Justice or Punishment? A Buddhist’s Thoughts

If someone poisons the Earth do they deserve punishment? Buddhist Venerable Yifa offers wisdom about why the Buddhists say that justice will be meted out regardless:

Many of us have a desire to bring about justice when bad things happen. We want the innocent to be given their chance to see the guilty punished for what they’ve done. If, as I say, Buddhism operates over great stretches of time, then what does it mean to bring someone to justice? Is not this simply complacency and fatalism to sit back and wait for the laws of the universe to bring an individual to justice for what they’ve done?

Justice is a function of natural law, and, like karma, works both in the past, present, and the future. In the Buddhist context, neither a divinity nor the Buddha himself passes judgment on us or punishes us. It is our own karma that will perform that function.

Put simply if an action comes from good intentions then there will be a good reaction. If the action comes from bad intentions then there will be a bad reaction. The universe acts as justice itself, and the universe is never compromised.

For instance, if we damage the Earth’s ecosystems, we will suffer the consequences. Some people may get rich in the process, but their descendants will suffer as a result of what they have done. In this regard, the operation of the world is the operation of justice. It is not a function of human justice, because human justice is conditioned. This is why justice needs to be thought of as separate from punishment.

Punishment as justice merely perpetuates a cycle of more punishment as justice. But true justice is not about punishment; it is about being aware of cause and effect.

Justice is absolutely impartial–it is merely the sum of good and bad actions operating within the universe. However, we can model human laws so that more good is generated than bad. This is why one of the principle ideas of Buddhism is nonviolence. Non-violence means not doing anything to make bad situations worse as well as not creating bad situations.

By creating conditions that enhance the possibility of performing good deeds, rather than simply creating laws to stop people doing bad things, we create situations where less violence is needed because there are fewer situations where violence is generated. Justice in this situation, therefore, is prospective rather than retrospective. We create a just situation before the crime has been committed, because less likely that a crime will be committed.

Adapted from The Tender Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering, by Venerable Yifa (Lantern Books, 2007).


Ingrid Scott
Ingrid Scott6 years ago

This is an excellent discussion of the idea behind the common saying, "What goes around comes around." And it's also a wonderful illustration of why holding onto negative thoughts and attitudes, and refusing to forgive and move on, perpetuates negativity into subsequent generations and perpetuates human conflicts "time out of mind." Beverly R says it well.

May Howie
may Howie6 years ago


Zee Kallah
.6 years ago

I'm 68 and I'm ready to cross over with a clean conscious. I do not fear karma or anything else when I get over there.

I have made it a point to make amends for every wrong thing I know of that I have done. Yep, it took years of volunteer work.

I try to live clean.

But most of all, I trust in my savior.

My faith works for me.

K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago

Very true especially the parts that state:"
Justice is a function of natural law, and, like karma, works both in the past, present, and the future." and "
"...true justice is not about punishment; it is about being aware of cause and effect."


Mary B.
Mary B8 years ago

Hmm, so a few High Rollers deplete, destroy and poison the Earth and their decendants, and everybody elses pays for it.Certainly this is cause and effect alright, but not justice.Of course human justice is conditional. Our survival depends on it!Unconditional doesn't mean Holy or Godlike. It means neutral,as in, not careing one way or another. Stupid, greedy people can get away with robbery and murder. It's those who come after, whether they had anything to do with it or not,who pay. Punishment, is also setting up a cause and effect relationship. I can see how this job of trying to control the masses gets out of hand pretty quick...

Jane H.
Jane H8 years ago

I love this idea and I think it bears out in reality.

Kathryn T.
Kathryn T.8 years ago

I too wonder that nobody has commented, this is the supreme precise and infallible law of the entire universe both on the spiritual level and in the physical realm. I have spent a great deal of my life studying this and it's the core teaching of every great faith. Also it's so very simple that it's a wonder humans can't manage to use it to their own advantage -- and the benefit of others -- more of the time. I would highly welcome any indepth discussions on this topic, it's my passion. Cosmic justicte NEVER FAILS. It's mathematically precise. I once tried to write a book about it before I ever found out I was a Buddhist!

Beverly R.
Beverly R8 years ago

Im very surprised there are no comments here. This article is profound in its clarity. Cause and effect are the justice of the universe effecting past present and future, and if you really look at life your life you can see this universal law at work. Thank you for sharing this philosophy.