Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
Do you ever reach a point in your life or your Buddhist practice where nothing seems to make sense any more? When you feel you’ve made all the right causes to change a situation, but the benefit still doesn’t appear? Or when your faith, practice and study have seemed so strong and complete, and yet a cherished dream lies in tatters at your feet? Or when, out of the blue, you are floored by a serious problem with your health, work, finances or a close relationship? You may even find yourself remonstrating with the Gohonzon, saying, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?!”
Too weird to be true?
If this is you at the moment (sometimes it is me…), give yourself a big pat on the back and say: “Congratulations to me! I did it! I kept my promise!” And then remind yourself that, as taught in The Lotus Sutra, you made a vow as a Bodhisattva of the Earth to ‘voluntarily assume the appropriate karma’ in order to teach others about Buddhism. But why on earth would you make such a vow? Why would you choose to be born in difficult circumstances, why would you go looking for such deep suffering? It just seems too weird and extraordinary! After all, there are no mentions of masochism in Nichiren Buddhism :-)! Of course, Nichiren actually taught that we made this vow so that we could, through our struggles, develop the wisdom, courage and compassion to move other people’s hearts. So that they too will feel inspired to discover and reveal the joy and dignity in the depths of their own lives.
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!”
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.
first of all, warmest thanks to the thousands of you who have supported this page over the last two years! Thanks to you I found a wonderful publisher for my book. So this is just to let you know that ‘The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You’ (based on this blog) is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK. The book will be out in the UK in Feb 2016. I will do another post once my publishers – Rider (part of Penguin Random House) have placed it with other publishers in the USA, India etc… when it will also appear on the Amazon.com website.
This will be the world’s first personal development book to teach that individual fulfilment comes from making a vow to raise the life state of the whole planet (Kosen Rufu). More on the book here. Right, now that it’s on Amazon, I’d better crack on and finish the final manuscript! Love, Light and NMRK,
Actor and SGI Buddhist James DuMont now has over 100 film & TV credits to his name. They include Ugly Betty, Dallas Buyers Club, House, The West Wing, Oceans 13, War of the Worlds, Seabiscuit and Catch Me If You Can. He has played opposite the likes of Colin Farrell, Al Pacino, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. His next movie – Jurassic World – opens today, Friday 12 June.
What I love about James’s résumé is that he has slowly, surely and steadily built a successful Hollywood career through his repeated efforts. In fact to land those 100 parts, he has had to do more than 3,000 auditions! And this reminds him of a famous Buddhist quote: “From the indigo, an even deeper blue.” This means that, if one dyes something repeatedly in indigo, it becomes even bluer than the indigo leaf itself. In this interview, James shared with me how his strong Buddhist practice sustains him through the ups and downs of life.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome through the practice?
My father and his father made huge, detrimental mistakes that destroyed their families and the damage took years and generations to heal and in some cases those issues have been the greatest obstacles I have faced as father and husband. Issues of infidelity, financial mistakes and more importantly issues of being present and available to set an example. This has also been my biggest benefit. I am present for my son and daughter, as best I can. I am working to be a better man, father, husband and son than the men in my family before me. In essence I am redefining the truest meaning of fatherhood in my family and all the responsibility that comes with that. This is not an easy task or mission, but it is mine.
What’s your favourite Buddhist quote and why?
SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” And another favourite quote (author unknown): “Two things define you, your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything”. I have never forgotten where I have come from and this practice allows me to have gratitude and to treat others as I would want to be treated.
Your new movie is Jurassic World, are there any Nichiren Buddhist themes in it?
The most obvious one is “the person & the environment are one!” If our hearts and minds are pure, then so is the environment. There is also the theme of ‘those who do not stop evil are supporting and encouraging it.’ Also part of the inherent nature of dinosaurs was to kill, but unlike the dinosaurs, we have the Gohonzon, which gives us a tool to access our Buddhahood and transform ourselves and our inherent nature.
Why do you think Nichiren Buddhism attracts so many actors and artists?
This practice gives you the strength, power and hope to fundamentally transform your own human journey while on this earth. As an actor/artist I can have a deep and profound effect on the planet, if I just dig deep into my own humanity and then bring that to light by unearthing human behaviour in all its beauty, pain, joy and sorrow. That is my mission while I am here. I audition more than 300 times a year, and in a good year I will only succeed with ten of those 300 attempts to share myself and skills. I can’t imagine having to deal with that without this practice. It gives me a sword to wield through all these setbacks and come away from them feeling happiness, joy and hope. I hope my life and human revolution will encourage people to stand up and fight even harder!
Tell us more about how you handle rejection as an actor?
I cannot stress enough the resilience this practice gives you and how necessary this is for my life and career. Also sometimes you may ‘step in some dog shit’ in life and it takes a while to get rid of the smell from your shoes or even from your mind. You smell it, others do or even if they don’t, you think they do. You have to shed that mindset and make greater causes in order to counter the temporary nature of ‘having shit on your shoes’. I share that analogy a great deal to encourage actors going through serious dry spells of work.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Trust yourself more, be better to yourself and do this chanting thing that’s been put right in front of you!
Tomorrow (or today – depending on your timezone…) is the anniversary of the founding in 1253 of Nichiren Buddhism. 28 April is the date 762 years ago when Nichiren Daishonin first chanted the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo – the name he gave to the Mystic Law – the creative force and the rhythm of cause and effect that flows through Life itself. So I would like to offer some personal reflections, after 30 years of chanting this mantra. To ponder why it was that in 13th century Japan, the son of a lowly fisherman dedicated his life (and was prepared to lose his life) so that all humanity for millennia to come could tap into this prayer, whose power he compared to the ‘roar of a lion’.
[Note: if you would like to read a literal translation of what Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means (and find out why it may even anticipate the latest discoveries of quantum physics…) please visit this page on my blog. If you want to hear the sound of chanting, check out this Youtube video by my fellow blogger, a magnificent Buddha called Robbie Lockie.]
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’.