Does Buddhism Work?

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This is from a Dharma talk I gave at the temple in March 2000. Before and since giving that talk I have heard stories about the actual practical effects of Odaimoku which were very encouraging and even deeply moving. So I do not discount the "benefits" of chanting Odaimoku, far from it. Whether they are miracles or not, they are wonderful examples of the Buddha Dharma at work in our lives. However, it is also true that many people chant Odaimoku and remain in vicious circles of suffering, with shallow goals and expectations. But even there, who knows how much worse off they would be without Odaimoku?

At the very least, the seed of enlightenment has been planted. So it is not that chanting for benefits in and of itself is wrong, but I think that it should not be lost sight of that the greatest benefit of all is to raise our aspirations to the thought of enlightenment, to experience a profound change of heart, and to dedicate all our merits to all sentient beings. It is my conviction that those are the three primary aspects of Odaimoku practice - aspiration, realization, and dedication. In that spirit I offer the following Dharma talk:

Does Buddhism Work?

About two weeks ago I had a funny thing happen to me at Walgreens. I was waiting in line to pick up some things for Julie, when I overheard the people in front of me commenting on the power bracelet display. Now I do not know if you have noticed or not, but within the last few months people have begun wearing Buddhist prayer beads or juzu as a kind of fashion accessory. The first couple of times that I noticed this I asked the people who were wearing them if they were Buddhists but I finally caught on to the fact that it was a fashion thing and not an expression of faith. It seems as though someone decided to market these juzu and furthermore even claimed that these power bracelet have different properties relating to healing, good fortune, protection, sexual attraction, or prosperity depending upon the type of stones used to make them. The people ahead of me at Walgreens were commenting on what a scam the whole thing was, so I interjected that actually these so-called "power bracelets" were actually Buddhist prayer beads and they shouldn't be sold as New Age jewelry in the first place.

That's when this couple caught me by surprise. The man ahead of me asked, "Well do they work?" I was really taken aback by that. I guess they figured that since I was a Buddhist, I would know if these prayer beads lived up to the hype or not. Of course, I don't usually relate to my juzu as a magickal tool, so I found the question absurd. I asked in return, "Well, that would be like asking if a rosary works." I figured that at the very least they would see that juzu are for prayer not magick, and I thought that everyone is familiar with what the rosary is all about since it is a part of Western culture. Wrong again. The man replied, "We don't know. We're not Catholic." At that point, I just kind of shrugged. I do enjoy butting in and trying to set the record straight for people, but even I know when to quit.

I can't forget this little incident though, because it really showed me that for the average American, actually the average person anywhere, religion is not about self-transformation or awakening to reality. Rather, it is about magick, the supernatural, the manipulation of the Force like in Star Wars, or perhaps getting on the good side of an omnipotent deity who will protect us and gaurantee us eternal happiness after death. In any case, religion and religious paraphenalia are ways to tap into these supernatural forces and get them on our side to allay our anxieties and fulfill our desires. There is no question of having to do any serious self-reflection or self-transformation. What people want is gauranteed lasting self-satisfaction at bargain prices. This is sad, but perfectly understandable.

Nichiren's contemporaries were no different. In Nichiren's day, people were very impressed by the practices, paraphenalia, and claims of tantric or magickal Buddhism represented primarily by the True Word (Shingon) school. Commenting upon this, Nichiren wrote in a letter:

"The followers of the True Word school in particular make it a point to emphasize worldly benefits exclusively. Using animals as objects of devotion, they conduct prayers not only to satisfy the amorous passions of man and woman, but also to fulfill desires for manors and the like. They claim such trifling results as wonderous benefits. However, it they are going to assert the supremacy of the True Word teachings on these grounds, they are no match for the non-Buddhists of India." (WND p.158)

According to Nichiren, if we reduce Buddhism to being a tool for worldly benefits, as these juzu turned power bracelets have been, then we might as well not even be Buddhists because we are missing the point. Nichiren realized that it was important not to be swayed by worldly miracles or promises of worldly benefits. In reply to those who were impressed by the supposed miracles of the founder of True Word Buddhism in Japan he wrote:

"I at first thought the same way. But after I entered the path of the Buddha's teaching and began to distinguish what accords with its principles from what does not, I realized that the ability to perform miraculous acts at will does not necessarily constitute a basis for determing the truth or falsity of Buddhist teachings." (WND p.114)

Now some of us here may be thinking, "That;s fine. I don't practice Buddhism in order to gain mystical powers or merely for worldly benefits. I already have a loving relationship and a nice place to live and a good job. I don't need Buddhism for that. If the Buddha and protectors of the Dharma help me that is fine, but primarily I practice Buddhism for peace of mind and in order to be a more insightful and caring person. But there is the twist. In the end we do expect Buddhism to "work." Maybe some of us want it to work on a material level, and maybe some of us want it to work on a psychological or spiritual level. But in the end, would we bother with Buddhism if it didn't benefit us? When I think in this way, I realize that maybe those customers in Walgreens were actually asking the right question after all.

So what does Nichiren have to say? In one letter he writes:

"The ascetic Agastya poured the Ganges River into one ear and kept it there for twelve years, the ascetic Jinu drank the great ocean in a single day, Chang Chieh exhaled the fog, and Luan Pa exhaled clouds. But this does not mean that they knew what is correct and what is not in the Buddhist teachings, or that they understood the principle of cause and effect." (WND p.114)

So there is the key. No matter what miracles or benefits we are able to gain, even those involving an improvement in character, though Nichiren does not mention that angle here, if we do not awaken to the law of cause and effect we are still living in a fog. That is the most important principle because the law of cause and effect is another name for the workings of the Wonderful Dharma. Until we awaken to it we are still asleep walking through life, unable to understand the marvelous and selflessly interconnected process of reality just as it is - the Wonderful Dharma blossoming in every moment of life. Awakening to this is what Buddhahood is all about. This is something that no power beads, or esoteric ceremonies can bring about. Only a revolution of the heart from self-interest to selfless dedication to the Wonderful Dharm can bring about this awakening.

Buddhism is very vast and complex. In many ways it is a whole culture unto itself. It encompasses everything from philosophy and psychology to folk magick and simple piety. But in the end, what is Buddhism supposed to be about? What is it that Buddhism is working towards, assuming that it works? To answer, let me close with one last passage from Nichiren:

"In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas. Surely anyone can grasp so reasonable a standard." (WND p.156)

So, does Buddhism work? I believe that it worked for Shakyamuni Buddha, Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Chih-i, Miao-lo, Dengyo, and of course Nichiren Shonin. May it work for us as well.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2000.

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