Taoist Views on Karma

Taoism is one of the main religious traditions of Chinese origin, and its primary text, the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu, one of the most widely translated books in human history. Among the facets of the Taoist tradition is an interest in fostering longevity or even immortality, whether that is understood to be a physical immortality or something more subtle. I am not prepared to explore the full scope of Taoist views on the afterlife at this time, but I do want to share some information on a particular Taoist text that I recently ran across, because it presents a novel doctrine of something like karma.

It is possible that this text should be thought of as representing traditional Chinese popular religion rather than Taoism per se. I won't attempt to address that question here, but present the text simply as a traditional doctrine that has points of interest.

Karma Without Rebirth: The Thai-Shang Tractate of Actions and Their Retributions

The Texts of Taoism, Part II, translated by James Legge, includes a short text called the Thai-Shang Tractate of Actions and Their Retributions, which describes a Taoist concept of something very like karma. Thus, the text says:

1. There are no special doors for calamity and happiness (in men's lot); they come as men themselves call them. Their recompenses follow good and evil as the shadow follows the substance.

So far, this sounds much like the Hindu and Buddhist views of karma. The key difference is that no concept of rebirth is involved. Therefore, the recompense for actions works as follows:

2. Accordingly, in heaven and earth there are spirits that take account of men's transgressions, and, according to the lightness or gravity of their offenses, take away from their term of life. When that term is curtailed, men become poor and reduced, and meet with many sorrows and afflictions. All (other) men hate them; punishments and calamities attend them; good luck and occasions for felicitation shun them; evil stars send down misfortune on them. When their term of life is exhausted they die.

There also are the Spirit-rulers in the three pairs of the Thai stars of the Northern Bushel over men's heads, which record their acts of guilt and wickedness, and take away (from their term of life) periods of twelve years or of a hundred days.

There also are the three Spirits of the recumbent body which reside within a man's person. As each kang-shan day comes round, they forthwith ascend to the court of Heaven, and report men's deeds of guilt and transgression. On the last day of the moon, the spirit of the Hearth does the same.

In the case of every man's transgressions, when they are great, twelve years are taken from his term of life; when they are small, a hundred days.

Note that the Chinese mind, perhaps in some respects less abstract than the Hindu, immediately makes some effort to articulate the mechanism that causes deeds to be rewarded or punished. Actually, the text seems to give too many such explanations; citing both spirits "in heaven and earth," spirits in one of the stellar constellations, and three spirits that reside "within a man's person." Thus a multitude of intelligent agents are provided to do the record-keeping. Another aspect, however, is passed over just as cryptically as in Hindu thought: what agency actually causes the reward or punishment to occur, and how is it reconciled with the other factors that appear to motivate people's actions?

For example, consider the following statement:

5. [...] Further, those who wrongfully kill men are (only) putting their weapons into the hands of others who will in their turn kill them.

Thus if a murderer is himself later murdered by another person, we must suppose that some celestial moral principle guided or contributed to this second murder. Such an influence would have to be rather subtle and indirect, or else Providence could be accused of inciting the second murderer to an evil action he would not otherwise have performed, with a resulting implication that he should not be held completely accountable for his actions. It seems unlikely that the author of the Thai-Shang Tractate would be happy with such an conclusion.

According to the Thai-Shang Tractate, the reward or punishment for actions is meted out primarily in this same lifetime where the actions were performed. In case this is not sufficient,

4. [...] If at death there remains guilt unpunished, judgment extends to his posterity.

5. Moreover, when parties by wrong and violence take the money of others, an account is taken, and set against its amount, of their wives and children, and all the members of their families, when these gradually die. If they do not die, there are the disasters from water, fire, thieves, robbers, from losses of property, illnesses, and (evil) tongues to balance the value of their wicked appropriations.

One may ask how guilt may remain unpunished at the time of a person's death. Presumably this would be the case if a person commits a crime toward the end of his already allotted lifespan.

A more serious concern is how a morally motivated system could punish a man's descendants for his crimes; in what sense do they partake of his guilt? It is well to remember that, in ancient times, the bond between ancestor and descendant was taken much more seriously than it is in the West today. Thus, the Biblical Yahweh offered Abraham first, not salvation of his soul, but a multitude of descendants; and on occasion, punished the descendants of a transgressor even unto the seventh generation. Offerings to ancestors also play a major role in ancient Chinese and Egyptian religion, not to mention in modern Hispanic folk Catholicism, and the ancestors become deities in West African and Hawaiian beliefs. From a motivational point of view, the threat to punish one's descendants simply provides an additional reason to do good, just as holding a person's children hostage will motivate a parent to pay a ransom.

As in Buddhism and Christianity, the system assigns a moral status to thoughts and words as well as more concrete actions:

5. [...] Therefore the good man speaks what is good, contemplates what is good, and does what is good; every day he has these three virtues: —at the end of three years Heaven is sure to send down blessing on him. The bad man speaks what is wicked, contemplates what is wicked, and does what is wicked every day he has these three vices: —at the end of three years, Heaven is sure to send down misery on him. —How is it that men will not exert themselves to do what is good?

The question may then arise, "I have already done so many bad things that many punishments are stored up against me; so why should I bother to change my ways now?"   As if to provide moral motivation even for such depraved souls, the text assures us that there is hope for those who have done evil in the past.

5. [...] If one have, indeed, done deeds of wickedness, but afterwards alters his way and repents, resolved not to do anything wicked, but to practice reverently all that is good, he is sure in the long-run to obtain good fortune: —this is called changing calamity into blessing.

We have seen how the Thai-Shang Tractate achieves a system of moral recompense without recourse to a theory of future births. However, there is another dimension of Hindu/Buddhist karma theory that is also omitted, and that is the dimension of previous births. And it is that dimension that gives karma theory one of its main attractions, as well as one of its major drawbacks. For by postulating previous births, karma theory is able to conclude that all the pleasant and unpleasant circumstances of this life are the result of past actions, and thus morally justified. This would include circumstances such as childhood disease or birth into a poor family, which cannot be explained as moral recompense for actions in this life. It is this feature that supposedly saves Providence from the charge of being unfair. The downside is that such a view of karmic predestination can lead to a fatalistic resignation to one's lot, which is scarcely calculated to help people to better their circumstances.

Another difference to the Thai-Shang Tractate view is that is seems at least slightly more testable than other religious views that postpone moral reward and punishment to a future life. You can imagine studies that would attempt to determine statistically whether people who do good achieve longer life than people who do evil. One difficulty in conducting such a study is that people tend to hide their evil actions. Still, there are instances of evil being conducted in public on a mass scale, as in the case of ruthless dictators, slave owners, witch hunters, and so on. It would not be surprising if such people average a shorter or less happy lifespan than most, but one suspects that the tendency is only a statistical average rather than an infallible justice, and that it can be accounted for by more mundane means than the intervention of spirits.


The Texts of Taoism, by James Legge, are available from Amazon.com in two volumes inexpensive paperback editions. For further information, go to Texts of Taoism (Volume 1) or Texts of Taoism (Volume 2).



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Copyright 2001 by Joseph F. Morales