Saturday, February 18, 2017

Nichiren Buddhism and Attachment

Needless to say, a life controlled by desires is miserable. In Buddhist scriptures, such a way of life is symbolized by “hungry demons” with giant heads and huge mouths, but narrow, constricted throats that make real satisfaction unattainable. The deliberate horror of these images grew from Shakyamuni Buddha’s sense of the

need to shock people from their attachment to things—including our physical existence—that will eventually change and be lost to us. Real happiness does not lie here, he sought to tell them.

The deeply ingrained tendencies of attachments and desire are often referred to as “earthly desires.” However, since they also include hatred, arrogance, distrust and fear, the translation “deluded impulses” may in some cases be more appropriate.

But can such desires and attachments really be eliminated? Attachments are, after all, natural human feelings, and desires are a vital and necessary aspect of life. The desire, for example, to protect oneself and one’s loved ones has been the inspiration for a wide range of advances—from the creation of supportive social groupings to the development of housing and heating. Likewise, the desire to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos has driven the development of philosophy, literature and religious thought. Desires are integral to who we are and who we seek to become.

In this sense, the elimination of all desire is neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Were we to completely rid ourselves of desire, we would end up undermining our individual and collective will to live.
The teachings of Nichiren stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments are seen as fueling the quest for enlightenment.
The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments are seen as fueling the quest for enlightenment. As he wrote: “Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo...burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom...”

In the same vein, the Universal Worthy Sutra states: “Even without extinguishing their earthly desires or denying the five desires, they can purify all of their senses and eradicate all of their misdeeds.”

Nichiren’s approach has the effect of popularizing, humanizing and democratizing Buddhism. In other words, by making the aspirations, dreams and frustrations of daily life the “fuel” for the process of enlightenment, Nichiren opens the path of Buddhist practice to those who had traditionally been excluded by the demands of a meditative withdrawal from the world—those, for example, who wish to continue playing an active role in the world.

It is thus not a coincidence that this attitude toward desires should be central to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, with its emphasis on the role of lay practitioners. For people living in the midst of ever-changing, stressful realities, those challenges are a far more effective spur to committed Buddhist practice than an abstract goal of “enlightenment” through severing of all desires and attachments.

Overcoming problems, realizing long-cherished goals and dreams—this is the stuff of daily life from which we derive our sense of accomplishment and happiness. Nichiren Buddhism  emphasizes the importance not of severing our attachments, but of understanding and, ultimately, using them.

Buddhism divides the benefits of practice into the “conspicuous” and the “inconspicuous.” The new job, the conquest of illness, the successful marriage and so on are not separate from a deep, often painstaking process of self-reflection and inner-driven transformation. And the degree of motivation generated by desires can lend an intensity to our practice which ultimately reaps spiritual rewards. Bonno soku bodai—literally, “Earthly desires are enlightenment”—is a key tenet of Nichiren Buddhism.

Through our Buddhist practice, even the most mundane, deluded impulse can be transformed into something broader and more noble, and our desires quite naturally develop from self-focused ones to broader ones concerning our families, friends, communities and, ultimately, the whole world.

In this way, the nature of desire is steadily transformed—from material and physical desires to the more spiritually oriented desire to live the most fulfilling kind of life.

Nichiren Buddhist thought speaks to the existence of another kind of human desire, the basic desire, and  believes that it is the force that actively propels all other human desires in the direction of creativity. It is the source of all impelling energy inherent in life; it is also the longing to unite one’s life with the life of the universe and to draw vital energy from the universe.”

Attachment and the Lotus Sutra

I originally posted this in May 2012. Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th Century Japanese priest Nichiren (1222-1282) and belongs to the schools of "Kamakura Buddhism".

Buddhism is a teaching of liberation, aimed at freeing people from the inevitable sufferings of life. To this end, early Buddhist teachings focused on the impermanence of all things. The Buddha realized that nothing in this world stays the same; everything is in a constant state of change. Pleasurable conditions, favorable circumstances, our relationships with those we hold dear, our health and well-being—any sense of comfort and security we derive from these things is continually

threatened by life’s flux and uncertainty, and ultimately by death, the most profound change of all.

The Buddha saw that people’s ignorance of the nature of change was the cause of suffering. We desire to hold on to what we value, and we suffer when life’s inevitable process of change separates us from those things. Liberation from suffering comes, he taught, when we are able to sever our attachments to the transient things of this world.

Buddhist practice, in this perspective, is oriented away from the world: life is suffering, the world is a place of uncertainty; liberation lies in freeing oneself from attachment to worldly things and concerns, attaining a transcendent enlightenment.

The Lotus Sutra, is revolutionary in that it reverses this orientation, overturning the basic premises of the Buddha’s earlier teachings and focusing people’s attention instead on the infinite possibilities of life and the joy of living in the world.

Where other teachings had regarded enlightenment, or the final liberation of Buddhahood, as a goal to be attained at some future point in time, in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra each person is inherently and originally a Buddha. Through Buddhist practice we develop our enlightened qualities and exercise them in the world here and now for the sake of others and for the purpose of positively transforming society. The true nature of our lives at this moment is one of expansive freedom and possibility.

This dramatic reorientation effected by the Lotus Sutra is distilled in the key and seemingly paradoxical concepts of Nichiren Buddhism that “earthly desires are enlightenment” and “the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.” The image of the pure lotus flower blossoming in the muddy swamp is a metaphor that encapsulates this perspective—freedom, liberation, enlightenment are forged and expressed in the very midst of the murky swamp of life with its problems, pains and contradictions.

It is impossible to live in the world without attachments, or indeed to eradicate them. Our affections for others, the desire to succeed in our endeavors, our interests and passions, our love of life itself—all of these are attachments and potential sources of disappointment or suffering, but they are the substance of our humanity and the elements of engaged and fulfilled lives.

The challenge is not to rid oneself of attachments but, in the words of Nichiren, to become enlightened concerning them. The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments fuel the quest for enlightenment. As he wrote: “Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo . . . burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom...”

In their proper perspective—when we can see them clearly and master them rather than being mastered by them—desires and attachments enable us to lead interesting and significant lives. Our Buddhist practice enables us to discern their true nature and utilize them as the driving force to become happy.”

It is our small ego, our “lesser self,” that makes us slaves to our desires and causes us to suffer. Buddhist practice enables us to break out of the shell of our lesser self and awaken to the “greater self” of our inherent Buddha nature.

This expanded sense of self is based on a clear awareness of the interconnected fabric of life which we are part of and which sustains us. When awakened to the reality of our relatedness to all

life, we can overcome the fear of change and experience the deeper continuities beyond and beneath the ceaseless flow of change.

The basic character of our greater self is compassion. Ultimate freedom is experienced when we develop the ability to channel the full energy of our attachments into compassionate concern and action on behalf of others.