One of the questions I get most often from readers is this: Should I chant to change other people? The short and simple answer is ‘No. Change your own karma first.’ But before exploring this in more detail, here are the kinds of comments people send me:
Q: When you know that the other person is wrong and ill-treating you, why should I change? Shouldn’t they change instead?
Q: I am chanting for my husband to stop being so lazy. When will he?
Q: I want my daughter to change for the better so that she respects me and treats me with equality in front of my in-laws. How do I chant about this?
A victory of hope over despair, of shared humanity over hatred, and of justice over inequality… these are my thoughts reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who passed away this evening. My admiration for Mandela comes mostly from reading essays by Daisaku Ikeda, leader of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement that I belong to.
Mandela heard about Ikeda’s humanistic writings while in prison and after his release requested a meeting with him during a visit to Japan. Here are some extracts from an essay written by Daisaku Ikeda, reflecting on the two dialogues he had with South Africa’s first black President:
“There is something very special about Nelson Mandela’s smile. It is honest and pure, full of gentle composure. There isn’t a single line on his face that would suggest anything cold and harsh. And yet it embodies the conviction and strength of character of a man who has led his people to freedom. It is a smile like the purest gold, from which all impurities have been burned and driven in the furnace of great suffering.
I have just read a mesmerising novel called In Between Jobs. Written by Buddhist actor Duncan Pow. It is about a man called Harry Caldwell. The cover blurb says: ‘Harry is 26 years old. He is an actor. He is a son. He is a brother. He is a nephew. He is a drug addict. He is a sexual deviant. He is a lover. He is a fighter. He is good. He is bad. He is a Buddhist.’
The journey from first to final page is captivating. It is raw and enlightening. It is often explicit, sometimes disturbing; in places it is laugh out loud. Most of all it is lyrical and entrancing and hypnotic. The most hypnotic stream of consciousness I have experienced in a very long time. Think Trainspotting meets Ulysses meets The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
I meet loads of people who say that if they had any religion at all, it would be Buddhism. That they love the ‘positive thinking’ aspects of the teaching, the idea that we are simultaneously free and responsible, the way it is extremely strict yet has no rules, the emphasis on being the change you want to see in the world, its idealistic pragmatism… and so on. But what some of them struggle with is the idea of chanting the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
They might be quite happy to read blogs like this, or even do affirmations into a mirror, but to actually chant, out loud? And in Sanskrit and classical Chinese rather than English (or your own mother tongue…) ? For two years after meeting this practice in 1983, I was definitely one of these people. As William Woollard says in his excellent book, The Reluctant Buddhist: “Scepticism is a tough and resourceful fighter. It doesn’t give in easily and it is very accustomed to putting together bitter rearguard actions.”
… Yep, that includes you, your best mate, your lover, your beautiful kids, your gorgeous grandma and your favourite teacher from school. But you knew that already, right? The thing is, it also includes the colleague who bitches about you, the friend who betrayed you, the lover who stopped loving you, the driver who cut you up at a roundabout, the father who judged you, the boss who sacked you and that irritating kid down the road who you feel like strangling sometimes! Although this may be hard to believe, Nichiren was adamant that everyone has Buddha-potential: “All of the people of the ten worlds can attain Buddhahood. We can comprehend this when we remember that fire can be produced by a stone taken from the bottom of a river, and a candle can light up a place that has been dark for billions of years.”
Five years ago, I decided to chant about the fact that I’ve always tended to wake up in a grumpy, grouchy mood. It was a fairly casual decision born of curiosity and no little guilt that my ‘low life-state’ often had a negative impact on people around me.
I have had a few angry conversations in recent months. One with a fellow blogger whom I’ve never met, one with the BBC and one with the manager of my son’s football team. Whether I ‘won the arguments’ or not is irrelevant (except to my ego), whether I was right or wrong is equally by-the-by. Buddhism teaches the sometimes inconvenient truth that I attract these situations into my life, that my own inner anger is like a magnet that can pull me into conflicts and sometimes sees me being disrespectful and losing my temper more than I would like to.
Luckily I have learned a lot about anger from my 12-year-old son Leon. A few years ago, when I was trying to catch the cat to take her to the vet, I asked him to make sure he didn’t leave the back door open. Unfortunately he did, the cat escaped, we were going to be late, I exploded with rage… And he just calmly looked at me and said: “Daddy, getting angry won’t bring the cat back in.” I was gobsmacked and will never forget this humbling moment and the fact that he naturally focused on the solution instead of the problem. Chanting about it later, it occurred to me that anger is the first reaction of the stupid when it needs to be the last resort of the wise.