What Creates Real Change?

(Photo above by Lisa Fotios / Pexels)

Some thoughts are so subtle and fleeting that we may never take the time to say them out loud. Silly thoughts like, What is cotton candy, really? Serious thoughts like, Do I have real bias? Or even, I don’t know how, but I’m going to change things, starting now.

While these ideas may seem insignificant and private to us in the moment, it is these subtle shifts in our hearts and minds that are the force that shapes history.

British historian Arnold J. Toynbee calls these internal changes,

The slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. … It is really these deeper, slower movements that, in the end, make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled.

Civilization on Trial, p. 213

While we may feel discouraged by the day’s news, in the end, it’s the deeper shifts in the hearts of people that contain the power source for change.

Duncan Green, a professor of International Development at the London School of Economics, echoes this point in his book How Change Happens. He shares one of the most powerful sources for change is social norms. The idea of a norm, he says, seems like a contradiction to change. A norm feels unchanging in the moment—this is the way things are and will always be—in reality, norms are ever-shifting, changing incrementally each day.

When we change, the world changes.

These shifts in our hearts and minds are rarely newsworthy. (Have you ever read a headline like, “Bay Area Resident Becomes More Accepting of Neighbor After She Realizes She is Someone’s Daughter”? Thought so.) But when these unseen changes in attitudes reach a critical mass, they create seemingly sudden and drastic change in society.

In July 2017, the United Nations passed a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, a feat that just months before seemed unimaginable. Recently, the 50th nation signed the treaty, meaning it will finally enter into force. We each have an issue close to our heart that, at one point, felt important only to us. But we’ve all seen sudden cultural shifts where millions band together in support of an important cause. Recent history is filled with such moments.

Buddhists have taught for thousands of years that a change in our world begins with a change in our hearts. The 13th-century Buddhist teacher Nichiren Daishonin wrote,

If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.

Nichiren Daishonin

Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda shares in the simplest, most elegant terms, “When we change, the world changes.”

What does this change in our hearts look like? While Buddhists believe that we each have limitless reserves of courage, wisdom and compassion within us, we also have negative qualities like greed, anger and apathy. One aim of Buddhist practice is to look at ourselves honestly. It is to change our willingness to villainize others or to think that its OK to build our success off of others’ suffering. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a practice to look within and change these attitudes. Such a revolution in our own life can lead to a revolution in the world around us.

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo doesn’t just allow us to look inward, but it also inspires us to act. After all, true change always needs at least one courageous person to be the spark for countless others who feel the same way.

Though we may feel powerless (it’s 2020, it’s only natural), the root cause of all change lies in our hearts. If we can change that and help others do the same, we can change anything and everything.

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