Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What does taking the Lotus Sutra seriously look like?

Here are some excerpts from a discussion on the impact of the message and underlying wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, which is the central text for a branch of Buddhism founded around 750 years ago by the Japanese monk Nichiren. The question is what does it mean/look like to take the idea of universal human worth and potential seriously in a world in which deluded beings have many idea about where lasting fulfillment and joy come from...

Nichiren (second from right) depicted as pacif...Image via Wikipedia

There is always a tension between those recognizing interdependence, that phenomena arise from the ultimate/divine (in the "cycle" of form/emptiness), and the subsequent solidarity with all sentient beings, especially the neglected and abused and rejected, on the one hand, and those obsessed with divisiveness and exclusionism, the quest for a selfish and arrogant version of purity, and the subsequent hollow piety and sadistic judgmentalism on the other hand. We can see this in the struggles of the Hebrew in the Old Testament and the warnings of prophets like Isaiah and Micah, we can see it the New Testament and the visions of the Gospel and early church and how that vision has been betrayed again and again throughout the ages even though a remnant always keep true to that original vision.

And we can see the same pattern in Islam, "Hinduism", Earth-based and small-scale indigenous religions, Taoist and Confucianist traditions, and alas, yes Buddhism. And this is why some are drawn to the Lotus Sutra schools, as the Sutra is revered in large part for this inclusive, universalist message. You are not doomed to a helpless fate of perpetual suffering, you are inherently worthy, and you can make a difference, no matter who you are. Nichiren in particular was concerned with making the benefits of Buddhist wisdom, which really isn't strictly Buddhist wisdom at all, available to even those with jobs or stations in life considered unclean or despicable, much like Jesus was hanging out with the outcasts and the sinners out of his concern for awakening all people to the kingdom of heaven.

Those who are benefiting from the existing societal and cultural conditions are the least likely to care about a message that they contain the seed of Buddhahood, or the Kingdom of Heaven, or anything else that essentially turns conventional wisdom about power, happiness, etc on its head. The rich and powerful are frequently too invested in that system. Such movements don't spread by the greatest, but by the least, in the abandoned areas and among the forgotten people. It is truly a grass-roots kind of model, a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. People spreading such insights tend to move to such areas and associate with such people not out of pity, but out of the genuine belief in interdependence/emptiness (hence the immense and inherent value of all beings) and because it is at the margins and through the cracks of our shared delusions that we have the greatest chance to spot a glimpse of the truth. Often it is those on the fringes who have something to share with *us* about reality-as-it-is.

People spreading such messages, even if it is just told in the way they live, tend to be considered dangerous. As Dom Helder Camara noted, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Following a tradition that challenges the conventional deluded wisdom can never be complacent or safe (safe here is a relative term, but I am going for danger of physical harm). Shakyamuni's disciples knew that, and a great example of that is found in the Lotus Sutra in the story of the disciple willing to endure taunts, torment, and death to spread the universal wisdom. The early followers of Christ found this to be true as well. And the writing of Nichiren and his early followers confirm the same trend. We could look to other traditions as well, but the point is made: Give lip service and occasional small acts of charity to the poor, the criminals, and the outcasts, and you will be lauded; identify and stand with these people and be lambasted. Speak power to domesticate truth and you are counted as wise, but speak truth to challenge power and you are counted as wreckless.

So, given the nature of the Lotus Sutra and the example of Nichiren and his early disciples, I was wondering how the followers of the truth expressed in the Sutra had reacted to it - how has it affected your life - in what way has your life been "dangerous", "scandalous", or "wreckless" according to the standards of samsara? How has this reflected your conviction and faith in Nicheren's teachings? I am not here to stir anything up, I am just honestly curious how you have been deeply touched by exposure to such wisdom and the manifestation of that connection in your life.

In response to one reply...

I am not advocating social progressivism or Marxism in anything I wrote in my post. But this does highlight what I said - feed the poor and you are a holy person, but ask why they are poor and you are a Communist. Since when is living your life in a way that is consistent with true compassion for all sentient beings, identifying with those suffering the most, or warning against the dangers of the conventional values of samsara strictly a political issue or solely liberal/progressive virtues? In fact, many liberals and progressives are just as "stuck" in divisive and deluded thinking as their conservative counterparts.

Christ's followers also wanted him to be a political figure and were initially very disappointed in the fact that he wasn't going to pick up a sword or a banner and march into Jerusalem demanding change. Instead he was in this way like Shakyamuni, who just kept teaching, just kept traveling, just kept changing one life at a time, always struggling to find ways to demonstrate why the conventional wisdom of power, force of arms, elitism, materialism etc, which seemed so "right", were really a path to continued suffering.

Also, I never said Nichiren's teachings were strictly for planting seeds, but yes, that is a first step. If you don't even get people to start thinking or questioning their delusions, how will they ever be freed from them? But the seeds I alluded to in using Jesus as a parallel are like mustard seeds, which grow rapidly in most soils and spread like wild weeds. Obviously for Nichiren we might choose to think of Lotus seeds, and that is fine, since they remind us that cause and effect are initiated simultaneously, and just like death will follow birth, a well planted seed of wisdom will eventually sprout and blossom.

If you think that Buddhism should be outside of politics and economics at all costs, then this suggests it must not truly affect how people live or how they understand their existence, because how we live is interconnected with economic and political systems. Even the Amish cannot completely escape such connections. There are two ways of being involved in economics and politics. One is to jump in with a political party, or a corporation, or a lobby, etc, or maybe all of the above. Another is to simply affect and be affected by how people view and treat each other. In the latter case, the influence is indirect, but it is still there. If you are made aware that product is made with slave labor, and you can buy an alternative, this is still a political and economic impact, even if you don't organize others to do the same (and why not?). What I was writing about was a grass-roots, bottom up change from people who had been transformed, not multi-million dollar campaigns funded by wealthy donors (although if such donors want to spend that money building school, wells, etc I won't object).

Even SGI teaches this, does it not? Like Mother Theresa's admonition that all we can really do are "small things with great love", is this not similar to Soka Gakkai's message that human revolution begins with each person and that it spreads person to person. What kind of human revolution would it be if, after a couple billion people had been "tranformed", the current injustices and cruelties of this world continued on undiminished and unchallenged? In that case all of this is just a feel-good guilt eliminator rather than a catalyst for genuine awakening; a means of supporting the current upside down and wrong-headed priorities of a samsaric system by allowing some to believe that they can exist comfortably within it and yet feel they have resisted or escaped it. Shouldn't we expect more from the liberating power of such universal wisdom?

The next part is about Fukyo, known also as Bodhisattva-never-disparaging, who according to the Lotus Sutra always greeted everyone by telling them "I would never dare disparage you, for you are all certain to attain Buddhahood!", and whether he was speaking truth to power...

1. Of course he is, because most systems tend to divide people into the worthy and the unworthy, the saved and the damned, the haves and the have-nots, etc. He is directly challenging this type of thinking which I described at the beginning of my original post.

2. Wise men are often seen as fools and dullards.

3. There is more to his example than you allow. At that time, everyone knew about Buddhism. It was an official religion in China and eventually in Japan. So he wasn't addressing an audience who failed to appreciate the significance of his words. It would like going around in today's culture and saying "You are a child of God, worthy of respect." And I doubt we are supposed to read his example with a literalist exegesis in terms of how to apply his method. That would be dull and annoying. St Francis of Assisi is often quoted for saying "At all times preach the Gospel, and when necessary use words." I would say the same here. "At all times preach the Dharma, and when necessary use words." In other words, it isn't just about a verbal greeting but a whole attitude towards how we view and interact with others, always keeping in mind "this person I am with is a future Buddha!"

4. Behaving like we take #3 seriously leads to the things I am writing about in this thread.

In response to another reply...

I am not suggesting being preachy, I am asking about living our values. I am not presenting that kind of choice [between siding with one group or one limited method against another], I am talking precisely about applying the universal wisdom found in the Lotus Sutra. I am against people focusing on righteousness in terms of judging others or justifying themselves, whether it comes from wealth, might or privilege or whether it comes from being in opposition to these things. One side looks down on the other as filthy, poor, and lazy, and the other side looks back and sees those who are callous, elitist, and judgmental.

What I am talking about is a unifying principle which recognizes the worth of all sentient beings. My point is not to make the wealthy and powerful out to be the enemy, it is simply true that the poor and disenfranchised tend to be more open to this message than those who think they are benefiting and prospering from the conventional view. And yes, the more invested one is in the system of samsara, the more likely to oppose efforts at exposing its flaws. But that doesn't make them the enemy and again, we need to resist the "us"=righteous and "them"=unrighteous mentality. Besides, everyone posting here is in the top 2% on the planet in terms of power and wealth, so obviously I'm not against talking to such folks or having compassion for them.

Note I suggested that cruelty and injustice should be significantly reduced, not necessarily eliminated, with a couple billion transformed people. And yes, cruelty and injustice do indeed come from deluded minds, and so if we reduce delusion, we ought to expect reduced consequences from such delusion. I mean, I was of the belief that Nichiren Buddhism was about action, cause and effect, and hence results, not just hoping for future salvation in a different realm. No one can give you what you already possess, but they can tell you that you have it and how to find it. Is that not what folks like Shakyamuni and Nichiren are supposed to have done and why they are revered?

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for asking. I've always felt somewhat neglected and rejected due to an inborn genetic disorder. Although i realize it does not define everything I am still it seems limiting and burdensome. The article really spoke to me because sometimes i do feel helplessly doomed to a perpetual state of suffering because when I think of the idea of reincarnation I think about it in terms of the reincarnation of a human to a cockroach rather than buddha. As far as how my life has been "dangerous" or "scandalous" I have experienced a certain amount of religious scapegoating especially once when I was accused of being a "pedophile" for taking pictures of a young child's art project. I actually had to go to court for the ridiculous thing. The truth is everyone was looking out for each other in a sense but in a very divisive deluded way i guess. The beginning of the article spoke to me because i feel like i get caught up in all of the tension sometimes.


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