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.)
Put the word ‘Happiness’ into Google and it churns out an eye-popping 49,600,000 results. In 0.22 seconds. That made me smile. Type the same word into Amazon and it suggests no less than 35,793 books you could read. As a human race, we are fascinated by it. But what exactly is it? Look up ‘happiness’ and the definitions tend to include phrases like ‘sense of well-being’, ‘flourishing’, and ‘quality of life’.
Anyway I hope that some days you feel so bouncy and excited just to be alive that random strangers come up to you in the street, squeeze your (possibly) chubby cheeks and declare: “Wow, you are bursting with joy and scrumptiousness, thank you for being in the world.” Admittedly this doesn’t happen too often in my bit of Leicestershire. Yet.
Happiness is of course the purpose of Buddhist practice and in a way the whole of this blog is trying to define it and inspire more people to discover it. And after 29 years of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and 9 years as a Life Coach, I thought it might be time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and attempt to pin down this nebulous concept. So… here is my little list, happiness is:
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?
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.
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.
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?”
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?