Part 2: Human Revolution
Chapter 18: Buddhism Is a Teaching of Dialogue [18.1]

18.1 Dialogue Is the Essence of Buddhism

There are two aspects of practice in Nichiren Buddhism—practice for oneself and practice for others. The latter entails sharing the Mystic Law based on deep respect for others’ lives and a heartfelt wish for their happiness.

Practice for others is not limited to teaching people about Buddhist principles and ideals. President Ikeda explains that it includes warmly encouraging others through dialogue and thoughtful actions that embody the spirit of respect for all people and the dignity of life taught in the Lotus Sutra. And it means to inspire others by demonstrating real improvement in every aspect of our lives, that is, through our human revolution.

President Ikeda has himself engaged people around the world in countless inspiring dialogues, always basing his words on the principles of Nichiren Buddhism. This chapter features selections of his guidance on conducting such dialogue.

Buddhism is essentially a teaching of dialogue. Its enormous body of scriptures, known as the “eighty thousand teachings,” originated in Shakyamuni’s candid dialogues with people from all walks of life.

Shakyamuni’s first sermon, the “first turning of the wheel of the Law,” was by no means a solitary discourse delivered from on high. It was a frank and open conversation with five old friends, fellow human beings who for a time had pursued the truth of life along with him.

These former companions did not immediately accept what he said, just because he claimed to have attained enlightenment. Shakyamuni did not produce any miracle to convince them either. What he did was patiently continue to engage them in dialogue. He spoke with them again and again, over what appears to have been several days, until they were satisfied.

Finally, one of his friends, Ajnata Kaundinya,1 grasped what Shakyamuni was saying, and the other four soon followed. It wasn’t all five at once. Only one person understood at first.

This is the important point—whether we can get our message across to one other person and gain their understanding. Everything starts from there.

Soon after embarking on his “journey of dialogue,” Shakyamuni encountered a youth who was wandering through a grove of trees and lamenting about his problems. Shakyamuni called to him: “Young man, there are no worries here. Come here and sit down with me.” He urged the youth to sit down beside him and join him in conversation.2

Shakyamuni was always a friend to the suffering and seekers of the way.

One of the meanings of maitri, the Sanskrit word for compassion, is “friendliness.” An early Buddhist scripture describes Shakyamuni’s manner of interacting with people as “welcoming and hospitable, friendly in speech, happy to see others, always pleasant and bright, and eager to greet others before they greet him.”3

He didn’t receive people with a scowl as if to say, “What do you want?” or a cold superiority. Though dignified, he had an openness that made him approachable.

That’s why all kinds of people—farmers, merchants, people of learning, members of the nobility, and rulers—wanted to meet him. Whether it was to share their troubles or to challenge him in debate, everyone eagerly wanted to speak with Shakyamuni.

The Soka Gakkai, too, is a forum for dialogue where we can talk with one another about anything. That’s why so many gather for our lively meetings and activities.

Speaking on equal terms with anyone was, in fact, quite radical in India during Shakyamuni’s time. The caste system governed society, dividing the population into many classes, with Brahmans at the top.

But Shakyamuni was equally respectful to everyone he encountered. For example, when one man of low caste—who had been long despised and reviled—sought to become his disciple, Shakyamuni welcomed him by addressing him with a title conveying his utmost respect.4

In this world, where all things are impermanent, no one—whether a ruler or an ordinary citizen—can escape the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Shakyamuni always focused on this reality of human existence.

Once, the king of Kosala5 came to see Shakyamuni after a long absence, saying he had been busy with affairs of the realm. Shakyamuni asked what the king would do if he saw a mountain high as the clouds about to crumble and destroy his kingdom, and there was no escape. The king replied that in such a case, no worldly power would be of use, and he would devote his remaining time to doing good. That mountain, Shakyamuni responded, is none other than aging and death.6

Shakyamuni’s dialogues were a means for seeking, along with the many people he met, the true way to live.

A husband who complained about his wife’s practice of Buddhism and a stubborn man with a cantankerous nature both regained the humility to reflect on their lives after meeting and speaking with Shakyamuni.7

One day, a farmer who had been working in his fields said to Shakyamuni sarcastically: “Why don’t you work as I do, plowing and sowing?”

“I, too, am plowing and sowing,” replied Shakyamuni to the farmer’s astonishment. “My seeds are faith, and I cultivate with the plow of wisdom. My harvest is deliverance from all cares.”8

This superb metaphor would surely touch the heart of anyone doing farm work.

On another occasion, Shakyamuni encountered a woman weeping in a forest, calling out the name of her deceased daughter.9

“Woman, understand yourself,” said Shakyamuni, uttering words that would later be echoed by Socrates, when he said, “Know thyself.”

Shakyamuni patiently told her: “There are many daughters of the name you call who were cremated in these woods. Which of them are you calling?”

Shakyamuni’s question moved the desolate, grief-stricken woman, helping her realize that she was not alone in her suffering.

“Ah, you have drawn out the dart, so hard to find, that was in my heart,” she said, drying her tears and making a fresh resolve to seek the Buddha way.

Shakyamuni says in the Lotus Sutra that he widely expounded his teachings “through various causes and various similes” (LSOC2, 56) as appropriate to people’s differing capacities to understand the Law. In this respect, his dialogues were an expression of great artistry.

Thus, Buddhism has always been a religion of dialogue and, as such, a religion of genuine humanity.

May you all be openhearted experts of dialogue and courageous champions who communicate the truth! These are the honors of practitioners of Buddhist humanism, who will usher in an age of dialogue in the 21st century.

Nichiren Daishonin urges: “Teach others to the best of your ability, even if it is only a single sentence or phrase” (WND-1, 386). Therefore, let us forge ahead, keeping the flame of dialogue forever burning bright!

From an essay series “Thoughts on The New Human Revolution,” published in Japanese in the Seikyo Shimbun, March 8, 2002.

The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace brings together selections from President Ikeda’s works on key themes.

  • *1Ajnata Kaundinya: One of the five ascetics who heard Shakyamuni Buddha’s first sermon and thereupon converted to his teachings. He was born to a Brahman family of Kapilavastu in northern India. When Shakyamuni renounced the secular world, Kaundinya and four others accompanied him at the order of Shakyamuni’s father, King Shuddhodana, and practiced austerities together with him. When Shakyamuni discarded his ascetic practice, however, they abandoned him and left for Deer Park. After Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, Kaundinya and the others again encountered the Buddha at Deer Park and embraced his teachings.
  • *2Cf. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), translated by I. B. Horner, vol. 4 (Mahavagga) (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993), pp. 22–23.
  • *3Cf. Sonadanda-sutta and Kutadanta-sutta in Digha-nikaya I, edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and J. E. Carpenter (London: Pali Text Society, 1889). Cf. Nanden daizokyo (The Tripitaka in the Southern Transmission), edited by J. Takakusu, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Publishing Society, 1935), pp. 172, 195.
  • *4Cf. The Elders’ Verses I (Theragatha), translated by K. R. Norman (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995), p. 62 (Nos. 620–625/25).
  • *5Kosala: Also known as Koshala. A kingdom of ancient India, in the eastern part of what is now Uttar Pradesh, India’s northern state.
  • *6Cf. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Oxford: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 192.
  • *7Cf. Ibid., pp. 254–55 and 274.
  • *8Cf. Ibid., pp. 266–68.
  • *9Cf. The Elders’ Verses II (Therigatha), translated by K. R. Norman (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995), p. 8 (Nos. 51–53).