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?
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?”
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.
A couple of weeks ago I decided it might be lovely to write a post about the constant battle we face with our Fundamental Darkness (FD) – the illusions and self-slander that stop us seeing our own and others’ Buddhahood (wisdom, courage, compassion and joy) and stop us achieving our goals. As a result my own negativity went into overdrive and the last thing I wanted to do was write this blog.
I then came across some super-strict (and compassionate…) guidance from Daisaku Ikeda (you may have seen it on my Facebook page…). So, are you ready for some advice that removes all your excuses for unhappiness and helps you take responsibility for your whole life? Yes? Good, here goes then:
… 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.”
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”.’