Monday, January 29, 2007

Buddhism and Me

So I've got a new reader to this blog. Someone I care very deeply about and who also happens to be a Nichiren Buddhist. Of course she may not be the only Nichiren Buddhist who reads this blog, but she's the only one of whom I'm aware and about whom I care, so I feel an explanation is in order.

I have bashed Nichiren Buddhism a few times. However, I've never really explained why. Basically, it stems from my own bad feelings about the practice and what I've learned about Buddhism from scholars, monks and practitioners of other sects never vibed with what I learned growing up. I have come to believe the reason this Buddhist sect is one of the largest ones in the Western world is because it has wrapped up Judeo-Christian ideologies in a Buddhist package so that Westerners can easily and quickly embrace it. But in doing so, some of the main tenets of Buddhism have been lost.

After I left Nichiren Buddhism, I knew that I wasn't going to become a Baptist or anything, and I knew that I need some way to organize the world and my place in it, so I did a lot of reading about other sects and other practices. All of them described Buddhism as the opposite as what I had been taught.
  • Nichiren Buddhism has no relationship with priests or monks or scholars of the tradition. In fact, there was a very bitter split with the priests of that sect when I was young. The entire organization is a lay one. The "leader" of the religion is called a president.
  • Nichiren Buddhism tells you to embrace your ego and its desires, not push them aside. That goes against at least two of the Four Noble Truths that all Buddhisms are based on.
  • I didn't learn about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path...any of that...through Nichiren Buddhism. I first heard about them in an Intro to Buddhism class my senior year of college. I grew up studying the writings of Nichiren Daishonin and what our President had to say about them. There was very little study of the Lotus Sutra, which is the sutra the sect was based on. Though I appreciated the emphasis on source material, I never got a sense of how we connected to the ancient tradition of Buddhism as a whole. It seemed like it was trying to stay modern.
  • I truly think the 80s were traumatizing for me. I dreaded the months of February and August. They were the proselytization campaigns for the organization. They were similar to the on-air fund drives for public radio, but way more intense. 24-hour tozos (chanting marathons); huge competitions over which neighborhood could convert the most people; ceremonies on the hour where people could receive their Gohonzons. No one ever talked about how many of those people were still chanting after a year, after six months even. We were made to believe that our own happiness and worthiness as "good" Buddhists was based on how many people we converted. I was 10 years old and pressured to bring my friend to meetings. I still believe the best and only way to show someone a new way to look at the world is to let them come to you. Religion is too personal a discussion to have on a street corner.
  • As I grew older I observed that those with whom I practiced seemed to look at the religion with a Judeo-Christian mindset: If I chant (pray) long (hard) enough, good things will happen. And conversely: Because bad things happened to me, I didn't chant (pray) enough. This just seemed so strange to me because from all that I had read and learned, that was not the way Buddhists were meant to look at the world at all. Nichiren Buddhism did espouse cause and effect and the mirroring of the internal in the external...but it just seemed off.
So I finally left. Even through all the heartache I've been through, I never seriously considered going back. When I did contemplate it, it was always around magical thinking: If I chant now, I will feel better, the train will come, I will get the job. Buddhism teaches that life continues whether the train comes or not. The only way to truly be happy is to be free from attachment to those outcomes.

I'm not saying I'm a "real" Buddhist now...I'm nowhere near it. I'm crazy attached to things, to people. There are times when my ego is controlling everything I do. However, this path feels so much better than the one I grew up with. I know I will have come far in my own practice when I can let go of the anger I feel toward Nichiren Buddhism.

How do I reconcile this venom toward the religion with the love I feel for its practitioners? I don't know...I just do. The religion didn't work for me, but the people I love feel that it works for them. So I accept that. I will not accept them trying to bring me back, however...which they do sometimes. Religion is such a personal thing after all.


princessdominique said...

I'm not one either but that was a refreshingly honest post.

L. Britt said...

Thank you, Princess. It was a very scary post to write.

vaslav said...

Yes, a very honest post, asking hard questions...but we expect nothing less from you! The problem with people who are just so positive that they know the one truth of existence is that you can arrive at no accomodation of "I respect your beliefs, please respect mine." Check out Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation," short but bittersweet. It could be written to any harline believer. I guess the best I can do is try to see why this type of belief appeals to or is needed by someone. After all, John Lennon moved from "God is a concept by which we measure own pain" to "Whatever gets you through your life, it's alright" Ah, brief 70s flashback. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hi L. Britt,
I read your post and can understand your confused feelings about the way you learned about the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. As I understand it you were a member of the SGI. I used to be a member of this organization but stayed with the Nichiren Shoshu priests. There I learned that the way the SGI explained Buddhism is completely opposite of what has been taught by Nichiren Daishonin and the priests after his dead, for the last 750 years. I really hope you will read the letters Nichiren Daishonin wrote. you will see why he said the Lotus Sutra is the only Sutra working is this time and why other Buddhist teachings have last their ability to lead people to enlightenment. There is also a temple of the Nichiren Shoshu in N-Y. When you feel up to it you might get more info there.
Again I understand your confusions. When I left the organization I left there my whole family and many people who I thought I could consider my friends. How soon did I find out that this was whole on the contrary.
Nichiren Daishonin teaches us to bring up our own buddha nature in this life and the next. Not how we can get a good job, a big car or a lot of money. Nor did he teach us to pray for a lay leader or that we should practice for the organization. There are so many things I could say or explain about why and what but I feel that will not clear your doubts at the moment. But if you would like to learn more about all this; any time.
If not, good friends anyway.
All the best, Jan-Peter