The Wisdom of 'Tathata': Making the Most of Our Changing World

Wisdom has much to do with our ability to create happiness, with knowing what is the right thing to do in our constantly changing world. Our happiness, in other words, depends greatly on our ability to create the most value out of each unique situation we face. Each one requires a different, if ever slightly, response. This is wisdom. A wise person, in other words, understands not only the universal principles that govern the workings of life, but also how to apply them for the greatest joy and fulfillment amidst change.

No experiences in life are exactly the same, just as no two waves break in exactly the same way. Even in the same circumstances, people often have entirely different experiences. To ride out each challenge in life and still enjoy the ride, we must be like an expert surfer. An excellent surfer not only knows the underlying influences on waves, such as swells, tides, winds and bottom contours, but also is equipped physically and mentally to respond to the uniqueness of each wave. The difference between an expert surfer and someone who barely manages to stay on a surfboard in a high sea is the difference between those with wisdom and those without, in facing life's vicissitudes. Our ability to face new challenges plays no small part in our happiness.

Buddhism explains the relationship between universal and particular, principle and application, in terms of the two aspects of tathata, which is the Sanskrit word for the ultimate, unchanging reality of all phenomena. The Japanese rendering of tathata (Jpn shin'nyo) has two components indicating "truth" (shin) and "as it is [always]" or "as such" (nyo). The Buddhist truth of tathata—truth as it is always—is considered timeless and universal. This truth holds that all living beings are endowed with the Buddha nature and embody the true aspect of all phenomena.

Tathata has two aspects: (1) the unchanging law of ultimate truth and (2) the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations. The theoretical teaching (or the first half) of the Lotus Sutra is said to indicate "the unchanging law of ultimate truth" as the true aspect of all phenomena. The essential teaching (or the latter half) of the Lotus Sutra is said to reveal "the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations" through the Buddha's concrete action, that is, the cause and effect of his enlightenment and the land where he practiced and spread his teaching. The law of life, in other words, is universal to all people while the wisdom of life is particular to each person or to each situation. Put simply, "the unchanging law of ultimate truth" is the universal principle behind enlightenment, and "the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations" is the profound wisdom to actualize this principle in one's life.

All people are endowed with both "the unchanging law" and "the wisdom of ultimate truth." Put another way, all people possess the ultimate truth of Buddhahood and the wisdom to manifest it in their interactions with the environment. "The unchanging law" and "the wisdom of ultimate truth" are not separate entities; they are two innate qualities of life. "The unchanging law" permeates simultaneously our lives and all external phenomena. Based on this law, we reveal "the wisdom of ultimate truth" as we relate to our environment moment to moment.

In the "The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings," the Daishonin explains the meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as follows: "'Nam' derives from the Sanskrit, and here [in Japan] it means to 'devote life.'...To 'devote' signifies to devote oneself to the unchanging law of ultimate truth expounded in the theoretical teaching [of the Lotus Sutra]. 'Life' signifies to base oneself on the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations. To 'devote life' is thus Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. As a sutra commentary states, both the unchanging law of ultimate truth and the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations are both contained in the single moment of life, respectively in the tranquility of dormancy and in the illumination of appearance" (Gosho Zenshu, p. 708).

The Daishonin inscribed the Gohonzon as the object of devotion for all people to reveal their supreme potential of Buddhahood. The Gohonzon embodies the fundamental law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo within all of us, that is, tathata. So when we take faith in the Gohonzon and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to it, our lives be in harmony with "the unchanging law of ultimate truth," and our actions will express "the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations." As long as we maintain faith in the Mystic Law within us, we can freely tap "the wisdom of ultimate truth" to create the utmost value in our constantly changing circumstances.

The Daishonin also states in the "The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings": "'Universal' [of the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy] means the true aspect of all phenomena, indicating the unchanging law of the ultimate truth as it is expounded in the theoretical teaching [of the Lotus Sutra]. 'Worthy' means wisdom, that is, the wisdom of ultimate truth manifested in changing relations as it is expounded in the essential teaching [of the Lotus Sutra]" (GZ, 780). Since Bodhisattva Universal Worthy symbolizes the spread of the Buddha's wisdom throughout the world, "the wisdom of ultimate truth" not only serves our personal happiness, but also our efforts to spread the humanistic ideals of the Daishonin's Buddhism in our communities. Here the Daishonin explains that the wisdom of tathata is both for oneself and others.

Every day brings us a new challenge that requires new thinking. This is why we can experience joy every day anew. Some people, however, go through each day as if it were the same. Closing their eyes to new opportunities before them, they live as automatons who fear change and lack self-confidence. The Daishonin's Buddhism offers a fundamental solution to such monotony and boredom in life; it enables us to tap our innate wisdom to face each new challenge with confidence. Then each day and each encounter will be a new joy uncovered. As an expert surfer can enjoy and appreciate the uniqueness of each wave, we will start to enjoy the process of challenging each set of circumstances, instead of passively enduring problems while wishing for their disappearance in some imagined future. To live truly is to enjoy the ride of life—with all of its ups and downs. Living is an art to be learned, and the joy of life comes through our efforts to cultivate our innate wisdom to make the most of our changing world.

Living Buddhism, January 2002, p. 10