There is an old expression that says “you can’t get there from here,” meaning you can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re starting from. You need to know two things to go anywhere: where you are now and where you are going.
Nichiren taught that our defilements lead to awakening. This idea was so central to his ministry that it frames the daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myohorengekyo—on every mandala he ever inscribed.
The defilements (Sanskrit: kleshas) are mental states that disturb the mind and give rise to unwholesome actions. They arise from the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, and are a natural part of life. Klesha can also be translated as “affliction.”
Some think Buddhism’s goal is to eliminate defilements because they function to obscure our buddhanature, but the Lotus Sutra, which is the basis for Nichiren Buddhism, states that there is no difference between our defilements and awakening. Though they seem to be opposites, they are simply different sides of the way things are. Awakening is not the eradication of defilements but a state in which we are fully aware of all aspects of our lives, good and bad. The Lotus Sutra refutes the doctrine that the purpose of our practice is to transcend life, to escape samsara, to “reach” nirvana, thereby confirming Buddhism as a positive, life-affirming religion; one whose objective is liberation through engagement.
As Robert Frost wrote, “the best way out is always through”—in other words, we learn from dealing with the difficult things. Defilements then become the motivation to seek awakening, the fuel to spur us to practice with confidence and trust in the universal process-flow of buddhanature. Rather than seeking to get rid of our defilements, all our characteristics and qualities become the focus of our meditation practice. We accept ourselves fully as we are, good points and bad points included, without rejecting anything in order to go someplace other than where we are right now.
Awakening is not the eradication of defilements but a state in which we are fully aware of all aspects of our lives, good and bad.
The Lotus Sutra states that “even without extinguishing their defilements or denying their desires [people] can purify all their senses and eradicate all of their misdeeds.” It also teaches us that awakening does not lie in subjugating delusions one by one in order to attain enlightenment. Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra tells us that “ordinary mortals, just as they are, are buddhas. . . . We burn the firewood of defilements and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom before our eyes.”
Our destination is our vow to do good, to do no harm, and to seek awakening for ourselves and others. Our starting point is accepting and embracing all of our qualities, good, bad, and neutral. We won’t arrive at our destination by denying or suppressing anything—that never works. Things always pop up again and again, usually in the most unpleasant ways and at the most unfortunate times.
The Lotus Sutra says, “Good people should enter the abode of the Tathagata.” This abode is the four brahmaviharas: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We hold everything in and around us, even the most embarrassing and terrible things about ourselves, even our defilements, with the same lovingkindness and compassion that a parent would have for their crying child.
We begin our journey of awakening by observing all our characteristics, patterns, and behaviors just as they are. We accept that we are not perfect and, frankly, may never be perfect. But we try our best. And when we fail, we notice it, accept it with a smile, and without self-criticism simply begin again, and again, and again. We can get there from here.
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