A big thank you to life coach and podcaster Leigh Martinuzzi who recently promoted my book to his global audience and then interviewed me about Buddhism and personal development. I loved his warm approach to our dialogue and the searching questions he asked. Leigh is all about inspiring people to live with peace, passion and purpose, so it was an honour to take part in his latest podcast on his website, The Hidden Why.
It was meant to be a one-hour chat, but it lasted a little longer – nearly 90 minutes… Take a listen here, and if you don’t have time for the whole show, here’s a guide to the topics we discussed, with approximate timecodes:
00:00 to 19:00
Leigh gets a quick overview of my career, how I met coaching and how it is similar to Buddhism. Why too many of us live ‘on a hamster wheel’, lacking a true purpose in life. Also a big mention here of The Winning Edge, my all-time favourite personal development programme.
19:00 – 40:00
Lots here for budding authors on how to overcome self-doubt, motivate yourself, keep going to the end and find a publisher. Chanting daimoku to raise your self-esteem. And some tip-top advice from my fellow Buddhist, the actor Duncan Pow.
40:00 – 45:00
Leigh asks me who my book is for and how it’s different from other self-help & Buddhist books. We talk about a culture of enlightenment replacing a culture of entitlement to transform the spirit of the age.
45:00 – 53:00
Inspired by a quote from Daisaku Ikeda, Leigh and I explore different types of intelligence – intellectual (IQ), emotional (EQ) and spiritual (SQ) and why SQ is the key to world peace and to feeling one-ness with our fellow human beings.
54:00 – 70:00
A big section on Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – including some chanting and an explanation of how it works. Also actual proof, how Buddhism goes deeper and wider than personal development and why I admire Nichiren for being a rebel and revolutionary who was ahead of his time and who loved humanity. Mentions of SGI discussion meetings and of how precious life is.
70:00 – 90:00
A mixture of topics including my favourite non-Buddhist personal development books, another quote from Daisaku Ikeda, living with passion & purpose, the power of coaching and believing you’re a Buddha.
Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
Tomorrow (or today – depending on your timezone…) is the anniversary of the founding in 1253 of Nichiren Buddhism. 28 April is the date 762 years ago when Nichiren Daishonin first chanted the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo – the name he gave to the Mystic Law – the creative force and the rhythm of cause and effect that flows through Life itself. So I would like to offer some personal reflections, after 30 years of chanting this mantra. To ponder why it was that in 13th century Japan, the son of a lowly fisherman dedicated his life (and was prepared to lose his life) so that all humanity for millennia to come could tap into this prayer, whose power he compared to the ‘roar of a lion’.
[Note: if you would like to read a literal translation of what Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means (and find out why it may even anticipate the latest discoveries of quantum physics…) please visit this page on my blog. If you want to hear the sound of chanting, check out this Youtube video by my fellow blogger, a magnificent Buddha called Robbie Lockie.]
this is just to let you know that six years after starting to write my book on Buddhism and personal development, I have signed a deal with Rider Books, the ‘mind body spirit’ arm of Penguin Random House. I want to thank all of you, my big-hearted readers, for your support, encouragement, comments and questions. To thank you for your generous spirit in reaching out to create a dialogue with me. As I am a completely unknown author (compared to Penguin Random House’s other writers such as The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Russell Brand…) the only way to get a big publisher’s attention was to create a successful blog and Facebook page with thousands of engaged readers.
So I couldn’t have done it without you! Thank you so much!It has been my lifelong dream to become an author and I also landed my absolute first choice of publisher because Rider’s other Buddhist writers include Eddy Canfor-Dumas (The Buddha, Geoff and Me) and Richard Causton (The Buddha in Daily Life). So, it’s safe to say that Rider ‘get’ Nichiren Buddhism! The title of my book will be The Buddha in Me, the Buddha in You – handbook for a human revolutionand it will be out in the UK in Spring 2016, with other countries to follow.
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.)
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?
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 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.