The Buddha's "Three Rules" for Improving Dialogue

Buddhism values dialogue. By sharing the thoughts, feelings and experiences of ourselves and especially of others, we expand our horizon of humanity and develop bonds of trust and friendship. To understand another person and be understood by her or him is to experience the joy and the strength of our common humanity.

When we experience benefit from our Buddhist practice, for example, we wish to share it with others. But sometimes our conversations may not go as we expect. In fact, enjoyable and meaningful dialogue rarely occurs without effort.

The Lotus Sutra expounds three key points to keep in mind when we dialogue with others, especially when we try to communicate the greatness of Buddhism. In the "Teacher of the Law" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha explains to Bodhisattva Medicine King and an assembly of eighty thousand bodhisattvas about what is commonly known as "the three rules of preaching":

"Medicine King, if there are good men and good women who, after the Thus Come One1 has entered extinction, wish to expound this Lotus Sutra for the four kinds of believers2, how should they expound it? These good men and good women should enter the Thus Come One's room, put on the Thus Come One's robe, sit in the Thus Come One's seat, and then for the sake of the four kinds of believers broadly expound this sutra" (The Lotus Sutra, p. 166).

Shakyamuni goes on to explain his metaphors of the Buddha's "room," "robe" and "seat": "The 'Thus Come One's room' is the state of mind that shows great pity and compassion toward all living beings. The 'Thus Come One's robe' is the mind that is gentle and forbearing. The 'Thus Come One's seat' is the emptiness of all phenomena. One should seat oneself comfortably therein and after that, with a mind never lazy or remiss, should for the sake of the bodhisattvas and the four kinds of believers broadly expound this sutra" (LS10, 166).

The three rules of preaching, in other words, are 1) to enter the "room" of compassion for all people; 2) to put on the "robe" of gentleness and forbearance; and 3) to take the "seat" of the emptiness of all phenomena. In "Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings," Nichiren Daishonin explains this Buddhist concept: "Now Nichiren and his followers who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo are fulfilling the three rules of preaching each moment of their lives. The robe [of the Thus Come One] means the robe of gentleness and forbearance, that is, the armor of perseverance. The seat [of the Thus Come One] means carrying out one's religious practice without begrudging one's life. By carrying out such practice, one awakens to the emptiness of all phenomena. The room [of the Thus Come One] is so called because he dwells in compassion and spreads [his teaching], just like a mother thinking of her child" (Gosho Zenshu, p. 737).

Compassion: Entering 'the Thus Come One's room'

The "Thus Come One's room" indicates the expanse of the Buddha's compassion. The Buddha's compassion embraces all people and protects their lives from suffering and confusion. So it is compared to a room. Our efforts in dialogue begin with our compassion for others. Here compassion may be also understood as friendship and respect. Since the Buddhist concept of compassion is based on the universality of Buddhahood, compassion is not one's pity for those who seem weaker or inferior; it is more like a sentiment of friendly respect amongst equals.

Without compassion, friendship and respect, dialogue becomes merely a disguise for a self-righteous "monologue" detached from the reality of people. The stronger our sincere desire to remove others' suffering and impart joy, the broader and deeper our lives become, capable of embracing everyone. This may be why the Daishonin compares the Buddha's compassion to a mother's unconditional love for her child. Indeed, compassion is like a warm, inviting room in which no heart can remain closed.

Gentle Forbearance: Putting on "the Thus Come One's robe'

As clothes protect our bodies from the weather, "the Thus Come One's robe" is symbolic of gentle forbearance with which to continue our dialogue despite the misunderstanding and criticism of others. No matter how sincerely we may try to talk and listen, sometimes our words not only seem incapable of reaching the hearts of others, but also invite unkindness. At such moments, we may be tempted to lose our temper and return vengeful and harsh remarks. Or we may wish to retreat into selfish detachment and build walls around our fragile ego, thinking, "I don't care anymore."

To have fruitful dialogue, however, we must overcome such spiteful anger and egotistic isolation, which only highlight our own weaknesses. Dialogue, in this sense, offers an excellent opportunity to develop the inner strength to remain respectful and unswayed by negative circumstances. A Buddha's "gentleness" actually comes from her or his inner strength. A Buddha's "forbearance" is not a passive acceptance of verbal abuse from others, but an active search of new strength within to understand and embrace others' inner powerlessness that impels them to become abusive. To be "gentle and forbearing" in dialogue, therefore, is completely different from being a passive victim of verbal abuse.

If we simply try to "put up" with others against our will, sooner or later our suppressed frustration will erupt in rage. To avoid such an unpleasant outburst of emotions, some people may try to "let out steam" occasionally in a somewhat more controlled manner. The more fundamental solution, however, lies in broadening and strengthening our lives so that there may be less "putting up" with anyone. As we develop our inner strength of Buddhahood through prayer and practice, we can free ourselves from the destructive urge to get even and genuinely appreciate our capacity to embrace others. Each time we try to stretch our lives to embrace others, we can praise ourselves for our inner growth, instead of putting up with them and getting angrier inside. We "put up" with someone usually as a temporary concession with expectation of future reward—"I take what you're saying, but you'll be nice to me from now on." But if we are not rewarded as expected, we will feel betrayed and explode in anger. The true "forbearance" of a Buddha, however, derives from genuine inner strength so it does not build any negative pressure inside him. It is not a "bargain" we make with others in dialogue. Rather, whenever a Buddha embraces others with forbearance, she will be filled with joy and appreciation for her life.

Wisdom: Taking the 'Thus Come One's seat'

To take the "Thus Come One's seat" is to develop an elevated perspective from which we can put others and ourselves at ease, as people feel comfortable when they are seated In a nice chair. More specifically, to take the Buddha's seat is to develop wisdom to see the "emptiness of all phenomena." Put simply, the teaching of "emptiness" (also "non-substantiality" or "void") means that nothing exists on its own accord and that everything changes through its relationship with the environment.

In more practical terms, this teaching explains that whatever we think as absolutely fixed actually can be changed for the better. Or we may say that since nothing stays the same, we can make anything out of everything. Life is what we make of it. At the same time, we cannot pass judgment on or limit others, not allowing their other possibilities. Nor should we be attached to only one perspective and close our minds to anything else.

In this sense, to take the "Thus Come One's seat" is to discard our shallow attachments and develop open-mindedness and wisdom to create value in any circumstance. As the Daishonin explains, we can develop such open-mindedness and wisdom through our earnest, selfless Buddhist practice. When we take action for the sake of others' happiness, we can develop a profound state of life in which we are no longer attached to selfish gain or temporary fame. Instead we can rise above our shallow attachment to our appearance or material possession and see everything in life in its proper perspective at each moment. Taking "the seat of the Thus Come One," therefore, is truly a freeing experience.

As the Daishonin says, "Now Nichiren and his followers who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo are fulfilling the three rules of preaching each moment of their lives," ultimately we can develop those qualities of compassion, gentle forbearance and wisdom through praying earnestly to the Gohonzon to bring forth our innate Buddhahood and exerting ourselves for others. The three rules of preaching, therefore, are not intellectual exercise or rhetoric, but guidelines to develop our lives for truly enjoyable and meaningful communication.

By Shin Yatomi, SGI-USA Study Department Vice Leader, based in part on Yasashii Kyogaku (Easy Buddhist Study) published by Seikyo Press in 1994.

  1. (Skt Tathagata) One of the ten honorable titles of a Buddha, meaning one who has arrived from the world of truth.
  2. The four kinds of believers are monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

Living Buddhism, July 2002, p. 5