Oneness” and “connectedness” are themes that define Buddhism and Eastern thought for many Westerners. But what exactly does this mean? How does “being one” with anything affect life in the real world?
Oneness is often used as the translation of a Chinese term that means “two but not two,” describing two things or principles that appear distinct and separate (two) but on the deepest level are mutually interdependent and inseparable (not two).
Oneness in Buddhism doesn’t mean absolute sameness, but suggests a balance and synthesis between the idea that things are separate and distinct and yet the same in essence.
In The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, Nichiren Daishonin says: “The essential teaching thus deals with the non-differentiation that is based on differentiation. One should think of a commentary on this, which reads, ‘Two but not two, constantly the same yet constantly different— past and present, such is the Dharma’” (p. 195).
The idea of oneness, non-differentiation or non-dualism can be traced to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the earliest commentaries on them.
At a young age, Shakyamuni mounted a spiritual quest to solve the universal sufferings associated with birth, aging, sickness and death. His quest led him to achieve enlightenment, a life-state that provided him with a profound insight into the true nature of life.
Shakyamuni clearly perceived the nature of suffering, the processes by which such suffering arises, and the way for people to overcome misery and lead happy lives. Resolving to share this insight with others, he taught that nothing occurs or arises on its own. Every emotion, circumstance and living thing arises in response to an array of changing causes and conditions.
Because this exists, that exists. Because this ceases, that ceases. This came to be known as the principle of “dependent origination,” or conditioned co-arising.
To illustrate how this principle is at work in people’s lives, he put forth the idea of “the twelvelinked chain of causation.” These are 12 stages that describe how ignorance of the real nature of existence gives rise to misplaced cravings and attachments, which in turn lead to the sufferings associated with birth and death.
Shakyamuni taught that by gaining insight into this process people could overcome ignorance and avoid actions that lead to dissatisfaction and suffering.
Specifically, he associated ignorance with two kinds of extreme views: 1) the view that the self has an independent fixed nature that continues to exist eternally; and 2) the view that the self is annihilated completely upon death.
By developing insight into this causality, people could detach themselves from illusory views of life and the self, and awaken the wisdom to make causes that diminish suffering.
The causes and conditions described by dependent origination do not apply only to individuals, but span all life and phenomena across the three interconnected realms of existence—individuals, society and the land, or environment.
For instance, a seed may within itself contain the cause to eventually become a tree. But without conditions such as good soil, water and favorable weather, that seed might never sprout, nor the tree mature. Human beings, too, must depend on their parents, the environment and the support of others to exist and thrive.
To demonstrate life’s interconnectedness, the Flower Garland Sutra, a key Mahayana sutra, employs the analogy of “Indra’s net.” Surrounding the palace of the Indian deity Indra, a magnificent net expands limitlessly outward. At each knot in the net hangs a beautiful mirror-like jewel reflecting on its surface all the other jewels. No jewel is at the center of the infinite net, yet each jewel is at the center. If one pulls at one jeweled knot, all the other jewels around it move and shimmer.
Indra’s net represents the beautiful interrelationship of all life, of all things in the universe. Awareness of this interconnection and interdependency forms the basis for Buddhism’s emphasis on gratitude.
Suppose that, upon sitting down for dinner, you were to consider and feel appreciation for not only the person who prepared the food, but for all those who cultivated and processed the ingredients, the truck drivers who transported them to market, those who made the truck’s tires, and the countless others involved in creating the conditions that enable you to enjoy your meal. This basic spirit of appreciation accords with the Buddhist principle of having gratitude and compassion for all living beings.
The principle of dependent origination and interconnection was refined by Buddhist teachers through the centuries, particularly within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
Nagarjuna, the great Indian Buddhist scholar of the late second and the early third century, equated the principle of dependent origination with the Buddhist idea of emptiness, or non-substantiality, and applied the concept of the Middle Way to the question of existence, concluding it is neither correct to state that the self exists nor to state that it does not exist.
T’ien-t’ai of China further developed this philosophy of existence with his principle of the three truths, or three perspectives on the reality of existence. These are: 1) the truth of non-substantiality, which means that things have no fixed substance of their own in the sense that they cannot be considered independent of their connections with everything else; 2) the truth of temporary existence, the manifest nature of things, or their temporary, always changing reality; and 3) the truth of the Middle Way, integrating and transcending the above two views. It indicates the inscrutable essence of existence that continues throughout the cycle of arising and disappearing, of birth and death. That all things fully embody all three of these properties he called the “unification of the three truths.”
T’ien-t’ai further described this dynamic nature of being with the principle of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life.”
“Single moment of life” refers to the essential nature of life at each moment, and “three thousand realms” refers to all functions of life and the environment, which change from moment to moment.
Nichiren Daishonin begins his work “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime” with the following: If you wish to free yourself from the sufferings of birth and death you have endured since time without beginning and to attain without fail unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime, you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings. This truth is Myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life . . . It is called the Mystic Law because it reveals the principle of the mutually inclusive relationship of a single moment of life and all phenomena. That is why this sutra is the wisdom of all Buddhas. ( The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 3)
We could say that the mystic truth inherent in our lives corresponds with our true self. That is the self considered from a deep awareness of one’s interconnections with all people, things and phenomena. Life, the entire universe, is constantly in flux amid a web of changing relationships. Each moment is filled with new things and situations that can instantly give rise to other things and situations. Because everything is constantly arising, transforming and receding, there is nothing that cannot be changed. Every moment is rich with new possibilities. Even the idea of emptiness, or non-substantiality, describes a state of infinite potential not limited by fixed ideas of the self or how things are. SGI President Ikeda states: Awakened to this truth, we can sense the timeless bonds that connect us to those living in distant parts of the planet. We can understand and appreciate that every one of us belongs to the same human family. The limitless expansion of the self, the ability to sense that we are all bound together by innumerable unseen ties, is what Buddhism refers to as the “greater self” . . . Our approach to the present moment is crucial because the true richness and overflowing vitality of life can only be accessed through ceaseless, moment-by-moment spiritual struggle. (May 2001 Living Buddhism, p. 25)
Shakyamuni Buddha introduced the idea of dependent origination by speaking of a chain of causation that takes place over lifetimes, but the philosophy derived from it culminates in the empowering teaching of Nichiren Buddhism, which reveals the simultaneous nature of cause and effect. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can at this very moment bring forth the wisdom to appreciate the causes and conditions at work in our lives and move them toward creating happiness for ourselves, for others, for society and the world.
Thinking of things on a cosmic scale can make a person feel quite small. But Nichiren Daishonin writes, “All phenomena are contained within one’s life, down to the last particle of dust. The nine mountains and the eight seas are encompassed in one’s body, and the sun, moon, and myriad stars are found in one’s life” (“The Mongol Envoys,” WND-1, 629).
Nichiren’s teaching of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo crystallizes the principles of dependent origination and three thousand realms in a single moment of life. And chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo enables us to access and cultivate the power of this universal Law and the potential of the universe itself that exist within us.
As President Ikeda points out, “When we recite the sutra and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, the microcosm of our individual lives harmonizes seamlessly with the macrocosm of the universe” ( Discussions on Youth, p. 218).
Through our Buddhist practice, we gain confidence that our lives encompass all the phenomena and potential of the universe itself, and become filled with the joy and energy of our limitless greater selves, moving always in the direction of hope and development.
March 1, 2012 Living Buddhism