Skip to main content

Applying the Philosophy

Redefining Our Limitations

What's holding you back? Buddhism's take on establishing absolute freedom.

Illustrations by Luciano Lozano / Getty Images, mysondanube / Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines the word limit as “something that bounds, constrains or confines.”

Few would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has done all this and more. What we thought would be a temporary shelter-in-place order turned into a more than yearlong hiatus from normalcy. Amid sweeping changes and restrictions, many of us put our lives on hold, waiting for the pandemic to end and things to return to “normal.” But seen from the Buddhist perspective, even intractable, circumstances can be fuel to find deeper meaning in our lives and propel us toward growth and happiness.

Let’s take a look at what Buddhism has to say about breaking through our limitations and what we can learn from the mentors of Soka, who have demonstrated what freedom means in the most profound sense.

Buddhism Is a Teaching of Finding Purpose

Last year, Time magazine dubbed the college graduates of 2020 “generation pandemic” for the enduring implications they face having made their final transition into adulthood amid a largely unrecognizable landscape.

In his 2020 commencement message to the graduating class of Soka University of America, Ikeda Sensei encouraged the graduates to use this time to look inward, focusing ever more on unleashing the “limitless potential for good” we all possess. Part of that process, he said, is never to lose sight of our vision to create a society in which all can coexist in harmony. Sensei continues:

In coming together to confront the specter of an unseen pathogen, humanity today may be entering a truly transformative time, one in which we return to and redraw sustenance from the great earth of life that lies within us all. By drawing from the veritable “fountain of Good” innate in every human being on the planet, the time has come to unleash that limitless potential for good in each of our lives so that we may overcome any ordeal and secure the path to happiness and peace for both ourselves and for others.[1]

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SGI-USA last year initiated the ABC Campaign: abundant chanting; Buddhist study; and connecting life-to-life with others (by phone or videoconferencing). Many members shared how strengthening these basic elements of faith enabled them to break through seemingly impossible challenges from job loss to illness amid the pandemic.

And this year, the HOPE Campaign added a fourth element: planting seeds of the Mystic Law by sharing Buddhism with others. One member observed: “Hope is such a necessary aspect of life, not only to survive but to thrive. And through our practice of Nichiren Buddhism, we have hope every day.”[2]

What have we learned, then, from the pandemic? As Buddhists, perhaps one important lesson is that physical restrictions need not constrain our hearts. Our Buddhist practice and faith enable us to transform all poison into medicine and create unimaginable value in the process.

True “Peace and Comfort” Come From Squarely Facing Obstacles

To be sure, true freedom in Buddhism means having a free and unrestrained state of life that no obstacle can destroy.

Nichiren Daishonin spread his teaching of universal enlightenment amid relentless persecutions by the ruling authorities of feudal Japan. Yet he said that the difficulties he and his disciples faced were to be looked on as “peaceful practices,”[3] as opportunities to establish an indomitable life state.

With this same spirit, the eternal mentors of Soka, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda and Daisaku Ikeda, surmounted indescribable hardships in their endeavors to revive the spirit of Buddhism in modern times and spread the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo throughout the world.

While imprisoned by tyrannical authorities as a “thought criminal” during the war, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi wrote in a letter to his family, “Depending on one’s state of mind, even hell can be enjoyable.[4]

And Josei Toda, who was jailed with his mentor, said that it was awakening in prison to his great mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth that broke down the door of his lesser being.

The “peace and comfort” each experienced arose from establishing unshakable conviction in the Mystic Law. Sensei explains:

“Peace and comfort” are not usually the words that come to mind when we encounter difficulties or suffering. Normally, we would think of peace and comfort as being found amid tranquil and secure circumstances. But that is not the source of true peace and comfort.

When we strive in Buddhist practice for the sake of the happiness of ourselves and others in the Latter Day of the Law, obstacles are certain to arise. True peace and comfort are attained by facing obstacles and challenging hardships head-on. Experiencing difficulties is proof that we are making great efforts to persevere in faith. …

What I would like you to bear deeply in mind is that a state of absolute peace and comfort that no obstacle can destroy comes from establishing strong faith that can withstand any adversity.[5]

We Create the Future With the Causes We Make Right Now

When Sensei visited the Berlin Wall in October 1961, just two months after it was erected, he said with a conviction that belied the stark reality of the times, “I am sure that in 30 years this Berlin Wall will no longer stand.[6]

The Berlin Wall indeed fell in November 1989, just shy of three decades later. Sensei would later recall that he was not simply giving voice to a prediction or a wish that the wall would come down, but rather expressing his personal vow to keep struggling, through the means of dialogue, for the sake of world peace.

His actions exemplify the principle of true cause—of always starting anew from this moment based on determined prayer to the Gohonzon.

In an essay about the 23rd century, Sensei emphasizes the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on the future while focusing on making causes in the present:

What will the future be like? No one knows. All we know is that the effects that will appear in the future are all contained in the causes we make in the present. The important thing, therefore, is that we stand up with a lofty purpose in our hearts, unswayed by our short-term circumstances.[7]

When we look back at this time, will we say: “That was a waste of time” or “It was a challenging time, but I made so many causes that will definitely bear fruit.” Buddhism is not about waiting for the right circumstances; it is about creating them.

This Moment Will Never Come Again!

As a youth, while battling illness and struggling alongside his mentor to rebuild the Soka Gakkai, Sensei still took the time to listen to works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on his record player, write poetry and even gaze at the moon. Speaking to another youth, he said: “No matter how busy we are, we need to relax and listen to music once in a while. Practicing Buddhism isn’t about cutting ourselves off from the rest of life. Kosen-rufu is ultimately a movement to create a truly humanistic culture and way of life.”[8]

When we are in the midst of struggles, it may seem difficult to find the space to enjoy our surroundings. But it is by living 100% in the present that we create a meaningful life. Sensei says:

Upon reflection, life is nothing more than the accumulation of each present moment. If you are unable to make today fulfilling, you won’t reap any positive results tomorrow. You can make the grandest long-term plans, but if you can’t treasure each moment, those plans will just end as empty pipe dreams. Past causes and future results are all encapsulated in the true aspect of all phenomena in the present moment, and a transformation in that single moment of life can both extinguish karmic impediments from the distant past and ensure good fortune that will continue into the eternal future.[9]

Toward 2030

In the “Great Mountain” chapter in the 30th and final volume of The New Human Revolution, Sensei writes that the future exists right now, and what we do in this moment determines our future: “A sutra says: ‘If you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present.[10]

“‘It’s now or never! Don’t let this precious moment slip by!’ This was what Shin’ichi [Yamamoto][11]told himself.”[12]

Today will never come again—with the spirit to keep our gaze fixed on our goals and dreams toward 2030, no time is better than now to find deeper purpose in our problems and challenges. By squarely confronting them while making cause after cause for a brighter future, we can play an essential role in providing hope to others and lead lives of absolute freedom, happiness and peace.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department


  1. June 12, 2020, World Tribune, p. 10. ↩︎
  2. March 19, 2021, World Tribune, p. 12. ↩︎
  3. See The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 115. ↩︎
  4. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 42. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., pp. 180–81. ↩︎
  6. The New Human Revolution, vol. 4, revised edition, p. 319. ↩︎
  7. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 3, p. 363. ↩︎
  8. NHR-12, revised edition, 110. ↩︎
  9. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 229. ↩︎
  10. “The Opening of the Eyes,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 279. ↩︎
  11. Shin’ichi Yamamoto is the name of Daisaku Ikeda’s character in The New Human Revolution. ↩︎
  12. March 10, 2017, World Tribune, p. 6. ↩︎

Read more