This essay is part of a continuing series of translations from a volume of inspirational writings
published in the latter years of the last century by the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai.
DHARMA WORLD will continue to publish these essays because of their lasting
value as guidance for the daily practice of one's faith.
Ashoka, now considered the greatest emperor in India's history, is said to have been originally an extremely cruel and callous man. From his childhood through his adolescent years, he frequently acted violently, and even his father, the king, came to detest him. It is said that when the powerful realm of Taxila took up arms in rebellion, the king put together an army with Ashoka at the head to go and quash it, secretly hoping that his son would meet his end on the battlefield. But against all expectations, Ashoka led his men to a resounding victory and rose quickly in authority and power. When his father died Ashoka gained the throne by murdering all of his brothers who stood in his way and, as king, piled conquest upon conquest until he had brought most of the Indian subcontinent under his rule. Even when, three years into his reign (some say seven), he embraced Buddhism, he persisted in his warmongering ways. But then, eight years into that reign, he had a momentous change of heart. His armies had just annihilated the kingdom of Kalinga in a war that took the lives of 100,000 soldiers, and the civilian death toll was many times that. When, finally, he witnessed the mass deportation of 150,000 prisoners of war, the colossal tragedy of it all overwhelmed him into resolving never to fight again but to govern with clemency in accordance with the Buddha's teaching.
It was a remarkable 180-degree turn. From that point on, I am sure you are well aware that he ruled with justice and dedicated himself to the promulgation of Buddhism. Even today, Ashoka's benevolence continues to touch the lives of India's people, and if you visit the country you may sometimes see mango trees lining a road. Ashoka originally had these trees planted as a gesture of goodwill from the king to his people, in the hope that they would provide shade for travelers and fruit for the hungry. After more than two thousand years, people still benefit from his virtuous deeds.
I think the profound ways in which religion can touch a person's heart are clear for everyone to understand from this historical example. Though King Ashoka had been a Buddhist for some time, it seems he was not a very devout believer at the start, judging by the relentless carnage he wreaked on his armies. But the Buddhist spirit had infiltrated the very depths of his spirit and taken firm root, despite the fact that he continued to live such a violent life. While the salvation offered by Buddhism is available equally to all, differences in the capacity of individuals to accept it, as well as their karmic condition and the environment in which they live, will affect how and when the seed of their salvation sprouts and grows. Even though it is exceedingly difficult with some people to tell when their salvation will come, the crucial element is that the seed be planted within them.
It may not be possible for humankind's warring instinct to disappear, but it is possible to "control such instinctive eruptions through raising our power of reasoning," to "foster a natural hatred of human cruelty that makes others suffer through a heightening of our finer emotions" and to "redirect our fighting instinct to serve civilization and, in turn, the improvement of humanity." Buddhism has the essential qualities to expedite these three endeavors. It helps us raise our power of reasoning through such truths as dependent origination, all things are impermanent, and all are devoid of self, and naturally fosters within those who gain an understanding of these truths a profound love for all people and things. What is more, it teaches us the actual method to turn our personal defilements, just as they are, into the seeds of enlightenment. For this reason, followers of Buddhism must not be discouraged by the things that obstruct the course of peace in this world. We have no excuse for wallowing in feelings of powerlessness. Peace is not something that can be given or taken away by someone else. It is essential for the "light of peace" to burn in everyone's heart, and from there true peace will begin. Without this fire burning in our hearts, genuine peace can never really come to our world.
In our various religious activities, we must constantly ask ourselves whether we can genuinely contribute to the peace and happiness of humankind. I hope that we will all always fix our sights on the true spirit of religion and not fall into such futile activities as self-serving practices and favoring form over spirit. We must therefore work to relieve political, social, and economic tensions by creating better human relationships, by forging bonds of cooperation, and by active involvement in the cleansing of society and politics. Buddhism progresses with the changing times. We too must burn with an unceasing passion for reform and a sense of courageous endeavor to support those responsible for guiding future generations.
Rissho Kosei-kai will be recognized as a religious organization at the world level if we strongly disseminate the Buddhist teachings based on a spirit of compassion. Doing this requires us to focus our gaze on the realities of the world and push forward our activities with people of faith who possess the necessary abilities in both the political and religious fields. Religious activities in the global sense must excite the understanding of people of good judgment from all around the world and elicit their support for us in our aims.
Religion at all times must be closely related to actuality, as it both originates and develops from within the everyday life of people, but this does not at all mean that we have to compromise with the demands of the lowest elements of society or yield to its most difficult aspects. To blithely conform to a society that follows confused and corrupt tendencies is equal to abandoning our religious duties. In fact, we can say that it is in the very dedication to explore the spiritual heights that the life force of religion lies. All around the globe, leaders in all walks of life understand that hopes to better the world are futile unless people are first willing to embrace a reformation of their hearts. They agree that regardless of origins and customs, human beings are all in need of a moral and spiritual awakening.
Religion can elevate our hearts and give us the ability to rescue humanity from its conflicts. A meaningful religious life is one in which we use that ability to do everything in our power to contribute to world peace. When individual people change, society begins to change. Therefore, in order to guide the world to peace, we must first teach ourselves to change from within, to reform our hearts by way of the Buddhist teachings. As members of a religious organization that is appropriate to these changing times, we must strive diligently to provide mental and emotional support to all people and make a genuine contribution toward promoting peace in the world.
Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, was an honorary president of the World Conference of Religions for Peace and was honorary chairman of Shinshuren (Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan) at the time of his death in October 1999.
This article was originally published in the January - March 2011 issue of Dharma World.
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