Nichiren Buddhism and the teaching of Karma

In Traditional Buddhism, the word karma - in most cases - is associated with a negative meaning of someone having a “bad karma”.  However, according to Nichiren , the word karma is used to indicate creating good fortune, and refers to the individuals who practice the Lotus Sutra as possessing the most fortunate or good karma: “ have had the rare fortune to encounter Buddhism. Moreover, out of the Buddha’s many teachings you have encountered the daimoku”. 

The Mechanism of Creating Karma:

The word “Karma” means “Accumulated actions”.

There are three expressions of action: thoughts, speech and deeds. 

As Mahatma Gandhi explained:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Your Karma means your History

Because every action we do is recorded within the mind, then the record of our actions is a record of our history. One’s history is the condensed information of the past, but we cannot see history.  When we see someone, we use the senses to identify the person, but we do not have a sense organ to detect one’s history or past actions. 

Nonetheless, the record of our actions resides in our mind, and it is impossible to separate one from one’s history.  We are the product of our past actions.  A action has a concrete manifestation of detailed elements - but most importantly actions are based on intentions and motivations.  It is the essence of our actions, the essence of motivations and tendencies - that get recorded in the files of our deepest level of mind, the subconsciousness (Alaya).  The subconsciousness is the storehouse of past knowledge and tendencies, which condenses our history - but is constantly updated at each moment by continually occurring actions.

We carry our history with us, and this is our karma.

Karma is created at each moment in time

According to the traditional teaching of Karma, the present situation of our life is the accumulation of all past causes and karmic tendencies we have created so far.  Nichiren Buddhism takes this concept further: because the present is dictated by past karma, then the future is created by the present. This present moment now - is the past seen (from the perspective of the future). 

This means that we are creating our Karma at each moment in time, because at each moment we employ one or more of the causes of actions: thinking(and desires), speaking and doing. 

Transformation of Krama

Various schools of Mahayana Buddhism employ meditation and observing the precepts to create gradual purification of one’s karma, a process which takes the span of many lifetimes.

According to Nichiren Buddhism, it is possible to change one’s karmic tendencies - and hence it is possible to change one’s destiny - in this lifetime, by directly activating in our life the power of the Universal Law of Cause and Effect.   Karmic tendencies and desires were created by us through causes which produced effects.  Employing then the same law of cause and effect - we can make a shift to make a change in our history or make causes to increase our good fortune.

The thoughts of mind we have during chanting (or prayers), the voice of invocation and the action of chanting to the Gohonzon - manifest the integration of the three causes (of creating karma) in one activity of chanting.

Chanting is called the True Cause (Honin Myo), which penetrates the storehouse of accumulated karma, brings clarity to the mind (about causes and effect of life’s experienced events), and releases inner life force (which one experiences during and after chanting as an elevated state of life).

The key to transforming and elevating our life’s tendencies starts with a determination in our prayers: a goal, whether to eliminate a certain weakness in our psychology, or to achieve strength in our skills or goals (such as finding a solution to a certain problem). 

According to the Buddhist concept of the Nine Consciousnesses, one’s karmic tendencies reside in the subconsciousness (Alaya).  These karmic powers may present obstacles and limitations in our psychology, which we have caused by past actions of ignorance.  The formation of obstacles can be so deep in time that we are not aware of how our habits or tendencies were formed.

However, the process of chanting links our sense awareness and (Mano) consciousness - with the mind of Enlightenment (Amala) which is Nammyohorengekyo.  The power of the mind of Enlightenment (Amala) is not stopped by the obstacles of the subconsciousness (Alaya). 

Chanting penetrates the deepest areas of our mind, and leads one to act to alter the contents of the subconsciousness - aimed at self-transformation and freedom from the obstacles of the past.

This tendency of self-renewal itself becomes our karma, and our identity.

How Karma survives death?

The concept that Karma equals one’s history of actions in this life since birth - is easy to understand, because we know that the present situation is the affected by past history.  We create actions during lifetime, until the moment of death.

The question now is:

What happens after death?

Before dying, one’s life is expressed by the working of Body and Mind.  The Mind has various levels of depth.  The Buddhist view of the Nine Consciousnesses can be simplified here to present the model of the Mind as having the following levels:

  1. -   Awareness about the world (the 5 senses and thinking),

  2. -   Consciousness about the self, and 

  3. -   Subconsciousness.

The contents of our Awareness and Consciousness - depend on the working of the body, and when the body dies, those two levels of mind disintegrate and vanish. 

The Subconsciousness level, however, is not controlled by the body.  It is a record of information about the essence of one’s motivations and tendencies.  One’s motivations and tendencies are created through one’s actions during the period until death, and the sum of actions is stored in the Subconsciousness as one’s Karma.

The Subconsciousness is the storehouse of karmic information (called also the Alaya mind) and it does not vanish at death, but becomes frozen in the field of death (the field of death is a field of imagery like in dreams, it is called also the field of Sunyatta, Non-substantiality, or Emptiness, beyond the physical world of time or space):

The Alaya is sometimes called “non-vanishing” because the karmic seeds stored within it do not disappear at death.  Our individual lives are accompanied into latency by all the effects of our karma”. (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death p.160)

The information stored in the Subconsciousness (or the Alaya) survives death, and it remains frozen in the field of death - having the potential or possibility to be reactivated again to return to the physical world of reality.

The frozen in death Subconsciousness becomes reactivated by attraction to a sexual encounter of male and female - who are the most suitable for it, and most convenient for its latent energy to connect with.  When the frozen Alaya mind gets attracted by a union of male and female - who have similar or matching Karma, then the moment of inception takes place - as the beginning of a new Rebirth. 

At conception, there are three factors at work: father, mother and child.   Part of what determines our life-situation at rebirth is related to father and mother’s DNA, and the other part is related to the Karma stored in the child’s subconsciousness (or Alaya):

... the elements that will determine our life-condition after death remain within the Alaya Consciousness” (Unlocking the Mysteries, p.160).

This dramatic scenario of Rebirth explains that, when a child is born, he or she shares his or her own Karma of previous life, with the DNA of new parents.  The child is not a replica or reincarnation of the past, but a completely new unique life.  The person who lived and died in the past has vanished forever. This is very difficult for the ego to accept, and for this reason the ego wants to be replicated again as re-incarnation (a new body) - but this is futile.  But the new body has nothing in connection with the previous “person” : the newly born can be of a different gender, a different ethnic background, a different race, in a different place or environment.  Only the inner subconscious tendencies - or Karma or motivations - are similar to what was created in the past.  But because tendencies can be changed, then Rebirth offers freedom from the past.

Karma at Birth

In Mahayana Buddhism, one’s birth is dictated by one’s past lives and their  accumulated karma.  In Nichiren Buddhism, one’s karma at birth is the product of three components:

1/ one’s past lives tendencies,

2/ parent’s karma (visible in one’s acquired DNA) and,

3/ the karma of the place of birth (or society).

As P. Ikeda explains, at birth,

“Western science generally considers the spermatozoon and ovum the sole essentials for conception, maintaining that only fertilisation of the female gamete is an necessary prerequisite.  By contrast, the Buddhist view is that not only the spermatozoon and ovum but also life itself with karma that matches the conditions of conception, heredity, family, and social conditions into which the life will be born - are each necessary for human life to come into being and develop. Conception [and birth] results from the union of all three”.

Daisaku ikeda, page 23, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, ISBN: 978-0-9723267-0-4

This explanation clarifies the view that we share family and society’s karma in addition to our own individual tendencies (and which are all fitting together).


The following statements by P.Ikeda can serve to clarify SGI understanding of karma, as a fuel for taking responsibility at the present time:

Taking Responsibility:

                                               The concept of karma was not developed so that we would resign ourselves to hopeless sufferings. By correctly understanding the notion of karma, we automatically come to recognise that we are responsible for whatever problem we face in life, and that we ourselves must strive to overcome those problems. This recognition enables us to establish true independence”.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p.71

Eternity of Life:    

                        “The state of mind with which we meet death will greatly influence the course of our lives over eternity. If one is unconcerned by how one dies, or if one dismisses any connection between this existence and the next, then there probably isn't any need to practice the Daishonin's Buddhism. But the truth is that life is eternal, that our existence continues even after we die. Moreover, during the latent stage of death before rebirth, we cannot change the essence of our lives; we cannot carry out a Buddhist practice. Only when we are alive as human beings can we practice Buddhism". 

Faith Into Action p.23 & 24.

The Three Karmic Causes: 

                                            “Buddhism, which is founded on the law of cause and effect, stresses the concept of karma. This principle explains that life at each moment is subject to the cumulative effects of causes made in the past.  What we do, what we say and what we think are all causes. And according to Buddhism, the moment we do something, say something or think something, an effect is registered in the depths of our being. Then, as our lives meet the right circumstances, the effect becomes apparent. Personality traits are strongly connected to our karma. The good news is that, unlike fate, our karma can be changed by causes we make from this moment forward. In fact, the practice of Buddhism is essentially the practice of continually changing our karma”. 7July 2011

Backward understanding of Karma:

                                                              To simply view your sufferings as ‘karma’ is backward-looking. We should have the attitude: ‘ These are sufferings I took on for the sake of my mission”.  The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol. 2 p. 208

Reforming our Destiny:

                                           “Nichiren Buddhism enables us to fundamentally reform our destiny. When we truly base ourselves on Buddhism's view of life's eternity, we realize that the first thing to change is how we live in the present. In Nichiren Buddhism, change arises from the depths of our being. Strong, pure vitality abundantly wells forth. The iron chains of destiny are cut, and our original identity, the fresh and robust world of Buddhahood, appears”. October 17, 2011


         ”Based on the Buddhist perspective of the eternity of life, we volunteered to be born in our current life-condition and chose to encounter the problems we have. If you can take this perspective, you should be able to overcome any difficulty with joy”. September 17, 2011


         “ If our lives are filled with joy, then our death will also be filled with joy.

And if our deaths are filled with joy, then our next lives will also be filled with joy”.

The Hope-Filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p.60-61

        “I believe that whether we can live a truly satisfying life to the end depends to a considerable extent on how we view death. Sadly, many older people are anxious and fearful about death. But, as a Buddhist, I find it helpful to compare the cycles of life and death to the daily rhythms of waking and sleeping. Just as we look forward to the rest sleep brings after the efforts and exertions of the day, death can be seen as a welcome period of rest and re-energizing in preparation for a new round of active life. And just as we enjoy the best sleep after a day in which we have done our very best, a calm and easy death can only follow a life lived to the fullest without any regrets”. 23 May 2011

“Our life is eternal, continuing on after death. It stretches on ahead of us infinitely into the future. The existence we are born into in our next lifetime will be defined by our inner state of life at the time of our death. That is where the importance of our Buddhist practice comes in”. SGI Newsletter No. 4211


             “Josei Toda explained the supreme benefit of faith as follows: "Attaining Buddhahood means achieving the state in which we are always reborn overflowing with abundant and powerful life force; we can take action to our heart's content based on a profound sense of mission; we can achieve all our goals; and we possess good fortune that no one can destroy." 13 October 2011

“If we attain the state of Buddhahood in this lifetime, that state will forever pervade our lives. Throughout the cycle of birth and death in each new lifetime we will be endowed with good health, wealth and intelligence along with a supportive and comfortable environment, leading a life that overflows with good fortune. Each of us will also possess a unique mission and be born in an appropriate form to fulfil it”.

(Ikeda: Faith into Action page 23)

Karma as a Mission:

                                   “Someone who is too exemplary from the outset cannot go among the people. To spread Buddhism we intentionally choose to be born as people who are poor or sick. Only if one has taste life’s bitterness can one lead people to happiness. To simply view your sufferings as ‘karma’ is backward-looking.  These sufferings I took for the sake of my mission. I vowed to overcome these problems through faith.

When we understand the principle of “deliberately creating the appropriate karma” our frame of mind is transformed. What we had previously viewed as destiny, we come to see as mission.... Therefore, we should all respect one another as noble beings each with a profound mission to fulfil”. 

Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol. 2 p. 209

The conviction that we will win no matter how trying the present times and definitely attain Buddhahood - this is the unshakable belief that transforms karma into mission. Courageous faith transforms hardship into joy.  Here we find the unwavering optimism  of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism”. SGI Newsletter 8319  -13 Sep. 2011

Voluntarily accepting negative karma (through one’s birth circumstances):

“The Daishonin’s Buddhism teaches that we have personally taken on sufferings of our own free will in order to show the immense beneficial power of the Gohonzon. As such, there is no problem we cannot overcome”. SGI Newsletter 7800 - 22 June 2009

Transforming negative karma :

                                                           “Even difficult situations, the kind we can only ascribe to our negative karma, are precious, never-to-be-repeated opportunities to fulfill our mission. In that respect, those who understand the wisdom of the true entity of all phenomena can transform any kind of karma into a radiantly brilliant mission”.

Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol. 1 p 190

The importance of the present moment:

                                                        The important thing is right now - the present moment. Our present inner resolve, our determination, enables us to sever the bonds of karmic causality by the strength arising from within - and enter the sure path of happiness”.

The Importance of the Present Moment