Lessening Karmic Retribution

“Any hardship can serve to help us lead richer and more profound lives.”

Rocky Cove and Sailboat Channel Islands National Park, Calif. Photo: iStockphoto / Arpa Benedek.

The following is adapted from An Introduction to Buddhism, which serves as study material for the SGI-USA Introductory Exam offered annually in October. 

In the course of practicing Buddhism and working for kosen-rufu, we will inevitably face obstacles, negative influences and functions that attempt to block our way or interfere with our efforts.

Nichiren Daishonin taught that to encounter such opposition is in fact a benefit. That is because by meeting and winning over difficulties, we naturally carry out the process of “lessening our karmic retribution.” The characters for the Japanese phrase tenju kyoju, often translated as “lessening one’s karmic retribution,” can literally be read “transforming the heavy and receiving it lightly.” Left alone, the bad causes we have accumulated over many lifetimes reveal themselves as miserable results in this and future lifetimes. But through the benefit of devoting ourselves and leading others to the Mystic Law, the heavy consequences of our karma can quickly be lightened.

That is, we can effectively rid ourselves of all our negative karma in this lifetime by experiencing its results in a much lightened form as obstacles and troubles we challenge for the sake of kosen-rufu. For this reason, Nichiren Daishonin says that through the benefit of lessening karmic retribution, “The sufferings of hell will vanish instantly” (“Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 199). Difficulties, then, are important opportunities for ridding ourselves of bad karma and developing and strengthening ourselves . . .

We can see facing problems as something we do to fulfill our vow as a bodhisattva to save suffering people.

By persevering in faith despite hardships and thereby changing our karma, we find deeper meaning in living. In its “Teacher of the Law” chapter, the Lotus Sutra introduces the idea of “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma.”

It explains that bodhisattvas voluntarily give up the good karmic rewards due them as a result of their pure actions in past lives. Out of compassion, they choose instead to be born in an evil age so that they can teach people the principles of the Lotus Sutra and save them from suffering.

Such bodhisattvas experience suffering just as those who do so because of bad karma they formed in the past. Viewing ourselves as having made this choice—of voluntarily meeting and overcoming difficulties through faith out of compassion for others—gives us a new perspective on problems and suffering. We can see facing problems as something we do to fulfill our vow as a bodhisattva to save suffering people.

Only by dealing with hardships in life can we come to understand and empathize with people’s suffering. With every problem we overcome through Buddhist faith and practice, we create a model for winning in life, a genuine experience through which we can encourage many others.

SGI President Ikeda expresses this process as “changing karma into mission” and explains: “We all have our own karma or destiny, but when we look it square in the face and grasp its true significance, then any hardship can serve to help us lead richer and more profound lives. Our actions in challenging our destiny become examples and inspirations for countless others” (August 2003 Living Buddhism, p. 50).


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