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Awakening to the Interconnectedness of Life

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The fundamental Buddhist concept of dependent origination teaches that, at the most profound level, all life is interconnected, that nothing exists in isolation. Simply put, it means that the real nature of individuals or events can only be correctly understood in the context of their connections with all others.

In his 1993 Harvard University lecture, Ikeda Sensei spoke of the Buddhist notion of the interrelationship of all things, stating:

Each living thing manifests the enlightenment of which it is capable; each contributes to the harmony of the grand concert of symbiosis. In Buddhist terminology, dependent origination describes these relationships. No person or thing exists in isolation. Every being functions to create the environment that sustains all other existences. All things are mutually supporting and interrelated, forming a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might term a semantic whole. That is the conceptual framework through which Mahayana Buddhism views the natural universe.[1]

Buddhism holds that human beings, far from being isolated entities, are part of a larger, symbiotic fabric of coexistence, where “because this exists, so does that; because that exists, so does this.”[2]

Dependent Origination and the Greater Self

When individuals cannot grasp or appreciate their connections with others, it gives rise to a sense of isolation, mistrust, hostility or apathy. It leads to a society based upon fragile human relationships.

From the perspective of Buddhism, that which creates trust, respect and harmony among people can be described as good. That which divides people, causing disrespect and mistrust, is regarded as evil.

Sensei elaborates:

The pathology of divisiveness drives people to an unreasoning attachment to difference and blinds them to human commonalities. This is not limited to individuals but constitutes the deep psychology of collective egoism, which takes its most destructive form in virulent strains of ethnocentrism and nationalism.[3]

Discrimination in any form can be seen as a symptom of what Buddhism regards as the human tendency to create divisions and fractures based on superficial distinctions. Discrimination and prejudice fundamentally contradict any understanding of life’s interconnectedness. Sensei explains:

In its essence, discrimination is the act of throwing up barriers of difference among the phenomena that fill the universe and establishing a hierarchy of value, thus breaking the bonds that link and connect all things. This is then used to justify oppression and exploitation; as such, it must be condemned as a desecration of the sanctity of life itself.[4]

Breaking free from patterns of division, hatred, discrimination and mistrust requires a strenuous spiritual effort. It involves redefining what it means to be human, continually reflecting on how we see ourselves and those who are seemingly different from us.

In our practice of Nichiren Buddhism, the phrase human revolution describes this process of redefining our lives through the lens of compassion, courage and wisdom. Through such inner reformation, we come to perceive the true aspect of our lives—that we possess infinite potential, the Buddha nature. As we discover our inner nobility, we start to recognize that this same potential exists within the lives of all others. We can sense the bonds that connect us to others. We see that there is something more profound, beyond the differences the eye can see, that connects us all and extends even to those living in the farthest reaches of the planet.

Absent this understanding, compassion for the well-being of others may seem optional. However, as The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings states, “Nichiren declares that the varied sufferings that all living beings undergo—all these are Nichiren’s own sufferings.”[5]

Buddhism teaches that because of life’s profound interdependence, the sufferings of others are also our own. Thus, the work of helping others develop their highest potential is integral to developing this potential in ourselves. Conversely, by harming others, we also harm ourselves. This view of life makes it impossible to build our happiness on the suffering of others.

This limitless view of the self, that we are all bound by innumerable ties and have a responsibility for one another, is what Buddhism calls the “greater self.”

The “true” or “greater” self completely comprehends being an integral part of this web of life and can appreciate those connections. In that vein, the lesser self is self-centered. It is a state of awareness constrained by egoism and selfish desires, in which one has little grasp of the true self.

Sensei elaborates on this point in Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, where he writes: “The term greater self in Buddhism expresses the openness and expansiveness of character by which we can embrace all people’s sufferings as our own. The greater self always seeks to alleviate pain and to augment the happiness of others here amid the realities of everyday life.”[6]

The SGI aims to bring about a “large-scale awakening to the greater self that will lead to a world of creative coexistence.”[7] The actions that we take for the happiness of others is the surest way to awaken to our greater self.

Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s Struggle

Buddhism expresses the highest ideal of human behavior through the practice and character of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva’s moral imperative is to rise above the constraints of the “lesser self,” the individual ego, and to act with compassionate altruism toward others.

In the Lotus Sutra, Bodhisattva Never Disparaging symbolizes this through his actions to express profound reverence for the Buddha nature he perceives in each person he encounters. Whether people respond positively or with hostility, he persists in awakening people to their limitless potential. His name comes from his refusal to demean or disparage any person.

The Buddhist ideal of compassion exists in the conscious effort to empathize with and relieve others’ suffering regardless of how they may treat you. Only through committing to a consistent practice of respecting others, as exemplified by Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, can we genuinely understand people’s pain and develop our greater selves.

Never Disparaging acted out of his deep-seated conviction in the Buddha nature of all people. Today, when we as Nichiren Buddhists work to share this Buddhism with those around us, we act in the same spirit as Never Disparaging. Such Buddhist practice is an excellent way to polish our character.

Restoring the Dignity of Life Through Dialogue

Buddhism is a religion of dialogue. Through dialogue, we can restore respect for the dignity of life and build bridges between people of diverse backgrounds. Such conversation takes courage and can only happen when fueled by a belief in the infinite potential of all people.

Sensei writes:

Dialogue starts from the courageous willingness to know and be known by others. It is the painstaking and persistent effort to remove all obstacles that obscure our common humanity. Genuine dialogue is a ceaseless and profound spiritual exertion that seeks to effect a fundamental human transformation in both ourselves and others. Dialogue challenges us to confront and transform the destructive impulses inherent in human life.[8]

Sensei likewise states in his 2002 peace proposal:

Without dialogue, humans are fated to walk in the darkness of their own dogmatic self-righteousness. Dialogue is the lamp by which we dispel that darkness, lighting and making visible for each other our steps and the path ahead.[9]

Most needed today is dialogue that helps us to reflect on our own beliefs and presumptions, and challenges us to transform the inner biases that make it easy to identify people as “the other,” as separate or different from us. Through such discussion, we break barriers and develop a new level of humanity.

Global Citizens Are Modern-Day Bodhisattvas

Education can play a crucial role in fostering a belief in the power of dialogue and the interconnectedness of all life. The educational philosophy of global citizenship may be said to share much in common with the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva. In his 1996 lecture at Columbia University in New York, Sensei offered three essential elements of global citizenship:

1) The wisdom to perceive the inter-connectedness of all life and living.
2) The courage not to fear or deny difference, but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures and to grow from encounters with them.
3) The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

He went on to say in the same lecture:

Compassion in Buddhism does not involve the forcible suppression of our natural emotions, our likes and dislikes. Rather, it is the realization that even those whom we dislike have qualities that can contribute to our lives and can afford us opportunities to grow in our own humanity. Further, it is the compassionate desire to find ways of contributing to the well-being of others that gives rise to limitless wisdom. …

Compassion consists of the sustained and courageous effort to seek out the good in all people, whoever they may be, however they may behave. It means striving, through sustained engagement, to cultivate the positive qualities in oneself and in others. Engagement, however, requires courage. There are all too many cases in which compassion, owing to a lack of courage, remains mere sentiment.[10]

Wisdom, courage and compassion are qualities that characterize both bodhisattvas and their secular counterparts, global citizens.

In the realm of education, Sensei has dedicated his life to fostering global citizens who can contribute to humanity through their wisdom, courage and compassion. As a Buddhist leader and mentor, he has devoted his life to awakening bodhisattvas who work for all people’s happiness with the same awareness.

When enough people ground themselves in this awareness, humanity can free itself from the horrific cycles of war, conflict and discrimination, and foster new generations of people imbued with a deep respect for the sanctity of life.

Sensei states that the 21st century is the Century of Life, a century in which human beings and their happiness are at the center of all human activity. Through dedicated action and dialogue, we can promote mutual understanding, support the flourishing of each person’s potential and create a society that treasures and protects all life.


  1. My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 345. ↩︎
  2. December 2017 Living Buddhism, p. 30. ↩︎
  3. My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 446. ↩︎
  4. <accessed on June 17, 2020>. ↩︎
  5. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 138. ↩︎
  6. Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, pp. 20­–21. ↩︎
  7. My Dear Friends in America, third edition, p. 347. ↩︎
  8. September 28, 2007, World Tribune, p. 2. ↩︎
  9. <accessed on June 17, 2020>. ↩︎
  10. My Dear Friends in America, third edition, pp. 444–45. ↩︎

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