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.
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.”
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.
I have had a few angry conversations in recent months. One with a fellow blogger whom I’ve never met, one with the BBC and one with the manager of my son’s football team. Whether I ‘won the arguments’ or not is irrelevant (except to my ego), whether I was right or wrong is equally by-the-by. Buddhism teaches the sometimes inconvenient truth that I attract these situations into my life, that my own inner anger is like a magnet that can pull me into conflicts and sometimes sees me being disrespectful and losing my temper more than I would like to.
Luckily I have learned a lot about anger from my 12-year-old son Leon. A few years ago, when I was trying to catch the cat to take her to the vet, I asked him to make sure he didn’t leave the back door open. Unfortunately he did, the cat escaped, we were going to be late, I exploded with rage… And he just calmly looked at me and said: “Daddy, getting angry won’t bring the cat back in.” I was gobsmacked and will never forget this humbling moment and the fact that he naturally focused on the solution instead of the problem. Chanting about it later, it occurred to me that anger is the first reaction of the stupid when it needs to be the last resort of the wise.
A few years ago, several delegates on the personal development training courses I deliver started asking me if I had heard of the Law of Attraction.
Many of them had read Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret or Joe Vitale’s The Key whichteach that “your thoughts and your feelings create your life” and more significantly that the events (good and bad) that we attract into our lives reflect our inner reality. There was a real buzz around the LOA – it was a new way of looking at life, happiness and suffering. Or was it?
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.
With Valentine’s Day celebrated on 14 Feb in many countries across the world, here’s a Buddhist perspective on Love. Firstly, Nichiren Daishonin did not set any moral rules about anything in life so there are no ‘do’s and don’ts’ at all about things like sex before marriage, contraception, fidelity, sexual orientation or divorce.
Perhaps the other big difference from the traditional romantic Western view is that real Love in Buddhism is not about walking ‘into the sunset’ with ‘The Man/Woman’ of your dreams; even though a whole advertising industry has developed over decades to make us believe that meeting ‘The One’ is the answer to all our problems.