Something a little different this month, an interview with an anonymous subject. This person has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for many years. As with other similar people profiled here, the person has accomplished much. But this time we’re going to focus less on achievements and more on exploring what it means to be a Buddha.
Quarterly: So, you’re a Buddha—but not “the Buddha”?
A Buddha: Yes, that’s correct.
Quarterly: Please explain.
A Buddha: The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Gautama, lived about 2,500 years ago in India. Over a lifetime of study, practice and lecturing he taught many followers about the benefits of practicing Buddhism.
Quarterly: OK, but how does that make you a Buddha?
A Buddha: When deluded, one is a common mortal; when enlightened, one is a Buddha. That enlightenment is not limited to Shakyamuni. In his last and highest teaching, the Lotus Sutra, he proclaimed that anyone could be a Buddha—man or woman. That latter point is quite revolutionary for the time, by the way.
Quarterly: Tell us more; we’re getting a start, but this isn’t too helpful yet. What does it mean to be enlightened or a Buddha?
A Buddha: At its most basic, it means being aware of the laws of cause and effect—seeing the world and our lives as subject to karma, both good and bad. In other words, by making good or sensible causes, one achieves good results. Recall the fable of the ant and the grasshopper.
Quarterly: So, does that mean the ant was a Buddha?
A Buddha: Hahaha! No, not really; his behavior is instinctive, not thoughtful intention. It’s just an analogy for planning ahead. The point is that enlightenment confers a wisdom that otherwise isn’t present in most people.
Quarterly: Plenty of people know the importance of planning; you don’t have to be Buddha to know the value of that.
A Buddha: True enough; don’t look at this too narrowly. Understanding why things happen the way they do also implies knowing why one does or doesn’t get a promotion. Realizing why one had a serious accident or avoided getting on a plane that crashes. That’s karma.
Quarterly: So, a Buddha has some warning system that keeps them from harm? Don’t get on that plane?
A Buddha: No, a Buddha simply realizes that karma exists and that both good and bad events can come from causes we’ve made. The wisdom of a Buddha doesn’t include predicting the future. But through the Buddhist practice one can eradicate or change bad karma. So instead of a serious accident, one might have a fender bender. Instead of getting on that doomed plane, one might oversleep or have car trouble that keeps one from catching that flight.
Quarterly: Tell me more about karma and the Buddhist practice that can change it.
A Buddha: Okay. We create karma from moment to moment through our thoughts, our words and our actions. We smile at a passing stranger—receiving a smile in response. We silently curse the rude driver cutting us or other drivers off on the interstate—making a mildly bad cause. Buddhism posits that within everyone there is a repository maintaining a running balance or inventory of causes good and bad that we have made.
Quarterly: Sounds very theoretical.
A Buddha: Of course it does. Evolution is a theory but it, as well as many other scientific theories, is supported by enough evidence to lead many people to accept it as fact. Karma is not a scientific theory but a philosophical one that is subject not to empirical evidence but rational analysis. In other words, karma explains much of the mysteries of one’s life.
Quarterly: All right, let’s get back to changing karma for the better.
A Buddha: Sure. To continue our theoretical analysis, the Lotus Sutra is so named for the peculiar nature of the lotus. The lotus bears both a flower and a seed pod at the same time. This signifies the simultaneity of cause and effect. In 13th century Japan, a Buddha named Nichiren fulfilled the prophecy Shakyamuni that a Buddha greater than himself would come along to explain the practice for the latter day (an on into the future). Nichiren revealed seven centuries ago that practice as chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam is a Sanskrit word that means devotion. Myoho-renge-kyo is the title of the Lotus Sutra (in Japanese). In English, that entire phrase can be loosely translated as devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect.
Quarterly: Hold on here. You’re saying that chanting these words changes karma? Sounds difficult to believe.
A Buddha: You’re quite right. Let’s break it down. Shakyamuni, Nichiren and many others believe that anyone can be a Buddha. It’s an inherent potential—an inherent nature that humans possess. That’s the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. That phrase is the means of calling forth that inherent Buddha nature. Let’s say someone named Bob is walking down the street when someone hollers the name Bob—he turns around, even if they’re talking to another guy. More importantly, when one chants those words with faith in his or her Buddha nature and the intention to change their karma, that’s what happens.
Quarterly: Whoa, that’s really way out there! How can anyone believe that?
A Buddha: Good question! Nichiren set forth three standards for evaluating the validity of a teaching. The first is documentary—there’s a clear presentation of its content. The second is theoretical proof—that the claims of the teaching are logical and rational. The third, and most important, is actual proof. While one can begin the practice of Buddhism based on the first two, they’ll soon stop without their faith being reinforced by results. The actual proof of the practice is observing desired results. That comes in the form of goals achieved.
- An illness cured
- A relationship restored or improved
- A better job
- Overcoming an impediment to mobility, success or whatever
Quarterly: Sounds good, but how can one be sure it’s the Buddhist practice? You’re sick and the doctor’s treatment or the medicine makes you better—versus the chanting?
A Buddha: Another good question; your skepticism is warranted. As for an illness—let’s assume a chronic one or a mysterious one. The patient sees various doctors, tries different treatments, etc. All without favorable results. Then one tries praying about it and the right treatment is provided. There’s a whole lot of conceptual explanations I could get into, but you don’t have time or space for that in this interview. Suffice it to say that Buddhism is a very holistic philosophy that explains life phenomenally, rationally and causally. Anyone can have an off day—including a physician. Anyone can have a superlative day, exceeding their normal capacity—like the guy lifting a car off a trapped child. We are all connected to both the physical and social environment in which we live. Without air, we die. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not simply a name for our innate Buddhahood, it’s a universal law like gravity. We can’t see gravity or feel it directly but jump up on this earth and you know it’s real because you quickly come back down.
Quarterly: So, what has that to do with the doctor’s treatment?
A Buddha: I was just getting to that. We have a mind-body connection. Stress can make you sick. Feeling happy boosts the immune system. We also have a self-environment connection as I was saying. Here’s the thing, perhaps that illness is a karmic phenomenon—something that goes beyond the disease that is directly responsible. So, we chant not only to overcome it but for our doctor to find the right treatment. As a universal law and with our connection to our social environment, the prayer elevates the doctor’s capacity or understanding so that he or she can cure us.
Quarterly: All right, now you’re getting mystical again.
A Buddha: Again, I appreciate your doubts. But remember, the starting point is faith. That goes a long way in making things happen. It gets confirmed when actual proof results. A single example is anecdotal. A multitude of them becomes persuasive. Perhaps another time we could get into more detail about the functional and operational mechanisms of the Buddhist conceptual framework that makes the phenomena happen. That will make this more plausible, but it’s all in the actual proof. One doesn’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works to go from point A to Point B in a car. Step on the gas to go or step on the brake to stop—and watch where you’re going!
Quarterly: I see your point! We’ll consider a repeat visit sometime to get into more of the Buddhist practice.
A Buddha: Great! For now, let me offer some links to books and websites that will provide much more about this practice—with plenty of documentary, theoretical and actual proof. A simple introduction is The Buddha in Your Mirror—a very accessible book available in paper or electronic versions. Another informative book is Waking the Buddha—by Clark Strand, a former editor of Tricycle magazine and Buddhist educator for many years. Strand, who is not a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), chronicles the engaged Buddhism of the SGI which has over 12 million members in 192 countries and territories around the world. The SGI website has many articles itself—as well as links to related sites in numerous countries.