How can you explain karma in the genocide of babies and "innocents" (For example: The Holocaust) in Buddhist terms to a non-Buddhist, without seeming cold and uncaring? Yesterday, I tried--by saying, "I cannot say unequivocally, why the millions had to suffer or whether karma came into play or not, but perhaps it is better to focus attention on the present and try to generate good karma here and now." I know Buddha said certain topics will only foster disputation and I felt like this is one of those that can only be speculation so I steered the conversation in another direction. What can you say in a better (or kinder) way to explain it to a non-Buddhist person who asks how the holocaust suffering can be justified and who expresses interest in knowing the Buddhist view about it?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about history rather than about Buddhism. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 20:58
  • If you want to post about the historical causes of the Holocaust, please do that elsewhere i.e. not on this site -- see e.g. here and here Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 21:20
  • This topic was seeking views on how to explain karma to non Buddhist practioners in regards to atrocities of seemingly innocent people. It could have been countless situations, I went with the question that caused the subject to surface. It has little to do with history and more of karma, dependent origination and dukkha. As noted by some of the interesting comments, I find nothing "off topic "
    – Jo Jo Z
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 20:14
  • Kamma is not something divorced from visible historical causes. The Buddha said his dhamma is "visible here & now". Your ideas are not Buddhist and promote superstition and are completely unrelated to "dependent origination". Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 21:11
  • IMO an answer like this video suggested it's possible to answer from a Buddhist perspective (e.g. an explanation of kamma), rather than trying for a historical/political answer (e.g. an explanation of what if anything people did to cause the holocaust).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 22:17

11 Answers 11


Pride. When someone thinks he is better than others, looks down on others, the attitude of superiority creates a certain type of latent tension... That sometimes gets resolved in brutal ways.

In this case it was the prides of multiple peoples, German, Jews, of Hitler himself, of the old Arya people. The pride of superiority that accumulated for thousands of years have burst.

I'm not blaming it on any single people, I'm not saying Jews were retributed for their pride, or Germans were, nothing like that. I'm saying pride sways, carries, creates circumstances, then circumstances affect people. The impersonal mechanism of karma at play.

  • @AndreiVolkov Probably by far the most satisfying answer to me, pride gives rise to cirumstances which affect other people, so what can the people who are at the receiving end of these circumstances do, in order to prevent the circumstances arising from other peoples' pride?
    – Abel Tom
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 5:15
  • That is bonafide racism.
    – user19950
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 4:49
  • @anon Andriy's answer may be based on more than only the Pali text, but I interpret this answer as referring to what in Pali is called māna translated "conceit" -- see for example Wikipedia, and this topic. Māna is a "fetter" (a problem) that affects everyone who's not fully-enlightened, and which is a cause of many if not all disputes. Race is one of many things that somebody could be conceited about, but this answer isn't racist -- I read it as 'universal' (and based on Buddhist doctrine).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 5:44
  • @anon I think that an example of a "racist" statement might be of the form, "Because so-and-so is of such-and-such a race, therefore they [some stereotype or generalisation about that race]". Whereas instead I think that this answer is a summary of Buddhist doctrine about a "fetter" that's present in unenlightened minds and which occasions disputes. There's nothing in the doctrine that attributes this fetter to only one race or another.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 5:50
  • ahh OK I get it @ChrisW strange.
    – user19950
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 7:45

The popular portrayal of kamma isn't what The Buddha believed in (if someone does good deeds then good things would happen to them or if they do evil deeds bad things will happen).

He thought that there were many different variables involved in one's experiences besides good or bad deeds.

There are also certain deeds perceived as good that are actually bad and other deeds perceived as bad that are actually good.

As explained in the Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta (MN 136) there are certain people who do evil deeds who still go to heavenly worlds after death and other certain people who do good deeds who still go to hell after death:

"Now there is the person who has killed living beings here... has had wrong view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world. But (perhaps) the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him earlier, or the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him later, or right view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in a happy destination, in the heavenly world. But since he has killed living beings here... has had wrong view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence

..."Now there is the person who has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell. But (perhaps) the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him earlier, or the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him later, or wrong view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell. But since he has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence." (Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta, MN 136)

Here we see The Buddha explaining the variables involved earlier kamma, later kamma, and the view at the time of death.

The person will always feel the effect their deeds in some form, but how that happens relies on many different factors.

As explained in the Lonaphala Sutta:

"Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual takes him to hell? There is the case where a certain individual is undeveloped in [contemplating] the body, undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment: restricted, small-hearted, dwelling with suffering. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual takes him to hell."

"Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case where a certain individual is developed in [contemplating] the body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment: unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the immeasurable. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment." (Lonaphala Sutta, AN 3.99)

So you see there can be many people perceived as good but undeveloped in many aspects (contemplating the body, virtue, mind, discernment, heart) so any trifling evil deed they did in the past many take them to hell (or cause them to have negative experiences).

And there can be many people perceived as evil but developed in many aspects (contemplating the body, virtue, mind, discernment, heart) so many trifling evil deeds they did in the past still may not take them to hell (or cause them to have negative experiences).

There have been many genocides in history besides the holocaust, the genocide of the Jews. There have been for instance the persecution and execution of Buddhist monks by many different groups in history.

How this ties in is that there are many different variables involved in one's experiences...it does not necessarily mean that those who took birth into a region or time-period where they were persecuted and executed for no real reason are evil-doers or came from one of the three lower destinations (hell, the animal realm, realm of ghosts) although it does mean that they are exhausting their evil kamma that was caused for some reason or another (and also means that the one executing the violence is causing evil kamma).

If mankind as a whole wants violence to end all around the world we have to cause good kammas (bodily, verbal, mental) such that only good beings can exist on Earth...if you look the global homicide rate and violence around the world that time hasn't come yet...but will certainly come sometime in the future if more and more people continue doing good deeds and practicing metta (loving-kindness).

  • The second-last paragraph isn't clear to me: it starts with "for no real reason" and then says "exhausting their evil kamma" (as if "exhausting their evil kamma" is the real reason, therefore not "for no real reason").
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 10:19
  • I mean it appears in the perception of many that the person was killed for no real reason, just an apparently innocent person who was executed or murdered (but in reality the person is exhausting evil kammas caused by some reason or another)...that's what I mean. By no real reason I'm referring to how it appears. Like you may hear of or read stories of many innocent people killed for no apparent reason. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 7:20
  • Maha Moggallana, a chief disciple and arahant a is a good example of this, he was murdered by Jains apparently for no real reason or no good reason, but in some past existence he had killed his own parents and this kamma was not yet exhausted. I'm sure in the perception of many it appears as if he was killed for no real reason yet he was exhausting evil kammas that was caused by some reason. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 7:35
  • To add to this answer as the number of past existences is countless or incalculably high everyone has likely done many trifling evil deeds in the past...knowing this to be true you should see the true innocence of all beings...everyone deserves forgiveness...if people keep doing good deeds and practicing metta eventually only higher good beings will take birth on Earth, violence will naturally cease, as will negative thoughts, negative health conditions, things will become like a Utopia...but it seems like that may take a while to happen... Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 7:53

In the West, we see the Eastern philosophy and religion through the colored glasses of Christianity hence Karma is understood as some form of retribution for your sins. Or through the eyes of new-age movement as "poetic justice" The best translation that comes close to the true meaning of Karma is "your doing" but it is a scholastic, semantic translation without the understanding of the meaning behind the label. The meaning of Karma the way I understand it is "the law of unintended consequences" In the Holocaust scenario being that what made the German Jewish community so strong and successful (identity, culture, religion, economic success etc.) became also their death sentence.

  • From my understanding of karma, one thing that can be said for sure is “every action has consequences”. Another is “every effect has causes that led to it”. What cannot be said are A: “my action will have an effect fro me”, B. “This action will have that particular effect” or C. “This effect came from that particular cause”. I want to highlight statement A in particular in regards to this answer. It wouldn’t be right to trace the holocaust back (however benignly) to the German Jewish community’s action or mind state.
    – Gotamist
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 3:04
  • Numerous actions and minds over ages related to various actors would have played a part. Those actors to include non-Jewish Germans, people in nearby countries, authorities in various places who could do things but kept quiet, people who contributed to the event not knowing that they did, some who tried but not hard enough to stop things, people in many countries who even encouraged certain views over centuries about the Jewish because well it benefited themselves, people in Europe and worldover who indulge in thrills of nationalism disregarding the dangers...prospective causes are numerous.
    – Gotamist
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 3:10
  • In the first comment, I intended to conclude with the word “solely”.
    – Gotamist
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 3:17

In this video "Ask A Monk: Karma in a Holocaust", by Ven. Yuttadhammo, he addresses the topic of kamma in relation to a Holocaust/mass suffering.

In summary:

  • No-one experiences death in the same way - some calm, some frightened, some enraged - depending on their mindstate.
  • Only a buddha could understand karma.
  • To explain an event such as "many people dying in a tsunami", that is a confluence of different causes: science explains how things comes together; karma explains the part the mind plays in that ... each person has their own experience.

May this be of use to you.

  • 1
    I added a summary of the first half of the video; I found the second half difficult to summarise.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 16:27

I think the wise way is not to go straight into "Karma". These days, even some "Buddhist" can't accept Karma as one of the doctrines taught authentically by the Buddha, how could one expect non-Buddhist to immediately grasp the idea? But not be fooled by the face value?

Maybe the right way is to say, everything happens for a reason. This is called Karma in a certain sense. Sometimes the reason is so beyond our normal way of comprehension, or diluted/deferred by time we can't immediately identify their relationships in those events.

Of course genocide of babies and "innocents" in Holocaust (the twisted facts yet have to be revealed by history one day) happened as we understood should be condemned and denounced. But what, those chickens in the battery farm millions and millions are killed and dismembered everyday, if these needn't to be condemned and denounced also? If we believe the proof of science in the law of conservation of energy, why these killings everyday, that this killing energy is not needed to express in another conversion? Of course, this is just one example.

There is this story about Karma and retribution: The Buddha explaint his Shakyan people were razed by King Virudhaka, due to many eons ago these Shakyan people in famine eating all the fishes in one river, included the fish-king. The Buddha at that time was a kid disliked fish but he took a stick to knock on the fish-king's head for fun. This fish-king many eons later reborn as King Virudhaka. Thus the Buddha had three days of headache when this event happened. The play of Karma is very intriguing. Like today, many of the stars and galaxies captured by our telescopes not as they are in fact, for time delay due to distance their appearances not in sync. What we see is not what it is.

Thus, we should always hold our respect to something we don't fully comprehend. Because we don't know everything that's why we are human; also we can know everything by starting being human. This "can know everything" will increase the capacity by learning. Mahayana relates this to Prajna Paramita. The rule is: do good, do no evil, or, compassion, within the spectrum of what's known already.


What to say?

If you wish for your long term welfare, don't associated with fools, seek for wise, even to make an earning, fulfill your duties towrad those who deserve it (e.g. your parents, family, teacher, companions, leader, Brahmans and contemplatives), abstain from unskillful deeds (even for fullfilment of duties), nurish and do skillful deeds and harmless undertakings and clean your mind.

If you wish to help others, teach them as well in this skills, best after knowing the task your self, in generosity, virtue and contemplation of the Dhamma.

In explaining this and encourage to simply this, you do the best for all.

Phenomena are preceded by the heart [and the deeds following it], ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.

Phenomena [one experians] are preceded by the heart [ones], ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves. -dhp 1-2

Affirming the Truths of the Heart, bias or taking a stand is endless wandering on. Fools will always just work on their own destructiin and not easy could they be helped.

Generally, this essays are a good help for understanding: "Wisdom over Justice" and "Justice vs. Skillfulness" but require some amount of having cleansed one mind a little already to do not quick fall into papanca (objectification, identification, with its endless expansions and beark apparts) again.

And then I saw an arrow here, so very hard to see, embedded in the heart. Overcome by this arrow you run in all directions. But simply on pulling it out you don’t run, you don’t sink.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma, not meant for commercial use or other lower wordily gains by ways of exchange or trade.]


The way I understand, the holocaust or atomic bombing of Japan can be explained by dependent origination and Kamma. what is important to understand is that all are not the result of Kamma.


First of all, the Holocaust is best viewed as a multitude of crimes performed by a multitude of individuals. Each victim was killed or harmed by a large number of crimes. You seem to be suggesting that each crime is somehow caused (and justified) by the past actions of the victim! If so, then you are perpetuating a profound disservice to the Great Teachings of the Buddha. I have already provided a partial answer under the Buddhist Stack item “Does everything happen for a reason?” If you have in mind kamma-vipaka, then I have provided an explanation under item “What is the deal with ‘instant’ Karma?” But, if I am correct in my assessment of your view of the concept of “karma,” then you have failed to grasp one of the most profound dimensions of the Buddhadharma. Please allow me to explain. In providing an explanation, I will expand on the concept of sankhara, briefly defined in my reply to item “Unity of Wisdom.” According to the teachings of Theravadin Buddhism, the Abhidharma provides a causal description of every mental event, including Enlightenment itself, the causes of suffering, the causes of the cessation of suffering, and the nature of karma. According to the Abhidharma, each and every mental event, mental process, and mental action has causes and consequences that make sense to a person who understands the Theravadin Abhidharma. (Just for the record, a person does not need to understand the Abhidharma in order to achieve Enlightenment. Indeed, according to tradition, a monk or nun studies the Abhidharma only after Enlightenment because it is extremely difficult to fully understand and because it requires special siddhis to explore.) Nonetheless, a basic understanding of karma can be acquired through understanding the concept of sankhara. The concept of sankhara explains how all forms of intelligent consciousness are possible. From a modern point of view, the concept of sankhara is a scientific theory that is equivalent to the theory of everything (TOE) in quantum physics. In essence, it explains how the mind makes sense of experience. The concept of sankhara has a double meaning. One meaning views the sankhara as a sophisticated structure or system of interrelated beliefs, wishes, values, perceptions, motives, memories, and other propositional attitudes. This structure is formed or modified in response to experience. It is the product of a process of learning or adaptation. It makes sense of experience. The second meaning consists of the (largely unconscious) cognitive or mental processes that occurs when this system is engaged to provide an intelligent response to a specific situation. This adaptive process generally involves various adjustments and corrections that generate a perception, understanding, feeling, motive, desire, recollection, emotion, or thought process that makes sense under the circumstances. The mind has a vast storage of sankhara that, in a well-organized way, cause all of our experiences and all of our behaviour. In this context, the mental actions (karma) that cause the formation or modification of a sankhara are those actions that determine our experience and behaviour in the future. To say that such actions can cause us to be murdered by a Nazi soldier in the remote future is nothing short of bizarre and a profound distortion of the Theravadin concept of causality.


I think what a lot of you are failing to understand is that if Buddha believed kamma was merely cause and effect, then the popular idea of "karma" (good/bad following you into a next life) doesn't apply...Therefore, a person could justify in their own mind that life is meaningless, kill others and then kill themselves, be reincarnated and see no negative consequences other than the pain of suicide. You could make the argument that the person's decision may have some effect on them in the next life in their subconscious, but basically if kamma is just cause and effect, then there's no justification for the people that were hurt. It just happened.


Never, ever should any Buddhist try to "justify" the extreme suffering of others. They may try to explain it, which means that it occurs for the same reason as every other tragedy in life: past lives. To blame "the jews" for their suffering in the holocaust is simply insanity, and extremely anti-semitic. I think anyone suggesting otherwise needs to rethink what they are doing and believe.

I am not surprised, but shocked, that new ageist buddhism has become so evil and racist.

  • Yes "justified" is not a good word. Do you have any answer to the other part of the question, i.e. how to "explain" disputes and karma -- and/or causes of the Holocaust -- to a non-Buddhist who asks about it?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 6:03

Here is an explanation. The Christian church has, in addition to the peaceful teachings of Jesus, also preached hatred, jealousy, and rage throughout its existence. In particular, rather than peacefully co-existing with other ideologies it has sought to suppress and annihilate them. Perhaps the only ideology to survive the cultural genocide of Europe by the Christian Church was Judaism. For the crime of surviving, the Church preached hate towards this ideology and its people for centuries. This hate has exploded into action many times throughout history, including during WWII.

According to Buddhism, neurotic emotions such as hatred and jealousy ultimately bring suffering to those experiencing them. In particular, if the ideas become negative actions. And in particular, if the negative actions are not completely regretted later. Part of our work as Buddhists is to find the seeds of all of these neurotic emotions and try to purify them into their stainless wisdom nature which is completely beneficial to all beings.

I asked one acclaimed Buddhist teacher about trying to understand the specifics of karma. He answered something along the lines of it is like trying to understand quantum physics as opposed to Newtonian physics. It is difficult for us to presume to understand the details, but yet we can sometimes see glimpses of it at work.

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