The Basis of Altruistic Action

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Section three of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2016 peace proposal, “Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace.”

Gandhi’s conviction resonates with the spirit that has animated not only the SGI’s religious practice but also our support for the UN and other socially engaged activities—the determination to treasure each individual.

The foundation of Buddhism is a belief in the inherent dignity of all people. But this is something which, as the following passage from Shakyamuni’s teachings indicates, is to be awakened through a process of self-reflection and self-awareness:

“All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” [6]

In other words, Buddhism takes as its starting point the universal human impulse to avoid suffering or harm and the undeniable sense of the unique value of our own being. It then leads us to the realization that others must feel the same. To the degree that we can put ourselves in the place of another, we gain a tangible sense of the reality of their suffering. Shakyamuni called upon us to view the world through such empathetic eyes and thus commit ourselves to a way of life that will protect all people from violence and discrimination.

The altruism taught in Buddhism does not arise from a negation of the self. An awareness of the unavoidable pain of our own existence and the attachment we feel to the path in life that has brought us to this point can open us to the universality of human anguish, beyond all differences of nationality and ethnicity. It is our refusal to dismiss any form of suffering as unrelated to us that brings our humanity to its true luster.

According to the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) in his portrait of Shakyamuni, when the Buddha declared, “In a world grown dark I will beat the deathless drum,” [7] he was motivated by the confidence that “to speak to all is to speak to each individual.” [8]

As present-day heirs to this spirit, the members of the SGI have worked to empathetically share the sufferings and joys of the people in our lives and to advance together with them in a growing network of life-to-life bonds. related article Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace All people have the right to live in happiness. The prime objective of our movement is to forge an expanding solidarity of ordinary citizens committed to protecting that right and, in this way, to rid the world of needless suffering. Our activities in support of the UN are a natural and necessary expression of this.

The Buddhist spirit of treasuring each individual can be supplemented by an additional perspective: the conviction that each person, whatever their path of life or their current condition, has the capacity to illuminate the place where they find themselves right now. We strive to avoid judging a person’s worth or potential on the basis of present appearance and instead focus on the inherent dignity of each individual. In this way, we seek to inspire in each other the confidence to live with hope from this day forward, bathed in the light of that dignity.

Buddhism encourages us to draw lessons and strengths from the challenges we have met in life so that we can achieve personal happiness while inspiring courage in those around us and in society as a whole. Nichiren (1222–82), the thirteenth-century Buddhist priest whose teachings underpin the activities of the SGI, emphasized that the principle that all living beings can attain Buddhahood—that all people possess an inner dignity and can realize limitless possibilities—constitutes the essence of Shakyamuni’s Lotus Sutra and lies at the very heart of the Buddhist teachings.

The Lotus Sutra illustrates this through a series of dramatic scenes involving Shakyamuni and others. For example, it is said of Shariputra, a disciple known for his intellectual understanding of Shakyamuni’s teachings, that his “mind danced with joy” [9] when he fully sensed the dignity of his own life. In the same way, moved by the sight of Shariputra joyfully voicing his vow and Shakyamuni’s warm encouragement of him, four other disciples were likewise filled with joy. They expressed this and their delight at having found this limitless jewel—“something unsought that came of itself” [10]—by recounting the Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son.

As these dramatic narratives unfold, great numbers of bodhisattvas joined their voices together and pledged to overcome all difficulties in order to work for the happiness of people. Finally, as the focus of the Lotus Sutra’s narrative shifted to the question of who would carry on the practice of Buddhism after Shakyamuni’s passing, a vast assembly of bodhisattvas emerged from the earth and pledged to do this in all places and at all times.

These scenes culminate in a chorus of pledges, as the Buddha’s disciples joyfully awaken to the ultimate dignity of their own lives through their encounter with his teachings. Recognizing this same dignity in others, they vow, one after another, to bring forth the inner light of their own and others’ lives, and in this way illuminate human society.

The most famous example of this is a young girl, the Dragon King’s daughter, who vows to save others from suffering through the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Her actions, which perfectly accord with her vow, draw forth rejoicing and astonished praise in the hearts of all who witness them. In the midst of this vortex of joy, limitless numbers of people are awakened to the ultimate value and dignity that exists inherently within them. By faithfully carrying out her pledge, this young girl, who according to the popular conception of the time was considered to be among the most estranged from the possibility of enlightenment, set off a chain reaction of joy, offering inspiring proof of the principle that all living beings can attain the Buddha way. With this in mind, Nichiren encouraged female disciples who were struggling to meet the challenges of life to “follow in the footsteps of the Dragon King’s daughter.” [11]

Thirteenth-century Japan was a place afflicted by natural disasters and military conflict. In his efforts to save the common people from suffering, Nichiren remonstrated with the authorities, an act that brought repeated persecution. Even in exile, he continued to write letters of encouragement to his followers and warmly embraced those who traveled great distances to see him. He also urged his disciples to read his letters together and lend each other support in the struggle to confront and overcome various trials.

This kind of proactive commitment, joy and mutual support is alive today in the small-group discussion meetings that have been a tradition within the Soka Gakkai since its founding in 1930. Participants in such meetings come to understand that they are not alone in their problems; they can derive courage from the example of their fellow members bravely striving to overcome their own challenges. In turn, the example of one’s own renewed determination can powerfully ignite the flame of courage in others.

Encouraging and being encouraged. . . Through this back and forth, the pledge made by one person inspires another’s pledge, arousing the power of hope that enables people to remain unbowed even in the face of great difficulty. This life-to-life catalyzation is at the heart of the SGI discussion meeting.

Today, our discussion meetings are held in countries throughout the world. People from all walks of life across differences of age and gender, social standing and circumstance, gather as residents of a community to listen to each individual’s unique life story and expressions of deeply held feeling. Together, participants renew their sense of determination and commitment.

The discussion meeting is central to the SGI’s efforts for empowerment by, for and of the people; it is an embodiment of our sense of mission within society. Through it, we seek to revive awareness of the weightiness and unlimited possibilities of each person’s life, something that is all too often obscured amidst the expanding and increasingly complex threats facing our world.

This is the source of energy driving our activities for peace and in support of the UN, giving form to the continuity between religious practice and social engagement. Through these twin efforts, we continuously reaffirm our pledge never to seek happiness at the expense of others and to enable those who have suffered most to realize their right to happiness, and in this way bring into being a world in which the human dignity of all people can truly flourish.

Notes

6 Buddharakkhita, trans., The Dhammapada, 10:130:2.
7 Jaspers, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, 24.
8 Ibid., 35.
9 Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra, 82.
10 Ibid., 118.
11 (trans. from) Nichiren, Nichiren Daishonin gosho zenshu, 1262.

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