The True Spirit of Tolerance

On challenging an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences.

“The Lotus Sutra is a teaching that sees the infinitely respectworthy Buddha nature existing within each person’s life. Based on this standard of value, any other system of thought that teaches the dignity of life deserves our respect as well. On the other hand, we can never accept a philosophy that denies the dignity of life. This is the true spirit of tolerance and compassion.” —SGI President Ikeda, from the January 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 36


It may be relatively easy to understand President Ikeda’s words from the perspective of compassion. But what is the true spirit of tolerance in Buddhism?

Tolerance taken to the extreme might mean permitting or putting up with anything—as the common phrase goes, “If you can’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” And as the writer W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Tolerance is another word for indifference.” Or in the words of philosopher Sidney Hook, “Tolerance always has limits—it cannot tolerate what is itself actively intolerant.”

Should we show tolerance toward intolerance? Clearly, the answer is no. There are things—inhumane, harmful things—that we should never tolerate. There are limits then to tolerance. But where is the line?

In the passage above, President Ikeda suggests that the line that should not be crossed is disrespect for the dignity of all life. So long as the basic premise that all life is respectworthy is universally agreed upon, we can and should tolerate a wide variety of thinking and behavior—a kind of tolerance-with-limits.

Nichiren Daishonin writes in his treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land that if you wish to establish peace in your personal life and the world, you should begin with outlawing the “one evil” (see The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 15). By “one evil,” Nichiren is ultimately referring to teachings that disrespect the dignity and equality of all human life.

“The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the necessary precondition for open dialogue. Such discussion, in turn, is essential for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights.”

In his September 1993 Harvard University lecture, President Ikeda spoke of tolerance, offering the example of Shakyamuni, who was considered a “master of words”:

Why was Shakyamuni able to employ language with such freedom and to such effect? What made him such a peerless master of dialogue? I believe that his fluency was due to the expansiveness of his enlightened state, utterly free of all dogma, prejudice and attachment. The following quote is illustrative: “I perceived a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.” The “arrow” symbolizes a prejudicial mindset, an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences. India at that time was going through transition and upheaval, and the horrors of conflict and war were an everpresent reality. To Shakyamuni’s penetrating gaze, it was clear that the underlying cause of the conflict was attachment to distinctions, to ethnic, national and other differences. (My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 340)

Intolerance arising from “an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences” found in the “invisible arrow” of “a prejudicial mindset” is the root cause for upheaval, conflict and war.

President Ikeda goes on to say: “The ‘invisible arrow’ of evil is not to be found in the existence of races and classes external to ourselves but is embedded in our hearts. The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the necessary precondition for open dialogue. Such discussion, in turn, is essential for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights” (My Dear Friends, p. 340).

There is another story in which the Buddha came across a deer lying on the ground with a hunter’s arrow piercing its side. As the deer slowly died, two holy men standing over the body and arguing over the exact time life leaves the body, asked the Buddha’s opinion. Ignoring them, the Buddha immediately walked up to the deer and drew out the arrow, saving the animal’s life (see Buddha in Your Mirror, pp. 5–6).

Looking at these two episodes, we could say that Buddhism intends to “draw out” from our hearts the arrow of prejudice. Removing this “invisible arrow” of prejudice at the root of human suffering is the only true path to understanding others and to establishing peace and security in the world. The Lotus Sutra is a teaching of complete equality—as sutras preached prior to the Lotus Sutra discriminated against women, evil people and others not deemed suitable for attaining Buddhahood.

The Lotus Sutra as practiced by the SGI embraces a fundamental and universal equality. More important, through practicing as this sutra teaches, we can remove that arrow in very real and demonstrable ways. This is the process we call “human revolution,” an internal process of self-reformation.

These thoughts are echoed throughout the writings of President Ikeda, but, perhaps, never more profoundly than in his poem “The Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” which was penned in January 1993, several months prior to his Harvard lecture.

Jiyu refers to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, who were entrusted to spread the humanistic teachings of the Lotus Sutra in this modern, strife-filled world.

President Ikeda writes:

My treasured friends,
There is no question that
your multiracial nation, America,
represents humanity’s future.
Your land holds secret stores
of unbounded possibility,transforming
the energy of different cultures
into the unity of construction,
the flames of conflict
into the light of solidarity,
the eroding rivulets of mistrust
into a great broad flow of confidence.
On what can we ground
our efforts to open
the horizons of such a renaissance?

It is for this reason,
my precious, treasured friends,
that you must develop within yourselves
the life condition of Jiyu—
Bodhisattvas of the Earth.

As each group seeks its separate
roots and origins,
society fractures along a thousand fissure lines.
When neighbors distance themselves
from neighbors, continue your
uncompromising quest
for your truer roots
in the deepest regions of your life.

Seek out the primordial “roots” of humankind.
Then you will without fail discover
the stately expanse of Jiyu
unfolding in the depths of your life.

Here is the home, the dwelling place
to which humankind traces
its original existence—
beyond borders,
beyond all differences of gender and race.
Here is the world offering true proof
of our humanity.

If one reaches back to these fundamental roots,
all become friends and comrades.
To realize this is to “emerge from the earth.”

(My Dear Friends, 207–08)

True tolerance, thus, requires immense exertion on our part to overcome our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to differences. Such effort is the basis for establishing a society rooted in peace and human rights.

—Greg Martin, Publisher