02/17/2012 02:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Ask Pastor Paul: What Is Karma?

Ask Pastor Paul Paul: Spiritual Advice for the Real World.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to

Dear Pastor Paul,
Is there such a thing as karma? Have we lived in a previous life?

Dear Friend,

You've asked a couple of questions that are related but not the same. Living a previous life, or lives, involves re-incarnation, or re-birth; and while karma does apply to re-incarnation it can also be an operating principle within this life. I am not an adherent of a tradition that holds to these beliefs, but I know I have been spiritually enriched by learning about them!

An explanation of karma and rebirth requires a subtlety of knowledge I don't possess -- but we are in luck! Two friends, one Buddhist and one Hindu, have agreed to be our teachers and have offered some beautiful insight into your question.

Zesho Susan O'Connell, of the San Francisco Zen Center, explains re-incarnation, or as her tradition describes it, re-birth:

There is a range of understanding about re-incarnation -- from a concrete idea of some "personality" or "self" being sustained from one life and one body to a new body, to a more subtle idea of being re-born in every moment, to a more radical belief in which we understand that nothing is born and nothing dies.

Radhanath Swami who has an ashram and social service community in India offered this beautiful and helpful view of Karma:

Karma, is a natural law, like the law of gravity. What goes up must come down. In the Holy Bible it is taught, 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap.' 'For every action' Newton's third law of motion states, 'there is an equal corresponding reaction.' Or as you often hear said, 'What goes around comes around.'

If I cause pain to others, a corresponding pain will come back to me in due course. If I show compassion to others, resultant good fortune is inevitable. Although the principle of how the law of karma works is simple, the details of how it is working are often too intricate to comprehend. Eastern traditions teach that the soul (or living force within us) is eternal and returns in physical bodies according to our karma. However, acts in devotion to God liberate us from all karma.

The purpose of this knowledge is to urge us to take responsibility for the choices we make. There is little value in mere theoretical understanding or discussion unless we apply the spirit of the law to our lives. Just having a good map doesn't get us anywhere. We have to apply it. The essential purpose of all spiritual truths is to lead us into the joys of compassion and devotion. Proper understanding will soften the heart, not make it callous.

There are many resources online and books in your public library by Buddhists, Hindus and religious scholars that address issues of re-incarnation and karma and I encourage you to research further on your own.

Dear Pastor Paul,
Afterlife -- Why do we need one?

Dear Friend,

There may be a psychological component in our "need" for the afterlife. Some people who are disempowered in this life, and suffer hardship at the hands of the greedy and cruel may feel a "need" for the afterlife in hopes that it might create a reversal of fortunes that have plagued them here on earth and provide judgement on those who have oppressed them. The opposite could also be true - that one could be so in love with family or spouse that we cannot live with the thought of being forever cut off from them forever.

One hopes that as much as we are able, that we can create equanimity, equality and love on this life, so that people do not have to defer their dreams to the next.

However, for most people, the afterlife is not understood as a need, but rather as a conviction. Nobody can say for certain if there is or isn't an afterlife. So, ultimately, the question comes down to whether or not you believe that there is some continuation of any part of you after you die.

I happen to believe in an afterlife, yet I admit I do not have any clear notion of what that that after life will be. My belief and prayer is that I will be with God. But whether that "I" will be in a discrete self-aware form, or if I return, like a drop of water into a welcoming ocean, is something that will be revealed in time -- and hopefully not too soon.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to

If you are in spiritual or emotional distress, please contact a clergy person or mental health professional who can help you. If you are in crisis, please contact the crisis hotline.