Maybe the title is an oxymoron, so let me try to explain why it may also make sense. The definition of secular in the Cambridge Online dictionary is ‘not having any connection with religion‘ so how can Nichiren Buddhism be regarded as being in any way secular? Well in my humble opinion, Buddhism, in general, and Nichiren Buddhism in particular, is less of a religion and more of a philosophy for life. The growth of the secular society, the gradual distancing of the governance and control of the population in general by religious laws and organisations has increased in the United Kingdom in pace since, I would suggest, since the end of the First World War. Having been immersed in an earthbound hell for many years, the troops found that they came home to a country that was anything but one ‘fit for heroes‘ and felt let down by the government and authorities that had subjected them to such horrific conditions.
The deference and obedience for and of figures of authority had been eroded by a series of catastrophic military blunders by the upper class military officers, blunders that had cost millions of working-class Tommies their lives. Attitudes towards the Church also changed as people looked for changes in the balance of power in society and demanded solutions to the problems in life that put control into their own hands, rather than relying on an unseen omnipresent being. A being who had appeared sometimes to forsake them in the muddy trenches of Belgium and France. Living in the UK, we are a member of a tiny group of countries who have a state Church. Others include the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland and Norway, Georgia, Greece, Iceland and The People’s Republic of China. The Church of England, in its present form, was initiated by King Henry VIII when his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was disputed by the Roman Catholic Church. It lead to the dissolution of the monasteries and made the ties between the church and state much closer. The process has continued, to the point where when a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury on a political or economic topic now produces comments in the media and on social networks suggesting that his role should be confined to matters of the soul rather than issues generally concerning the government. Further indications that society is more comfortable with being influenced by secular elements than by religious establishments.
The central concept of Karma in Buddhism, the application of the laws of cause and effect to replace the ideas of a god or of the existence of some form of fate, allows people to take back control of the events in their lives and lets them feel that they, rather than the omnipresent being are shaping the course of those events. Whilst this control is accompanied by the responsibility for all their thoughts, words and deeds, it does hand back the power to control their own lives. In conjunction with the all encompassing acceptance of all people, of whatever gender, colour or creed, Buddhism has an inclusive, rather than an exclusive attitude to life. There has been much said in the media about the argument within the Anglican Church regarding the ordination of women bishops and the role that they are allowed to play within the Church. Such a conflict would be unthinkable in Buddhism, as each person is accepted on their merit, rather than their gender, and this also causes a pressure for people to shun the state religion, as they see the latent hypocrisy evident in the argument.
Nichiren Buddhism also demands that we test, or question, the effectiveness of our Practice. Christianity, to a greater or lesser degree, discourages the questioning of the principles of its faith. Many would argue that questioning those principles would be the antithesis of faith, but Buddhism disagrees. If we are to practice a faith, simply because of its existence, rather than because of its effectiveness, we may just as well worship the Fairies at the bottom of the garden. If we are to believe that the mere questioning of their existence makes us less devout, then I would suggest that we are being asked to adopt a form of selective blindness and to live with that disability.
Secular attitudes are, I believe, the natural result of the failure of religion to provide the answers to the questions life poses. The domination of the religious establishments has been ebbing away as the populous votes with its feet. The decline of church congregation numbers is the effect of religion becoming seen as less and less relevant in life. If it could be shown that those who attend church every Sunday were happier, healthier, richer or more successful, I’m sure we would see attendances rising. Sadly that is not the case. Not, of course, that Buddhism can prove its worth in this way either. Some of my Buddhist friends are wealthy, some are not, some are healthy, others are not. What I can say, and would argue that a formal survey would support, is that they are amongst the happiest people around. Not because they accept their lot, or give up their possessions, they most certainly do not. It’s not because they do not have aims or goals in life, on the contrary, they have very high expectations of themselves.
I believe that the main difference, and the thing that makes Nichiren Buddhism a real contender for the title ‘The Secular Religion’ is because it has not gods, it has no commandments, it makes no demands on the individual at all. What it does do, is to give back control, through Karma, to everyone who practices. It demands that you test the effectiveness of that practice and if it is found to be lacking, that you stop practicing. If the cause of the rise in the secular nature of society is the desire to wrest control away from the religious establishment, then Nichiren has that covered too. There is no hierarchy, in fact those with more experience are seen to nurture those with less experience. So, accepting that I might possibly be a little biased towards Nichiren, I would suggest, that if any religion can fit seamlessly into a secular society, Nichiren Buddhism is that religion, or philosophy for life as I prefer to see it. Of course, as with all things Nichiren, the choice is entirely down to you.
© 2012 Anupadin, The Search for Enlightenment