Rissho Kosei-kai's Social Contribution: Bodhisattva Practice Today
by Masahiro Nemoto
The role played by lay religious movements is valuable,
in that they offer people a way to avoid being caught up in the current
prejudices about religion.
Rissho Kosei-kai was founded in 1938 as a lay Buddhist movement; now
approaching its seventieth anniversary, it is still in its youth as a
religious movement or group. In the history of religious movements, I
expect that there are very few examples that match the scale of the
growth and development of every aspect of its work, including its
organization and activity programs, over as short a period as only
What made this growth and development possible? The unique social
environment of Japan during and after World War II when Rissho
Kosei-kai was starting out no doubt had an influence, as did the
superior leadership of both Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, founder, and Mrs. Myoko
Naganuma, cofounder. The faith inspired by the founder and cofounder
also led lay leaders to zealously pursue dissemination work.
At the same time, I also feel that people were drawn by Rissho
Kosei-kai's emphasis on striving together for individual perfection,
that is, the revelation of each person's buddha-nature and the
attainment of buddhahood, by thoroughly carrying out bodhisattva
practice in all aspects of daily life, as stated in the Members' Vow. I
am confident that the dynamic message of everyday bodhisattva practice
was the fundamental energy source that fueled Rissho Kosei-kai's
astonishing growth and development, and that this will continue to be
so in the future.
The Role of Lay Buddhist Activities
I, personally, belong to a second generation of believers; through my
family's membership in Rissho Kosei-kai, I was exposed from my earliest
youth to the teachings of the Buddha, and I grew up in an environment
in which I was able to take part in a variety of faith-related
activities. I think that many members, including myself, would have
ended up living our whole lives without having much to do with religion
had we not encountered lay religious activities such as are practiced
at home in Rissho Kosei-kai.
This is because Japan, unlike many other countries, is an environment
where fixed concepts and prejudices about religion are deeply rooted,
meaning that people do not develop a meaningful interest in religion
unless they have some special motivation to do so. The most probable
outcome for most people is to live their entire lives without a correct
understanding of the profound aspects of religion, and in ways far
removed from the path of trying to practically apply "bodhisattva
practice" or the concepts of love and compassion in their lives.
The vivid, living religions and religious feeling that in former ages
formed the foundation of Japan's culture and moral system were
gradually lost due to factors such as the introduction of the danka
system of registering every family with a specific Buddhist temple,
introduced in the Edo period as a way of suppressing clandestine
Christianity, and government repression of Buddhism during the early
part of the Meiji era in order to promote Shinto as the state religion.
Most unfortunately, one result was that people came to regard religion
as something weak and depressing. It seems to me that these factors
helped create the diluted religiosity that prevails in Japanese society
In this context as well, I think that the role played by lay religious
movements such as Rissho Kosei-kai is valuable, in that these movements
offer many people a way to avoid being caught up in the current
prejudices about religion, and instead encourage efforts toward a way
of life that takes a square look at religion and is founded in
religious feeling. Lay religious movements also have an extremely
important mission from the altruistic point of view of promoting
religious feeling that aims to restore morality and an ethical outlook
to society at large.
I feel fortunate that, in my own life, I have been able to avoid being
influenced by prejudice and fixed concepts about religion, and was
instead given the opportunity to directly receive the message of
Buddhism. As a branch head, I am presently working to put my Buddhist
faith into practice together with everyone in my district, focusing on
dissemination work and bodhisattva practice as each one of us strives
to reveal our buddha-nature. Since I started out as a staff member at
twenty-two, until I was made a branch head in my late forties, I have
been working at Rissho Kosei-kai headquarters. During that time I have
been given many opportunities to participate in interreligious
dialogue/cooperation and social welfare/peace movements, both inside
Japan and abroad. Based on these experiences, I would like to take a
look at bodhisattva practice today, the social responsibility of
Buddhism, and how this relates specifically to our organization.
What Buddhism and Bodhisattva Practice Mean to Me
First, I would like to describe several phenomena that today's world
and Japanese society seem to me to have in common. The first is the
belittlement of the dignity of life. In every region of the world, many
disputes, civil wars, and acts of terrorism are going on, with innocent
people being slaughtered nearly every day. In Japan, murders and
assaults are happening nearly every day, with no letup in sight.
The second is egoism. People are behaving selfishly on every level--as
individuals, families, ethnic groups, religions, and nations. The
attitude that "All is well as long as life is good for me and mine"
gives rise to confrontation.
The third is a tendency to focus on the past and/or the future while
forgetting to give proper attention to living the present moment.
When I see these tendencies being played out in the world and in Japan,
I feel very strongly that religion, and especially the message of
Buddhism, has an increasingly important role and mission to fulfill in
guiding our age away from confrontation and toward peace.
First, Buddhism above all teaches us the value and preciousness of
life. It teaches that our lives are part of the great life force of the
universe that causes us all to live. It also teaches us how to use this
precious gift of life. That is, to use it not only for ourselves, but
also for the benefit of other people and the society at large. All of
us can live because we are supported by the whole, and thus we should
live to benefit the whole. It also teaches us to put our hearts into
what we are doing in the present moment.
A worldview that perceives our individual lives as part of the great
life force can function as a core belief appropriate to our present age
and conducive to creating peace and security in our future. It is our
mission and obligation to communicate to the world the truth of the
message that to harm or take the lives of others also harms and gnaws
away at our own lives. By the same token, when other lives are alight
with vitality, this lights up our lives as well.
To put it in Buddhist terms, to devote our lives to others-- that is,
to engage in bodhisattva practice--is the best way to use our lives.
Another important Buddhist message advises us not to get wrapped up in
the past or be overly anxious about the future, but rather to
concentrate on carrying out bodhisattva practice every day and every
moment, living wholeheartedly in the present time. When we speak of
dissemination activities, what we mean is the work of communicating
these messages to others inside Japan and abroad.
At present, I am using my own life as a branch head to try to
communicate this Buddhist way of life and to invite as many people as
possible in my local community to walk together with us on the Buddhist
path. This might seem like rather a long way around, but in fact I
think that this is the surest and shortest way of achieving the goal of
a peaceful society in a peaceful world. This is because all human
groups--families, societies, ethnic groups, and nations--are made up of
individuals, and when individuals awaken to the preciousness of life
and devote themselves to others, this brings peace both to the
individuals and to the large entities of which they are part.
Learning from Hands-on Experience
As a staff member of Rissho Kosei-kai, I have worked mainly on
providing support to international refugees, a direction that
originally grew out of a visit I made to the scene of a major famine in
Africa in the 1980s. Since then, I have been involved in helping
victims of drought in Ethiopia, Somali refugees, refugees and displaced
persons in the former Yugoslavia, Afghan refugees, and Kurdish
refugees. For three years in the latter half of the 1980s, I was
stationed at the headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva.
My most formative experience was in Ethiopia late in 1984. When I saw
so many children with their stomachs distended from malnutrition and no
hope for tomorrow, I felt enraged that such a thing had been allowed to
happen, but at the same time utterly powerless.
After that, I felt that I wanted to do something for these people, and
in that spirit I started trying to help them. However, as I continued
this work, the feeling that I was "doing something for them" underwent
a change. Many employees of the UNHCR call the refugees "friends." With
friends or family, we naturally try to find out what is happening to
them, how they feel, and what they need. To put yourself in another's
place and look at things from his or her point of view is expressed in
English by the word "understand," a combination of the two words,
"under" and "stand." I learned that when you place yourself below the
other person in a position of humility, this opens the door through
which heart-to-heart communication can then take place.
The Japanese language has adopted the word "volunteer" from English,
but the most fundamental point of the Buddhist doctrine of "taking
refuge in the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha" is
that one takes refuge voluntarily. I think that the attitude that leads
one to voluntarily work for the benefit of others and our world is
common to all the people who work in the United Nations and in
nongovernmental organizations, as well as to people who engage in
religious activities. I learned that this spontaneous desire to act is
the key factor in these fields.
As a member of the Buddhist faith starting out with refugee support
work and also participating in various social and peace movements, the
most important thing I learned was a feeling for life, which showed me
that all lives do in fact arise from the same great life force, are
connected with one another, are all equally precious and originally a
unified phenomenon in which self and other are not separate.
For example, in the course of pursuing Rissho Kosei-kai's work in the
former Yugoslavia, it was because we were standing on the Buddhist
worldview that considers all lives as equally precious and part of a
greater life force, that we were able from the very start to provide
uniform and completely unprejudiced support to the three mutually
antagonistic groups of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. This was an
extremely valuable experience for me, as it allowed me to directly see
that although building bridges between antagonistic social groups is an
almost insuperably difficult task, it is not totally impossible.
Buddhism's Contribution to Society
In August 2006, a total of over 2,000 religious leaders from all over
the world gathered in Kyoto for the Eighth World Assembly of the World
Conference of Religions for Peace; it was a historic conference in the
overall context of the thirty-six-year history of Religions for Peace.
Here, the world's religious leaders expressed their profound and
heartfelt determination not to be daunted by any kind of violence, but
rather to muster their courage and wisdom, join hands with one another,
and face up to it, for the sake of bringing peace to everyone on Earth.
Many of the leaders had come from areas of conflict at great personal
risk. Each religion may express it differently, but all teach love of
one's fellow man, brotherly love, and compassion.
At the conference, one Jewish leader called on everyone to remain
mindful of the angel that lives within every person. A Christian leader
made a tearful appeal, saying that Israeli children, Palestinian
children, and Iraqi children are all the irreplaceable children of God.
As a Buddhist, I am also in the process of learning the importance of
being alive and remaining mindful of and worshiping the Buddha within
me and every other person. All people are in the process of learning
this lesson as they do their best to live.
The social responsibility of religions, including Buddhism and Rissho
Kosei-kai, is to communicate the truth about life, and to help as many
people as possible to learn how best to use the irreplaceably precious
gift of life and realize that others' happiness is one's own happiness,
and other's suffering and sorrow is one's own suffering and sorrow. I
think that religions exist to help people make the effort to live their
lives so as to bring happiness to the whole world. It is my deep
conviction that this is Buddhism's social responsibility and the
meaning of bodhisattva practice today.
Masahiro Nemoto, formerly a deputy director of the
External Affairs Department of Rissho Kosei-kai, now serves as head of
the organization's Tsuchiura Branch in Ibaraki Prefecture.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2007 issue of Dharma World.
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