Why is it we sometimes find ourselves repeating the same behaviour, even when we know that it isn't doing us any good?
How do these patterns come about? We might even hear ourselves asking: 'Why has this disastrous situation happened to me? What did I do to deserve it?' When we ask ourselves questions like this, the Buddhist principle of karma can help us understand what we can do to break out of the repetitive patterns that might cause ourselves and others suffering.
In this article I will look at the question of karma which is a principle at the heart of Buddhism but which can easily be misunderstood. Originally the Sanskri word 'karma' (or 'karman') meant 'action' or 'act'. In time, it came to imply deeds or results. It is important to recognise that karma can be both positive and negative, and it is certainly good karma to have been born a human being. Most often, however, people are more likely to think about karma in a negative way. When this expression is misused it can take on the appearance of referring to some fixed 'fate' or 'destiny1 which is absolutely not what it is about in Nichiren Buddhism. Rather than being the judgement of some external force, Nichren Buddhism clarifies the importance of an individual's free will. If we are responsible for creating our personal karma, then we are also able to change it. It is of course important to recognise that everyone's karma is different.
The subject of karma has intrigued generations of Buddhists of many traditions, and it is important to look at how Nichiren Buddhism explains that we can change aspects of our karma which cause us and other people to suffer, and create the best kind of karma that will bring us and the world around us happiness and joy.
Although we are talking here about causes and effects, it is important to distinguish between the general and impersonal principles of cause and effect or dependent origination (also web of inter-connectedness), compared with the effects caused by the conscious will of an individual. Karmic actions are intended actions. They affect not only the individuals who are their target, but also impact the person who made them.
Buddhism teaches that we humans create karma through making causes with our thoughts, words and deeds. Karma is not therefore created by the causes and effects at work in, for instance, the movement of the plates which form the surface of planet Earth - there is no conscious will in such movements, so rather than being caused by karma we should see these phenomena as what they are: natural events that affect the environment. Earthquakes and other phenomena arising out of such movements clearly affect individuals in their vicinity, and the reaction of those individuals to those events is of course dependent on the individual's personal karma, but when discussing karma it is a mistake to confuse impersonal causes with ones that are consciously willed.
Why do things happen to us? Taking illness as an example, Nichiren Daishonin writes that while there are six different causes of illness, only one of those causes is our karma.1 While the other five reasons may require more explanation than can be given here, the Daishonin makes it clear that the important aspect is our reaction to the situation rather than worrying about its causes. In other words, rather than asking 'Why did this happen to me?' it is far better to have the attitude: 'This has happened to me, so what am I going to do about it?'
The idea that a cause leads to an effect, in an almost mechanical way, is considered to be the 'general law of cause and effect'. Nichiren Daishonin refers to this way of thinking about karma with these examples: 'One who climbs a high mountain must eventually descend. One who slights another will in turn be despised' and so on.2 Looking at things from this perspective, if every cause leads to an effect, we can naturally think that for our karma to change we must wait for the effect of each cause to be expiated one at a time. And as we don't know - and can't know - what causes we made in previous lifetimes, this can be a worrying and lengthy process! This is likely to just make us feel powerless. We simply do not know what causes we made in the past, and in one of his letters,3 the Daishonin says that 'It is impossible to fathom one's karma.' Transforming our negative karma so that we can reveal our Buddhahood would be impossible if we have to wait for each effect to become manifest.
Fortunately, Nichiren Buddhism explains a 'greater causality' which clarifies that not only do we continuously create karma, but that we can lighten, transform and expiate it. This greater causality refers back to the idea of the nine consciousnesses. You will recall that 'beneath' the eighth consciousness (the alaya consciousness, or karmic storehouse) lies the ninth, which is the source of our Buddhahood, or the cleansing and purifying energy of our Buddha nature. When we stimulate and activate our Buddhahood it flushes through the other layers, not just showing us the karmic tendencies which cause us and other people to suffer, but eclipsing the effects of that karma with the power of its life-force. Daisaku Ikeda explains this:
Negative karma is subsumed in the world of Buddhahood and is purified by its power. To use an analogy, the emergence of the world of Buddhahood is like the rising of the sun. When the sun dawns in the east, the stars that had shone so vividly in the night sky immediately fade into seeming non-existence ...if they disappeared, it would go against the principle of causality. But just as the light of the stars and the moon seems to vanish when the sun rises, when we bring forth the state of Buddhahood in our lives we cease to suffer negative effects for each individual past negative cause committed. In other words, this does not deny or contradict general causality. General causality remains an underlying premise of Buddhism. But it is subsumed by what might be termed a 'greater causality'. This greater causality is the causality of attaining Buddhahood. It is the causality of the Lotus Sutra and the Mystic Law.4
Although Buddhism explains that we create karmic tendencies in our lives by the layering of similar causes in similar circumstances, it is just not possible to look back into our past and 'fathom' what it was that we did. Fortunately, however, we don't need to know the details of every cause we ever made in order to change our karma. The power and force of our inherent Buddhahood is greater and stronger than the karma we created in the past. This is why when we tap our Buddha nature deep in the ninth consciousness, it will purify the other layers of consciousness.
Still it is a fact that the process of changing those tendencies in our lives can be a painful one as we start it. Nichiren Daishonin uses powerful language to describe the process: 'Iron, when heated in the flames and pounded, becomes a fine sword.'5 But the process of changing our karma is not merely to eradicate the negative from our lives. Daisaku Ikeda explains:
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.6
Our challenge then is not to think of our karma as something that will hold us back. Rather we should use it as a springboard for a happy future. Whatever our personal karmic tendencies, they will become fuel for our faith, practice and study and enable us to reveal our Buddhahood. Whatever situations we may have suffered in the past, when we have transformed our suffering the transformation will become a great inspiration for others who are suffering in the same way. This is how we can transform our karma into the mission for the happiness of others. We start to consider that we actually created the current situation in order to be able to show the power of Buddhism to transform it. This attitude expresses the principle known as 'voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma'. Daisaku Ikeda sums up the process in this way:
When we pray to the Gohonzon, change arises from the depths of our being. Strong, pure vitality wells forth in abundance. The iron chains of destiny are cut, and our original identity, the fresh and robust world of Buddhahood, appears. Carrying out our human revolution means always living with exactly such new vitality.7
Whatever our karma, the message we are given in Nichiren Buddhism is that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the new cause which enables us to lessen and change the karma we have created in the past. Our prayers for the happiness of ourselves and others, transforming the world around us into a place of harmony, dignity and respect, are the best cause for our future karma and our future happiness.
- The six causes of illness are: (1) disharmony of the four elements, (2) improper
eating or drinking, (3) inappropriate practice of seated meditation, (4) attack
by demons, (5) the work of devils, and (6) the effects of karma - taken from 'On
Curing Karmic Disease' (WND-1, p. 631).
- Nichiren Daishonin, 'Letter from Sado' (WND-1, p. 305).
- Ibid, p. 303.
- Daisaku Ikeda, et al, The World of Nichiren Daishonin's Writings (Soka Gakkai
Malaysia, 2004) Vol 3, p. 62.
- Nichiren Daishonin,'Letter from Sado' (WND-1, p. 303).
- Daisaku Ikeda, et al, The World of Nichiren Daishon/n's Writings (Soka Gakkai
Malaysia, 2004) Vol 3, p. 57.
- Daisaku Ikeda, The Heart of the Lotus Sutra (World Tribune Press, 2013) p. 323.