Does Karma Cause Natural Disasters?

No, so don't blame the victims

Flowers left by survivors on top of a collapsed building at Basantapur Durbar Square following an earthquake on April 25, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal.
© Omar Havana / Stringer / Getty Images

Whenever there is news of a terrible natural disaster anywhere on our planet, talk about karma is bound to come up. Did people die because it was their "karma"? If a community is wiped out by a flood or earthquake, was that entire community somehow being punished?

Most schools of Buddhism would say no; karma doesn't work that way. But first, let's talk about how it does work.

Karma in Buddhism

Karma is a Sanskrit word (in Pali, it is kamma) that means "volitional action." A doctrine of karma, then, is a doctrine that explains willful human action and its consequences—cause and effect.

It's important to understand that the many religious and philosophical schools of Asia have developed many doctrines of karma that disagree with each other. What you might have heard about karma from one teacher may have little to do with how another teacher of another religious tradition understands it.

In Buddhism, karma is not a cosmic criminal justice system. There is no intelligence in the sky directing it. It does not hand out rewards and punishments. And it is not "fate." Just because you did X amount of bad stuff in the past does not mean you are fated to endure X amount of bad stuff in the future. That's because effects of past actions can be mitigated by present actions. We can change the trajectory of our lives.

Karma is created by our thoughts, words, and deeds; every volitional act, including our thoughts, has an effect. The effects or consequences of our thoughts, words, and deeds are the "fruit" of karma, not karma itself.

It's most important to understand that one's state of mind as one acts is very important. Karma that is marked by defilements, in particular, the Three Poisons—greed, hate, and ignorance—result in harmful or unpleasant effects. Karma that is marked by the opposite—generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom— result in beneficial and enjoyable effects.

Karma and Natural Disaster

Those are the basics. Now let's look at a natural disaster scenario. If a person is killed in a natural disaster, does that mean he did something wrong to deserve it? If he had been a better person, would he have escaped?

According to most schools of Buddhism, no. Remember, we've said that there is no intelligence directing karma. Karma is, instead, a kind of natural law. But many things happen in the world that is not caused by human volitional action.

The Buddha taught that there are five kinds of natural laws, called niyamas, that govern the phenomenal and spiritual world, and karma is only one of those five. Karma doesn't cause gravity, for example. Karma doesn't cause the wind to blow or make apple trees sprout from apple seeds. These natural laws interrelate, yes, but each operates according to its own nature. 

Put another way, some niyamas have moral causes and some have natural causes, and those with natural causes have nothing to do with people being bad or good. Karma does not send natural disasters to punish people. (This doesn't mean karma is irrelevant; however. Karma has a lot to do with how we experience and respond to natural disasters.)

Further, no matter how good we are or how enlightened we get, we will still face sickness, old age, and death. Even the Buddha himself had to face this. In most schools of Buddhism, the idea that we can inoculate ourselves from misfortune if we are very, very good is a mistaken view. Sometimes bad things really do happen to people who did nothing to "deserve" them. Buddhist practice will help us face misfortune with equanimity, but it won't guarantee us a misfortune-free life.

Still, there is a persistent belief even among some teachers that accrued "good" karma will see to it one happens to be in a safe place when disaster strikes. In our opinion, this view is not supported by the Buddha's teaching, but we're not a dharma teacher. We could be wrong.

Here's what we do know: Those standing by judging the victims, saying they must have done something wrong to deserve what happened to them, are not being generous, loving or wise. Such judgments create "bad" karma. So take care. Where there is suffering, we are called to help, not to judge.


We've been qualifying this article by saying "most" schools of Buddhism teach that not everything is caused by karma. There are other views within Buddhism, however. We have found commentaries by teachers in Tibetan Buddhist traditions that flat-out said "everything is caused by karma," including natural disasters. We have no doubt they have strong arguments defending this view, but most other schools of Buddhism don't go there.

There is also the issue of "collective" karma, an often fuzzy concept that we don't believe the historical Buddha ever addressed. Some dharma teachers take collective karma very seriously; others have told me there is no such thing. One theory of collective karma says that communities, nations, and even the human species have a "collective" karma generated by many people, and the results of that karma impact everyone in the community, nation, etc., alike. Make of that what you will.

It's also a fact, however, that these days the natural world is a lot less natural than it used to be. These days storms, floods, even earthquakes may have a human cause. Here moral and natural causation is getting tangled up together more than ever. Traditional views of causation may have to be revised.