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Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment

"We use our desires, frustrations and suffering as catalysts for attaining enlightenment."


Nichiren Buddhism teaches us how to use our struggles as catalysts for our enlightenment. This is the essential idea of the concept that “earthly desires are enlightenment.”

In contrast, early Buddhist teachings explained that we suffer due to our earthly desires—various cravings, attachments, illusions and destructive impulses. At the root of all earthly desires are the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness. Therefore, in order to be freed from suffering and attain enlightenment, it was thought that one had to extinguish all earthly desires. This was based on the view that earthly desires and enlightenment are two independent and opposing factors that cannot coexist. However, it is an undeniable fact that so long as people are alive, they will continue to have desires, illusions and impulses. Based on the early Buddhist teachings, then, people would have to wait for their lives to end in order to be rid of desires and to attain enlightenment.

We use our desires, frustrations and suffering as catalysts for attaining enlightenment.

The Lotus Sutra overturns these earlier teachings, focusing instead on the infinite possibilities of life and the joy of living in this world. This sutra teaches that desires are an integral part of life, and that they are one with and inseparable from enlightenment. This is because both desires and enlightenment are the workings, or expressions, of life itself. So rather than trying to disregard or deny our desires and attachments, through Buddhist practice we use our desires, frustrations and suffering as catalysts for attaining enlightenment.

We should note that “earthly desires are enlightenment” does not mean that desires or afflictions constitute enlightenment in and of themselves. Rather, through correct faith and practice, they can serve as “fuel” for bringing forth our enlightened nature.

Thus, Nichiren Daishonin states, “[Again, when Nichiren and his followers recite the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,] they are burning the firewood of earthly desires, summoning up the wisdom fire of bodhi or enlightenment” (The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 11). By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we awaken to and strengthen our innate Buddha nature, thereby bringing forth the wisdom to create value from our desires and impediments, and liberate ourselves from the suffering caused by them. We change from ordinary people who are slaves to our desires into individuals who freely express the enlightened aspect of all things.

What’s more, when we practice this Buddhism, the nature of our desires also start to change. Our selfish wants, needs and motivations that were based on our lesser selves expand to encompass concerns based on our greater selves that extend to care and support for others. This transformation in our desires can be equated to an inner reformation— what we call human revolution.

Nichiren teaches that, as we base our lives on chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can transform all sufferings and hardships into the fuel we need to bring forth our greatest qualities of wisdom, compassion, courage and conviction to further strengthen ourselves and better help those around us. This is what it means to turn all earthly desires into enlightenment.


Photo by bowie15 / getty images.

The Mystic Law is the fundamental principle that allows us to draw forth the limitless power we inherently possess. It enables us to
change earthly desires, or deluded impulses, into wisdom, just as a fire burns firewood to produce light. We can also transform a life that has been filled with the sufferings of birth and death into one pervaded by vibrant and unbounded joy—just as spring sunshine can melt ice and snow to create a flowing stream.

Self-transformation—this is the main theme of Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism is a teaching that actually transforms lives. Everything starts with us, with our own human revolution. This forms the basic underpinning of Nichiren Buddhism and the activities of the Soka Gakkai. (Lectures on “The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life,” p. 128)

(p. 9)