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?
As a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist movement since 1985, it’s always exciting when a new book about SGI is written by a distinguished scholar outside my faith. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Waking the Buddha by Clark Strand, a former Zen monk and a contributing editor to Tricycle, the world’s most famous Buddhist magazine.
Strand is one of a growing band of eminent, independent experts intrigued by SGI’s rapid growth and by its social and racial diversity. Yet this book is much more than just a sociological or academic study. What draws you in and moves you most is not so much the author’s expertise, but his humanity and his concern for the planet. What impressed me was not just the rigour of his intellectual enquiry, but the warmth of his seeking spirit, as he sets out to discover why SGI has become more successful than any other school of Buddhism in the contemporary world. These are the questions he asks:
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.
The answer to this question, when people first start chanting the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, is, very often, ‘not a lot’ or maybe even ‘nothing’. Because the truth is, you don’t need to adopt any new beliefs or lifestyle to give Nichiren Buddhism a go. Most people come to the practice looking to change a situation in their life and are encouraged to give try it out for 100 days or so and see what happens.
Others stumble across Buddhism because they want to make the world a more joyful, peaceful and fairer place, but don’t quite know where to start… Others (like me) start chanting to prove that it does not work… Incidentally I don’t think many people start chanting just because of a book or a blog like this, it nearly always begins from a heart to heart connection with someone they trust who’s already practising Buddhism.
What is the fundamental purpose of winning in our lives? Of course it is partly to achieve our own goals, overcome our limitations and become happier. But I feel that the biggest impact when we win is that we encourage others who are struggling. If we win today in our lives, if we defeat our darkness, our lesser self and our illusions, then people on the verge of victory will have a final breakthrough, people who are fighting will keep going, people who have given up will find the strength to start again and people who have never fought will discover the spark of hope. This is what happens when the Buddha in Me meets the Buddha in You.
Of course personal development books are full of wonderful examples of determined people who never gave up. For example, Thomas Edison’s 10,000 attempts to create a light bulb and James Dyson’s 5,127 failures before his bagless vacuum cleaner worked. And I was inspired to hear a speech by former Team GB rower Steve Williams OBE, winner of two Olympic gold medals, who quoted the words of his coach Jurgen Grobler before the Athens 2004 final: “It will get so dark and hurt so much that you will cry out for your mother and your father, but you will win on the last stroke.” (And they did, by 0.08 of a second.) I love this image and often quote these words to my clients when they feel like giving up on their goals. And when I have a setback or failure myself, the first question I ask when I look in the mirror is: “How badly did you really really want it?”
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?
In my Buddhist practice I have often discovered (always with some reluctance) that, deep down I share the same pain or suffering as the people I consider to be the most awkward / difficult / annoying. This suffering can manifest as shared laziness, prejudice, anxiety, resentment or any number of other very human flaws. Having chanted many times about this, here is how I think it works. As well as our innate wisdom, courage and compassion, we all hold some pain and vulnerability in our hearts. From a Buddhist perspective, we bring much of this with us as ‘karma’ from our previous lifetimes. Rather than face our pain with courage to find out what lessons it may hold for us, our first instinct is usually to cover it in a layer of self-protection. Men are especially good at this.
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.