Prior to my introduction to Nichiren Buddhism, my perception of Buddhism was that we do this by removing ourselves from society to avoid suffering and achieve a concept of enlightenment that has nothing to do with daily human life, and which can only be maintained by continuing to avoid daily human life. Such Buddhists venture out of their cloisters as needed to teach and do humanitarian work, while their home base is always a strictly-disciplined headquarters in a building intended to keep them out of the regular daily life of humanity.
While it is true that many people with such a lifestyle have contributed value to society, we do ourselves a disservice if we see them as role models instead of exceptions to what is best for most humans. Their way of doing things is not something for us to aspire to, nor should we feel undisciplined or morally weak if we can’t do what they do under the same conditions. Restricting ourselves with more deprivation-based discipline is not a good solution for self-liberation, especially for those of us whose problems have always stemmed from feeling too limited or inhibited in our lives to begin with.
What stopped me from achieving lasting personal growth through any other spiritual path before Nichiren Buddhism was the religious ideas that our desires are evil, that our material lives are a distraction to overcome, and that the only way to live pure lives is to devalue our material experience and focus on the spirit world beyond.
Basing my spiritual experience and study on abstractions about the next world and an “unknowable” Creator just made me feel even more disjointed, maladapted, and uncertain about how I should live my life in this world, and see no purpose beyond my own private prayer life for why I was practicing this way. Thus, my personal growth was very slow and sporadic, easily reversible, and gave little demonstration to myself or anyone else for why any of us should even bother with such a spiritual practice.
Such spiritual paths are easy to get discouraged from and leave behind, because they give us nothing to work with toward addressing our needs for improvement from a positive and empowered life-condition. They expect us instead to improve ourselves from a life-condition of shame and weakness, which is like trying to recover from a broken leg by walking on it without a cast.
Nichiren Buddhism, in contrast, teaches that the purpose of enlightenment is to improve our regular daily lives and the lives of others, and that we learn important life-lessons throughout our desires. Thus, if we seek life-satisfaction by trying to divorce ourselves from our desires, we totally miss the lessons that the presence of these desires in our lives is meant to teach us.
Instead of disowning my desires, I decided to apply the Buddhist teaching of detachment to disowning the beliefs, ideas, words, and actions that add no value to my or anyone else’s life, so that I can live a truly connected life, in which I can see everything more clearly without the fears, addictive behaviors, useless mental gymnastics, judgements, materialistic definitions of “success,” self-imposed conditions on my happiness, and gullibility regarding other people’s negative assessments of me that I used to let hold me back.
The teachings of the three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai hinge on the idea that “religion should exist for the sake of the people,” not the other way around. This is an empowering alternative to the idea that daring to ask “How does this religion benefit me?” is “selfish” and bad.
Why should this idea be considered bad? My biggest demonstration of proof that I’m on the right track in agreeing with these three and with Nichiren Daishonin is that I’ve been improving in ways that aren’t so easily reversible.
I’ve still got a long way to go on this path, and it is both a struggle and a joy to continue improving every single day. Even the sometimes-embarrassing recognition of further needs for improvement is a form of improvement.
Image: Detail from “Determination” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, gold gel pen, white gel pen, colored pencil