Why is the mentor-disciple relationship stressed so much?

This Q&A series addresses frequently asked questions by those who are interested in Nichiren Buddhism.

Bermuda District SMITHS PARISH, BERMUDA Photo: Donna Carmichael

Q: Why is the mentor-disciple relationship stressed so much in the SGI?

A: When we try to succeed in a worthwhile endeavor, we are bound to face challenges and difficulties. Learning from an excellent teacher or mentor with an abundance of experience, knowledge and wisdom gives us a much better chance of seeing great results. We can see this at work throughout human history and in our own experiences.

This is all the more true in practicing Nichiren Buddhism. The essential aim of Buddhism is to awaken in all people the ability to reveal their enlightened potential, their own inner source of indestructible happiness. This aim is crystallized in the “vow” of the Buddha found in the Lotus Sutra: “I took a vow, hoping to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 30).

It is heartening to know that the Buddha made a vow to make us equal to him—to enable us to enjoy the same sublime state of enlightenment he attained. Any genuine teacher or mentor of Buddhism must have this vow.

Both the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Daishonin make clear, however, that Buddhist practice is not complete if we simply seek personal benefit. When we share the same vow as the Buddha and strive to make ourselves as well as others equal to the Buddha, we can enjoy the sublime state of happiness the Buddha envisioned for us. Taking action based on this spirit is known as the “oneness of mentor and disciple.”

This, of course, is quite a challenge. It involves activating our strengths—for example, bringing forth courage when cowardice is comfortable, or finding compassion when indifference is the norm.

Nichiren wrote many letters to his disciples and demonstrated throughout his life that dedicating oneself to this vow would invariably invite obstacles and opposition, both from the ignorance or negativity in one’s own mind and from those around us.

Fulfilling this vow to spread Buddhism and awaken people to their greatest potential is a difficult endeavor. This is why we need an unwavering source of inspiration. Looking to and learning from a mentor who consistently lives in accord with this vow helps us call forth the hope, courage and wisdom we need to forge ahead. When we resolve to share and cultivate the same unrelenting vow for people’s happiness as our mentor, we awaken in ourselves great power and ability that we didn’t know we had. This is why the mentor-disciple relationship is essential to a correct and rewarding Buddhist practice.

And the disciple plays the most vital role. What solidifies this relationship is the disciple standing up and embracing the same vow as the mentor. This is the heart of Buddhism.

When practitioners seek the mentor’s encouragement, pray to realize it and take action based on that prayer, they will continuously transform all their suffering into joy, positively transforming and propelling their lives and society forward.