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.