A big thank you to life coach and podcaster Leigh Martinuzzi who recently promoted my book to his global audience and then interviewed me about Buddhism and personal development. I loved his warm approach to our dialogue and the searching questions he asked. Leigh is all about inspiring people to live with peace, passion and purpose, so it was an honour to take part in his latest podcast on his website, The Hidden Why.
It was meant to be a one-hour chat, but it lasted a little longer – nearly 90 minutes… Take a listen here, and if you don’t have time for the whole show, here’s a guide to the topics we discussed, with approximate timecodes:
00:00 to 19:00
Leigh gets a quick overview of my career, how I met coaching and how it is similar to Buddhism. Why too many of us live ‘on a hamster wheel’, lacking a true purpose in life. Also a big mention here of The Winning Edge, my all-time favourite personal development programme.
19:00 – 40:00
Lots here for budding authors on how to overcome self-doubt, motivate yourself, keep going to the end and find a publisher. Chanting daimoku to raise your self-esteem. And some tip-top advice from my fellow Buddhist, the actor Duncan Pow.
40:00 – 45:00
Leigh asks me who my book is for and how it’s different from other self-help & Buddhist books. We talk about a culture of enlightenment replacing a culture of entitlement to transform the spirit of the age.
45:00 – 53:00
Inspired by a quote from Daisaku Ikeda, Leigh and I explore different types of intelligence – intellectual (IQ), emotional (EQ) and spiritual (SQ) and why SQ is the key to world peace and to feeling one-ness with our fellow human beings.
54:00 – 70:00
A big section on Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – including some chanting and an explanation of how it works. Also actual proof, how Buddhism goes deeper and wider than personal development and why I admire Nichiren for being a rebel and revolutionary who was ahead of his time and who loved humanity. Mentions of SGI discussion meetings and of how precious life is.
70:00 – 90:00
A mixture of topics including my favourite non-Buddhist personal development books, another quote from Daisaku Ikeda, living with passion & purpose, the power of coaching and believing you’re a Buddha.
In this experience about using the power of dialogue to discover our shared humanity, my friend and fellow SGI Buddhist David Hill reveals how his experience of being HIV positive helped him develop compassion for racist and homophobic people who persecuted him in his community. David is an ex-coal miner from Derbyshire UK and his courage, warm wit and determination make his story one of the most moving I have ever read. With profound thanks to David for letting me include it in my book, I feel he is an example to us all of how to chant for the happiness of people who have hurt you.
“Some nineteen years ago I was discharged from hospital with a life-threatening illness and the advice to get my affairs in order. My chances of survival were slim, I was weak and frail and did not really want to carry on with my life. While in hospital and without realising it, I had been introduced to Buddhism by a visiting volunteer worker who chanted to me while I fell asleep. I was not in much of a state to take it in at the time and didn’t start to practise myself until many years later.
Ostracised for being gay
“I returned home to my small homophobic racist town and found my house had been sprayed with graffiti, saying ‘Gay with Aids lives here’.
Ignore what you might read on Wikipedia or IMDB, my fellow SGI member Sabra Williams is much more than an actress and TV presenter. I first met her on a Buddhist summer course in the UK nearly 30 years ago, when she was an energetic and focused Lilac (Byakuren) Chief inspiring half a dozen other young women to care for 200 SGI members on the course. I knew that since then she’d swapped London for Hollywood, finding her professional feet with The Actors Gang, a theatre company run by Tim Robbins (of Shawshank Redemption fame). So, why the move from London to LA? “We were too comfortable,” says Sabra, referring to herself and husband Yogi, “We wanted to shake our lives up, so we sold everything and jumped on a plane!” That’s the first answer I wasn’t expecting…
So much wisdom pours from Sabra’s lips that it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s rewind to the beginning of her own Buddhist practice in 1985. “I was a crazy off the rails teenager from Notting Hill Gate, London. I felt so frustrated that I often wanted to put my fist through a wall. And although I was a talented dancer, I was doing too much cocaine. Two of my dance teachers introduced me to Buddhism. They told me I had bags of potential but would waste all of it if I carried on the same way. They just said ‘chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo‘. To be honest I thought they were taking the piss. But then I thought, what the heck, it’s free and I’ve got nothing to lose, why not give it a go?! And the first time I chanted, everything fell into place, it all just fitted. And I’ve never missed Gongyo since, not even when I was in labour!”
(Please note, I first published this post two years ago, but after coaching several people recently about family issues in the run-up to Christmas, decided to share it with you again…)
During the festive season, when you spend more time with close family, do you ever find yourself saying: “You’re really winding me up,”? or “She got on my nerves,”? or “They made me angry,”? Let’s explore whether that is really true. Or whether it means that you give all your power away so that other people or circumstances decide how happy you are. You may have spotted where I’m heading here and this post may help keep things more harmonious this Christmas…
Over 700 years ago, Nichiren Daishonin wrote: “One should become the master of his mind rather than let his mind master him.” This means we have the power to choose how we want to perceive and respond to a situation, rather than being tossed around by the ebb and flow of events. (That might of course include choosing to get angry or winding ourselves up, but the difference is, we know we have a choice.)
In modern psychology, this ability is often called ‘reframing’. As Auschwitz prisoner of war Victor Frankl famously wrote, in his book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’: “The one thing you cannot take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Frankl’s situation was horrific – everything (seemingly) had been taken from him – family, friends, dignity, food, clothing and freedom. And yet he found the inner strength to master his mind when so many around him were losing theirs.
Nowadays though, our first instinct is often to change how we feel by shopping / drinking / comfort eating or other types of consumption. All of this contributes to extra global warming, by the way.
SGI’s second President Josei Toda without doubt developed an ability to change from the inside (much better for our beautiful planet…) describing Buddhahood in this way: “It is like lying on your back in a wide open space looking up at the sky with arms and legs outstretched. All that you wish for immediately appears. No matter how much you may give away, there is always more. It is never exhausted. Try and see if you can attain this state of life.”
Where was Toda when he experienced this state? On holiday? In a beautiful park in Tokyo? At the top of a Mount Fuji watching the sun edge below the horizon? None of the above. He was actually in solitary confinement in prison (for being a Buddhist).
All that you become begins in your mind
Buddhism says that all the situations in your life including (from a karmic perspective) what happens to you – all of your ‘be, do and have’ – begin in your mind, which is why it makes so much sense to ‘master your mind’. We can summarise ‘The Buddha Mind for dealing with challenges’ as follows:
I created this situation, therefore I can create the solution
Because life is precious, every ‘problem’ is a gift in disguise
Therefore when faced with obstacles, “the wise rejoice and the foolish retreat”
Any problem is your life asking to grow, say YES (instead of grumbling inside).
Here’s a great chance (yes, another one) to get over your ‘smaller self’
The lotus flower only grows in a muddy pond. Focus on the flower, not the mud.
How can I use this to fulfil my life purpose?
I will face whatever it takes to fulfil my personal mission in life
This low life state (angry, grumpy, blue, resentful, frustrated…) absolutely does contain latent Buddhahood
What is the ‘problem’ trying to stop me doing? Then Just Do It. Now. Darkness disappears when the sun of action shines
Suffering and problems are a fact of life, for you, me, saints and sages
Make your desire for Kosen Rufu (world peace) bigger, deeper and more sincere.
And if none of the above seem to be working, remember this famous quote from Nichiren Daishonin:
13. “And still I am not discouraged”.
To be strong is to master your mind
To master your mind is to instinctively and increasingly realise that all of the above is true. To constantly develop the strength to choose how you feel and develop a bigger all-embracing state of life whatever is happening to you. As Carl Jung wrote: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
Daisaku Ikeda says: “True happiness is not the absence of suffering; you cannot have day after day of clear skies. True happiness lies in building a self that stands dignified and indomitable like a great palace – on all days, even when it is raining, snowing or stormy.”
So, see if you can chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo with this conviction: “I am not my past. I am not my psychometric profile. I am not the role I have played to survive so far. I am not the product of my childhood. I am not my job description. I am a Buddha. I am who I choose to become.”
Much more on all of this in my book, The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You, available now for pre-order on Amazon UK.
Do you need to look good and be right all the time?Are you over-sensitive to rejection? Are you surviving instead of thriving? Do you find it difficult to say ‘sorry’, even when you know you are wrong? Do you get angry and defensive easily? Do you find you need a lot of praise and validation to feel less anxious? Will you do anything to avoid failure? Do you get jealous easily? I have certainly experienced all of the above during my 30 years of Buddhist practice. And yes, I have wondered if ‘my bum looks big in this?’ So if you are sometimes like this (most human beings are…), it might be time to move your ego out of the way and focus on your Big Beautiful Buddhahood instead.
By ‘ego’ I mean our smaller self, our unenlightened self, the self that is dominated by fear and anxiety and lashes out in anger.The self that may have helped you survive difficult childhood experiences, adding layers of protection to shield you from further pain. This ego has a positive intention (protection and survival), but if it dominates your life, it will slowly stifle your heart and strangle your soul.
this is just to let you know that six years after starting to write my book on Buddhism and personal development, I have signed a deal with Rider Books, the ‘mind body spirit’ arm of Penguin Random House. I want to thank all of you, my big-hearted readers, for your support, encouragement, comments and questions. To thank you for your generous spirit in reaching out to create a dialogue with me. As I am a completely unknown author (compared to Penguin Random House’s other writers such as The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Russell Brand…) the only way to get a big publisher’s attention was to create a successful blog and Facebook page with thousands of engaged readers.
So I couldn’t have done it without you! Thank you so much!It has been my lifelong dream to become an author and I also landed my absolute first choice of publisher because Rider’s other Buddhist writers include Eddy Canfor-Dumas (The Buddha, Geoff and Me) and Richard Causton (The Buddha in Daily Life). So, it’s safe to say that Rider ‘get’ Nichiren Buddhism! The title of my book will be The Buddha in Me, the Buddha in You – handbook for a human revolutionand it will be out in the UK in Spring 2016, with other countries to follow.
I have been an avid reader all my life but these days I finish fewer and fewer books. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but I’m quite impatient if I don’t learn something new in the first 30 pages or so. So to discover a book called ‘The Fall’ by Steve Taylor was an absolute delight. I devoured all of it in two days. It is rare that a ‘non-Buddhist book’ makes me think completely differently about the human race and about Nichiren’s goal of Kosen Rufu, but this one was utterly mind-blowing. It reveals that the seeds of war, inequality and environmental destruction were actually sown just six millennia ago and that before then, people lived in peace and harmony. Blimey, who knew?!
Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle describes The Fall as: “An important and fascinating book about the origin, history and impending demise of the ego, highly readable and enlightening.” Every word of that description is true.
Here are five fascinating facts from Taylor’s book. When we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, just 6,000 years ago:
war barely existed,
women were respected as equals,
owning possessions was frowned upon, as was celebrity,
we were not territorial, we revered nature and perceived ‘spirit force’ everywhere and in everything,
men were more like ‘new men’, with traits such as empathy, emotional openness and non-aggression.
The problem – the Ego Explosion
So, what happened? ‘The Fall’ is what happened. A previously fertile stretch of land between Africa and China suddenly suffered from catastrophic drought and desertification. This apparently caused a shift in the Indo-European psyche. To survive, we ditched our predominantly caring and matrist mindset and became warlike and patrist. We began to settle on land, developed agriculture, became territorial and built cities with fortifications. We grew emotionless and detached – from each other, from the environment, from what Buddhism would call our ‘bigger interconnected selves’. We began to ring-fence our happiness and became more and more separate from each other. Taylor describes this Fall as an ‘Ego Explosion’ and says it was ‘the most momentous event in the history of the human race.’
What I love about this book is that it answers the question I’ve had bubbling away in my subconscious for a long time: ‘Why should human history be such a terrible saga of violence and oppression?’
For example, I did not know that ‘unfallen people’ had no word for ‘property’, in fact some of the few surviving indigenous tribes in the world actually have no word for ‘I’ or ‘me’. The complete antithesis of our ‘selfie generation’. And Taylor reveals that it was the ‘fallen psyche’ that created anthropomorphic gods who then controlled our destiny. Before that, people understood that everything ‘was interconnected in a vast web of sacredness.’ Taylor also quotes Ken Wilber who says: “at the very core of our being we are one with the universe, infinite and eternal, behind space and time and death.” Now then, where have I read stuff like that before? Sounds like a pretty good description of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! (Before, that is, people ‘put a beard on the Mystic Law / spirit force’ and called it God…)
Of course, humanity’s fallen psyche has been the springboard for our incredible powers of intellect and scientific invention, but, Taylor argues, these have come at a high price: ‘How can the most intelligent life form the world has ever known be mismanaging its own existence on this planet in such a catastrophic way? An alien observer might conclude that the whole human race has agreed to a collective suicide pact.’
Such questions remind me that in the modern world we venerate clever brains when what the world needs most today is wise hearts (see my previous post on why a high IQ is over-rated.) Taylor adds that the materialistic and hedonistic values of our culture create a mindset where ‘nothing really means anything and we’re going to die at some point anyway, so we’ve just got to enjoy ourselves as much as we can while we’re here.’ He also says: “We have lost awareness of the spirit force which pervades the universe and everything in it.”
The solution – your Buddhahood and mine
Of course the good news is that when Nichiren Buddhists chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo we reconnect at the most fundamental level with that force, we venerate and revere the sacred core of our own and others’ lives, as taught in the principles of ichinen sanzen and esho funi.And we deeply perceive what Eddy Canfor-Dumas describes (in The Buddha, Geoff and Me) as the “mystical, invisible thread between the churning, inner reality of my life and the great outdoors of the rest of the world.”
At first I found Taylor’s book deeply unsettling. I felt guilty for being part of the ‘fallen psyche’. But ultimately The Fall is uplifting. It will ignite hope in any Nichiren Buddhist who ever doubts that their own human revolution can actually make a difference to the collective consciousness. Because it absolutely can. As Daisaku Ikeda famously wrote: “A great inner revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of an entire society and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of humankind.” I understand that cherished quote a hundred times more, thanks to The Fall.
And finally as Nichiren himself wrote in this hope-filled prediction: “The time will come when all people […] will enter on the path of Buddhahood and the Mystic Law alone will flourish throughout the land. In that time, because all people chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo together, the wind will not beleaguer the branches or boughs, nor will the rain fall hard enough to break a clod. […]. Disasters will be driven from the land, and the people will be rid of misfortunes. They will also learn the art of living long, fulfilling lives.”
That will be the inspiration for my prayer on this first day of 2015 and beyond.
Recently a lovely new non-religious friend of mine asked me, “How do you come to believe what you believe?”What a great question! Well the truth is, I was a very reluctant Buddhist at first. Allow me to take you back to 1983 and share with you how I first bumped into Buddhism. I had just arrived in Paris after leaving home at the age of 17, with grand ideas to work my way across Europe. On my first night I checked into the Hotel de Nesle, a cheap and bohemian Latin Quarter hostel.
There I soon made friends with a New Yorker called Ken. The deal was that he would show me round Paris and I would teach him French. Little did I know that this chance encounter would change the course of my whole life. Ken had taken a shine to a young Finnish lady called Mina. Mina was renting a room from a French lady in the 19th arrondissement, in those days one of the less salubrious parts of the capital. Mina was heading home to Helsinki and the French lady was hosting a leaving party. Both Ken and I were invited. The French lady now had a spare room to rent. A spare room to rent in an apartment with a south-facing balcony where attractive young people came to party. The French lady with a room to rent also had a strange altar in her lounge with a scroll in it. She was called Christiane and she was a Buddhist. We decided not to let her weird religion put us off, so Ken and I moved in a couple of days later.
Destiny and Dominoes
So… the Hotel de Nesle, American Ken, his Finnish love-interest, her leaving party, my first sight of a Buddhist altar, a cheap spare room to rent… Did this ‘series of dominoes’ fall in some pre-ordained sequence? Was it fate? Cosmic coincidence? Karma? At the time, none of the above. I had absolutely no plans to become a Buddhist, despite Christiane’s earnest endeavours. Firstly, I was a devout (if increasingly sceptical) Catholic. And secondly, although I found the philosophy intriguing, the practice was just a bit too ‘far out’. My first impressions were that Christiane’s scroll (her Gohonzon) and its central mantra – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – were at best bizarre and at worst sinister.
I spent ages debating with her about our different religions. All my philosophical points made perfect sense to me, though somewhere deep inside I did feel moved by her heart, by her compassion and also by her anger about the injustices of the world in her disadvantaged corner of Paris. I was profoundly sceptical and yet I was also seeking, wanting answers to those age-old questions – what’s it all about, and why am I here?
Thanking the spoon
For all my ability to argue, this wise and perceptive lady could sense that I was struggling. She saw straight through my intellectual arrogance to all the confusion and insecurity it hid. By this stage I still had no job, was down to my last few Francs and was in a relationship with a beautiful artist who was dabbling in Buddhism to beat her heroin addiction. I was on the verge of giving up and heading back to England. It was at this point that Christiane shared the Buddhist guidance about a spoon stirring up ‘karmic sediment’ from the depths of our lives. Her point was that if you take ownership of your problems, if you ‘thank the spoon’ rather than resenting what is happening to you, you can become the architect of your future, developing the inner resources to transform your life.
And so, a few days later, on 3 July, after more fruitless attempts to find work, I began to chant. But when I quickly found a job (as a chef in an Italian take-away) and when my girlfriend beat drugs, I dismissed both as mere coincidences. I then went to university in Scotland for the next two years, where I completely forgot about Buddhism. My earnest practice only began when I returned to Paris in 1985 for a teaching placement and noticed that most of the Buddhists who came to the flat had moved forwards in their lives, whereas I had stopped growing and was unhappy.
They reported a whole range of tangible and intangible benefits from their spiritual practice. One had a happier marriage, while another had unearthed the courage to leave a violent relationship. One had a better-paid job, another had found a new career with less money but more meaning. One had overcome a major health challenge, and another had discovered her artistic talent, realised she was gay and made a whole new set of friends. Some had rediscovered a sense of hope or freedom or confidence, others were kinder, less angry, more energetic, less anxious… and so on. And some were still struggling a lot, but with more hope and determination, thanks to the warm encouragement of their fellow Buddhists.
I began to think there might be something in this mantra after all. That it might provide a powerful and practical tool for living. And so began the 29-year adventure that has brought me to this point and to this post. So, to answer my friend’s question above, why do I practise Buddhism? Quite simply, because it works. As Nichiren teaches us: “Nothing is more certain than actual proof.” And as he writes elsewhere: “Therefore, I say to you, my disciples, try practising as the Lotus Sutra teaches, exerting yourselves without begrudging your lives! Test the truth of Buddhism now!”
If you are a Buddhist, please feel free to share below – how did you start chanting? And what made you continue?
PS. I will write another post soon about ‘Buddhism and actual proof’.
I have realised recently that whatever topic my different (and lovely) clients want to be coached on (e.g. relationships, career choices, addictions, assertiveness, leadership skills etc…) the one thing they all really want to feel is that their lives are authentic. They often realise, usually after one or two sessions, that the real reason they’re unhappy – for example in a job or relationship or town – is because they find it hard to express their true feelings. When that happens, life quickly begins to feel empty or meaningless. Or the discomfort may manifest as restlessness (what am I here for?) or anxiety (will I ever make anything of myself?) or a sudden loss of ‘mojo’, or anger (caused by cognitive dissonance.)
Put the word ‘Happiness’ into Google and it churns out an eye-popping 49,600,000 results. In 0.22 seconds. That made me smile. Type the same word into Amazon and it suggests no less than 35,793 books you could read. As a human race, we are fascinated by it. But what exactly is it? Look up ‘happiness’ and the definitions tend to include phrases like ‘sense of well-being’, ‘flourishing’, and ‘quality of life’.
Anyway I hope that some days you feel so bouncy and excited just to be alive that random strangers come up to you in the street, squeeze your (possibly) chubby cheeks and declare: “Wow, you are bursting with joy and scrumptiousness, thank you for being in the world.” Admittedly this doesn’t happen too often in my bit of Leicestershire. Yet.
Happiness is of course the purpose of Buddhist practice and in a way the whole of this blog is trying to define it and inspire more people to discover it. And after 29 years of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and 9 years as a Life Coach, I thought it might be time to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and attempt to pin down this nebulous concept. So… here is my little list, happiness is: