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Applying the Philosophy

Building Harmonious Relationships

Photo by Mike Kiev / Getty Images

Human relationships. They can be the source of our greatest joys and, at times, our ultimate suffering. Add to that the unique circumstances of the past year, when the world found itself sheltering in place, sparking dramatic shifts in the way we interact with others and perhaps even spotlighting the difficult relationships in our lives.

A Keck Medicine of USC study showed that bad relationships can affect a person emotionally, physically and mentally, and even lower an individual’s self-esteem.[1]

When we consider the negative impact that difficult relationships can have on our well-being, it might seem easier not to deal with them at all.

We’ve all considered these scenarios at one time or another: Should I find another job rather than deal with my difficult (add boss or co-worker here)? Would it be healthier for me to cut off my relationship with that toxic friend? Maybe it’s time to take a break from my family?

We live in a society where it’s the norm for people to cut ties with others. But, apart from scenarios where our safety is a concern, walking away from a difficult relationship only perpetuates loneliness and prevents us from developing our humanity.

So what does Buddhism say about transforming difficult relationships? In “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” one of Nichiren Daishonin’s key writings, he clarifies that if we seek happiness externally (in other words, wait for someone else to change), we will always be at the whim of our environment. Nichiren, in fact, goes so far as to say: “If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, then your performing even ten thousand practices and ten thousand good deeds will be in vain. It is like the case of a poor man who spends night and day counting his neighbor’s wealth but gains not even half a coin.”[2]

This may seem like a bitter pill to swallow when we’re locked in conflict with another person, especially when we feel we’re in the right. But in his commentary on this writing, Ikeda Sensei explains that if we seek the law externally, it essentially amounts to evading responsibility for our lives, which runs counter to Nichiren Buddhism.

What then is the driving force for change? Sensei elaborates on the benefit of Buddhist practice, writing:

Practicing Nichiren Buddhism means not being swayed this way and that; it means constructing a self that is solid and resolute like towering Mount Fuji. But if we neglect this task and focus our energies somewhere else, before we’re even aware of it, we can end up veering onto the path of externally seeking the Law.

For example, if we chant to the Gohonzon but always blame other people or our environment for our circumstances, we are avoiding the challenge of tackling our inner darkness or ignorance. By doing so, we are seeking enlightenment outside of us. By changing ourselves on a more profound level, we can begin to improve our situation. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the driving force for that change.[3]

Harmonious Coexistence

Buddhism teaches us not only how to develop our ability to harmonize with those around us but also how to become individuals who can bring people together. In his lecture at Columbia University in 1996, Sensei explains why developing this muscle is so important, saying that “goodness” can be defined as that which moves us toward harmonious coexistence, empathy and solidarity with others, while the nature of evil is to divide “people from people, humanity from the rest of nature.”[4]

What’s more, Sensei states, “The pathology of divisiveness drives people to an unreasoning attachment to difference and blinds them to human commonalities.”[5]

So, how do we improve difficult relations?

The Power of Our Inner Determination

The Buddhist concept of the “oneness of life and its environment” teaches that though our lives and environment are seemingly distinct phenomena, they are in fact two aspects of a single reality. It indicates that “life” constitutes a subjective self that experiences the effects of its past actions, while its “environment” is an objective realm in which an individual’s karma finds expression.

Simply put, our lives don’t exist or flourish in isolation. Rather, because we are a part of a larger, symbiotic fabric of coexistence, what we think, say and do impact our families, communities, workplaces, nation and, ultimately, all humanity. This means that through a transformation in our hearts and minds, we can change our environment for the better and move our lives and society in the direction of harmony and peace.

Sensei shares that this inner transformation at the deepest level represents the true benefit of Buddhist practice. He writes:

The human heart, the mind, is truly wondrous and unfathomable. Everything can be transformed by the “wonderful workings of our heart, or mind.” …

Through our steady daily Buddhist practice, we quite naturally bring forth from within us the life states of Bodhisattva and Buddhahood—which are characterized by a heart or spirit that is steadfast, always victorious, trailblazing, progressing, resilient, resolute, courageous, compassionate, tolerant, encouraging, appreciative and undefeatable. …

Changing our heart is not a matter of doing something that will only temporarily lift our mood or make us feel better, without changing our reality. A true change in our hearts is more profound; genuine inner change produces actual change in our lives. Deepening our “heart”—our life state—is the essence of our religion for human revolution. When we speak of obtaining benefit through our Buddhist practice, we are ultimately referring to our inner transformation at the deepest level. …

Our heart determines whether or not we attain Buddhahood. That’s why “it is the heart that is important.”[6]

A Story of Deep Family Revolution

Let’s take a look at what this looks like through the real-life story of Chieko Yamashita adapted from volume 6 of The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra.[7]

After Chieko Yamashita’s husband’s business failed, he began drinking heavily and gambling, causing the couple and their two children to fall into poverty and even homelessness. Despite both of them joining the Soka Gakkai, he vehemently opposed her faith, criticized her practice and physically abused her.

In just one day, her husband gambled away the roughly $35,000 that she had diligently been saving up to buy a house. That’s when a senior in faith urged her to take full responsibility for her own happiness. Mrs. Yamashita recalled:

When I heard this, I made up my mind to not give up. The Daishonin says: “Buddhism is like the body, and society like the shadow. When the body bends, so does the shadow.”[8] I determined to stop swinging between joy and sorrow because of the chaos in my life and to stop complaining about what my husband was or wasn’t doing. … It was not about anyone else; everything depended on my life condition.[9]

With this determination, she strove wholeheartedly in Soka Gakkai activities. As a result, after her seventh year of practice, she was offered the opportunity to manage a plot of land.

And rather than focusing on her husband’s faults, she began appreciating him for helping her deepen her faith.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “As soon as my resentment toward my husband turned into appreciation, he suddenly lost his infatuation with gambling. And he began to pray to the Gohonzon.”

When her husband was later diagnosed with cancer, her prayer to the Gohonzon was: “Please take half of my life and give it to my husband. Let us fight for kosen-rufu together.”

His illness brought them closer, and he developed an insatiable desire to learn all he could about Buddhism.

“Through all the negative and positive experiences,” she said, “my husband taught me about faith. He was truly a good friend in faith. I have now grown into a person who can feel incredible appreciation, knowing that I owe everything to the terrible hardship I experienced.”

Over the years, Mrs. Yamashita developed the plot of land that she was asked to manage, later becoming the president of a company that operates a 36,000-square-foot bicycle parking lot. She gained enough financial fortune to build a personal community center, which was named Yamashita Glory Community Center by Ikeda Sensei.

She is a great example of how accruing inconspicuous benefits, such as developing an unbending determination and genuine appreciation for even our greatest challenges, can help transform our life into one that abounds with great conspicuous benefits, joy and happiness.

Mrs. Yamashita’s story is not an uncommon one. She (understandably) blamed her husband for her unhappiness and misery. As a result, she continued to suffer, feeling that she was powerless to change the situation. But the moment she shifted her resolve, something changed in her heart and her environment immediately reflected it.

Sensei writes:

That’s the kind of determination we need to have! Once we understand that everything that happens to us enables us to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime, all of our problems will be resolved.

On the other hand, the more we tend to complain and put the blame on others, the longer we delay the transformation of our karma.

If we pray to the Gohonzon through all our sufferings and sorrows, and firmly resolve that: “This is my destiny. This is my life. I will do my human revolution first and foremost,” then a path forward will open without fail.[10]

Developing a Profound Belief in Others

You may be wondering whether this means we have to stay in relationships that cause us harm in order to change our karma. But Buddhism doesn’t see situations so superficially. The important point is to bring forth the wisdom to know what action to take in each circumstance, and for every person, the answer will be different.

In any case, what matters is how we grow and develop as a result of our challenges. Changing our heart means developing a profound belief in every person’s Buddhahood. That we are able to do so is not only an expression of our faith in the Mystic Law, but also an expression of our trust and respect for all human beings.

Sensei states: “It is easy to speak abstractly of love for one’s fellow human beings or love for humanity, but it can be very challenging to have love and compassion for actual individuals.”[11]

How true this is. It is only through resolving to transform our interpersonal relationships that we can reveal our inherent nobility and become models for bringing people together, which is what the world needs.


  1. https://www.keckmedicine. org/the-negative-health-effects-ofa- bad-relationship/ <accessed on November 16, 2020>. ↩︎
  2. “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 3. ↩︎
  3. On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime: SGI President Ikeda’s Lecture Series, p. 31. ↩︎
  4. See A New Way Forward, p. 91. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. September 2018 Living Buddhism, p. 52. ↩︎
  7. The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 6, pp. 182–87. ↩︎
  8. “A Comparison of the Lotus and Other Sutras,” WND-1, 1039. ↩︎
  9. WLS-6, 184–85. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., p. 185. ↩︎
  11. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 3, p. 79. ↩︎

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