When I learned about the Wiccan Rule of Three, I often saw it associated with the concept of karma in Indian philosophy. For a long time I understood the two concepts to be essentially the same; the universe returns good for good and evil for evil. The implied moral theory is that one deserves to receive what they send out into the world. My teachers often used “karma” and “Rule of Three” interchangeably. While both principles orient moral judgments around actions and consequences, they differ significantly when analyzed critically.

In Wicca, “karma” is described by the “Rule of Three,” stating that whoever one sends out comes back to them threefold. The rule or its consequences are often casually referred to as “karma,” and the pagan community I found as an adolescent appeared aware of the concepts association with Asian religious traditions. For the most part, “karma” is the reason Wiccans caution one another against casting curses or working any destructive magic. Doing so would be foolish because the witch would eventually suffer three times the destructive force they had called down. Retribution may not be immediate or in kind, but Wiccans believe that the Rule of Three guarantees that no one escapes it forever.

The norm against cursing does not prevent self-righteous witches from crafting rituals to encourage karmic return for perceived wrongs. A person sufficiently convinced of their blamelessness can readily use the Rule of Three to spiritually bypass any self-reflection since it does not distinguish between correlation and causation. Vague misfortunes can be aligned with perceived failings, enabling one to embrace a more convenient penance than reforming their behavior or apologizing for their role in a conflict. The Rule’s loose framework allows a person to interpret moral consequences for themselves by disconnecting result from action, cutting moral introspection short.

Furthermore, the Rule of Three relies on a widely open timeline for karmic retribution. Karma can always come around at some undefined later point. When someone appears to be profiting from harm, one must assume the dues will be paid eventually, but evidence does not support that conclusion. The classic Problem of Evil asks how an infinitely good god could allow for evil in the world. The Rule of Three posits that harm is returned to the offender, a denial that evil is allowed in the world. When presented with manifest and continued evil in the world, a strict adherent of the Rule must assert their faith in some eventual corrective action. Nevertheless, an injustice that is corrected only after a century allows for many people to suffer injustice and never see retribution in their lifetimes.

Indian philosophy contains a diversity of views about karma, but the word means “action” or “deed” in Sanskrit. In the Buddhist tradition, karma represents a causal principle that binds a person to the consequences of their actions. A harmful act produces the harm itself as well as a number of additional effects, setting off a chain of events that may take a long time to unfold. Both the agent and the subject of an action experience emotions that can shape their responses to future events. The patterns formed by repeated actions and their effects prevent a person from achieving liberation from the cycle of rebirth. A person who breaks the pattern overcomes their karma, their desires, and their attachment to those things and become free.

The Buddhist account of karma enjoys a few structural strengths when compared to the Rule of Three. When framed as a cascade of cause and effect, karma becomes plausible if not trivially true. The Buddhist account of causation, dependent co-arising, understands causal relationships to include necessary conditions, sufficient conditions, and necessary and sufficient conditions, so some causal links may be remote but nevertheless logically connected. By definition a cause produces effects, and a single event can be described in such detail as to identify multiple causes of the event as well as multiple effects. Karma provides an acknowledgment that such consequences become part of an individual’s life history, whether they were the agent or patient of the event.

Karma provides an ethical framework for reflecting on the morality of one’s actions. When an agent sees themselves as the originator of later events, they can consider whether they are content to be of a piece with the results of their actions. Recognizing that one’s behavior does not reflect self-belief presents an agent with the opportunity bring themselves into alignment. Since the agent may also recognize themselves as the outcome of previous events, they gain the ability to discern the boundaries of their personal responsibility. As a moral norm, karma implies a value in taking responsibility for one’s actions and for forgiving oneself for circumstances beyond their control. Karma complements the Buddhist value of compassion by placing a person in the roles of both agent and patient to frame suffering as a shared experience.

Since Paganism and Buddhism are distinct religious traditions with their own origins and practices, there is no assumed need for Pagan concepts to conform with Buddhist definitions. One need not deny the influence of Buddhism on modern Paganism to claim that the Pagan tradition has nevertheless developed its own interpretations of shared concepts, a branch from the same root. While there is no need for Paganism to be consistent with Buddhist doctrines, analysis of the Rule of Three reveals fatal internal incoherence. The Problem of Evil raises a foundational plausibility question that the Rule has no means to address. Furthermore, the Rule of Three lacks any account of value so that one can discern good from evil. While karma also lacks such an account, it does not need one since its framework does not invoke any notion of good or evil. Desirable and undesirable consequences are relative to the agent’s desires, not to an absolute moral law. Morals derived from karmic introspection do assume valuing compassion and disvaluing suffering, and Buddhist philosophy provides accounts of those values and their relationship to karma.

As a witch I believe that I should consider the consequences of my actions both magical and mundane. Recognizing suffering as an ill, I believe that I should avoid causing it and rectify it where I am able. To fulfill these duties effectively, I need to understand the scope of my ability to influence events directly and indirectly. The Rule of Three leaves too many of these questions open to interpretation and cannot account for its own plausibility. The Buddhist account of karma fulfills these needs and withstands critical analysis. As such, I prefer to adopt the more robust view of karma even though it distances me from a core Wiccan tradition.