Philosophy > Overcoming obstacles

Overcoming obstacles

The positive energy of life is always stronger than the negative

Whenever we make a positive cause for the happiness of ourselves and those around us, it seems that there is going to be negativity of one sort or another. This is often explained by the example that an aeroplane is only able to take off and move forward through the air, because of the resistance it encounters as it builds up speed, but which gives the aircraft lift and keeps it airborne until it has reached its destination.

I have seen this resistance in different ways in my life, particularly around New Year's resolutions, when I have made plans for something which on the face of it is a good thing to do (like using my gym membership more regularly, perhaps), but which seems to be followed, as the year unfolds, with a gradual fading of the original enthusiasm.

Buddhism suggests that the stronger the positive cause, the stronger the likely negative resistance. The greatest cause is for the development of the kosen-rufu movement for the happiness of ourselves and other people and the transformation of society, as we try to reveal our own Buddhahood, and do what we can to encourage other people to reveal their greater potential. This, it is suggested, will draw out the strongest aspects of life's negativity. Fortunately, however, Buddhism also suggests that the positive energy of life is always stronger than the negative. There may be something inherent in life which tries to hold us back from achieving our goals and ambitions, but it is not as strong as the creative, positive force which will enable us to reach those goals. I mentioned in an earlier article in this series that something that attracted me to Buddhism was the idea that happiness is not the absence of problems, but the absolute confidence that any problem can be resolved, and this confidence develops as we see this positive force working more and more in our lives.

Nichiren Daishonin wrote about the negativity that will arise when a person tries to reveal his or her Buddhahood:

There is definitely something extraordinary in the ebb and flow of the tide, the rising and setting of the moon, and the way in which summer, autumn, winter and spring give way to each other. Something uncommon also occurs when an ordinary person attains Buddhahood. At such a time, the three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat.1

These 'obstacles' and 'devils' (devils are also called 'hindrances') are Buddhism's way of explaining how negativity will appear - but please note the two different reactions: wise people rejoice that negativity is showing how positive the determination is, while foolish people just give up on their goals, letting the negativity win.

This idea of obstacles and hindrances goes back to the early Buddhist teachings. They were originally listed in the Nirvana Sutra and they show that negativity can appear outside us in the form of blocks or challenges in our environment or negativity can be something inside us (like our own fear, doubt, cowardice, desires or other mental functions resulting in weakness).

Obstacles were originally listed as negativity arising from earthly desires or from one's own greed, anger and foolishness. Negative karma and retribution have also been given as examples, especially in the form of either family members who might obstruct or restrict one's practice or those in authority who create circumstances where it is difficult or not possible to practise Buddhism.

'Devils' in Buddhism are seen as being internal, unlike in other religions. They include challenges in one's body or mental state (and include one's doubt or fear about change and development), being swayed by an object of desire, and being swayed by doubt following the death of someone we are close to. Finally there is also the force described in Buddhism as the interesting character called The Devil King of the Sixth Heaven', who represents the most extreme and insidious negativity which saps people of their life-force and the fruit of their efforts for the devil's own pleasure.

Nichiren Daishonin describes this personification of extreme negativity in quite a humorous way, almost as if he is a larger than life and ridiculous character in a pantomime:

When an ordinary person of the latter age is ready to attain Buddhahood, having realised the essence of all the sacred teachings of the Buddha's lifetime and understood the heart of the important teaching set forth in Great Concentration and Insight [ie, that we all have Buddhahood in our lives and can reveal it], this devil is greatly surprised. He says to himself, 'This is most vexing. If I allow this person to remain in my domain, he not only will free himself from the sufferings of birth and death, but will lead others to enlightenment as well. Moreover, he will take over my realm and change it into a pure land. What shall I do?'2

By giving us this insight into the 'devil's' thought processes, Nichiren Daishonin cleverly reminds us that this force, although devious, is not a match for the positive power of Buddhahood. Nevertheless, we have to be aware of this energy in life which is so desperate to prevent people revealing their positive potential that it looks for any means to stop this happening. Nichiren Daishonin continues:

The devil king then summons all his underlings from the threefold world of desire, form, and formlessness and tells them: 'Each of you now go and harass that votary, according to your respective skills. If you should fail to make him abandon his Buddhist practice, then enter into the minds of his disciples, lay supporters, and the people of his land and thus try to persuade or threaten him. If these attempts are also unsuccessful, I myself will go down and possess the mind and body of his sovereign to persecute that votary. Together, how can we fail to prevent him from attaining Buddhahood?'3

By describing this 'devil' in this way, Nichiren Daishonin is, I believe, encouraging us to see negativity in life as something that we can and must challenge, and not be frightened of. After all, obstacles which arise in the practice of and for the sake of Buddhism are, we are assured, a guarantee that we are on the path to, and very close indeed to achieving, enlightenment.

In another letter, Nichiren Daishonin confirms that negativity is proof that we are doing something good and positive. He quotes from the great Buddhist teacher T'ien-t'ai:

'As practice progresses and understanding grows, the three obstacles and four devils emerge in confusing form, vying with one another to interfere ...One should be neither influenced nor frightened by them. If one falls under their influence, one will be led into the paths of evil. If one is frightened by them, one will be prevented from practising the correct teaching.' This statement not only applies to me, but also is a guide for my followers. Reverently make this teaching your own, and transmit it as an axiom of faith for future generations.4

It also strikes me as interesting that when discussing negativity, Buddhist teachings describe three kinds of external obstacles but four kinds of internal hindrance. This means that while we should of course keep an eye on what is going on in the environment around us, we need to keep an even closer eye on our own inner negativity, whether it is doubt, fear or other aspects of delusion.

Sometimes what is really negativity can be misunderstood. I have heard people talking about the challenging negativity which arose which made them late for a meeting or an event. It is rare though that this is the destructive energy of life seeking to stop us practising. Most likely this is more about planning or time keeping or the vagaries of transport timetables than the negativity which is unhappy about the development of the kosen-rufu movement in the United Kingdom and actively seeking to make us 'abandon our Buddhist practice'.

I think an important aspect of what happens to us in life comes back to our inner attitude. The Buddhist principle of 'the oneness of self and the environment' (see the November 2014 Art of Living) tells us that what happens around us is a reflection of what is happening in our hearts. Therefore if we have a pessimistic attitude, it is more likely that we are going to experience negative things in our lives. As much as we can then, we will benefit from having a positive attitude which will draw a harmonious response from the environment.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has described the importance of having a positive attitude to difficulties and problems:

Whether we regard difficulties in life as misfortunes or whether we view them as good fortune depends entirely on how much we have forged our inner determination. It all depends on our attitude, our inner state of life. With a dauntless spirit, we can lead a cheerful and thoroughly enjoyable life. We can develop a 'self of such fortitude that we look forward to life's trials and tribulations with a sense of profound elation and joy: 'Come on obstacles! I've been expecting you! This is the chance that I've been waiting for!'5

We 'forge' our inner determination in life by challenging things when life gets tough. President Ikeda also wrote:

One of my favourite Argentine poets, the great educator Almafuerte (1854-1917) wrote: To the weak, difficulty is a closed door. To the strong, however, it is a door waiting to be opened.' Difficulties impede the progress of those who are weak. For the strong, however, they are opportunities to open wide the doors to a wide future. Everything is determined by our attitude, by our resolve. Our heart is what matters most.6

The more we practise Buddhism, and the more we see Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in action in our lives, the more we realise that when we raise our life-condition and reveal our Buddha nature, then we can break through any impasse and transform any obstacle. This not only has a positive impact on our own lives, but it also means that we can lead all those who are suffering to happiness.

  1. Nichiren Daishonin, The Three Obstacles and Four Devils' (WND-1 p. 637).
  2. Nichiren Daishonin, letter to Misawa' (WND-1, pp. 894-895]
  3. Ibid.
  4. Nichiren Daishonin, letter to the Brothers'(WND-1, p. 501).
  5. Daisaku Ikeda, Faith Into Action (World Tribune Press, 1999) p. 11.
  6. Ibid, p. 12.