During a visit to Japan some years ago, the late Mother Teresa commented that while probably no one dies of hunger in materially blessed Japan, Tokyo impressed her as being spiritually impoverished in many respects. It does seem that, obsessed by immediate profit, desire, and the needs of the ego, many people today lose sight of the finest and most beautiful things in life. Real happiness is impossible without spiritual fulfillment.
Deep down, even the most egoistic person is endowed with human warmth and longs for true spiritual contact with others. The more spiritually impoverished the times, the more important is what Mother Teresa called the practice of love - in Mahayana Buddhist terms, the bodhisattva practice of compassionate caring.
Most people are considerate of their family and loved ones, yet seem unable to extend the same concern to people they dislike or find incompatible. But as is taught in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, "The All-Sidedness of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World," people with the true spirit of universal compassion must be willing to teach and guide all others. Associating with others solely on the basis of personal likes and dislikes can earn one a reputation for exclusivity. That is why all of us should examine our motives to determine whether we are considerate only of people we like.
Good or bad, we are all the Buddha's children. Unless we keep this in mind, we will tend to judge others by our own criteria; such judgments are the most frequent cause of favoritism. From the Buddha's standpoint, each person is born to fill some necessary role. There is bound to be something good even in someone whose faults are obvious and who is therefore frowned upon by the people around him or her. Religious people must believe in that good and, striving to improve their own attitudes, must try hard to discern it.
Caring is essentially a parental attribute. As the Lotus Sutra teaches, the Buddha regards all people as his children and longs to help them improve themselves as much as possible. Never seeking anything in return even for his utmost exertions, the Buddha wishes for every child's happiness and finds fulfillment in seeing each child develop.
Though there are good and bad points in every personality, parents should love all their children equally. Mischievous children are scolded in the hope they will grow into better people and be popular with others. The good things children do are their parents' joy and delight. When their child is ill, many parents forget their own ailments to take care of the child, with whom they would most gladly change places if they could. All this is simply because parents are caring, concerned for their beloved children.
When this kind of parental concern goes beyond the family, it becomes the practice of caring. Warm acts of kindness arising from such concern are especially needed in our egoistic era of spiritual hunger. But it is important to remember that people can sense immediately when kindness is not genuine. Few people, in spite of their spiritual hunger, welcome feigned kindness. They turn away from feigned kindness, which is only for effect. Consequently, it is important to be genuinely concerned and to put ourselves in the other person's place while doing our best to be considerate and helpful.
In the final analysis, everything that Buddhists do should be part of the practice of caring, since acts of any other kind are not in keeping with what is best in human nature. Furthermore, even though those who do good may be convinced they are doing their best, it is unworthy of true Buddhists to perform acts of kindness only because of what others might say or to discriminate among people they have arbitrarily decided are good or bad.
Each time we hear or see the words "the practice of caring," we must examine our own thoughts and actions and try to determine whether they are in keeping with what a person of faith, a person privileged to know the Buddha's teachings, ought to think and do. The caring and kindness that we demonstrate should be the gauge of our progress in the practice of faith. And when we have become even slightly better human beings, faith will bring us true happiness.
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To make the Buddha's teachings part of our innermost being and to live in a Buddhist way, true to the best of our capabilities, we must daily, consistently study the mind of the Buddha and put what we learn into practice. Repeating the cycle over and over, deepening faith through practice, is the way to approach the supreme goal of buddhahood in this life.
Action and spirit are inseparable in Buddhist practice, but I will examine them separately here. Though some of my fellow Buddhists, Rissho Kosei-kai members, may still be uncertain of the exact meaning of Buddhism, they enthusiastically read and recite the scriptures each day and train themselves in faith according to guidance and instruction provided by members of greater experience.
Since they do not fully understand Buddhism, they practice it only in their acts. Such practice is nonetheless very important. Obviously it is best to practice faith with full comprehension of the true meaning of our actions. But waiting to achieve this degree of understanding before putting faith into practice could mean a lifetime spent doing nothing. Nowadays especially, many people understand Buddhism but fail to put that understanding into practice.
First practice faith and, through acting, you will come to comprehend its value and blessedness. Do not look down on the practice of faith expressed in action alone: practically everyone who has an advanced understanding of Buddhism began with just such practice.
Very often the meaning of acts performed by rote becomes apparent much later. For example, someone might read and recite the scriptures faithfully every day without full comprehension but gradually memorize them. As time passes and the person gains more experience in life, that person may suddenly one day grasp their full meaning. A noted writer has said that it was not until he had grown old that he fully savored the meaning of a passage he had learned in youth: "It is easy to grow old but hard to grow wise; make the best of every moment."
When - through practicing faith by doing good deeds - people come to understand the mind of the Buddha and to see things the way the Buddha does, they begin to exert a good influence on everyone they encounter. The Buddhist way of seeing things is a realization both of the buddha-nature, or potential for enlightenment, inherent in all people and of the knowledge that the Buddha employs all kinds of phenomena to instruct us in the way to attain supreme enlightenment.
Those who adopt this way of thinking are able to discover limitless possibilities in people from the most diverse backgrounds and can influence them to make full use of their potential. These efforts reflect the true spirit of the practice of faith.
Practicing Buddhism means meeting others and acquainting them with the Buddha's way of seeing and interpreting. People who adopt that way of thinking manifest the mind of the Buddha. This is not an easy state to achieve.
As long as we think in ordinary ways, we tend to judge others on the basis of prejudice, emotion, or self-interest. Although clear-cut judgments of right and wrong are essential in building a wholesome society, passing judgment on other people is not the Buddha's way and cannot help us bring them to true salvation.
Religious faith is not a matter of passing judgment on evil. Evildoers know better than anyone else that they are doing wrong. By heeding the conscience that each of us possesses, such people can control their wrongdoing. The role of religious faith is to awaken people to this conscience. As many people have learned, once awakened to the conscience, a person considered as incorrigible may show fine traits of character.
We must all strive to be the kind of people who manifest the true spirit of practicing faith. Instead of making judgments on the basis of appearances, people who manifest this spirit see the good in others. Instead of criticizing others' shortcomings, they recognize and try to encourage others' efforts at self-improvement. Even the lives of paupers who view the world in this way are rich with purpose. A life of such richness is open to anyone who strives and who diligently puts faith into practice.
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Everyone has a function in society. By working hard to fulfill our roles at home and on the job, we find joy and purpose in being alive. By realizing this and sincerely doing our best every day, we can discover what human life is all about.
But great things cannot be achieved overnight; they take time. Starting out slowly and moving ahead steadily and surely leads first to self-confidence and finally to true ability and power. This is why people usually become good at things they enjoy doing. Though clumsy when beginning something new, they stick to it because it gives them pleasure. As time passes they acquire skill, which intensifies their enjoyment.
Repeating the same task over and over can be tedious and demands perseverance. Failure to progress as desired or to produce satisfying results often makes us want to give up. But overcoming that temptation and sticking to the job can result in unexpected discoveries and joy. As is often said, perseverance is power. For example, herbal medicine is effective only when employed methodically over a long period. In practicing faith, too, we can approach our ideal only by persevering wholeheartedly.
The tendency of modern, science-oriented civilization to demand immediate results diminishes our ability to persevere and tolerate hardship. This is especially true of young people obsessed with the present moment, who overlook fundamental aspects of life.
Broadly speaking, the hedonistic, materialistic pursuit of pleasure and convenience upsets the magnificent harmony of nature and results in environmental pollution. Here, as in all other matters, the long view is of the essence. For instance, it would be foolish to ruin one's stomach with overdoses of over-the-counter drugs. Technological and spiritual growth require foresight, steady effort, and respect for nature and truth.
Practically everything we do requires steady effort. It is said that in terms of ability we are divided into three categories: those who succeed without trying, those who can move steadily ahead if they try, and those who succeed only through bitter struggle. Most of us belong in the second or third category. Not even Confucius, one of the great sages of the world, falls into the first category.
Each of us is good at some things and poor at others. Obviously, nothing is more fortunate than finding an occupation perfectly suited to one's talents. But things do not always turn out this way. Nonetheless, the person who perseveres patiently can discover interest, pleasure, and even joy in work that at first seemed distasteful. Repeated practice and daily effort are the key to attaining this frame of mind.
It is characteristic of human beings to want to be creative, to progress, and to improve. We make many mistakes along the upward path. But if we adopt the positive approach of learning from our mistakes, they bring opportunities for further self-improvement. Progress requires always keeping goals in view and putting faith into practice without fear of making mistakes.