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Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
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Buddhism takes a fundamentally positive view of human life. Its core message is that every individual has infinite dignity and potential.
In the Lotus Sutra, the scripture which is recognized in the Nichiren tradition as the highest, most complete teaching of Shakyamuni, the image of a massive jewel-decked treasure tower is used to illustrate the beauty, dignity and preciousness of life.
If we truly understand that human life is the most precious of all treasures, we will value our own lives and those of others. From this perspective it is clear that war, as the ultimate abuse and cruelty to human beings, is to be absolutely and totally rejected, and peace should be our constant goal.
If society embraced this view of life’s value, preventing violence and addressing all forms of suffering would become the highest priorities of humankind, as opposed to the accumulation of material wealth and power. Those who nurture and care for life—parents, nurses, doctors and teachers—would be treated with the greatest respect.
But humanity’s common curse is an inability to fully believe in or appreciate the value of our own lives and those of others. And even if we do accept this in theory, to act on it on a day-to-day basis is extremely difficult. When faced with a bitter interpersonal conflict we may still experience poisonous thoughts of jealousy and hatred, and wish to harm another person or wish that they could somehow be “got out of the way.”
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." The UNESCO Constitution states that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Likewise, Buddhism stresses that only an inner transformation of our lives, from the deepest level, can make our compassion stronger than our egotistical desire to win over or use others. It offers us teachings and tools which enable us to effect this kind of core transformation.
Buddhism views life as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Good is defined as the creative, compassionate nature inherent in people, the desire to be happy oneself and aid others in their quest for happiness. Evil is defined as that which divides and breaks down our sense of connection, propelling us into a fear-driven competition to use and dominate others before they can do this to us.
During the lifetime of Nichiren, 13th-century Japan, a series of natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, pestilence and fire—had devastated the country. The sufferings of ordinary people were enormous. Nichiren’s determination to uncover the fundamental cause of this misery drove him to study and analyze the underlying belief structures of society. Specifically, he was aware that although the country was filled with Buddhist temples and priests, somehow their prayers and actions were failing to produce results in the form of peace or security for the people.
He felt that the disorder evident in the world reflected disorder within human beings. As he wrote, “In a country where the three poisons [of greed, anger and foolishness] prevail to such a degree, how can there be peace and stability? ... Famine occurs as a result of greed, pestilence as a result of foolishness, and warfare as a result of anger.” He was convinced that only Buddhism could give people the strength to overcome these spiritual poisons in their lives, but as a result of wide-ranging study, he concluded that Buddhism as it was being practiced in his time was encouraging a passivity that left people vulnerable to the sway of these poisons rather than empowering them to overcome them.
Nichiren specifically rejected the prevailing belief that all Buddhism could offer was the hope of comfort after death, and that the best attitude to take toward life was one of patient enduring. He passionately believed that Buddhism as originally taught had something much better to offer: the possibility of happiness and fulfillment in this present life, and that it could give people the strength to transform human society itself into an ideal and peaceful land.
Nichiren’s most important treatise, entitled Rissho Ankoku Ron... was a passionate cry for a return to the original purpose of Buddhism—securing the peace and happiness of the people.
Nichiren’s most important treatise, entitled Rissho Ankoku Ron, literally “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” presented to the political ruler of the day in July 1260, was a passionate cry for a return to the original purpose of Buddhism—securing the peace and happiness of the people. A key function of Buddhist priests at that time was to pray for the protection of the rulers of the nation. In contrast, Nichiren’s focus was the ordinary citizens. In the Rissho Ankoku Ron, for instance, the Chinese character he chose when he wrote “land” has at its center the character for “common people,” rather than more frequently used characters that show the king within his domain or armed protection of the domain.
In a sense Nichiren’s concern can be said to be what is now defined as “human security.” As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda said in a discussion on this treatise, “In the past, ‘security’ has solely implied national security... But what kind of security is it if, while the state is protected, the lives and dignity of each citizen are threatened? Currently, the prevailing view of security is steadily being altered from one that focuses on the state to one that focuses on the human being.”
Nichiren starts his treatise by describing the turmoil he saw around him. “Over half the population has already been carried off by death, and there is hardly a single person who does not grieve.” His prime motivation was a wrenching sense of empathy for the people’s plight. He had taken a vow to lead himself and others to happiness, and this meant struggling to awaken and empower people to challenge their own destiny. His outspoken determination earned him a controversial reputation which persists to this day. “I cannot keep silent on this matter,” he wrote. “I cannot suppress my fears.”
In terms of concrete action, Nichiren urged the political leaders of the day to cease official patronage of favored sects and for open public debate on the merits of the different schools of Buddhism. On a personal level, he called on the leaders to “reform the tenets that you hold in your heart.” In today’s terms this means transforming ourselves and our most deeply held beliefs about the nature of life.
related article The Simultaneity of Cause and Effect The nine worlds, representing cause, and the world of Buddhahood, representing effect, exist simultaneously in our lives. This is symbolized by the lotus plant, which bears flowers (symbolizing the common mortal) and fruit (symbolizing Buddhahood) at the same time. Commenting on the nature of that transformation, SGI President Ikeda says, “What matters is that the spirit of the great philosophy of peace expounded in the Lotus Sutra [with its teaching that all people are Buddhas] be given full play in society as a whole. On a societal level, ‘establishing the correct teaching’ means establishing the concepts of human dignity and the sanctity of life as principles that support and move society.”
Many people today live with a sense of confusion, emptiness and despair. They feel powerless to effect change either within their own lives or society as a whole. Idealism is equated with naïveté and cynicism serves a cover for the failure of hope. Disrespect for human life fuels violence and exploitation.
The function of any religion or philosophy should be to give people the courage and hope needed to transform their sufferings. We need to develop the strength to engage successfully in a struggle against the forces of division and destruction within our own lives and the larger social realm. Unless empowerment for ourselves and others is our goal, we will be unable to resist and overcome the negative influences within our own lives and their environment.
To create an age of peace, one in which life is given supreme value, it is vital for us to have a philosophy that reveals the wonder, dignity and infinite potential of life. When we base our actions on this belief and take action out of compassion for others, the result is a pure joy which in turn motivates us to further action. Empowering ourselves from within, our sphere of compassion becomes wider and wider, encompassing not only ourselves, our own families and nations, but the whole of humanity. We develop the wisdom and compassion to reject and resist all acts that harm or denigrate life. In this way, both an inner sense of security and a peaceful society which prioritizes protection for the vulnerable can be assured.
[Courtesy July 2003 SGI Quarterly]