Karma, Karmic Retribution and Changing One's Destiny

Karma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It not simply a name given to a person's good or bad fortune. It is a process of cause and effect by which each thought, word and deed of a person is an action that must be accounted for. Even if a person does not translate thoughts into words or actions and other people remain completely unaware of them, that person creates karma - both positive and negative - that is gradually accumulated in one's life. This karma accumulating as a potential force in one's life is called latent or non-manifest karma. It is invisible, but eventually produces visible effects. The Buddhist scholar, Vasubandhu, in a treatise on the Mahayana view of karma, states, "Latent karma does not disappear, not even with the passing of a hundred aeons. When one encounters the proper stimulus, its effect will invariably appear." So latent karma, both positive and negative, exists in life until an external stimulus causes it effects to be manifested. Positive causes produce pleasurable effects, and negative causes produce painful effects or karmic retribution. Thus a person's actions in the past exert an influence on their present life; while a person's actions in the present shape the future. In this way, the law of cause and effect permeates a person's life throughout past, present and future existences.
How these effects manifest themselves depends on whether or not the karma is mutable or immutable. Generally, immutable karma never fails to produce a fixed result. The effect of mutable karma, however, is not absolutely fixed. It is generally considered that heavy causes, whether positive or negative, produce fixed or immutable karma, while lighter causes create mutable karma. From another viewpoint, immutable karma may be thought of as karma whose effects are destined to appear at a particular time, and mutable karma, as karma whose effects are not fixed to appear at any specific time. If one commits exceptionally grave offences, that karma may carry over, causing that person to suffer in another lifetime, three lifetimes or even more. Exceptionally good karma, such as that created through Buddhist practice, will also carry over far beyond this lifetime.
Mahayana Buddhism defines the inner sphere of life in which karma is stored as a potential effect as the eighth or alaya-consciousness. Alaya means a repository or storehouse. A part of the karma now stored in our alaya-consciousness was created through our behaviour since our birth in this lifetime. Depending on the nature of that karma, some may manifest effects in this lifetime and some in the next lifetime or even later. From this point of view, karma accumulated in past lives also has an important bearing on our present happiness or unhappiness. The latent karmic force created through one's actions does not terminate with the person's death. As the alaya-consciousness undergoes the cycle of birth and death, the influence of the karma stored there is carried over into the next life, the lifetime after that and even beyond, continuing to influence one's life in this world. In other words, one is born with karma from the past that has already accumulated in the depths of life. This accounts for differences among people and their respective situations from the time of birth.
A classic example of one's past karma influencing the present is the duration of one's life. Nichiren Daishonin frequently uses the expression "immutable karma" in the Gosho as being synonymous with one's life span. In On Prolonging One's Life Span, he cites the examples of King Ajatashatru and Ch'en Chen and Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, who transformed their immutable karma and prolonged their lives through the practice of the Lotus Sutra. It may seem odd to say that immutable karma can be altered, but this is the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Although a person must eventually die, through their actions to promote the correct teaching they lessen the retribution of the karma (Jpn. tenju kyoju) and can alter the time and the nature of the effect.
This is also related to the Buddhist concept of changing one's destiny (Jpn. shukumei tenkan). Although in a more traditional western philosophy destiny is fixed and nothing can change it, from the Buddhist perspective, a person's destiny can always be altered by their practice of the correct teaching. In the case of King Ajatashatru, who was destined to die on a specific day, through meeting the Buddha and taking faith in his teachings, he was able to recover from his illness, overcome the burden of his heart (he had caused the death of his father) and prolong his life. This principle reminds us that simply knowing the causes of our suffering is not enough to relieve the suffering. In some cases, it may even increase it. It is only our action to create new, positive causes that will relieve the suffering. It is obvious that if we can alter immutable karma and prolong a fixed span of life, then we can also readily transform any other karma and lead a happy and fulfilling life.