Recently, I visited a SGI Buddhist Community Center and learned more than I ever expected about Nichiren Buddhism. It is a sect of Buddhism that follows the instructions of Nichiren, a Buddhist monk who resided in Japan during the thirteenth century (Who is Nichiren Daishonin?). When I attended the service at the SGI center, I was impressed by its interior. The inside was filled with stone designs and Japanese symbols. The seats (pews) were similar to what I have experienced as a Catholic parishioner. At the front of the center is an altar, which holds a wooden cabinet called a Butsudan. The Butsudan houses the Gohonzon, which looks like an unrolled scroll with rows of Japanese symbols. See Image 1 below.
Buddhist members kneel in their pew and pay their respects to the Gohonzon, their hands together, some people clasping beads. In front of the Gohonzon is a bowl of bananas and oranges, offered as a sign of reverence to Nichiren. The center also has a bookstore, stocked with Buddhist books and other materials that people can buy to learn about the principles of Buddhism.
When the service started, a rin gong was struck. The rin gong consists of a small metal bowl and a wooden stick, the stick creating a bell sound when gently hitting the bowl. Followers opened up a small book and chanted a few pages of Japanese symbols in unison. Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the basis phrase of Buddhist chanting. After people finished reciting the words in the book, individuals repeated the phrase Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo at different speeds. Nam means to devote oneself and Myoho means life in the universe and the way it is expressed in different ways. Renge refers to the Lotus Flower, while Kyo means the voice of Buddha (SGI-USA, 2013).
After about ten minutes of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the rin gong was stuck a few times to conclude that portion of the service. People in the audience were then invited to give an “Experience” via a podium to the right of the altar. The two people who offered experiences talked about personal struggles that they encountered and how chanting and Buddhism helped them persevere and find meaning in their lives. Some keys meanings portrayed through the experiences included how suffering can lead to rewards and wisdom. The individuals also gave proof of how their obstacles and hard times gave them the opportunity to chant and come out in a better place, both spiritually and emotionally.
While sitting in the SGI Community Center, I did not feel as if I was being judged and preached at, the way I sometimes have in the Catholic Church. The general ambience embodied peace, serenity, acceptance, and oneness with each other. That sense of unity seemed to be a strong component of SGI Buddhism, the Buddhist philosophy expressing that individuals can chant for each other’s happiness and well-being, as well as their own.
The central belief of the Buddhist faith is to achieve the life state of Buddha. Attaining this Buddhahood is possible through the chanting of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. It is suggested that individuals chant those words in the morning and at the end of their day in order to receive enlightenment. Buddha means the “awakened one,” the giver of wisdom, life force, courage, and compassion. SGI Buddhism states that once an individual obtains the state of Buddha, happiness and fulfillment is the reward. Buddhists feel that the Gohonzon power is activated in one’s life as they chant. When we have problems and issues in our life, Buddhism states that we should chant ourselves into a better state (SGI-USA, 2013)
Buddhism is connected to Japanese culture. Nichiren was born in a time of political strife and chaos. He sought to find solutions and figure out why Japan could not rise above its country’s problems. After much contemplation and chanting, Nichiren decided that the Lotus Sutra was the key to peace and serenity. The Lotus Sutra is a symbol stating that that every person is equal and worthy of the same dignity and respect (Who is Nichiren Daishonin?). This Lotus Sutra seems to be connected to that pervasive sense of unity and collectiveness stressed in Buddhism.
During the service, individuals attempted to change each other‘s collective and individual karma, attain Buddhahood, help one another achieve enlightenment, and encourage each other to keep striving to be like Buddha. A theme that resonated throughout the service is that chanting will not only change your interior life, but it will also transform one’s environment, especially a negative and chaotic situation.
An unfamiliar practice that I noticed is how people kept talking about the importance of changing one’s karma. Karma, which is defined as “action,” states that the things that one does in their past lives influences one’s circumstances in this life, whether it is good or bad. Similar to how the Catholic faith talks about how Jesus died for our sins, but we are still born with sin because of Adam and Eve, Buddhism explains how one’s negative karma is sometimes hidden, the consequences of it not always surfacing until later.
However, one can change their bad karma. Buddhism states that people have the power to change their suffering into power and joy (SGI-USA, 2013). Nichiren stressed that individuals can completely eradicate their bad karma by spreading the world of Buddhism and its principles (Yatomi, 2006).
Nichiren further explained how Buddhists can use karma for their own good through his words of, “The Nirvana Sutra teaches the principle of lessening one’s karmic retribution. If one’s heavy karma in the past is not expiated within this lifetime, one must undergo the sufferings of hell in the future, but if one experiences extreme hardship in this life, the sufferings of hell will vanish instantly. And when one dies, one will obtain the blessings of the human and heavenly worlds, as well as those of the three vehicles and the one vehicle” (Yatomi, 2006, p. 177).
The Nichiren sect of Buddhism focuses on how one can achieve Buddhahood and enlightenment. Through my visit to the SGI Community Center on the day of the religion’s main service, I witnessed Buddhism in action. I also learned the symbols and keys meanings, such as chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and changing one’s karma, that comprise Buddhism. By attending the center and performing my own research, I have gained a greater understanding and respect for the Buddhist practice.
- SGI-USA. (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism . Santa Monica: SGI-USA.
- Who is Nichiren Daishonin? (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2014, from Soka Gakkai International: http://sgi-usa.org/buddhism/nichiren_daishonin.php
- Yatomi, S. (2006). Buddhism in a new light; twenty essays that illuminate our buddhist practice. Santa Monica : SGI-USA.