Skip to main content

Global Perspective

Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization

joe daniel price/GettyImages

Nothing could please me more than to be back at Harvard University, to speak with faculty and students at this time-honored institution of unexcelled academic endeavor. To Professor Nur Yalman, Professor Harvey Cox, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and all the others who have made my visit possible, I extend grateful thanks.

The Continuity of Life and Death

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who declared that all things are in a state of flux and that change is the essential nature of reality. Indeed, everything, whether it lies in the realm of natural phenomena or of human affairs, changes continuously. Nothing maintains exactly the same state for even the briefest instant; the most solid-seeming rocks and minerals are subject to the erosive effects of time. But during this century of war and revolution, normal change and flux seem to have been accelerated and magnified. We have seen the most extraordinary panorama of social transformations.

The Buddhist term for the ephemeral aspect of reality is “the transience of all phenomena.” In the Buddhist cosmology, this concept is described as the repeated cycles of formation, continuance, decline and disintegration through which all systems must pass. During our lives as human beings, we experience transience as the four sufferings: the suffering of birth (and of day-to-day existence), that of aging, of sickness and, finally, of death. No human being is exempt from these sources of pain. It was, in fact, human distress, in particular the problem of death, that spawned the formation of religious and philosophical systems. It is said that Shakyamuni was inspired to seek the truth by his accidental encounters with many sorrows at the gates of the palace in which he was raised. Plato stated that true philosophers are always engaged in the practice of dying, while Nichiren Daishonin, founder of the school of Buddhism followed by members of Soka Gakkai International, admonishes us to “first of all learn about death, and then about other things” (“The Importance of the Moment of Death,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 759).

Death weighs heavily on the human heart as an inescapable reminder of the finite nature of our existence. However seemingly limitless the wealth or power we might attain, the reality of our eventual demise cannot be avoided. From ancient times, humanity has sought to conquer the fear and apprehension surrounding death by finding ways to partake of the eternal. Through this quest, people have learned to overcome control by instinctual modes of survival and have developed the characteristics that we recognize as uniquely human. In that perspective, we can see why the history of religion coincides with the history of humankind.

Modern civilization has attempted to ignore death. We have diverted our gaze from this most fundamental of concerns as we try to drive death into the shadows. For many people living today, death is the mere absence of life; it is blankness; it is the void. Life is identified with all that is good: with being, rationality and light. In contrast, death is perceived as evil, as nothingness, and as the dark and irrational. Only the negative perception of death prevails.

We cannot, however, ignore death, and the attempt to do so has exacted a heavy price. The horrific and ironic climax of modern civilization has been in our time what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “century of megadeath.” Today, a wide range of issues is now forcing a reexamination and reevaluation of the significance of death. They include questions about brain death and death with dignity, the function of hospices, alternative funerary styles and rites, and research into death and dying by writers such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

We finally seem to be ready to recognize the fundamental error in our view of life and death. We are beginning to understand that death is more than the absence of life; that death, together with active life, is necessary for the formation of a larger, more essential, whole. This greater whole reflects the deeper continuity of life and death that we experience as individuals and express as culture. A central challenge for the coming century will be to establish a culture based on an understanding of the relationship of life and death, and of life’s essential eternity. Such an attitude does not disown death but directly confronts and correctly positions it within the larger context of life.

Buddhism speaks of an intrinsic nature (hossho in Japanese, sometimes translated as “Dharma nature”) existing within the depths of phenomenal reality. This nature depends upon and responds to environmental conditions, and it alternates between states of emergence and latency. All phenomena, including life and death, can be seen as elements within the cycle of emergence and latency, or manifestation and withdrawal.

Cycles of life and death can be likened to the alternating periods of sleep and wakefulness. Just as sleep prepares us for the next day’s activity, death can be seen as a state in which we rest and replenish ourselves for new life. In this light, death should be acknowledged, along with life, as a blessing to be appreciated. The Lotus Sutra, the core of Mahayana Buddhism, states that the purpose of existence, the eternal cycles of life and death, is to be “happy and at ease.”[1] It further teaches that sustained faith and practice enable us to know a deep and abiding joy in death as well as in life, to be equally “happy and at ease” with both. Nichiren Daishonin describes the attainment of this state as the “greatest of all joys” (The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 212).

If the tragedies of this century of war and revolution have taught us anything, it is the folly of believing that reform of external factors, such as social systems, is the linchpin to achieving happiness. I am convinced that in the coming century, the greatest emphasis must be placed on fostering inwardly directed change. In addition, our efforts must be inspired by a new understanding of life and death.

There are three broad areas where Mahayana Buddhism can help solve the problems suggested above and make a positive difference to civilization in the twenty-first century. Let us consider those aspects of Buddhism that offer workable, constructive guidance.

The Buddhist Emphasis on Dialogue

Since its inception, the philosophy of Buddhism has been associated with peace and pacifism. That emphasis derives principally from the consistent rejection of violence combined with stress on dialogue and discussion as the best means of resolving conflict. Descriptions of the life of Shakyamuni provide a good illustration. His life was completely untrammeled by dogma, and his interactions with his fellows stressed the importance of dialogue. The sutra, recounting the travels that culminated his Buddhist practice, begins with an episode in which the aged Shakyamuni uses the power of language to avert an invasion.[2]

According to the sutra, Shakyamuni, then eighty years old, did not directly admonish the minister of Magadha, a large country bent on conquering the neighboring state of Vajji. Instead, he spoke persuasively about the principles by which nations prosper and decline. His discourse dissuaded the minister from implementing the planned attack. The final chapter of the same sutra concludes with a moving description of Shakyamuni on his deathbed. As he lay dying, he repeatedly urged his disciples to raise any uncertainties that they might have about the Buddhist Law (Dharma) or its practice, so that they would not find themselves regretting unasked questions after his passing. Up until his last moment, Shakyamuni actively sought out dialogue, and the drama of his final voyage from beginning to end is illuminated by the light of language, skillfully wielded by one who was truly 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.”[3] 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 ever-present 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.

In the early years of this century, Josiah Royce (one of many important philosophers Harvard University has given the world) declared that “Reform, in such matters, must come, if at all, from within … The public as a whole is whatever the processes that occur, for good or evil, in individual minds, may determine.”[4]

As Josiah Royce points out, 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. It was his complete absence of prejudice that enabled Shakyamuni to expound the Law with such freedom, adapting his style of teaching to the character and capacity of the person to whom he was speaking.

Whether he was mediating a communal dispute over water rights, converting a violent criminal or admonishing someone who objected to the practice of begging, Shakyamuni attempted first to make others aware of the “arrow” of their inner evil. The power of his extraordinary character brought these words to the lips of one contemporaneous sovereign: “Those whom we, with weapons, cannot force to surrender, you subdue unarmed.”[5]

Only by overcoming attachment to differences can a religion rise above an essentially tribal outlook to offer a global faith. Nichiren Daishonin, for example, dismissed the shogunal authorities, who were persecuting him, as the “rulers of this little island country.”[6] His vision was broader, directed toward establishing a religious spirit that would embody universal values and transcend the confines of a single state.

Dialogue is not limited to formal debate or placid exchange that wafts by like a spring breeze. There are times when, to break the grip of arrogance, speech must be like the breath of fire. Thus, although we typically associate Shakyamuni and Nagarjuna only with mildness, it was the occasional ferocity of their speech that earned them the sobriquet of “those who deny everything”[7] in their respective eras.

Similarly, Nichiren Daishonin, who demonstrated a familial affection and tender concern for the common people, was uncompromising in his confrontations with corrupt and degenerate authority. Always unarmed in the chronically violent Japan of his time, he relied exclusively and unflinchingly on the power of persuasion and nonviolence. He was tempted with the promise of absolute power if he renounced his faith, and threatened with the beheading of his parents if he adhered to his beliefs. Nevertheless, he maintained the courage of his convictions. The following passage, written upon his exile to a distant island from which no one was expected to return, typifies his lionesque tone: “Whatever obstacles I might encounter, so long as men of wisdom do not prove my teachings to be false, I will never yield!”[8]

Nichiren Daishonin’s faith in the power of language was absolute. If more people were to pursue dialogue in an equally unrelenting manner, the inevitable conflicts of human life would surely find easier resolution. Prejudice would yield to empathy and war would give way to peace. Genuine dialogue results in the transformation of opposing viewpoints, changing them from wedges that drive people apart into bridges that link them together.

During World War II, the Soka Gakkai, an organization based on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, challenged head-on the forces of Japanese militarism. As a result, many members were imprisoned, beginning with the founder and first president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Far from recanting, President Makiguchi continued to explain to his guards and interrogators the principles of Buddhism. They were the very ideas that had made him a “thought criminal” in the first place. He died at the age of 73, still in confinement.

Josei Toda was heir to the spiritual legacy of President Makiguchi, and he became the second president of the organization. He emerged from the ordeal of two years’ imprisonment declaring his faith in the unity of the global human family. He then preached widely among the population, who were lost and suffering in the aftermath of the war. Mr. Toda also bequeathed to us, his youthful disciples, the mission of building a world free of nuclear weapons.

With this as our historical and philosophical basis, Soka Gakkai International remains committed to the role of dialogue in the advancement of peace, education and culture. At present, we are engaged in forging bonds of solidarity with citizens in 115 countries and regions around the world [192, as of 2020]. For my own part, I wish only to continue my efforts to speak with people all over the earth in order to contribute in some small way to the greater happiness of humankind.

Restoring Humanity

What role can Buddhism play in the restoration and rejuvenation of humanity? In an age marked by widespread religious revival, we need always ask: Does religion make people stronger or weaker? Does it encourage what is good or what is evil in them? Are they made better and wiser by religion? While the authority of Marx as social prophet has been largely undermined by the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there is an important truth contained in his description of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” In fact, there is reason for concern that more than a few of the religions finding new life in the twilight of this century are characterized by dogmatism and insularity, traits that run counter to the accelerating trend toward interdependence and cross-cultural interaction.

With this in mind, let us examine the relative weight that different belief systems assign to self-reliance, as opposed to dependence on powers external to the self. These two tendencies correspond roughly to the Christian concepts of free will and grace.

Broadly speaking, the passage from medieval to modern Europe coincided with a steady movement away from a theistic determinism, toward ever-greater emphasis on free will and human responsibility. Human abilities were encouraged, and reliance on external, abstract authority declined, making way for the great achievements of science and technology. More and more people began to believe in the omnipotence of reason and its scientific fruits. But to be blindly convinced of the power of technology can lead to the hubris of assuming that there is nothing we are unable to accomplish. It may be true that dependence on some external authority led people to underestimate both our potential and our responsibility, but excessive faith in our own powers is not the answer; it has, in fact, produced a dangerous overconfidence in ourselves.

We are now seeking a third path, a new balance between faith in ourselves and recognition of a power that is greater than we are. These words of Nichiren Daishonin illustrate the subtle and richly suggestive Mahayana perspective on attaining enlightenment: “People are certainly other-empowered, and yet they are not other-empowered” (“The Meaning of the Sacred Teachings of the Buddha’s Lifetime”, WND-2, 62). The persuasive argument of Buddhism is its conviction that the greatest good is derived from the dynamic fusion and balancing of internal and external forces.

Similarly, John Dewey, in A Common Faith, asserts that it is “the religious” rather than specific religions, that is of vital importance. While religions all too quickly fall into dogmatism and fanaticism, “that which is religious” has the power to “unify interests and energies” and to “direct action and generate the heat of emotion and the light of intelligence.” Likewise, “the religious” enables the realization of those benefits that Dewey identifies as “the values of art in all its forms, of knowledge, of effort, and of rest after striving, of education and fellowship, of friendship and love, of growth in mind and body.”[9]

Dewey does not identify a specific external power. For him “the religious” is a generalized term for that which supports and encourages people in the active pursuit of the good and the valuable. “The religious,” as he defines it, helps those who help themselves.

As Dewey understood, and as the sad outcome of people’s self-worship in modern times has demonstrated, without assistance we are incapable of living up to our potential. Only by relying on and merging with the eternal can we fully activate all our capabilities. Thus, we need help, but our human potential does not come from outside; it is, and always has been, of us and within us. How any given religious tradition handles the balance between interior and exterior forces will, I believe, decisively affect its long-term viability.

Anyone involved in religion must constantly work on keeping the balance, if we do not want to repeat history. For if we are not attentive, religion can enslave us to dogma and to its own authority just as easily as the religious impulse can serve as a vehicle for human restoration and rejuvenation.

Perhaps because our Buddhist movement is so human-centered, Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School has described it as an effort to define the humanistic direction of religion. Indeed, Buddhism is not merely a theoretical construct; it helps us steer our lives, as we actually live them, moment by moment, toward the achievement of happiness and worth. Thus, Nichiren Daishonin states: “If in a single moment of life we exhaust the pains and trials of millions of kalpas, then instant after instant there will arise in us the three Buddha bodies with which we are eternally endowed” (OTT, 214).

The expression the pains and trials of millions of kalpas refers to the ability to confront each of life’s problems with our full being, awakening the total consciousness, leaving no inner resource untapped. By wholeheartedly and directly meeting the challenges of life, we bring forth from within ourselves the “three Buddha bodies with which we are eternally endowed.” It is the light of this internal wisdom that constantly encourages and guides us toward true and correct action.

The vibrant tones of the drums, horns and other musical instruments that appear throughout the Lotus Sutra work metaphorically to encourage the human will to live. The function of the Buddha nature is always to urge us to be strong, good and wise. The message of the sutra is one of human restoration.

The Interrelationship of All Things

Buddhism provides a philosophical basis for the symbiotic coexistence of all things. Among the many images in the Lotus Sutra, a particularly compelling one is the merciful rain that falls everywhere, equally, moistening the vast expanse of the earth and bringing forth new life from all the trees and grasses, large and small. This scene, depicted with the vividness, grandeur and beauty characteristic of the Lotus Sutra, symbolizes the enlightenment of all people touched by the Buddha’s Law. At the same time, it is a magnificent tribute to the rich diversity of human and all other forms of sentient and non-sentient life. Thus, 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. Each individual 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.

Speaking through Faust, Goethe gives voice to a similar vision. “Into the whole how all things blend, each in the other working, living!”[10] These lines are striking for their remarkable affinity with Buddhist thought. Although Johann Peter Eckermann criticized Goethe for lacking “confirmation of his presentiments,”[11] the intervening years have seen a steadily swelling affirmation of the deductive vision in both Goethe and Buddhist thought.

Consider, for example, the concept of causation. When viewed in terms of dependent origination, causal relationships differ fundamentally from the mechanistic idea of cause and effect that, according to modern science, holds sway over the objective natural world. In the scientific model, reality is divorced from subjective human concerns. When an accident or disaster takes place, for example, a mechanistic theory of causation can be used to pursue and identify how the accident occurred. It is silent, however, on other points, including the question of why certain individuals and not others should find themselves caught up in the tragic event. Indeed, the mechanistic view of nature requires the deliberate dismissal of existential questions.

In contrast, the Buddhist understanding of causation is more broadly defined and takes account of human existence. It seeks to directly address these poignant uncertainties, as in the following exchange that occurred early in Shakyamuni’s career: “What is the cause of aging and death? Birth is the cause of aging and death.”[12]

In a later era, through a process of exhaustive personal inquiry, Chih-i, the founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school of Buddhism, developed a theoretical structure that included such concepts as the “three thousand realms in a single moment of life.” It is not only sweeping in scope and rigorous in elaboration but is entirely compatible with modern science. While limitations of time prohibit discussion of his system, it is worth mentioning that many contemporary fields of inquiry—for example, ecology, transpersonal psychology and quantum mechanics—have some interesting points in common with Buddhism in their approach and conclusions.

The Buddhist emphasis on relatedness and interdependence may seem to suggest that individual identity is obscured. Buddhist scripture addresses this in the following passage: “You are your own master. Could anyone else be your master? When you have gained control over yourself, you have found a master of rare value.”[13]

A second passage reads: “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the Law as a lamp, do not rely on anything else.”[14]

Both passages urge us to live independently, true to ourselves and unswayed by others. The “self” referred to here, however, is not the Buddhist lesser self, caught up in the snares of egoism. Rather, it is the greater self, fused with the life of the universe through which cause and effect intertwine over the infinite reaches of space and time.

The greater, cosmic self is related to the unifying and integrating “self” that Jung perceived in the depths of the ego. It is also similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.”[15]

I am firmly convinced that a large-scale awakening to the greater self will lead to a world of creative coexistence in the coming century. Recall the lines of Walt Whitman, in which he sings the praises of the human spirit:

But that I,
turning to thee O soul,
thou actual Me,
And lo,
thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time,
smilest content at Death,
And fillest,
swellest full the vastness of space.[16]

The greater self of Mahayana Buddhism is another way of expressing the openness and expansiveness of character that embraces the sufferings of all people as one’s own. This self always seeks ways of alleviating the pain and augmenting the happiness of others, here, amid the realities of everyday life. Only the solidarity brought about by such natural human nobility will break down the isolation of the modern self and lead to the dawning of new hope for civilization. Furthermore, it is the dynamic, vital awakening of the greater self that will enable each of us, as individuals, to experience both life and death with equal delight. Thus, as Nichiren Daishonin states: “We use the aspects of birth, aging, sickness, and death to adorn the tower that is our body” (OTT, 90).

It is my earnest desire and prayer that in the twenty-first century, each member of the human family will let shine the natural luster of their inner “treasure tower.” Filling our azure planet with the chorus of open dialogue, humankind will move on into the new millennium.


  1. J. Takakusu, ed., Taisho Issaikyo (Tokyo: Taisho Issaikyo Publishing Society, 1925), vol. 9, p. 43c. ↩︎
  2. J. Takakusu, ed., Nanden daizokyo (Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Publishing Society, 1935), vol. 7, p. 27ff. ↩︎
  3. J. Takakusu, ed., Nanden daizokyo, vol. 24, p. 358. ↩︎
  4. Josiah Royce, The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 2:1122. ↩︎
  5. J. Takakusu, ed., Nanden Daizokyo, vol. 11a, p. 137. ↩︎
  6. Philip B. Yampolsky, Selected Writings of Nichiren, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 322. ↩︎
  7. J. Takakusu, ed., Taisho Issaikyo, vol. 30. ↩︎
  8. “The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 280. ↩︎
  9. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), pp. 50–52. ↩︎
  10. J. W. Goethe, Faust A Tragedy, trans. Bayard Taylor (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), pp. 17–18. ↩︎
  11. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1930), p. 101. ↩︎
  12. J. Takakusu, ed., Nanden Daizokyo, vol. 13, p. 1ff. ↩︎
  13. J. Takakusu, ed., Nanden Daizokyo, vol. 23, p. 42. ↩︎
  14. J. Takakusu, ed., Taisho Issaikyo, vol. 1, p. 645c, 15b. ↩︎
  15. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Poems of Emerson (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921), p. 45. ↩︎
  16. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1926), p. 348. ↩︎

Joy in Life and Death—The Boundless Life State Attained by Dedicating Ourselves to Our Eternal Mission