Testing the truth of Buddhism

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 achotel de nesleross 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.

dominoes

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.

Christiane, with a lovely friend of mine (Francois), Paris 1985
Christiane, with a lovely friend of mine (Francois), Paris 1985

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?

Dx

PS. I will write another post soon about ‘Buddhism and actual proof’.

What do Buddhists believe?

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.

Buddha
Buddha

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.

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The Buddha’s Invitation – a poem

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?

Nichiren survices attempted execution
Nichiren survives attempted execution

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Conflict resolution and the Buddha in 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.

Shared humanity

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Everyone’s a Buddha…

… 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.”

Miso Soup
Miso Soup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Book review: Buddhaland Brooklyn

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. The Publishers – Alma Books – asked me to review this novel by Richard C. Morais and I am truly delighted that they did.

B Brooklyn book cover

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.

Richard C. Morais

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”.’ 

Photo finish… Can your images help me spread the light of Nichiren Buddhism?

Greetings all Spoon fans,

Would you like to share your photos, drawings and pictures with the hundreds of people worldwide who follow this blog? If so, I would love to use them on here with some encouraging, inspirational Buddhist quotes. As you can see, my favourite personal development authors use pictures very powerfully. To take part, just email buddhistpics@mail.com 

People created to be lovedI am looking for images that would help me illustrate thoughts like these:

  • “We are all magnificent works in progress.”
  • “I am not my past. I am not my psychometric profile. I am not the role I have played to survive so far. I am not the product of my childhood. I am a Buddha. I am who I choose to become.”
  • “Wisdom without action produces only regrets. And action without wisdom does pretty much the same.”
  • “We do not suffer because life is difficult, we suffer because we expect it to be easy.”

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“Suffering and joy are facts of life…”

Here is one of Nichiren’s most famous quotes about the Buddhist approach to dealing with problems: “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life and continue chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, no matter what happens.”

IMG_2579
A great palace (pic by Tiffany Wright)

I have known Buddhists who base their whole lives just on these 32 words, re-reading them whenever the going gets rough. Or when it gets smooth. Or anything in between. Or for no reason at all. But how many of us get this advice completely back to front?

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The Catholic Church, the BBC and the new Pope – a Buddhist view

The appointment last week of a new pope has made me think and chant lots about my Catholic upbringing. And it has stirred in me a mix of emotions. At first I felt really angry that my favourite BBC radio station (5 Live) dropped all their other news and sports stories to broadcast almost non-stop speculation for 45 minutes about what colour puff of smoke would emerge from the Vatican (who, it has to be said, do theatre incredibly well.)

Pope Francis

The reporter’s tone was one of excitement and hushed reverence, of the sort we normally hear during coverage of a British royal wedding. I felt this was inappropriate, for an organisation whose treatment of women, homosexuals and sexually abused children leaves a lot to be desired. And also because I reckon only 20,000 of the programme’s 1 million UK listeners actually attend Catholic mass on a Sunday. I argued that there were probably more ex-Catholics than practising Catholics listening to the broadcast. I shared this view on a BBC blog, but it was deleted by the BBC for being too provocative. It was then allowed to appear after all when I emailed them to appeal against their censorship.

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