All things are from the outset
In the state of tranquil extinction.
The Buddhas’ sons who complete the practice of the Way
Will become Buddhas in their future lives.
(The Lotus Sūtra p.39)

This chapter will continue to explore the theme of non-duality to see what it has to teach us about dealing with our natural human desires and the human condition in general. It may be surprising to learn that the Buddhist attitude towards life is not as negative as some (including some Buddhists) make it out to be. Far from idealistic, other-worldly and life negating, the Buddhist approach to life is very realistic, practical, and life affirming.

Changing Poison Into Medicine

An important Buddhist principle we should keep in mind is that even poison can be turned into medicine. This idea comes from Nāgārjuna’s commentaries on the Buddhist scriptures wherein he compared the Lotus Sūtra to “a great physician who can change poison into medicine.” Nāgārjuna was referring to the status of the disciples and solitary contemplatives who were finally assured of their future buddhahood in the Lotus Sūtra. In the previous Mahāyāna sūtras, the disciples and the solitary contemplatives were condemned for their apathy in regard to ordinary life. Because they showed no concern or compassion for those who were still caught up in the cycle of birth and death, and had, in fact, cut off all connections to the world, it was taught that they were incapable of ever becoming buddhas. Their buddha-nature, it was said, was like a seed that had been scorched by their indifference and would therefore never come to fruition. The Lotus Sūtra, on the other hand, taught that the disciples and solitary contemplatives were also on the path to buddhahood. They were simply going through a phase of their spiritual development in which they needed to step away from the world and cultivate clarity and peace of mind. Far from discouraging them, the Buddha taught in the Lotus Sūtra that they should have confidence in their ability to become buddhas. Their accomplishment of buddhahood was the Buddha’s true intention all along. The so-called Hīnayāna teachings for transcending the world and even the admonishments of the earlier Mahāyāna teachings were simply taught to prepare them for the final teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. The poison of the selfish individual liberation of the disciples and solitary contemplatives was changed into the medicine of the path to buddhahood, which benefits all sentient beings. For this reason, Nāgārjuna taught that the Lotus Sūtra changed poison into medicine.

Nichiren asserted that the principle of changing poison into medicine also applied to a foreshortened version of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. This version is known as the three paths of self-centered desires, habitual actions (karma), and suffering. Delusions and obsessive compulsions drive us into misguided actions, which in turn lead either directly or indirectly into situations that bring about suffering. This suffering then aggravates our self-centered desires, that in turn leads to more misguided action and more suffering, and so it goes on and on. Nichiren taught that one could change the three paths into the three virtues of the Dharma, wisdom, and emancipation through the Wonderful Dharma. Through our devotion to the Lotus Sūtra, we are able to gain a new perspective on our lives. Once we have this perspective, we can stop relating to everything in terms of our wants and expectations and can see life on its own terms as the workings of the Wonderful Dharma. This ability to see things as they are is the beginning of wisdom and the path of freedom from self-centered desires, actions, and suffering.

It is our unfortunate habit to view misfortune and personal imperfections in a solely negative way. We often do not stop to consider that there are other ways of looking at things. For instance, think of all the events in our lives that have made us who we are today. There are things that all of us have gone through or done which were not entirely pleasant. However, if not for these things, we would be very different people. We might not even have been drawn to the Buddha Dharma if it were not for these kinds of life shaping experiences. All experiences, both good and bad, are the raw material from which our lives are formed. If we were to reject the desires, actions, and even the sufferings which have shaped us, it would be the same as rejecting ourselves and denying any possibility of growth or enlightenment. On the other hand, to let go of our own preconceptions and view all things from the perspective of the Dharma is to cultivate the wisdom which allows us to free ourselves and others from suffering. According to Nichiren, the practice of Buddhism is not about rejecting the world or ourselves. Rather, Buddhism teaches that we should turn the poison of the three paths into the medicine of the three virtues through the practice of chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. This will enable us to shed the light of the Wonderful Dharma on all things good or bad.

Bonnō Soku Bodai: Defilements Are Themselves Awakening

A related principle taught in Nichiren Buddhism is bonnō soku bodai. Bonnō means “afflictions” or “defilements,” but it could also be translated as self-centered or ignorant desires. Soku can not be translated simply, but in this case it roughly means “are themselves.” Bodai means “awakening.” So bonnō soku bodai means self-centered desires, which defile or afflict our lives and create so much suffering, are themselves awakening. Now at first glance this seems not only absurd but dangerous; indeed, this principle has caused a lot of misunderstanding and mischief down through the ages. Various people have misused this idea as a justification for indulging their egotism and hedonistic impulses in the name of awakened activity. However, the teaching that the defilements are themselves awakening is firmly based upon the principle of changing poison into medicine and the principle of non-duality, both fundamental teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. When this principle is understood properly, it provides us with a healthy and productive way of relating to our own emotions and needs.

Before looking at the non-dual nature of defilements and awakening, we should make sure that we clearly understand what is meant by the two terms. We should also understand how their relationship is described in the vast majority of Buddhist teachings. Defilements are those personal characteristics or personality traits that keep us in a state of agitation, anxiety or frustration and prevent us from attaining buddhahood. The defilements include the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. Added to these are pride, false views, and doubt. Pride is to view ourselves as superior in capability or knowledge to others and having the very biased view that the world should revolve around us. Holding to false views means to fanatically cling to views such as existence and non-existence, or other unproveable notions about things like God and the soul. People cling to such metaphysical beliefs in order to build up a false sense of security. Such false views also include those that deny dependent origination and the law of cause and effect, effectively keeping us from taking responsibility for our lives or seeing the true nature of reality. Referring to doubt as a defilement does not mean that honest questioning and investigation of the Buddhist teachings is a defilement. Instead, it refers to indecisiveness and lack of confidence in ourselves. According to Buddhism, the neediness of greed, the paranoia of anger, the confusion of ignorance, and the negativity generated by the other defilements are what keep us from feeling totally at ease, happy, peaceful, and confident. Because of these defilements, we never see things in the true light of reality.

In the early teachings of the Buddha, awakening was understood to mean the same thing as nirvāna. Nirvāna means to extinguish or blow out the flames of the defilements. In other words, awakening was seen as simply being the state in which the defilements and the selfhood upon which they are based are all extinguished. With this goal in mind, the early practices of Buddhism focused on negating the defilements and establishing the practitioner in a state of dispassionate awareness through meditation.

There was, however, a recognition that the defilements, or self-centered desires, could also be viewed as positive qualities that had not yet developed. For instance, those who are full of craving and attachment are also capable of single minded devotion to the Three Treasures. Those who are highly critical and hostile towards others also have the capacity for insightful analysis and the ability to discern truth from falsehood. Those whose minds are easily distracted by endless speculation are also acknowledged for their open-mindedness and curiosity. Recognizing that ignorant desires can be harnessed or developed into good qualities, these early Buddhists used various forms of meditation that encourage or capitalize upon the positive potentials of the desires. They combined these with other forms of meditation to counterbalance the negative aspects of these desires. For instance, someone overly critical of others would usually meditate upon loving-kindness. That same person might also meditate upon the elements of the body in order to utilize their capacity for critical analysis.

One should also keep in mind that the defilements are the very qualities that motivate us to practice Buddhism. After all, if our lives were perfect and we felt no desire or dissatisfaction at all, then there would be no need to seek out the true nature of all existence or to cultivate the wisdom and compassion of buddhahood. In a sense, the defilements or ignorant desires are signs that we are looking for a better way of life. These afflictions are symptoms of a deep need within us to find meaning, security, and true happiness. Unfortunately, a person in the grip of these ignorant desires often unwittingly reinforces them in their misguided attempts to satisfy them. The habitual tendency to seek lasting self-satisfaction in material or spiritual things is strengthened everytime it is indulged. However, there is nothing short of buddhahood which can bring the kind of true happiness that can fully satisfy ignorant desires. In this sense, these desires are actually the workings of the buddha-nature: they are causing us to unwittingly seek out our own buddhahood. One could even say, “that which we are seeking is that which is causing us to seek.”

Finally, the defilements are themselves the “objects” of awakened insight. Awakening is not something that exists in a vacuum or a mystical void. Awakening is the insight into the true nature of all reality and the deep caring that springs from that insight. When buddhahood is attained, the defilements are not simply rejected or forgotten. Instead, they are seen as part of the dynamic and interdependent nature of life. One who is awakened to their true nature is no longer under their power and, in fact, is able to see them in their essential purity as a part of the dynamic and interdependent nature of all things. Greed, anger, ignorance, pride, false views, and doubt are transformed through awakened awareness into their positive equivalents just like solid blocks of ice can melt into water in sunlight. Through buddhahood, we will be able to turn greed into devotion, anger into healthy criticism, ignorance into openness to the truth, pride into self confidence, false views into careful reasoning, and doubt into careful consideration. We will also be able to use the knowledge we have gained of our own inner life to understand and help others deal with the defilements in their own lives.

The best approach to the defilements is simply to be aware of them in the light of the Wonderful Dharma. This is how the practice of chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō can help us change the poison of the defilements into the qualities of awakening. Through the Odaimoku, we are able to cultivate a sense of awareness and equilibrium that will allow us to acknowledge and redirect our desires instead of getting caught up and swept away by them. The Odaimoku can help us to think and reflect before we act. It can even help us recognize negative thoughts and feelings for what they are so that we do not identify with them and allow them to control our lives. On the other hand, the principle of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō does not condemn or negate these desires, but gives us the space and the strength to work with them and brings out their positive aspects.

Shōji Soku Nehan: Birth and Death Are Themselves Nirvāna

The principle of changing poison into medicine does not just apply to our own internal desires and misconceptions. It can also be applied to the world in general. In Nichiren Buddhism, there is a principle known as shōji soku nehan. Shōji means the sufferings of birth and death. Soku, as before, means “are themselves.” Nehan means “nirvāna.” Shoji soku nehan means the sufferings of birth and death are themselves nirvāna in accordance with the Buddhist teaching of non-duality. Because of this principle, the world is not to be rejected but transformed through awakening to the true nature of all reality.

Specifically, the sufferings of birth and death refer to this world wherein we must endure the constant cycles of birth and death. This world, with all of its ups and downs and uncertainties, is the world that is depicted in the wheel of becoming. It is the world of temporary heavens, fighting demons, hungry ghosts, unthinking animals, numerous hells, and also the quiet desperation of ordinary life. It is the world of karmic rewards and punishments. It is the world dominated and kept in perpetual motion through the energy of greed, anger, and ignorance. It is the world where all that is born to life must also die, with all of the suffering and loss which that implies. In fact, in the Flower Garland Sūtra, the names of the many pure lands or buddha realms that surround this world are listed — they invariably have names that are beautiful and inspiring. Our world alone is given the title of “Endurance” because of all the suffering endured by those who are continually reborn here.

In the provisional teachings of the Buddha, nirvāna is presented as the antithesis of this world. In the state of nirvāna, we will no longer be at the mercy of the three poisons, so we will no longer undergo birth or death. The reality of nirvāna cannot be adequately put into words, but it a state of life wherein there is no longer any trace of the sufferings or imperfections which plague our usual self-centered existence. Nirvāna can be spoken of as a state that is beyond our usual categories of space, time, being and non-being. While it is easier and more accurate to say what nirvāna is not, if one keeps in mind that all explanations fall short one could say that nirvāna is a state characterized by eternity (since it is unending), purity (since it is unblemished), bliss (since it is the end of all suffering and dissatisfaction), and true self-awareness (since it is the realization of the selfless nature of reality).

Normally the sufferings of this world and the peace of nirvāna would be viewed as irreconcilable opposites. According to Mahāyāna Buddhism, however, all things are manifestations of dependent origination. That is, they are essentially empty of substantial existence or permanent characteristics. Awakening does not trade in one type of experience (such as enduring this world of birth and death) with another type of experience (such as a nirvāna that is assumed to be a different realm apart from this one), because all experiences are impermanent and dependent upon causes and conditions. Instead, awakening recognizes the true nature of all experiences. In this way, awakening frees us from our self-centered ignorance. It allows us to appreciate and care about things just as they are, instead of demanding that they conform to our desires and opinions. This recognition is the true state of nirvāna; it is not an escape from this world into another one. Nirvāna is not the cessation of experience, but a revolutionary change in the way we experience the world and ourselves. This is what it meant by “the world of birth and death is itself nirvāna,” because nirvāna is not apart from the world and its sufferings, but is the true nature of life and death itself.

How does Nichiren Buddhism understand the teachings of the non-duality of the sufferings of birth and death and the peace of nirvāna, as well as the non-duality of defilements and awakening? The following passage in the sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition deals with these teachings.

The sūtra says, “The wisdom of the buddhas is profound and immeasurable.” In this sūtra passage, “the buddhas” means all of the buddhas of the ten directions and three times, including Mahāvairocana Tathāgata of the Shingon Shū, Amitābha of the Jōdo, the buddhas and bodhisattvas of each school’s sūtra, all the buddhas of the past, future, and present, today’s Shakyamuni Tathagata, and so on.

Then, it says “wisdom.” What is this wisdom? It is that which constitutes the real aspect, ten-suchnesses, and dynamism of all phenomena. What constitutes phenomena? It is Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. A commentary says, “It is the real aspect’s deep truth, [that is] Myōhō Renge Kyō of the original state.” So we learn that the real aspect of all phenomena is the two Buddhas, Śākyamuni and Many Treasures. We refer to all phenomena as Many Treasures, we refer to the real aspect as Śākyamuni. These are also the two realities of external objects and subjective wisdom. Many Treasures represents the external objects and Śākyamuni represents the subjective wisdom. This is the inner realization that external objects and subjective wisdom are two and yet are not two.

This is a very important teaching. It means the defilements are themselves awakening, and birth and death are themselves nirvāna. Even if a man and woman were making love and chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, it would become [an example of] defilements as awakening, and birth and death as nirvāna. There is no “birth and death as nirvāna” except for realizing the present body’s non-birth and non-death of birth and death.

The Samantabhadra Sūtra says, “We do not cut off defilements, we do not separate from the five desires, by purifying each root we destroy all the remaining transgressions.” The Great Concentration and Insight says, “Fundamental ignorance, dust and defilements are awakening, birth and death are themselves nirvāna.” “The Duration of the Life” chapter says, “I am always thinking; ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed Way and quickly become Buddhas?’ The “Expedients” chapter says, “The reality of the world is permanently as it is.” In other words, phenomena and their constituents are not outside of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. (Shijō Kingo-dono Gohenji, Shōwa Teihon p. 635-6. Listed in the Rokuge.)

According to this passage, the wisdom of all buddhas is nothing other than awakening to the real aspect of all phenomena identified with Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. The real aspect of all phenomena is none other than the true nature of all things that transcends birth and death, subject and object, and all other dualities. This real aspect is the buddha-nature, the pure consciousness, the Middle Way of which all things are just partial manifestations. It is identified with Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō because we are able to realize this truth through devotion to the Lotus Sūtra. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō represents our acceptance of the teaching that even our defilements and suffering can help us to realize the true nature of all reality. The trick is to not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our desires or by suffering, but to step back and view all things in the light of the Wonderful Dharma.

Sokushin Jōbutsu: Becoming A Buddha In Our Present Form

There is one more principle of non-duality which is important in Nichiren Buddhism, sokushin jōbutsu, “with this [present] body become a buddha.” Sokushin means “with this body.” Jobutsu means “become a buddha.” This principle points to the fact that the state of buddhahood is not so idealized that it cannot be attained by ordinary people living ordinary lives. A buddha is not some kind of god-like superman, but simply someone who has awakened to the truth and teaches it to others. Śākyamuni Buddha was no different than any of us, except for his extraordinary wisdom and compassion. He is known as “the” Buddha, not because he attained something that ordinary people cannot attain, but because he was the first one in recorded history to awaken to the truth and to show the way whereby others could do so as well. In that sense, the title “buddha” is reserved for Śākyamuni simply because he happened to be the one to fulfill the role of teacher and model for all those who would follow his path. In principle, however, all of us have the buddha-nature. Therefore, all of us are potentially capable of displaying the same wisdom and compassion as Śākyamuni Buddha.

Sokushin jōbutsu means the instant or momentary attainment of buddhahood. In other words, it explains that each moment is a moment of decision wherein we can give in to the three poisons or see and act with the clarity of buddhahood. Awakening is not something that we slowly build up over time or earn through countless lifetimes of effort. It is our complete awareness of and engagement with the truth of the present moment wherein our whole lives are encompassed. We should reflect on the fact that we only live from moment to moment. The past is always just a memory, the future is always an unrealized possibility and the present is always just a single passing moment, which is all we ever have. It would be a great mistake, then, to overlook the moment in which we are living because we have been led to believe that nothing significant can happen in such a small amount of time. In truth, all the time that we will ever have is in the present moment that also embraces and is embraced by the past and future. In the present moment of subjective awarness we are pushed by selective and interpetive memories of the past, and pulled by our imaginative anticipations of the future, and in between are the demands of the present. Within this subjective time, we can choose to perpetuate our deluded habits or we can choose to attempt a breakthrough into an unprecedented state of freedom.

The life of Mahatma Gandhi provides us with a good example of the principle of attaining buddhahood by meeting the challenge of the present moment. As a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi found himself thrown off of a train because he had dared to buy a seat in the first class section — restricted to whites only. In that moment, stranded on an empty train platform at night, he could have given in to rage and bitterness and returned hatred for hatred. Instead, he resolved to fight for equality and justice by using the power of truth and non-violence. In that moment, his inner qualities met the challenge of his present circumstances; he was able to change not only the course of his life, but history as well. That is the true meaning of sokushin jōbutsu. Incidentally, in India, Gandhi was introduced to the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō by the Nichiren monk Nichidatsu Fuji.

Buddhahood is not about becoming some superhuman being or dying and being reborn in a buddha land. It is not built up or acquired through heroic, Olympian acts of ascetic prowess or through higher states of consciousness. The simple truth is that a “buddha” is someone whose wisdom and compassion shines through in every moment. A buddha trusts and rejoices in the Wonderful Dharma. Instead of giving in to weakness, a buddha steps back, sees clearly what is happening, and then acts in the best interest of all concerned. When one acts like a buddha, one acts wisely and compassionately instead of reacting out of weakness and ignorance. Sokushin jōbutsu is not a magic transformation, but the manifestation of the Wonderful Dharma in our lives from moment to moment.

A sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition states:

Since life is [lived] no more than a moment [at a time], the Buddha teaches [the sufficiency of] the merit of a single moment of rejoicing [for attaining awakening]. If it took two or three moments, we could not call it the Dharma of the Original Vow of the Great Wisdom of Equality, or the Sudden One Vehicle Teaching of becoming a Buddha. (Ji Myo-hokke Mondo-shō, Shōwa Teihon p. 283. Listed in the Rokunai.)

This is not to say that buddhahood only lasts for a moment or that one can fall away from it. Sokushin jobutsu also means that even before one is fully established as a buddha one can begin to experience glimpses of buddhahood and even manifest the wisdom and compassion of buddhahood through faith in the Lotus Sūtra. The literal attainment of buddhahood cannot involve the possibility of falling back into delusion or it would not be liberation at all but just another temporary state of becoming bound up in the cycle of birth and death. Buddhahood does take in all other states of becoming in terms of its awareness and ability to manifest in accordance with all such conditioned states for the sake of their ultimate liberation. In this sense, buddhahood is present in every moment while not trapped within them, like a full moon reflecting in countless drops of rain.

In many ways, the principle of becoming a buddha with this very body is the culmination of the Buddhist teachings of non-duality and the true goal of chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. The Wonderful Dharma embraces all things often thought of as opposites: body and mind, life and environment, defilements and awakening, suffering and peace. It is all these and yet none of them. It is very elusive and defies objectification. In spite of this, we can become aware of it and center our lives on the Wonderful Dharma through Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. The practice of chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō expresses our deep faith and joy in the inexpressible true nature of reality, that embraces all things without exception. Ultimately, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō expresses the realization that we ourselves are the embodiments of the Wonderful Dharma, and thus capable of transforming every aspects of our lives into the life of a buddha.