Changing Karma

Enabling the world of Buddhahood to emerge within our lives like the sun.

© iStockphoto / Lorraine Boogich.

We are sometimes put into situations that don’t make sense to us, that make us ask: Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?

Buddhism explains that, based on the workings of cause and effect, many events and conditions we experience in this lifetime are results from actions we have made in the past, even in previous lives. This is the basic idea behind the principle of karma—a Sanskrit word that means “action.”

Karma is created through our thoughts, words and actions, which are like seeds that become implanted in our lives and remain dormant as “latent effects.” Under certain conditions, these latent effects become manifest as karmic rewards, or results that we experience in a tangible way.

Though many tend to think of karma only as bad results, Buddhism teaches that karma can be either good or bad. It also teaches that life is not just a matter of the present, but a continuum of past, present and future lives—the “three existences” of life. Our actions at any moment become part of the continuum of cause and effect that spans these three existences.

In the general view of cause and effect that Buddhism and most Eastern philosophies commonly teach, bad causes produce bad results while good causes produce good results. Though this principle is very important to understand, being aware of it alone is not enough to change our lives.

Through chanting for self and others, Nichiren explains, the world of Buddhahood emerges within our lives like the sun, dispelling our karmic impediments.

Considering the many previous lifetimes we have lived, if we were to adopt this general view of karma, to rid ourselves of all our bad karma would require negating every bad cause we have ever made by making a good cause in its place—one at a time, over countless lifetimes. Of course we would also have to refrain from making any more bad causes. In this view, there would be no way we could in this lifetime transform our sufferings arising from karma. Bound by this belief, many Buddhist sutras taught prior to the Lotus Sutra hold that changing one’s karma requires countless eons of austere practices.

Fortunately, Nichiren does not emphasize this general view of karma or cause and effect. Instead he focuses on what we can do to change our karma in this lifetime.

He makes a revolutionary pronouncement, stating that the great persecutions he is facing cannot be explained by the general view of causality. Rather, he says, his sufferings arise from his slander of the Lotus Sutra in present and past existences. By “Lotus Sutra” he doesn’t simply mean the Buddhist scripture, but the deepest Law or principle the sutra embodies, which teaches that all people can reveal their Buddhahood—their highest, most enlightened potential. To slander the Lotus Sutra means to fail to recognize or to belittle the value and dignity of the human being; it means to deny that one’s life and the lives of all others are precious embodiments of the Mystic Law. In essence, to slander oneself and others equates to slandering the Mystic Law, and this is what creates deep-seated negative causes that give rise to various forms of karma and suffering.

To change karma arising from slandering this fundamental Law, we need to make the most fundamental good cause, which is to uphold, protect and spread that Law for the sake of people’s happiness. This means to believe in the correct teaching of the Mystic Law, to practice and teach it to many people. In this way, we can immediately change the direction of our lives, away from suffering and toward increasing power and joy.

This is the process of changing karma in Nichiren Buddhism.

The source of this transformation is the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Through chanting for self and others, Nichiren explains, the world of Buddhahood emerges within our lives like the sun, dispelling our karmic impediments—just as the warm morning sunlight evaporates frost or dew.

By practicing Nichiren Buddhism, we are able to revolutionize our lives and change our karma, thereby securing unwavering happiness at the very core of our lives for many lifetimes to come.

Adapted from An Introduction to Buddhism, pp. 40–43