“What is the poison? It is the three paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering that are our lot. What is the medicine? It is the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. And what does it mean to change poison into medicine? It means to transform the three paths into the three virtues: the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation”
Nichiren Buddhism stands apart from other Buddhist traditions in many ways. These differences, more than any similarities, shed light on the power Nichiren Buddhism has to enable all people to transform suffering into wisdom and happiness. They also make possible a positive change in the destiny of humanity. We often refer to this as the power to “change poison into medicine.”
While Buddhism is viewed as an egalitarian religion, Buddhist teachings that predate the Lotus Sutra do not clearly recognize that all people equally possess the potential for enlightenment.
Nichiren Daishonin clarified that the potential for Buddhahood exists within every person at every moment and taught how to bring forth that potential. To illustrate this, he employed the philosophical principles from T’ien-t’ai, which were based on the Lotus Sutra. Important among these are the “mutual possession of the Ten Worlds” 1 and the principle of “three thousand realms in a single moment of life.” 2 From these concepts come a number of ideas that, when considered from the standpoint of traditional Buddhist doctrines and the common understanding of people in 13th-century Japan, must have seemed counterintuitive and revolutionary. Here are four, to name a few:
(1) “The attainment of Buddhahood by persons of the two vehicles”: Sutras that predate the Lotus Sutra held that persons of the two vehicles, 3 due to complacency or arrogance, had “scorched the seeds” of Buddhahood and were incapable of attaining enlightenment. But the Lotus Sutra reveals that they and all people will attain Buddhahood if they practice the sutra’s teachings.
(2) “The attainment of Buddhahood in one’s present form”: Pre-Lotus Sutra teachings regard a Buddha as a being far superior to ordinary people. Moreover, women were seen as inherently incapable of attaining Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra reveals that all ordinary people, men and women alike, can manifest Buddhahood just as they are.
(3) “Earthly desires are enlightenment”: Early Buddhist teachings regard earthly desires, or deluded impulses, as sources of suffering and impediments to enlightenment. In contrast, the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life reveals that the potential for Buddhahood exists even within states of delusion and desire. Nichiren writes that when we chant Nammyoho-renge-kyo we are “burning the firewood of earthly desires, summoning up the wisdom fire of bodhi or enlightenment” ( The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 11). Desires and suffering fuel our Buddhist practice and enable us to bring forth enlightened wisdom.
(4) “The sufferings of birth and death are nirvana”: Early Buddhist schools taught that only by extinguishing the cycle of death and rebirth could one be free of suffering. Nirvana literally means to “blow out” one’s very existence as one would a candle flame. Based on the Lotus Sutra, however, Nichiren taught that the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth is natural to all life, and can never be extinguished. At the core of this cycle is an enduring life essence in which Buddhahood is an eternal potential. Buddhahood, or nirvana, is a natural and ideal condition we develop through our Buddhist practice, in which we can joyfully undergo the cycle of birth and death.
Transforming Suffering Into Fortune and Happiness
Nagarjuna, the great Indian philosopher of Buddhism, referred to the Lotus Sutra, or specifically the Sanskrit word sad, translated as myo in the sutra’s title, as being “like a great physician who can change poison into medicine” (“The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 146). He said this in reference to the sutra’s pronouncement that persons of the two vehicles can in fact attain Buddhahood. The Mystic Law, represented by the character myo, makes this possible.
Regarding Nagarjuna’s statement, Nichiren writes: “What is the poison? It is the three paths of earthly desires, karma, and suffering that are our lot. What is the medicine? It is the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation. And what does it mean to change poison into medicine? It means to transform the three paths into the three virtues: the Dharma body, wisdom, and emancipation” (“What It Means to Hear the Buddha Vehicle,” WND-2, 743).
When earthly desires, or deluded impulses, motivate our actions, those actions become negative karma that brings about suffering. Suffering leads to further deluded impulses, which give rise to actions that create negative karma and lead to further suffering. This is the cycle known as the three paths.
But our practice of chanting Nam-myohorenge-kyo enables us to bring forth the condition of Buddhahood even in the midst of delusion. Our actions become those of a Buddha (represented by the virtue known as the Dharma body), are infused with the Buddha wisdom (the virtue of wisdom) and give rise to good karma that brings about happiness and fulfillment (the virtue of emancipation).
Applied to our daily lives, this means that even the worst circumstances or suffering, based on faith in and practice of the Mystic Law, can be transformed into happiness and fortune.
SGI President Ikeda states: Buddhism teaches the principle of changing poison into medicine. Therefore, no matter what difficulties we may encounter, we can take them on with a positive attitude. All we have to do is keep pressing forward with deep confidence in the Daishonin’s words, “When great evil occurs, great good follows” (“Great Evil and Great Good,” WND-1, 1119). (March 18, 2011, World Tribune, p. 5)
When applied to our lives, changing poison into medicine means that, however deep or serious a problem we may face, or how intense our present suffering, as we persevere in chanting and engaging in activities for kosen-rufu, we will not only overcome our problem or suffering, but as a result of overcoming it, we will enjoy benefit and happiness far surpassing the degree of that suffering.
[Courtesy September 2012 Living Buddhism]