By Daisaku Ikeda
Soka Gakkai International, an international movement to promote peace, culture and education, tries to follow the Buddha’s tradition of actively putting compassion and wisdom into practice in the world
This life I live— where did it come from? where is it going?
For what purpose was I born, why as this particular person? And why
in this country, this home, bearing this special destiny?
Who am I? What is the meaning of life and death? Man has discovered the world of atoms and electrons and continues to explore the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Yet life itself—the nearest thing of all, the thing that should be the easiest to grasp—remains a mystery. One man who faced the mystery of life squarely and came to a full understanding of its workings was the founder of Buddhism, Gautam, known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
Gautam Buddha did not spend his life attempting to explain a theoretical understanding of the riddle of life, but rather teaching men and women how to overcome suffering and open a path to happiness in the midst of the challenges of life.
Sadly however, this original spirit became obscured and lost over time. Buddhism today is often viewed as a static religion, epitomized by the image of a meditating or sitting Buddha. But a truer image is one of a dynamic, walking Buddha, ceaselessly taking action to lead people to happiness and spiritual freedom.
By examining the life of Gautam Buddha, we can rediscover the essence of his message and tap the spiritual lifeblood of Buddhism that still pulses today. He was a man who pioneered a path of great happiness among the people and who was exceptionally gifted in the art of dialogue. The wisdom and compassion, which characterized his life, are illustrated in the following well-known episodes.
When a mother whose beloved child had died implored the Buddha to revive the child, he told her he could devise a cure if she would bring him a mustard seed. But, he added, this must come from a home that had never known death. The mother began a desperate search, but of course she could find no home which had never lost someone to death. Slowly the grief-stricken mother came to realize that she was not alone in her sorrow, but that every home bore the same burden of bereavement and loss. Thus she determined to overcome her own grief.
Another incident illustrates the essential spirit of Buddhism, where compassion and concrete action to relieve suffering take precedence over abstract theory. One of the Buddha’s disciples liked posing philosophical questions, such as, “is the world infinite or finite?” or “are the spirit and the physical body one or separate?” Perhaps surprisingly, Gautam would not answer. The disciple became dissatisfied and threatened to leave the Buddhist order.
Gautam replied with the tale of a man who is struck by a poisoned arrow but won’t let anyone remove it. He wants first to know who shot the arrow and what the arrow is made of. He continues to ask questions and will not let anyone administer aid until these have been answered, until finally, he dies. The Buddha employed this parable to demonstrate the danger of being obsessed by abstract speculation.
In the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), our international movement to promote peace, culture and education, we try to follow this tradition of actively putting the Buddhist principles of compassion and wisdom into practice in the world. The popular image of Buddhism as a cloistered religion, withdrawn from the realities of society, is utterly mistaken. The message and wisdom of Buddhism must always be carried dynamically into society. In India, this is the spirit of Bharat Soka Gakkai’s contributions to society through disaster relief activities as well as promotion of humanistic education and a culture of peace.
Buddhism does not promise that we will become happy at some indeterminate time or place in the future. It is a teaching for creating happiness where we are right now; it shows us that the power to bring forth this happiness is within our lives. It teaches that we can transform any environment into a treasure land.
The Buddha explained that ultimately it is ignorance of the true and wondrous nature of our lives that causes suffering. The sutras contain dramatic imagery which illustrates this splendor. Central to the Lotus Sutra, revered and practiced by members of the SGI, and considered by many to be the core of the Buddha’s teachings, is the appearance of a magnificent Treasure Tower. This tower is as large as the earth and festooned with glittering jewels. It is symbolic of the cosmic life within us, the vast power and dignity inherent in each human life. Gautam Buddha’s teachings were focused on how to enable each person to awaken to and manifest this tremendous potential. The Lotus Sutra is ultimately a teaching of empowerment. It awakens us to the fact that a change in one’s heart can transform everything.
Some say the prevailing mood in the world today is one of powerlessness. Decisions about political, economic and environmental issues all seem to be made somewhere beyond our reach. But Buddhism teaches that the human spirit is actually powerful beyond measure, endowed with the ability to transform even the most difficult circumstances, creating value and ever richer meaning.
When asked why the Soka Gakkai has thrived in Japan, one commentator wrote: “[Their] greatest achievement lies in unleashing the power of the people… and in revitalizing their lives… You can’t foster genuine independence in people merely through charitable deeds or donations of money. But helping people become self-reliant is precisely what the Soka Gakkai has done.”
‘Human revolution’ is the term I use to describe this process of awakening people to their own dignity and hidden potential. This human revolution means breaking through one’s ‘lesser self’, the small self that has been driven by petty, selfish wants and desires. It means returning to one’s ‘greater self’, the self that is as vast as the cosmos itself. Dramatic as this may seem, human revolution is not something extraordinary, or divorced from daily life. Take a man who thinks only of himself, his family and friends. Then, one day, he breaks out of these narrow confines a little, going out of his way to help a suffering stranger. This is the start of his human revolution.
The all-embracing, oceanic compassion of Gautam Buddha is the perfect model. His message was that compassionate action is the fundamental purpose of human life, and that it is by working to fulfil this mission that we can enjoy lives of genuine meaning. His philosophy not only has the power to transform our thinking, it also leads to hope and practical action and unleashes a powerful energy for living. As we translate it into practice, our personal drama of self-reformation begins. And that reformation of the individual spurs reformation at every level. It is the first turn of the wheel in the process to make humanity strong and wise.
The problems confronting humankind at the start of the 21st century are daunting in their depth and complexity. While it may be hard to see where to begin, we must never give in to cynicism or paralysis. We must each initiate action in the direction we believe to be right. Inspired by the dynamic actions of the founder of Buddhism, we can open a path toward peace and hope in the new millennium.
The author is President, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Buddhist association with 12 million members in 186 countries and territories across the globe.
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