By Ashish Virmani
I’m 37, a journalist, and have been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for the last six years. I wish to talk about the long life route that finally brought me to Buddhism — about some of the different phases in my life, primarily mental phases during my teenage years and my twenties — before I finally found in Nichiren Daishonin’s religion, a philosophy that encompasses the entirety of life and living. These phases are like fragments of a jigsaw puzzle that was finally put together in the light of the SGI’s philosophy — and hence I want to talk about them.
There are two things that I need to state for you to understand better what I am about to say: The first is that I feel that I have been blessed by being born to my wonderful parents and blessed to have been given the opportunity to better my status in life through higher education. In a country like India, where education decides personal and social destiny, my studies were sponsored entirely by my father and mother and I feel truly appreciative that I was able to receive my Masters in journalism from Marquette University, Wisconsin (USA), and that my sister was able to get her MBA from one of the best management institutes in Bombay. Which is not to say that my family was ever landed gentry, but we have a warm, loving family, three square meals a day, and the aspiration to do the best for ourselves in life. There were some times that were tough and other times that were financially easier, but during my crucial educational years there was enough money to see us through.
Since my formative years were spared of hard financial struggles, I had the time to experiment with various schools of philosophy — this is generally believed to be the pursuit of those with time and money on their hands. Also since I was an arts student, like most of my co-students I studied psychology, anthropology, and sociology, looking for answers to my questions from these disciplines.
For many years, I went through a phase which I shall now define as “cognitive thinking.” It was a school of thought in psychology that believes that what you think about most of the time is your reality. It also believes that by recognising and altering your pattern of thinking you can alter your reality. In other words, it is a clinical form of positive thinking. It’s a perfectly rational way of doing things and for many years I attempted to model my behaviour and thinking to this pattern. If I got angry or upset, I would try to rationalise it and, by rationalising it, I would think that I had eliminated it — which was the promise of cognitive thinking.
For example, if someone has a fear of being in overcrowded places, cognitive thinking would say that by defining your feelings about being in such overcrowded places, by acknowledging this claustrophobia, you could change your reaction to it. However, I soon found this was not the case, at least for me, and cognitive thinking fell far short of what it had promised. For example, one may recognise anger with one’s rational mind, but that does not take the emotional feeling of anger away. Or you may understand that you have a fear of dying, but the next time you are in a perilous situation you will probably feel the fear anyway. In fact, when I look back at it, if cognitive thinking were all it promised, then intellectuals would be the ones fighting the Bosnian war or the war in Iraq, because according to the cognitive premise, they should have conquered their feelings of fear by rationalising them.
I was in college when I landed my first job as a reporter for a film magazine in Bombay called “Movie.” The nice thing about the job was that it gave me the opportunity to use my creative talents in a real world scenario. This was a period when I had to chase after and interview top-notch film stars, those who inhabit a glamorous and creative world — which was a pretty exciting prospect for a college student. Thus began my next phase of thinking — I would like to call it the Cult of the Personality.
Mixing in the high-powered world of film stars in the Indian film industry I came to believe that Celebrityhood was the solution to the world’s problems. I believbed that if I immersed myself completely in the personality traits of a person who personified perfection, such as Amitabh Bachchan (a Hollywood equivalent would be Marlon Brando), then my life condition would elevate to the level of Amitabh. This is a common fallacy among youth and for those who do not know better, it is entirely natural. Especially when you live in the atmosphere of a film magazine, where you are surrounded 24-7 by a haze of stardust. I don’t think I could shake off this perception even years later when I was working full-time for a regular newspaper.
The problem with the Cult of the Personality is that, while it’s all very well to appreciate someone else’s achievements (as Buddhism will tell you), each person comes into this world with their own karma. And no amount of rationalizations or imitations will budge your individual karma in any significant manner. Also, as I later realised on becoming a more seasoned journalist, evaluations about someone else’s life on the surface may be far removed from their personal reality. As a famous cricketer said to me recently, there is no thermometer for happiness and unhappiness and it is up to each person to resolve and fight for his own happiness.
So Amitabh Bachchan (or Marlon Brando), having all that he has. still has his worries and still must fight with his karma, as I must with mine — a fact which hit me with full force, when I recently interviewed him. But at least now I have my faith in the Gohonzon to take me through every trial and tribulation and victory and success in life — as yet I can’t say that about the rest of humanity.
In my twenties, I was still grappling with the problems of life without a glimmer of relief in sight. I also went through a phase of drinking and experimentation with hedonism, but I found that, far from being a solution to my problems, it only mired me deeper in the slush and sludge of life. When I had reached the end of my wits, I was introduced to Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism by my mother.
Nichiren Buddhism talks about having faith in the Gohonzon and, after almost six years of having been an SGI member, I feel that faith goes beyond the realm of the rational and cognitive mind and encompasses it. Once I accepted the basic principles of Buddhism I learned to appreciate and be grateful for the workings of my life. Praying for my own happiness and for the happiness of others, I began to perceive my environment in an entirely different and more positive way. I began to view my life as a potential winner, no matter how trying the external circumstances were. There was a marked improvement in almost every sphere of my life — my relations with my parents and sister improved, I began to have wonderful breakthroughs in my work situation, and my universe which I had perceived as chaotic slowly began to fall into a rhythm. After all those years of experimenting with fragments of philosophies that could not encompass the mystery of a single human life, I was back on track, thanks to my mother.
I feel above all that Nichiren Buddhism allows its practitioners to enter a cycle of positivity. By giving its followers protection, practitioners develop a positive frame of mind, and then victory is possible for the individual. In my own case, I have seen it happen when I achieved all the professional breakthroughs that I needed very badly — whether it was interviews with people like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, or author of Freedom At Midnight Dominique Lapierre — or even protection for many years by an editor (who turned out to be my shoten zenjin). Also by giving me a certain amount of happiness in my family life, it has enabled me to break the chains of negative thinking that are impossible to break rationally and without the leap that only faith gives.
What I have
now that I didn’t have earlier in my rational phase is gratitude — gratitude
for my life and for the people around me, gratitude for having my faith.
My determination naturally is to spread this life-supporting philosophy
to at least three other people by May 3, and to validate my life and the
positive forces in the environment with resounding victory — here and now.