Feature

The Courage to Listen

On our shared vow to transform America’s deep karma into brilliant mission through dialogue.


The World Tribune spoke with SGI-USA General Director Adin Strauss, addressing the current climate of our country and, from the Buddhist perspective, what actions we can take as individuals.

World Tribune: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us about this most important matter. As you’ve been engaging in dialogue with members across the country about the complex problems plaguing society, especially regarding racism, prejudice and other forms of discrimination in the U.S., what are you keeping in mind?

Adin Strauss (SGI-USA general director): Thank you for having me. I keep returning to this crucial passage from Nichiren Daishonin: “Abutsu-bo is therefore the treasure tower itself, and the treasure tower is Abutsu-bo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful. It is the treasure tower adorned with the seven kinds of treasures—hearing the correct teaching, believing it, keeping the precepts, engaging in meditation, practicing assiduously, renouncing one’s attachments, and reflecting on oneself.”[1]On the Treasure Tower,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 299.

As Nichiren asserts, “hearing” is one of the seven elements of practice. “Talking,” on the other hand, is not. We are in an era that is begging, crying out for empathetic and courageous listening. This applies to each person, without exception.

WT: In the June 12 World Tribune, you mentioned that every SGI-USA member should consider themselves as leaders in society. What does that look like in terms of engaging with others?

Strauss: Ikeda Sensei says that “dialogue begins with listening in earnest to the opinions and ideas of the other person.”[2]The New Human Revolution, vol. 9, p. 180.

When Sensei visited Alphonse Dupronte (in 1981), the president of Paris-Sorbonne University, the latter spoke about the importance of listening carefully to students, especially to what is conveyed behind their words. Although he was referring to educators, the lesson applies perhaps even more so to our roles as leaders in society. Sensei writes that we need “to have the capacity to hear in order to be a good listener. That’s only possible when one has a sense of compassion as deep as the ocean. … Being a good listener means that you have the capacity to support others.”[3]NHR-24, 228.

WT: Many of us also serve as leaders in our SGI Buddhist community. With what spirit should we listen to the members we support?

Strauss: My honest sentiment is that there is truly no higher privilege for a human being than to serve other Soka Gakkai members. Sensei explains that when you have the attitude to willingly take on leadership in the organization and exert yourself in that way, “in the process, you will be able to develop yourself, transform your state of life and do your human revolution, accumulating benefit and good fortune along the way.”[4]NHR-26, 367.

I strongly feel that in society in general, and equally or more so within our precious SGI organization, empathetic and courageous listening, and reflection on the part of the listener, are what’s most vital right now.

I am referring particularly to matters related to racism, prejudice and other forms of discrimination. These are problems that pertain to every person in America—to each of us as “leaders” in our families and communities, and for those of us who are leaders in the SGI.

We are part and parcel of American society and it’s part of us—whether our families have been here for hundreds or thousands of years, or whether we just moved to the U.S. recently.

Sensei has shown us how to engage in courageous and empathetic dialogue— dialogue where the listener is truly able to place themselves “in the shoes” of the speaker, who may be suffering deeply— truly honoring the treasure of “hearing.” Now it’s time—warmly and empathetically, as Sensei certainly would do—to move from theory to reality.

WT: How can we summon the courage to have the type of dialogue that society needs right now?

Strauss: When we connect with our Buddha nature through thunderous prayer to the Gohonzon, we bring forth from within us what Sensei terms in his incredible poem “The Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land” “the home, the dwelling place to which humankind traces its original existence— beyond all borders, beyond all differences of gender and race. … Here is a world offering true proof of our humanity … [where] all become friends and comrades.”[5]My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 208.

In my 35 years of Buddhist practice, I’ve had the privilege of striving to encourage members experiencing every sort of desperate problem—illnesses I’ve never suffered from, emotional or physical abuse that I’ve never personally faced, and the cruel blows of prejudice that I’ve never experienced merely because of my skin color.

Yet, through challenging my own difficulties, I have developed the conviction that when we connect with another person at the deepest, most profound level—Buddha to Buddha— we can encourage absolutely anyone. This becomes possible when we tap into the limitless wisdom and life force that each of us possesses through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with faith in the Gohonzon. Let us never forget this point or take it lightly.

WT: In “On the Treasure Tower,” the second of the seven elements of practice is “believing.” How does that apply here?

Strauss: Nichiren emphasizes to Abutsu-bo that he is a Buddha. I am sure Abutsu-bo was having problems truly believing in himself amid his struggles and the turmoil in society. “Believing” means to have unshakable confidence and conviction in one’s own Buddhahood and that of others.

We are in an era where current events and social media may scream at us that we’re hapless victims of vast powers beyond our ability to control. In contrast, the Daishonin states: “The Buddha eternally endowed with the three bodies— he is to be found in the disciples and lay believers of Nichiren. Such persons embody the true entity of Myoho-renge-kyo. … Could anyone venture to doubt it? Indeed it cannot be doubted!”[6]“The Entity of the Mystic Law,” WND-1, 420.

And based on that, Sensei shares: “The remedy for all problems begins with the individual’s change in perspective and the actions he or she takes based on that inner reformation. As [we] awaken to our limitless power within, we … exert an ever-greater influence on our environment and bring about a change in the minds of our fellow human beings that can effect a change in the destiny of all humankind.”[7]Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p. 72.

WT: On the surface, it may seem that the battle for justice and victory is only taking place online or in the streets, but we receive experiences every day from members who have profoundly transformed their destinies and communities through their Buddhist practice. Can you share an experience you’ve heard through your conversations with members?

Strauss: A friend of mine, a person of color, related this story to me: His work required that he travel frequently by plane. However, after 9/11 he repeatedly found himself the target of humiliating treatment—being pulled out of airport security lines and into back offices where he was closely questioned by suspicious authorities—solely because of his name and the color of his skin.

After years of such treatment, an occasion arose when he was able to truly internalize and take to heart encouragement from Sensei that he should have pride and conviction, that he should believe in himself.

Receiving such encouragement from Sensei, he in turn made a powerful resolution that the perpetrators were not the source of his self-esteem: “I am a disciple of Daisaku Ikeda. I don’t need to fear anything!”

From that time on, he lost his fear and also the deep resentment he’d felt toward this treatment and those responsible for it. He ceased being questioned or pulled out of line thereafter.

Bias and prejudice in our society will not vanish miraculously overnight. However, I’ve repeatedly seen that when our absolute conviction that we’re disciples of Sensei—Buddhas possessing vast wisdom, courage and compassion—is stronger than our sense of disempowerment, everything can shift in an instant.

We should never take lightly Sensei’s solemn admonition “A powerful determination to transform even negative karma into mission can dramatically transform the real world.”[8]August 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 57.

WT: What an extraordinary experience.

Strauss: I in no way regard this person as someone extraordinary—nor do I feel in the least that his is a one-off experience that no one else can ever have. It is quite the reverse: His is an example as a common person, the embodiment of Sensei’s credo: “The attainment of Buddhahood by a single individual opens the way for the attainment of Buddhahood by all living beings—just as splitting one joint in a bamboo stalk leads the way to easily splitting all the other joints.”[9]October 2017 Living Buddhism, p. 46.

When we engage in courageous and empathetic listening about even the very painful and challenging issue of racial discrimination, when we have a sense that “I am part of the solution to society’s problems!”—we will move our country forward. Let us do so with an indomitable spirit of belief in ourselves and our precious comrades in faith as Buddhas—as Sensei’s disciples who will transform America’s deep karma into brilliant mission.

Notes   [ + ]

1. On the Treasure Tower,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 299.
2. The New Human Revolution, vol. 9, p. 180.
3. NHR-24, 228.
4. NHR-26, 367.
5. My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 208.
6. “The Entity of the Mystic Law,” WND-1, 420.
7. Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p. 72.
8. August 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 57.
9. October 2017 Living Buddhism, p. 46.