Karma, Sin and Suffering

Sin is a much misunderstood word. Even the experts can miss the mark. The other day I was reading a comparison of Christianity and Buddhism in which the author opinioned that Christianity is more concerned with sin whereas Buddhism is more concerned with suffering. This, however, is a category confusion. A more helpful way of putting it would be to say both Christianity and Buddhism are concerned with suffering, but Christianity sees suffering as the effect of sin whereas Buddhism see suffering as the effect of karma. Of course, this begs the question, what’s the difference between sin and karma?

In exploring this question I find it helpful to first notice what isn’t different. What isn’t different is the concern with ego. Both sin and karma speak of our ego-centric nature, of our tendancy to have an inflated sense of our own importance and the urgency of our own desires. The difference between sin and karma is more subtle than that and more related to worldview. Specifically, our different understandings of self, time and ultimate reality.

What is

Simply put, Christianity understands reality in personal terms and Buddhism understands reality in more impersonal terms. This is reflected in the language. Christians give God a personal name and speak of God in relational terms. Buddhists don’t. Oh, sure, Buddhists have gods of a sort, but these are more equivalent to the angels, demons and saints of the Christian pantheon than what Christians mean by God. They have no ultimacy. Let’s not get confused by this. We’re speaking of ultimate things here.

This different understanding of “what is”, that is, what is behind everything, leads to differences in the way Buddhism and Christianity see the problems of this world. Sin has a more organic, relational flavour to it. Karma has a more mechanical, deterministic flavour to it. Karma is more about ignorance, Sin is more about betrayal. To some extent this explains why love trumps wisdom in Christianity, unlike Buddhism where love didn’t become so important till the emergence of Mahayana. It also explains why, in the Old Testament, idolatry is poetically equated to infidelity. Sin is a far more emotive, personal concept than karma.

This also explains why Buddhism, though it has many hells, doesn’t sound as harsh to modern ears. The operation of karma is spoken of so dispassionately in comparrison to the operation of sin. It’s like physics. No talk of judgement, just talk of blind, pityless, action and consequence. People act selfishly, they suffer accordingly, they sow what they reap. It’s simple. But is it? Viewed organically instead of mechanically, poetically instead of prosaically, in terms of personal relationships instead of impersonal forces, the metaphors shift from the physics lab to the law courts. If ultimate reality is personal and relational, is the oppression and injustice we find in this world something that ultimate reality should be dispassionate about?

What will be

Speaking of hells, the big difference with hells is not that one religion has them and the other doesn’t, but how time is viewed. In the Buddhist worldview, time is symmetrical, history is circular. What will be has already happened. What has happened before will be again. Hell is therefore just a pit stop on an endless merry-go-round. In the Christian worldview, time asymmetric, history has a direction. What will be has never been seen before. We can hope for something other, something that has never been seen before. We have a dream. At first glance the Christian idea of judgement sounds so much more scary, since it’s so much more final, but the flip side is this: Jesus offered hope for world transformation, whereas Buddha saw no hope.

Who are we?

Who is this self that suffers? Here again Buddhism and Christianity differ. In seeing self as illusory, Buddhism sees suffering as equally illusory. Ignorance is more of a problem than the suffering itself. Christianity offers a different view. Suffering is real. This self that suffers is real. What is needed is not self denial so much as self reorientation. Oh, sure, we have our illusions about ourselves, but there is something real behind it all. What’s the problem is our self focus. What we need is self realignment, self reorientation, away from ourselves. This difference is more subtle than some have portrayed it when comparing Buddhism and Christianity but I think it’s the real difference. Buddhism says, detachment is the key, this is wisdom. Christianity says, attachment is the key, this is love. But, attachment to God and that which God loves requires detachment from the world, the self and fear of suffering. We must let go of self to find our true self, and let go of our self-serving gods to find the true world-serving God. To let go of sin, this turns the world upside down.

7 thoughts on “Karma, Sin and Suffering

  1. Fascinating reading, Matt. I’m mostly unfamiliar with Buddhism beyond what little I hear from popular culture. Am I correct in remembering that your own faith journey included an exploration of Buddhism, though?
    In terms of understanding sin/suffering, I tend to lean towards a solution of “self-reorientation” rather than detachment, myself. I’d also note that not all suffering is caused by one’s own actions, but by that of others. A young girl who has been sold into sexual slavery cannot truly detach her suffering into non-existence, nor do others detachment from her plight alleviate her suffering. However, someone who is “self-reoriented” to the point of seeing her plight and feeling a mix of compassion for her and outrage at the injustice of her situation might do something to change her situation.
    I will note, though, that I disagree with the notion that all suffering is caused by sin, however. I am far more likely to attribute tsunamis and earthquakes to tetonic shift, and I find it hard to believe that any human choices or actions cause the earth’s crust to move — that’s just giving human beings way too much power. But again, I think that a “self-reoriented” approach to sin and morality makes for a better response to the suffering caused by such natural processes.


  2. Jarred, yes, my own journey was significantly impacted by Buddhism, particularly by the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, and I still hold heaps of respect for him and the Buddha.
    I agree not all suffering is caused by one’s own actions. The scriptures, Old and New Testaments that is, suggest sin and suffering is multifaceted. There is the suffering we inflict on others (we are sinners); the suffering others inflict on us (we are sinned against); the suffering the powerful inflict on the powerless, not through personal action, but through support of unjust structures (collective vs individual sin); there is the suffering inflicted by what we fail to do as well as what we do (sins of “omission” and “commission”); then there is the suffering that comes, merely from being born into a sin stained world (Genesis speaks of the creation itself groaning in response to our sin, hence the distinction sometimes made between social evil and natural evil). In essence, the scriptures teach that all suffering is caused by sin, but not that it’s necessarily one’s own. Thus, the suffering of Jesus is not attributed to any sin on his part. And thus, though natural disasters may come as a consequence of sin (for the Old Testament is full of such accounts, and oh, should I mention global warming), we’d be unwise to leap to such conclusions in a knee-jerk fashion (for the book of Job was written to counter such one dimensional thinking and I do wish US televangelists would read Job more deeply before shooting their mouth off). I presume it’s some of their gaffs you might have in mind.


  3. Matthew, of course the real topic here is the nature, or the meaning and significance of death.
    These three references provide a comprehensive Understanding of death, and thus by extension life altogether.
    What death (life) requires of us in each moment
    An essay on Buddhism
    Reality Is All the God There Is
    A Birthday Message from Jesus & Me – among other things this essay features a unique understanding of the nature of sin (sin = unhappiness)


  4. I would suggest that the different understandings of self, time and ultimate reality are pertinent to the topic of death in much the same way as they are for suffering. Death is just the extreme example. Buddhists and Christians understand death differently because we understand self, time and ultimate reality differently.


  5. Matt, As you partly say above (comment 5) for me the great differences between the Buddhism I know and the Christianity I know hinge on the understanding of self. Notice I had to add the qualifiers “I know” because there is so much diversity under those labels.
    I mostly understand Buddhism as no-self based and Christianity as based around our individual souls. The implications this has for afterlife and justice are profound. If I am not then who gets “punished”? However this is possibly a false distinction. After all what many Buddhists mean by no-self is that there is no “independant” self. Many Christians may believe in a self that is independant of “form” or body but independant of God? In this way the two views can converge a little. Neither believe that we can be anything in isolation – the Buddhists from everything, the Christian from God.
    Similarly I think your idea of detachment/attachment is too simple a split between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism is called “The Middle Path” between renunciation or aescetisism and belief in what is as important. Though to Western eyes Buddhism seems to teach a denial of reality the Buddha was consider a dirty sensualist in his time! Detachment is about holding without clinging, about love of what is rather than an ideal, it’s not the disinterest that Westerners often hear in the word. As a great example I love my child without needing her to be well-behaved or a genius or good at sport. And while I love her as she is I still don’t want her to stay as she is,but to grow and change as she should. That’s detachment.
    There are Christian parallels to this in the parable of the Prodigal son but thats a distorting stretching of both faith traditions. Generally speaking Judeo Christianity doesn’t make such a big issue of attachment. There are interesting sources though in Job and Ecclesiastes (For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.Ecc 9:5) that could almost have been written by Lao Tzu of Daoism or in fact the Buddha.
    There is always this sort of messiness in comparitive relgion. Buddhism speaks to renunciative and philosophical Hinduism while Christianity speaks to the Judaism(s) of its time and perhaps also to Greco-roman thought. Getting Buddhism to speak to Christianity however is not a natural conversation. Their disagreements like their agreements are not certain.
    Best wishes for your own journey of compassion, salvation and their combination.


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