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Global Perspective

Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization

Speaking at Harvard University two years after his 1991 lecture there, Ikeda Sensei explores how the Mahayana Buddhist view of life and death holds the key to a 21st century that embraces the interconnectedness of all life.

Illustation by Nina Chakrabarti.

In the decade leading up to the 21st century, and with the SGI’s newfound spiritual independence from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, Ikeda Sensei set out to spread the ideals of Buddhist humanism worldwide through dialogues and university lectures.[1]

In his September 1993 lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization,” Sensei holds that modern civilization “has attempted to ignore death” and drive it “into the shadows,” but that in doing so, it has become numb to the massive scale of war and suffering that undeniably characterizes much of 20th century history.[2]

Mahayana Buddhism’s philosophy, in contrast, finds joy in both life and death, and in so doing paves the way for a civilization that seeks not to shy away from the reality of death but to understand it in the larger context of life. In his address, Sensei highlights the role that religion must play in bringing about an age rooted in respect for the dignity of life. In his 2008 peace proposal, he  said of that speech:

In it I urged that we give priority to the actual impact of religion on human beings: “Does religion make people stronger, or does it weaken them? Does it encourage what is good or what is evil in them? Are they made better and more wise—or less—by religion?” These are the questions we need to ask of all religions, including of course Buddhism, if we are to succeed in fully “humanizing” them.[3]

In this month’s issue, we feature key excerpts from Sensei’s address in which he discusses three ways Mahayana Buddhism can lead to positive change in today’s world: 1) the Buddhist emphasis on dialogue; 2) its role in restoring humanity; and
3) its recognition of the interconnectedness of all life.

Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

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.”[4]

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. …

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.” …

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.”[5] 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.”[6][7]

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.[8]

According to the sutra, Shakyamuni, then 80 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.”[9] The “arrow” symbolizes a prejudicial mindset, an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences. …

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!”[10]

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.[11]

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.” …

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.”[12] 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.”[13] … 

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.”[14]

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.[15]

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 nonsentient 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. …

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.”[16]

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.”[17]

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.”[18]

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 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.”[19][20]

From the June 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. September 2023 Living Buddhism, p. 13. ↩︎
  2. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 346–47. ↩︎
  3. 2008 Peace Proposal. ↩︎
  4. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 759. ↩︎
  5. Taisho issaikyo, ed. Junjiro Takakusu (Tokyo: Taisho Issaikyo Publishing Society, 1925), 9:43c. ↩︎
  6. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 212. ↩︎
  7. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 345–48. ↩︎
  8. Nanden daizokyo, ed. Junjiro Takakusu (Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Publishing Society, 1935), 7:27ff. ↩︎
  9. Nanden daizokyo, 24:358. ↩︎
  10. WND-1, 280. ↩︎
  11. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 348–51. ↩︎
  12. WND-2, 62. ↩︎
  13. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934), pp. 50–52. ↩︎
  14. OTT, 214. ↩︎
  15. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 352–54. ↩︎
  16. Nanden daizokyo, 13:1ff. ↩︎
  17. Nanden daizokyo, 23:42. ↩︎
  18. Taisho issaikyo, 1:645c, 15b. ↩︎
  19. OTT, 90. ↩︎
  20. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 354–57. ↩︎

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