Life Itself Is Our Common Ground

Excerpt from Conversation Sixteen of The Inner Philosopher: Conversations on Philosophy's Transformative Power

By Lou Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda

MARINOFF: As you say, every nation—every culture—has its own distinct philosophical climate. These climates continue to evolve over time, however slowly. Since philosophy is a journey that usually begins with familiar ideas but often leads to unfamiliar ones, I try to understand the background assumptions and worldviews of each particular region and culture. If we begin philosophizing from a familiar or established departure point, it then becomes easier to introduce new ideas.

So when planting philosophical seeds in different soils, one must naturally take into account the indigenous ethos and traditions. This allows the seeds to germinate and the plants to flower.

IKEDA: That’s a perceptive observation. Nichiren writes:

One should . . . have a correct understanding of the country. People’s minds differ according to their land. . . . Even plants and trees, which have no mind, change with their location. How much more, then, must beings with minds differ according to the place! (1)

No philosophy can expect to take root if it ignores cultural and ethnic characteristics. Buddhism teaches a principle called, in Japanese, zuiho bini, or adapting the rules to match the place. Zuiho means “according to the place,” and bini is part of the word for the Buddhist rules of self-discipline—or by extension, the rules of correct behavior to be observed in life.

The aim is to adapt to different conditions and cultures, and allow new seeds to germinate, resulting in growth for all involved. In other words, the best way to spread the teachings of Buddhism is to respect the traditions, customs, and manners of the place and time, as long as doing so doesn’t violate the basic Buddhist precepts of compassion and wisdom. Respecting and learning from the local traditions and culture facilitate communication and promote mutual understanding. The aim is to adapt to different conditions and cultures, and allow new seeds to germinate, resulting in growth for all involved. Only then does the creation of new values become possible.

You’ve dealt with many people who are trying to work out problems in their lives. Have you adopted different approaches for different countries and cultures?

MARINOFF: You’re making a very important point, which accounts for Buddhism’s successful and ongoing transplantation worldwide into many and varied cultural soils and climates. Similarly, in my work, I try to conduct with each and every client a philosophical exploration of his or her particular mindscape. People’s worldviews are shaped not only by their locally shared norms and values but also by their individual experiences in life, which are bound to admit unique features. My approach is to center each inquiry in the mind of the inquirer, taking into account that person’s background culture and personal views.

Even so and notwithstanding all these differences, we are all human. Thus, the essence of human nature and likewise the essence of human happiness and suffering share a common denominator worldwide, irrespective of culture. Did not Shakyamuni say that the vast oceans have but one taste—the “universal salty taste”? So I have found that, despite all the differences between and among peoples, human suffering also has “one taste” that transcends other distinctions.

Yes, there are distinctive national and cultural ways of reacting to suffering, some of which unfortunately exacerbate the problem. But the Dharma has one taste—the taste of liberation—which happily transcends national and cultural differences.

IKEDA: Human beings are just that, human beings. Buddhism aims to enable all human beings to vanquish the suffering that’s common to us all, the pain entailed in birth, aging, illness, and death—and furthermore to break free from the ignorance within life that’s the fundamental cause of our misery and unhappiness. Again, Buddhism seeks to relieve suffering and impart joy for all, and these goals know no boundaries or ethnic divisions.

In “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” Nichiren asks, “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first of all pray for order and tranquillity throughout the four quarters of the land, should you not?” (2) If you desire happiness and peace of mind, you must first strive for “order and tranquillity throughout the four quarters of the land”—that is, social stability and world peace. Buddhism teaches that personal happiness and world peace are two sides of the same coin.

The world citizens of the future will need to see things from a global perspective and pray and act for the happiness of both themselves and all others.

MARINOFF: The interconnectedness enabled by globalization highlights Buddhism’s basic tenets in new and clarion ways. For example, global media coverage of human suffering in a particular region can stimulate swift and compassionate response from all quarters—as, for example, in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that inundated South Asia in December 2004.

Conversely, unresolved suffering in one part of the world can have severe repercussions in another part—as the global village learned to its horror on September 11, 2001. Thus, globalization cannot succeed unless it adopts an enlightened view of humanity, like that espoused by Buddhism.

IKEDA: Through today’s globalization, human encounters and the exchange of goods and information are taking place at a rapidly accelerating pace, and the ties linking us to one another are being strengthened. Therefore, the important question, as you suggest, is how to expand profound spiritual exchange and promote empathy.

The many issues facing society and the world today are bringing us together in a network of often-imperceptible bonds of common interest. To create a world of peace and symbiosis, we need to strengthen these bonds of mutual interest through spiritual exchange at the deepest level and share one another’s joys and sufferings.

Life itself is our most profound, inclusive common ground. Buddhism focuses on and illuminates life.

MARINOFF: For those with access, the Internet and cyberspace transcend political and other traditional boundaries, linking persons and networks in emergent global contexts. No place on earth can be called remote any longer.

I believe that people’s everyday experiences may be the most effective teachers of universal identification.I believe that people’s everyday experiences may be the most effective teachers of universal identification. As globalization evolves, enabling the dissemination of products and ideas from every culture worldwide, more and more “imperceptible bonds” will not only become visible but also palpable, convincing people of our connectedness.

Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the waves from which propagate in all directions, each person exerts a ripple effect on his or her immediate environs, which likewise propagates throughout the social nexus and indeed the cosmos. As people become more aware of their causal influence on and in this nexus, they will surely choose to exert wholesome rather than deleterious influences.

IKEDA: You’re describing what’s called dependent origination in Buddhism. In The Middle Way, you observe that to overcome opposition in the world we must be united on the basis of our shared humanity. I, too, believe that just such a shared foundation as fellow human beings is the starting point for overcoming our differences and forming deep spiritual bonds.

Shakyamuni identified the fixation on our differences, manifesting as things like tribal and national affiliations, as the cause of all human conflict. I think we can call this the underlying spirit of discrimination, dividing people into “me” versus “you,” “us” versus “them,” and then reifying those abstract distinctions. Shakyamuni says, “I perceived a single, invincible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.” (3) This arrow is the obsession with our differences, which is piercing our innermost beings. He insisted that we need to remove this arrow from our hearts.

MARINOFF: The key concept is transcendence. Biologically, humans are one species, but for a long time, natural selection favored human dispersion via competitive and often hostile tribes. Political and religious cultures have the unfortunate tendency of enlarging the totems of tribalism, depicting one’s own tribe (e.g., nation or religion) as superior and demeaning other tribes as inferior or subhuman.

By contrast, a real global citizen views all human beings not only as one species biologically but also as one community globally. Only a transcendent philosophy can inculcate this view. Such a philosophy must teach people that cultural diversity produces beautiful human mindscapes, just as geographical diversity produces beautiful natural landscapes. In other words, global citizenship requires a philosophy that respects and values local cultures and also transcends them in order to unify humanity.


1. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. I, p. 79.

2. Ibid., 24.

4. Translated from Japanese. J. Takakusu, ed. Nanden Daizokyo, vol. 24 (Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Publishing Society, 1935), p. 358.

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