Nov 14, 2009

The Invisible Reflection

From, "Buddhism in New Light": Chapter 8: The Invisible Reflection;
                     by Shin Yatomi - SGI-USA Study Department Leader

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish religious philosopher,knew the importance of seeing oneself in order tobuild a secure foundation for authentic happiness. So he suggested three requirements for his fellow Christians to see themselves in the "mirror" of "God's Word" (For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself!, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans., p. 25).

Kierkegaard's insight into how to gain self-knowledge may be valuable not only for Christians but also for the practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, since Nichiren Daishonin also stressed the importance of self-knowledge and inscribed the Gohonzon-the object of devotion in Nichiren Buddhism-as a mirror to reflect our true self, our innate Buddhahood.

Nichiren, for example, states: "The five characters Myoho-renge-kyo similarly reflect the ten thousand phenomena, not overlooking a single one of them.... A mirror that allows us to see our own image and reflection-such is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" (ott, 51-52). The "five characters Myoho-renge-kyo" and "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" in this passage are synonymous with the Gohonzon, which embodies Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, or the essential Law of life and the universe.

A profound awareness that our lives are originally endowed with the Buddha's infinite wisdom and compassion is so crucial for our happiness that Nichiren goes so far as to say, "No other knowledge is purposeful."

The philosophical distance between Kierkegaard and Nichiren, therefore, is closer in their emphasis on self knowledge than one might expect from their religious difference. The following are Kierkegaard's three requirements as applied to how we may better see ourselves in the mirror of the Gohonzon.

Why Don't We See Ourselves in the Mirror?

"The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror" (For Self-Examination, p. 25).

Here, Kierkegaard warns us against "the error of observing the mirror instead of seeing oneself in the mirror" (ibid, 25). One may ask how this could be possible. How can we look at the mirror and not see ourselves?

Kierkegaard's first requirement, however, points to the subtlety of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is said to develop during the early years of life. In one psychological study, infants who had had a red spot applied to their nose were held up to a mirror. Those who recognized their own reflection and so reached for their own nose rather than the nose in the mirror were said to show at least some self-awareness. In this study, practically no infants in the first year of life showed clear evidence of self-awareness, whereas about 70 percent of infants between twenty-one and twenty-four months did so (see Simply Psychology, Michael W. Eysenck, p. 278).

Clearly those infants under one year observed the mirror but failed to see themselves. Their failure to see themselves in the mirror is their failure to connect what is reflected on the mirror to themselves. For those babies, the mirror served no purpose and became useless. This illustrates what essentially makes a mirror so valuable that we use it everyday; it is our self-awareness or our ability to understand that what is reflected in the mirror is our own image.

Any adult of sound mind would not make the same mistake as those babies. When it comes to the Gohonzon, however, Kierkegaard's concern often becomes our reality. Although we revere the Gohonzon as Nichiren's enlightened life, we often fail to reflect the same respect back to our own lives. Or worse-some people may disparage their lives while admiring the Gohonzon's beneficial power.

They might glorify the Gohonzon to the extent that they humble themselves. Still others may see the Gohonzon as life's mysterious truth beyond their grasp, accessible only for select priests. Those who view the Gohonzon as an external deity or someone else's enlightenment may be compared to those infants reaching for the mirror instead of their own nose.

When we pray to the Gohonzon, we must reach into our own lives for the hidden gem of Buddhahood rather than reach out to the Gohonzon as an external source of salvation.

Our Invisible Self

"The second requirement is that in order to see yourself in the must...remember to say to yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking" (For Self-Examination, p. 35).

Down the center of the Gohonzon is inscribed "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nichiren," indicating that the potential for absolute happiness exists within the lives of all people as represented by Nichiren, who was born to a fisherman's family, the lowest class in Japan's feudal society. So the
Gohonzon speaks to each of us: "It is you who embodies the wonderful Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo just as Nichiren did!"

In this sense, our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo becomes our repeated affirmation of this message from the Gohonzon. As Kierkegaard's statement suggests, when we pray to the Gohonzon, we must remind ourselves that with each invocation we are manifesting our highest potential, full of strength and hope, no matter how our lives may appear on the surface.

Believing Is Seeing

"Finally, if you want to look at yourself in the mirror. you must not promptly forget how you looked" (ibid., 44).

Kierkegaard's final advice is his warning against our forgetfulness. When we study Nichiren's writings, we may intellectually understand that we are potentially Buddhas full of courage and compassion. While chanting, we may feel confident that our lives are essentially no different from
that of Nichiren.

But minutes after we leave our homes for work or school, we often start acting in a manner unbefitting Buddhas. In the course of a day, we may also face one situation after another in which others disregard us as if we had not even an iota of Buddhahood.

This is why our consistent Buddhist practice and study become important as powerful reminders of our innate Buddhahood, especially when our environment seems to suggest its non-existence. Our diligent, conscious efforts steadily transform our intellectual idea of Buddhahood into our action as Buddhas and our fleeting awareness of Buddhahood into our unmovable conviction in the face of great hardship. In this sense, seeing ourselves in the Gohonzon is often a process of gradual transformation rather than an epiphany to attain once and for all.

Kierkegaard's vision of an ideal Christian was a "doer of the Word" (ibid, 25). To this end, he set down those three requirements for Christians to see themselves in the "mirror of God's Word." By the same token, genuine Nichiren Buddhists must not simply be admirers of the Gohonzon who see it with awe yet fail to see themselves in it. Indeed, what those admirers think of as their pious respect for the Gohonzon is a kind of fundamental disrespect that perverts its purpose.

Nichiren wished us to become practitioners of the Gohonzon who uphold this mirror of ultimate self-knowledge and appreciate our reflections. To this end, he stressed the importance of faith, urging us "to summon up deep faith that Myoho-renge-kyo is your life itself."  So the true value of this wonderful mirror lies in the heart of the beholder-the heart that knows believing is seeing.

Image sources: Deviantart

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