How to Karma Without Your Self

by | Mar 14, 2024 | Buddhism for All

In an earlier post, we stated the Buddhist teaching of non-self.  That leads to two questions about karma that confound many people studying Buddhism, which turn out to have answers that are surprisingly understandable.  The two questions are:

  1. How can actions have consequences without a self to experience them?
  2. Without a permanent soul, how does rebirth even work?

To answer the first question, we just need to be clear what the Buddha actually taught about non-self: he taught that no one has a permanent, unchanging, and inherently blissful soul.  During the Buddha’s time, the same word that’s used to refer to this soul, atta, is the same word used for self, hence this teaching is known as “non-self” (anatta). 

Therefore, non-self does not mean that there is no experience of selfness.  There certainly can be an experience of selfness (ask me how I know) that arises with the five aggregates as conditions.  It is this experienced selfness that creates karma and inherits its consequences.  We know this from day-to-day experience.  For example, in a funny way, if this experienced selfness conditioned by five aggregates identified as “I” were to say something nasty to another arisen experienced selfness identified as “my wife”, it is guaranteed that this experienced selfness identified as “I” will suffer the consequences of that karma very quickly.

Soryu likes to explain it with a bit more depth: this experience of selfness is dependently arisen, and it depends on grasping.  This grasping produces karma.  Karma later conditions birth.  The person who is born out of this karma experiences its results.

The second question is a bit of a royal pain, and we know that because that same vexing question was asked by a king.  Many years after the Buddha passed, Alexander the Great from Greece invaded India and he left behind a line of Indo-Greek kings in the region of Bactria (around modern-day Afghanistan).  One of those kings was called Milinda (also known as Menander).  According to the ancient text titled Milindapañha (literally: Milinda’s Questions), Milinda had a series of conversations with the arahant Nāgasena.  Near the end of those conversations, the king declared himself a Buddhist “for as long as life shall last.”[1]  Here is the relevant part of their fascinating conversation (slightly abridged):

The king asked, “He who is reborn, Nāgasena, does he remain the same or become another?”

“Neither the same nor another.”

“Give me an illustration.”

“Now what do you think, O king? You were once a baby, a tender thing, and small in size, lying flat on your back. Was that the same as you who are now grown up?”

“No. That child was one, I am another.”

“If you are not that child, it will follow that you have had neither mother nor father, nor teacher. You cannot have been taught either learning, or behavior, or wisdom. Is the mother of the embryo in the first stage different from the mother of the embryo in the second stage, or the third, or the fourth? Is the mother of the baby a different person from the mother of the grown-up man? Is the person who goes to school one, and the same when he has finished his schooling another? Is it one who commits a crime, another who is punished?”

“Certainly not. But what would you, Sir, say to that?”

The Elder replied: “I should say that I am the same person, now I am grown up, as I was when I was a tender tiny baby, flat on my back. For all these states are included in one by means of this body.”

“Give me an illustration.”

“Suppose a man, O king, were to light a lamp, is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night, and in the second, and the third?”


“Then is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third?’

“No. The light comes from the same lamp all the night through.”

“Just so, O king, is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness.”

“Give me a further illustration.”

“It is like milk, which when once taken from the cow, turns, after a lapse of time, first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee. Now would it be right to say that the milk was the same thing as the curds, or the butter, or the ghee?”

“Certainly not; but they are produced out of it.”

“Just so, O king, is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus, neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness.”

“Well put, Nāgasena!”[2]

The essential insight, as we quoted Shinzen Young earlier: the experience of self is a process, and there is no thing in that process that is a self. Just like the flame in a lamp: at every moment, the flame is different from the one in the previous moment, yet every moment of the flame and its heat create the conditions for the next moment of the flame to arise.  Hence, even though each moment of the flame is different, there is a direct chain of causation that produces the continuous process of a flame that lasts throughout the night.

In the same way, the self at every moment is different from the self in the previous moment, but every moment of self and its karma create the conditions for the arising of self in the next moment.  Hence, even though every moment of self is different, there is a direct chain of karmic causation that produces the continuous process of a self that continues through this lifetime and across lifetimes.

And that, my friends, is how karma and rebirth functions without a permanent soul.  It is surprisingly understandable.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela: The teaching of non-self is freeing because whatever narrative you have of yourself – whatever bad habits, limiting beliefs, unempowering values, low self-worth, … all can be changed. If we can change, we can awaken. To what extent do you agree with the view of karma and non-self as explained in this article? Can you find examples of how this teaching is true for you?


[1] Milindapañha 8.

[2] Milindapañha 3.2.1.  Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids.  I made minor edits for clarity.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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