Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
Buddhism teaches that a universal Law or principle underlies all phenomena and applies to all people, irrespective of time, ethnicity, diversity of culture and location. However, the precise way Buddhism is expressed and propagated is specific to the society, culture and customs of the region in which it is practiced.
Buddhism deeply respects diversity of culture, as long as elements of that culture do not go against the fundamental spirit of Buddhism as taught in the Lotus Sutra, whose core belief is faith in the limitless dignity and potential of each person's life. Nichiren, the 13th-century founder of the Buddhism practiced by SGI members, writes: "When we scrutinize the sutras and treatises with care, we find that there is a teaching about a precept known as following the customs of the region . . . The meaning of the precept is that, so long as no seriously offensive act is involved, then even if one were to depart to some slight degree from the teachings of Buddhism, it would be better to avoid going against the manners and customs of the country."
As Buddhism spread from India throughout Asia, it adopted many of the cultural practices, manners and traditions of the different regions in which it spread, sometimes incorporating concepts, observances and even deities that helped integrate Buddhist teachings with the spiritual lives and traditions of local populations. This stance of understanding and respecting what is valued and appreciated in different cultures in the process of spreading Buddhism correctly is known as zuiho bini in Japanese. This demonstrates the flexibility and tolerance of Buddhism; the purpose of Buddhism is not to constrain people's lives with religious dogma and observances, but to enable them to attain a sense of spiritual freedom so they can also help other people and contribute positively to the communities and societies in which they live.
But, while observing the spirit of adapting to local customs and to the time, it is important to uphold the essence and essentials of Buddhist faith and practice. For the SGI, members around the world follow the same practice of reciting two excerpts of the Lotus Sutra and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo before the Gohonzon, or object of veneration. There is consistency in studying Nichiren's writings and in holding monthly discussion meetings to share understanding of Buddhism, but the format and style of these meetings varies from country to country, according to the cultural context. related article The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren declared that to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was to activate its promise of universal enlightenment; he was establishing a form of practice that would open the way to enlightenment for all people--regardless of class or educational background.
The Lotus Sutra, the Buddhist scripture on which the teachings of Nichiren are based, clarifies the essential spirit of Buddhism as profound reverence for human life. Each individual is an indispensable, respectworthy being of boundless potential. Buddhism encourages us to work toward a society in which people fully support each other in their efforts to realize that potential.
All other teachings come into the correct perspective through the lens of this ideal. As Buddhism spreads from one culture in which it has become firmly established to other cultures, practitioners should not become overly concerned with cultural expressions which are not natural to the culture in which they live. As an example, in Japan it is customary while chanting to sit in a formal kneeling position (seiza), which is familiar and usual to Japanese people but can be uncomfortable and even painful for those not used to it. It is not necessary to kneel to carry out one's Buddhist practice, but it is advisable to sit upright and alert, for which purpose sitting on a chair is practical and appropriate in many cultures.
The fundamental message of Buddhism as expressed in the Lotus Sutra is the development of human beings' happiness and well-being. As Buddhism takes root in the lives of people in a great variety of cultures around the world, the concept of zuiho bini helps practitioners clearly distinguish between what are the means of religious teaching and what is the ultimate goal.
[Courtesy January 2012 SGI Quarterly]