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Buddhist Study

What Is Karma?


This article is adapted from An Introduction to Buddhism, pp. 40–45, which serves as the study material for the upcoming SGI-USA Introductory Exam, to be held April 26 and 27 throughout the nation.

Some of our problems and sufferings are caused by actions and decisions we have made in this life. But for others we can find no apparent cause. We may think, I’ve done nothing wrong, so why is this happening to me?

Buddhism teaches the principle of karma—that many events and conditions we experience in this lifetime result from actions we have made in previous lives. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action.” It explains the workings of cause and effect that transcend the boundaries of life and death. Our actions of thought, speech and behavior are like seeds that become implanted in our lives. These causes can remain dormant as “latent effects” in current and future lifetimes. At certain times under certain conditions, however, these reveal themselves as “manifest effects”—results, or karmic rewards, we experience in a tangible way. Karma, then, is the accumulation of actions from previous existences that remain dormant within us until they appear as effects in this lifetime. …

Our actions at any moment become part of the continuum of cause and effect that spans the three existences of past, present and future. Bad causes in past lives or the present, such as disparaging or hurting others, stealing or lying and so on, express themselves in present or future lives as bad effects, bringing us suffering and problems. … Nichiren Daishonin calls this the “general law of cause and effect.” And while this principle is important to understand, being aware of it alone is not enough to change our lives.

Adopting this view would require that, in order to rid ourselves of bad karma, we negate every bad cause we have ever made by making a good cause in its place, one at a time, over countless lifetimes. …

Fortunately, Nichiren does not emphasize this general view of karma or cause and effect. Instead he focuses on the principle and practice of changing karma.

In “Letter from Sado,” he makes a revolutionary pronouncement in stating, “My sufferings, however, are not ascribable to this causal law” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 305). Here, he expresses that the great persecutions he is facing cannot be explained by the general view of causality.

Rather, he continues, these sufferings arise from his slander of the Lotus Sutra in present and past existences. By “Lotus Sutra” he does not simply mean a Buddhist scripture, but the deepest Law or principle the sutra embodies. This constitutes the correct teaching that all people can reveal their Buddhahood, the principle of respect for the value and dignity of the human being and the standard of striving for one’s own happiness as well as the happiness of others. To slander the Lotus Sutra means to fail to recognize or to belittle these values intrinsic to life itself; it means to deny that one’s life and the lives of all others are precious embodiments of the Mystic Law, which is the source of these ideals. This adverse relationship to the Mystic Law constitutes a deep-seated negative cause that gives rise to various forms of bad karma.

To change karma arising from rejecting or slandering this fundamental Law, we need to make the most fundamental good cause, which is to 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 it correctly, and to uphold, protect and teach it to many people. In this way, we can immediately change the direction of our lives, from one bound for suffering to one of increasing power and joy deriving from the Law of life. This is the process of changing karma in Nichiren Buddhism. The source of this transformation is the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. When we do so, “then the host of sins, like frost or dew, can be wiped out by the sun of wisdom” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 390).

Referring to this passage from the Universal Worthy Sutra, Nichiren compares our past negative karma to frost or dew that has built up in one’s life. When we believe in the Gohonzon and apply ourselves to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo both for ourselves and for others, 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.[1]

Changing Karma Into Mission

SGI President Ikeda explains what is meant by the phrase “changing karma into mission.”

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 inspiration for countless others.

In other words, when we change our karma into mission, we transform our destiny from playing a negative role to a positive one. … Those who keep advancing, while regarding everything as part of their mission, proceed toward the goal of transforming their destiny. (August 2003 Living Buddhism, p. 50)


  1. For example, in “Letter to Niike,” Nichiren writes: “Our worldly misdeeds and evil karma may have piled up as high as Mount Sumeru, but when we take faith in this sutra, they will vanish like frost or dew under the sun of the Lotus Sutra” (WND-1, 1026). ↩︎

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