For the Nipponzan Myohoji, chanting is a practice of social transformation.
Brother Kato Shonin made the original vow to build the New England Peace Pagoda.
SISTER CLARE comes back around, beaming, shaved head gleaming in the sun. Standing there in the same bright light, I’m aware that I am captive to a particular, history-dependent point of view.
Buddhist modernism is a scholarly term that “refers to a style of representing Buddhism as rational, empirical, and dismissive of ritual, faith, prayer, and what to the modern mind might be seen as superstition,” said Jacqueline Stone in an interview in this magazine in 2006. Buddhism has always adapted to the demands of time and place. Indeed, Nichiren presented his single practice in response to a chaotic time. Still, confronting this other way of being Buddhist, a way that clearly has borne fruit in the sense of producing a compassionate person living an altruistic life, it strikes me that I must acknowledge and accept the limited and dependent nature of my own Buddhist modernist view as part of my practice.
I wonder, though, if I’m not actually a Buddhist postmodernist. After all, Buddhist modernism began in the late nineteenth century, as a way of presenting the dharma as an alternative to Christian faith, which didn’t seem to fit the scientific-rational worldview. Yet in the face of Sister Clare’s devotion to her singular practice, my approach feels eclectic and self-oriented. I didn’t mind engaging in a few faith elements, initiations, red strings, and the like so long as the focus stayed squarely on my own development, my own eventual realization.
Here with this kind, austere woman, however, I am aware how often I am blind to the true scale of Buddhism— and of the world—taking a little of this and a little of that, telling myself this is fine because there is but one dharma in the end. I still believe this, that the dharma is a way of seeking the oneness of reality and that my somewhat fitful practice helps me open to it over time. But I feel a little bit like one of those yards at Christmas where toy soldiers guard Baby Jesus while Santa Claus and his electric reindeer look on. I take figures and practices out of historical context, as I need them, while Sister Clare focuses on the cosmic ground. She dwells in the vast floating world of the Lotus Sutra—no wonder she seems light.
Back at the barn, we go upstairs to an altar with a statue of Nichiren and a picture of Nichidatsu Fujii looking radiant. Sister Clare introduces me to Brother Kato Shonin, who kneels in the back of the room, working at a low table. He bows. Sister Clare and I kneel together at the altar, and Sister Clare chants for her teachers and for the whole world. Afterward, we go back downstairs and settle at a kitchen table, where we sip tea and I get to ask her how a nice Irish Catholic girl from Boston wound up on a path like this.
“I met Kato Shonin in Boston in 1977, in the midst of a three-day, three-night vigil for Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” she says. “Ten minutes before the end, this Buddhist monk appeared with a drum, chanting. I felt this incredible connection. It was clear to me that this was the most important thing that had ever happened in my life.”
She found out that Kato Shonin chanted every morning somewhere in Boston, and chanted with him. “For me, this prayer and going to this little place in Boston and praying, there was a sense of no reservation, the deepest sense of trust and of giving.”
On June 12, 1982, almost 25 years exactly before the day we sat talking at that scarred wooden table, approximately a million people gathered on the Great Lawn in Central Park in New York City, demonstrating against nuclear arms and for an end to the arms race of the Cold War. It was the largest antinuclear demonstration—the largest political demonstration—in American history, before or since. I was there, and so was Sister Clare.
“Wasn’t that a sight?” I add. “A sea of humanity all gathered so peacefully.”
“Oh my God, it was incredible. It was like all of New York just transformed into this Pure Land. I remember the police. It was like they were relieved of this burden they carry, these layers of distress and duress. Everyone was together that day, that’s my memory. It was entirely wondrous.”
Nichiren taught that the Pure Land, or Buddha Land, was not only to be realized subjectively in the moment of practice but manifested in actuality. You have to walk it like you talk it.
“I remembering seeing you,” I said, meaning I remembered how her order really stood out, the orange and white robes, the drums and chanting. “I don’t suppose you remember seeing me.” She smiled.
“And Guruji was there, and he had enormous energy,” said Sister Clare. “He felt that it was so important. Actually, our order did five walks throughout the United States leading up to that one in Manhattan. That was magnificent.”
I ask her how far she has walked and chanted for peace.
“The longest walk was a little over a year, walking from here down the East Coast to the Caribbean and then through West Africa into South Africa. It was called the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, retracing the journey of the slave route. That was in 1998 and 1999.”
She explains that they walk through the winter. In January and February, she and her fellow monks walked from Boston to Washington; from mid-February until early May, they walked in Japan, protesting a movement to repeal the constitutional ban on war and the maintenance of military forces.
“Seven thousand local people walked with us to protest,” she said smiling. “No unions, no organizing, just folks. The power from the spirit of the people was just shimmering.”
The poor surroundings, the hidden majesty of the practice, remind me of the Pali legend of the death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. At the end, ill and in pain, he walked northward, away from the famous cities where he had lived and taught for the previous 45 years, through more and more obscure villages until he came to Kusinara. There were no more crowds, no kings or brahmins, no great numbers of noble disciples crowded around him in the end.
According to Karen Armstrong’s biography Buddha, Shakyamuni’s attendant monk Ananda broke down in tears and asked his master why he had to die in this rough outpost. Why not go back to the city and be surrounded by followers? Why be almost alone? Armstrong speculates that the Buddha had always to be pressing forward “to bring help to the wider world.” I think of the path Guruji laid out for his disciples, a way that could never be for the many, turning their backs on fame and status to bring the healing power of the Buddha to the world. It strikes me that the Buddha’s moving away from the known world into the unknown may have been another way of imparting what is so lavishly portrayed in the Lotus Sutra: The Buddha is everywhere, and enlightenment might happen anywhere.
AS NICHIREN HIMSELF felt in his own time, the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji are inspired by a sense of urgency about the world’s suffering. They are also inspired by each other. “We are a very small order,” says Sister Clare, “and many monks and nuns either practice alone, or maybe with one other, so we have to support one another. We’re around ten or eleven in this country.”
Sitting there in an old room permeated with a damp chill in spite of the bright day outside, I think this is like The Last of the Mohicans. There are only a few hundred Nipponzan Myohoji left in the world, and they aren’t getting any younger. The head monk, Brother Kato Shonin, is now sixty-eight years old.
I know that I am not cut out to be one of them, that this path would be barren for me. The leap of faith it requires is so lacking in concern with inner experience, so dependent on being able to embrace the Lotus totally and at once with the body, heart, and mind, that I would probably lose my way. The majority of contemporary people, I guess, need a practice based on and enlivened by mindfulness or they would be liable to succumb to arrogance or pride or despair or all the other delusions and desires.
Sister Clare agrees that in Guruji’s presence and in his teaching there was “almost no reference to personal development. It was about the interconnected wholeness of all of us and realizing this Pure Land together.”
In the contrast of styles, between the meditation-oriented Buddhism I’ve been raised in and the faith-inspired Buddhism I’m now encountering, I see something about each more clearly. Spirituality without any emphasis on self-knowledge can become unbalanced, I fear, leading to sheer ascetic mastery or blind belief. Yet a spirituality that is weighted in the direction of the inner life can sink into mere narcissism.
“We want people to feel really encouraged, not judged,” says Sister Clare. “We need to connect more with each other and with our own hearts, as simple as that sounds.”
After the interview is over, Sister Clare walks me a ways toward my car. We talk about the upcoming presidential election and our hopes for peace, parting with a smile and a bow. Months later when the weather turns cold, I find myself thinking of her and her small order threading their way through the world, connecting us to the infinite and eternal with their practice, reminding us there is a truth that is always beyond the power of words. ▼
Read Editor-at-Large Andrew Cooper's related article "Recalling Nichidatsu Fujii."
Contributing editor Tracy Cochran’s last article for Tricycle was “The True Human,” a profile of artist Frederick Franck, which appeared in the Summer 2006 issue.