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Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization (Harvard University, USA, 1993)

(Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, September 24, 1993)

Nothing could please me more than to be back at Harvard University on a day of truly glorious weather, to speak with faculty and students at this, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. To Professor Nur Yalman, Professor Harvey Cox, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, and all those who have made my visit possible, I extend grateful thanks.

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who, with his famous panta rhei, declared that all things are in flux and that change is the essential nature of reality. Indeed, everything, whether in the realm of natural phenomena or of human affairs, changes continuously, moment to moment. Nothing maintains the exact same state for even the briefest instant; even the most solid-seeming rocks and minerals are subject to the erosive effects of time. In the realm of human affairs, through the course of this century of war and revolution, we have been witness to the most extraordinary panorama of societal transformation.

Buddhism terms this aspect of reality “the transience of all phenomena” (Jpn. shogyo mujo). In the Buddhist cosmology, this idea is described as the repeated cycles of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration through which all planets and systems must pass.

In terms of our lives as human beings, we experience this transience as the four sufferings: the suffering of birth (and the attendant pain of day-to-day existence), that of illness, of aging, and finally, of death—sufferings from which no one is exempt. It could be said that it was these sufferings, in particular the problem of death—the inexorable fate of all living things—that since ancient times spawned the formation of religious and philosophical systems.

Shakyamuni, it is said, was inspired to seek the truth by his chance encounters with these sufferings at the gates of the palace in which he was raised. Plato stated that true philosophers are always engaged in practice for dying and death. And Nichiren, the founder of the school of Buddhism practiced by the Soka Gakkai, admonishes us to “first study death, then study other matters.”[1] This is one of the subjects that I discussed over the course of several days with the great British historian Arnold J. Toynbee some twenty years ago.

Death weighs heavily on the human heart as an inescapable reminder of the finite nature of our existence. However seemingly limitless the wealth or power one might attain, the reality of one’s eventual demise cannot be avoided. Awakened to its own mortality, humanity has sought to conquer the fear and apprehension surrounding death by finding means by which to participate in, and partake of, the eternal. Through this quest, our species has learned to transcend instinctual modes of living and has developed those characteristics which we know as human. Seen in this light, it is obvious why the history of religion is coincident with the history of humankind.

Modern civilization has attempted to forget and ignore death; we have diverted our gaze from this most fundamental of problems. Death has been driven into the shadows and is considered something to be abominated only. For modern humanity, death is the mere absence of life, blankness and void. Life is identified with all that is good, with being, the rational, with light; death is only evil, nothingness, the dark and irrational. In all regards, the solely negative perception of death prevails.

Death, however, will not be ignored, and has exacted heavy retribution on modern humanity. The horrific and ironic climax of modern civilization has been what Zbigniew Brzezinski terms our own “century of megadeath.”[2] More immediately, a wide range of issues is now spurring a re-examination and re-evaluation of the true significance of death. These issues include brain death, death with dignity, the function of hospices, different funerary styles, as well as research into death and dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others.

Humankind seems finally to be on the verge of realizing the fundamental error of our view of life and death, to understand that death is more than the absence of life, that death, together with active life, is necessary to the formation of a larger more essential whole. The greater whole to which I refer is the deeper continuity of life and death, which we experience as individuals and which we express as culture. A central and fundamental challenge for the coming century will be that of establishing a culture—based on an understanding of life and death and of life’s essential eternity—that does not disown death, but directly confronts and correctly positions death within a larger living context.

Buddhism speaks of an intrinsic nature (Jpn. hossho, sometimes translated as “dharma nature”) existing within the depths of phenomenal reality. Dependent upon and in response to environmental conditions, this intrinsic nature manifests alternate states of emergence and latency. All phenomena, including life and death, are viewed as the cyclical emergence into a manifest state and withdrawal into latency of this intrinsic nature.

Cycles of life and death can be likened to the alternating periods of sleeping and wakefulness. We can understand death as a state in which, just as sleep prepares us for the next day’s activities, we rest and replenish ourselves for new life. Viewed in this light, death is not to be reviled, but should be acknowledged, with life, as a blessing to be appreciated. The Lotus Sutra, the core of Mahayana Buddhism, states that the purpose of existence—the eternal cycles of life and death—is to be “happy and at ease.”[3] It further teaches that sustained faith and practice enable us to know a deep and abiding joy in death as well as life, to be equally “happy and at ease” with both. Nichiren describes the attainment of this state as the “greatest of all joys.”[4]

If the tragedies of this century of war and revolution have taught us anything, it is the folly of believing that reform of external factors, such as social systems, is the linchpin to achieving happiness. I am convinced that in the coming century, the greatest emphasis must be placed on fostering inward-directed change. In addition, our efforts must be inspired by a new understanding of life and death.

Premised on the above, I would like to discuss three specific areas in which I feel the outlook and approach of Mahayana Buddhism can contribute to the civilization of the twenty-first century.

The first is as a driving force for the creation of a peaceful society.

Since its inception, the philosophy of Buddhism has been associated with peace and pacifism. This derives principally, I feel, from Buddhism’s consistent rejection of violence, its constant emphasis on dialogue, discussion, and language as means of resolving conflict.

Karl Jaspers astutely attributes the great sadness of Shakyamuni’s disciples on his approaching death as deriving from a fear that “the word will have lost its master.”[5] One sutra describes Shakyamuni as meeting others with joy, approaching them with a bright and welcoming countenance. The life of Shakyamuni was one completely untrammeled by dogma, a life of open dialogue expressive of his openness of spirit.

Significantly, the sutra describing the travels that are the culmination of Shakyamuni’s Buddhist practice at the ripe age of eighty begins with an episode in which he uses the power of language to avert a war of invasion. According to the sutra, Shakyamuni did not directly admonish the minister of Magadha, a large country bent on realizing its aims of hegemony through the conquest of the neighboring state of Vajji. Rather, he persuasively expounded upon the principles by which nations prosper and decline, thus dissuading the minister from the planned invasion.

The final chapter of this same sutra concludes with a moving description of Shakyamuni on his deathbed, repeatedly urging his disciples to ask any question they might have about the Buddhist Law (dharma) or its practice, so that they would not find themselves regretting unasked questions after his passing. To his final moment, Shakyamuni actively sought out dialogue, and the drama of his final voyage from beginning to end is illuminated by the light of language, skillfully wielded by one who was truly a “master of words.”

Why was Shakyamuni able to employ language with such freedom and to such effect? What made him such a peerless master of dialogue? In essence, it was the embracing expansiveness of his enlightened state, utterly free of all dogma, prejudice, and attachment. The following words, attributed to him, are illustrative: “I perceived a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.”[6] This “arrow” could be termed the arrow of a discriminatory consciousness, an unreasoning emphasis on difference. The India of his time was in a period of transition and upheaval, in which the horrors of conflict and war were an ever-present reality. To Shakyamuni’s penetrating gaze, it was clear that the underlying cause of this conflict was attachment to differences such as those of ethnicity and nationality.

Speaking in the early years of this century, Josiah Royce, one of many important philosophers Harvard has given the world, declared as follows: “Reform, in such matters, must come, if at all, from within. . . . The public as a whole is whatever the processes that occur, for good or evil, in individual minds, may determine.”[7]

Indeed, the “invisible arrow” of evil to be overcome is not to be found in races and classes external to ourselves, but embedded in our own heart. The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the guiding principle for open dialogue, the essential condition for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights. It was his own complete release from prejudice that enabled Shakyamuni to expound the Law with such freedom, adapting his style of teaching to the character and capacity of his interlocutor.

Whether mediating a communal dispute over water rights, converting a violent criminal, or admonishing one who objected to the practice of begging for alms, the quality we find throughout Shakyamuni’s dialogues is the effort to make others aware of the “arrow” of their inner evil. It was the power of his extraordinary character that brought these words to the lips of one contemporaneous sovereign: “Those whom we, with weapons, cannot force to surrender, you subdue unarmed.”[8]

Only through overcoming attachment to difference can a religion rise above an essentially tribal outlook to offer a global faith. When, for example, Nichiren dismisses the Japanese Shogunate authorities who were persecuting him as the “ruler of this little island country”[9] it is clear that his vision was directed toward a world religion embodying universal values, transcending the confines of a single state.

It should also be noted that dialogue is not limited to the kind of placid exchanges that might be likened to the wafting of a spring breeze. There are times when, to break the grip arrogance has on another, speech must be like the breath of fire. It was the occasional ferocity of their speech that earned Shakyamuni and Nagarjuna, whom we typically associate only with mildness, the sobriquet of “those who deny everything”[10] from the powers-that-be of their respective eras.

Likewise, Nichiren, who demonstrated a familial affection and tender concern for the common people, was uncompromising in his confrontations with corrupt and degenerate authority. Always unarmed in the inveterately violent Japan of his time, he relied exclusively and unflinchingly on the power of persuasion and nonviolence. The following passage, written when he was exiled to a distant island from which none were expected to return alive, typifies his lionesque tone. Whether tempted with the promise of absolute power if he renounced his faith or threatened with the beheading of his parents if he adhered to his beliefs, he vowed that “whatever obstacles I might encounter, so long as persons of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield!”[11]

Nichiren’s faith in the power of language can only be termed adamantine. If more people were to resolve to pursue dialogue in this same unrelenting manner, the inevitable contentions of human life would surely find more harmonious resolution, prejudice would yield to empathy, war and conflict to peace. Through the workings of genuine dialogue, opposing perspectives are transformed from that which divides and sunders people into that which forges deeper union between them.

During World War II, the Soka Gakkai challenged head-on the forces of Japanese militarism. As a result, many members, beginning with founder and first president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, were imprisoned. There, far from recanting, Makiguchi continued to expound to his guards and interrogators the principles of Buddhism and of peace—the very thoughts which made him a “thought criminal.” He died in prison at age seventy-three.

Heir to Makiguchi’s spiritual legacy, second president Josei Toda emerged from the ordeal of a two-year imprisonment and, declaring his faith in the global human family, engaged in widespread dialogue among the common people, suffering and lost in the aftermath of the war. President Toda also bequeathed to us, his youthful disciples, the mission of building a world free of nuclear weapons.

With this as our historical and philosophical basis, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is at present engaged in activities for peace, education, and culture, forging bonds of solidarity with citizens in 115 countries and territories worldwide. For my own part, I am committed to continuing my efforts to engage in dialogue with people of good will throughout the world, in order to contribute in some small way to the greater happiness of humankind.

The second point I would like to touch upon is the role that Buddhism can play in the restoration of humanity, the rejuvenation of the human person.

In an age marked by widespread religious revival, we need always to ask: Does religion make people stronger, or does it weaken them? Does it encourage what is good or what is evil in them? Are they made better and more wise—or less—by religion? These, I believe, are the criteria we must keep firmly in view.

While the authority of Marx as social prophet has been largely undermined by the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there is an important truth contained in his equating of religion to opium. And although one hopes that the recent tragedy in Waco, Texas, represents a rare extremity, it is not clear that all religions have rid themselves of their opiate-like aspects. In fact there is reason for concern that more than a few of the religions finding new life in the twilight of this century are characterized by a dogmatism and insularity that run counter to the accelerating trend toward interdependence and cross-cultural interaction.

In this regard, it is important to examine the balance that different belief systems accord to reliance on our own powers and reliance on powers external to ourselves, ideas corresponding roughly to free will and grace in Christian terminology.

If we paint in the broadest strokes the movement from the medieval to the modern in Europe, we observe a steady progress away from a God-centered determinism toward an ever greater emphasis on free will and human responsibility. The powers of the human being have increasingly been stressed, while those external to us have been steadily de-emphasized. And while none would deny the great achievements of science and technology in the modern era, a misplaced faith in the omnipotence of reason has led humanity to believe that there is nothing beyond our power, thus bringing civilization to its present, apparently inextricable impasse. If past reliance on an external force led humanity to underestimate the full dimensions of our possibility and responsibility, excessive faith in our own powers has produced a dangerous overinflation of the human ego.

Could it not be said that civilization is now seeking a third path, a new balance between faith in our own power and recognition of that which lies beyond us? Nichiren represents the subtle and richly suggestive Mahayana perspective on attaining enlightenment in the following passage: “Neither solely through one’s own efforts . . . nor solely through the power of others.”[12] The persuasive argument of Buddhism is that the greatest benefit is derived from the dynamic fusion and balancing of these two forces.

Along similar lines, John Dewey, in A Common Faith, asserts that it is “the religious,” rather than specific religions, that is of vital importance. In contrast to religions, which fall all too quickly into dogmatism and fanaticism, “that which is religious” has the power to “unify interests and energies” and to “direct action and generate the heat of emotion and the light of intelligence.” Likewise, “the religious” enables the realization of those goods which Dewey identifies as “the values of art in all its forms, of knowledge, of effort and of rest after striving, of education and fellowship, of friendship and love, of growth in mind and body.”[13] While Dewey does not identify a specific external power, for him “the religious” is a generalized term for that which supports and encourages people in active aspiration toward the good and the valuable. “The religious,” as Dewey defines it, helps those who help themselves.

As the results of modern humanity’s self-worship make sadly evident, unassisted we are incapable of realizing our full potential. It is only through fusing and merging ourselves with the eternal—that which lies beyond our finitude as individuals—that we can manifest the full scale of our potential. And yet that potential is not foreign to us, but is of us, within us, and always has been. Such, I believe, are the implications of Dewey’s argument.

Further, I believe that the balance each religious tradition strikes between inner and exterior forces will decisively influence that tradition’s future viability. Not only Buddhists but all involved in religion must devote careful attention to this relationship, if we are to avoid repeating the history of human enslavement to dogma and religious authority and ensure that the religious impulse serves as a vehicle for the restoration and rejuvenation of humanity. In this regard, I am deeply appreciative of Professor Harvey Cox’s appraisal of the SGI as offering a model of humanistic religion.[14]

Elsewhere in Nichiren’s teachings we find: “When you concentrate the exertions of millions of aeons in a single life-moment, the three inherent properties of the Buddha will become manifest in your every thought and act.”[15] Buddhism is not merely theoretical, but seeks to enable us to guide our lives, moment by moment, toward happiness and value-creation. The expression “the exertions of millions of aeons” indicates an attitude of confronting each of life’s problems with our full being, awakening the entirety of our consciousness and leaving no inner resource untapped. By meeting—wholeheartedly and head-on—the challenges of living, we bring forth from within us the “three inherent properties of the Buddha.” It is the light of this inner wisdom that at each instant encourages and guides our actions toward the true and correct.

In this context, the appearance throughout the Lotus Sutra of drums, horns, and various other musical instruments can be understood as urging on, through their vibrant tones, the human will to live. The function of the Buddha nature is always to encourage us to be strong, to be good, to be wise; the message is always one of human restoration.

The third point I would like to discuss is the philosophical basis which Buddhism provides for the symbiotic coexistence of all things.

Among the many images in the Lotus Sutra, one that I find particularly compelling is that of an impartial rain that compassionately moistens the vast expanse of the land, bringing forth new life from all the trees and grasses, large and small.[16] This scene, depicted with a vividness, grandeur, and beauty characteristic of the Lotus Sutra, symbolizes the enlightenment of all people touched by the Buddha’s Law of great and impartial wisdom. At the same time, it is a magnificent paean to the rich diversity of human as well as all forms of sentient and insentient life, each equally manifesting the inherent enlightenment of its nature, each thriving and harmonizing in a grand concert of symbiosis.

Buddhism uses the term “dependent origination” (Jpn. engi) to describe symbiotic relations. Nothing—no one—exists in isolation. Each individual existence functions to bring into being the conditions that in turn sustain all other existences. Reality is understood more in terms of relationality and interdependence than in terms of discrete individualities. All things, mutually supportive and related, form a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might term a semantic whole. This is the conceptual framework through which Mahayana Buddhism views the natural universe.

Speaking through Faust, Goethe gives voice to a similar vision. “All weaves one fabric; all things give/Power unto all to work and live.”[17] The poet, whose insights now strike us for their remarkable affinity to Buddhism, was criticized by his young friend Eckermann as “lacking confirmation of his presentiments.”[18] The intervening years have offered a steadily swelling chorus of affirmation for the prescience of Goethe’s, and Buddhism’s, deductive vision.

Taking as an example the concept of causation, we find that causal relations viewed in the light of dependent origination differ fundamentally from the kind of mechanistic causation which, according to modern science, holds sway over the objective natural world—a world divorced from subjective human concerns. Causation, in the Buddhist view, spans a more broadly defined nature, one that embraces human existence.

To illustrate, let us assume that an accident or disaster has occurred. A mechanistic theory of causation can be used to pursue and identify how the accident occurred, but is silent regarding the question of why certain individuals should find themselves caught up in the tragic event. Indeed, the mechanistic view of nature requires the deliberate forestalling of such existential questionings. In contrast, the Buddhist understanding of causation seeks to directly address these poignant “whys?” as demonstrated by this question and response early in Shakyamuni’s career: “What is the cause of aging and death? Birth is the cause of aging and death.”[19] In a later era, through a process of exhaustive thought and inquiry, the founder of the Chinese Tiantai school, Zhiyi, developed a theoretical structure, comprising such concepts as “three thousand realms in a single moment of life,” which is not only sweeping in scope and rigorous in elaboration but is entirely compatible with modern science. While limitations of time prohibit elaboration, it is worth mentioning that many contemporary fields of inquiry—among them ecology, transpersonal psychology, and quantum mechanics—are remarkably cognate with Buddhism in their approach and conclusions.

When relatedness and interdependence are given this kind of emphasis, a concern that perhaps springs to many minds is that individual identity will be obscured. The following passages from the Buddhist scriptures can be cited in this connection. “You are your own master. Could anyone else be your master? When you have gained control over yourself, you have found a master of rare value.”[20] And elsewhere: “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the Law as a lamp, do not rely on anything else.”[21]

Both passages urge us to live independently, true to ourselves and unswayed by others. The “self” referred to here, however, is not what Buddhism terms the “lesser self” (Jpn. shoga), caught up in the snares of egoism. Rather, it is the “greater self” (Jpn. taiga) fused with the universal life through which cause and effect intertwine over the infinite reaches of space and time.

This greater, cosmic self is profoundly resonant with the unifying and integrating “self” which Jung perceived in the depths of the ego, and with what Emerson spoke of as “the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.”[22] I am firmly convinced that a wide-scale awakening to this greater self will give rise to a world of creative and symbiotic coexistence in the coming century.

I am here reminded of the following lines of Whitman, in which he sings the praises of the human spirit:

But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.[23]

The “greater self” elucidated in Mahayana Buddhism is another expression for the kind of openness and expansiveness of character that embraces the sufferings of all people as one’s own, always seeking amidst the realities of human society ways of alleviating the pain, and augmenting the happiness, of others. I am convinced that only the solidarity of such natural human nobility will break down the isolation of the modern “self,” opening horizons of new hope for civilization.

As individuals, it is the dynamic, vital stirrings of this greater self that will enable each of us to experience both life and death with equal delight.

In the record of his orally transmitted teachings, Nichiren states: “We adorn the treasure tower of our being with the four aspects [of birth, aging, sickness, and death].”[24] It is my earnest desire and prayer that in the twenty-first century each member of the human family will bring forth the natural luster of this inner “treasure tower” and, wrapping our azure planet in the symphonic tones of open dialogue, humankind will make its evolutionary advance into the new millennium. Sharing with you this vista—of the brilliant dawn of a century of peace and humanity—I conclude my remarks.

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