OB Summit Paper by Rev. Koshin Ohtani

I mentioned the OB Summit Expert Conference in this blog earlier. The 25th Summit was held in Wienna on May 21-23. Rev. Koshin Ohtani (Former President of Japan Buddhist Federation, Head of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanjiha) represented Mahayana Buddhism. Hereunder is his paper (presented shortened) (No commercial use of his manuscript allowed):


 InterAction Council OB Summit) Paper Presented by Rev. Koshin Ohtani on 2007,05,22 


              I wish to begin by expressing my deep appreciation for this opportunity to share my thoughts at the Interaction Council. I am here as the result of being recommended by the Japan Buddhist Federation, the largest association of traditional Buddhist schools in Japan. Buddhism, which originated over 2,500 years ago in North India with Gotama Buddha, was transmitted northeastward from Central Asia to China and southeastward from South Asia to Southeast Asia, developing in various ways as it took root in different cultures and societies.

             Japanese Buddhism evolved at the end of that eastward transmission, and constitutes one of Buddhism’s distinctive developments. Among the Japanese schools, Jōdo Shinshū (with which I am affiliated) is a unique school in that there are no monks and nuns who adhere to the monastic precepts and engage in rigorous training.

               Today in my presentation, I shall try my best to address issues that are common to all Buddhists. History and the Present Situation of Buddhism

              We can distinguish the areas where Buddhism exists today into two main regions. One is where Buddhism has existed for over one thousand years, and the other is where Buddhism has arrived in modern times. The region with the long history refers primarily to the countries in Asia. In such countries, Buddhism has often intertwined with indigenous beliefs and customs, deeply influencing the thinking of the people, and coexisting peacefully with other religions.

           Consequently, with the exception of what we might call religious “professionals,” monks and nuns who strive for enlightenment by renouncing the world, most lay Buddhists, with few exceptions, are largely concerned with finding happiness in this life and in the afterlife. In Asia, Buddhism has helped to support this search for happiness by providing a foundation for their ethical and moral lives.

              In the region where Buddhism was transmitted in modern times, mostly Europe and North America, Buddhist groups have been created by Buddhist refugees and immigrants and by those with a personal interest in introducing Buddhism to the new land.

             Although Buddhism over its long history may not always have been peaceful, it is safe to say that it has had only a small number of military clashes, the exceptions being attributed to foreign invasions. I believe this can largely be attributed to a teaching that is based on controlling desire.

              Today, what has been viewed as a kind of passive call for peace has been criticized for not being able to rectify the injustices of  society. Also, some have criticized Buddhism as having supported social stagnation and injustices. It is true that because the aim of Buddhism is sometimes understood to be individual enlightenment or salvation, many Buddhist institutions have been passive when it comes to direct involvement in social issues and in social change movements.

              In contrast to this traditional approach, we have seen in recent years a new movement, notably in South and Southeast Asia, called “engaged Buddhism.” The work carried out by Dr. Ariyaratne, who is in attendance at this gathering, is one of the earliest and most well-known successful examples of engaged Buddhism.

              The aim of Buddhism is to become a Buddha. It calls for us to control our desire and attain wisdom rooted in truth or to realize spiritual insight that approximates that of the Buddha. There are, of course, various teachings concerning the means as well as the time required for attaining that aim. There is, for example, a path that calls for leaving the secular world, following the precepts and engaging in rigorous training. Another path centers around sitting meditation, while another calls for reciting mantras or the names of the Buddhas. And there is also a path, which I personally follow, that calls us to entrust and awaken to the salvific power of Amida or Amitābha Buddha.

               Despite these differences in the actual practices, the various Buddhist paths subscribe to the basic ethical categories such as not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct and not lying. And these have much in common with the ethical guidelines in many of the other religions. I believe, therefore, that many Buddhists would be in agreement with much of what is found in “The Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,” which was prepared by this Inter-Action Council for adoption by the United Nations.  

The Three Poisons

            In Buddhism the most basic obstacles to enlightenment are the Three Poisons, which are greed, hatred and ignorance. I believe that the teachings concerning the Three Poisons can be helpful in examining many of the most troubling issues we see in today’s world.   


           First of all, ignorance refers to our failure to understand the truth of interdependent origination, according to which all phenomena occur as a result of various conditions that come together. This truth of interdependent origination does not render absolute the distinctions of good and bad or of friend and enemy. Instead it regards such distinctions as relative and provisional, thus helping to moderate conflicts.              

 If we can change some of the causes and conditions, the effects can also be changed. Our human existence is made possible within the interconnected web of life that encompasses flora and fauna as well as water and air. The tragic events of the world and personal suffering take place within this complex set of interconnected relationships. While suffering cannot be completely eliminated, it can be reduced, and each of us shoulders part of that responsibility.

              Since the aim of Buddhism is to “overcome delusion and realize enlightenment,” those who have yet to realize enlightenment all become the recipients of salvation and compassion. They are certainly not the objects of punishment. Buddhism does not make absolute distinctions between the saved and the unsaved. Instead, it seeks to find a common ground, and to share in sorrows as well as joys. 

              As we think about the conflicts in the world today, should we not first consider the suffering and the sorrows of those involved before judging matters in terms of good and evil, right and wrong, and profit and loss? From a Buddhist perspective, such worldly determinations of good and evil and profit and loss are all relative in nature! The leaders of the world are, therefore, requested to carefully inspect the tragic consequences of armed conflicts. 


            The next one among the Three Poisons that I wish to discuss is greed. Greed has two dimensions, the first related to the individual and the second related to manufacturing and the environment. The desire to live is intrinsic to all living creatures. In the case of humans, economic expansion becomes inevitable, for we seek life that is safe and enjoyable and a lifestyle that allows our potentiality to be realized.              

However, this does not mean we are permitted to sacrifice the lives of other people, deplete natural resources, and destroy the environment. Globalization, for example, has its merits as a theory, but in actual practice it tends to benefit stronger countries and organizations at the expense of weaker ones.   

                       It should not just be humans and the stronger nations that consume, for all living creatures must support and help each other. Further, the earth system that includes the air and water must maintain its state of balance and harmony. The failure to do so would invite catastrophic results for humans. When we realize that many of the world’s conflicts today are economic in nature, we ought to be seeking wealth that does not come at the expense of others.             

This issue goes to the very foundation of Buddhism. However, in East Asia where economic development and industrialization have become prominent, I regret that, with the exception of the social activism among the nuns in Taiwan, Buddhism has had little influence toward social change in China, Korea and Japan. I believe that Buddhists should be taking the responsibility in leading the efforts toward ecologically supportive way of life.  

Hatred and Peace            

The last among the Three Poisons that I wish to discuss is hatred. Hatred is one of the greatest obstructions to the attainment of peace. We find the following statement among the words of Gotama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism:  “In this world, if we respond to hatred with hatred, hatred will never cease. Only by relinquishing hatred will hatred cease. This is an eternal truth.” (Dhammapada, verse 5) I believe that these words, among all the words in Buddhism, are a treasure that can be appreciated by all people. Of course, eliminating hatred is not easily accomplished, but it is far better to think about how we can reduce hatred than to return hatred with hatred.              

 The Buddha elsewhere also stated:   “All beings are fearful of violence, for life is dear to all. Thus, knowing this and feeling for others as for yourself, you must not kill, and you must not cause others to kill.” (Dhammapada, verse 130). The Buddha further admonished as follows:

     “Life is joyous for the person, who is satisfied with what one has, listens to truth, and sees truth. It is also joyous not to be angry and hateful toward people of the world and to exercise self-control toward all living creatures. It is also joyous to overcome greed and desire toward matters of the world and to transcend various desires. And it is of utmost joy to conquer the vanity of ego-centered thought of “me, me.”  (Vinaya 1-3; Udana 10)

              The Buddhist teaching is fundamentally nonviolent. If there were to be fundamentalism within Buddhism, it would not lead to military conflict. If Buddhists were to be involved in armed conflict, it would be on account of their having interpreted the teachings according to their selfish needs, or has either forgotten or is hiding the true message of Buddhism. This has been a continuous potential problem throughout the transmission and popularization process of Buddhism. It can especially come to a head when people who identify as Buddhists also identify strongly with a specific ethnic group or nation. Should a military conflict develop, they would find themselves torn between the teachings of Buddhism and their ethnic or national loyalties. It is regrettable that such conflicts have taken place in South and Southeast Asia in recent years.

             Generally speaking, religion itself carries inherent dangers. Metaphorically, modern medicine possesses drugs that can cure serious illnesses, but if prescribed incorrectly, they can cause dangerous side-effects. In dealing with the basic issues of human existence, religion is deeply involved with existential as well as communal concerns. It is, therefore, natural that religions that hold strong sway over their believers can lead to devastating consequences, when there are errors of judgment or action. We must be careful not to be self-righteous or exclusive. I believe that the future challenge for religious people is to affirm themselves, but, at the same time, accept and affirm people of other religions. 


               As I conclude, I wish to summarize the main points of my presentation today.              The teachings of Buddhism clearly oppose violence. However, Buddhism in the past has found it difficult to control it when ethnic and national loyalties were involved.                             Nevertheless, by not rigidly determining “good and evil” or “right and wrong,” and by altering the conditions, Buddhism can and should make renewed efforts to resolve conflicts in order to avoid future warfare.               We should not utilize religion to escalate conflicts.              We should not increase human greed.              And I would like to end by requesting all of us to reflect on the simple truth of the Buddha’s statement:“If we respond to hatred with hatred, hatred will never cease.”

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