Lessening One's Karmic Retribution - Transforming One's Destiny and Helping Others Do the Same

The Nirvana Sutra teaches the principle of lessening one’s karmic retribution. If one’s heavy karma from the past is not expiated within this lifetime, one must undergo the sufferings of hell in the future, but if one experiences extreme hardship in this life [because of the Lotus Sutra], the sufferings of hell will vanish instantly.

(The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin Vol 1, p199)

Nichiren Daishonin wrote this letter on the fifth day of the 10th month, 1271, only three weeks after he was nearly executed at Tatsunokuchi. It was sent to his three leading disciples: Ota Saemon, a leading government official, the lay priest Soya Kyoshin, and the Dharma Bridge Kimbara.

One of them might have visited the Daishonin while he was being held in detention for exile at the residence of Homma, deputy constable of Sado Island, in Echi, after the failed execution.

This letter may well have been an expression of gratitude for the visit and for their concern for the Daishonin’s safety.


The following explanation is based on SGI President Ikeda’s study series: Learning from the Gosho – The Hope-filled Writings of Nichiren Daishonin on the Gosho, “Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution. The power of the human spirit is infinite. No matter what fate might have in store for us, we can definitely overcome it.

We can break through our sufferings and find joy.

The doctrine of changing karma taught in Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism is an unrivalled principle of victory in life, bringing hope, courage and confidence to all people. It embodies a philosophy of supreme humanism showing that each individual inherently possesses the power to weather any destiny.

In this writing, we can see the Daishonin’s towering life-state of viewing great hardships as an opportunity to attain Buddhahood. He clarified the common truth of Buddhism and human existence that hardships are a part of life, saying that we should not be perturbed by them.

In this passage we are studying, the Daishonin referred to the principle of lessening one’s karmic retribution, and highlighted the significance of hardships n terms of karma, a subject relevant to all people.

There is no such thing as a life free of hardships. We experience adversity precisely so that we can achieve true peace in life. But unless we are aware of our inner strength to withstand hardships, we will find ourselves in a situation where one difficulty gives rise to another and we will ultimately be crushed by their weight.

The principle of lessening one’s karmic retribution set forth in this writing explains the quintessential power that resides within us and enables us to withstand hardships. The Daishonin demonstrated this power by weathering intense persecutions himself.

The prevailing view of karma in the Daishonin’s time was that if a person had accumulated such heavy offenses in past lifetimes that it would be impossible to expiate all of their evil karma in the course of their present existence, they would have to undergo hellish sufferings in future lifetimes before their retribution could end.

The principle of lessening karmic retribution that the Daishonin taught, however, held that a person could expiate even the heaviest negative karma from past lifetimes through receiving retribution in a lighter form in their present existence.

The theory of karma in Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism is an empowering teaching that can revitalize people’s lives.

It teaches that there is no negative karma, no matter how heavy, that cannot be transformed for the better. In this writing, the Daishonin’s doctrine of changing karma or destiny is discussed in terms of the principle of lessening one’s karmic retribution.

There are two major points concerning lessening one’s karmic retribution that are highlighted in this writing.

The first point is in regard to the Daishonin’s declaration that “the sufferings of hell will vanish instantly”. (WND-1, p199)

What he said is that even the kind of heavy karma that gives ris to hellish retribution can be expiated immediately, right now – not gradually at some distant time in the future. This is made possible by the principle of mutual possession of the Ten Worlds.

Generally, karma is taught as being formed by past causes and manifested as present effects – that is, there is a time lag between cause and effect; they are not simultaneous.

The Daishonin’s Buddhism, however, teaches that karma can be transformed as a result of manifesting the Buddhahood that inherently exists within us. Just as the myriad stars in the sky disappear when the sun rises, the unfathomable store of negative karma in our lives can be erased when we bring forth the life-state of Buddhahood.

Accordingly, the second point – one that is very important – is that lessening karmic retribution is also the gateway to attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime.

In other words, lessening karmic retribution leads directly to the great path of attaining Buddhahood. In that sense, when we lessen our karmic retribution, it doesn’t mean merely zeroing out a minus balance, but rather that we effect a momentous change in the direction of our lives, shifting from a downward descent toward an infinite upward ascent, from a negative path to a positive one of genuine good.

This is the power of Mystic Law, which has the ability to transform the negative into something beneficial – in other words, to turn poison into medicine.

The doctrine of lessening one’s karmic retribution in the Daishonin’s Buddhism is none other than the principle for redirecting our lives toward happiness right at this very moment – here, now, just as we are.

Therefore, the present moment in which we wage this struggle is vitally important. In “The Opening of the Eyes”, the Daishonin stated: “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.” (WND-1, p279)

Our present is the result or effect of our past causes. At the same time, the present itself becomes the cause that will shape our future. The three existences – past, present and future – are all contained in the present, in this instant.

The important thing is how we change our attitude or inner resolve at this moment. This is because we can freely create our future through our determination and action right at this very instant.

The Daishonin’s teaching of changing karma opens the way for a brilliant revolution of hope, freeing people from the predominant dark, fatalistic view of karma or destiny.