are reborn, and the degree of egoity present at the moment of death conditions the next life. This is the reason why our attainment is not lost when we die. (For the purposes of liberation there is a difference between a fortuituous letting go of egoity and deliberate renunciation: when it is fortuitous there is the risk of regression, but when it is deliberate there is advancement.)

Suffering alone exists, none who suffer;
The deed there is, but no doer thereof;
Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;
The Path there is, but none who travel it. (Watts, p. 56)

Original sin

In Genesis the original sin was when Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is universally believed that it was Adam’s disobedience which condemned him to death, and it is true that the arising of self-will is inherent in the creation of a separate ego-self. But I believe that God’s admonition should not be read as a threat, but rather as a warning to Adam not to eat poison: “The day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will die.” The cause of Adam’s mortality wasn’t that he angered God by his self-will, but his awareness of himself as separate, that he could die, and his awareness of things as beneficial or detrimental to his survival.

In Buddhism, the origin of being was first described in the Twelve-fold Chain of Interdependent Origination. Later on the Mahayana School relied more on the five components of the self, the skandhas, to explain the origin of being. The first component is form. The second component is vedana, sensations, which are pleasurable, painful or neutral. The third component is samjna, which is knowledge of good and evil; this is also translated as thought. The fourth component is samskara, which are seeds of thought or volitions. The fifth is vijnana, which is discriminating consciousness: this is the awareness of everything as separate and distinct. There is no sequence of events in the functioning of the skhandha; rather, the five components function simultaneously.

The five components of self are the cause of both suffering and rebirth. From discriminating consciousness arises form; from form arises sensation; from sensation arises knowledge; from knowledge arises craving; and from craving there arise unwholesome states of mind, called klesha or klesa — translated as passions, afflictions or defilements.1 All of this gives rise to volitions, samskara. These volitions are conditioned and they condition in turn; they are both cause and effect. When a being dies, its karma (fault) combines with samskara (volitions) to form karma-abhisamskara, which is what conditions the next birth.2 Both Buddhism and Christianity call this formation the taint or stain of wrongful actions.

While the five components of the self all contribute to suffering and rebirth, the only thing over which one has any control is its knowledge, or patterns of thinking, samjna. It is samjna which gives rise to craving. It is samjna which sets heaven and earth apart. Samjna is the poison fruit which makes us mortal. Doing away with one’s knowledge is therefore the key to liberation.

In his introduction to his translation of Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra, Edward Conze (1975) writes, “‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are not reflections of actual fact, but of the attitudes of self-willed individuals.” In a discussion of “signs” (laksana or lakshana — also called marks, or characteristics), Conze says that “bad actions” follow the recognition of differences between a man and a woman. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they became aware that they were naked, and were ashamed, and shame showed their state of sin.

Further, all “signs” should be avoided. We have to do with a “sign” (nimitta) wherever the impression of a stimulus is either taken as an indication that there is something there — as in perception — or as a reason for doing something about something. The taking up of a “sign” is regarded as the salient feature of perception. Innocuous as it may seem, perception as such is an obstacle to salvation in that it is both erroneous and misleading. It is erroneous because the world as perceived is largely a fabrication of our desire for adaptation to it [or our desire for it to adapt to us], and covers up the vision of what is really there, i.e. Nirvana, or the succession of ceaselessly changing momentary dharmas. It is misleading because, as the commentators put it, we first “recognize” a set of data as a “man” or a “woman”, and then base bad actions on that “recognition”. The sign is “defilement”, and the Absolute is called the “signless” (animitta). It is, indeed, unrecognizable when met. (p. 11)

Though the doctrine of original sin in Genesis is primitive in comparison with Buddhism or Hinduism, they express the same idea, and that is that the consciousness of oneself as a separate mortal being entails viewing other people and things as good or bad. The key to liberation is, therefore, to unlearn this knowledge. This is the reason that “Inscribed on the Believing Mind” tells us from the very first stanza to stop judging things as good and evil:

The Perfect Way is not difficult
save that it excludes picking and choosing
Once you are freed from hating and loving
that which is hidden will become clear and bright

As a young seeker, Robert Pirsig was studying Hinduism in India. He challenged a professor who said that everything was illusion by asking if the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also an illusion. The professor told him that yes, it was an illusion, and Pirsig quit his studies and went home. He attained enlightenment, but because he had not let go of self-will, he contrived to have his memory of the event erased.

Lester Levenson once said that everyone thinks he is doing the right thing — even Adolf Hitler. What this means is that seven years after the Nazi death camps were exposed to the world, Lester, who was Jewish, cultivated compassion for Hitler.

Buddhism and Hinduism go beyond Christianity. They don’t just tell us not to see things as good and bad, but they tell us to stop seeing people and things as distinct from one other, to stop believing that people and things have their own self-nature. This is not nihilism because there is something which does have self-nature, and it is Self, which turns out to be the true nature of everything — including you.


My birthplace? I am born of figoku (hell);
I am a stray dog
Carrying its tail between its legs;
I pass through this world of woes,
Saying ‘Namu-amida-butsu’.

I am not to go to figoku,
figoku is right here,
We are living right in figoku,
figoku is no other place than this.
– Saichi (Suzuki, 1957, pp. 151-181)

If there were no wretchedness,
My life would be wickedness itself;
How fortunate I am that I was given wretchedness
‘Namu-amida-butsu, Namu-amida-butsu!’

They understand who have had sorrows,
But those who had them not can never understand:
There is nothing so excruciating as sighs –
The sighs that refuse to be disposed of.
But they are removed by Amida,
And all I can say now is ‘Namu-amida-butsu, Namu-amidabutsu!’

That such a sinful man as Saichi, whose sinfulness knows no bounds
has been transformed into a Buddha!
How grateful for the grace, and how happy!
‘Namu-amida-butsu, Namu-amida-butsu!’
– Saichi (Suzuki, 1957, pp. 151-181)

Meister Eckhart:

And among all creatures He does not love one more than another: for as each is wide enough to receive, in the same measure He pours Himself into it. If my soul were as capacious and as roomy as the angel of the Seraphim, who has nothing in him, God would pour Himself out into me as perfectly as into the angel of the Seraphim. It is just as if you were to make a sphere, with the perimeter covered with dots, and with a point in the centre: from this point all the dots would be equally near or far. Then for one dot to get nearer to it, it would have to be displaced, for the middle point remains constantly at the centre. So it is with divine being: it is not questing around but abiding altogether in itself. In order to receive from it, a creature must of necessity be moved out of itself.  (Walshe, Vol. II, p. 280)


1 The afflictions are called kleśa (in Chinese, fan nao) because they vex (fan) and torment (nao) the mind. (Wisdom Library)

2 In Buddhism the stain or taint of sin that attaches to one is called samskara or sankhara. These are the volitions that precede the formation of things. First there is a volition, then there is an event. When it comes to rebirth, karma and samskara are joined as a compound word, karma-abhisamskara — literally, volitions which are conditioned by previous actions. These volitions are the cause of the rising of the mind.


Conze, Edward (1975). The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.

David-Neel, Alexandra (1931). Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Penguin Books Ltd.

Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, et al (1960). Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Guyon, J. M. B. de la Mot (1875). A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/spiritualformation/texts/guyon_shortmethodofprayer.pdf

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. The Autobiography of Madame Guyon.
Chicago: Moody Press. https://archive.org/stream/theautobiography22269gut/pg22269.txt

Levenson, Lester (2003). No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, California: Lawrence Crane Enterprises, Inc.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company.

Suzuki, D. T. (1957) Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. London and New York: Routledge Classics. https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/d-t-suzuki-mysticism-christian-and-buddhist.pdf

M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume II. UK: Element Books Limited.

Watts, Alan (1957). The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books.

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