Something about taking responsibility

Question: What’s your biggest regret related to your Buddhist practice?

NoNoNanjo: I regret how much time I spent chanting to change myself and other people. As Gandhi supposedly said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Sounds noble and worthy, right? I was praying to be new and improved. I wasn’t thinking too deeply about it. I mean, I could see that things were messed up in the world, as well as in my immediate environment. I thought, wow, if I can change myself, I can change the world!

Now I see this as escapism. It’s a way of projecting a fantasy onto my situation, thinking, “When I’m a better person, this will no longer be a problem.” Or, “My chanting will make him stop treating me so badly.” It’s a form of running away, cutting myself off from the resources and wisdom inherent in facing the reality of my situation.

Now, I focus more on seeing the situation clearly. Seeing myself clearly: Am I being reactive? Why? What’s really going on in this dynamic? What can be done about it? Wishing for change is like sidestepping the work of seeing, acknowledging, and taking action based on what is right in front of one’s face.

Wade: Ooh, that’s a good one. You’re assuming that because your environment is messed up, you must be messed up. So often, people chant to change themselves as a strategy for coping with bad situations, especially in relationships. I’ve done this. I’ve known dozens of women who have done this.

I’ve seen mystical resolutions and surprising reversals, but I’ve never seen a jerk turn into a prince because of someone else’s prayers. People can become less self-centered, but it takes effort on their part. No one can do it for them. And you’re right, it starts with seeing and acknowledging what’s actually happening.

FYI, according to the World Health Organization, about 1 in 3 women worldwide have been subjected to physical, sexual violence. This violence is perpetrated, overwhelmingly, by men. If we aspire to change our world for the better, we need to name the problem rather than blame the victim.

Hillcrest: It is the definition of “codependent” to feel responsible for the abusive behavior of others. Holding people responsible for their abusive behavior is the appropriate thing. Taking responsibility for their abusive behavior — as if it’s all about you — is a problem in itself.

My biggest regret in my Buddhist practice is that I spent so much energy trying to reform an organization. I don’t want to name the organization, except to say that it was a multi-billion-dollar, global, allegedly-Nichiren-Buddhist religious corporation.

I believed the organization could change. I believed the organization wanted to change. This was wishful thinking on my part. It kills me how long it took me to realize that my membership in the organization was diverting my attention away from Buddhist practice. Also, I feel I was in a codependent relationship with the organization and local leaders.

Montepulciano: Many Buddhist groups in the USA have been rocked by scandals. Shambhala comes to mind first, but there have been several others, such as Sasaki’s Rinzai Zen and Shimano’s Zen Studies Society. Look at the Catholics, and secular groups such as the Boy Scouts — countless sexual abuse scandals in supposedly respectable organizations. If you feel that your participation in a group or organization is detrimental to your well-being, you are not alone.

My knee-jerk reaction to hearing that my friends have regrets is to say, “Aw, don’t have regrets. It all works out toward the good, doesn’t it?” This, I believe, is an example of my own wishful thinking. It’s impossible to develop maturity, insight, and wisdom if we don’t have regrets. So, go ahead. Have regrets. I regret that I ever tried to talk you out of your regrets.

Wade: I regret that I introduced friends and family to the organization. I have no regrets about introducing them to Nichiren Buddhism. My regret is that their involvement with the organization soured them on Buddhism.

Montepulciano: This reminds me of the so-called poison drum relationship. Here is the definition, lifted straight out of one of the organization’s online publications….

poison-drum relationship: A reverse relationship, or relationship formed through rejection. A bond formed with the Lotus Sutra by opposing or slandering it. One who opposes the Lotus Sutra when it is preached will still form a relationship with the sutra by virtue of opposition, and will thereby attain Buddhahood eventually. A “poison drum” is a mythical drum daubed with poison; this is a reference to a statement in the Nirvana Sutra that once the poison drum is beaten, all those who hear it will die, even if they are not of the mind to listen to it. Similarly, when the correct teaching is preached, both those who embrace it and those who oppose it will equally receive the seeds of Buddhahood, and even those who oppose it will attain Buddhahood eventually. See also reverse relationship.

OK, re-reading that, I’m not sure it fits your situation. My point is that the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism offer radically universal salvation. It doesn’t matter whether anyone chants Daimoku. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is working us all toward Buddhahood regardless.

Wade: Monte, part of me agrees with you, and part of me rejects your point of view as lazy. It matters to me whether I chant.

Montepulciano: OK, so chant. Don’t worry what other people think.

Wade: So, it doesn’t matter if people are abusive? They will attain enlightenment anyway? That sounds like a cop out. Lazy and aloof, like, “Not my problem, dude.”

Montepulciano: Karma. No one gets away scot-free. It is impossible to know, understand, predict, or hack one’s karma. Someday we will see how wrong we were about so many things, and it will grieve us, and we will vow to do better. Yes, everyone will become fully enlightened. No one said it would be painless or easy.

NoNoNanjo: I like this, seeing regret as a function of karma and a necessary part of waking up to our Buddha nature. The heaviness of regret can make me feel hopeless. Looking at regret as an opportunity to go deeper, as a prompt to be more fully alive and aware, offers hope.

Montepulciano: My biggest regrets have to do with feeling like I wasted something. I wasted my time. I wasted my money. I wasted my youth and great chances I was given, and I can never retrieve or redeem these things. Looking through the lens of karma, I can have faith that nothing is truly wasted. Everything has brought me to where I am now. Now holds everything — past, present, and future. If you have a “now” — if you can be present with everything “now” holds, you are in a good place.

Oaks: For me, everything comes back around to what do we think chanting is? What are we doing when we chant? Why? I see it as a meditative practice. I see it as a way to become more aware of the tricks of ego. Buddha advises us to use the law as a lamp to illuminate our world. Nichiren advises us to use Daimoku to polish the mirror of our mind so it reflects clearly and without distortion. Chanting throughout our honest feelings of regret, disappointment, failure, joy, contentment, boredom — all of it — is the practice of Buddhism.

My biggest regret is that I quit chanting for several years because I was angry at the organization. I could not see it as separate from Nichiren Buddhism. I was angry at Nichiren, too. If his teachings are so great, and Daimoku is so wonderful, why are corrupt organizations able to hijack it? I felt betrayed and stupid. I felt deeply ashamed that I had failed to rescue True Buddhism from what I saw as the evil clutches of the evildoers. I was angry at myself as much as at anyone else.

After years and many coffees with Monte I realized that for Daimoku to have any value at all, I needed to make it mine. They’re Nichiren’s teachings. But it’s my practice. Making it mine means no one can take it from me or sully it for me.

NoNoNanjo: That’s lovely. I love that. Perhaps this it what it really means to “take responsibility” in Nichiren Buddhism. Not codependency, nor trying to change things. Rather, taking responsibility means making the practice our own.

But does it work?

Question: When people say that chanting Daimoku “works,” what do they mean?

Jutta: For many, the question is: “If I chant, will it help me get what I want?” When people say chanting works, most of the time they mean, yes, chanting will help you get what you want.

After decades of chanting, however, I feel confident that it works, but not in the sense of giving me what I want. I can think of very few times when I chanted for a specific resolution to a problem and when it worked out exactly the way I wanted. Chanting is not like rubbing a magic lamp or bossing a Genie who grants wishes.

I hasten to add that I have experienced uncanny coincidences or serendipity which I consider benefits of practice, certainly. My greatest benefits, I believe, have been insights about my life, specifically about my mission and purpose in this world, and knowing who I am, and coming to genuinely like myself.

Montepulciano: I remember a big cheese in Soka Gakkai who claimed that chanting Daimoku to the Gohonzon was “a happiness machine.” You input Daimoku into the machine, and it spits out happiness for you. I nominate this as the worst analogy ever. Daimoku works, but not in a mechanistic or predictable way. I’ve heard people compare the mystic law (Daimoku) to the law of gravity, as if Daimoku is a demonstrable law that governs our physical world. Nonsense. When we say “chanting works,” we have to be clear that we’re talking about the realms of faith, belief, and subjective perception. We are not talking about science or empirical, measurable results.

Carmelight: Many practitioners swear they have received tangible benefits from chanting, though.

Montepulciano: Yes, that’s what I would call subjective perception.

Carmelight: Scientific studies have been conducted on the power of Buddhist meditation, which has been shown to have health benefits. Studies on the power of prayer have been conducted. Science can only measure things that we have the tools to measure. Suppose the benefits of chanting Daimoku are as physically tangible as the workings of gravity, but we don’t have the instrumentation to track the effects.

Montepulciano: Believe what you want to believe. Just be clear that you are talking about belief and faith rather than objective facts.

Jutta: I think Daimoku works similar to the “flow state.” Being in “the zone” is a mental state that has been studied by researchers and is attested to by athletes, artists, and all kinds of people. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs. I have experienced flow in my own life since I started chanting. Maybe this is another example of subjective perception. Maybe I’m “flowing” as much as I ever did but am more aware of it since I started chanting. Focus, calm, ease, balance, confidence, a feeling of floating beyond time and space — these are all associated with the flow state. My perception is that chanting Daimoku puts me in flow, or makes it easier for me to get into flow.

Jones: Back when I worked for SGI-USA, one of my jobs was editing “experiences” for the organizational newspaper. An “experience” was a story that followed a specific formula. First, a person has some kind of problem or challenge in life. Second, this person chants about the problem. Third, this person comes to understand something they hadn’t understood before. Fourth, the problem is resolved, or nearly so, all thanks to chanting and working hard for the sake of SGI-USA.

These “experience” stories were the centerpieces of meetings and publications, and engaged people’s emotions. By shaping and sharing faith stories in this way, the organization very deliberately trained people to perceive chanting and benefit in a mechanistic way. So, yeah, thinking of chanting as a “happiness machine,” accords perfectly with the formula. If you apply this basic formula to your own experiences, you probably believe that this is how chanting works.

Montepulciano: Then again, doesn’t every life problem/challenge fit the formula, with or without chanting? Most people just call it living, learning, winning some, losing some, and trying to do better.

Jones: It’s all about perception. I agree that uncanny things have happened, and I perceive these events to be connected to chanting. I once made a wish list about a job I wanted. This was a job that didn’t exist, as far as I knew. My demands were specifically tailored to my skills, personality, and ambition. I chanted, but not with anything like white-hot intensity. A month or two later, I was offered a job that fit my wish list so perfectly it seemed like a joke.

The real joke, I guess, is that I declined the offer. Because of a family situation, I made a different choice. One of my friends lamented, “The Gohonzon gave you everything you wanted, and yet you refused it.” As if I was an ingrate who turned up my nose at good fortune. As I saw it, I got exactly what I wanted, and at the same time, my life path became clearer — like, double benefit. We were looking at the same situation, but perceiving it totally differently.

Wade: A sudden shift in perception can seem miraculous. Take, for example, Nichiren’s “meteor moment.” A military executioner was about to behead Nichiren when a fireball streaked across the sky. As I understand it, this celestial event was observed and recorded by people who were not present at the execution site. Seeing this fireball frightened the soldiers so much that they could not carry out their orders to kill Nichiren. They took it as a sign or warning. In other words, they associated the appearance of this fireball with what they were ordered to do to Nichiren. Based on this sudden, strange event, they changed their minds. Their perceptions shifted.

Montepulciano: Nichiren’s perceptions shifted, too. Later he wrote that the “old” Nichiren died that night. The “new” Nichiren lived on with a renewed sense of mission as a bodhisattva. In our own lives, many of can say that we’ve had our own meteor moments. I know that I connect these pivotal moments with my Buddhist practice, but I have no objective proof that chanting causes these things to occur. It’s a matter of faith and belief, not scientific fact.

Carmelight: The ultimate shift in perception is enlightenment. Nichiren and other Buddhist teachers tell us that this saha world — our ordinary world of suffering and impermanence — is also the Buddhaland. Buddhist practice is intended to shift our perception so we can see the Buddhaland in our midst. Our minds are clouded by delusion, which is why we can’t see the Buddhaland. With practice, we polish the mirror of our mind, as Nichiren says, in order to clearly reflect the enlightened aspect of existence. To ask if Buddhism works means to ask if it leads to enlightenment. I believe it works. But I can’t prove it to anyone’s satisfaction but my own.

Montepulciano: In the realm of faith, proving it means doing it. It means demonstrating these workings to ourselves and to others in our lives who know us and see us. I have always been skeptical of publicly presented “experience” stories because they feel emotionally manipulative. Some are so sincere they make me cry, such as mothers reuniting with lost children. Others are focused on material success and are like prosperity-gospel bragging. As long as you’re convinced that chanting works for you, what does it matter if other people remain unconvinced?

Carmelight: My next question is, How does one demonstrate enlightenment? Can it be demonstrated?

But is it Buddhism?

Question: Is Nichiren Buddhism really Buddhism? Nichiren said that earthly desires are enlightenment. He told chanters to embrace their desires rather than to extinguish them. Because of this, Nichiren Buddhism seems to contradict a foundational teaching of Buddhism, namely the Four Noble Truths and the basic goal of freeing oneself from craving. What do you think?

Carmelight: This question makes me groan with exhaustion. I can’t believe anyone seriously argues that Nichiren’s teachings are disconnected from Buddhism. It’s like saying the Lotus Sutra is disconnected from Buddhism. Buddhism has developed over centuries, crossing continents and cultures. With so many diverse people commenting on and practicing Buddhism, of course there are contradictory, competing views on what is — or isn’t — proper Buddhism. Regardless, it’s all Buddhism.

Jutta: It’s all, generally, Buddhism. But Nichiren argued strenuously against specific interpretations of Buddhism that he thought were misleading or fraudulent.

Carmelight: He did, and we would do well to give him the last word. Nichiren did all the arguing for us. We don’t have to repeat or revive the debate.

Jutta: Nichiren had his reasons. He lived in medieval Japan. The military-run government of his day gave financial support to certain Buddhist priests, but not to Nichiren. He was fighting for survival. It’s not like he was stirring up debate to be smug and superior. He had conviction and a controversial view of Buddhism. He also had real enemies who tried to kill him because of his outspokenness. Nichiren’s hardline stance about correct versus incorrect was high-stakes, life-and-death stuff for him.

Nichiren’s reality was much different than ours. We don’t have to argue about Buddhism as if our lives depend on it. Even so, still today, people try to discredit Nichiren’s teachings by denying that they are Buddhist. Even asking the question, “Is Nichiren Buddhism really Buddhism?” demonstrates this agenda. Do people go around asking if Vipassana or Zen or Tantric Buddhism are “really” Buddhism? No. These are three very different ways, and yet they are all Buddhism. Why is Nichiren Buddhism even a question?

NoNoNanjo: Good points. I’m redirecting. I looked up the Four Noble Truths:
1. The first noble truth is that our world and our lives are characterized by suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction.
2. The second truth is that our suffering is caused by our cravings, urges, and attachments. All our desires, supposedly, are like chains that bind us to suffering.
3. The third truth is that we can free ourselves from these attachments and thereby free ourselves from suffering.
4. The fourth truth is that our path to freedom is the Noble Eightfold Path, which is another foundational Buddhist teaching.

The famous eight folds of the Eightfold Path are Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation, and Right View.

Reviewing these concepts, it sounds as if Buddhism teaches that when we become right in every way, we’ll be freed from our miserable existence! Or, to say it another way, as we perfect ourselves, we become enlightened to the perfection of everything.

This doesn’t make much sense to Nichiren Buddhists because we tend to trust Nichiren’s claim that earthly desires are enlightenment. Instead of detaching from our wishes and wants, we wallow in them. The idea is that desire is like firewood that feeds the flames of enlightenment. We burn our way through desire, so to speak, creating light and warmth. I think that’s what Nichiren means, not that we should just be hedonists.

Montepulciano: I wish we could give up all thoughts of becoming perfect or being right. Chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo for what you really, truly want — no matter how absurd or how unlikely it is that your wish will be fulfilled. It sounds simple and naïve but it’s profound. Some people are chanting for world peace and harmony, sure. Personally, I find it hard to chant passionately about abstractions. It’s easier to chant for something that personally affects me, such as finding a better job, or something urgent, such as prayers for the health of a loved one who’s in the hospital. It’s easier in the sense that I feel the fire of motivation and personal investment.

Jones: Years ago, when I was practicing in Los Angeles, friends would host 10-hour tosos. I think the word toso means something like, “fight evil spirits” in Japanese. A 10-hour toso in the 1990s in LA meant sitting on the floor with a bunch of people in someone’s living room and chanting continuously for ten hours. I did it once. I’ve never been able to do it again. To sustain your motivation for ten hours, or even ten minutes of chanting, you really gotta want something.

Montepulciano: Chanting for what you want sounds horribly self-indulgent and the farthest thing from enlightenment. But when you chant for what you honestly want, and do it for years and years, you start to see the wisdom of it. When I was young, I chanted about cars and romance. I had such small dreams. My prayers are larger now maybe because I see how my fate and the fate of this planet Earth are intertwined. Now I can sincerely chant about the world. But when I was younger, I would’ve only been pretending. An honest prayer is a powerful prayer, even if what you want seems impossible.

Jones: Agreed. Posturing and pretending are pointless. Who are we trying to fool? When we’re chanting, it’s no time to be pretentious, realistic, or practical. It’s time to offer the most impossible wishes and rages of our hearts.

As Ted used to say, “If what you want is possible, what do you need the Gohonzon for?” Meaning, if what you want can be accomplished by some means other than chanting, go pursue those means. If you want to run a marathon, start training. Chanting about it is great, but it isn’t going to get you across the finish line.

Also, chanting for what you really want isn’t as easy as it sounds, often because ideas about practicality get in the way. For example, a friend was chanting for lots of money. She asked Ted why her sincere prayer for lots of money was not being answered promptly. Ted asked, “Why do you want lots of money?” My friend said, “To buy a house.” Ted said, “So chant for a house!”

Since then, when I chant for what I want, I ask myself why I want it.

NoNoNanjo: Riffing on the example of a house, why do I want a house? Because I want my family to have a safe, comfortable place to live. What I really want is not a house so much as I want safety and security for myself and my loved ones. The house is a seemingly practical strategy for getting what I want.

That’s another aphorism of faith. Tell the Gohonzon what you want; but don’t tell it how to make it happen. Prayer is how. Daimoku is how. The strategy of the Lotus Sutra is unfathomable. We’re never going to understand how. Chant for your true heart’s desire.

Jutta: Presumably, you could chant to attain enlightenment in strict accordance with the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. If you really wanted that.

Carmelight: For the sake of argument: Would it be so terrible if we were to think of Nichiren Buddhism as disconnected from Buddhism? Would it be so terrible if we decided that the practice of chanting Namu-myoho-renge-kyo is unrelated to — or totally beyond — Buddhism? If we could get beyond nitpicking about Buddhist concepts, would it free us to see or experience Daimoku in a whole new way?

In other words, can we take the practice of chanting Daimoku out of the context of Buddhism? I think we can. You don’t have to know anything about Buddhism to chant. You can chant and it works, no matter if you lack knowledge of Buddhism.

Jutta: Heretic! Just kidding. Yes, this is an intriguing question. I will put it on our list for another conversation.