Compassion in Everyday Buddhist Life
President of Rissho Kosei-kai
I would like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude and respect to Ms. Chiara Lubich, president of the Focolare Movement and host of this conference, and to everyone associated with this first Buddhist-Christian Symposium, for inviting me here for the opening. It is an honor for me to have the opportunity to speak today on the theme of the Dharma, Buddhist compassion and Christian agape.
Through the long period of the friendly relationship between Ms. Lubich and my father, Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, both of our lay organizations, the Focolare Movement and Rissho Kosei-kai, have sought the quintessence of interreligious cooperation beyond differences in their respective religious faiths. This symposium itself offers an opportunity to reaffirm the success of our efforts for interreligious cooperation.
Rissho Kosei-kai was established sixty-six years ago by my father. From its founding, it has been a lay Buddhist organization professing that "lifestyle is an expression of faith" and "faith is an expression of lifestyle." Rissho Kosei-kai members, while they lead their lives as members of a family and of society, emphasize learning the Buddhist teachings and applying what they have learned in their everyday lives.
Today, my theme is Compassion in Everyday Buddhist Life. Buddhism, as taught and revealed to us by Shakyamuni, is said to be the teaching of the Buddha and, at the same time, the teaching that makes us aware that we are potentially buddhas. Buddhism is often called the religion of wisdom and compassion, and when we inquire further into this idea we find that the most important thing is opening our eyes of wisdom and thereby bringing ourselves and others to salvation.
The basis of Shakyamuni's teaching which I have learned is that "all things are impermanent" (that is, all things in this world are changing unceasingly from one moment to the next), and "all things are devoid of self" (that is, no form of existence has eternal, changeless reality). In short, these can be summarized as the "concept of impermanence." I understand this as the basic wisdom of the Buddha. Through this concept of impermanence, we are capable of appreciating and understanding wonder, preciousness, and gratitude for the life we are given; in addition, we are filled with a sense of solidarity with other people and feel affection and concern for them. Such feelings actually make up compassion. Wisdom and compassion are one and the same; we could say that intellectually, this perception is wisdom, and emotionally, the same perception is compassion.
Looking back at the life of Shakyamuni, we see that when he first left his home and led an ascetic life seeking the truth, he did so because he wanted to achieve salvation for himself. Thus, he came to realize that only when all living beings were saved would he himself have reached true salvation. This realization resulted from wisdom. Therefore one's own salvation depends on achieving wisdom. The salvation of others likewise depends on achieving wisdom. And so, to transmit to others the wisdom by which one achieved salvation is the essence of compassion.
What, then, is compassion according to Buddhist teaching? First of all, it is "relieving suffering and giving pleasure." The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra says:
Great benevolence is giving pleasure to all living beings.
Great sympathy is taking away suffering for the sake of all living beings.
In this verse, we see that relieving suffering and giving pleasure are divided into both benevolence that gives pleasure and sympathy that relieves suffering. If we try to define the former in terms of our own life, it means that we lead our lives praying that our existence makes the world a little more pleasant. The latter indicates that we lead our lives praying that through our existence the suffering and worry in the world are reduced.
In Japanese and Chinese, the word "compassion" is a compound made up of one character meaning benevolence and another meaning sympathy or pity. "Benevolence," for example, is the prayer in our hearts that life grows and develops, as seen in parents hoping that their children become healthy, happy adults. However, such growing and developing does not continue forever; growing, when seen from a different perspective, also means we lead our lives always with the ultimate goal of death. This is sad for human beings, and gives rise to "sympathy" in our hearts.
The concept of impermanence insists that we look at life and see it as it is: one aspect of life is growing and developing, and another is that all things born into this world must grow old, die, and perish. Clearly seeing the true aspect of life deepens the compassion in our hearts.
Christianity is called the religion of love (agape), while Buddhism is the religion of compassion. In this context, compassion could be the crux of Buddhism. Compassion is the dynamic relationship between oneself and others, and some people say that "compassion begins with unselfish consideration for others."
Dogen, founder of the Soto Sect of Japanese Buddhism, quoting a passage from the Nirvana Sutra, described compassion this way: "I will never myself cross over to the other shore, until I have first made others cross over." In other words, "Although I myself have not yet attained awakening, I will first help others to do so." Put in different words, "Although I myself have not yet attained happy circumstances, I will do my utmost for the happiness of other people." The Zen master Dogen teaches that the mental attitude of benefiting others is compassion and that the central tenet of the Buddha Dharma is to generate compassion.Furthermore, Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren Sect of Japanese Buddhism, told us, "I, Nichiren, dare to say that one and the same suffering of all living beings can in its entirety be called the suffering of myself." This means that the suffering of all people is completely the same as the total suffering experienced by Nichiren. These words expressed the compassionate heart of Nichiren, who accepted onto himself the burden of all of humanity's suffering.
As seen in Shakyamuni's words, "May all living beings be happy, be safe, be at peace," he always had great compassion in his heart. We can take these words as a message meaning that our supreme happiness and our reason for living are found in fully embracing in ourselves the compassionate heart that wishes for the happiness of all people.
If I may take a moment to summarize, in this brief treatment we can see what Shakyamuni and the many great Buddhist teachers and priests of Japan in the past thought about compassion and therefore can understand how important compassion is in the Buddhist teachings.
* *Now I would like to turn to the topic of compassion in everyday Buddhist life. Take a moment to consider the expression, "Our practice of compassion comes from a manifestation of determination, in other words, from a vow." I am always telling myself and the members of Rissho Kosei-kai, "Wake up each morning with hope and a vow, go through the day striving and advancing spiritually, and at night go to sleep with gratitude." Here I have added to someone else's phrase the words "a vow" and "advancing spiritually," and by doing so give religious meaning to our everyday lives.
Though there are a great variety of vows in Buddhism, the following Bodhisattva's Four Universal Vows are what all the buddhas wish for in common.
However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to bring about their release.
However limitless my defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the Buddha's teachings are, I vow to learn them.
However infinite awakening is, I vow to attain buddhahood.
The first vow is the vow to help countless people to cross over to the other shore, or awakening. The second vow is the vow to dispel delusions of unlimited number. The third vow is a vow to study the profound teachings of the unfathomable Buddha Dharma. Finally the fourth vow is a vow to attain the highest awakening. Every bodhisattva takes the four vows, which express the wishes of all the buddhas. Ultimately, though, I think the essence is conveyed by the first of these vows. Although the vows are broken down into four, they can be simply summarized in the one vow because the wishes of the buddhas and human beings are one and the same. "To save all people, to bring salvation to all living beings," that is the only wish of the buddhas, and that is also the wish of human beings.
After attaining awakening, the Buddha is said to have lived another forty-five years during which he disseminated the teaching. His endeavors to do so throughout his life began from the great compassion with which he could not help but strive to open everyone's eyes of wisdom (the Buddha's insight). He wanted people to dispel even the smallest suffering or attachment that they experienced. Also due to his great compassion, he wanted them to fully grasp wisdom, and therefore preached wisdom to the people he encountered.
As I noted earlier, "compassion begins with unselfish consideration for others"; that is, compassion is the dynamic relationship between oneself and others. Even so, in modern times consideration for the "other" is weakening and it seems that we live in an age in which coexisting with other people is undervalued. The "other" not only indicates other people, but also refers to living beings other than human beings--and to the mountains, rivers, plants, and trees that make up the natural environment. We human beings are not living alone. We live surrounded by all the interconnections of many different people, animals, plants, our physical environment, and so on. In that sense, we can say that our lives are sustained through the help of others.
These days we can hardly say that relations between people or with the environment are going smoothly. I think that at the level of individuals and at the level of ethnic groups and nations, conflict arises because we try to take advantage of each other. When it comes to animals, and the natural environment as well, our main concern is the human ego and therefore we think only of how to exploit them. Due to egocentric human behavior, our world is plagued with problems: crime, social unrest, ethnic conflict, depletion of natural resources, pollution, and all kinds of environmental destruction of the earth.
Such matters, all of them, have their cause in modern people belittling religious teaching--for which my heart is full of regret.
Ours should already be an age of coexistence. The beloved Japanese poet and storyteller Kenji Miyazawa was also a man who had profound faith in the Lotus Sutra. Some eighty years ago he wrote, "Until the entire world is happy, there is no happiness for the individual." In Japanese and Chinese, the word "world" is composed of two characters. A Buddhist interpretation of the first character includes the past, present, and future in eternal time, and the second expresses the north, south, east, west, up, and down of infinite space, that is, the entire universe. W can call Miyazawa's words an important message of spirituality and an accurate expression of compassion and coexistence in the contemporary sense.
My father, Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, taught us the importance of being compassionate through bodhisattva practice with the simple phrase, "Others first." The Rissho Kosei-kai Member's Vow ends with the words, "we pledge ourselves to follow the bodhisattva way to bring peace to our families, communities, and countries and to the world." Our wish is to enlarge the circle of harmony from our families to include our regions and our societies, and then enlarge it again to bring peace to the world; ours is a movement attuned to the idea of "Think globally, act locally."
One example of this is the Donate a Meal Campaign. Three or four times every month, Rissho Kosei-kai members forgo one meal, and then donate the cost of those skipped meals to the organization's fund to help people suffering from poverty, regional conflicts, natural disasters, and other difficulties. There are so many people in the world who cannot obtain sufficient food. To experience the sensation of an empty stomach and share the suffering of those without enough to eat, even if only slightly, and to extend the hand of cooperation to them, that is the primary purpose of the Donate a Meal Campaign. It is significant for us to experience hunger, to know firsthand the Buddhist spirit of sharing in suffering and sorrow and thereby nurture the compassion in our hearts, and to commit ourselves to the act of donation with prayers for peace.
In twenty-nine years of the Donate a Meal Campaign, from its inception in 1974 through 2003, some nine billion Japanese yen in offerings have been collected and used to provide assistance to countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and Europe. Another program, the Campaign for Sharing Blankets with People in Africa, was begun in 1984, prompted by a request from UNICEF. Since then, members and nonmembers alike have been called on every year to donate blankets. To date, well over three million blankets have been collected and distributed to refugees and needy people in various African countries.
Then, beginning in 1994, in cooperation with several nongovernmental organizations, we have undertaken onsite humanitarian assistance around the world, when regional conflicts or natural disasters have occurred. In addition, we have been conducting the Little Bags of Dreams Campaign for children who have suffered from regional conflicts in Europe, distributing to them attractive bags filled with stationery items, items of daily use, small toys, and messages of encouragement. Recently in Afghanistan also, we have been supporting activities to improve living conditions, such as the distribution of blankets and the reconstruction of schools.
Such activities are hardly enough; nevertheless, they arise from the compassion in the hearts of our members who wish to realize the Buddha's vow to "save all people."
Last year, the world went through much unrest and tension due to the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Following the simultaneous acts of terrorism in the United States in 2001, revenge has seemed to be the dominant trend in world politics. Hatred has been repaid with hatred, and so there is no end to acts of terrorism and retaliation against them. And so, trouble between people goes on.
These circumstances make me wonder if in modern civilization both the East and the West have not lost sight of their respective ideals. For centuries, Western civilization has tended toward cool, scrupulous analysis while Eastern civilization has emphasized tolerance and harmony. What matters most is that East and West should work together to make the best of their particular merits.
Because of the age we live in, I believe that all of us need to bear in mind the Buddha's words in the Dhammapada: "Hatred is never conquered by hatred, hatred can only be conquered by compassion."
At the same time, I would like to offer for your consideration the tranquillity that is another traditional characteristic of Eastern culture. In this modern age of sometimes violent change, human beings need to promote an atmosphere of stillness, create environmentally soothing spaces, and lead lifestyles that allow them to contemplate matters with serenity. Sometimes it is necessary to become a "silent person."
To return to the Buddha, he is called Shakyamuni, the World-honored One. The "muni" means "wise man" or "holy man," and also indicates a practitioner who masters silent practices. Certainly, one facet of Shakyamuni was "silence"--a man who quietly proceeded alone. Learning from Shakyamuni and having tranquillity in our hearts--that is what is needed for all of us today.
Shakyamuni teaches us that one thing we can practice in daily life is "meditation on compassion." In order to nurture a compassionate heart, we first must confirm that we ourselves want to be happy; then we become aware of the obvious fact that there is no such thing as being happy alone. Therefore meditation on compassion must be a constant prayer that all living beings may be happy.
I would like to leave you with a final thought. At the beginning of my talk, I mentioned that Buddhism is a religion of wisdom and compassion. By means of the compassion rooted in the Buddha's wisdom, we lead people to salvation, and at the same time their salvation is linked to our own joy and salvation. The Buddhist ideal of "the complete fulfillment of acquiring one's own benefits and benefiting others" will bring us a life of savoring the supreme delight of learning the Buddha Dharma. I think that is how devout Buddhists lead their lives today.
Thank you for your attention.