This is how Woody Hochswender reasons that you may be a Buddhist and not even know it: “We all believe in the oneness of the world. We all believe there’s spiritual truth inside us, an in-dwelling kernel. We all seek the happiness of others as a gateway to our own, right?”
To Hochswender, 55, a former fashion model turned writer on fashion and culture, these are all Buddhist ideas. And he sees them all around and gaining ground, like traffic on the interstate. They are a “common thread uniting many of the secular and religious philosophies of our times,” he says.
But putting a Buddha brand name on everything isn’t enough for Hochswender. He advocates Nichiren (NEE-chir-en) Buddhism, one strand among hundreds of Buddhist sects, as the superhighway to inner peace and outer prosperity.
Zen Buddhism, as well as the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and contemplative traditions practiced by ascetic monks, are better known in American popular culture.
However, Hochswender believes Nichiren Buddhism is best suited to Western high-speed life.
Lotus Sutra is the truth
Nichiren, a 13th-century monk, believed that the Lotus Sutra (one of 84,000 “sutras” or oral teachings of the Buddha) was the essential and highest truth of all, because it says each person can reach enlightenment.
The route is simple. It calls for faithful, focused, rapid, rhythmic chanting of words drawn from Sanskrit, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which means “devotion to the wonderful dharma (law) of the Lotus Sutra,” while facing a Gohonzon, a scroll inscribed with Chinese symbols for the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren Buddhists need not master a strict discipline, renounce desire or retreat to the woods. No special clothes or postures are required. There are no obscure koans to mull — riddles such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“If you say Eastern religion, everyone thinks you have to speak really softly and eat brown rice. I eat meat. I drink. I smoke,” he says.
Yet every day he also chants and concentrates on the benefits he seeks. Try it, and “you’ll see immediate benefits, produced by you, proof in your own life now. Buddhism doesn’t ask you to believe in God. Buddhism asks you to believe in yourself.”
Practitioners include actor Orlando Bloom, musician Herbie Hancock, singer Tina Turner and U.S. Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson Jr., D-Ga. In the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, Turner is shown learning to chant, and she gains the strength to flee her abusive husband.
Expounding on his book in a cavernous Manhattan cafe, Hochswender’s ice-blue eyes are aglow, and he sounds like a health-and-wealth televangelist, in tone if not message. “You can realize your enlightened self almost from the first day. And you can become enlightened exactly as you are.
“No matter what your goal is in chanting, at the very least you will become a more disciplined person,” he says. “All of us want to be more disciplined.”
Nichiren is worldwide
Nichiren Buddhism is practiced by 10 million people in Japan and millions more worldwide, according to Soka Gakkai International, the umbrella organization for Nichiren Buddhism. U.S centers are in New York and Los Angeles. The Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, which promotes human rights, non-violence and environmental ethics, was founded in 1993 by the organization’s Japanese president, Daisaku Ikeda.
The sect has critics, particularly in Japan, where the organization is involved in politics. In the USA, it’s been viewed askance for extolling materialism and this-world happiness over other values.
But the organization’s U.S. spokesman, Bill Aken, argues: “It’s not ‘prosperity dharma.’ We do think good fortune begins in your heart and manifests itself in your environment.” People who master inner wisdom and compassion do better in the world, he says. Besides, “What’s wrong with prosperity? If you polish your inside, you can surely see it in your outer manifestation.”
Or, perhaps, the rearview mirror.
Sidebar: BUDDHISM’S MANY PATHS
Nichiren Buddhism, as taught in the USA by Soka Gakkai International, is one of myriad ways to follow the 2,500 year-old teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.
As his teachings radiated across Asia, hundreds of strains of Buddhist practice evolved, says Phillip Stanley, co-chairman of religious studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., which has a Buddhist heritage.
The American Religious Identification Survey found the number of people who identified as Buddhists rose from nearly 500,000 in 1990 to 1.4 million in 2001.
Most are Asian or East Asians immigrants, but an uncounted number are Western converts, Stanley says. “There are deep, historical 13th-century roots to Soka Gakkai. It’s not a 21st-century fad. But transplanted to the West, you don’t always get the heft, context and resonance of history.”
Bill Aken, U.S. spokesman for the Soka Gakkai organization, estimates there are more than 2 million Buddhists in America now, and says about 300,000 are affiliated with Soka Gakkai, including 100,000 active members.