The fundamental Buddhist concept of dependent origination teaches that, at the most profound level, all life is interconnected, that nothing exists in isolation. Simply put, it means that the real nature of individuals or events can only be correctly understood in the context of their connections with all others.
In his second lecture at Harvard University, titled “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First Century Civilization,” Soka Gakkai International (SGI) President Daisaku Ikeda described this concept in the following way:
“Each living thing manifests the enlightenment of which it is capable; each contributes to the harmony of the grand concert of symbiosis. In Buddhist terminology, dependent origination describes these relationships. No person or thing exists in isolation. Every being functions to create the environment that sustains all other existences. All things are mutually supporting and interrelated, forming a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might term a semantic whole. That is the conceptual framework through which Mahayana Buddhism views the natural universe.”
Buddhism holds that human beings, far from being isolated entities, are part of a larger, symbiotic fabric of coexistence, where “because this exists, so does that; because that exists, so does this.”
When individuals cannot grasp or appreciate their connections with others, it gives rise to a sense of isolation, mistrust, hostility or apathy. It leads to a society based upon fragile human relationships.
From the perspective of Buddhism, that which creates trust, respect and harmony among people can be described as good. Whereas, that which divides people, causing disrespect and mistrust, is regarded as evil.
In his June 1996 lecture at Teachers College, Columbia University, SGI President Ikeda elaborated on the bodhisattva path, which he described as an “unshrinking confrontation” with the fundamental ignorance that resides in our lives:
“The pathology of divisiveness drives people to an unreasoning attachment to difference and blinds them to human commonalities. This is not limited to individuals but constitutes the deep psychology of collective egoism, which takes its most destructive form in virulent strains of ethnocentrism and nationalism.”
Discrimination in any form can be seen as a symptom of what Buddhism regards as the human tendency to create divisions and fractures based on superficial distinctions. Discrimination and prejudice fundamentally contradict any understanding of life’s interconnectedness.
SGI President Ikeda explains further:
“In its essence, discrimination is the act of throwing up barriers of difference among the phenomena that fill the universe and establishing a hierarchy of value, thus breaking the bonds that link and connect all things. This is then used to justify oppression and exploitation; as such, it must be condemned as a desecration of the sanctity of life itself.”
Breaking free from patterns of division, hatred, discrimination and mistrust requires a strenuous spiritual effort. It involves redefining what it means to be human, continually reflecting on how we see ourselves and those who are seemingly different from us.
Buddhism teaches that because of life’s profound interdependence, the sufferings of others are also our own. Thus, the work of helping others develop their highest potential is integral to developing this potential in ourselves. Conversely, by harming others, we also harm ourselves. This view of life makes it impossible to build our happiness on the suffering of others.
This limitless view of the self—that we are all bound by innumerable ties and have a responsibility for one another—is what Buddhism calls the “greater self.”
The “true” or “greater” self completely comprehends being an integral part of this web of life and can appreciate those connections. In that vein, the lesser self is self-centered. It is a state of awareness constrained by egoism and selfish desires, in which one has little grasp of the true self.
Restoring the Dignity of Life Through Dialogue
Buddhism is a religion of dialogue. Through dialogue, we can restore respect for the dignity of life and build bridges between people of diverse backgrounds. Such conversation takes courage and can only happen when fueled by a belief in the infinite potential of all people.
The SGI President, in speaking of nuclear weapons as the most extreme form of the deluded impulses that reside within human beings, emphasized the path of dialogue, sharing:
“Dialogue starts from the courageous willingness to know and be known by others. It is the painstaking and persistent effort to remove all obstacles that obscure our common humanity. Genuine dialogue is a ceaseless and profound spiritual exertion that seeks to effect a fundamental human transformation in both ourselves and others. Dialogue challenges us to confront and transform the destructive impulses inherent in human life.”
Elsewhere, he wrote: “Without dialogue, humans are fated to walk in the darkness of their own dogmatic self-righteousness. Dialogue is the lamp by which we dispel that darkness, lighting and making visible for each other our steps and the path ahead.”
Most needed today is dialogue that helps us to reflect on our own beliefs and presumptions, and challenges us to transform the inner biases that make it easy to identify people as “the other,” as separate or different from us. Through employing such spiritual exertion, we can break barriers and develop a new level of humanity in which all life shines.
Submitted by Kathleen Benjamin