Publisher’s Introduction: We expected, well before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election concluded, that the discord in the country would persist no matter who won. So we asked our long-time friend Bob Tansey, over a month ago, to write this article for the December Quarterly. It’s not about politics. It’s not about the election per se. Rather it’s a Buddhist perspective for going forward in troubling times. Bob’s perspective begins with consideration of a few lines from a treatise by the Buddhist teacher Nichiren. This 13th Century writing is “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” written during a time of great turmoil in Japan, Nichiren’s country.
Essay, “On the Peace of the Land,” by Bob Tansey
In his 1260 treatise (1), written in the form of a dialogue between a host and a guest, Nichiren recounts the many disasters confronting medieval Japan, such as famine, internal strife and foreign invasion. He states, “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first of all pray for order and tranquility throughout the four quarters of the land, should you not?” He also brings up the challenge of “reforming the tenets in our hearts.” That means to examine our basic beliefs (which are mixed with emotion as well) and seek to perceive our own enlightened potential and perspective—strengths arguably much in need at this moment in our own United States of America.
Reflecting on these two key phrases from Nichiren’s rather lengthy treatise led me back to an earlier writing of his, “On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime.” (2) From all of Shakyamuni’s teachings and all that flowed from over those two thousand years, Nichiren adopted the tradition of the Lotus Sutra. I’ve been practicing Buddhism for going on five decades but am not a Buddhist scholar. Nonetheless, I like to say that to me “On Attaining Buddhahood…” (which is notably brief) summarizes the key principles of the Lotus Sutra:
- The idea that everyone has the potential to reveal their inherent “Buddha Nature,” which seems to me to be a statement of ultimate equality. Nichiren Buddhism sees the Buddha nature as the inherent potential within each human being to attain Buddhahood, the state of enlightenment and the goal of Buddhist practice. It’s also the tenth or highest of the “Ten Worlds” (states or conditions of existence). (3)
- Interconnectedness, aka “dependent origination,” i.e. though we may believe we’re separate from others our lives and fortunes are intertwined. “On Attaining Buddhahood…” states in part, “It is called the Mystic Law because it reveals the principle of the mutually inclusive relationship of a single moment of life and all phenomena.” (4)
- Causality, i.e. ultimately what we think, say and do is determinative rather than external factors. Nichiren states, “Whether you chant the Buddha’s name, recite the sutra, or merely offer flowers and incense, all your virtuous acts will implant benefit and good fortune in your life.” He urged his followers to strive with this conviction, while fully cognizant that the society of his time was besieged by seemingly overwhelming negative forces. Nonetheless, he constantly emphasized the power of a single individual and of individuals working together to make a difference. (5)
I live in the most diverse part of Washington, DC and have been involved in my community in various ways since moving back from China just under a year ago. I’ve been discussing these ideas with friends and neighbors since the election and am pleased that they seem to resonate broadly. Twenty-five years ago, when I was starting to study Mandarin Chinese in preparation for my upcoming assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, I was given the choice of doing an area studies paper or taking an exam on what my fellow students and I were learning about China on top of our language study. I chose to write a paper (interestingly I was the only one to do so).
I called my paper, “A Comparison of Confucianism, Western Individualism, and Nichiren Buddhism.” I remember vividly points made by a professor who’d flown in from Michigan to introduce us to Chinese philosophy. The professor spoke about “The Duality,” an idea that emerged in the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys and later merged into Western Monotheism. The professor drew a circle and then a line down the middle, with the latter evincing separateness, e.g. You/Me, Good/Bad, and so on. They he drew a depiction of the Ying/Yang symbol, indicating interconnectedness, even between otherwise opposing things—or people.
When I wrote about Western Individualism, I quoted Robert Samuelson who’d stated a definition of “The American Character” with the words, “You’re no better than I am and you can’t tell me what to do.” While there are many positives of the American Character, there can be a tendency to be “so individual” as to push off or deny others’ identity. (6)
I had a 25-year career as an economic officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, including seven years in China. After retiring, I returned there to work for The Nature Conservancy for an additional six years. Actually, until last New Year’s Eve, I’d been mostly away from the U.S. for 13 years–in Turkmenistan, Israel, Nigeria and back to China. Last year, when I was in China I often read Yahoo News while eating lunch. With a master’s degree in public administration and my career as an economic officer, I enjoy “wonky” economic policy articles. In numerous comments on the articles, I often noticed other readers of the articles were actively attacking each other. I was taken aback by the vehemence. When I returned to America at the end of last year, I wondered whether people had become more distant from each other. The recent election campaign seemed to indicate that we have.
Clearly, there are many complex and contentious issues and challenges facing our country following the election. There are a lot of reasons people supported one presidential candidate or the other. Some people are trying to find ways to talk to each other despite the very strong emotions many are feeling. Dialogue is hugely important at this time. I suggest we go back to Nichiren, and try to believe we each have that “enlightenment” inside (and everyone else does too!) and that we are in fact interrelated. A lot good could flow from simply making those two assumptions. My wife is a self-trained dialogue skills educator. I often hear Stephanie talking about how we enhance actual exchange and create mutual understanding when we train ourselves to “suspend our judgements.” Seems to me a practice much needed at this time!
In terms of “causality,” we should each find where we can add value. In my case, I’m helping create a community association to bring people together across race, ethnicity and national origin to create and share benefits of local development. It’s exciting to “start the conversation.”
I saw an interesting article published before November 8 on “election stress disorder” (7) It talked about how people were experiencing more stress, driving faster in rush hour, treating their spouses poorly, etc. The conclusion or advice was striving for “compassion,” or finding some way to help someone else. I believe in that, that when we help others we become happier ourselves. Now it’s time to help the country. Maybe ancient Buddhist wisdom can inform us as we go forward.
1 The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. 1, pp. 6-30.
2 Ibid, pp. 3-5.
3 The Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, by Woody Hochswender, p. 246.
4 Writings of Nichiren, p. 3.
5 Ibid, p. 4.
6 Apologies to Mr. Samuelson and readers. My paper from 25 years ago is buried in a packing box. Hopefully I am recalling Samuelson’s quote accurately.
7 “The anxious electorate,” The Washington Post Express Edition, September 27, 2016, p. 12.