In the writings of Nichiren Daishonin he states that prayers by a practioner of the Lotus Sutra will always be answered. Yet in many of Daisaku Ikeda’s writing there are cautions that prayers are not always answered immediately and that prayers without action to achieve them will not be answered. How do we resolve these conflicting messages? Does this question have a straightforward black and white answer or are there many shades of gray to the answer? Is there a middle way where Buddhist prayers (chanting) are both always answered and not always answered?
It is important to consider this topic with an open mind and take great care to both strive to understand how it be either true, false or possibly a middle way where it is both true and false. To simply accept without further understanding makes it much more difficult to help others understand and easy for personal delusions about chanting to be manifested, or worse yet, for the practice to be misunderstood by non-practitioners as either fanatical or no different than any other religion as most claim their prayers are always answered one way or another.
The book, The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, is a selection of Ikeda’s perspectives on the practice of the Lotus Sutra/Nichiren Buddhism. On page 59, he states that our prayer cannot be answered if we fail to make efforts to realize them. On page 66 he states that no prayer goes unanswered, but that the benefits that we accrue from chanting and faith in the Gohonzon are some times conspicuous and sometimes inconspicuous. As I read that perspective it seems that Ikeda is expanding the concept of what is meant by the answer to a prayer.
As a tangent, I sometimes struggle with the idea of directly equating the fundamental practice of chanting to a prayer that we in the western world tend to associate with praying to an external deity. That may be why Ikeda emphasizes in many of his teachings that our practice, somewhat inadequately presented as Buddhist prayers, frequently brings about subtle benefits, not clear straight forward answers. In addition, he emphasizes Buddhist prayers lead to benefits, not necessarily answers, to prayers. This is important because it opens the door to a middle way interpretation of whether prayers are always answered or not.
On page 66 he states that there is a difference between wishes and a prayer and that if all of our wishes were granted through prayer it would lead us to becoming lazy, complacent and even to our ruin. He further states specifically, “In Nichiren Buddhism, prayer by itself isn’t enough.” “ Prayer without action is wishful thinking, and action without prayer will be unproductive.” I like to soften the last part of that statement as follows – action without prayer frequently is misguided, or does not leverage our Buddha wisdom and as a result is less effective. In any case, Ikeda emphasizes the need for action to accompany chanting (prayer) to yield results. This again suggests that Buddhist prayers do go unanswered if the practitioner is not exercising both the physical and spiritual aspects of this practice, which means to both chant and take action. Chanting for a pot of water to boil without turning on the burner will not yield the desired result. The water will not boil no matter how long you chant. At some point, you need to have the wisdom to turn on the burner.
So far I have pointed out a number of Ikeda’s teaching that suggest that not all prayers from chanting are answered. Those prayers that are not followed with action or that are just wishes he clearly states are not answered. So how can Nichiren Buddhism teachings convey that our prayers are always answered?
To answer that question it is important to look at the fundamental concepts and teachings of Nichiren Buddhism such as, the simultaneity of cause and effect, the ten worlds/life conditions, oneness of life and the environment (esho funi), and earthly desires equals enlightenment. One of the challenges with understanding Buddhism is that it is important to have some depth of understanding of all of these concepts to truly understand the transformational power of it. Yet amazingly, a person still yields benefit from chanting even before they understand these concepts. This is another topic to be explored at another time.
In Nichiren Buddhism chanting is a cause to transform our self by tapping into our inherent Buddha nature. The effect raises our base life tendency from one of the lower worlds (life conditions) to a higher world such as Buddhahood. The phrase we chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is often translated as devotion to the mystic law of the simultaneity of cause and effect that permeates life. So chanting is a cause for awakening our inherent Buddhahood and the change of our perception of the world and our behavior is the effect. The concept of Esho funi further teaches us that the environment around us at work and at home is a reflection of our inner life condition. So if we change ourselves, our environment will reflect that change. Ichinen sanzen is another concept that expands on Esho funi and the simultaneity of cause and effect stating that our causes at every moment in time create infinite possibilities for change in our life and environment at that moment and in the future.
So how do the above mention fundaments help resolve the idea that a prayer can both be answered and not answered? The answer lies in the understanding that by chanting to achieve earthly desires it leads us to raise our life condition and raising our life condition leads us to find eternal and indestructible happiness. The goal in Buddhism is not to have all our earthly desired fulfilled, which are influenced by our delusions, but rather to raise our life condition and tap into our Buddha wisdom. This in turn helps us live to our fullest potential. The higher our life condition the more we see the world and operate from our inherent Buddha nature and the more good we can achieve in life.
When referencing the book, Outline of Buddhism, edited by Yasuji Kirimura and printed by Nichiren Shoshu International Center, I found a description of the three paths, which are earthly desires, karma and suffering. Chanting to achieve earthly desires leads to raising our life condition and breaks away from our smaller deluded ego. That changes our karma and reduces our suffering. It further states that we need to transform our realm of earthly desires to breakthrough the cycle of suffering. In other words, somewhat ironically, by chanting for our earthly desires, something that at the surface seems very un-Buddhist, raises our life condition and thus changes the nature of our earthly desires, which in turn reduces our suffering and increases the wisdom of our daily actions.
This may seem convoluted and difficult to follow but it is at the heart of resolving the conflict we are addressing. The Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism teaches us to leverage the motivating power of earthly desires to chant and tap into our inherent Buddhahood. Tapping into our Buddhahood is the underlying prayer that raises our life condition and leads to our happiness. We are encouraged to leverage the Buddhahood found in our earthly desires, which is to give us motivation to chant. So earthly desires and wishes are not inherently bad. They are what motivate us to chant and chanting raises our life condition even if the specific prayer is not answered. The real objective to chanting is not to achieve all of our wishes or all of earthly desires that are typically the result of our own delusions, but to raise our life condition which will lead us to achieve our fullest potential and eternal happiness. Looking at the concept of prayers always being answered from this perspective gives way to the idea that a specific prayer may not be answered but if you chanted to raise your life condition to achieve it, it is the raising of your life condition that never fails to be answered. That is the true prayer that Nichiren Daishonin, Daisaku Ikeda and the Lotus Sutra refer to that never fails to be answered.