The Joy of Sect

For members of Soka Gakkai, the path to enlightenment (and maybe a new car) is through chanting

SGI-USA officials concede their past -- this isn't a group that's hiding anything. But they maintain that Soka Gakkai, at least in this country, is kinder, gentler, and more suited to American tastes. No more aggressive proselytizing (called "shakabuku," one translation of which is to "break" or "subdue"), no more condemnation of other religious beliefs. Here, say officials, the focus is on the practice of the essence of Nichiren Buddhism: bettering the world by bettering oneself.

The question, posed here as a pained metaphor: Can a Nichiren Buddhist change his stripes?

Cuqui Bonnell's painting Makiguchi Sensei depicts the sect's founder and first president
Melissa Jones
Cuqui Bonnell's painting Makiguchi Sensei depicts the sect's founder and first president
Sacred places: one of three altars at the Florida Nature and Culture Center in west Broward
Melissa Jones
Sacred places: one of three altars at the Florida Nature and Culture Center in west Broward

If you take faith in this Gohonzon and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo even for a short while, no prayer will go unanswered, no offense unexpiated, no good fortune unbestowed and no righteousness unproven.

-- Nichikan, the 26th high priest of Nichiren Shoshu

It's safe to say many of those gathered in Bonnell's living room don't know exactly what they're chanting. Not because they are willfully ignorant or blindly subservient, but because the words are in ancient Chinese, with a Japanese pronunciation. It's also safe to say, despite the lack of a literal translation, many in this room know these ancient Chinese words by heart. They've committed them to memory through months of study and twice-daily repetition, a ritual called gongyo.

Gongyo is the chanting of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra, the highest teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Indian prince who is credited with establishing Buddhism some 2500 years ago. Gongyo is practiced once in the morning and once at night. It is from these two chapters that Nichiren divined the idea that anyone, not just priests, can attain a state of indestructible happiness, or Buddhahood. Other Buddhist sects believed it would take living many lives to reach the perfect state of Buddhahood, so Nichiren's ideas were pretty revolutionary stuff 700 years ago.

And the good news is you don't have to sit on a mountain for years to get to Buddhahood. Nichiren believed you can get the ball rolling with one simple phrase: "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." It's a phrase people in this room will repeat thousands upon thousands of times when they need guidance in their marriages, when their cars are broken down, when their livers are failing, or when a war threatens.

"Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." It's as simple as that. Go ahead, give it try for five or ten minutes. See if you don't feel better. You don't even have to be a believer.

Bonnell tells the story of one skeptic who joined Soka Gakkai to humor his girlfriend. He secretly chanted for a goldfish and gave the practice two weeks to deliver. Fourteen days later, no fish. Thinking that was the end of that, the man was bathing one night after work when his girlfriend came in and dumped a goldfish in the tub. "On her way home she had passed a pet store," says Bonnell, "and they were giving away goldfish. A woman shoved one in her hand as she passed by."

Loosely translated, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means "devotion to the universal law of cause and effect through the Buddha's teachings." The phrase is also called "daimoku," which means "title," referring to the Lotus Sutra.

You don't need a Gohonzon to chant daimoku, but it helps. The Gohonzon is the scroll placed inside the butsudan, or cabinet. Soka Gakkai members receive a Gohonzon from the church after they've been practicing for a few months and have demonstrated that they're serious about it. Each Gohonzon comes from Japan and is a direct imprint taken from a Gohozon that was inscribed by a high priest. Down the center of the Gohonzon, in Sanskrit, is the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." Flanking the phrase on each side are characters representing the ten realms, or states of life: hell, hunger, animality, belligerence, humanity, heaven, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and Buddhahood.

In his book Soka Gakkai in America, author Phillip Hammond writes, "Chanting the daimoku forms a bridge of sound and vibration between the individual and the Gohonzon, such that subject and object become one. Thus, some Soka Gakkai members report mystical experiences during chanting."

If anyone had a mystical experience at Bonnell's home, he or she isn't talking about it. But many are happy to offer their own testimonials of miraculous healing, empowerment, and even schoolyard salvation.

One woman tells the group she's been fighting depression unsuccessfully all her life. "Since I started practicing, and it's only been a couple months, for the first time in my life I feel like I can do anything," she tells the group. "I want to tell people on the street 'You've got to try this, it's so great!' I just wanted to share that."

Applause from the group.

Heather Adir, an airline administrator, says chanting helped her deal with a tense situation at the office recently. "I got a bad report," says Adir. "I was panicked. I said to hell with it, I am going to go in there and talk to my boss."

Instead of being browbeaten by her tyrannical superior, the guy praised Adir for having the courage to speak her mind. "I walked out, and my attitude changed. The environment started working with me instead of against me. The minute I changed my attitude, I had no fear."

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