Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
Do you ever reach a point in your life or your Buddhist practice where nothing seems to make sense any more? When you feel you’ve made all the right causes to change a situation, but the benefit still doesn’t appear? Or when your faith, practice and study have seemed so strong and complete, and yet a cherished dream lies in tatters at your feet? Or when, out of the blue, you are floored by a serious problem with your health, work, finances or a close relationship? You may even find yourself remonstrating with the Gohonzon, saying, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?!”
Too weird to be true?
If this is you at the moment (sometimes it is me…), give yourself a big pat on the back and say: “Congratulations to me! I did it! I kept my promise!” And then remind yourself that, as taught in The Lotus Sutra, you made a vow as a Bodhisattva of the Earth to ‘voluntarily assume the appropriate karma’ in order to teach others about Buddhism. But why on earth would you make such a vow? Why would you choose to be born in difficult circumstances, why would you go looking for such deep suffering? It just seems too weird and extraordinary! After all, there are no mentions of masochism in Nichiren Buddhism :-)! Of course, Nichiren actually taught that we made this vow so that we could, through our struggles, develop the wisdom, courage and compassion to move other people’s hearts. So that they too will feel inspired to discover and reveal the joy and dignity in the depths of their own lives.
Tomorrow (or today – depending on your timezone…) is the anniversary of the founding in 1253 of Nichiren Buddhism. 28 April is the date 762 years ago when Nichiren Daishonin first chanted the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo – the name he gave to the Mystic Law – the creative force and the rhythm of cause and effect that flows through Life itself. So I would like to offer some personal reflections, after 30 years of chanting this mantra. To ponder why it was that in 13th century Japan, the son of a lowly fisherman dedicated his life (and was prepared to lose his life) so that all humanity for millennia to come could tap into this prayer, whose power he compared to the ‘roar of a lion’.
[Note: if you would like to read a literal translation of what Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means (and find out why it may even anticipate the latest discoveries of quantum physics…) please visit this page on my blog. If you want to hear the sound of chanting, check out this Youtube video by my fellow blogger, a magnificent Buddha called Robbie Lockie.]
Recently a lovely new non-religious friend of mine asked me, “How do you come to believe what you believe?”What a great question! Well the truth is, I was a very reluctant Buddhist at first. Allow me to take you back to 1983 and share with you how I first bumped into Buddhism. I had just arrived in Paris after leaving home at the age of 17, with grand ideas to work my way across Europe. On my first night I checked into the Hotel de Nesle, a cheap and bohemian Latin Quarter hostel.
There I soon made friends with a New Yorker called Ken. The deal was that he would show me round Paris and I would teach him French. Little did I know that this chance encounter would change the course of my whole life. Ken had taken a shine to a young Finnish lady called Mina. Mina was renting a room from a French lady in the 19th arrondissement, in those days one of the less salubrious parts of the capital. Mina was heading home to Helsinki and the French lady was hosting a leaving party. Both Ken and I were invited. The French lady now had a spare room to rent. A spare room to rent in an apartment with a south-facing balcony where attractive young people came to party. The French lady with a room to rent also had a strange altar in her lounge with a scroll in it. She was called Christiane and she was a Buddhist. We decided not to let her weird religion put us off, so Ken and I moved in a couple of days later.
Destiny and Dominoes
So… the Hotel de Nesle, American Ken, his Finnish love-interest, her leaving party, my first sight of a Buddhist altar, a cheap spare room to rent… Did this ‘series of dominoes’ fall in some pre-ordained sequence? Was it fate? Cosmic coincidence? Karma? At the time, none of the above. I had absolutely no plans to become a Buddhist, despite Christiane’s earnest endeavours. Firstly, I was a devout (if increasingly sceptical) Catholic. And secondly, although I found the philosophy intriguing, the practice was just a bit too ‘far out’. My first impressions were that Christiane’s scroll (her Gohonzon) and its central mantra – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – were at best bizarre and at worst sinister.
I spent ages debating with her about our different religions. All my philosophical points made perfect sense to me, though somewhere deep inside I did feel moved by her heart, by her compassion and also by her anger about the injustices of the world in her disadvantaged corner of Paris. I was profoundly sceptical and yet I was also seeking, wanting answers to those age-old questions – what’s it all about, and why am I here?
Thanking the spoon
For all my ability to argue, this wise and perceptive lady could sense that I was struggling. She saw straight through my intellectual arrogance to all the confusion and insecurity it hid. By this stage I still had no job, was down to my last few Francs and was in a relationship with a beautiful artist who was dabbling in Buddhism to beat her heroin addiction. I was on the verge of giving up and heading back to England. It was at this point that Christiane shared the Buddhist guidance about a spoon stirring up ‘karmic sediment’ from the depths of our lives. Her point was that if you take ownership of your problems, if you ‘thank the spoon’ rather than resenting what is happening to you, you can become the architect of your future, developing the inner resources to transform your life.
And so, a few days later, on 3 July, after more fruitless attempts to find work, I began to chant. But when I quickly found a job (as a chef in an Italian take-away) and when my girlfriend beat drugs, I dismissed both as mere coincidences. I then went to university in Scotland for the next two years, where I completely forgot about Buddhism. My earnest practice only began when I returned to Paris in 1985 for a teaching placement and noticed that most of the Buddhists who came to the flat had moved forwards in their lives, whereas I had stopped growing and was unhappy.
They reported a whole range of tangible and intangible benefits from their spiritual practice. One had a happier marriage, while another had unearthed the courage to leave a violent relationship. One had a better-paid job, another had found a new career with less money but more meaning. One had overcome a major health challenge, and another had discovered her artistic talent, realised she was gay and made a whole new set of friends. Some had rediscovered a sense of hope or freedom or confidence, others were kinder, less angry, more energetic, less anxious… and so on. And some were still struggling a lot, but with more hope and determination, thanks to the warm encouragement of their fellow Buddhists.
I began to think there might be something in this mantra after all. That it might provide a powerful and practical tool for living. And so began the 29-year adventure that has brought me to this point and to this post. So, to answer my friend’s question above, why do I practise Buddhism? Quite simply, because it works. As Nichiren teaches us: “Nothing is more certain than actual proof.” And as he writes elsewhere: “Therefore, I say to you, my disciples, try practising as the Lotus Sutra teaches, exerting yourselves without begrudging your lives! Test the truth of Buddhism now!”
If you are a Buddhist, please feel free to share below – how did you start chanting? And what made you continue?
PS. I will write another post soon about ‘Buddhism and actual proof’.
Put the word ‘Happiness’ into Google and it churns out an eye-popping 49,600,000 results. In 0.22 seconds. That made me smile. Type the same word into Amazon and it suggests no less than 35,793 books you could read. As a human race, we are fascinated by it. But what exactly is it? Look up ‘happiness’ and the definitions tend to include phrases like ‘sense of well-being’, ‘flourishing’, and ‘quality of life’.
Anyway I hope that some days you feel so bouncy and excited just to be alive that random strangers come up to you in the street, squeeze your (possibly) chubby cheeks and declare: “Wow, you are bursting with joy and scrumptiousness, thank you for being in the world.” Admittedly this doesn’t happen too often in my bit of Leicestershire. Yet.
Happiness is of course the purpose of Buddhist practice and in a way the whole of this blog is trying to define it and inspire more people to discover it. And after 29 years of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and 9 years as a Life Coach, I thought it might be time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and attempt to pin down this nebulous concept. So… here is my little list, happiness is:
The death this week of Robin Williams has put depression back in the headlines. The media coverage is welcome because by talking openly about mental health challenges we can create some good from a desperately tragic suicide. The rhetoric around a previously taboo topic has been changing rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the courageous candour of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alastair Campbell, Leon McKenzie, Graeme Fowler, Ruby Wax and of course, Robin Williams himself.
As a result, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of encouragement has mostly disappeared into the shadows, along with the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade. Even the ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ gang have been mercifully quiet. This more open and enlightened mindset now views depression as a recognised illness, which, like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure, needs proper treatment.
But as I chant about Robin Williams’ suicide, I find myself wondering if ‘illness’ is always the most useful way to look at clinical depression. I ask myself whether Nichiren Buddhism, with its rich insights into the workings of the human mind, can bring a different perspective to the topic. And I think the answers are No and Yes. Let me explain…
The easy answer to this question is that in Buddhism the concept of God simply does not appear at all. After all, the historical Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, was born 500 years before Jesus. So if you had asked him, “does God exist?” he would probably have said, “Who?” But for people brought up in Judaeo-Christian cultures over the last few decades, it is a valid question. It is one that I grappled with myself 30 years ago, on my journey towards Nichiren Buddhism and away from my devout Catholic upbringing.
At first sight, the two philosophies seemed poles apart. ‘God’ was ‘somewhere out there’ whereas Buddhahood was in me. Christian prayer was about asking for salvation from an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Father. Whereas Buddhist chanting was about deciding and determining to be happy, all by yourself. Christianity had taught me that man was essentially flawed and needed forgiving, whereas Buddhism promised that we are essentially brilliant and just needed polishing (lots of polishing, as it turns out…). This all led to some overly spiky debates with sincere Christians.
With my superficial understanding of Nichiren’s teachings, Buddhism probably appealed to a more selfish and self-centred part of me. Especially as there were no concepts of sin, of guilt, or of what I saw as stifling obedience to an external power. Instead Buddhism seemed to promise freedom, individuality and self-expression.
I will always remember the day when I first heard Dr. Lou Marinoff speak. It was 2 June 2013 and I was one of 500 Nichiren Buddhists lucky enough to hear him give a talk at SGI’s UK centre (Taplow Court). Marinoff, who is Professor of Philosophy at The City College of New York, was not only wise, perceptive and funny, he also radiated great warmth and a thoroughly uplifting generosity of spirit.
Marinoff has published a dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda called ‘The Inner Philosopher, Conversations on Philosophy’s Transformative Power.’ If you want to feel more hopeful about humanity, read this book. If you want to discover the healing power of dialogue, read this book. If you want to find out what both Buddhism and philosophy were originally for, read this book. If you want to buy the perfect present for young, seeking minds, get this book.
Marinoff’s main discourse is that we must reclaim philosophy from the hands of theoreticians, whose “cogitations,” he says, “are abundant but whose applications are scarce.” I find this very refreshing, having been turned off philosophy at university by endless debates on questions like, ‘does this chair exist?’
Marinoff’s whole approach, whilst profound, is more practical than theoretical, he points out that ‘philosophy’ actually means ‘love of wisdom’, that it must be useful to humanity and, dare we say it, ‘healing’. He describes a philosopher as being ‘like a midwife attending to the birth of wisdom.’ Chanting about his talk later that day, I realised that the other reason I loved Marinoff is that he is something of a rebel and reformer in the world of modern academia. His approach reminds me of Nichiren Daishonin who came along in 13th century Japan to reclaim Buddhist wisdom from the priests and give it to the masses.
More than 10 years ago I started writing this poem about Faith, Human Revolution, the Mentor-Disciple spirit and relative and absolute happiness. The picture shows Nichiren Daishonin in 1271 before an unsuccessful attempt by government soldiers to decapitate him. Just as the axe was about to fall, a luminous object, thought to be a comet, shot across the sky, brightly illuminating the beach at Tatsunokuchi. Terrified, the soldiers called off the execution. Nichiren taught that this event was actual proof of the Buddhist principle of casting off our transient identity and revealing the true nature of our lives – Buddhahood. Dx
THE BUDDHA’S INVITATION
Will you come to eternity’s tentative edge
then teach the world of its unspoken power?
Will you plunge filthy waters with only your faith
then fly to the heavens on hope’s thinnest breath?
Will you squeeze yourself through to the middle of you
yet still keep a space for those who might hate you?
Will you sit with the scream at the core of your soul
and then share your song with those who might love you?
And what are your goals for this coming year? Does the very question make you want to sigh with resignation? Or does it excite and inspire you? Are you carrying on your shoulders the weight of previous failures? Or are you determined to achieve even more in 2014 than you ever did before?
My focus on goals improved dramatically when I first went on The Winning Edge personal development course where the inspirational trainer (Richard Jackson MBE) pointed out that in the average lifetime of 76 years, you only get 28,000 days. Twenty-eight thousand. How many do you have left? What will you do with them? Do the maths folks. Then decide.
In Nichiren Buddhism, we are encouraged to set determinations every year, to replace vague yearnings with concrete goals, to achieve benefits (both tangible and intangible), to discover and fulfill our missions and to carry out our human revolution. How lucky are we to get this sort of life training?