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Book review – Bodhisattva Blues

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To write a book about the most profound philosophy on the planet is difficult. To write a novel based on Nichiren Buddhism is even harder. But Eddy Canfor-Dumas achieved this in 2005 with The Buddha, Geoff and Me, and has done it again with Bodhisattva Blues the delightful and much anticipated sequel to ‘Geoff’. One man’s search for meaning in a world of confusion and uncertainty, ‘BB’ is a thoroughly absorbing read, not least because when we catch up with our hero Ed, he has long since abandoned his Buddhist practice and is stuck in a rut – no career, no love life and no cash.

Plunged unwittingly into a world of street crime and dodgy property deals, Ed finds himself dusting down his beads and reluctantly picking up his Nichiren Buddhist practice to guide him through a series of dramas, dilemmas and big decisions.

BB2

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Is depression always an illness? A Buddhist view of Robin Williams’ passing

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The death this week of Robin Williams has put depression back in the headlines. The media coverage is welcome because by talking openly about mental health challenges we can create some good from a desperately tragic suicide. The rhetoric around a previously taboo topic has been changing rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the courageous candour of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax and of course, Robin Williams himself.

Robin_WilliamsAs a result, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of encouragement has mostly disappeared into the shadows, along with the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade. Even the ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ gang have been mercifully quiet. This more open and enlightened mindset now views depression as a recognised illness, which, like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure, needs proper treatment.

But as I chant about Robin Williams’ suicide, I find myself wondering if ‘illness’ is always the most useful way to look at clinical depression. I ask myself whether Nichiren Buddhism, with its rich insights into the workings of the human mind, can bring a different perspective to the topic. And I think the answers are No and Yes. Let me explain…

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Why don’t Buddhists believe in God? (or do they…)

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The easy answer to this question is that in Buddhism the concept of God simply does not appear at all. After all, the historical Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, was born 500 years before Jesus. So if you had asked him, “does God exist?” he would probably have said, “Who?” But for people brought up in Judaeo-Christian cultures over the last few decades, it is a valid question. It is one that I grappled with myself 30 years ago, on my journey towards Nichiren Buddhism and away from my devout Catholic upbringing.

God

At first sight, the two philosophies seemed poles apart. ‘God’ was ‘somewhere out there’ whereas Buddhahood was in me. Christian prayer was about asking for salvation from an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Father. Whereas Buddhist chanting was about deciding and determining to be happy, all by yourself. Christianity had taught me that man was essentially flawed and needed forgiving, whereas Buddhism promised that we are essentially brilliant and just needed polishing (lots of polishing, as it turns out…). This all led to some overly spiky debates with sincere Christians.

With my superficial understanding of Nichiren’s teachings, Buddhism probably appealed to a more selfish and self-centred part of me. Especially as there were no concepts of sin, of guilt, or of what I saw as stifling obedience to an external power. Instead Buddhism seemed to promise freedom, individuality and self-expression.

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Book review: Waking the Buddha, by Clark Strand

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As a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist movement since 1985, it’s always exciting when a new book about SGI is written by a distinguished scholar outside my faith. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Waking the Buddha by Clark Strand, a former Zen monk and a contributing editor to Tricycle, the world’s most famous Buddhist magazine.

Waking Buddha book [2]

Strand is one of a growing band of eminent, independent experts intrigued by SGI’s rapid growth and by its social and racial diversity. Yet this book is much more than just a sociological or academic study. What draws you in and moves you most is not so much the author’s expertise, but his humanity and his concern for the planet. What impressed me was not just the rigour of his intellectual enquiry, but the warmth of his seeking spirit, as he sets out to discover why SGI has become more successful than any other school of Buddhism in the contemporary world.  These are the questions he asks:

 

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Book review: The Inner Philosopher (Marinoff & Ikeda)

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I will always remember the day when I first heard Dr. Lou Marinoff speak. It was 2 June 2013 and I was one of 500 Nichiren Buddhists lucky enough to hear him give a talk at SGI’s UK centre (Taplow Court). Marinoff, who is Professor of Philosophy at The City College of New York, was not only wise, perceptive and funny, he also radiated great warmth and a thoroughly uplifting generosity of spirit.

Marinoff has published a dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda called ‘The Inner Philosopher, Conversations on Philosophy’s Transformative Power.’ If you want to feel more hopeful about humanity, read this book. If you want to discover the healing power of dialogue, read this book. If you want to find out what both Buddhism and philosophy were originally for, read this book. If you want to buy the perfect present for young, seeking minds, get this book.

The Inner Philosopher

The Inner Philosopher

Marinoff’s main discourse is that we must reclaim philosophy from the hands of theoreticians, whose “cogitations,” he says, “are abundant but whose applications are scarce.” I find this very refreshing, having been turned off philosophy at university by endless debates on questions like, ‘does this chair exist?’

Marinoff’s whole approach, whilst profound, is more practical than theoretical, he points out that ‘philosophy’ actually means ‘love of wisdom’, that it must be useful to humanity and, dare we say it, ‘healing’. He describes a philosopher as being ‘like a midwife attending to the birth of wisdom.’ Chanting about his talk later that day, I realised that the other reason I loved Marinoff is that he is something of a rebel and reformer in the world of modern academia. His approach reminds me of Nichiren Daishonin who came along in 13th century Japan to reclaim Buddhist wisdom from the priests and give it to the masses.

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What do Buddhists believe?

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The answer to this question, when people first start chanting the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, is, very often, ‘not a lot’ or maybe even ‘nothing’. Because the truth is, you don’t need to adopt any new beliefs or lifestyle to give Nichiren Buddhism a go. Most people come to the practice looking to change a situation in their life and are encouraged to give try it out for 100 days or so and see what happens.

Buddha

Buddha

Others stumble across Buddhism because they want to make the world a more joyful, peaceful and fairer place, but don’t quite know where to start… Others (like me) start chanting to prove that it does not work… Incidentally I don’t think many people start chanting just because of a book or a blog like this, it nearly always begins from a heart to heart connection with someone they trust who’s already practising Buddhism.

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The Buddha’s Invitation – a poem

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More than 10 years ago I started writing this poem about Faith, Human Revolution, the Mentor-Disciple spirit and relative and absolute happiness. The picture shows Nichiren Daishonin in 1271 before an unsuccessful attempt by government soldiers to decapitate him. Just as the axe was about to fall, a luminous object, thought to be a comet, shot across the sky, brightly illuminating the beach at Tatsunokuchi. Terrified, the soldiers called off the execution. Nichiren taught that this event was actual proof of the Buddhist principle of casting off our transient identity and revealing the true nature of our lives – Buddhahood. Dx

THE BUDDHA’S INVITATION

Will you come to eternity’s tentative edge

then teach the world of its unspoken power?

Will you plunge filthy waters with only your faith

then fly to the heavens on hope’s thinnest breath?

Will you squeeze yourself through to the middle of you

yet still keep a space for those who might hate you?

Will you sit with the scream at the core of your soul

and then share your song with those who might love you?

Nichiren survices attempted execution

Nichiren survives attempted execution

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