Filed in Nichiren, Chanting

As American as Apple Pie?

An Insider's view of Nichiren ShoshuSandy McIntosh

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"THIS IS VULGAR," A. pronounced loudly into my ear. "This is vulgarity itself." We were standing under an arch in the gymnasium of a public school in Manhattan in June 1971. Fifteen clean-cut, energetic young men were waving their arms about vigorously, leading the audience in a song called "Have a Gohonzon,"* set to the Jewish song "Havah Nagila":

Have a Gohonzon,
Have a Gohonzon
Have a Gohonzon,
Chant jar awhile.
You'll find your life will be
Full of vitality,
Watching your benefits
Grow in a pile ...

*Gohonzon: In Japanese, honzon indicates an object of worship. Go is an honorific prefix. Nichiren Daishonin embodied "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," as a mandala (Sanskrit for an object or altar on which buddhas and bodhisattvas are represented). The Gohonzon may be either a paper scroll or wood block with Chinese characters.

The audience, a black-and-white cross section of New York City's diverse ethnic and economic population packed the room; they sang and clapped with ferocious enthusiasm.

"Look at them," said A. "Look at their glazed eyes, will you? They're fanatics."

"The lecture was okay," A. continued in a slightly more conciliatory tone. "That Japanese woman started to make some sense. But those testimonials—'I chanted for a new car and I got it!' 'I chanted for a boyfriend,' 'I chanted for money ...' And this stupid song! All of it's crap! This isn't what Buddhism's about."

The audience sang on:

Your surroundings may be loony,
Just remember:
Esho Funi!

"Now, that part's true," said A.

"This place is filled with very dangerous loonies. What's Esho Funi?"

"It's the doctrine of inseparability of person and environment," I answered loudly, hoping he could hear above the noise. "Your environment reflects your inner life."

Nichiren Shoshu America Youth Division Leaders Meeting, January, 1991

"Well, not mine," said A., putting on his coat. "This isn't my reflection. I'm off." And he stomped out.

I stayed on, frustrated that he had seen nothing beyond the egregious testimonials, beyond the silly song with its ungainly lyrics. I thought I had seen something, and, although I was also uncomfortable in those unfamiliar surroundings, I thought it worth exploring.

A friend from college had introduced me to Buddhism six months before. The tradition she practiced was Nichiren Shoshu, a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism best known for its organization of laity, Soka Gakkai. She had joined Soka Gakkai (then called NSA, or Nichiren Shoshu of America) a year earlier. She had shown me her altar and prayer beads, and explained that if I chanted ''Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," I could get anything I wanted.

"Anything?" I asked her, baffled. "Fame?"

"Um-hmm." "Sex?"

"Well," she answered, "the founder of this Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin, said that even one time chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo might be enough."

"Okay. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! How about going to bed with me?"

"On the other hand," she continued, "Nichiren Daishonin also said one million might not be enough. It all depends ... "

Nevertheless, I decided to try the practice. I knew a little about Buddhism from D. T. Suzuki's essays. I had read Hesse's Siddhartha and Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. I was twenty-two years old, a college graduate with a book of published poems but with no immediate plans. I needed focus. I tried yoga briefly, but could not manage the vegetarianism that I understood was mandatory. I looked at Zen, but the practice seemed stark and unfriendly. This Buddhism, strange on the outside, might offer a place to begin. Besides, my friend had acquired a pristine, buoyant spirit.

I began to chant on my own. My first contact with other Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists took place on a New Year's Eve. We chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo together in their New York City Community Center on West 57th Street. At midnight we applauded and cheered and wished each other Happy New Year. I was elated. I could not fly or see through walls, but I had accomplished something of great difficulty, chanting for four hours without pause. I felt a quiet, reassuring rightness of purpose.

A. and I had known each other for several years. We taught together in the Poets-in-the-Schools program. We spent our summers in the Hamptons, part of the community of writers centered around East Hampton's Guild Hall, the museum and cultural center. We lived nearby in the Springs, the famous artists-and-writers colony where Willem de Kooning lives and Jackson Pollack died. When I first told him about Nichiren Shoshu, A. was intrigued. He too had been interested in Buddhism. I lent him my set of borrowed books and pamphlets.

A. was disappointed in the literature. "The language is rough," he told me. "And the philosophy is pretty thin."

I became defensive. I suggested that the sect had been in this country only a short time. Its translation skills would certainly improve. Besides, the book was written for a mass audience who could not be counted on to understand subtleties without schooling. In any event, I had planned to go to an NSA discussion meeting in Manhattan. Would he come along? Reluctantly, he agreed.

After A. left the meeting I did not hear from him again for several months. When I met him by chance at a party in East Hampton, he asked if I was still practicing with NSA. He shook his head sadly. I would be sorry if I stayed with them any longer, he predicted. "No reasonable, intelligent person is going to fall for that garbage," he warned. "Anyhow, they're not your kind. You're a poet. You've got something to offer. Why waste your time with inferior people?"

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rick1985's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience!
I myself am member of SGI Brazil (BSGI) since I was born.
When I was a kid I used to attend the meetings (both the adults-oriented and children-oriented) because it was part of my family´s philosophy.
When I reached the age of 14 I naturally started to have my sufferings in life (First Noble Truth hitting my head!) and decided to get involved with Nichiren Buddhism thru my Soka Gakkai local group. I started learning about the philosophy (Nichiren Buddhism in special) and as it was said on the article, chant. Chant for whatever I needed. Being a member of Soka Gakkai since I was born, it never seemed wrong or non-Buddhist to do it so. I had my sufferings and I wanted to solve them.
Well, to make the long story short: I am about 27 years now and I still chant. But, as it was said in Daisaku Ikeda´s interview, the focus of the chanting has gradually changed. I still chant for things every person wants: a better job, a change in life, a better relationship and so on. But I also chant for world peace, peace in my community, better relationship with family and neighbors, improvment of the company I work for as well as for my co-workers´development. Most importantly, I also take ACTIONS towards that. Compassion, as we say in Buddhism. So, as I am used to say here to my SGI fellow members and comrades: " Our chanting does not finish when we close the Butsudan (place in which the Gohonzon is). The chanting continues in our actions for the others because everyone is a Buddha, even though he\she may not be aware of it."
I live in a small neighborhood of São Paulo City ( we are more than 10 million people here). A city that receives people from all over the country and from some close contries as well, with no planning, is subject to big problems. So, I think it is easy to see how difficult is to teach the Buddha Dharma for those people.
Therefore, yes, I see chanting for whatever you want as a door for people to start the Buddhist path. It gradually changes as the most immediate problems are solved. Even though we continually to experience some of them sometimes during many years. But they do have a different value or importance for us as we have gradually changed our basic inner condition of life (Ten Worlds principle).

As for the situation with the Priesthood, it was really a huge thing. I myself did not experience it because I was only 6-7 years old during the year of the formal Split. Here in Brazil, the situation took almost 10 years to be completely solved. As it was said in the interview, there was no information. My grandma, who joined SGI in 1976 and my the sister of my grandpa, who was the first one to join Soka Gakkai in my family in 1968, did not have any clue of what was happening. So, I believe that, from my research on the subject, most members around the world were totally lost when the split came. And well, problems with Clery´s authority had always happened since the foundation of the Soka Gakkai and we can see those kind of problems in History in general as well.
I most recognize that SGI´s leadership (though it may vary depending on the country where SGI has members) made some mistakes while dealing with the subject. In my point of view, as for the experience of the article´s writer, the right thing to be done was to sit and discuss the (serious) matter. After all, there was nothing to hide. If it had been done so, Sandy could still being practicing inside the organization ( as I see that he continues to practice Nichiren Buddhism by himself. So the problem was not the philosophy but what happened in the organization)
Here in Brazil my grandma just stayed in SGI due to her grattitude to SGI President Ikeda, because, as she said " he is the one who struggled to bring Buddhism to Brazil". But if she was to rely on any information on the matter, I don´t think she would have had it. Besides that, she is a very simple woman from whom we cannot ask for a "intellectual appeal". But she has indeed a good heart and as Nichiren says " The heart is what matters the most". I believe it is true for Buddhism in general as well.
SGI now manages the subject of Priesthood better, I think. At least here it is going fine, though occasionally I have to put some points and make somethings clear.
As for me, I have been reading on other schools of Buddhism as well and trying to find some good points in their practice and behaviour of the practicioners.
Misunderstanding comes from ignorance of the others.
I still have faith (Sraddha, in Sanskrit) in the Lotus Sutra and I chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Besides that, I try to put its message in my daily life ( in SGI Brazil we have a monthly meeting called Buddhism in Daily Life, which aims to make the theory something ACTIVE in the member´s behaviour) and therefore I believe I contribute for the spread of the Dharma.

I see no problem chanting for earthly things as they are seen thru the Light of the Buddhism. That light not only puts them in the correc perspective but also extracts from them their true nature, which is also Enlightenment. So, it is not a problem to like beautiful things; the problem comes when we become slaves from them. Buddhism, I believe, is the very way to solve that. :-)

I understand how difficult may be for other traditions to comprehend why we are allowed to chant for anything once Shakyamuni Buddha said that sufferings comes from attachments. But to solve that question ( as maybe for all issues in life) there is only one thing to be done: research, research and research with an open mind and try to get rid of the bias we may have (specially in this case because there is a lot of negative propaganda against SGI in special).

To conclude, congratulations to the magazine and the opportunity to present the readers of other traditions how Nichiren Buddhism and also Soka Gakkai can be very empowering and how they are contributing to the World Peace.

L. Ricardo F.
São Paulo - Brazil

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you for sharing your experiences from Sao Paulo! I began practicing Buddhism in 1973 in San Francisco, CA. I now live in Seattle, WA. It's heart-warming to realize how universal the Law is.