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Applying the Philosophy

Transforming Karma

Photo by Magnilion / Getty Images.

We sometimes find ourselves in difficult situations that seem beyond our control. Instead of viewing difficult events as our unchangeable destiny, we take them on as our mission to revolutionize our state of life and create value.

And by not being defeated by such challenges, we lessen their negative impact on us. In fact, we can transform our challenges into fuel for better understanding and encouraging people going through similar struggles. This is how we transform our karma and send waves of positive change into our environment. This is the purpose of the SGI’s kosen-rufu movement. Ikeda Sensei famously writes:

A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.[1]

To effect positive change in society, we must become experts in transforming the inner tendencies that cause us suffering.

What Is Karma?

We often hear that we can change our karma by practicing Nichiren Buddhism. But what does this look like?

The general law of cause and effect underlies the Buddhist doctrine of karma, a Sanskrit word meaning “action.” In this context, our actions refer to the present causes we make—whether good or bad—through our thoughts, words and deeds. Each good action we initiate manifests sometime in the future as a positive effect, while evil actions garner negative effects.

We could say that this general view of cause and effect lays out a kind of retributive justice—that people cannot be happy until they receive and thereby erase all the negative karmic effects resulting from past negative causes.

Some Buddhist and Hindu teachings use this basic view of karma to explain why people were born into certain circumstances without teaching a practical means for changing karma in this lifetime. This perspective on karma inspires little hope for improving one’s life; worse, it may lead one to be resigned to their fate.

According to this view, a person would have to create enough good karma to cancel out all of their negative karma to attain enlightenment or Buddhahood. This would take endless lifetimes of Buddhist practice.

But Nichiren Buddhism goes beyond this basic notion of cause and effect and karma. We can use even our seemingly negative karma to improve our lives. Sensei writes:

Buddhism explains karma in order to reveal how to transform it. Put another way, to hold the doctrine of karma over people without fully clarifying the means for changing it is to wrongly interpret Buddhism. Such teachings only cause people to remain bound by the shackles of fate.[2]

While our present life is a collective result of all our past actions, this does not mean our future is set in stone. And there’s no need to backtrack to figure out exactly how we created our karma, either, as Nichiren affirms: “It is impossible to fathom one’s karma.”[3]

Nichiren Buddhism, however, teaches that we are never doomed and that everything can fuel our enlightenment. What we can do is focus on the present, resolve to become happy and use all our experiences to create value here and now. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and teaching others about this Law, we can tap into the power to redirect the pull of our negative karma toward creating a robust, resilient and happy life.

Lessening Karmic Retribution

In practicing the Mystic Law, we are bound to face obstacles and negative influences that try to block or interfere with our efforts to deepen our faith and spread Buddhism.

Nichiren teaches that in contrast to the general causal law, of adverse effects arising from evil deeds and positive results from good deeds, the most profound causes and effects arise from our relationship to the Mystic Law.

For example, he identifies the source of the persecution he faces due to propagating the Lotus Sutra, which expounds the workings of this Mystic Law, as his own past disparagement of this Law. By meeting the hardships that come from propagating the Law, he is not only expiating his negative karma but also fully activating the state of Buddhahood within his life. This exact process applies to each of us.

The obstacles we encounter while carrying out Buddhist practice are benefits. They enable us to carry out the process of “lessening our karmic retribution.” As we spread Buddhism and help others become happy, the obstacles we face allow us to change our heavy karma and experience it in a much lighter form. Therefore, we are quickly expiating our negative karma by facing hardships amid all our efforts for kosen-rufu.

Nichiren further clarifies that the source of negative karma is acting from our fundamental ignorance of the Buddha nature in our own lives and the lives of others. By recognizing and striving to work in harmony with this Law, we can overcome our fundamental ignorance, the root source of karmic suffering.

When we do so, Nichiren says, “the sufferings of hell will vanish instantly.”[4]

Does this mean that our karma vanishes when we practice Nichiren Buddhism? Certainly not. If our karma disappeared, it would go against the fundamental law of cause and effect.

Instead, our negative karma quickly pales in significance compared to the wisdom and life force that fill our lives when we awaken to our Buddha nature.

Nichiren says that once the sun rises, the stars in the sky are no longer visible.[5] Similarly, once the sun of the Mystic Law rises in our hearts, it outshines our karmic troubles, rendering them powerless to dictate the direction of our lives. We fundamentally change our destiny by activating a more profound and powerful inner source of causes and effects.

Changing Karma Into Mission

So why do we go through challenges, some of which can seem unfair or insurmountable? It’s easy to forget that what encourages people is not the happy result at the end of an experience but forging an undefeated spirit in the process.

While favorable circumstances are wonderful, when we face and persevere over dire challenges, we send the message: You, too, can fight through this and win. Don’t give up!

When we understand that we overcome our hardships to create a model for winning in life and encouraging many others, our karma changes into our mission.

Changing karma into mission means going from feeling that our karma is a heavy burden to seeing it as our unique path to enlightenment. This doesn’t mean we force ourselves to think positively about our karma. It means chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo infused with a firm determination to overcome those things that cause us to suffer—whether a work, relationship or health issue. Through chanting, propagating the Mystic Law and participating in SGI activities, we bring our Buddha nature to the fore and transform the tendencies or circumstances causing us misery.

Ikeda Sensei once encouraged a member, saying: “Your current suffering and misfortune exist so that you may fulfill your own unique and noble mission. Everything will turn to defeat if all you do is worry about your karma and let it make you miserable.”[6] He goes on to explain:

It is true that Buddhism teaches that one who commits evil deeds against others will receive the negative effects of those actions and live an unhappy life. Were it the entire teaching on karma, however, then people would be doomed to live under a cloud of guilt and vague anxiety, not knowing what offenses they might have committed in past lives. It would also mean that people’s destiny was fixed—a concept that could easily rob them of their energy and passion.

The Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin goes far beyond the framework of superficial causality. It elucidates the most fundamental cause and shows us the means for returning to the original pure life within that has existed since time without beginning. The means it shows is to awaken to our mission as Bodhisattvas of the Earth and dedicate our lives to the widespread propagation of the Law.[7]

In grappling with and transforming our karma, we realize that our struggles have meaning, to emerge as an undefeated Bodhisattva of the Earth who makes it their mission to awaken others to their Buddha nature. Hence, we transform the burden of karma into an unstoppable engine for producing happiness.

Voluntarily Assuming the Appropriate Karma

As we engage in Buddhist practice and overcome hardships, we find deeper meaning in living.

In the Lotus Sutra’s “Teacher of the Law” chapter, the concept of “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma” explains that bodhisattvas willingly and compassionately choose to be born in the evil age after the Buddha’s passing. They decide to struggle so they can lead others to happiness. In that chapter, Shakyamuni says:

You should understand that these people voluntarily relinquish the reward due them for their pure deeds and, in the time after I have passed into extinction, because they pity living beings, they are born in this evil world so they may broadly expound this sutra. If one of these good men or good women in the time after I have passed into extinction is able to secretly expound the Lotus Sutra to one person, even one phrase of it, then you should know that he or she is the envoy of the thus come one.[8]

Those who embrace the Lotus Sutra, he says, have created so much fortune, that if they so desire, they can be born in a land free from suffering. But they reject favorable circumstances and instead choose to lead people to enlightenment in the evil age.

In perceiving our problems as our window into understanding and empathizing with others, we can eliminate the mental anguish of thinking, Why me? Or What did I do to cause this suffering?

Instead, we can take on challenges, thinking, This will enable me to give hope to many more people! Because we experience problems, we can lead others to happiness. Striving to overcome our challenges to open the way for others helps us grow into individuals in total control of our lives. We can transform any situation, no matter how impossible it may seem. Happiness does not mean a life without problems but a life undefeated by difficulties.

Sensei encourages pioneering members in Brazil, saying:

Buddhism teaches that its practitioners “voluntarily choose to be born in evil circumstances so they may help others.” This means that although we have accumulated the benefit through Buddhist practice to be born in favorable circumstances, we have purposely chosen to be born in the midst of suffering people and there propagate the Mystic Law.

For example, if someone who had always lived like a queen and enjoyed every luxury were to say, “I became happy as a result of taking faith,” no one would bat an eye. But if a person who is sick, whose family is poor and who is shunned by people because of these things becomes happy through practicing faith and goes on to become a leader in society, this will be splendid proof of the greatness of Buddhism. Don’t you agree that this would make others want to practice Buddhism too?[9]

“Voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma” can be understood as choosing the tools necessary to build a life of absolute happiness for ourselves and others. We are in the driver’s seat and have everything we need to create the most remarkable life.

Karma Summed Up

We may not be able to fathom all our karma. But by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and sharing it with others, our unique karma becomes the pathway to our individualized mission for bringing hope to those we encounter.

Sensei makes a crucial point about this:

We don’t focus on our karma merely so that we may repay our karmic debt and bring our “balance” to zero. Rather, it is to convert our “negative balance” into a large “positive balance.” This is the principle of changing karma in Nichiren Buddhism. And it is the Buddha nature existing in the lives of all people that makes this possible. Our focus on changing karma is backed by our steadfast belief in our own Buddha nature.

And great hardships provide us with the opportunity to forge and temper our lives. When things are most painful, that is the time when we can most deepen our humanity.[10]

Some karma is easy to change, with immediate results. Other issues may plague us year after year. Regardless of what we face, we can take complete control of our lives. As we change our karma into our mission, we change from playing a negative role to a fully empowered and positive one. When we change in this way, we serve as inspiration to countless others. This is how we enact the drama of changing our destiny and dynamically transforming the destiny of all humankind.

—Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff


  1. The Human Revolution, p. viii. ↩︎
  2. August 2003 Living Buddhism, p. 41. ↩︎
  3. “Letter from Sado,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 303. ↩︎
  4. “Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution,” WND-1, 199. ↩︎
  5. See “The Selection of the Time,” WND-1, 575. ↩︎
  6. The New Human Revolution, vol. 1, revised edition, p. 271. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 200. ↩︎
  9. NHR-1, revised edition, 272. ↩︎
  10. August 2003 Living Buddhism, pp. 44–45. ↩︎

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