Leaders explain increasing appeal in U.S. of Asian religion
Buddhism, experts say, is the fastest-growing major religion in the United States. Adherents.com, an independent Web site with a reputation for reliable religious statistics, reports that in the 1990s, Buddhism in the United States grew 170 percent to more than 1.5 million followers.
Several Buddhist groups exist in Kansas City. One is the Rime Buddhist Center at 700 West Pennway. It offers Buddhist studies and programs in Tibetan culture. Another is Soka Gakkai International (SGI) at 1804 Broadway. SGI promotes the Buddhism of Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese monk who taught that all people have the potential to attain enlightenment. SGI is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary at its current location.
Nichiren Buddhism has no clergy. Rather members take temporary leadership positions. To understand the growing appeal of Buddhism, The Kansas City Star interviewed three local SGI leaders: Ray Bosch, vice area leader; Lisa Honn, young women’s division leader; and J.J. Chien, young men’s division leader. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Is Buddhism a religion? If not, what is it?
Bosch: I regard it as a religion. I think sometimes the reason people question whether it’s a religion is that, at least in our denomination of Buddhism and in many branches of Buddhism, you don’t have a deity. If you think that a religion is something that you dedicate yourself to and rely on in all aspects of your everyday life, I would have to say Buddhism is a religion.
Honn: I think, for me, religion is man’s way of seeking answers to questions that they can’t answer. Or trying to find something to lead their life. Our practice is really how we lead our life and how we try to view the world and make ourselves better people.
Buddhism began in India, though it’s not very prevalent there now. But it’s growing fast in the U.S. What’s the attraction?
Honn: For me, I think it’s the idea of cause and effect. We have no strict rules that say I have to live my life in this way. From one perspective, it’s very freeing, but from another perspective, that puts all the responsibility on me. It’s not seeking toward the afterlife. It’s not something that I have to be this great person in order to be a Buddha. No, I can be a Buddha right now with all my flaws and whatever.
Chien: Another thing especially about Nichiren Buddhism is that prior to that you either had a priest praying for you or you had to become a priest yourself. Well, in Nichiren we’re without a middleman.
Bosch: When you get up in the morning and say, “I can challenge my problems today” and you bring forth this wisdom, this power from within yourself, that’s huge.
What’s the origin of that power within?
Bosch: What is it that permeates everything, that is true about everything, that is pure and great and positive about everything? What I believe is that it’s described by Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is the ultimate law of life. That’s within me. It’s within you. It’s a matter of tapping into it.
Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would want to say someone put it there.
Bosch: I do a lot of speaking to churches. I say we view this as God within me. I really love to get to the commonality as opposed to the difference.
Honn: We all ultimately want the same thing. As human beings we all just want to be happy. And each one of these faiths is about how we define seeking that.
Your branch of Buddhism has no formal clergy. How does that work?
Bosch: Well, we used to have clergy. But there’s a belief in our branch of Buddhism that all people are fundamentally equal because each human being has an enlightened life within. Therefore, having someone who is holy or has that kind of position we don’t feel is necessarily compatible with our beliefs. But leadership in our organization is something that’s real serious.
Honn: We all volunteer our time. The three of us have full-time jobs.
What are those jobs and how much time do you put in at SGI?
Bosch: I’m an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The time varies. Think of someone who is very active in a church. Probably no more than that.
Honn: I’m executive assistant to the Jackson County prosecutor.
Chien: I’m a software engineer for the Cerner Corp.
What led you to Buddhism and to a position of leadership in SGI?
Bosch: I started practicing Buddhism when I was 20 years old. I was a Lutheran and a very strong Christian. I didn’t want to be the kind of Christian who went to church because it’s socially acceptable.
But when I was 20, one of my friends started practicing Buddhism. I respected him a lot. He explained to me the philosophy, which was cause and effect — for every action there’s a reaction. And I’m responsible for my future. That’s basically what we talk about in terms of cause and effect, or karma. The more I tried it, the more I enjoyed it.
Honn: I started practicing when I was 9 with my mother. Through the process of dealing with my parents’ divorce and living with my mother, there was lots of turmoil. I was really suffering and miserable. But I started reading the Bible and asking questions, and I couldn’t reconcile my personal beliefs with that. So I started studying more, and it essentially came down to what works for me.
Chien: I joined with my mother. She took faith when I was 6. So I’ve been practicing 19 years now. But I didn’t really start practicing on my own until high school. What kept me practicing was really seeing myself change. I’ve become more considerate, less angry. Working with people is really rewarding, too, helping them with their own personal problems by sharing with them the philosophies that I’m learning. Also, what really inspired me was watching some of my youth leaders.
What goes on here at SGI in a typical week?
Bosch: Probably two-thirds of our activities or meetings don’t take place in this building. People meet in homes. The first Sunday of every month we gather for world peace prayer. That’s really the only time when everybody gets together on a regular basis, 250 of us or so. Every Monday night at 7 we have an introductory meeting.
Honn: There are at least three or four regular activities a week. Plus we have a prayer that we do twice a day, plus whatever chanting we do to supplement that.
How many people are attached to SGI here?
Chien: At last count, 501.
Two main traditions of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana (also Mantrayana and Zen). Where does your community fall in relation to them, and what are the differences between them?
Bosch: We’re Mahayana. We in Mahayana Buddhism believe very strongly in helping others.
Probably among the many different denominations of Buddhism, the one thing they do have in common is that universal truth exists within the human heart. And the practice of Buddhism is about bringing that forth. In Nichiren Buddhism, we do that clearly. It’s Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is a universal principle of life. By doing that we bring forth the goodness that is within me, which is even different from the goodness that is within you or him or her.
Explain Nichiren Buddhism.
Bosch: As Buddhism took its path through China and Korea and into Japan, it took on a lot of different forms. In Japan during the 1200s, there were a lot of severe problems. Nichiren was a monk. He went to the monastery when he was 12 years old to get an education. As he saw all these different forms of Buddhism being practiced in Japan, and yet the country was in shambles, he wanted to know why.
So he studied different forms of Buddhism, trying to figure out what is the fundamental core of Buddhism. By the time he was 32 years old, he said, “This is what Buddhism is: It’s Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the name of the ultimate mystic law of life.”
He passed away in 1282, but Nichiren Buddhism didn’t really blossom until World War II. Prior to World War II, two teachers founded an organization based on Nichiren Buddhism, a value-creating educational society. One of the greatest conduits for the spread of Buddhism around the world and into the United States was the United States military. There were a lot of war brides who practiced in the United States.
Buddhism seems to be rooted in the reality of human suffering. What does Buddhism offer to help make sense of such pain?
Bosch: First, problems are challenges for growth, depending on how you use them. Show me anybody who did anything great who hasn’t experienced suffering in their life. It should be and can be a real motivation for joy and positive change.
Honn: I have a choice: I can do something about it or not. I can either create value or suffer. For me it’s a great motivation.
A belief in rebirth was, I understand, generally accepted in early Buddhism. What does Buddhism today teach about reincarnation?
Bosch: That’s the ultimate question of every life: What’s next? It’s not an easy question because as far as anyone knows, no one has come back to give us a full report of it. What we talk about quite often — and we use a lot of analogies — is that life is eternal. The life force within each human being is eternal. What does that mean for my future? The classical teaching is that it’s going to go into a dormant stage and re-emerge when the time and place is right.
Let me go back to karma. Is it possible that the concept loses its usefulness when talking about why such things as tsunamis and hurricanes kill so many people?
Bosch: It’s not for me to say that somebody died in a tsunami because they had bad karma.
Some people have said that Hurricane Katrina showed God was angry at the sin of people in New Orleans.
Honn: My parents lost their house in Long Beach, Miss., in Katrina. Everything is gone. But with cause and effect, karma, these things are going to happen in our life.
Chien: We don’t judge other people’s lives. Karma is your own thing. We can help each other on our path to learning about karma. That’s what we really strive for as community. We help each other in any way possible.
Honn: Maybe those were the circumstances you needed in order to show this life that you have. That, to me, is what karma means. It’s the accumulation of causes I’ve created throughout my life to put me where I’m at now. My parents didn’t say, “Oh, my gosh, we’re evil people. That’s why our house got hit.” It was a natural disaster. So they’re taking that as an opportunity to try something new.
Does Buddhism give you the tools to respond even to societal forces we can’t control like the Great Depression?
Bosch: Not only respond to it but turn it into something really good.
Honn: It’s like my parents’ house. The house is gone. I think it was harder for me than it was for my mother. My mother is like, “Woo-hoo! This is a great opportunity to get out of Mississippi.”
Chien: But even at a time of war we’ll have a lot of angry people, frustrated with the government or with whatever. But let’s create value out of this and inspire hope in other people.
“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” can be translated “teaching of the lotus flower of the wonderful law.” It refers to a teaching, called the Lotus Sutra, of Siddhartha Gautama. He taught that inside each person is a universal truth known as the Buddha nature. A 13th-century Japanese priest, Nichiren, taught that the benefits of the wisdom in the Lotus Sutra can be obtained by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
SGI will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nov. 8 opening of its Kansas City Community Center at 1804 Broadway with several events, including a rededication ceremony at 1 p.m. Nov. 5. It also will participate in the Nov. 4 First Friday Art Walk with a photo exhibit and various musical performances from 7 to 9 p.m.