20 Life-Changing Buddhist Concepts

Challenges Can Fortify Our Growth and Happiness

Concept #2: Changing Poison Into Medicine

Chateau d'If in Marseille. Marseille, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. Monte Cristo. Photo by Henryk Sadura / Getty Images

Copyright: Henryk Sadura/Getty Images


This new study series highlights key Buddhist concepts that can change the way you view and live life.

“My daughter and I weren’t very close, and she wasn’t excited to come home from college to quarantine with her parents,” says an SGI-USA men’s division member. “Seeking a way to connect with her, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to change this poison into medicine. We started taking evening walks together, discussing our favorite movies and albums. Yesterday, I overheard her tell a classmate, ‘My dad is my new best friend.’”

His determination to “change poison into medicine” exemplifies the resolve of other SGI members, who, like many struggling amid the longstanding global pandemic, grapple with losing loved ones, face financial struggles and take on various challenges. They have repeatedly proven that our worst suffering can be the greatest catalyst for creating lasting happiness.

A character in The Count of Monte Cristo, Abbé Faria, expresses this ideal, saying: “Misfortune is needed to plumb certain mysterious depths in the understanding of men; pressure is needed to explode the charge … the clash of clouds produces electricity, electricity produces lightning and lightning gives light.”[1]Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 160.

Changing the Three Paths Into the Three Virtues

The character myo in the Lotus Sutra’s title can mean “wonderful” or “mystic.” The great Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna[2]Nagarjuna: A Mahayana scholar thought to have lived between the years 150 and 250. His many writings elevated Mahayana Buddhism and had a major impact on Buddhism in China and Japan. explains that this character myo is “like a great physician who can change poison into medicine” (“What It Means to Hear the Buddha Vehicle,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 743).

Regarding this statement, Nichiren Daishonin writes:

What is the poison? It is the three paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering that are our lot. What is the medicine? It is the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. And what does it mean to change poison into medicine? It means to transform the three paths into the three virtues. (WND-2, 743)

Here, poison refers to the “three paths”: “earthly desires,” fueled by deluded impulses of greed, anger and foolishness; “karma,” negative actions driven by desires; and “suffering” arising from earthly desires and karma. This negative cycle gives rise to lives shackled in misery, despite people’s best efforts to improve.

While other schools of Buddhism teach that we must eliminate desires, karma and suffering to attain enlightenment, Nichiren teaches that, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we transform the poison of our desires into the medicine of the “three virtues.” These virtues are the “Dharma body,” the Law, or truth, to which Buddhas are awakened; “wisdom,” the capacity to manifest and use the Law in our lives; and “emancipation,” the state of inner freedom unswayed by the sufferings of birth and death.

Graphic of Three Paths and Three Virtues

Ikeda Sensei says:

The Mystic Law enables ordinary people whose lives are filled with delusion to attain Buddhahood just as they are, without eradicating desire and suffering. …

Though we may find ourselves suffering, confused or troubled because of earthly desires, when we illuminate our lives with the wisdom of enlightenment, we can move in the direction of hope and change poison into medicine.

By recognizing our earthly desires and sufferings for what they are and facing them head-on, we can reveal our innate Buddhahood and establish a state of happiness. (July 2020 Living Buddhism, p. 56)

Hardships are inevitable. But by activating our inherent Buddha nature, we can resolve any and all obstacles. Rather than resenting difficulties, we view them as opportunities to tap our inner reserves of hope, courage, compassion, creativity and all of our enlightened attributes.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

Notes

Notes
1 Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 160.
2 Nagarjuna: A Mahayana scholar thought to have lived between the years 150 and 250. His many writings elevated Mahayana Buddhism and had a major impact on Buddhism in China and Japan.