I recently spoke to Hollywood actress and SGI member Cathryn de Prume about her Buddhist practice and her career. She generously made time to do a Skype interview in between red carpet appearances promoting the launch of her new Oscar-nominated film Wild, where she appears opposite Reese Witherspoon. An SGI district leader in Los Angeles, Cathryn has been chanting for 30 years. She had her first big professional break in a role with Jodie Foster in Five Corners in 1987. But perhaps the biggest achievement of her life is introducing more than 100 people to Buddhism, including her Mum, Dad and two brothers! My thanks to all the readers who suggested questions for this interview and to Cathryn for her warm, wise and uplifting words.
Were you always religious?
CdeP: I was spiritual from a very young age, I would go to church on my own aged 7. And as a teenager I became a born-again Christian. After that I explored meditation. Then I was taught how to chant by a waiter in a restaurant where I worked. At first I found some of the Buddhists a bit weird 🙂 and I had a very strict leader in the early days of my practice, but I soon realised that SGI is an inspirational movement that provides an amazing support system.
I have been an avid reader all my life but these days I finish fewer and fewer books. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but I’m quite impatient if I don’t learn something new in the first 30 pages or so. So to discover a book called ‘The Fall’ by Steve Taylor was an absolute delight. I devoured all of it in two days. It is rare that a ‘non-Buddhist book’ makes me think completely differently about the human race and about Nichiren’s goal of Kosen Rufu, but this one was utterly mind-blowing. It reveals that the seeds of war, inequality and environmental destruction were actually sown just six millennia ago and that before then, people lived in peace and harmony. Blimey, who knew?!
Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle describes The Fall as: “An important and fascinating book about the origin, history and impending demise of the ego, highly readable and enlightening.” Every word of that description is true.
Here are five fascinating facts from Taylor’s book. When we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, just 6,000 years ago:
war barely existed,
women were respected as equals,
owning possessions was frowned upon, as was celebrity,
we were not territorial, we revered nature and perceived ‘spirit force’ everywhere and in everything,
men were more like ‘new men’, with traits such as empathy, emotional openness and non-aggression.
The problem – the Ego Explosion
So, what happened? ‘The Fall’ is what happened. A previously fertile stretch of land between Africa and China suddenly suffered from catastrophic drought and desertification. This apparently caused a shift in the Indo-European psyche. To survive, we ditched our predominantly caring and matrist mindset and became warlike and patrist. We began to settle on land, developed agriculture, became territorial and built cities with fortifications. We grew emotionless and detached – from each other, from the environment, from what Buddhism would call our ‘bigger interconnected selves’. We began to ring-fence our happiness and became more and more separate from each other. Taylor describes this Fall as an ‘Ego Explosion’ and says it was ‘the most momentous event in the history of the human race.’
What I love about this book is that it answers the question I’ve had bubbling away in my subconscious for a long time: ‘Why should human history be such a terrible saga of violence and oppression?’
For example, I did not know that ‘unfallen people’ had no word for ‘property’, in fact some of the few surviving indigenous tribes in the world actually have no word for ‘I’ or ‘me’. The complete antithesis of our ‘selfie generation’. And Taylor reveals that it was the ‘fallen psyche’ that created anthropomorphic gods who then controlled our destiny. Before that, people understood that everything ‘was interconnected in a vast web of sacredness.’ Taylor also quotes Ken Wilber who says: “at the very core of our being we are one with the universe, infinite and eternal, behind space and time and death.” Now then, where have I read stuff like that before? Sounds like a pretty good description of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! (Before, that is, people ‘put a beard on the Mystic Law / spirit force’ and called it God…)
Of course, humanity’s fallen psyche has been the springboard for our incredible powers of intellect and scientific invention, but, Taylor argues, these have come at a high price: ‘How can the most intelligent life form the world has ever known be mismanaging its own existence on this planet in such a catastrophic way? An alien observer might conclude that the whole human race has agreed to a collective suicide pact.’
Such questions remind me that in the modern world we venerate clever brains when what the world needs most today is wise hearts (see my previous post on why a high IQ is over-rated.) Taylor adds that the materialistic and hedonistic values of our culture create a mindset where ‘nothing really means anything and we’re going to die at some point anyway, so we’ve just got to enjoy ourselves as much as we can while we’re here.’ He also says: “We have lost awareness of the spirit force which pervades the universe and everything in it.”
The solution – your Buddhahood and mine
Of course the good news is that when Nichiren Buddhists chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo we reconnect at the most fundamental level with that force, we venerate and revere the sacred core of our own and others’ lives, as taught in the principles of ichinen sanzen and esho funi.And we deeply perceive what Eddy Canfor-Dumas describes (in The Buddha, Geoff and Me) as the “mystical, invisible thread between the churning, inner reality of my life and the great outdoors of the rest of the world.”
At first I found Taylor’s book deeply unsettling. I felt guilty for being part of the ‘fallen psyche’. But ultimately The Fall is uplifting. It will ignite hope in any Nichiren Buddhist who ever doubts that their own human revolution can actually make a difference to the collective consciousness. Because it absolutely can. As Daisaku Ikeda famously wrote: “A great inner revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of an entire society and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of humankind.” I understand that cherished quote a hundred times more, thanks to The Fall.
And finally as Nichiren himself wrote in this hope-filled prediction: “The time will come when all people […] will enter on the path of Buddhahood and the Mystic Law alone will flourish throughout the land. In that time, because all people chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo together, the wind will not beleaguer the branches or boughs, nor will the rain fall hard enough to break a clod. […]. Disasters will be driven from the land, and the people will be rid of misfortunes. They will also learn the art of living long, fulfilling lives.”
That will be the inspiration for my prayer on this first day of 2015 and beyond.
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’.
I have realised recently that whatever topic my different (and lovely) clients want to be coached on (e.g. relationships, career choices, addictions, assertiveness, leadership skills etc…) the one thing they all really want to feel is that their lives are authentic. They often realise, usually after one or two sessions, that the real reason they’re unhappy – for example in a job or relationship or town – is because they find it hard to express their true feelings. When that happens, life quickly begins to feel empty or meaningless. Or the discomfort may manifest as restlessness (what am I here for?) or anxiety (will I ever make anything of myself?) or a sudden loss of ‘mojo’, or anger (caused by cognitive dissonance.)
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:
To write a book about the most profound philosophy on the planet is difficult. To write a novel based on Nichiren Buddhism is even harder. But Eddy Canfor-Dumas achieved this in 2005 with The Buddha, Geoff and Me, and has done it again with Bodhisattva Blues the delightful and much anticipated sequel to ‘Geoff’. One man’s search for meaning in a world of confusion and uncertainty, ‘BB’ is a thoroughly absorbing read, not least because when we catch up with our hero Ed, he has long since abandoned his Buddhist practice and is stuck in a rut – no career, no love life and no cash.
Plunged unwittingly into a world of street crime and dodgy property deals, Ed finds himself dusting down his beads and reluctantly picking up his Nichiren Buddhist practice to guide him through a series of dramas, dilemmas and big decisions.
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…
I think we have our biggest breakthroughs when we stop trying to solve our problems with our heads and simply TRUST our daimoku (reciting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo). Then we truly fuse with the Gohonzon. We realise we ARE Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. We see that we are One with the Law. Almost as if, when we chant, we are simply allowing the rhythm of the Universe to express itself through us. Do you have experiences of chanting in this way and do you notice the difference when you do?
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?
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.