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The Soka Philosophy of Empowerment

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Merriam-Webster defines powerlessness as lacking the capacity or authority to act. To be sure, modern psychology suggests that when confronting a problem, lacking a defined role can make us feel less in control of a situation.

Considering the nature of the pandemic and other world events, it may seem like many of society’s most significant problems lie beyond our control.

As a young person struggling amid the chaos of war, Ikeda Sensei grappled with questions such as Where are we going? and Why are we here? In Nichiren Buddhism, he found the ultimate source for creating value amid intractable circumstances and living with undying hope. He says of the Soka philosophy:

Some say the prevailing mood in the world today is one of powerlessness. Whatever the case may be, we are all aware that things cannot continue as they are. Yet decisions about political, economic and environmental issues all seem to be made somewhere beyond our reach. … This feeling of powerlessness fuels a vicious cycle that only worsens the situation and increases people’s sense of futility.

At the opposite extreme of this sense of powerlessness lie the Lotus Sutra’s philosophy of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” and the application of this teaching to our daily lives. This principle teaches us that the inner determination of an individual can transform everything; it gives ultimate expression to the infinite potential and dignity inherent in each human life.[1]

The Buddhist principle of  “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” suggests that the past, future and all aspects of the physical environment exist in the present. Nichiren Daishonin writes:

Just as a commoner can become a king in this present life, so can an ordinary person become a Buddha instantly. This is the heart of the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life.[2]

We, therefore, have the power, at each moment, to transform our circumstances and create a positive future. When we find ourselves in difficult or challenging times, the efforts we make can be the greatest cause for our progress and victory.

Living Buddhism sat down with SGI-USA leaders to discuss ways to combat powerlessness by applying the empowering philosophy of Soka.

Living Buddhism: Thank you for meeting with us. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Soka philosophy of empowerment.

Naoko Leslie: This is a wonderful topic! I recall attending Soka Gakkai meetings as a student division member after I stood up in faith, and I was always struck by the experiences. When I began having my own faith experiences, I felt stronger and more confident. Whenever problems came up, I began seeing them as new opportunities to have more faith experiences, and, in sharing these experiences at meetings or with friends, I realized that I have the power to make a difference in the world.

Headshot of Adin StraussAdin Strauss: That’s a great point Naoko. Through our faith experiences, we develop the confidence that, My life has meaning and can inspire others. Each of us can be a revolutionary in our own way without even realizing it. One of my first benefits of Buddhist practice was getting hired at one of the largest financial institutions in the world. This company had some 89,000 employees at the time, and was based in Tokyo. On top of that, I was the first non-Japanese employee of that company. Throughout my practice, I’ve been able to break numerous barriers that I never thought possible. This fact gives me so much appreciation for Sensei and the SGI.

Maya Gunaseharan: One of my favorite quotes from Sensei is, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”[3] This sounds simple, but believing that we have this capacity can be one of the most difficult quests in life.

It seems that the first step in combatting powerlessness is deciding to make an impact.

Ryo Kuroki: By accruing faith experiences, over time, we develop conviction in the power of our lives. We gain the confidence to be a decider. From there, we create a ripple effect from our actions into our environment.

One young men’s division member named Miguel struggled with believing in himself when he began practicing Buddhism. Namely, he had difficulty speaking fluently due to a stutter and this was something that affected his self confidence. Despite this struggle, earlier this year, he challenged himself and visited the young men in his district to encourage them and invite them to a youth meeting. He was determined to not let his self doubt stop him from encouraging his fellow members.

After each visit, his determination visibly grew. Now, his two brothers have started attending meetings and have seen changes after chanting. And in April, Miguel’s friend received the Gohonzon! He said to me, “I realized that kosen-rufu is my mission!” Now, he is a lion!

Kevin Moncrief: That’s a fantastic story, Ryo. This practice truly does change individuals, who go on to transform their environment. In the 1980s, I practiced in the Midwest and supported activities in Louisville, Kentucky. The SGI-USA Buddhist Center in those days was in an economically depressed neighborhood, and crime was an issue. The members in the area, however, determined to transform the land by planting seeds of Buddhahood by telling as many people as possible about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. After a few years, the neighborhood completely transformed into a bright, hopeful place. I’ve seen this in neighborhoods surrounding SGI centers across the country, which shows the ripple effect of individuals consistently bringing out their Buddha nature and empowering others to do the same.

Naoko: That reminds me of the members of Trinidad and Tobago who were featured in the June 4, 2021, World Tribune. Facing a sudden epidemic of gun violence, the members united in chanting with the determination to bring peace to their community. The situation became so dire that cabs and deliveries stopped servicing the area, community events were cancelled, and even the police stayed away. What encouraged me most is that they kept up their efforts in chanting and sharing Buddhism not just for weeks or months, but for several years, and saw real changes.

Maya: I remember that article. Thank you, Naoko! This reminds me of powerful guidance from Sensei:

We must realize that we are not powerless, not merely lumps of physical matter, not slaves to our genes. We need to awaken to the fact that we are much more, that we possess within us enormous, limitless potential. Human beings are one with the universe, and the power we each possess is equal to all the power of the universe—this is the message of the Lotus Sutra.[4]

Through consistent practice, we can awaken to this limitless potential in our lives, gaining conviction that we were born with a great purpose.

Would you say that the second step in becoming empowered is understanding that a change in oneself can effect a change in the environment?

Adin: I believe so. And while I have complete conviction in the power of the individual to change the world based on Buddhist humanism, I also understand people’s frustration at the slow progress to create a more harmonious world. I think we should recognize that we have a lot of work to do to sink deeper roots of the Mystic Law in American and global society.

We can think of social injustices repeating themselves from the lens of the “six paths.” (see pp. 36–37) The six paths constitute the lower six of the Ten Worlds, and indicate conditions of life where people live based on reacting to their environment. The six paths include the worlds of hell, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, human beings and heavenly beings. As long as individuals, or the collective of individuals that make up a community or nation, are unable to awaken to their Buddha nature, they will cycle through these six paths, repeating behavior that degrades life. This is why our kosen-rufu movement is so important, as it constitutes the united effort of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth to elevate humanity beyond this pattern of cycling through the six paths.

We need to awaken to the fact that we are much more, that we possess within us enormous, limitless potential.

Maya: I’ve recently been studying about the “three poisons” and their relationship to the “three calamities.” [5] It shows how the greed, anger and foolishness in the human heart is at the root of natural disasters, warfare and disease. I realized that despite holding noble ideals, if I cannot overcome the greed, anger and foolishness I experience with my family, at work or internally, how can I ever expect to impact things on a larger scale? When I transform my tendencies in my immediate environment, by chanting every day to bring out my Buddhahood, I gain confidence in the power of the human spirit to transform things. Buddhist practice is a daily battle to believe that we can make a difference and that our actions can effect change.

Ryo: I’m always inspired when I hear how when Sensei is facing difficult times, he remembers how Mr. Toda would encourage him, and can spur himself to fight through. This oneness of mentor and disciple relationship is at the heart of Sensei’s relentless peace efforts for more than 70 years. While we still have a long way to go, I feel that Sensei and SGI members around the world have initiated the momentum to create a more humanistic society.

Engaging in this ongoing collective effort to elevate the condition of humanity, which is our kosen-rufu movement, seems to be a third step to developing a sense of empowerment.

Kevin: I think this is a good time to bring up the Buddhist principle of “dependent origination” as the link among all living beings. Dependent origination teaches that no beings or phenomena exist in isolation. Rather, they exist because of a relationship to other beings and phenomena.

When we talk about one person changing the world, this is not just a catch phrase or empty platitude. By the nature of our existence, we are interlinked with all of humanity and nature even though we can’t visibly perceive it. In this year’s peace proposal, Sensei writes:

The most crucial thing then is to forge bonds of solidarity from the realizations of connectedness that have come to us deeply and intensely during this unprecedented crisis and make these the basis for shared efforts to find a way out of the storm.

[Tsunesaburo] Makiguchi treasured the Buddhist maxim “When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated” because he firmly believed that people inherently possess the ability to dispel the seemingly impenetrable gloom that hangs over the world and to light the way to a hopeful future.[6]

We are inherently connected. So, while we may feel powerless in stopping a war on the other side of the world, because of the connections among us, we still experience the impact in our lives, be they economic or with the people in our environment who are discouraged. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[7] Therefore, by encouraging people in our environment and responding to humanitarian disaster with increased compassionate action, we become agents in turning the tide of violence to one of mutual respect and peace.

Maya: Thank you for bringing up dependent origination. I’ve learned that kosen-rufu is concerned with awakening people to these deeper connections that we all share. The most direct way to achieve this is propagating the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that the common trait of all living beings is that we all possess the life state of Buddhahood. The more people awaken to and experience their Buddhahood, the more they can perceive their deeper relations to others whether in their immediate environment or in a far-off place. In other words, the state life of Buddhahood doesn’t have time or space limitations.

Understanding our deeper connections definitely rouses the hope and courage to take action.

Ryo: This practice has taught me that each individual has an important role to play to create a harmonious society. This is why I share Buddhism with as many people as I can. The challenge for each of us is to make the decision, I will make a difference no matter what obstacles get in my way! Through chanting and engaging in SGI activities, we can construct this unbreakable spirit.

Adin: That’s a great spirit to have! Chances are that we won’t see dramatic changes immediately, but if we maintain that spirit over the course of our lives, we are bound to achieve great things and inspire countless others along the way.

Naoko: Yes, telling one person about Buddhism is the start of change, and we can all do that! Sensei writes about the impact this has on changing society:

Kosen-rufu is a comprehensive revolution based on the revolution of the individual. It is the process of actualizing the Buddhist spirit of compassion and the philosophy of the sanctity of life in the realms of government, economics, education, art and every area of human endeavor. The purpose of kosen-rufu is to build a society in which science, medicine, law and all other disciplines and systems created by human beings contribute to the happiness of humanity and produce genuine value. …

In short, the effort to introduce Buddhism to a single individual and thereby transform his or her life is the most gradual and certain path of nonviolent revolution.[8]

Thank you all so much for offering your insights into this issue. We can summarize this discussion with four key points regarding the Soka philosophy of empowerment:

1)  Decide to make an impact.

2) Our inner change will transform our environment.

3) Awaken to the interconnectedness of all living beings.

4) Propagating Buddhism creates momentum for social change.

References

  1. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 1, pp. 6–7. ↩︎
  2.  “Letter to the Sage Nichimyo,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 324. ↩︎
  3.  The Human Revolution, p. xiii. ↩︎
  4. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, vol. 3, p. 28. ↩︎
  5.  See the July 13, 2018, World Tribune, p. 9. ↩︎
  6.  2022 Peace Proposal <https://worldtribune.org/2022/2013-peace-proposal-in-full/>. ↩︎
  7.  “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches, Martin Luther King Jr., p. 290. ↩︎
  8.  The New Human Revolution, vol. 14, pp. 19–20. ↩︎

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