What Does “Changing Our Karma” Mean?

The Buddhist concept of taking on challenges as fuel to realize our true potential in life.

Photo: iStockphoto / lordrunar.

This Q&A series addresses frequently asked questions about Nichiren Buddhism.

Q: I often hear people in the SGI talking about “changing karma into mission,” but I’m not sure I know what that means. Can you explain?

A: What if we could turn any bad situation into something good? Nichiren Buddhism says we can. And there are several key concepts that illustrate how this is possible. These include “changing poison into medicine,” “earthly desires lead to enlightenment” and more. “Changing karma into mission” also expresses the transformative power of our Buddhist practice.

To put it simply, “karma” is the cumulative “effects” or results of all our actions or causes, good or bad, over countless lifetimes until now. And while these effects may likewise be good or bad, many people tend to attribute suffering or losses they experience to “bad karma”—karma from bad causes they made in the past.

Nichiren Buddhism, while recognizing the causality behind karma, encourages us not to dwell on or be hindered by the past.

For instance, Nichiren Daishonin in his writings often quotes a sutra that reads: “If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (“The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 279).

In light of Nichiren’s philosophy, this passage encourages us to focus on this present moment, and that we can recognize and tap the boundless potential of our lives right now. This is how we transform our karma or destiny.

We could say that “changing karma into mission” is a modern-day expression of a principle illustrated in the Lotus Sutra known as “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma.”

The sutra tells of bodhisattvas who, though having made the causes to attain enlightenment, voluntarily delay doing so. They vow instead to be born into this world filled with suffering and evil, with their karma and its accompanying problems and challenges. They do so out of compassion: to show, through their own example, the way for people to overcome suffering and attain absolute happiness.

So rather than lament our karma or regret our past causes, this story suggests that it’s more empowering to see our problems as something we voluntarily employ as fuel to realize our true purpose and potential in this life.

SGI President Ikeda comments on this idea, saying: “Everything that happens in our lives has meaning. Moreover, the way of life of practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism is to find and discover meaning in all things . . . A powerful determination to transform even negative karma into mission can dramatically transform the real world. By changing our inner state of mind, we can change any suffering or hardship into a source of joy, regarding it as a means for forging and developing our lives. To turn even sorrow into a source of creativity—that is the way of life of practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism” (August 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 57).

It is usually because of our problems—our “bad karma”— that we earnestly chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, sincerely practice Buddhism and thus change our destiny on a fundamental level. When we live and overcome our struggles with the attitude that all of our challenges are opportunities for growth, we not only inspire others with similar challenges, we also gain an expansive and powerful state of life that nothing can destroy.

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