Taoists Don’t Believe in Karma

We addressed the question of life after death yesterday, and today we ponder:

Why is life unfair?

It doesn’t take a child long to realize life is gravely unfair. Once among their peers they see others who have more; better toys, nicer clothes, a caring family. What is even more curious to the observing child is that these wealthy children aren’t necessarily kinder. They don’t get better grades. They aren’t exceptional people in a moral sense. They just have a better life.

And we conclude early that this is gravely unfair and demand something be done to rectify it.

For as much as we’d like to think our good efforts are rewarded, even a child knows there is no guaranteed return for our diligence or obedience.

Children grow into adulthood only to see this discrepancy magnified. While they work hard and have few rewards other than perhaps a middle class existence at best, others who seem to break laws, cheat in business or simply know the right people profit highly from bad behavior.

Again we conclude life is gravely unfair. And we want to know why.

To address this great question, religions have come up with such responses as — God is testing us, we are paying for our sins, our ancestors sinned and we must pay that debt, or we are learning a lesson. Hindu and Buddhist followers tend to address the issue of unfairness with the concept of karma.

Karma is the idea that good intentions and deeds contribute to one’s good karma that brings about future happiness, while bad intentions and deeds contribute to bad karma and future suffering.

Karma is a big, cosmic scorecard.

The challenging part is that one’s karma lasts for many lifetimes, so you in some previous life may have been a real pistol, building up a stockpile of bad karma that has now come due. This debt, therefore, explains why your hard work and good character may result in a big pile of nothing. This indebtedness supposedly explain unfairness.

Taoists don’t believe in karma and they don’t believe we are punished for our sins at some ecumenical level. We do, however, believe in:

  1. causality
  2. that things are exactly as they are supposed to be

This is how Taoists respond to the great question of why life is unfair.

Causality is just as it sounds. Some people work hard and they get the rewards. Some people don’t work as hard and their lives aren’t as bountiful. Cause and effect. That explains much of what we see around us.

But causality doesn’t explain those who have worked hard, sacrificed, done all the right things morally and still do not benefit. It is unfair, and we Taoists just nod and say that’s how life is.

We don’t look for an answer to unfairness because it isn’t a puzzle to solve. Bad people profit. Good people suffer. Undeserving people have great opportunity. Diligent people remain stifled. Folks die in accidents or natural disasters and none of it is deserved or fair.

But it is as it’s supposed to be. And while that might not be comforting, it is the way of things.

So how can we live in such an unfair environment? With deep gratitude. As Taoists, we must take time to honestly assess the gifts of our lives — not with the eyes of a child who wants better toys, but as evolved and refined individuals who have the capacity to see all the suffering in the world and be thankful. To want more and fret about unfairness in comparison to the lives some lead will then be put in perspective. We should be thankful to have enough when others have nothing.


About Leigh

Leigh is an American Taoist philosopher, exploring how modern life and its problems can best be addressed with ancient teachings. She is also a doctor of psychology.
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