A little over four years ago, I was entering school for medical assisting. Truthfully, of all my educational investing this venture was the most questionable. That talk is for another post. But in preparation for class, I needed to find certain uniform attire and found myself in a uniform shop for healthcare professionals… the kind of place that sells scrubs and stethoscopes and all that goodness. The employee who helped me was a tiny Asian woman who was about as pleasant as someone could be. Her name is Cynthia and at the time she noticed that I had a little green prayering Buddha on my keychain. Her face lit up and she asked if I am a Buddhist. I view that to be a trick question.
If you blur your vision enough, asking a Hindu if he’s a Buddhist is a little like asking a Catholic if he’s a Christian. The answer given may likely be no, and that’s valid. But so would be an answer of yes. Very simply put, Catholics are Christians + much pomp & circumstance. (The use of the word Christian here is meant to be its widely understood meaning of Protestant, although you can surely see overlapping, as Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, thus the multi-layered answer to the original question.)
That same broadened vision would yield the same results when that question is posed in a Hindu/Buddhist context. I’m technically not a Buddhist, but as with Catholics/Protestants, much of the foundation is the same – it’s just a matter of how showy or not the externals are. It probably doesn’t do either religion full justice, but it might be said that Buddhism (Protestantism) is like Hinduism (Catholicism) without all the rules and ritual and stuff. Of course, over time, Buddhism developed more and more into a religion of man and also developed many of the very same externals that caused it to branch out from it’s parent religion to begin with. The same has happened with Protestantism. Some legs of the Buddhist family might as well be another sect of Hinduism and some Protestant denominations could just as well be another leg of Catholicism – and in fact, I’ve literally heard of denominations like the Episcopals and Lutherans referred to as “Catholic Lite.”
Let’s get back to my original thought.
The sweet, tiny woman from the Philipines asked me if I am Buddhist – and I answered in the negative, clarifying that I am indeed Hindu. Knowing a little about Hinduism and it’s birthing of Buddhism, she smiled widely and then proselytized. Actually, maybe evangelized is a better word. Either way, she shared with me her Faith, which is Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Japanese Buddhism, in hopes that I’d join the ranks. The act of doing this is known within Nichiren Buddhism as “shakabuku” or “shakubuku.” And so, I was shakubuku’d. She helped find what I came to her store for and later that evening I went to a district meeting and met other Nichiren Buddhists.
Now might be a good time to detail a little about the Nichiren Buddhist sect. Here goes: Some hundreds of years ago, after Buddhism had left India, it went into China and then the Koreas (back then only one existed I do believe), and then into Japan. Along the way, like the Hinduism that spawned it, it became more legalitarian and too “organized.” Consequently, it also became a bit distorted. Enter the Daishonen, who I’ll refer to as Sri Nichiren. Sri Nichiren was a Buddhist monk who sought to whittle out all the add-ons Buddhism had acquired over the years and ascertain THE truth of the original Buddha. At the finish of his various travels and studies, Sri Nichiren discerned that the essence and culmination of all the original Buddha’s teachings were to be found in the Lotus Sutra and no where else. Further, he “discovered” that one could attain/realize one’s own innate Buddhahood by chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters that spell out the original title of the Lotus Sutra. He then began to spread what he had learned and he also began to be persecuted. He was exiled and eventually died (or was killed), but not before he’d authored a body of work which is now known as The Gosho and exists as the scriptural body of the Nichiren Buddhists. He also came up with what any Hindu would identify as that religions central “murti,” which is called the Gohonzon. It’s basically a scroll of very nice rice paper with “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” written down the center and various other inscriptions surrounding it – many of which are actually names of Hindu gods. Time passes and like virtually all man-made religions Nichiren Buddhism becomes just as muddled as all the others, and like Catholicism the priests were among the greatest offenders. This eventually led to the greatest excommunication in world history. MILLIONS were excommunicated from official Nichiren Buddhism, which spawned the creation of one of the largest humanist lay organizations on the globe – SGI, or Sokka Gakkai International. To this day, SGI and the Nichiren Sho/Shoshu are not pals, although the SGI has busied itself with humanist and humanitarian efforts and seems to be doing very well. The SGI’s “guru” is a man referred to as Sensei, his name is Daisaku Ikeda, and I think he’s the third in the succession of SGI so far, after Nichiren and after the mass excommunication. The SGI is a religion, or isn’t, depending on who you ask (typical Buddhist answer, as Buddhism is also known as the religion of non-religion), and while their path has many elements, it mostly revolves around reading either the Gosho or the Sensei’s writings and chanting of some sort (they have two forms of chanting, “gongyo,” which is recitation of parts of the Lotus Sutra and should be done 2-3 times daily, and “daimoku,” which is simple and fervent chanting of the organization’s mantra, which should be done just about any old time.)
So, I started going to local SGI district meetings and learning more about this faith. Truth be told, there isn’t much to it. Chant and be happy. They truly are focused on “overcoming” just about everything. I can very much appreciate their emphasis on owning one’s karmas and transmuting the misery of life into joy. These people are where I got the notion of “turning poison into medicine” that I wrote about some posts ago. They are very gay friendly, very pro-women – truly the happiest and most humanitarian and humanist group I’ve ever known. Literally.
I went to meetings regularly all through the fall and winter that year. Cynthia and her husband, George, became my “mata cha pita.” (Sanskrit for momma and papa, although the grammar is jacked – it should be “mata pita cha”) In late spring of the following year I “received” the Gohonzon and so did my best friend, who’d started going too. I also purchased what amounts to an expensive cabinet for the Gohonzon, which is called a butsudan, as well as a very nice ritual bowl and mallet for ringing at appointed times during gongyo and daimoku. I bought very nice editions of The Gosho and subscribed to the group’s various publications.
But I think I might have been pre-tainted when I joined SGI. They never technically ask or insist that you leave your existing religious affiliation when you join. But I think you kind of have to, or you can’t really say you’re drinking their Kool-Aid fully. Truth be told, I never actually left Hinduism – after all, they said I didn’t have to. But I did rather put it on a back burner and really delved into the SGI. What hooked me was their claim that the practice of Nichiren Buddhism would help cultivate, uncover, and bring out one’s innate Buddhahood, which they rightly say we all possess. “Just chant,” they insisted. Sure, follow the other tenets of this practice, but mostly just chant, believe, and watch goodness and Buddhahood open in your life like a lotus.
Their district meetings contain a predictable element known as One-Minute Victories. During this time, anyone who wants can share something that the magic of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo brought them. Sometimes it’s something pretty fantastical, but mostly it’s along the lines of someone got a flat tire, they started chanting and five seconds later someone else stopped to help them. Fine. Dandy, even.
Please understand that in the 1,410 (or so) words leading up till now, I don’t take any real exceptions to the practice of Nichiren Buddhism. They truly accomplish amazing things. But the old saying that the proof is in the pudding kept bugging me the whole time. I saw pudding everywhere I looked, but very few buddhas indeed. It made me sad. All of the things people were chanting for were “stuff.” A new house. A new car. A new job. One woman even admitted to chanting with the intent that a certain plane would crash over the middle east because some harsh dictator was going to be on that plane and she knew that even if others die in the process, the world would be better with him gone. None of the One-Minute Victories I ever heard of was of anything not mundane. Most of these people never seemed to actually chant for Buddhahood or enlightenment, let alone exhibit It. They wanted cars, houses, easier lives, but not fundamentally “better” lives or selves. None seemed to be seeking transcendence.
These wonderful souls were full of devotion to The Mystic Law, as they referred to It, but very few of them possessed anything deeper than that zeal. Like I said, pudding everywhere but not much proof in it as far as I could tell. Or truer yet, none of the proof I sought. In their defense, it’s entirely likely that I entered that fold with different expectations than the other believers. I hoped that I had found an organization that not only managed to literally treat everyone equally, but also would progressively reveal the Self at my core. For me that never happened, not even a little. I did have some interesting experiences, but nothing to write about. There were many who seemed to be getting what they wanted from the practice, which obviously fueled further zeal on their part, but there were many others still who always seemed to be asking, “Why am I not getting what I chant for while others are?” And so, by and by, finding few Buddhas and few experiential realizations, I drifted away from SGI. Via Facebook I still stay in touch, but that’s truly almost the extent of it.
This past weekend, I began making preparations for some planned changes to my temple room. In the process, a stand that my butsudan had been sitting on was moved to the temple room’s closet. The butsudan, the bell-bowl, the Gohonzon… all will be re-packaged, nice and secure, and relocated to my attic.
Later today I’ll be getting out the ladder and making that transition final. This is a sweet good-bye, though. The closing of the SGI chapter of my life (at least for now) is indicative. As much as people might read into my words in this post, there’s nothing the matter with SGI or Nichiren Buddhism. For literally millions of people today this form of Buddhism is a valid and integral part of their current existence. It is absolutely a positive force on our planet. I can recognize the origin of many of its principles and practices and that makes me love them. As with any other critique one might find here on Sthapati, the true meaning of the critique is simply a detailing of why one shoe or another doesn’t fit me – and with that, as I say good-bye to Nichiren Buddhism I offer an honest and sincere Namaste and “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” to my Nichiren Buddhist pals. Certainly, all the grace that is mine to give I gladly forward on to your good selves.