From the moment news broke of a massive earthquake and numerous aftershocks in Southwest Asia more than a week ago, it has been clear that the situation for many was dire. While the quake’s epicenter was in southern Türkiye (formerly Turkey), high-intensity shaking reached well into northern Syria, where dozens of small cities dot the landscape, leading to the once-prosperous metropolis of Aleppo. In Türkiye, relief efforts have also been hampered by internal conflict between the central government and an armed political group known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK.
Human-induced ethnic and political suffering preceded the enormous natural disaster. And human choices after the quakes have only made things worse for those trapped in the rubble and those who have lost family, friends, and homes.
In the aftermath of such tragedies, many of us are led to ask why such things occur. This deep longing to know is, itself, not a problem. It is the wellspring from which philosophy, religion, and science have arisen. The ability to sit deeply with the “why” of tragedy—and all else in life—can be a powerful tool for our Buddhist practice, as it thrusts us up against our hardened ideas and unseen presuppositions about life.
Buddhists have historically pointed to karma as a common answer to questions of “why.” However, we must be ever so careful with this answer. It is far too easy to use this answer dismissively, to say, “Ah, it’s your karma,” as if those who have faced great loss somehow deserve it. It allows us to “otherize” them and to move along with our lives.
The Buddhist teaching of karma is profound, important, and deep. Western scholars from Étienne Lamotte (1903–83) to Richard Gombrich (b. 1937) have emphasized the clear centrality of this doctrine in the Buddha’s teaching. The word karma, meaning action, was taken by the Buddha to point not to some vague past or an unknowable future, but to our intentions (Skt., Pali: cetana), which, through meditation, we can learn to cultivate in every perceivable moment of our life.
The Buddha defined karma in the Pali Canon, Anguttara Nikaya (III, 415), thus:
“Monks, it is intention that I call kamma. By intending one performs kamma through body, word or thought.”
If we note the karma of a natural disaster, what is our intention in that moment? If it is dismissive, or if it is distancing ourselves from other beings who are suffering, then it is surely based in wrong intention. Thus, in that moment, we create bad karma for ourselves.
In 2004, another earthquake took place. This one struck in the Indian Ocean near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. A subsequent tsunami—reaching up to 30 meters in height—spread north, hitting coastal areas of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand. The wave traveled west as well, hitting Indian and Sri Lanka, and even reaching the coastline of several countries in Africa. The death toll was massive, with top estimates nearing 300,000 people.
Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda (1919–2006), a renowned Sri Lankan monk and scholar, offered a Buddhist reflection on that event just after it took place. He reminded us that the Buddha offered five levels or realms of causal law:
The Buddha spoke of five natural laws, one of which is the Law of Energy (utu niyama). Energy, in its two forms of heat and cold, causes many changes within the body and the environment. It is always in a state of flux, of continuous change and is always seeking a balance. It is the law that governs changes in a body, such as old age and illness, or in an ecological context, with respect to such things as climates, seasons and earth movements.
The Buddha has explained very clearly that the operation of this law is not only limited to this physical world, but also throughout the universe. It affects every existing planetary system and all forms of cosmic metaphysics, whether material or immaterial. All these elements are subjected to change, encountering imbalance from time to time.
. . .
While Buddhism teaches us that we are the architects of our own fate and that as human beings we can eventually control our kammic force, Buddhists do not believe that everything is due to kamma. They do not ignore the role played by other forces of nature. As can be seen, kamma constitutes but one aspect of natural law. The simplistic supposition that all life experiences are due to kamma is therefore incorrect.(Dharma Records)
This teaching engenders a sense of humility when we reach for “karma” as an answer to life’s events. The truth is, we don’t know. We know that karma is important, but we don’t know the intricate workings of karma for ourselves, let alone for other beings. Moreover, even those with the best of karma can experience natural disasters.
Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda reminds us: “The disaster is a reminder for us to rejoin in the age old truth of moderation. This is true in these days and times when over-development has caused great ecological imbalance.” (Dharma Records) The important thing is that we each have choices to make. Many of us live in extreme luxury compared with the people who have suffered in the 2004 or 2023 earthquakes. Some of our luxury may even come at the expense of these people, as we enjoy cheap products and food from the hands of low-income workers in places where infrastructure is weak.
If we meditate on our great fortune and our interconnectedness, we might thus be moved to forego judgment or to pontification about “karma” and instead act to help those who are suffering.
Fortunately, we see numerous examples of individuals, organizations, and governments doing just this. Thailand’s government quickly moved to donate 5 million baht (US$145,000) toward relief efforts in Türkiye and a further 1 million baht (US$29,000) to Syria. They have also sent 42 members of Urban Search and Rescue Thailand to assist in ongoing humanitarian efforts. Japan has similarly sent 41 disaster relief and medical experts to the area and plan to send an additional 34 members.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare took in donations of NT$490 million (US$16.2 million), according to a report earlier this week. Also in Taiwan, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation has announced a US$1 million matching fund along with 25 tonnes of blankets for relief work in Türkiye.
These and countless other efforts around the world show the positive embrace of karma, of individuals recognizing their ability to act to help those who are suffering. Perhaps for some of us, the enormity of this disaster is just too big to fathom. Our hearts close and compassion is stifled. If that is the case, we know there is work to be done. Perhaps small acts of kindness to friends and loved ones can be a start. If we cannot turn to the great suffering far from us, we can at least see and know the suffering of the world near us and, with compassion, act to alleviate it.
How these buildings made the Turkey and Syria earthquakes so deadly (Vox)
Videos show Turkey’s Erdogan boasted letting builders avoid earthquake codes (NPR)
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Visual Explainer (International Crisis Group)
Maps: Aftershocks felt across the region after major earthquake hits Turkey (CNN)
Dr K Sri Dhammananda: The Buddhist Explanation of Natural Disasters (Dharma Records)
Thailand Aids Turkey with Relief Funds and Rescue Team (Reliefweb)
Additional Dispatches of the Japan Disaster Relief Expert and Medical Team in Response to the Earthquake Damage in the Republic of Türkiye (Reliefweb)
Taiwan donations for Turkey earthquake victims reach NT$490 million (Taiwan News)
Related news reports from BDG
Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Announces US$1-Million Matching Fund for Türkiye Earthquake Relief Effort
Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Mobilizes Relief Effort for Earthquake Survivors in Türkiye
Dalai Lama Expresses Sadness Over Loss of Life in Türkiye and Syria, Pledges Support for Rescue Effort