Hello from Paris, France. Today I am giving my Dharma talk to a group of Nichiren believers in town outside Paris. I want to thank the people I have met here for being such wonderful hosts. I also want to thank Isabelle for receiving us in her home.
Tomorrow I will have the wonderful opportunity to visit the great cathedral in Chartres, France. In preparation for my visit to this historic and religious place I have done a little studying. For the people in France what I will say is something they are well aware of, but probably most Americans do not know. The current building of the Chartres Cathedral is constructed in the Gothic style, but is not the first or even the original building.
One thing that fascinated me as I was reading was the fact that the site of the current building has been occupied and used as a religious or place of spiritual practice for perhaps several thousand years. There is some evidence to believe that long before Christians were ever heard of or came to the area the place was used by Druids and even before them perhaps by early megalithic people as far back as 2000 BC.
In keeping with my outline for Dharma Talks this year during the month of March I will offer some reflections on Chapter II the Expedients chapter. For those who may be unfamiliar with what I am doing, I am covering one chapter a month spending each of the Sundays in a month on a single chapter offering reflections and connections between Buddhism and life. I am a big fan of taking Buddhism and applying it to our daily lives.
Chapter I is primarily about waiting, everyone is gathered around the Buddha who is sitting in deep concentration. The assembly is there watching the Buddha and suddenly some very spectacular things occur which most in the gathering had never seen before. They learn that according to Manjusri who has seen many Buddhas over his lifetime of practice suspects that the Buddha Shakyamuni will now begin to teach a very special teaching called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra.
I have previously broached this subject but I would like to talk about it some more. The idea that in some ways I think the Lotus Sutra is also a teaching of unification of the Sangha, but not a unification of elimination of differences.
By the time the Buddha teaches the Lotus Sutra there are many people in the Sangha, and it is evident from the sutra itself that there were many approaches to practicing Buddhism. There were those who favored the teachings for Sravakas, and those who aligned with Pratyekabuddha practices, as well as those who felt the Bodhisattva way was suitable. I would imagine that even within these three groups there were variations, after all we are talking about human beings. I do not believe that the basic nature of humans was any different at the time of the Buddha as it is now. Humans by our very being are both social and independent, and have a perhaps limitless capacity for finding and creating variety, even in similarities.
I can imagine the Buddha approaching the end of his life and with his enlightened mind looking at the Sangha and knowing that with all the variations of practicing and believing that it would soon splinter if there were not some unifying teaching. I also believe that the unifying principle was always there and always at the heart of what the Buddha taught, and that principle was that all beings are capable of and possess the potential to become Buddhas equal to all other Buddhas. The path to this was the Four Noble Truths.
If we look at the Lotus Sutra we see a theme of the Four Noble Truths come out over and over, and I will talk more about this as the year progresses. For now though let me just stay with the variations within the Sangha, because I think it is important to our own time and practice.
In Chapter II the Buddha says several times that he has previously taught many ways, many expedients in order to cause people to enter the “Way to the wisdom of the Buddha.” The reason for the various teachings previously given is to enable various types of people with differing natures and capacities to come to the single ultimate understanding that there is a single underlying purpose of Buddhism, which is to enable all people to become enlightened.
Chapter II and in fact I don’t believe anywhere in the Sutra does the Buddha say stop what you are doing, change your belief and practice and now do something else. What he does say is move beyond your attitude of superiority in your approach, expand your mind to also encompass something greater which is a unity of purpose for all Buddhist practitioners.
Yes, ultimately there is a single objective, which encompasses all the differences, and this single objective is an enlightenment of equality, but that equality does not eliminate the differences.
Now I do accept that I could be wrong, and I also know this is what I believe in my heart is the important message for us as modern practitioners who are trying to attain enlightenment in this Saha world. I do sincerely believe that all of the different approaches to practicing Buddhism have a purpose, a valuable purpose, in the spread of Buddhism in our world.
Just as the Buddha offered various avenues to various people so they could enter into the Way, the various denominations of Buddhism today serve the same function. I think if you approach any Buddhist in any country or culture and ask them why they practice Buddhism each one will tell you about the same thing, which is to attain enlightenment and to enable others to do the same.
I believe what the Lotus Sutra calls on us to do is to move beyond focusing on the differences between practices and focus on the ultimate objective of all Buddhas and Buddhists, which actually is a practice that encompasses all the practices, unifies them but does so without denying them.
It is interesting that in most of the world Buddhist get along remarkably well. Yes there have been and continue to be some frictions between various denominations, but generally in the history of Buddhism it has been quite peaceful, even in interactions with those of other religions. This is one of the great offerings of Buddhism to modern society, and Nichiren Buddhism is well suited to continue and enhance this tradition, which I think is also the mission of the Lotus Sutra.
Looking at other non-Buddhist religions we see a mixed history of peaceful interactions, which as one author I read recently put it, at the core of human strife is the insecurity of religious belief and an absence of spiritual depth. If as practitioners of the Lotus Sutra we see as our mission the spread of the Lotus Sutra, I think we also need to recognize that the Lotus Sutra embraces variety while also holding onto equality. The Lotus Sutra does not impose the elimination of differences in order to achieve equality; it in fact celebrates differences and variety.
We as Nichiren Buddhist should focus, I believe, not on differences but on similarities. Now some will say this is contrary to what Nichiren taught. I don’t necessarily agree that it is so radically different. First, on a personal day-to-day interaction with people I don’t think Nichiren was so dogmatic as to condemn people because they practiced another brand of Buddhism, there just isn’t evidence to support this. He did of course respond critically to government support and interference in religions and practice. He also responded firmly to those who criticized him for his belief. He was firm in his faith, but not mean spirited.
Of course Nichiren believed that to have faith in the Lotus Sutra was to be desired above all. His Rissho Ankoku Ron was written because Nichiren wanted to understand the cause of the troubles that were causing so much suffering in Japan. He also sought to sort out why so many different ways of practicing Buddhism and which one might provide the most benefit. He did propose that people would be much better off if they took up the single practice of chanting the Odaimoku and belief in the Lotus Sutra. But he did not advocate banning other practices, though he did advocate the suspension of government support for other religions. He also clearly laid out his reasons for belief.
I think this is a good model to follow even today. We should understand the differences in religions and belief systems and we should be willing to clearly articulate what our beliefs are. But saying what you believe in does not preclude someone disagreeing with you or not accepting what you believe. This is especially true if we really believe that all beings are Buddhas. It may be that for a while the other Buddha will travel a path slightly different than your own. Just as the Buddha made predictions of future enlightenment for his contemporary practitioners so too will those today who do not take faith will eventually practice the Lotus Sutra.
One of the books I am currently reading is The Wise Fold of Chelm that is a story about a folk tale of the largest collection of foolish people on earth who through an accident were all living in the same small village. I won’t go into the whole story, suffice it to say that because everyone in the town was foolish they thought they were all wise and that everyone around them was wise. Some of the incidents these people get into are quite humorous and also quite foolish.
“Some bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs
Some upāsakas were self-conceited.
Some upāsikās were unfaithful.
Those four kinds of devotees
Were five thousand in number.
They could not see their own faults.
They could not observe all the precepts.
They were reluctant to heal their own wounds.
Those people of little wisdom are gone.
They were the dregs of this congregation.
They were driven away by my powers and virtues.”
Lotus Sutra, Chapter II
When we engage in a mentality and practice that says I am superior and the things I do are better than you we are acting foolishly, think most people would agree to that. If you encounter someone who is arrogant and condescending, demeaning and belittling, without respect for others and differences, do you think highly of that individual? Is this someone you want to be around, or even be like? For most of us we would say no.
Yet, how easily do we adopt this very mentality and attitude when it comes to religion? For some it is easily adopted. The Buddha doesn’t display this kind of attitude when he comes to the point in his teaching where he begins to unify his Sangha. He exhibits graciousness and expansiveness, something I think we all can learn more about. Yet foolish people are unable to see the value of differences. Foolish people are also incapable of examining their own faults but all too easily see faults in others. If we think about it, these very actions also prevent a person from fully observing the precepts.
Foolish people and foolish behaviors cause people to think they are superior and also cause them to withdraw and separate from others. The actions of the foolish are the same as those who left the assembly in Chapter II whom the Buddha referred to as sticks and twigs. The Buddha did not eject them from the assembly but he did allow them to freely exit.
The foolish today are those who cling to religious superiority and thereby cause suffering in society. We as Nichiren Buddhists and practitioners of the Lotus Sutra, have a choice to make and that is will we contribute to the greater collective of foolish people in the world or will we contribute to wisdom?
Today I am here in France among Nichiren Buddhist and together we chanted the Odaimoku of the Sacred Title of the Lotus Sutra. Yet here I am unable to speak French, which makes things rather complicated for communication. The cathedral of Chartres has a long history of being on a very spiritual place, a place where Christians were able to see something of value even in something that wasn’t Christian. Today even though we are unable to freely communicate with each other these wonderful French people welcomed me as a fellow Nichiren believer to chant with them.
Humans are infinitely capable of manifesting wisdom, generally though that wisdom is greatest and most powerful when we focus on what we all share in common while also honoring and recognizing our differences.
I strongly advocate for a unification of purpose among Buddhists. The purpose being to spread the Dharma in all of its forms to as many people far and wide so that we can bring peace and joy to people all over the world. We can walk side by side even though we may practice differently. Especially this is true among Nichiren believers. Individually we are rather small, but I invite all Nichiren believers to chant together the Sacred Title and share the many ways of following the teaching of our masters Shakyamuni Buddha and Nichiren Shonin with as many people as possible. Let us take up the mission the Buddha gave to the Bodhisattvas who emerged from beneath the ground and came forth in various groupings with various leaders. Now is the time, people are calling out for help, let us bring to them the wonderful teaching of the Lotus Sutra.
Thank you. With Gassho,
Ryusho Jeffus, Shonin