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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: 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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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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How much will you love your Life in 2014?

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And what are your goals for this coming year? Does the very question make you want to sigh with resignation? Or does it excite and inspire you? Are you carrying on your shoulders the weight of previous failures? Or are you determined to achieve even more in 2014 than you ever did before?

determination

My focus on goals improved dramatically when I first went on The Winning Edge personal development course where the inspirational trainer (Richard Jackson MBE) pointed out that in the average lifetime of 76 years, you only get 28,000 days. Twenty-eight thousand. How many do you have left? What will you do with them? Do the maths folks. Then decide.

In Nichiren Buddhism, we are encouraged to set determinations every year, to replace vague yearnings with concrete goals, to achieve benefits (both tangible and intangible), to discover and fulfill our missions and to carry out our human revolution. How lucky are we to get this sort of life training?

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The Power of Pow (how to win the battle with your fundamental darkness)

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I have just read a mesmerising novel called In Between Jobs. Written by Buddhist actor Duncan Pow. It is about a man called Harry Caldwell. The cover blurb says: ‘Harry is 26 years old. He is an actor. He is a son. He is a brother. He is a nephew. He is a drug addict. He is a sexual deviant. He is a lover. He is a fighter. He is good. He is bad. He is a Buddhist.’

The journey from first to final page is captivating. It is raw and enlightening. It is often explicit, sometimes disturbing; in places it is laugh out loud. Most of all it is lyrical and entrancing and hypnotic. The most hypnotic stream of consciousness I have experienced in a very long time. Think Trainspotting meets Ulysses meets The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Duncan Pow's novel

Duncan Pow’s novel

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Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – because it takes prayer to transform a heart

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I meet loads of people who say that if they had any religion at all, it would be Buddhism. That they love the ‘positive thinking’ aspects of the teaching, the idea that we are simultaneously free and responsible, the way it is extremely strict yet has no rules, the emphasis on being the change you want to see in the world, its idealistic pragmatism… and so on. But what some of them struggle with is the idea of chanting the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

They might be quite happy to read blogs like this, or even do affirmations into a mirror, but to actually chant, out loud? And in Sanskrit and classical Chinese rather than English (or your own mother tongue…) ? For two years after meeting this practice in 1983, I was definitely one of these people. As William Woollard says in his excellent book, The Reluctant Buddhist: “Scepticism is a tough and resourceful fighter. It doesn’t give in easily and it is very accustomed to putting together bitter rearguard actions.”

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is like the roar of a Lion

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is like the roar of a Lion

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Lose the labels that limit you

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As I wrote in my last post, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that each of us has innate brilliance. And I often tell delegates on my training courses that we are all magnificent works in progress. When we deeply respect others, we get this point and are able to see their potential, (even though right now they may be manifesting more of their dark side than their brightness.) This approach makes for more harmonious families at home, more productive departments at work, more forgiving friendships in the pub and better football teams on a Saturday morning.

As Daisaku Ikeda explains: “We are unlimited beings. Our struggle to surmount our obstacles and sufferings and fulfil our dreams is always finally the struggle to overcome the limitations we have accepted within our own heart.”

Pic by Melson Diniz, SGI Brazil

Photo: Melson Diniz, SGI Brazil

The problem is that we’re hardwired to stereotype and label people, including ourselves. “He’s a complete jerk.” “She’s a total angel.” “They’re utter idiots.” Perhaps this sort of stereotyping served us well in our prehistoric days, when survival depended on deciding very quickly that a sabre-toothed tiger was always bad news, with no shades of grey… But in the modern age, when we use negative labels to describe people we’ve argued with, we prolong the rift and block the seeds of hope from which forgiveness and progress can bloom. (See a previous post called ‘The two words to ban from all your arguments.

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Book review: Buddhaland Brooklyn

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What do you get when you parachute a stiff, introverted Japanese monk into the melting pot of a raucous and dysfunctional New York Buddhist community? The delightful tale that is Buddhaland Brooklyn. The Publishers – Alma Books – asked me to review this novel by Richard C. Morais and I am truly delighted that they did.

B Brooklyn book cover

The book is written in the first person by Reverend Seido Oda who leaves behind a tragic childhood and a peaceful temple in the remote mountains of Japan to find his patience and beliefs sorely tested by a motley crew of lay American Buddhists.

Although Morais insists his novel ‘should in no way be considered a work depicting a particular school of Buddhism’ there are so many gosho quotes, allusions to the Treasure Tower and references to the Lotus Sutra that I am sure the story has been inspired by Nichiren Buddhism more than by any other school.

Oda’s initial impressions of Brooklyn’s lay believers are that they lack the intelligence to practise Buddhism correctly and that their prayers are ‘barbaric, rushed and sloppy.’ His first response is an ultimately doomed attempt to ‘maintain the proper hierarchy and authority of the priesthood.’

There are hilarious moments throughout, such as his shock at meeting a ‘militant American lesbian’ and his clumsy attempts to handle the amorous advances of one of his flock. Reverend Oda comes to New York to teach the believers how to behave but ends up learning more from them than they do from him, likening his transformation to tectonic plates that ‘began to subtly shift and lurch without my realizing it.’

Although Brooklyn’s Buddhists gradually breach his defences with their criticisms of his over-formality, Oda is also a man whose prejudices are pierced from the inside by his own vulnerabilities, as his Buddhahood begins to bloom and he comes to terms with the tragedy that deeply marked his childhood. He defeats his ego to appreciate the many qualities of Brooklyn’s Buddhists and the whole book was a beautiful reminder to me that the lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond, that there should be no middle-man or guru between you and your Buddhahood and that, as Nichiren wrote, it is the heart that is most important.

Richard C. Morais

It takes a deft touch to craft a book that is by turns melancholic (depression is a recurring theme), farcical (there are some almost ‘Clouseau-esque mishap’ moments) and poetic (check out the haikus…) but the author achieves exactly that. Given the theme of the book, I was reminded more than once of another excellent Buddhist-inspired novel, The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Eddy Canfor-Dumas, while Morais’ prose also has shades of Kazuo Ishiguro, Paulo Coelho and even Marcel Proust.

Many times as I turned the pages of this exquisite novel, one of my favourite quotes from Daisaku Ikeda came to mind: ‘Your home is where your loved ones live. Your home is the place where you work together with your fellow human beings to build a paradise, a realm of peace and prosperity for all. When we are asked where our home is, we can answer: “My home is the world. Everywhere in the world where my fellow human beings live, all of it, is my home”.’ 

Photo finish… Can your images help me spread the light of Nichiren Buddhism?

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Greetings all Spoon fans,

Would you like to share your photos, drawings and pictures with the hundreds of people worldwide who follow this blog? If so, I would love to use them on here with some encouraging, inspirational Buddhist quotes. As you can see, my favourite personal development authors use pictures very powerfully. To take part, just email buddhistpics@mail.com 

People created to be lovedI am looking for images that would help me illustrate thoughts like these:

  • “We are all magnificent works in progress.”
  • “I am not my past. I am not my psychometric profile. I am not the role I have played to survive so far. I am not the product of my childhood. I am a Buddha. I am who I choose to become.”
  • “Wisdom without action produces only regrets. And action without wisdom does pretty much the same.”
  • “We do not suffer because life is difficult, we suffer because we expect it to be easy.”

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