Buddhist Unity (Itai Doshin)



Buddhism places great stress on the human bonds that form the context in which the teachings (the Law or dharma) are practiced and transmitted. This web of connection can be compared to the threads of a woven fabric, with the vertical warp corresponding to the bonds between mentor and disciple, and the horizontal woof to the mutually supportive relations among believers.

While the teachings themselves are accorded highest value and Nichiren himself often reminded his followers to “rely on the Law and not the person,” his writings are also filled with references to the importance of developing and maintaining harmonious unity. As he wrote in one letter, “All disciples and lay supporters of Nichiren should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the spirit of many in body but one in mind, transcending all differences among themselves to become as inseparable as fish and the water in which they swim.” This letter was written at a time when the small community of Nichiren Buddhists was facing severe persecution from the feudal authorities. Nichiren encouraged them not to give up hope despite being few in number, writing, “If the spirit of many in body but one in mind prevails among the people they will achieve all their goals, whereas if one in body but different in mind, they can achieve nothing remarkable.”

The type of unity aspired to is not a mechanical uniformity, imposed or coerced from without. Rather, it is unity that has at its heart respect for the diverse and unique qualities of each individual.

The expression Nichiren uses, “many in body but one in mind,” consists of four Chinese characters that could also be rendered, “different in body, same in spirit.” What is crucial here is that the type of unity aspired to is not a mechanical uniformity, imposed or coerced from without. Rather, it is unity that has at its heart respect for the diverse and unique qualities of each individual (“many in body”). Such unity arises, to quote SGI President Ikeda, when people “treasure each other as unique and irreplaceable individuals, and try to bring out the best in each other.”

In contrast, he adds, “‘many in body and many in mind’ is a situation of utter disunity, while ‘one in body and one in mind’ is one controlled by group thinking in which individuality is ignored and totalitarianism ultimately results. Neither situation allows people to manifest their unique abilities.”

The phrase “one in mind” does not mean to adopt a standardized, uniform set of values or way of thinking. Rather, it points to a shared, yet deeply personal, commitment to an overarching goal or ideal. It offers a model for solidarity among people working for positive change in the world. Each person has a unique mission that only they can fulfill, their own special contribution to make. A spirit of respectful and spontaneous collaboration toward a common ideal creates the environment in which each person’s unique qualities and talents can be fully realized.

related article Courage 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. In the early 1940s, when Japan was in the sway of totalitarian fascism, the founding president of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, criticized the prevailing official dogma of “self-abnegation for the public good” which was used to justify unquestioning sacrifice in support of the war effort. “Self-denial,” he wrote, “is a lie. The true way is to seek happiness for both oneself and for all others.” He declared that the organization would be dedicated to enabling individuals to develop their unique capacities as they contribute to the flourishing of human society.

Makiguchi also noted the irony that evil-minded people actually find it relatively easy to develop solidarity—united by a shared interest in material or political gain. People of goodwill, being more spiritually self-sufficient, he wrote, tend to overlook the importance of unity. History is filled with tragic examples in which the failure of people of goodwill to work together has effectively ceded the field to the forces of hatred and destruction. It is also clear that only a broad-based coming together of people committed to a more humane future will enable us to meet the challenges of the new century. The Buddhist ideal of “many in body, one in mind” offers a vision of the unity of diversity. It is the unity of autonomous individuals committed to the work of self-reformation, concern for others and faith in the possibilities of a better future.

Courtesy January 2005 issue of the SGI Quarterly.

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