Lectures on Basic Study Materials
from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 368
What is Karma?
When Japanese people become exasperated because things are not
progressing the way they would like them to, they often use a phrase
which translates literally as, “I am boiling in my karma”, in order to
express their irritation. Although the Japanese incorporate the word
“karma” into many phrases used in everyday language, such as, “the
fires of karma” and, “karmic illness”, these phrases do not always
correctly convey the original meaning of the word “karma”.
In our practice of Buddhism, it is important that we correctly
understand the concept of karma. The word “karma” comes from
Sanskrit, and means “action” or “deed”. There are also times when the
meaning of the word “karma” includes not only a person’s deed, but
also the deed’s power to produce an effect. For example, if someone
hurts another, even though the act itself may soon be over and done
with, the regret, animosity and the like, which accompany the hurtful
deed, will remain afterwards. Further, because of such remorse or ill
feeling, there will eventually be suffering. In this way, while karma
refers specifically to actions, those actions also leave behind their
Varieties of Karma
Three Karmas of the Body, Mouth and Mind.
All of human karma is divided into three kinds; physical, verbal and
mental. Physical karma results from activities of the body, while
verbal karma derives from actions of the mouth, and mental karma
arises from activities of the mind or will. On the Buddhist path, these
three types of actions should correspond with each other. We are
taught that it is important that our thoughts, words and deeds should
be consistent, rather than allowing them to be separate or
Common Karma and Individual Karma.
Common karma refers to karma which people share and shoulder in
common. For example, there are cases where all people share causes
and effects, such as social development, or a case where an entire
society was assailed by a disaster, would be called instances of
common karma. In contrast, individual karma refers to the karma of
an individual person. For example, a mother can not take the place of
a child who is suffering from illness. Individual karma refers to
personal pleasures and sufferings. Thus, while karma is a personal
matter, it simultaneously possesses social and historical capabilities.
The Nature of Karma
Further, if we search deeply into the nature of karma, we can show
that what a person does is what he receives (Japan: Jigo Jitoku), and
that a karmic cause produces a karmic effect (Japan: Goin Goga).
This refers to the fact that a person receives retribution for the
deeds he has committed. A sutra states:
It is not likely that a person’s deeds will be erased. They will return
without fail for the culprit to receive. If a foolish man commits a
crime, he will suffer for it in his next life.
It is further stated in the Hokku Sutra:
A man will be tainted by his evil deeds, while a man who commits no
evil will remain pure. Through their own deeds, people will be pure
In short, because the effects of one’s actions will return to oneself,
we must ultimately take responsibility for our own actions. For
example, even if we are influenced by the actions of others, the
significance of Jigo Jitoku is lost if we think that our future will be
determined by the actions of that other person. The fundamental
concept of karma is that we are responsible for our own actions.
Karmic Cause and Karmic Effect.
Among causes and effects that span the three existences of past,
present and future, good and evil actions become the causes of
karma, which eventually manifest as good or evil, painful or
pleasurable effects. There are two facets to the causes and effects of
First is the case where the natures of the cause and effect are the
same. For example, through a person’s greedy conduct (cause), his
heart becomes more stingy and shameless (effect). In this case, there
is a “flow of intimacy between the cause and the effect”, which is
known as Toru no Inga in Japanese. The other case is where the
natures of the cause and the effect diverge. In this instance, a good
cause produces a pleasurable effect, while a bad cause produces a
painful result. This is known as a “cause and effect of divergent
maturing” (Japan., Ijaku no Inga). Thus, one’s fortune is a result of
the karmic cause that is made. However, the time when one will
receive that karmic effect can vary. Buddhism explains that for
karma created in the present lifetime, there are three periods for the
retribution of that karma.
1. Jungen Jugo (Genpo): karmic retribution in this lifetime
2. Junji Jugo (Shoho): karmic retribution in one’s next lifetime
3. Jungo Jugo (Goho): karmic retribution after two or three lifetimes
Karma and Destiny
According to teachings other than Buddhism, views about humanity
can be divided into three major classifications:
1. The view that God controls the destiny of man.
2. The view that the destiny of man is determined by coincidence.
3. The view that man’s life has been determined by destiny or fate
since the eternal past.
From the viewpoint of Buddhism, each of these views is shallow and
partial. Buddhism teaches that all human suffering or pleasure is
based on a realistic law of cause and effect, and is determined by
each individual’s karma. We can not determine or choose our parents
or country of birth. Further, each of us is born with different abilities
and appearances. The causes that give rise to such differentiation are
the deeds which each of us has committed before we were born,
which Buddhism calls “karma” (Japan., Shukugo).
This view of karma is different from the theory of destiny or fate.
The reason for this is that karma is the causal actions through which
we receive our resulting fortune. Likewise, we are freely able to
change our future lives through our causal actions in this lifetime.
For this reason, the view of karma is totally different, both from the
view which posits that our lives are determined by an absolute being
like a god, and from the theory of destiny, which expounds that life
is just coincidental.
Path to the Transformation of Karma
Although we all face various restrictions in our present lives due to
karma from past existences, Buddhism explains that even though we
are in the middle of karmic retribution, we can determine our future
fortune by our own volition. The Daishonin expounds the path to
karmic change in the Letter from Sado.
It is impossible to fathom one’s karma. . . It is solely so that I may
expiate in this lifetime my past heavy slanders and be freed from
the three evil paths in the next. (M.W., Vol. 1, pp. 37-38)
Through the benefit of embracing the Dai-Gohonzon, we can change
our evil karma from past lifetimes and construct happy lives, both in
this existence and the life to come.
©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly