Practice is what we do in order to make the high life-condition (Buddhahood) manifest in our lives and study helps us transform our lives.
In The True Aspect of all Phenomena', Nichiren Daishonin writes:
Exert yourself in the two ways of practice and study. Without practice and study, there can be no Buddhism. You must not only persevere yourself; you must also teach others. Both practice and study arise from faith. Teach others to the best of your ability, even if it is only a single sentence or phrase. (WND-1, p. 386)
From this passage, we can see that Nichiren Daishonin is explaining that there are three aspects to Buddhist practice: faith, practice and study. This article will look at each of these three aspects in turn. You can’t really discuss practice and study without discussing faith.
In the reference books, 'faith' is often defined as 'faith in the Gohonzon'. In previous articles, we have seen that the Gohonzon is the object which Nichiren Daishonin inscribed so that his followers would have a reminder in their homes of the life-state of Buddhahood that exists in every person's life. Nichiren Daishonin calls the Gohonzon 'the object of devotion for observing the mind' and in an important writing1 he confirms that observing the mind means to recognise that we have all the Ten Worlds in our lives, including the world of Buddhahood. 'Faith' therefore is to recognise that each of us is responsible for our own life-condition. If we are unhappy in our lives, we can change our life-condition by taking responsibility for our reaction to whatever is happening in our lives at the time and raising our life-condition, and even reveal the life-state of Buddhahood which is inherent in our lives.
When I was growing up, because my parents were Christians I would be taken to church by my family. There, during the services, I heard this same word 'faith' being talked about but it was being used in a very different way. Faith was in God, the creator, and the all-powerful force in the universe, according to the Anglican tradition. Faith was externally directed towards God, and prayer, too, was a request, a supplication or a plea to this external force.
Later, when I met Buddhism, these same words, 'faith' and 'prayer' would be used, but in a completely different way: faith as a Buddhist means belief in my inner potential, and prayer is not externally directed, but about drawing out that inner potential. It's true that we look at something outside of ourselves when we chant -the Gohonzon is an object which we place in a cabinet, but we are not praying to it in the hope that it will solve our problems for us. Rather we are chanting with the Gohonzon so that we can draw out our highest potential and then take action to achieve our goals. If we think the Gohonzon is some sort of amulet which is capable of magical powers, then we will quickly be disappointed. Our prayer is not a request but something much more powerful: it is a determination. It is not a request from a position of weakness, but an expression of strength; our prayer is a determination. Prayer does not mean asking the Gohonzon to sort things out for us; instead it is a statement of `This is what I am going to do' or `This is how things are going to be different'.
Practice includes the chanting we do ourselves to reveal our own Buddhahood, as well as the support we give other people on their own journey of faith.
On an individual level, practice refers to our twice daily rhythm of morning and evening gongyo2 and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. It is our opportunity to make a reality out of the ideas discussed above in relation to 'faith'. If faith means having confidence that we have Buddhahood in our lives, then 'practice' is what we do in order to make that life-condition manifest in our lives. The way we chant then is very important.
Earlier I mentioned that our prayer is not a request but a determination. Having made a determination, it is important to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the confidence that there will be a change in that direction. In any one moment, we can be either the Buddha or an ordinary person. A common mortal may doubt that a determination will become a reality, but the Buddha has no doubt that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo will make a difference. Our challenge is to chant like the Buddha with confidence to achieve our determinations, rather than as a common mortal who cannot imagine the desired change coming about, or, even, that we do not deserve to have that change occur in our lives. This feeling from a place of low self-esteem is a manifestation of delusion, not enlightenment.
Chanting, then, is what we call 'practice for oneself and encouraging others to reveal their Buddhahood is called 'practice for others'. There are different aspects to this, whether it is telling someone about Buddhism, or playing a part in a discussion meeting or supporting an activity in one way or other to help it run smoothly. Practice for others is a way of putting the life-condition of 'bodhisattva' or compassionate behaviour into action. Sometimes we hear the word 'shakubuku' to refer to introducing someone to Buddhism. This word implies some sort of a 'fight1, but the fight refers not to how we interact with other people but rather a struggle with our own negativity, whether it is shyness, or a feeling we don't know enough about Buddhism to share our practice with others, or some other aspect of negativity. Nichiren Daishonin reassures us that it doesn't matter that we are not experts in Buddhism, when he tells us that we may 'teach others to the best of our ability, even if just a single sentence or phrase.' After all, what is persuasive is not the demonstration of how much we know about Buddhism, but rather that it is impacting on our state of happiness and our attitude to the challenges in life.
Nichiren Daishonin encouraged us to study so that we will understand what is happening to us as we undergo the process of moving our lives in the direction we have chosen. Negativity will invariably emerge as we draw out our Buddhahood with the determination to bring happiness to ourselves and others. This negativity would be a great shock if we were not expecting it but because we have studied Nichiren Daishonin's letters and encouragement, we can be prepared for it, and then respond in the way Nichiren recommends when he says 'the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat.' (WND-1, p. 637)
In the SGI, there are three main sources of study material: the Lotus Sutra which forms the basis of Nichiren Buddhism, the writings of Nichiren Daishonin (and other texts from his lifetime such as The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings) and then the guidance and encouragement from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. These three sources span the history of Buddhism: the Lotus Sutra is the great Mahayana Buddhist teaching which is our link back to Shakyamuni Buddha and which introduces principles of equality and respect; the writings of Nichiren Daishonin clarify why Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the teaching for ordinary people to reveal their greatest potential; and President Ikeda's works show the examples of the three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai and how Nichiren Buddhism can transform our lives and the world around us.
Writing in an essay about the aims and purpose of Buddhist study, and particularly mentioning how valuable it is to 'engrave' lines from the Daishonin's writings in our memory, President Ikeda has written:
Through Buddhist study, it is important that we gain a deeper sense of joy and conviction in the greatness of the Daishonin's Buddhism; that we develop a more profound attitude towards morning and evening gongyo and chanting daimoku; that we are able to recall the Daishonin's teachings and summon forth invincible courage when we encounter problems or difficulties; and thatwe come to advance with pride and confidence, knowing that we possess a noble mission to strive for kosen-rufu in unity with our fellow members.3
My own experience is that there are some lines from Nichiren Daishonin's writings which I have been able to absorb into my life. When I have found myself in difficult situations the words have bubbled up through layers of consciousness, which have felt like receiving guidance directly from the Daishonin. One example is a sentence which President Ikeda once dedicated to the men's division: 'Now, no matter what, strive in faith and be known as a votary of the Lotus Sutra and remain my disciple for the rest of your life.' (WND-1, p. 385)
Another is one of the passages where Nichiren Daishonin encourages us to chant from the perspective that we are already revealing our Buddhahood: 'You, yourself, are a Thus Come One who is originally enlightened and endowed with the three bodies. You should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with this conviction.' (WND-1, pp. 299-300) Even if we can't remember the exact words, it is worth trying to remember the spirit of what Nichiren Daishonin wrote all those centuries ago, because it is still so relevant for us today.
President Ikeda continued in the same essay mentioned previously:
The purpose of Buddhist study is so that we can develop into truly exemplary practitioners of the Daishonin's Buddhism, courageous champions of faith and practice. We must never err on this point. Mr Toda said that there were two kinds of Buddhist study - one that delved into the teachings academically and the other that explored the teachings through faith. United by the deep bonds of mentor and disciple, Mr Toda and I waged all our struggles for kosen-rufu based on Buddhist study that explored the teachings through faith. That is why the Soka Gakkai has triumphed. Through studying the Daishonin's teachings while actively exerting themselves in efforts to advance kosen-rufu, our members have achieved one brilliant victory after another.4
This confirms that study should not be dry and theoretical but needs to be something that can help us to be able to transform our lives.
Supporting other people
We have seen that practice has two aspects: for oneself and for others. In fact, faith and study also can be seen as having the same aspects. In terms of faith, if it means that we develop the confidence that our own lives have the wonderful potential of the Buddha state then it should also mean that we have the belief that other people's lives have that same wonderful potential. It could not be that only some people have all the Ten Worlds (including Buddhahood) but that others have only a few of them.
Similarly, study has two aspects. Clearly, as we read or learn about Buddhist principles, we benefit from this knowledge ourselves and we are also then in a position to share what we have learned with others.
These three aspects of faith, practice and study are what are needed for us to reveal our Buddhahood - and they are what Nichiren Daishonin himself put into action. We might think that perhaps some special, enlightened people have access to a fourth, secret, aspect, but that is not the case. If we make sure that our daily Buddhist practice has to some degree or other these three aspects of faith, practice and study, with the aim to benefit both ourselves and others, then we will lead the greatest of all possible lives grounded in absolute happiness. •
- cf. Nichiren Daishonin,'The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind'(WND-l, p. 354).
- Gongyo: literally 'assiduous practice'. The twice daily recitation of extracts from the Lotus Sutra.
- SGI Newsletter No. 8360,18 October 2011.
- SGI Newsletter No. 8363,26 October 2011.