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This article is part of an online special section about Nichiren Buddhism. We hope that by gathering these articles in one place and making them freely available, our Buddhist conversation will be broadened and that we can, all of us, more fully know ourselves in knowing one another. Read the other articles here.
Josei Toda [left], the second president of the Soka Gakkai, and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the founding president, ca. 1930. © Seikyo Shimbun
Would you say that the modernist, global-reaching humanism of the postwar Soka Gakkai was born of Makiguchi’s resistance to the war? Yes. Though “inspired by” might be a better way of putting it, because President Makiguchi’s struggle to preserve humanistic values stands as an enduring example for us. It was his disciple Josei Toda who, having survived the prison experience, really defined what can be recognized as “modern Buddhism.” In prison, Mr. Toda read the difficult-to-grasp words of the Lotus Sutra with his very being, gaining the groundbreaking insight that the Buddha is nothing other than life itself. I am personally convinced that this is an insight of profound significance within the larger history of Buddhism. Through his awakening in prison, Mr. Toda developed a universal means of expressing the core message of the Lotus Sutra in a way that made it accessible to contemporary humanity, reviving it as something potently meaningful to daily life in the modern world, regardless of race, religion, or cultural background.
Toda was convinced that the Soka Gakkai was heir to the mission to widely propagate Nichiren Buddhism for realizing a peaceful society, and he made this pledge central to the identity of the organization. Although he himself never traveled outside of Japan, he was deeply concerned about the peace of the world.
In September 1957, just six months before his death, he issued a historic call for the banning of nuclear weapons, which he denounced as an absolute evil threatening humanity’s right to exist. In this way he sought to communicate the Lotus Sutra’s commitment to the sanctity of life and peace to the entire world. I am convinced that Mr. Toda’s efforts greatly contributed to the work of universalizing Nichiren Buddhism.
But it wasn’t Toda who took the Soka Gakkai global. That has been your mission in the founding of the Soka Gakkai International, correct? As the organization’s third president, I have been deeply inspired by my predecessors. I have felt a powerful responsibility to universalize and ensure the long-term flourishing of the teachings. Just weeks before he died in April 1958, Mr. Toda called me to his side and told me that he had dreamed of going to Mexico, that there were people there waiting to learn about Buddhism. In terms of the teachings, I have tried to separate out those elements in the traditional interpretation of Nichiren Buddhism that are more reflective of Japanese cultural and historical contingencies than they are of the underlying message. To this end I have continued to engage in dialogue with a wide range of people around the world in order to refine and universalize the expression of my ideas. Because I am convinced that all cultures and religions are expressions of deep human truths, I have regularly referenced philosophical traditions other than Buddhism, bringing in the ideas and insights of literature, art, science, and medicine, and sharing the inspiring words and insights of thinkers from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds with people, including the membership of the Soka Gakkai.
I remember that in his book on the Soka Gakkai, the American scholar Richard Seager noted with surprise that there were no traditional Buddhist images or icons visible on the grounds of Soka University’s Japanese or American campuses, though he found statues of Victor Hugo and Walt Whitman. The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) wrote about religion: “Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.” To me, this is especially true for Buddhism, which is a dynamic life philosophy that responds to people’s unchanging desire for peace and happiness across different historical and cultural settings. This is why dialogue between cultures is so crucial for the development of Buddhism in the next millennium. While staying true to its essence, Buddhism needs to encounter, learn, and evolve. In this sense, I am convinced that the work of rediscovery, purification, and universalization—taken on by the SGI as its core mission— is the very essence of Buddhism.
You have recast the teachings of the Lotus Sutra in terms of a process you call “human revolution.” The first part of that term gives expression to your philosophy of Buddhist humanism. But there’s also revolution. What are some of the more revolutionary aspects of Buddhism as taught by the SGI, and how does religious humanism spark that kind of revolution? Buddhism is inherently revolutionary. I can’t think of anything more radical than enlightenment. It is both a return to our most natural state and a dramatic change. To quote Nichiren, “There is definitely something extraordinary in the ebb and flow of the tide, the rising and setting of the moon, and the way in which summer, autumn, winter, and spring give way to each other. Something uncommon also occurs when an ordinary person attains Buddhahood.”
The expression “human revolution” was made famous by President Toda. It is a way of expressing the idea of enlightenment in contemporary language. In Nichiren Buddhism, enlightenment always impacts society. Through an inner, spiritual transformation individuals can awaken to a genuine sense of the sanctity of life. This counters the disregard and mistrust for life that is at the root of what is wrong in contemporary society. This inner change is thus the basis for realizing both individual happiness and a peaceful society. Again, in Nichiren Buddhism the two are never separate.
In terms of the individual, Mr. Toda explained it this way: “Human revolution isn’t something special or out of the ordinary. It could be as simple as someone who had been lazy and uninspired becoming enthused and committed. Or someone who hadn’t been interested in learning putting themselves into their studies. Or a person who has struggled with poverty becoming more stable and comfortable in their life. Human revolution is a change in a person’s basic orientation in life. And it is the transformation in awareness caused by Buddhist practice that makes that possible.”
Yes. But that’s a very different conception of Buddhahood than most of us are used to. By using the language of “human revolution,” Mr. Toda transformed the idea of Buddhahood, which in Japan and other parts of Asia had come to be understood as pertaining principally to the afterlife, into the clear and profound goal of developing and bringing to fruition our own unique capacity and character while we are alive. I earnestly believe that when people who are making such efforts unite and realize grassroots solidarity on a world scale, we will see the path opened to the realization of a nonviolent global revolution.
At the very end of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha declares, “If you see a person who accepts and upholds this sutra, you should rise and greet him from afar, showing him the same respect you would a Buddha.” How do you interpret Shakyamuni’s words? I believe that these words offer a clear guide for Buddhists living in a religiously plural world.
Nichiren states that the eight Chinese characters that translate as “you should rise and greet him from afar, showing him the same respect you would a Buddha” express his first and highest transmission— the human qualities Shakyamuni hoped most to see in those who practiced the Lotus Sutra in the future after his passing. In other words, the most fundamental thing is our action and behavior as human beings, our ability to care for and treasure a single individual.
There is a chapter of the Lotus Sutra dedicated to Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, who reverentially saluted each person he encountered with the words: “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparaging and arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and are certain to attain Buddhahood.” This provides us with a concrete model for our interactions with others as modern Buddhists living in an age of international interconnection and global issues and concerns.
According to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, the period of time we are living in is called the Latter Day of the Law, an era of conflict and strife when all things tend toward conflict. The only way of resisting and countering the violent tides of such an age is with strong faith in the Buddha-nature of oneself and of others. And the way that this is put into practice is through the respect we can offer others.
We don’t see much of that today in international relations, although there is always hope for the future. Indeed there is, and Buddhism can offer ways to cultivate just that kind of hope. To believe in both oneself and others, and to treat others as one would a Buddha—this is the practice that awakens and calls forth the Buddha-nature that resides within us all. It is here that the practice of straightforward propagation advocated by Nichiren has its true significance. It is precisely because we are able to muster faith in the Buddha-nature of the other person that we can bring forth compassion from within ourselves and, desiring happiness for all, continue an earnest and respect-filled process of dialogue. This is the real spirit of propagation— of spreading Buddhism from one person to another. It first and foremost involves building trust and friendship through respectful, ongoing dialogue.
All people are equally endowed with the inherent capacity to respect others, and this capacity is a source of inexhaustible hope because it embodies a universal truth that transcends the specifics of religious creeds. The respect offered by Buddhists to other people is offered in virtue of their humanity, without regard to their religious belief or creed. Nichiren described this with a poetic metaphor, saying that when we bow to a mirror, the figure in the mirror bows back reverentially at us. This is the true spirit of Buddhism, and yes, it is reason for great hope. ▼
[Image on page 1: © Seikyo Shimbun]