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Lessening the Karmic Retribution


The doctrine of karma is central to Buddhist philosophy. It states that each living being carries an accumulation of effects from causes made, not only in this lifetime, but throughout the infinite past. Every word, thought or action is imprinted upon the individual's life and contributes to his overall destiny, like an invisible balance sheet of debits and credits. The practice of Buddhism is powerful enough to override this vast accumulation and can minimize its negative effects, thus the title of this letter--- "Lessening One's Karmic Retribution."

On October 5, 1271, only three weeks after he came close to being executed at Tatsunokuchi, Nichiren Daishonin drafted this letter and sent it to three of his leading disciples - Ota Saemon, Soya Nyudo and Kimbara Hokkyo. One of them had perhaps visited the Daishonin while he was being detained at Echi. Records indicate that they lived in Shimosa, to the northeast of Kamakura, and this letter was an expression of gratitude for the visit and concern for the Daishonin's safety.

The Daishonin's near execution and detention at Homma Rokurozaemon's mansion were matters of grave concern to his followers. Immediately after the shogunate government failed to decapitate Nichiren Daishonin, it could not decide what to do with him, so it temporarily detained him at the mansion. In the meantime, fanatic adherents of the Nembutsu and other sects set fire to houses in Kamakura and ascribed the arson to the Daishonin's followers so that the government would not release him. Thus the government finally decided to exile him to Sado Island. It seems that when the letter was drafted, the exile had already been determined.

The practitioners of true Buddhism were disheartened. The Daishonin anticipated their distress and poured out a steady stream of encouraging letters. He explained that the incidents were not harassment, but were highly significant because they bore out predictions in the Lotus Sutra and thus substantiated the fact that he was the original Buddha. His sufferings were an important and inevitable part of that revelation. In this letter, he urges these followers to erase their own karma by "reading" the Louts Sutra with their lives. He assures them that the power of the supreme law is so great that it can minimize and even wipe out the effects of negative causes.


Lessening the Karmic Retribution

There were two brothers called Suri and Handoku1. Both of them answered to the name Suri Handoku. You three believers are like them. When any one of you comes, I feel as though all three of you were with me.

The Nirvana Sutra teaches the principle of lessening karmic retribution. If one's heavy karma from the past is not expiated within this lifetime, he must undergo the sufferings of hell in the future, but if he experiences extreme hardship in this life, the sufferings of hell will vanish instantly. When he dies, he will obtain the blessings of Rapture and Tranquillity, as well as those of the three vehicles and the supreme vehicle. Bodhisattva Fukyo was not abused and vilified, stoned and beaten with staves without reason. He had probably slandered the True Law in the past. The phrase "after expiating his sins"2 indicates that because Bodhisattva Fukyo met persecution, he could eradicate his sins from previous lifetimes.

The twenty-four successors3 were all emissaries from the Buddha, who had predicted their advent. Of these, the fifteenth, Bodhisattva Kanadeva, was killed by a Brahman, and the twenty-fourth, Aryasinha, was beheaded by King Danmira. Buddhamitra and Bodhisattva Nargarjuna also suffered many persecutions. Yet others propagated Buddhism under the protection of devout kings, without encountering persecution. This would seem to show that there are both good and evil countries in the world, and accordingly there are two ways of propagation, shoju and shakubuku. Persecutions occurred even in the Former and Middle Days of the Law -- even in India, the center of Buddhism. Now is the beginning of the Latter Day, and this country is far away from India. I therefore expected that persecutions would arise, and I have long been awaiting them.

I expounded this principle a long time ago; so it should not be new to you. Kangyo-soku is one of the six stages of practice in the perfect teaching. It means that one does as he speaks and speaks as he does. Those at the stages of ri-soku and myoji-soku believe in the perfect teaching, but even though they praise it, their actions fail to reflect their words. For example, many people study the books of the Three Great Rulers4 and the Five Emperors, but there is not one case in ten million where society is governed as those ancient Chinese sages taught. Thus it is very difficult to establish peace in society. One may be letter-perfect in reciting the Lotus Sutra, but it is far more difficult to practice as it teaches. The Hiyu chapter states, "They will despise, hate, envy and bear grudges against those who read, recite, transcribe and embrace this sutra." The Hosshi chapter reads, "Since hatred and jealousy abound even during the lifetime of the Buddha, how much worse will it! be in the world after his passing?" The Kanji chapter reads, "They will attack us with swords and staves...we will be banished again and again." The Anrakugyo chapter states, "The people will be full of hostility, and it will be extremely difficult to believe." These quotations are from the sutra, but there is no way of knowing when these prophecies will be fulfilled. In the past, Bodhisattva Fukyo and Priest Kakutoku read and lived these passages. But aside from the Former and Middle Days of the Law, now in the Latter Day, in all Japan only Nichiren seems to have done so. From my present situation, I can well imagine how followers, relatives, disciples and believers must have grieved when so many of their saints met persecution in the ancient days of evil kings.

Nichiren has now read the entirety of the Lotus Sutra. Even a single phrase or passage will assure one's Enlightenment; since I have read the entire sutra, my benefits will be far greater. Though I may sound presumptuous, my most fervent wish is to enable the whole nation to attain enlightenment. However, in an age when none will heed me, it is beyond my power. I will close now to keep this brief.


The fifth day of the tenth month in the eighth year of Bun'ei (1271)



Suri and Handoku: Sons of a Brahman family in Shakyamuni's time, said to be so stupid that they were unable to distinguish between each other; both would come running when one was called. The Daishonin compares their closeness to the staunch unity of the three believers from Shimousa. Lotus Sutra, chap. 20.

The number and ordering of the Buddha's successors differs slightly according to different documents. The translation here is based on the Daishonin's full list of them which appears in page 1103 of the Gosho Zenshu.

Books of the Three Great Rulers and Five Emperors: Writings popularly ascribed to eight legendary emperors of ancient China. Confucius is traditionally thought to have incorporated them into his work, the Book of Documents, one of his Five Classics. Little is known about the contents of these works, but the legendary emperors are said to have realized a model government.

Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin; Vol. 1, pp. 17-19.