Treasuring Every Individual (ICRC (Int’l Committee of the Red Cross): Religion and Humanitarian Principles, Oct. 5, 2021)
The world today is faced with a complex set of urgent crises that can only be described as unprecedented in the history of humankind. In addition to the increasing incidence every passing year of extreme weather events that reflect the worsening problem of climate change, the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to threaten social and economic stability throughout the world.
I use the term “unprecedented” here not merely in reference to the overlapping and interlocking layers of crisis we are experiencing today. Humanity has been confronted with various kinds of challenges throughout its long history, yet it has never faced a situation in which the entire world is impacted at once, gravely threatening the lives, livelihood and dignity of people in countries everywhere, throwing them into conditions in which they find themselves requiring urgent assistance.
As of July 1, 2021, COVID-19 has killed almost 4 million people around the world. The number of COVID-19 fatalities has far exceeded the total number of lives claimed by large-scale natural disasters over the past twenty years. One cannot begin to fathom the depth of grief experienced by those who have lost their loved ones in this unforeseen manner; and this pain is deepened by the fact that, due to measures to prevent the spread of the virus, so many of the victims have been prevented from spending their final moments with family by their side.
In our daily Buddhist practice, we have continued to offer heartfelt prayers for the earliest possible end to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for the repose of the deceased.
Starting in September of last year, the Soka Institute of the Amazon, which I worked to establish, has been planting one tree in memory of each victim of COVID-19 in Brazil as part of its Life Memorial project. With every tree planted, the initiative aims to honor and acknowledge those with whom life has been shared in the great land of Brazil—perpetuating their memory while also contributing to the reforestation and protection of the ecological integrity of the Amazon region.
It has always been a cornerstone of human society to collectively mourn the deceased and commit ourselves to living in a manner that honors their legacy. Today, when COVID-19 continues to spread in many countries, it is all the more crucial that we not lose sight of the immense value and dignity of every individual and never let life be reduced to a mere statistic.
Amid the increasing normalization of the crisis in daily life and the focus on the need for each person to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, we risk cementing social isolation and division, as well as neglecting the particular hardships faced by society’s most vulnerable members.
Even if the world has entered a long tunnel with no clear end in sight and the circumstances experienced by others are obstructed from view, we must absolutely not lose our essential orientation, which is the fact that we all ultimately live in the same society. In addition, we need to feel keenly a sense of coexistence in that we all live on the same planet.
Although COVID-19 poses a threat to all countries, the fact remains that there is a wide gap in the severity of its impact depending on the circumstances in which people find themselves. For example, some 40 percent of the world’s population live in conditions in which they are unable to regularly wash their hands with soap, a standard method for preventing infection. This means that some 3 billion people lack access to a basic means of protecting themselves and their loved ones.
In addition, with the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution reaching 80 million, many have no choice but to share close living quarters with others in refugee camps. Such conditions make it virtually impossible to practice physical distancing, so these people must live with the risk of exposure should an infection break out.
The crisis facing the world today consists of many complex interlocking threats, making it difficult to identify the interrelations among them as required to fully address each problem. While acknowledging this constraint, I would argue that, even as we work to develop a comprehensive response, we must always prioritize addressing the suffering of each of the many individuals whose lives are directly impacted.
The following Buddhist perspective may be useful in this regard. In the well-known parable of the poisonous arrow, Shakyamuni relates the story of a man who has been shot and wounded by a poisoned arrow. Before he will allow the arrow to be removed, he insists on knowing who made the bow and arrow and the identity—the name and clan—of the person who shot him. No measures can be taken while he demands answers to such particulars. What would happen to such a man, Shakyamuni stresses, is that the arrow will remain lodged in his body and he will end up losing his life.
The renowned twentieth-century religious scholar Mircea Eliade (1907–86) positioned Shakyamuni’s teachings as a kind of medical treatment to heal human suffering. And indeed, Shakyamuni was wholly committed to removing the poisonous arrow; in other words, removing the underlying causes of people’s suffering. The living origin of what we now know as the teachings of Buddhism is Shakyamuni’s ardent concern to relieve human suffering, voiced in various settings and occasions.
Nichiren (1222–82), who expounded the teachings of Buddhism in thirteenth-century Japan based on the Lotus Sutra, which expresses the essence of Shakyamuni’s teachings, described their power as being “like oil added to a lamp or a staff presented to an elderly person.” In other words, Shakyamuni did not deploy superhuman powers to save human beings; rather, he dedicated himself to offering the people with whom he engaged the kind of words that would help them reveal the strength and potential already existing within their lives.
Nichiren’s treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” written against the backdrop of a series of natural disasters, famine and widespread epidemics that tormented the people of Japan, stressed the crucial importance of taking action to eliminate suffering and despair.
In another of his writings, Nichiren describes the intense suffering of the people of Japan, afflicted by one disaster after another, as follows:
“In this way the three calamities and the seven disasters have continued for several decades on end, and half the people have been wiped out. Those who remain are parted from their parents, their brothers and sisters, or their wives and children, and cry out in voices no less pitiful than those of autumn insects. Family after family has been scattered and destroyed like plants and trees broken down by the snow of winter.”
It was during such an age of turmoil that Nichiren continued to offer people encouragement, seeking to illuminate a society darkened by chaos and confusion with the light of hope.
On one occasion, he wrote the following words to a female follower who had lost her husband: “Your late husband had an ailing son and a daughter. I cannot help thinking that he may have grieved that, if he were to abandon them and leave this world, his aged wife… would be left alone, and would probably feel very sorry for these children.”
And yet, he writes, “winter always turns to spring.” Through these words, Nichiren sought to convey the following message of encouragement toward the grieving woman: At present, you may be overwhelmed by despair as if the icy winds of winter were pressing upon you. But this will not continue forever. Winter never fails to turn to spring. I urge you to live out your life with courage and strength. Before concluding his letter, Nichiren adds that she should rest assured that he would always watch over her children, bringing the warm light of spring to this woman for whom time had stopped, her life frozen in winter as a result of her husband’s death.
Though our present circumstances differ from those time, the widespread disorder brought about by this pandemic has taken many people to the edge of despair, sensing that their lives have come to an abrupt stop and finding themselves suddenly without any means of livelihood, unable to envision the future.
If a person in this state is forced to shoulder the burden of their suffering alone, without the support of a social safety net or interpersonal connections, their world will remain bleak. As soon as someone takes notice of their situation and reaches out to them, however, and they feel the warm and attentive light of others illuminating their circumstances, I believe it becomes possible for them to bring forth the strength needed to rebuild their lives and regain a sense of dignity.
As heirs to the spirit of Nichiren, members of the SGI are carrying out our practice of faith and social engagement in 192 countries and territories based on the determination never to leave behind those who are struggling in the depths of suffering. This conviction is distilled in the words of my mentor, Josei Toda: “I wish to see the word ‘misery’ no longer used to describe the world, any country, any individual.”
What is important here is that Toda was focused on the elimination of misery in a humanitarian spirit in all dimensions of life: the personal, the national and the global.
Undeterred by the global inequities that persist, the issues different countries face or the harsh circumstances besetting people, we must continue to strive together for the elimination of needless suffering, bridging any and all divides that separate us. In this spirit, we will continue to deepen ties of cooperation with like-minded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and faith-based organizations (FBOs) in pursuit of solutions to global challenges.
In one sense, human history consists of an unbroken series of threats, and perhaps it is inevitable that we will continue to face dangers in various forms. This is why it is crucial that we build the strong social foundations for eliminating misery so that, even when confronted with the most intense threat or challenge, we never leave behind those who are most vulnerable and are struggling in the depths of adversity.
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are called upon to maintain physical distance, making it harder to discern the conditions in which others find themselves. I cannot help but feel that religious movements and FBOs have an important role to play in inspiring and supporting efforts to ensure that we do not lose the crucial recognition that we all live within the same human society, and coexist on the same Earth.
The pandemic has gravely impacted our world, and finding our way out of this labyrinth will be far from easy. Nevertheless, I believe the “Ariadne’s thread” that will enable each of us to emerge from the crisis will come into clear view when we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of each individual life and, from there, consider what is most urgently needed in order to protect and support that life.