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.”
As I wrote in my last post, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that each of us has innate brilliance. And I often tell delegates on my training courses that we are all magnificent works in progress. When we deeply respect others, we get this point and are able to see their potential, (even though right now they may be manifesting more of their dark side than their brightness.) This approach makes for more harmonious families at home, more productive departments at work, more forgiving friendships in the pub and better football teams on a Saturday morning.
As Daisaku Ikeda explains:“We are unlimited beings. Our struggle to surmount our obstacles and sufferings and fulfil our dreams is always finally the struggle to overcome the limitations we have accepted within our own heart.”
The problem is that we’re hardwired to stereotype and label people, including ourselves. “He’s a complete jerk.” “She’s a total angel.” “They’re utter idiots.” Perhaps this sort of stereotyping served us well in our prehistoric days, when survival depended on deciding very quickly that a sabre-toothed tiger was always bad news, with no shades of grey… But in the modern age, when we use negative labels to describe people we’ve argued with, we prolong the rift and block the seeds of hope from which forgiveness and progress can bloom. (See a previous post called ‘The two words to ban from all your arguments.‘
What do you get when you parachute a stiff, introverted Japanese monk into the melting pot of a raucous and dysfunctional New York Buddhist community? The delightful tale that is Buddhaland Brooklyn. ThePublishers – Alma Books – asked me to review this novel by Richard C. Morais and I am truly delighted that they did.
The book is written in the first person by Reverend Seido Oda who leaves behind a tragic childhood and a peaceful temple in the remote mountains of Japan to find his patience and beliefs sorely tested by a motley crew of lay American Buddhists.
Although Morais insists his novel ‘should in no way be considered a work depicting a particular school of Buddhism’ there are so many gosho quotes, allusions to the Treasure Tower and references to the Lotus Sutra that I am sure the story has been inspired by Nichiren Buddhism more than by any other school.
Oda’s initial impressions of Brooklyn’s lay believers are that they lack the intelligence to practise Buddhism correctly and that their prayers are ‘barbaric, rushed and sloppy.’ His first response is an ultimately doomed attempt to ‘maintain the proper hierarchy and authority of the priesthood.’
There are hilarious moments throughout, such as his shock at meeting a ‘militant American lesbian’ and his clumsy attempts to handle the amorous advances of one of his flock. Reverend Oda comes to New York to teach the believers how to behave but ends up learning more from them than they do from him, likening his transformation to tectonic plates that ‘began to subtly shift and lurch without my realizing it.’
Although Brooklyn’s Buddhists gradually breach his defences with their criticisms of his over-formality, Oda is also a man whose prejudices are pierced from the inside by his own vulnerabilities, as his Buddhahood begins to bloom and he comes to terms with the tragedy that deeply marked his childhood. He defeats his ego to appreciate the many qualities of Brooklyn’s Buddhists and the whole book was a beautiful reminder to me that the lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond, that there should be no middle-man or guru between you and your Buddhahood and that, as Nichiren wrote, it is the heart that is most important.
It takes a deft touch to craft a book that is by turns melancholic (depression is a recurring theme), farcical (there are some almost ‘Clouseau-esque mishap’ moments) and poetic (check out the haikus…) but the author achieves exactly that. Given the theme of the book, I was reminded more than once of another excellent Buddhist-inspired novel, The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Eddy Canfor-Dumas, while Morais’ prose also has shades of Kazuo Ishiguro, Paulo Coelho and even Marcel Proust.
Many times as I turned the pages of this exquisite novel, one of my favourite quotes from Daisaku Ikeda came to mind: ‘Your home is where your loved ones live. Your home is the place where you work together with your fellow human beings to build a paradise, a realm of peace and prosperity for all. When we are asked where our home is, we can answer: “My home is the world. Everywhere in the world where my fellow human beings live, all of it, is my home”.’
Would you like to share your photos, drawings and pictures with the hundreds of people worldwide who follow this blog? If so, I would love to use them on here with some encouraging, inspirational Buddhist quotes. As you can see, my favourite personal development authors use pictures very powerfully. To take part, just email email@example.com
I am looking for images that would help me illustrate thoughts like these:
“We are all magnificent works in progress.”
“I am not my past. I am not my psychometric profile. I am not the role I have played to survive so far. I am not the product of my childhood. I am a Buddha. I am who I choose to become.”
“Wisdom without action produces only regrets. And action without wisdom does pretty much the same.”
“We do not suffer because life is difficult, we suffer because we expect it to be easy.”
Here is one of Nichiren’s most famous quotes about the Buddhist approach to dealing with problems: “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life and continue chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, no matter what happens.”
I have known Buddhists who base their whole lives just on these 32 words, re-reading them whenever the going gets rough. Or when it gets smooth. Or anything in between. Or for no reason at all. But how many of us get this advice completely back to front?
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.
The appointment last week of a new pope has made me think and chant lots about my Catholic upbringing. And it has stirred in me a mix of emotions. At first I felt really angry that my favourite BBC radio station (5 Live) dropped all their other news and sports stories to broadcast almost non-stop speculation for 45 minutes about what colour puff of smoke would emerge from the Vatican (who, it has to be said, do theatre incredibly well.)
The reporter’s tone was one of excitement and hushed reverence, of the sort we normally hear during coverage of a British royal wedding. I felt this was inappropriate, for an organisation whose treatment of women, homosexuals and sexually abused children leaves a lot to be desired. And also because I reckon only 20,000 of the programme’s 1 million UK listeners actually attend Catholic mass on a Sunday. I argued that there were probably more ex-Catholics than practising Catholics listening to the broadcast. I shared this view on a BBC blog, but it was deleted by the BBC for being too provocative. It was then allowed to appear after all when I emailed them to appeal against their censorship.
After my recent Valentine’s Day post (‘The Buddha in the Bedroom’) I received quite a few messages and questions about Love and relationships. One of the most common issues was around couples ‘growing apart’. So I want to address these questions here and write about six different types of Love. For the Nichiren Buddhists reading this, please note that I am writing today wearing my ‘Life Coach Hat’ rather than as a Buddhist quoting from the Gosho or citing guidance about meeting a Kosen Rufu partner.
My experience of coaching people to make big decisions about their love life is that the question: “How do you want to love and be loved?” is one of the most powerful ones I can ask. It can produce tears, joy, gratitude, relief or doubt in equal measure, depending on who I am talking to and how much they are able to give and receive the kind of love they most value. Often it can produce quite a long silence, because people haven’t stopped to think about it before.
Clients in difficult situations sometimes say to me: “Why me?” Or “What did I do to deserve this?” Or “Why does this keep happening in my life?” This is a very natural but ultimately futile question. Our karma is so profound over this and many previous lifetimes that it is impossible to work out what causes you have made in the past that are producing today’s effects in your life. And as I was taught when I trained as a coach, ‘Why?’ is a negative, backward-looking question. Much healthier, say the coaching textbooks, to “look at the hows of the solution in the present rather than the whys of the problem in the past.” But there is a third approach that combines the best of the first two because Nichiren Buddhism reveals that it is healthier to look at ‘Why me?’ as a positive, forward-looking question.