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Buddhism is a teaching of liberation, aimed at freeing people from the inevitable sufferings of life. To this end, early Buddhist teachings focused on the impermanence of all things. The Buddha realized that nothing in this world stays the same; everything is in a constant state of change. Pleasurable conditions, favorable circumstances, our relationships with those we hold dear, our health and well-being—any sense of comfort and security we derive from these things is continually threatened by life’s flux and uncertainty, and ultimately by death, the most profound change of all.
The Buddha saw that people’s ignorance of the nature of change was the cause of suffering. We desire to hold on to what we value, and we suffer when life’s inevitable process of change separates us from those things. Liberation from suffering comes, he taught, when we are able to sever our attachments to the transient things of this world.
Buddhist practice, in this perspective, is oriented away from the world: life is suffering, the world is a place of uncertainty; liberation lies in freeing oneself from attachment to worldly things and concerns, attaining a transcendent enlightenment.
The Lotus Sutra, upon which Nichiren Buddhism is based, is revolutionary in that it reverses this orientation, overturning the basic premises of the Buddha’s earlier teachings and focusing people’s attention instead on the infinite possibilities of life and the joy of living in the world.
Where other teachings had regarded enlightenment, or the final liberation of Buddhahood, as a goal to be attained at some future point in time, in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra each person is inherently and originally a Buddha. Through Buddhist practice we develop our enlightened qualities and exercise them in the world here and now for the sake of others and for the purpose of positively transforming society. The true nature of our lives at this moment is one of expansive freedom and possibility.
This dramatic reorientation effected by the Lotus Sutra is distilled in the key and seemingly paradoxical concepts of Nichiren Buddhism that “earthly desires are enlightenment” and “the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.” The image of the pure lotus flower blossoming in the muddy swamp is a metaphor that encapsulates this perspective—freedom, liberation, enlightenment are forged and expressed in the very midst of the murky swamp of life with its problems, pains and contradictions.
It is impossible to live in the world without attachments, or indeed to eradicate them.
It is impossible to live in the world without attachments, or indeed to eradicate them. Our affections for others, the desire to succeed in our endeavors, our interests and passions, our love of life itself—all of these are attachments and potential sources of disappointment or suffering, but they are the substance of our humanity and the elements of engaged and fulfilled lives.
The challenge is not to rid oneself of attachments but, in the words of Nichiren, to become enlightened concerning them. The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments fuel the quest for enlightenment. As he wrote: “Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo . . . burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom . . .”
In their proper perspective—when we can see them clearly and master them rather than being mastered by them—desires and attachments enable us to lead interesting and significant lives. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says, “Our Buddhist practice enables us to discern their true nature and utilize them as the driving force to become happy.”
It is our small ego, our “lesser self,” that makes us slaves to our desires and causes us to suffer. Buddhist practice enables us to break out of the shell of our lesser self and awaken to the “greater self” of our inherent Buddha nature.
This expanded sense of self is based on a clear awareness of the interconnected fabric of life which we are part of and which sustains us. When awakened to the reality of our relatedness to all life, we can overcome the fear of change and experience the deeper continuities beyond and beneath the ceaseless flow of change.
The basic character of our greater self is compassion. Ultimate freedom is experienced when we develop the ability to channel the full energy of our attachments into compassionate concern and action on behalf of others.
Courtesy July 2011 issue of the SGI Quarterly.