Believing that everyone possesses buddha-nature

Former Minister of the International Buddhist Congregation (Japan)

Rev Yoshiaki Yamamoto

This Dharma Journey talk was presented at the Great Sacred Hall on 10 November 2019, during the ceremony celebrating the monthly memorial day for Cofounder Myoko Naganuma.

Rev Yamamoto delivers his Dharma Journey talk in the Great Sacred Hall, Tokyo.

My name is Yoshiaki Yamamoto. I am very grateful for this opportunity to give a Dharma Journey talk on the monthly memorial day for Cofounder Myoko Naganuma, in the auspicious year when we will observe the 130th anniversary of her birth.

This year, I turned seventy. Today, I feel that I received a gift from the Buddha: the opportunity to express my deep gratitude to the members of Rissho Kosei-kai who took such good care of me, and to the Buddha, Founder Niwano, President Niwano, and Cofounder Naganuma, who guided me to the most wonderful teaching, the Lotus Sutra.

I was born and raised in a coastal town on Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. My father was drafted during World War II and sent to China and the southern Pacific islands. He was a survivor of the Battle of Peleliu, in which most Japanese soldiers perished. As a survivor from fierce battlefields, my father was a man of fortitude, and he raised me very strictly. He often gave me a smack to discipline me when I was a kid. After growing up in such an environment, I started becoming very secluded in my house. I hated my father.

At age twenty-three, I felt my energy declining, so I decided to turn to religion in order to change my relationship with my father. At first I thought I would consult a Christian minister, but I didn’t have the strength to find and visit a suitable church, so I chose Rissho Kosei-kai, which my mother was a member of, without much thought. During this time, I also talked to my mother about my problem with my father.

My mother had joined Rissho Kosei-kai in 1962, and when I became a shut-in she went to the Chita Buddhist Center often, probably to seek guidance from the minister or chapter leader about her troubled son. Rev Masao Wakiya, then the minister of the Buddhist centre, kindly suggested that I stay in the Buddhist centre for a week if I found my relationship with my father unbearable.

I didn’t want to stay at home, so I made up my mind and went to the Buddhist centre for a week. All I brought with me were some extra clothes. At that time, the centre was a prefabricated house with a big stove inside, so I spent every day near the stove, reading books I found in the centre. After a while, I began serving as a driver for Rev Wakiya from time to time, going out for Dharma dissemination with a few members, and, finally, joining the activities of the youth group. I was only supposed to stay in the Buddhist centre for a week, but before I was even aware of it, three years had passed.

When I turned twenty-six, I talked to Rev Wakiya. I said, “I was able to learn the importance of expressing gratitude toward parents. As I am now confident that I will be able to get along well with my father, I would like to go home.”

Rev Wakiya said, “Rissho Kosei-kai has a seminary called Gakurin where you can study Buddhism. Why don’t you take an entrance exam?”

I took the exam, but I failed. Rev Wakiyatold me to try again. I thought a person like me would never be able to pass the exam. But I was grateful to Rev. Wakiya for allowing me to stay in the Buddhist centre for such a long time, so I applied to Gakurin once again and that time, luckily, I was able to pass. It’s thanks to that exam that I am here today.

After graduating from Gakurin Seminary, I was appointed minister of the Hawaii Buddhist Centre when I was thirty-five years old, and I spent ten years practising the Dharma with the members there. In Hawaii, some 36 percent of the population are of Japanese descent. Among the members of the Hawaii Buddhist Centre, some people (immigrants from Japan) could speak Japanese, but many of their children and grandchildren spoke only English.

I was always wondering how I could help members who were in difficult situations: a youth who grew desperate and became a drug addict, a middle-aged man whose poultry farm went bankrupt, a Japanese woman who had a troubled relationship with her American husband. In pursuit of clues, I would recite the Threefold Lotus Sutra, read the books by Founder Niwano and President Nichiko Niwano, and visit members to support them in the Way. One day, a phrase in a book by the Founder caught my heart. It read, “Realising and awakening to our own buddha-nature and revering the buddha-nature of everyone are the basics of the bodhisattva practice”.

While I was considering what “realising our own buddha-nature” meant, a phrase in a passage of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, “The Life Span of the Eternal Tathagata”, appeared in my mind: “At last, when living beings humbly believe, / Are upright in character and gentle and flexible in mind, / And wish with all their hearts to see the Buddha / Even at the cost of their lives, / Then I and all the Sangha / Appear together on Divine Eagle Peak”.

I thought to myself, “The life of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni enshrined in the Great Sacred Hall is filling my inner self, helping me to live, and leading me to liberation. First of all, I must wish to see the Buddha with all my heart to realise my own buddha-nature”.

So, with the mind of cherishing and longing for the Buddha, I chanted wholeheartedly, “I take refuge in the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni—Great Benevolent Teacher, World-Honored One”, all day, trying to see the Buddha. After I continually practised this for three years, I suddenly became vividly aware that the life of the Buddha was truly inside me.

My experiences in Hawaii also taught me that people could overcome any problem or suffering in their lives and find peace if each family member realised and revered each other’s buddha-nature. I also learned that family is a form of dependent origination that receives the greatest blessings from the Buddha.

With this awareness, I returned to Japan and served as minister of the Tottori Buddhist Centre for four years, the Matsudo Buddhist Centre for seven years, and the Miyata Buddhist Centre for a year, during which I walked the Buddha Way with gratitude side by side with the Buddhist centre members.

When I was fifty-nine years old, I was appointed minister of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre. Sri Lanka is a small island nation with a population of about twenty million people. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and others live in the country, and they speak different languages and have different faiths.

Most of the members of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre were Sinhalese Theravada Buddhists. It is said that Buddhism was transmitted to Sri Lanka around the third century BC. In fact, Buddhism in Sri Lanka has a longer history and tradition than in Japan. Rissho Kosei-kai members in Sri Lanka cherished their local temples and respected the priests. Most of the members spoke Sinhalese and didn’t speak English, but all we had was the Sinhalese version of the Kyoten: sutra readings, which had been translated from English by a Sinhalese priest. Other than that, there was nothing in Sinhalese to use as teaching materials—there was no Threefold Lotus Sutra or its commentary by Founder Niwano, Buddhism for Today.

I wondered how I should communicate the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to the Buddhist centre members, and I decided to do what I’d learned as minister of the Hawaii Buddhist Centre: to teach them to realise and revere the life of the Buddha in ourselves and in all people. With the approval of President Niwano, I used the term “the Buddha” to mean “buddha-nature,” telling the Sinhalese members that “the Buddha is inherent in all of you, so if you continue to revere it, express your gratitude, and pay homage to it, that practice will bring you great liberation. This is the important teaching of the Lotus Sutra”.

As a concrete practice, I spoke about the importance of family members paying respect and showing gratitude to the Buddha within each other, and I taught that this practice would surely build a harmonious and peaceful family.

When I started to share the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, Mr A, a founding member of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre, began to be radically abusive toward me. One day, he shouted abuse at me for over an hour, saying, “Yamamoto is incompetent, so therefore the number of members is decreasing. He is a useless minister. Because Founder Niwano entrusted me with the Dharma dissemination in Sri Lanka, I am the founder of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre. Yamamoto should leave this country, and I will refuse his reentry”. From that point on, every time we had a ceremony, he threw the same accusation at me.

Until then, I had communicated to the members the importance of believing in the existence of the Buddha in all people and revering it, so I had to revere the Buddha in Mr A so as to practise the Lotus Sutra no matter how I was treated. Meanwhile, my wife—who lived with me in Sri Lanka—worried about our safety, and she rented a safe-deposit box in a Japanese bank and told our children to use the money in case anything happened to their parents.

This situation continued for five years. Every time I returned to the Tokyo headquarters in November for the annual meetings, President Niwano kindly listened to my complaints and encouraged me.

Buddhist centres overseas have to be registered according to local laws, and since Sri Lanka is a Theravada Buddhist country, it was difficult for us to get registered as a group of Mahayana Buddhism. The Sri Lankan government would not give us permission for a long time. Thanks to the efforts of Rissho Kosei-kai leaders in Sri Lanka, however, we were finally able to get registered as a non-governmental social welfare organisation under the name “Rissho Kosei-kai Dhamma Foundation”.

Mr A was enraged that the name of the organisation had changed. He said, “Founder Niwano entrusted me with the Dharma dissemination using the name Rissho Kosei-kai. I will leave this organisation and fulfil my responsibility on my own”.

Mr A had connected most of the leaders and members of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre to the Dharma. I talked with my wife, saying, “We should hold on even if everyone leaves us. President Niwano has entrusted the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre to us.” To our surprise, all of the members decided to follow us. It seemed that Mr A was also shocked by their decision.

As I do not speak Sinhalese, I could not share the teaching with any of the members in person or visit members by myself. But the members had seen how I’d continued to revere the Buddha in Mr A for five years while he shouted at me. Looking back, I see that I received an opportunity from the Buddha to share the core teaching of the Lotus Sutra with the members in Sri Lanka through my relationship with Mr A. Practising the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to which Founder Niwano and President Niwano guided me and believing in the Buddha’s existence and arrangement were both a blessing.

Taking advantage of the wonderful and strong relationships with neighbours and relatives of the members in Sri Lanka, we started a new style of Dharma dissemination called family hoza, in which members use their houses as a place to study and learn the teaching together. Members volunteer to let their homes be used for family hoza, and now there are about ninety such people.

In 2017, we constructed a new building for the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre and held an inaugural ceremony for its completion. The ceremony also celebrated the enshrinement of the focus of devotion (a statue of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni), which was overseen by President-Designate Kosho Niwano. I felt my mind fill with great delight and deep gratitude when Rev Kosho unveiled the Buddha statue as ten Theravada Buddhist monks chanted sutras.

At one time, Founder Niwano received a divine prediction through Cofounder Naganuma that through Rissho Kosei-kai, the teaching of the Lotus Sutra would spread across the world. We are living in an age when a large number of foreigners are coming to Japan to work and support our country. I will dedicate myself to diligent practice so I can help connect people from many countries to the Dharma.

Lastly, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Buddha, Founder Niwano, President Niwano, Cofounder Naganuma, Rev Wakiya, and all of the people who have supported me and enabled me to enjoy this wonderful life.

Thank you very much.

The Youth Seminar of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre in 2017

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