Buddha as Life
by Clark Strand
IF A TRUTH IS PROFOUND AND DEEPLY FELT, then it can be stated very simply. This fact has been understood by reformers and sages throughout the ages--from Shakyamuni Buddha to Martin Luther King. On the other hand, if a truth cannot be stated simply, if it has not been felt deeply and therefore not been truly understood, then there is every likelihood that it will also not be useful. And a truth that is not useful is not the truth at all.
Using this criteria, it is hard to imagine a simpler, more profound or more useful truth than the one arrived at in March of 1944 by Josei Toda as he struggled with a passage from the Immeasurable Meanings portion of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. According to that passage, the body of the Buddha was
neither existing nor not existing,
neither caused nor conditioned, neither self nor other,
neither square nor round, neither short nor long,
neither appearing nor disappearing, neither born nor extinguished...
The passage went on to include eight more lines, offering a total of 34 negations in all. The Buddha's body was neither this nor that, the sutra explained. But it didn't say what it was.
As many times as Josei Toda had read this passage from the sutra, he still could not understand it. And yet the Immeasurable Meanings Sutra served as a kind of "Introduction" to the Lotus Sutra. If Toda wanted to understand the Lotus Sutra, as he had vowed to do, it only stood to reason that he had to understand this part first. But no matter how he struggled, the body of the Buddha would not reveal itself to his mind.
In truth, he was stuck. There seemed to be no way forward unless he could understand this one fundamental point. "In a sense, he burned the bridges behind him in the battle to understand the Lotus Sutra," writes current SGI President Daisaku Ikeda of the first great spiritual struggle of his mentor's life. In other words, Toda had reached the point where it was no longer possible to turn back.
Although it is sad to contemplate the pain it caused Toda and his family, the world is probably fortunate that he was incarcerated by the Japanese government during World War II. Had he been allowed his freedom, there is no guarantee that he would have studied the sutra so fiercely. And even had he done so, with access to the countless commentaries and scholarly resources on the Lotus Sutra that would have been available to him as a free man, it is unlikely he would have felt so driven to forge his own understanding of what he read.
As it was, Toda tried several times to send his copy of the Lotus Sutra home from prison to his family. But each time, mysteriously, it was returned to his cell. Finally, he understood that it was his destiny to study it, and so, beginning on January 1, 1944, he resolutely plunged ahead.
Some time in March of that same year, after having read the complete sutra through three times, he began to ask himself what constituted the body of the Buddha. He reasoned that it was neither the physical body of Shakyamuni nor merely an abstract idea with no substance. In the first case, such a body was unattainable by the average human being. In the second, it was mere idealism and therefore of no practical value for ordinary life.
According to The Human Revolution, finally, one day as he was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in his cell, he entered a state of deep meditation, "recalling each of the 34 negations one after the other--trying to imagine what it might be that could absolutely exist despite so many negational words." Eventually, he lost track of how long he had been chanting and finally even forgot where he was. It was then that a single word flashed suddenly through his mind: LIFE. There was nothing mystical or mysterious about it at all, he finally realized. The Buddha was life itself.
It was a signal moment for Josei Toda, for the Soka Gakkai and for modern Buddhism as a whole. And what was the meaning of that moment? What did the identity of the Buddha and Life mean for modern human beings?
In a word it meant freedom. It meant that modern Buddhists were free of the authoritarian interpretations of Buddhist texts which for hundreds of years had ruled Japanese people's lives. To put it in simple terms, it was the difference between a "philosophy of life" and a "life of philosophy." In the former case, philosophy and life were separate. There were certain philosophical or religious ideals which one applied to life, but those ideals were fundamentally separate from life itself. One might have recourse to a wise priest or teacher who demonstrated that the two could sometimes be brought together as one, but for the most part Buddhism was a kind of "professional sport." Only if you separated yourself from ordinary day-to-day existence--for instance, by living in a monastery or a temple--could you hope to make such lofty spiritual ideals a reality in your life. In other words, Buddhism was for the priest or monk. The rest of us simply got by the best we could.
Josei Toda's great insight was to put life first, not philosophy, in effect inverting the traditional hierarchical structure of Buddhism, which placed spiritual authority in the hands of a religious or intellectual elite. That is why I believe it was inevitable from the beginning--and even necessary--that the Soka Gakkai would experience a break with its priestly parent organization, Nichiren Shoshu. To put life first, as Josei Toda did, meant that each member of the future Soka Gakkai would be connected directly to the Buddha without recourse to any "professional" authoritarian structure, or even any physical resources or relics that such a structure might hold in its possession--the Dai-Gohonzon, for instance.
As wonderful as it might be for the Soka Gakkai to hold such a precious treasure in its possession, it is surely better off without it. Because now, for Soka Gakkai members throughout the world, the true Gohonzon is the one they chant to each morning and evening in their homes, the one that lies dead-center of the life they actually live. They need not visit the head temple in Japan to feel that they have worshipped the true Gohonzon. The true Gohonzon is life as they actually live it--in the place they actually are.
This was the truth that Josei Toda discovered on that March day in Tokyo, when even the four walls of a cell could not contain him. He became free at that moment, not when he was released by the authorities more than a year later. He became free when he discovered that the Buddha is life itself, and modern Buddhism was born.
CLARK STRAND is an author and lecturer on contemporary spiritual practice. A former Senior Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, he has been an influential voice in America and abroad on the transmission of Buddhism to the West.