Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
Materialists claim that the physical or material world which can be measured and touched is the only “reality,” whereas some spiritual traditions see the physical as mere illusion—or something inherently corrupt which exists in order to be transcended, and the spiritual as the ultimate truth.
The physical and spiritual aspects of our lives are completely inseparable and of equal importance.
Buddhism regards life as the unity of the physical and the spiritual. It views all things, whether material or spiritual, seen or unseen, as manifestations of the same ultimate universal law or source of life defined in the Nichiren tradition as Myoho-renge-kyo. The physical and spiritual aspects of our lives are completely inseparable and of equal importance. This is expressed in the Japanese expression shikishin funi. Shiki refers to all matter and physical phenomena, including the human body. Shin refers to all spiritual, unseen phenomena, including reason, emotion and volition. Funi literally means “two but not two.”
Nichiren expressed this in a letter to one of his followers, stating: “A person can know another’s mind by listening to his voice. This is because the physical aspect reveals the spiritual aspect. The physical and the spiritual, which are one in essence, manifest themselves as two distinct aspects.”
A person’s inner emotional state will be revealed in his or her physical appearance. The feelings of someone in a happy and optimistic mood can be read in their face; there may even be a skip in their step. In contrast, the painful gait and drawn features of a person weighed down by suffering can communicate his or her inner torment even from a distance.
Our inner mental state also affects the physical functioning of our bodies. The most dramatic manifestations of this are laughter and tears, physical signs of our inner feelings. Mental or psychological stress has been linked to a range of illness from skin disorders, allergies, asthma and ulcers to cancer. Depression and hopelessness lower the body’s resistance, making us vulnerable to a variety of afflictions. On the other hand, a positive determination to overcome illness can “inspire” our organs and even individual cells toward health.
As Daisaku Ikeda writes, “When our determination changes, everything will begin to move in the direction we desire. The moment we resolve to be victorious, every nerve and fiber in our being will immediately orient itself toward our success. On the other hand, if we think, ‘This is never going to work out,’ then at that instant, every cell in our being will be deflated and give up the fight.”
related article Good and Evil The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as "good" or "evil." True health and genuine happiness must encompass both the physical and the spiritual. Many of the experiences of SGI members relate to improved health, physical or material conditions. Through the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, they also realize the inseparability of the spiritual and physical aspects of their lives. Over time this is revealed in both a feeling of physical well-being and a growing clarity and purity of the mental and perceptive processes. What are referred to as the “conspicuous benefits” of Buddhist practice relate primarily to the physical and material planes. Most crucial in the long term are the “inconspicuous benefits” of sustained Buddhist practice—increased self-awareness, wisdom and compassion for others. The ultimate inconspicuous benefit, of course, is enlightenment.
Buddhism views a living being as the harmonious coming together of what it terms the “five components.” These are: the physical aspects of life and the senses; perception, which integrates the impressions received through the senses; conception, by which we form ideas about what we have perceived; volition, the will that acts on conception; and consciousness, the function of discernment that supports the functioning of the other components. Life is the force or energy that keeps these five components functioning together as a harmonious and integrated whole.
Modern medical science is only beginning to explore the subtle interconnections between body and mind, between the physical and spiritual aspects of life. Ultimately, Buddhism views both physical and spiritual aspects as vital manifestations of the life force that is inherent in the cosmos itself. As Nichiren wrote: “Life at each moment encompasses both body and spirit and both self and environment of all sentient beings in every condition of life, as well as non-sentient beings—plants, sky and earth, on down to the most minute particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the universe and is revealed in all phenomena.”
[Courtesy April 1999 SGI Quarterly]