Nichiren Buddhist Association of America

Nichiren Buddhist Association of America
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A Religion of the Future

by Daisaku Ikeda
taken from [the currently out-of-print book]
Buddhism: The Living Philosophy
Second Edition
Published in 1976
(Article Title by NBAA)

 

The greatest of all contemporary problems is finding answers to two vital, unresolved questions: how to stave off the impending disaster incurred as a result of what has been -- perhaps mistakenly -- called technological progress and how to find values to replace the trust in technology that has prevailed till now.

The first question, which involves the basic nature of civilization, ultimately concerns the behavior of the individual human being in everyday life since it is the sum of individuals lives that constitute the total human consciousness of which civilization is the manifestation. The salvation of civilization from imminent disaster must depend on whether individual beings and social organizations within that civilization live in accordance with the fundamental laws of life. Similarly, the basic values of a civilization must derive from the values of individual human beings composing the civilization. In short, life and the way it ought to be lived are the key to both of these questions. The only way to solve the issues is for individual human beings and organizations to deepen their understanding of the basic laws of life in order to make possible vital living in accordance with those laws.

A Japanese man who was taken prisoner by the British during World War II relates the following story. He says that of all the unpleasant things experienced by the prisoners, the most intolerable was work piling bricks. When told by their captors to pile bricks in a certain place and in a certain way, the prisoners set about their task with determination and eagerness. Though they of course had no idea why they were doing the work or what they were building, they felt sure that the job had some meaning. And this made it possible for them to complete their work. But, on the following day, the prisoners would be ordered to dismantle the pile of bricks they had made and repile them in another place and in another shape. Their belief that the task they were performing had some meaning was completely betrayed. Ordered to execute the same futile task time in time out the men became very disheartened. It was not the work itself that the men found difficult to accept; it was its meaninglessness that sickened their spirits.

Of course human beings need not be conscious of a clear meaning in everything they do. We perform many acts, like unconscious habits, without considering their meanings; and in some cases, meaningless actions are necessary since they relieve tensions. But human beings need to be able to recognize the significance of undertakings involving suffering and effort, because meaning is the only thing that makes the suffering and effort worthwhile.

As long as human beings are conscious of the meaning of what they are doing, they can withstand almost unimaginable hardships. In both the East and the West there have been martyrs who happily embraced suffering because they believed in the supreme meaning of the faith for which they sacrificed themselves. But for people who do not perceive meaning, suffering, no matter how slight, is difficult to bear because it is pointless. For them meaninglessness itself is pain.

From their own ideals and from a sense of relation with a larger set of circumstances, human beings are able to assign meaning to their individual actions and situations. In the final analysis, however, all of man's attempts to assign significances to things are for the sake of life itself. Life is the absolute condition regulating and giving meaning to everything.

Sometimes, however, people question the very reason for living and the meaning of life. Doubts of this kind inevitably arise when people realize the uncertainty and transience of human life. When it is recognized as fragile and brittle, human life can no longer serve as an absolute basis for the meanings of human activities and beliefs.

The higher religions developed to provide human life with a basis for immutable meaning. For this reason, some of them establish an absolute being transcending the realities of human life and teach that this absolute being illuminates all things and thus clarifies the meaning and order existing in the universe.

Before the emergence of higher religions primitive man devised gods that were symbolizations of the forces of nature. After the agricultural revolution made possible settled group living, nature gods were transformed into protective deities of groups of people or embodiments of the life force of those groups. For example, Amaterasu, the ancient Japanese goddess of the sun, later became the ancestral goddess of the Japanese people. The chief deity of the Grecian pantheon, Zeus, was originally the god of thunder. This shift in the nature of deities occurred in conformity with changes in living styles of the people worshipping them. In the hunting and gathering stage, mankind had no recourse but to trust in the forces of nature; therefore, gods were personifications of those forces. But in the agricultural stage of his development, man found that by combining human forces into a group he was able to build a basis for a way of life that is not totally dependent on the powers of nature. When this happened, the gods themselves became symbols of the life force of the group or the communal body.

For many centuries, the individual remained submerged in the powers of nature and the undertakings of the group. Only when the struggle to remain alive became less demanding, when human thought became more profound, and when the individual assumed a more important place in the world, did it become possible to devote attention to examining the meanings of single human lives.

A god who can serve as a source of authority directly related to man's inner nature can be neither a concrete representation of natural forces nor a symbol of isolated groups: such a divinity must be fundamental, transcendent, unique, absolute, omniscient, and omnipotent. The Jehovah of the Old Testament, the god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is a divinity of this kind and as such represents a great spiritual step forward for mankind. It is said, however, that originally Jehovah, like the Grecian Zeus, the Teutonic Odin, and the Indian Indra, was a god of thunder and volcanos. Certainly he was not a god with a very wide following in his earliest stage. He was first the god of the nomadic Israelites and later, at about the time of Isaiah, came to be considered an omniscient, omnipotent, unique, and absolute divinity.

Through Jesus, the Son of God, and Mohammed, God's Prophet, Jehovah transcended the bounds of the Jewish people to develop into the god of a worldwide religion. The salvation offered mankind by a transcendent god gave significance to life on the basis of a universal principle. It was believed that, by the grace of a god who surpasses actual phenomena, people themselves attained eternal life and thus surpassed the transience of actuality. Furthermore, since the Judaic God is omniscient and omnipotent, the very actualities of life were considered significant as manifestations of God's will.

European history, from medieval to modern times and to the present, is a fabric woven of human spiritual light and darkness. It is fundamentally based on the belief in an absolute god. The light parts of the design are represented by the glories of European art and the progress of European science and technology. The dark areas are the religious wars and social struggles that have resulted in the spilling of vast amounts of human blood. Art was born as a hymn of praise to the glory of God, and the beauty art pursues is thought of as an innate characteristic of God. This immutable divinity, who is also thought of as truth, blessed man by giving him the faculty of reason. Art and science are not a reaction against religion - though of course at times they have assumed this aspect - but have instead developed in hand-to-hand cooperation with religious faith.

But human ardor in the belief in one absolute god has sometimes resulted in misery. At first the spirit of religious intolerance was purely a matter of faith emerging from the battle with heresy. Later, however, it reflected vividly in race and class struggles and converted Europe into a jumbled sphere of disunity unlike anything to be found anywhere else on earth. Basically the two global conflicts that have taken place in the twentieth century are eruptions of this pathological European tendency. Tragically, the wars extended beyond Europe to envelop the whole world. The present threat of a third world war, too, may be traced to the same psychological illness. Currently the sickness introduced by faith in absolutes has expanded to its ultimate limits and threatens to engulf the fate of all mankind. To make the situation ironically grave, the faith in God that formerly inspired creative activity has been lost. One reason for the loss is the fact that science and technology, originally developed on the basis of faith, have encroached upon the very territory of that faith and in doing so have become so repugnant and the source of such misery that man now finds it difficult to believe that the actualities of the world are manifestations of the will of God. But a more basic reason for the situation is man's current inability to believe in the existence of God as an unconditional prerequisite to all aspects of human life.

Abandoning the Bible ideas that God created man, human beings today tend to think that man created god. One symbol of this shift in attitude is the philosophy of the nineteenth-century materialist Ludwig Feuerbach, who modified the Hegelian dialectic by replacing the god-man nucleus of philosophy with a man-matter principle. The initial steps of the shift from a god-oriented to a man-oriented philosophy may be traced to the Renaissance, but it required long ages and many complicated vicissitudes for the idea to penetrate to the consciousness of the ordinary people. It probably did not reach the level of the masses until the development of the astonishing technological innovations accompanying World War II.

These technological advances enable the common people to satisfy the desires of everyday life easily and with little effort. But the desires themselves produce a narcotic-like, habit-forming phenomenon in which the satisfaction of one desire inevitably produces new desires, which multiply into a huge flame that scorches the very spirit of man.

Nor is it merely material desires that consume man, block his field of spiritual vision, and submit him to fiery sufferings. The desires for power and glory produce an identical effect. The modern devotion to large organizations gives the masses a chance to pursue power. The nature of the information-communications age seduces man into the desire for fame. In the pursuits of power, wealth, and fame, man is on the verge of losing his humanity. Though living a superficially full life in material terms, spiritually he stands at the edge of a gaping pit of anxiety and despair.

It would be wrong to reverse the psychological shift in emphasis from god to man because the change itself is in the right direction. After many trial-and-error attempts to establish it and after overcoming enormous obstacles, human beings have at last arrived at the indisputable need to recognize the dignity of mankind.

(from the book's introduction)

*****************

Fatalism sees the whole universe, including man, as directed by supernatural forces. In the face of the mighty powers of nature, man often feels frail. At such times he is likely to imagine the existence of a power -- fate -- that he cannot control. Unfortunate human beings living in unhappiness in spite of all their desperate efforts provoke an awareness of fate. But, without more evidence than we can possess, it is illogical to attribute the cause to a volitional, supernatural being controlling the universe.

The fatalist is prone to resignation and escapism. Yet the highest human aspiration is to cut a path through the intricacies of fate. To submit unresistingly to fate is to forfeit one's value as a human being. The point of man's existence lies in deflecting fate into different paths and creating a worthwhile life.

The Buddhist theory of causation sees the present self as an accumulation of actions from the past. All past causes contribute to present effect. As Buddhism sees it, fate is the continuous working of cause and effect in life; it is a stream of strict cause-and-effect relations extending back into a limitless past and forward into a limitless future. Buddhism teaches that, by revising one's view of life in each present moment, one can gradually change the course of fate. Buddhism is not escapism masquerading as resignation or a religion of impotent idealism, but a philosophy of life that seeks energetically to change the self for the better and to influence the course of fate.

Though it is a powerful system of thought taking into account the possibility of human destiny, there are still some people who look on Buddhism as a religion that prepares the individual for death or as a kind of tranquilizer that helps the individual escape from reality. In the views of such critics, Buddhism fails to come to serious grips with the grave problems of life and society and seeks instead to run away from them by concentrating on preparation for death or on means of escape. In truth, however, Buddhism is above all a religion of life.

...The great physicist Albert Einstein...used the term universal religion, and historian Arnold Toynbee looks forward hopefully to the emergence of what he calls a "higher religion." But neither gives concrete details about the nature of the religion, though both agree that it ought to be logical and scientific in accordance with the requirements of the space age; that it ought to penetrate to the very roots of life; and that it ought to afford the leadership needed to bring about rebirth in the individual, society, and all mankind. The needed modern religion cannot be at odds with the bewilderingly rapid developments of modern science. At the same time, beliefs must have the power to effect a reform of man living in the actual world. Both Einstein and Toynbee point to Buddhism as a religion that potentially fulfills these conditions.

...Buddhism, which originated in India nearly three thousand years ago and which reached its finest flowering seven hundred years ago in Japan in the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, is the living religion for which mankind is thirsting.

(from Chapter 2)


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