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The human heart is capable of both great nobility and violent brutality. The ability to direct the orientation of our heart is one of the characteristics that distinguish us from other animals.
One sees examples of the noble possibilities of the human spirit in such everyday instances as the willingness of a parent to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of a child, or in a sudden act of kindness between strangers: an unselfish impulse and effort for the happiness of others. Yet the same heart can seethe with the dark currents of rage, bigotry, resentment and self-deprecation. To understand the horrific extent of these impulses within us, one has only to examine the experiences of ordinary people caught up in the all-too-pervasive hell of war.
It is the simple orientation of our hearts that ultimately determines whether we create societies characterized by joy and dignity or crippled by conflict, fear and despair.
Buddhism analyzes the dual potentialities of life in the following way: it teaches that all people without exception possess an enlightened Buddha nature that gives rise to limitless positive potential and which can bring wonder to our experience of living. An equally fundamental reality in the life of each person, however, is delusion or ignorance, which gives rise to evil. It is delusion, in fact, that makes it difficult for people to acknowledge their own capacity for either profound virtue or evil.
How do we direct life toward its positive, value-creating potentials? This is a question that should be at the core of religion and ethics.
The Lotus Sutra, which Nichiren Buddhism regards as the teaching that encapsulates the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment, offers an apparently simple response. This is conveyed in the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging.
related article Courage What may to one person seem a simple problem may be experienced by another as overwhelming and insurmountable. But the process of summoning up the courage required to take action is always the same regardless of how seemingly big or small the challenge. Never Disparaging (Jpn. Fukyo) is described as having lived in the remote past. It was his practice to bow in reverence to everyone he met and praise that person’s inherent Buddha nature. This, however, only provoked violence and abuse in return. Never Disparaging’s assertions no doubt challenged people’s deeply held negative assumptions about the nature of life. Their reactions, however, never managed to upset his convictions. He would simply retreat to a safe distance and repeat his obeisance, honoring the potential for good within his persecutors. Over time, as a result of these actions, Never Disparaging’s humanity comes to shine to the extent that those who had despised him are moved to become his disciples and thus enter the path of attaining Buddhahood themselves.
The sutra describes how, after relating this story, Shakyamuni Buddha reveals that Never Disparaging was he himself in a previous existence. There is a clear implication that his past-life behavior as Never Disparaging is the original cause for Shakyamuni’s enlightenment.
Nichiren clarifies that respecting others, as exemplified by the actions of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, constitutes the essence of Buddhist practice and the correct way for human beings to behave.
Nichiren writes, “The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is found in the ‘Never Disparaging’ chapter. What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.”
While Buddhism is often regarded as a very abstract philosophy, in practice, it is far from abstract. The Buddha nature is not described in theoretical terms but in the behavior of this humble bodhisattva. A Buddha is not an extraordinary being but a person who is deeply conscious of the positive potential within him-or herself and within all others, and who strives to help others bring forth this potential.
Nichiren clarifies that respecting others, as exemplified by the actions of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, constitutes the essence of Buddhist practice and the correct way for human beings to behave. Such respect is not limited to a passive regard for others; it is a bold engagement of our humanity.
While simple in its formulation, in practice such an attitude represents the most challenging path. The effort required, however, is precisely that fundamental energy that can bring about the positive transformation of society. As SGI President Ikeda writes, “The key to the flowering of humanity of which Buddhism speaks is steadfast belief in people’s goodness and dedication to cultivating this goodness in oneself and others.”
Courtesy April 2005 issue of the SGI Quarterly.