I have a hypothetical question.

Let's say I don't believe in karma, reincarnation, or any deities of any sort. I also saw in some texts and videos that, to achieve higher awareness, I should not define good or bad either. That I should be equanimous towards everything. If there is no distinction between good and evil, where does morality come from then, in the absence of karma? How do I justify my inclination toward doing good to humanity?

Is my question nonsensical? Please help me resolve this conflict.

  • 4
    Since karma is a core principle in Buddhism, I don't think it makes sense to expect a Buddhist explanation of morality while also, a priori, rejecting the existence of karma. Dec 28, 2022 at 16:10

7 Answers 7


Your question is perfectly valid. In my understanding, the morality in Buddhism comes from a fundamental natural law of information/representation. Let me try and summarize it here.

Sentient beings experience reality through representation, what we can call the content of their minds.

Representation is a kind of simplified reflection of reality or an informational echo of reality.

Representation is especially not good at handling contradictions. Contradictions are hard and sentient beings find them uncomfortable or even painful.

Certain types of behaviors objectively lead to contradictions. For example, lying, provoking conflict, violence, taking someone else's possessions - are some basic examples of behavior that most often lead to contradictions one or more sentient beings have to experience.

There are nuances, but in general actions that lead to conflicts and contradictions - and therfore to uncomfortable and painful experience - are "evil" and actions that lead away from conflicts and contradictions and towards peace and harmony are "good".

Not all such actions create results right away. Some actions setup latent circumstances that tend to cause trouble later on. This is what we colloquially call karma, the latent unripened results of previous actions. Again, nothing supernatural.

Now you can understand the following quote from the Dhammapada:

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Because the "evil" (by definition) leads to contradictions and suffering, the "good" (by definition) leads to peace and harmony, and the "mind" is the source of all representation.


The basis of morality (secular or religious) is the observation that causes have consequences: actions have reactions and abreactions; nothing is isolated or immune. When we talk about karma, dao, the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, the interplay of sin and virtue, or whatever, all we're really pointing at is a kind of expanded, psychotropic version of Newton's laws, one that includes psychosocial (and if you like, spiritual) principles. Loosely put, we have something like:

  • The mind will continue to do what the mind has always done, unless some effort is applied
  • The impact of the mind on the world is proportional to the intensity of its desires
  • Every mental action has an equal and opposite set of reactions, in ourselves and in others

In other words, if we punch someone in the face, we don't stop at calculating the force of the blow and the resultant damage to flesh and bone. The intent to strike is an inertial state of the mind that carries through into the punch, and that creates a set of reactions in the mind of the other that produces a response (given the complex inertial state of their own mind). Note that people often have a hard time explaining why they threw a punch. They'll have some immediate trigger, sure, but they generally have no clear idea why they were primed to throw a punch in the first place. That 'priming' — the inertial state of their mind — could be the result of their upbringing (which could be a result of their parent's upbringing, and their grandparents...), or it might come from encounters with their peers early on, or from some unpleasant interaction with a stranger sometime, or even something more esoteric than that. All we can honestly say is that the inertial state of one mind ran up against the inertial state of another mind, and there was a transfer of mental inertia (an applied force) through the mediation of a punch.

Immoral behavior is always predicated on the belief that there will be no significant consequences to the self for a given action. It's a carefully gilded lie.

Buddhist practice aims to do two things:

  • Defuse that mental inertia so that we can act freely in the world
  • Uproot the notion that a self immune to consequences exists

When we still the onrushing inertia of the mind and grasp our fundamental integration with the world, our behavior becomes naturally moral. It's like someone going to the doctor saying: "I'm having a hard time walking; I keep slipping and sliding and falling over," only to have the doctor say: "Hm. Have you tried taking off those roller skates?" Buddhist teachings are just like that doctor's advice, but we're the ones who have to see how our own minds carry us away.


Ajaan Geoff touches on morality in this segment from his book The Wings to Awakening. He's writing about the night of the Buddha's awakening and the insights that the Buddha experienced that night. You might have to read a little of the context for this paragraph (see link) in order to get a better sense for the authenticity of his claim about morality here.

"The second insight—into the death and rebirth of beings throughout the cosmos—provided part of the answer to the questions surrounding the issue of causality in the pursuit of happiness. The primary causal factor is the mind, and in particular the moral quality of the intentions comprising its thoughts, words, and deeds, and the rightness of the views underlying them. Thus moral principles are inherent in the functioning of the cosmos, rather than being mere social conventions. For this reason, any quest for happiness must focus on mastering the quality of the mind’s views and intentions."


Within the Buddha's teaching it can seem like everything is a contradiction. This is because there are two ways to approach reality in Buddhism. Ultimate reality and conceptual reality.

In the Buddha's teaching something is either going to lead to suffering or not lead to suffering. That comes from the ultimate reality Buddha teaching.

In this ultimate reality way of seeing there are no good or evil people, just good and bad mind states AKA Samsara.

Doing good to humanity? Doing good for yourself? There is no difference in this ultimate reality way of seeing things.

One doesn't have to be equanimous towards everything. One practices the eightfold path. Equanimity just happens from doing skillful Buddhist practice. It's not personal.

So, see, we individuals have to do a balancing act of sorts between helping ourselves & helping others because every moment is different. Rather than just having blind faith in our personal preconceived notions, the government, a church or even the Buddha's words.

  • 2
    Is this quoting something else?
    – ruben2020
    Dec 28, 2022 at 1:13
  • No, I would note the author of the quote, but these are common approaches to the Buddha's teaching.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 29, 2022 at 10:59

Maybe not necessarily related to the question, but I think for a westerner studying religion a very important issue is how you treat knowledge. You should be not only trying to understand some concepts, but also consider what kind of context and background people originally talking about these concepts have or used to have. How the understanding and usage of language might differ between Eastern/Western people and so on. You might be using the same words but they might not mean the same thing for different people.

The western philosophical tradition in general is a process of deepening in metaphisics, the process of questioning every conclusion you come to, not creating new concepts, but "destroying" and getting rid of the existing ones you have obtained during the life so far. So, "studying Buddhism" might be quite a different process for Eastern people for example. You should be asking a question if you can even study Buddhism doing the same thing that other people do as well (a.k.a. should you listen to what Buddha was saying or should you be doing what Buddha was doing himself? or maybe you should not even do anything, after all Buddha was not looking for help from other people but was just thinking by himself:)).

Regarding your question, it might be worth considering why you have an urge to ask such questions. Why you need morality and why you have a need to do "good to humanity". For example, if this comes from the fact you have been growing in a western society built on Christianity, you might not even have to answer such questions because they won't make sense anymore for you after some thinking and understanding where these questions come from.


Point 1- You dont believe in these some concepts, but you believe in certain texts that believe in those concepts. Bound to run into a paradox.

Point 2- What you might have read in some texts can be contextual and that too of a small scope. WHat Great masters have written in a majority of texts is very much about karma, etc. and good or bad only.

Point 3- Being Equanimous is not the same thing as there being no distinction between good or bad. Equanimity ("upekha") is your subjective action. Good or bad is explicitly defined in the texts. It is based on the function of things and their consequences (karma). Equanimity isnt saying or asserting that there is no good or bad.

Morality comes in to play only because there are good acts and there are bad acts. There is good and bad and learning to identify what is what, not merely at the level of how it appears, is an active part of Buddhist learning. Morality comes into play only because there is karma and other related concepts. ALl these together justify the reasoning of morality and act as a source of true conviction to be good. If you remove them, then the question of asking how does one justify morality is like having a car, taking away its wheels and engines and then asking "hey! how do I justify these to be a car".


Where does morality come from in Buddhism? Is morality objective?

"Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward."
Kimattha Sutta

You can read the whole sutta to see how skillful virtues lead to enlightenment. It starts from freedom from remorse, which leads to joy and so on.

So, if skillful virtues result in freedom from remorse, then immoral behavior lead to remorse. So, this means that virtue is universal or objective in Buddhism.

Well, some things are not universal or objective. For example, should you try to beat the lights when the traffic light is red? These are not universal or objective. These are learned.

But some things like taking a life, taking what belongs to others, speaking untruth and adultery are definitely universal or objective.

Where is this source of objective morality?

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery. And on that occasion King Pasenadi Kosala had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace. Then he said to her, "Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

"No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

"No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself."

Then the king, descending from the palace, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, "Just now, when I had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace, I said to her, 'Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'

"When this was said, she said to me, 'No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'

"When this was said, I said to her, 'No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself.'"

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn't hurt others
if you love yourself.

Udana 5.1

  1. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

  2. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

  3. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

  4. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.
    Dhammapada 10

What does this show?

Morality is objective, because we know that nobody is dearer to us than ourselves (if we still have self view and conceit), and we recognize that this is also the case for other unenlightened sentient beings.

So, you would feel remorse when hurting others, because you know that if others did that to you, you would feel pain. The basis of morality is compassion towards the suffering of others, because we can relate to it due to our own suffering.

How do I know this to be true?

Simply list out every possible way you can hurt another person, and most likely, you would have derived the basic code of morality found in most religions by negating every item in your list.

  • I find this answer quite acceptable. However, there is this inherent axiom that one must love oneself, and then we can develop theorems and corollaries towards morality and virtues. Could you please elaborate on why we should love ourselves? What if someone does not? Jan 1 at 18:15

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