Why Do So Many Good People Suffer?

Student: When it comes to karma, why is it that so many good people are forced to bear such heavy burdens and others who do serious harm to others seem to skirt by without much trouble?

Teacher:  It is so natural for us to want the laws of karma to align with the desire for fairness. We want the friend who just lost a child not to have to suffer a divorce. It feels unjust when a sexist coworker gets the promotion at work. There’s that collective sigh of relief in the film where the corrupt official gets his just deserts just before the credits roll.  However, the laws of karma are pointing to a much greater spiritual truth that determines how we walk on this earth as to whether we realize freedom or distress in any one moment, regardless of conditions.

The Buddha said the laws of karma are endlessly subtle and difficult for our ordinary minds to fathom. They are acinteyya, beyond the comprehension of normal thought processes.  I take this to mean that we cannot conceptually know all the causes and conditions involved in any one moment, but we should instead study the activity of karma arising in our own direct experience. Through practice, we come to appreciate the karma we can influence and bow to that which is beyond our reach. Whether we proceed from greed or generosity is a choice. This is full atonement, to be “at one” with our karma is a kind of grace where we align our lives with the laws of cause and effect through a lifetime of practice.   

Here are three common misunderstandings about karma that may help shift your question.

One: The karma we study in practice is not intended to be an explanation everything that happens in the world.

The karma we study in Zen points to volitional thinking. We bring attention to our intention, noticing whether we are motivated by or aversion or love and experience the results that follow. There are other karmic laws that are simultaneously at play in life. They are rooted in physics, biology, psychology, sociology and so forth. We can trust they have their own trajectory.

For instance, gravity obeys its own laws and is fairly useful property of the universe that acts the same way every time I drop a mug in the kitchen. My loving or hating the laws of gravity would have little impact on what happens when I drop my mug. (Though it would influence how I react to dropping the mug). When we ache observing the troubled lives of others, many of these laws are also at play. They have not come about through “bad karma.”  Practice simply says that we can alter the trajectory of our responses, moving from reactivity in the face of life’s hardships and instead coming from wisdom and compassion. We cannot judge someone else’s circumstances if we have not walked in their shoes. 

Only recently has there been a greater recognition of the impact of collective karma. Actions and consequences of those actions taken by a society. Systemic racism is a good example. While a single individual may not condone racist actions, we know that actions taken as a whole in our culture through policies like redlining, voting restriction laws and prison institutions all serve to reinforce the American caste system and continue the suffering caused by racism. We are also responsible for collective karma and should examine it closely. Collective karma is responsible for some of the greatest harm upon society and our planet. 

Two: Karma is not a reward and punishment system that gives “good things” to the good, and “bad things” to the bad.

Its’ easy to get waylaid by our worldly values in perceiving how the law of karma works. Karma points beyond our cultural values as to “the good life” having to do with the eight worldly winds – praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. We are each born into social, political, biological and interpersonal causes and conditions beyond our control – poverty or riches, peace or war, health or sickness, support or neglect. These conditions are not the results of personal past karma (though some traditions believe this, it is difficult to support an idea that an innocent child born into war torn Syria is the result of previous personal karma).

As Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto says in his writings on karma, it’s not that good karma brings good things in the conventional sense, like wealth and comfort, but that good karma creates goodness . This law of karma, translated as “cause and effect,” is not a “moral accounting system” as Buddhist scholar David Loy comments. It points to the way our intention in our minds conditions the next moment. It sees into the way habit energy repeats itself. The goodness that is created points to the truth of our interconnected lives and fosters the conditions of awareness. That material conditions are connected to this is secondary.   

“Goodness” opens up possibilities for ongoing practice. It responds to  conditions with kindness and truth of our intertwined lives. Goodness may foster material conditions that help everyone practice, like material safety and support, but that material safety is not considered our highest achievement as it is in the West. If I am struggling with great hardship, to bring compassion to the moment is instantly the liberation. If I am having an easy comfortable time in life, conversely, one act of meanness is complete delusion and will condition a harmful result.    

Three: That being said, while there are many unseen causes at play in any individual’s life, through practice we begin to see the way our choices collude with the setting the scene for repeated suffering.

 I appreciate Bikkhu Payutto’s illustration of how this works – how we are limited by our past choices and also completely free. Say you walk up to the third floor of a building, you inherit the result of your past action, that is, being on the third floor. Having arrived, you cannot do things like touch the earth or drive a car around. You may also be tired having climbed the stairs. The things you can do there and situations you encounter are all the result of “past karma.”

However, exactly which actions you decide to perform, reactions to the situations you encounter there, whether you rest, meet someone, go back down the stairs, are all matters decided in the present moment. Those choices are wide open. That choice will condition the next karmic moment.  Even though you may still be under the influence of past karma in that you are tired, whether you give in to that fatigue or work to overcome it is also a choice.

Karma can determine situations we continually encounter but fail to recognize the way we collude in their unfolding. Our past karmic conditioning influences “not only the way we look at things, but also the situations we are drawn toward, reactions or decisions made, our way of life and the experiences or results encountered. They affect the attitude we adopt towards life’s experiences, which will in turn affect [our behavioral tendencies].” So past karma, Payutto goes on to say, “should be understood in its relation to the whole cause an effect process.” We can awaken to our choices and shift into skillful action right tin this very moment. 

This is where we can begin to see this in our own lives. If I have a conditioned belief from the past that people cannot be trusted , as soon as I walk into a room, my attention is unconsciously drawn to find evidence for the ways it must be true and reject counterevidence. I see someone’s passing frown and assume that person is judging me. I don’t notice the warm smile of another person or hear their genuine curiosity as they ask me how I’m doing. As this karma continues, I may form relationships with unavailable individuals or develop a career to protect myself from being vulnerable. My health will be affected by not having much of a social support network. I might self medicate with alcohol to ease the loneliness and lose my job as a result.

So many choices may stem from this one single karmic idea, or “formation” in Buddhist terms, can shape an entire life of decisions that create more of the same. Practice brings awareness to these karmic formations and helps us see the world in a fresh light, to choose a different path. No matter what has come before, we atone, accept what has unfolded and change course in this very moment.    


Ultimately, the laws of karma are hopeful. They affirm life and are neither nihilistic or deterministic. They say everything we do matters. They say at any one moment, we can leap beyond the surface appearances in our human expressions. We are not be confused by the fortunes of life that are “like a dart of lightening” and bring forth a bright and responsive mind. Paradoxically, when not deceived by the surface appearance, we tend to work more towards justice to foster the conditions of practice for all. 

If we see into the truth of emptiness, the ungraspable nature of karma, transcends the linear understanding our minds latch onto. Emptiness embraces this moment with all its seen and unseen causes and conditions, open to what’s possible. Everything is present in this very moment.  When we see the suffering of others, it is not possible to know what all the biological, physical and collective karma that is coming into play and what past choices have been made that go into the moment. Nor can we say that anyone “gets away” with anything in that one’s spiritual life is always negatively influenced by harmful karma. The more we act from greed or fear and rage, the more we inherit the inner distress that comes with that mind regardless of outward appearances. We can study the truth of this in our own lives. Karma is not something we have, it’s who we become.

The important practice is to allow the practice to transform us. We atone with humility for all we do not see. To do this means to meet the conditions that are here now with acceptance and a creative liberated response. That’s the liberation.  

With palms together,



Payutto, P.A. (1997). Good, Evil, and Beyond: Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching. Buddhadharma Foundation.

Loy, David (2008 ). Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for  a Buddhist Revolution. Wisdom Publications.

Dogen, Eihei. Fukanzazengi Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen.   Soto Zen Standard Translation.