For the Nipponzan Myohoji, chanting is a practice of social transformation.
This had become my image of what it takes to be a Buddhist peace activist, I realize. A person had to work a long time to acquire inner stillness and solidity and unshakable awareness so he or she can walk on through any kind of conditions, no matter how harsh or frightening. Yet Guruji and Sister Clare and her fellow monks and nuns had done just this. But by what power?
“It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace,” teaches Thich Nhat Hahn in Being Peace. This had sounded like baby talk before, but the day I walked next to him, I understood. A person had to “be peace,” to have “sovereignty” over herself, to breathe and move with conscious awareness, before she could make peace.
Like Thich Naht Hahn, Nichidatsu Fujii had witnessed the calamity of war. But he had no faith in any kind of personal meditation techniques to stop it. He had faith in the Lotus Sutra, the vast and mysterious scripture that scholars believe was composed in the first or second century C.E. More specifically, he had faith in Nichiren, who taught that for our “Era of the Declining Dharma” the Buddha packed the vast and mysterious vision of the Lotus Sutra—and of the whole dharma—into a single phrase.
According to legend, Shakyamuni Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra at Vulture Peak, in northern India. Scholars, noting its repeated exhortations to have faith and devotion in the sutra itself, have described it as “a lengthy preface without a book.” To believers, however, it is literally the last word in Buddhism, revealing that the historical Buddha is a force of wisdom and compassion that is eternal and present everywhere and in all beings.
Nichiren did not invent the practice of repeating this phrase to express devotion or praise, but he was the first to define it as the only practice for the direct realization of Buddhahood in our time. He taught his followers to live their faith inwardly and outwardly, to speak truth to power, to “read” the Lotus Sutra not with the mind but with their hearts and bodies, their whole inner and outer lives.
Walking with Sister Clare in the woods, I am sensing the gap between slow and stately “progress” Buddhism and that which hinges on the leap of faith. As we approach the Peace Pagoda, Sister Clare stops talking to me. She begins to beat her well-worn handheld drum and chant: Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. The pagoda looms up 75 feet in a clearing in the woods. Gleaming white and gold, it looks like it alighted here from space.
Sister Clare Carter Photo © Fred LeBlanc
Guruji began encouraging the building of stupas in 1945, heeding this exhortation from the Lotus Sutra: “After the Buddhas have passed into extinction, if persons make offerings to the relics, raising ten thousand or a million kinds of towers… then persons such as these have all attained the Buddha way.”
Sister Clare bows before the pagoda, explaining that there are relics inside it that were given to Guruji in Sri Lanka. It was built entirely by them with the help of volunteer labor, which the order attracts without asking. “No matter how grand the Dharma-work, Nipponzan will absolutely not solicit contributions based on quotas,” said Guruji in Tranquil Is This Realm of Mine. If there is not enough money, “simply suspend the construction.”
We begin walking around the pagoda counterclockwise instead of the clockwise direction Sister Clare and her brother monks walk chanting every day, so that we can see in chronological order the four statues carved in relief in the base of the statue that represent the life of Buddha. Three men join us. Sister Clare asks the men how they found the place. They tell us they saw the pagoda on a local news show in Boston and felt compelled to come here. One man, Ernie, tells us he visited some Buddhist temples in Japan and Korea when he was a soldier stationed there during the Korean War.
At the mention of the Korean War, Sister Clare softly chants: Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. I’ve noticed that she chants at the end of phone conversations and after references to violence or suffering or acts of compassion and hope, the way a Catholic nun might say “Lord have mercy” or “God bless you.” Later, I would learn that she was invoking the teachings of the thousands of Buddhas. She was transforming the very spot where she stood into the dharma realm.
In her brilliant scholarly study Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, the Princeton professor of religion Jacqueline Stone writes that for Nichiren “the daimoku contains, or rather is, the entirety of the dharma realm.” Chanting the daimoku with the mind of faith contains all teachings and all the merit of all the good practices of all the Buddhas. It embraces all phenomena—“three thousand realms in one thought moment, the entirety of all that is.”
According to Stone, Nichiren taught his followers in the strife-torn Kamakura period that the Buddha held out this special single practice, this Lotus that bloomed and bore fruit at the same time, for a dark age. Enlightenment is realized in the moment of practice, and it depends “on one condition only—faith in the Lotus Sutra, which is inseparable from the chanting of the daimoku. Anyone who chants the daimoku, man or woman, cleric or layperson, foolish or wise, realizes enlightenment.”
Sister Clare, the men from Boston, and I all go look at a new temple that is slowly being built next to the pagoda. One man says he will send his son, who does heavy construction in Boston, to take a look and possibly help. Outside the temple, as Sister Clare goes around back and locks up, the men make pleasant conversation. One man tells me he is Catholic, another Unitarian. They ask me if I am Buddhist. I tell them I practice Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
I think of adding that I practice “neural Buddhism.” Weeks before, on May 13, 2008, the conservative columnist David Brooks had published an op-ed column called “The Neural Buddhists” in the New York Times. Thanks to a new wave of brain research in the past several years, Brooks told the vast Times readership, the major insights of the Buddha are now on their way to becoming established scientific fact. Experiments are proving that there is no fixed self, that we are an ever-updating process of ever-changing relationships. Brooks also reported that there is growing evidence of an instinctive morality and an innate potential for a transcendent experience. Standing in front of this temple with these men, I realize that I don’t think of myself as practicing a religion when I meditate. I think of myself as practicing reality. A friend calls the excitement about such research “Buddhist Triumphalism.” It is beginning to dawn on me that I believe that my scientifically validated, New York Times–approved Buddhism is the last word, the one true and essential Buddhism.