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?
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.
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?
A victory of hope over despair, of shared humanity over hatred, and of justice over inequality… these are my thoughts reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who passed away this evening. My admiration for Mandela comes mostly from reading essays by Daisaku Ikeda, leader of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement that I belong to.
Mandela heard about Ikeda’s humanistic writings while in prison and after his release requested a meeting with him during a visit to Japan. Here are some extracts from an essay written by Daisaku Ikeda, reflecting on the two dialogues he had with South Africa’s first black President:
“There is something very special about Nelson Mandela’s smile. It is honest and pure, full of gentle composure. There isn’t a single line on his face that would suggest anything cold and harsh. And yet it embodies the conviction and strength of character of a man who has led his people to freedom. It is a smile like the purest gold, from which all impurities have been burned and driven in the furnace of great suffering.
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:
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.‘