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An Interview with Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin
This article is part of an online special section about Nichiren Buddhism. We hope that by gathering these articles in one place and making them freely available, our Buddhist conversation will be broadened and that we can, all of us, more fully know ourselves in knowing one another. Read the other articles here.
Many Westerners who have some familiarity with Nichiren Buddhism conflate the whole of the tradition with Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the most widely practiced Nichiren sect in America. But Nichiren Buddhism is not just SGI. More than two dozen non-SGI sects of Nichiren Buddhism collaborate under an umbrella organization called Nichiren Shu. Curious about these other faces of Nichiren, Linda Heuman spoke with Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, a Nichiren Shu priest and the resident teacher at Myoken-ji, a temple in Houston, Texas.
The daughter of an African American father and a Japanese mother, Myokei Shonin is the first woman of African American and Japanese descent—and the only Western woman—to be ordained as a priest within the worldwide Nichiren Order. (She is also the first female priest in the Nichiren Order of North America.) Speaking candidly of her experience as a woman of color practicing an often-overlooked school of American Buddhism, Myokei guides Tricycle readers into territories that are off the map to many of us.
Tell us about the founder of your tradition, Nichiren Shonin. Nichiren Shonin lived in 13th-century Japan, in what today is known as the Chiba Prefecture. When he was a young man, he made a fervent prayer that he would become the wisest man in Japan—and that’s what he set out to do. He was initially a Tendai monk, and he trained at many temples and monasteries. He felt that the teachings had been corrupted, and he wanted to understand why. He spent years studying the sutras, examining closely the bases for the Tendai claim that the Lotus Sutra was the culmination of all of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddha’s highest teaching. For example, in the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which was preached just before the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha said, “It was with tactful power that I preached the Law variously. In 40 years or more, the truth has not been revealed yet.” On the basis of such statements, Nichiren in the end concurred that the Lotus Sutra was in fact definitive. He believed the corruption of the teachings was due to too much focus on other things besides the Lotus Sutra, such as status and esoteric practices. He wanted to bring Buddhism back to the true intention of the Buddha, and he wanted to make the teachings available for everyone, regardless of their station in life or their education.
Throughout his life he encountered many persecutions, and people tried to stop him. He was thrown into exile. There were attempts to behead him. But he took it all as impetus for promoting the Lotus Sutra.
Chanting, in veneration, the title of the Lotus Sutra “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” [the Odaimoku, known in some schools as the Daimoku] is our primary practice. Nichiren Shonin understood that for people who were illiterate and impoverished, this was an easy way to open the door. We do also read and chant the Lotus Sutra itself—especially chapters 2 and 16.
How does chanting the Odaimoku lead to enlightenment? Nichiren Shonin said that when you know the name of a person, what comes to you is everything you know about that person—his essence and his being. In the same way, when you chant the title, you are in effect chanting the entire Lotus Sutra. It is the correct name for the reality of all things, the correct rhythm; that reality is already within you as it is everywhere. As you chant the Odaimoku, you fall right into that rhythm. The chanting activates your buddhanature, then your life becomes in tune with the reality of all things.
You live the Lotus Sutra. It’s a discipline: what you think, what you do, what you say. Your thoughts, your words, and your deeds all create karma. And so through practice, you learn how to create better karma, and then everything about your life changes. We suggest if people want to try it, they should just see what happens.
According to the Lotus Sutra, there are five ways of practice: to keep, read, recite, copy, and expound the Lotus Sutra. So chanting is simply one form of expressing our faith.
In Nichiren Shu, what is the meaning of faith? What do you have faith in? That something will touch your life, or your heart, or your spirit. What you are hoping for is the confidence to know that you are moving through daily existence doing the absolute best you can in accord with the reality of all things. There are people in some Nichiren schools who believe that you can chant for whatever you want, and chanting is supposed to bring that to you. That’s not our way of thinking at all. We view chanting as a means to center one’s life in the dharma, becoming one with the dharma.
What kind of effect does chanting have on your mind? We consider chanting to be a form of meditation. When you set your intention on chanting correctly, melodically, and as crisply and clearly as possible, you become focused. It quiets the monkey mind and establishes a direct connection to the dharma. I can only guess how it compares to what people experience in silent meditation. The times I have tried silent meditation, it’s been very easy to just pop into this place that I have found through chanting. So I assume it’s the same.
I know when I first heard the chanting, there was something very powerful about it that really appealed to me. It stuck in my head and in my heart. It wasn’t until I started on the path of the priesthood that I finally became aware of why that was so. I was born in Japan and stayed there until I was almost two years old. I must have heard the chant when I was a baby. In the same way, there was a particular smell of incense that just moved me profoundly, and I never knew why. About three years ago, when I was talking to my Japanese aunt, I learned that my family members were actually Nichiren Shu practitioners. We had never discussed it before, and that realization was like coming home.
How did you meet the dharma? I met SGI in the early sixties, when it was known as Nichiren Shoshu of America. I was about 13. Today people of mixed ethnicity are among the fastest-growing populations in the country, but looking back, it was not very comfortable—think of people telling Tiger Woods he had to claim one side or the other; there was a lot of that. I know my mother suffered a great deal because people told her to go back home. She had to deal almost as a single parent, because my father was on active duty in the military and was in and out of the country. It was not an easy life.
My mom’s friend happened to be a Buddhist and invited her to a SGI meeting. She didn’t want to go. But she told me I could go. And then she told me not to join anything; so I had to join, just because she said not to!