I write this article overshadowed by the death of my stillborn daughter, Avery. As an ordained minister of the Nichiren Shu, I am used to others asking how to cope with life’s suffering and tragedies. Now I must ask myself: Where do I find the power to get through this?
It is not enough, even an insult, to people’s intelligence and basic human feelings to simply say, “chant about it.” However, in our lineage, it is true that chanting the Odaimoku mantra in joyful confidence is the vessel we use to gather, realize, and express the three powers that come together to overcome suffering and anguish. These three powers are the awe-inspiring power of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, the power of the foundational merit of the practitioner, and the power of samadhi in which the other two powers are united. It is to these powers that I look for solace.
The power of my own foundational merit can only be that, while I have fallen to the floor sobbing, I did get up. I continue to get up.
The primary practice of Nichiren Buddhism is chanting the “August Title” or Odaimoku of the Lotus Sutra. Though Nichiren (1222–1282) did not invent the Odaimoku, he established it in 1253 as an accessible and direct way for anyone to practice the Lotus Sutra. In Sino-Japanese, the Odaimoku is pronounced: “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,” which means “Devotion to the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.” To support and elaborate on this practice, Nichiren, who was ordained in the Japanese Tendai school, often cited the teachings of Tiantai Zhiyi (537–598). Throughout his life, Nichiren lectured on Zhiyi’s major works, in particular the Great Calming and Contemplation. In that work, Zhiyi exhorted practitioners to rely upon the “three powers,” the powers of the Buddha, samadhi, and the practitioner’s own foundational merit in order to accomplish the practice of “constant walking samadhi,” wherein a practitioner circumambulates a statue of Amitabha Buddha while chanting that buddha’s name for ninety days in an effort to have a visionary encounter with the buddhas of the ten directions. Zhiyi derived this practice, as well as the three powers, from the Buddha-Encountering Samadhi Sutra (Skt. Pratyutpanna-samadhi-sutra). While this particular practice is not used in Nichiren Shu, the principle of the three powers that Zhiyi expounded does apply to the practice of chanting Odaimoku.
The Buddha’s awe-inspiring power (Skt. prabhava) refers to the numinous power that buddhas use to inspire and guide practitioners. It may be related to the Buddha’s sustaining power (Skt. adhisthana), the power of a buddha to provide sustaining power for our practice. In the sutras, it is often referred to as the power that inspires the Buddha’s disciples to ask incisive questions and give appropriate responses. If nothing else, we may relate to the power of the Buddha as the inspiration and sustenance we can receive by imagining the figure of the Buddha present to us as a personification of the wisdom and merit of the buddhanature that is always at work in us, as us, and around us, whether or not we are aware of it. As the Buddha instructs in the Buddha-Encountering Samadhi Sutra:
Whatever I think, that I see. The mind creates the Buddha. The mind itself sees him. The mind is the Buddha.
The Buddha revered in Nichiren Buddhism is the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha who appears in the Lotus Sutra. In the sutra, the Buddha states that his awakening occurred in a past so remote it is incalculable. Also, though his final nirvana seems imminent, he will not cease to exist but will only seem to be absent. He will appear to practitioners who are upright and devoted, and is always thinking:
How can I cause all living beings to embark upon the unsurpassable way and quickly accomplish embodiment as buddhas?
This is a rather poetic way of expressing the teaching of nonself and emptiness as applied to the Buddha. As the Buddha says in the sutra:
The Tathagata perceives the character of the threefold world as
it really is. Birth and death do not leave it or appear in it. There is no staying in the world or departing from it for extinguishment. It is neither substantial nor insubstantial. And it is neither thus nor otherwise.
The Buddha has not arrived, nor does he go anywhere. How, then, is he present in his absence? Nichiren believed he was present as the one who transfers his wisdom and merit to us whenever we take up the practice of Odaimoku. In his Contemplation of the Mind and the Focus of Devotion, Nichiren wrote:
His attainment of buddhahood is altogether contained in the five words of Myo (Wonderful), Ho (Dharma), Ren (Lotus), Ge (Flower), and Kyo (Sutra). Consequently, when we uphold these five words, the merits that he accumulated before and after his attainment of buddhahood are naturally transferred to us.
What do I expect from this sustaining power of the Buddha? At this time, I look to receive the insight that gives the patient acceptance that all things are unborn and therefore deathless, so that I may accept my daughter Avery’s passing.
The power of the practitioner’s foundational (Skt. mula) merit (Skt. punya) refers, in a traditional sense, to the virtuous seeds sown in past lives that come to fruition when we cultivate Buddhist practice and encounter the Buddha, whether in a dream or vision. More importantly, we encounter the Buddha by awakening and seeing the true nature of reality for ourselves. As the Buddha said to the monk Vakkali:
One who sees the Dharma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dharma.
In the Lotus Sutra, it is taught that the virtuous seeds of our original aspiration for buddhahood were sown in forgotten past lives when we were able to encounter other buddhas and hear the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. For example, five hundred arhats tell a parable about a poor man whose rich friend had sewn a gem inside his robe while they were drinking. The rich friend went away on business and the poor man forgot about the gem and continued to live in poverty until his rich friend returned and showed him that, all along, he was carrying a priceless treasure. The arhats explain:
The Buddha is just like the good friend. When he was a bodhisattva, he taught and transformed us, turning our minds toward comprehensive wisdom. We soon forgot about it, however, and were unaware of it.
We may or may not believe in past lives. However, there is certainly more to our lives than we are consciously aware of. We have benefited from the wisdom and compassionate care of those who enabled us to be here considering these things. If nothing else, the wisdom and care sown in the depths of our lives by caregivers and possibly mentors can be nurtured and brought to fruition by our conscious efforts so that we may consciously perceive the realm of the Buddha in ourselves, our world, and our community.
We may or may not believe in past lives. However, there is certainly more to our lives than we are consciously aware of.
Nichiren also referred to the power of the Buddha’s realm within the practitioner’s life in his Contemplation of the Mind and the Focus of Devotion:
The reason why we, ordinary people, born in the Latter Age of the Dharma, can put faith in the Lotus Sutra is that the realm of buddhas is included in the realm of human beings.
Nichiren taught that we could not even take up the practice of Odaimoku if our human nature did not already include buddhanature. The source of Nichiren’s conviction that our ignorant human nature and our enlightened buddhanature are intertwined is Zhiyi’s doctrine of the “mutual possession of the ten realms.” According to Zhiyi, there are six realms of rebirth and suffering, comprising the realms of the hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and gods. There are also four noble realms or pure lands where arhats, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas reside. These ten realms are not separate but mutually possess or contain one another. All caused and conditioned phenomena (aggregates, beings, and their environments) may manifest any of the ten, and each implicates and is involved with the others in myriad ways. As Nichiren noted, the realm of buddhas makes itself felt in the lives of the ignorant through their faith (i.e., encouragement and confidence) in the Buddha Dharma.
The power of the Buddha may seem fantastic and remote, but the power of my own foundational merit seems even more remote when I feel there is nothing I can do to overcome my own grief or the broken hearts of the people I love. Here is where I must trust that there are in fact more resources within myself than I know. It is through trust and confidence that I do possess these resources that I persist in my practice to find and nurture those seeds of patient acceptance and compassionate support within me.
Finally, there is the power of samadhi, the power of the concentration cultivated through Buddhist practice. In samadhi, the Buddha and the practitioner come together as one, or as none, for there is in reality no self or other from the start. As Nichiren wrote in his Outline of All the Holy Teachings of the Buddha:
At this time, the Lotus Sutra establishes self-power but is not self-power. This is because the “self” includes the ten realms of all sentient beings; and, from the beginning, we contain the buddha-realm of both ourselves and all sentient beings. Therefore, our becoming a buddha does not bring a new buddha [into the world]. [The sutra] also establishes Other-power but is not Other-power. The buddha who is “other” is contained within the selves of ordinary people. This other buddha makes himself the same as our own buddhahood.
The power of samadhi is actualized when we chant the Odaimoku with single-minded joy and confidence. When that happens, we are able to feel the awe-inspiring power of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha in the very moment that we express the power of the pure seeds of buddhahood within our lives. At that moment we reclaim the figure of the Buddha’s merit and wisdom that we have projected as a glorified Other and simultaneously overcome the delusion that there is a simple, isolated, unchanging self that projects. Then the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha can appear. Then this world, where so much suffering must be endured, can be the Pure Land of Eternally Tranquil Light.
By chanting the Odaimoku I try to engage the power of samadhi in which the other two powers meet. As I chant, I acknowledge my sorrow and heartache. I chant as a way of presenting this burden of grief so that it will be illuminated in the light of the Eternal Buddha and in my own ability to sit upright and declare the Wonderful Dharma with the seven characters of Odaimoku in the face of the great question of birth and death boiled down to one word: Why?
When I chant Odaimoku I am not trying to use the three powers to earn buddhahood or bring it into being like some conditioned phenomena that I can build or give birth to and subsequently cherish and hold. Nor am I trying to use these powers to influence a transcendent being to transform me into a buddha. My understanding of Nichiren’s teaching is that buddhahood is a hidden but ever-present aspect of life, the most whole and complete aspect of all things, sentient and even insentient. I believe that through faith (i.e., joyful confidence) in the message of the Lotus Sutra, even in the face of personal tragedy, we can overcome despair and express buddhahood in our own bodies, minds, and circumstances. It seems that the three powers are actually three aspects of a process that is as natural as the ability of a pond to reflect the moon or a valley to produce an echo. In a letter to one of his followers, Nichiren wrote:
The benefit of all the other sutras is uncertain because they teach that one must first make good causes, and only then can one become a buddha at some later time. The Lotus Sutra is completely different. A hand that takes it up immediately attains enlightenment, and a mouth that chants it instantly enters buddhahood, just as the moon is reflected in the water the moment it appears from behind the eastern mountains, or a sound and its echo arise simultaneously.
Here I return to my original question. Where do I find the power to overcome the anguish caused by the stillbirth of my daughter Avery? I know that the powers of the Buddha, my own foundational merit (whatever that may be), and the samadhi of Odaimoku practice cannot bring her back. Nor do they give me the power to “just get over it.” Perhaps they lend us the power to just keep practicing until suffering ends?
Will this anguish fade or end if I just get on with my life? As I write this, I do not have a proper answer. At this moment, I can only say that the power of the Buddha is the power of believing that someone at some time overcame suffering and anguish in a mature, empathetic, and compassionate way. The power of my own foundational merit can only be that, while I have fallen to the floor sobbing, I did get up. I continue to get up. I continue to be there for my family, for my sangha, for my coworkers, and for my friends. I allow my heart to be broken. Speaking for myself, the power of samadhi is that I maintain my practice as best I can and hold my anguish in its light. I will have to wait and see how the causes and conditions of this anguish and sorrow will unfold.
In the meantime, Avery lived and died, though unborn. Though born, she did not get a chance to live. Somehow in this are all the powers of the Eternal Buddha, my own causes and conditions, and the embrace of the samadhi of all things as just this one that is none.