An Insider's view of Nichiren Shoshu
"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,
"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?"
"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?"