If There Is No Self, Who Owns My Karma?

Just as there are thoughts without a thinker,
there is karma without a creator (of karma).

– Stonepeace

How is it possible, as the Buddha taught, that there is no fixed self to inherit the karma of one’s deeds, while karma still operates for one? Here is a way to answer this… When Tom was an infant, all the cells in his body were totally different from those in his now – as all of them would had died and renewed many times already. Likewise, all the thoughts he had in his mind then are entirely different from those he has now. In short, Tom is now both physically and mentally distinct from him’self’ then. Yet, despite drastic changes over time, his parents still cling to him as their child, while Tom clings to him’self’ as being their child. It is as if there is a true self throughout to attach to – though there isn’t any. There is no fixed or unchanging self, though we cling to that illusion of a perpetuated self.

Non-self does not contradict the workings of the law of karma because karma operates on continuums of change (e.g. one’s changing consciousness) that it arises from. For example, a seed that grows into a tree is changing throughout its life, but the law of cause and effect affects the whole process of growth despite the ever-changing conditions. The way the tree is in the moment affects how it can grow next. If you think of cause and effect in terms of karma, it is similar. Tom is changing from moment 1 to moment 2, but what Tom does in moment 1 affects what Tom experiences in moment 2 (or at a later moment). Despite there not being a fixed Tom, he still experiences cause and effect according to his deeds. This is how karma operates despite non-self (due to constant change).

There is ultimately no unchanging inheritor of karma, but there is a changing inheritor of karma, who can readily condition changes in the ‘inherited’ too, by creating new karma to mitigate or intensify effects of past karma. There is a conventional self (which changes) to speak of in the moment, but there is ultimately no self (since the so-called self changes). Just because Tom thinks he will be different in the future, or forget that he was Tom does not mean that he will definitely feel different or not suffer then. In fact, when there is continual attachment to self (due to not realising non-self), one who did evil many years ago still feels fear of being caught. This person might disregard the truth that karma can catch up with him, but living in fear is already karmic payback to some extent, which might spill over to the next life. (Those of great evil have strong attachment to self.)

When one’self’ changes, it is of a continuum of change – which means the past and future selves are still causally linked. Also due to attachment, Tom doesn’t grow up thinking he is entirely same or different from his past as he sees boyhood as part of his self. To think one’s actions will affect another self (due to changes in self) and not one’self’ is also attachment to (another) self. A kid who does not understand cause and effect, who overeats, will have a tummy ache. Though he does not know his pain is caused by his past action, the suffering is still real to him, especially when he has strong attachment to self. When he realises this, he will be more mindful to prevent future pain. Thus, one who does evil now will still suffer later due to attachment to self. One who disbelieves karma now is like the kid who suffers and regrets later.

Related Articles:

The Very Assuring Four Assurances (Why Be Good?)
The Self-Defeating Quest for Self

It is an illusion that each continnum of change
is totally separate from others,
as each continuum is interconnected to one another.

– Stonepeace


  • “Likewise, all the thoughts he had in his mind then are entirely different from those he has now.”

    This isn’t true. Tom has a memory of his experiences in childhood. He recognizes his parents just like he did as a child. He has retained things that he learned like language and habits formed as a child. The adult Tom is not entirely different from his childhood self.

    I need a better explanation of this subject than this article provides.

  • Tom’s memories of his experiences in childhood and his interpretation of them changes. There is not a single memory we have now that has not altered in this way. E.g. the memory we have of how an apple tastes like changes over time.

    Even recognition of parents shifts with perception. Even learned things can become unlearned, habits formed unformed.

    In the sense that memories as re-interpreted reshape our lives, it is to that extent a part of us now, but even so, is on ever-shifting sands.

    Two consecutive moments”selves’ are neither totally the same nor totally different; being in a continuum of change. But given enough time apart, can be radically different.

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