Sangha in Motion
Allan Carpenter's Dharma Journey
- Keeping the Way to the Door Clear
I grew up in a small town south of Erie, with a solid Christian upbringing in the Presbyterian Church. Although my mother made sure my sister and I learned about Jesus and the Church, she also encouraged us to be open-minded and liberal. So while we were taught the Christian values of compassion, forgiveness, and love, we were never taught that Christianity was the only way to be saved.
I’ve always been fascinated by religion.
I was probably one of the only kids who actually enjoyed going to church. As I grew up, I learned all I could about Christianity, and also began to read about Judaism, and, eventually, Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged my interests. Looking back, maybe they were just happy I was reading rather than getting into trouble. Well, most of the time, anyway.
I first became interested in Buddhism when I was in high school.
Although I was raised a Christian, and had a deep appreciation for Christ’s teachings and example, I had trouble with the concept of a judgmental God and the idea that anyone could be permanently separated from His love. It’s not that I rejected the Christian concept of God; I just wanted a bigger, broader vision of the divine. The Mahayana Buddhist ideas of selflessness and universal salvation made much more sense to me—and I would later find out that they are central to the Lotus Sutra.
What really intrigued me about Shakyamuni was the way he had organized his teachings as a way to improve and ultimately perfect oneself. All religions tell us to “be good”, and to love each other. Essentially, they all have the same ideal. But the Buddha, it seemed to me, had come up with a program that would allow us to actually tame our egos and reach beyond our limited selves.
My own behavior (especially my temper) didn’t live up to my ideals. I found myself getting upset much too easily (which, of course, I blamed on the college curse of sleep deprivation), and could be pretty insensitive to others, even when I intended to be kind. Have you ever meant to speak gently and wound up offending someone? That happened to me frequently. I knew these behaviors came from some deep part of my mind, and that I needed some way to root them out. It seemed to be that Buddhism offered several specific techniques to reach down deep inside oneself and create real change. So naturally, I wanted to experiment with meditation, chanting, and mindfulness.
The Buddha didn’t just ask us to believe certain ideas; he gave us things to do.
Although I wasn’t technically a Buddhist, I included mindfulness and meditation practices in my spiritual life. By the time I had graduated college, I had a fairly broad understanding of Buddhism, although, admittedly, my knowledge had basically come from books.
One book I didn’t understand was the Lotus Sutra. I knew the Lotus Sutra was a pivotal scripture for Mahayana Buddhism, and I wanted to grasp whatever it had to say. But when I read passages from the Lotus Sutra, they frankly made no sense at all to me. The symbolism, parables, and imagery were simply beyond my grasp. I ordered Founder Niwano’s “Buddhism for Today”, in hopes that this book would at least provide me with a glimpse of what this obscure scripture was talking about.
"Buddhism for Today” not only made the Lotus Sutra clear to me; it also showed me a vision of Buddhism that was deeply positive, intensely practical, and radically world-affirming.
In the books I had previously read, the word “nirvana” was usually defined as “snuffed out”, or “extinct”. Although I admired Buddhism greatly, I didn’t see this as a goal I wanted to attain. But Founder Niwano explained the idea that “Nirvana is Quiescence” this way:
We can attain harmony with others spontaneously when we remember the truth that all things and all men are permeated by the one great life-energy, that all things are invisibly interconnected…and when we make the best use of this interconnection by abandoning the idea of ego.
The understanding of Buddhism in this book was strikingly different from the world-denying, almost nihilistic interpretation I had encountered from Western writers on Buddhism at the time.
Likewise, I had never encountered an interpretation of the classical Buddhist idea that “All Things are Impermanent” like Founder Niwano’s. As Founder wrote, “It is a serious mistake to interpret this concept to mean that life is fleeting, and the best one can do is pray for a better rebirth. Instead, really understanding impermanence means being aware of the changing nature of all things, and making sure one’s own character is changing in the right way.”
I loved what Founder Niwano had to say, but I assumed I couldn’t join Rissho Kosei-kai, which certainly didn’t have a church located near me. So, while carrying Founder’s ideas in my mind, I continued looking for a spiritual home.
In my twenties, I practiced as a sort of unconventional Christian, eventually settling into the Episcopal Church as I neared the age of thirty. I enjoyed the rich symbolism and heritage of the Anglican tradition, and the members had a broad range of Christian belief. Like many Episcopalians, I was nourished by the pageantry and beauty of the service, without too much worry about theology.
But I was drawn again and again to Buddhism, eventually letting my membership in the Episcopal Church lapse. Deep down, I knew I didn’t really belong there. So I continued to study varying styles of Buddhism from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada. As I did so, I always used Founder Niwano’s book as the foundation of my understanding.
For the next eight years or so, I dabbled in many other kinds of spiritual practices; I was, perhaps, less than serious about some of them. I was also developing my radio career, and there were plenty of things in my life to keep me busy.
In November of 2004, at the age of 75, my father had a heart attack. It was particularly shocking to my family, because he had always been an extremely robust and healthy person. I was 38 at the time.
I realized that I was lacking a spiritual foundation in my life.
I was concerned that I wasn’t strong enough to support my family when they needed me. My father’s heart attack made me realize how much of my own life had passed by, and that I was basically drifting spiritually. I felt like I didn’t have a spiritual foundation, despite all the books I had read. I felt like a fog had gradually formed around me, and that I could no longer see where I was going.
As my Dad recovered, and things settled down, I felt myself being pulled back to “Buddhism for Today”, which I had first read seventeen years before. Perhaps I knew that, deep down, the Lotus Sutra and Founder Niwano’s teachings were what I needed to regain my foothold spiritually.
Since I assumed I couldn’t be a full member of Rissho Kosei-kai, I decided to join the Rissho Kosei-kai Yahoo group on the Internet. Fortunately, my assumption was wrong; I was encouraged to join. Soon I was able to contact the New York Church, and was fortunate to be able to formally join a few months later. I’ve had countless opportunities over the past couple of years to learn and grow, such as visiting headquarters in for the 100th Anniversary Celebration in the summer of 2006.
I was given the opportunity to spend time at the Kawasaki Church last Septmber, along with Judy Yoshitsu, who was kind enough to offer her skills as interpreter. Since I live so far from a local church, Reverend Nagamoto encouraged me to see for myself how the teachings are put into practice.
The experience was definitely eye-opening.
Just like that first time I encountered Founder Niwano’s book, I was struck by how Rissho Kosei-kai transforms the lofty concepts of Buddhism into practical, down-to-earth techniques for living.
For example, as Buddhists, we all say we believe the idea that all beings have Buddha-nature. But what can we do to really perceive the Buddha nature in other people? How do we change this concept from theory to something we actually experience?
Hoza session: Buddha-nature speaking to Buddha-nature
In Kawasaki, I recall watching a hoza session unfold, and noticing how this idea was central to the entire process. I was fascinated by how the concept that ‘all beings have Buddha-nature” came alive in the hoza circle.
The members participating in the hoza were remarkably frank, open, and trusting when bringing their problems up. These problems were intensely personal, and dealt with situations from children who were ostracized at school, to husbands who didn’t come home until morning, and were perhaps having affairs. Bringing up such sensitive issues in public—even among friends—is clearly difficult. I believe the members were prepared to be so candid because of their faith that the hoza session was being conducted with true compassion and deep respect.
The hoza leader, while providing sound advice, never seemed to be talking down to the members, or to be putting herself on a higher level. It truly felt as if all parties were continually reminding themselves of each others’ Buddha-nature, or, better yet, that such awareness had become a habit. Giving and receiving advice is always an emotionally and personally tricky situation, but in the hoza, all the pitfalls typical of this type of interaction were skillfully avoided.
Also, in the course of our stay, the hoza leader sought Judy’s thoughts about her advice to one member, and reconsidered her reading of the situation. This, to me, clearly demonstrated that the hoza leader wasn’t concerned with maintaining her own authority; her concern was simply finding the best way to help the member.
As a Westerner, I was moved by the way the hoza session unfolded. We in the West love to talk about our problems and give advice, but we frequently do so with our egos separating us. At the hoza, tears flowed, real concern was showed, and people were genuinely encouraged. People dropped their guards, and were utterly candid with one another. This bond between the members clearly had a spiritual source. It was “Buddha-nature speaking to Buddha-nature”, if you will.
This is, of course, completely in keeping with the Founder’s teachings. Founder Niwano wrote that realizing the innate Buddha-nature in all beings is “the true life and soul of Buddhism”, and I think his recommendations for living can almost always be traced back, at least in part, to this idea.
Hoza is a powerful training ground for us to learn to perceive one another’s Buddha-nature. But there are other practices that can help. The first of President Niwano’s “Three Practices” is an excellent example. On the surface, just saying ‘hello’, or ‘good morning’, seems very easy. But the ultimate purpose of this practice is to continually remind oneself that “my Buddha-nature bows to your Buddha-nature”. At the Kawasaki Church, the members’ “Ohayo Gozaimasu” was extremely warm and powerful.
Sutra study, chanting, meditation, and other practices are certainly valuable, but the true test of a person’s development lies in his or her daily life.
I, for one, can be at perfect peace on my meditation cushion; but a few minutes later, I may not feel like saying ‘good morning’ to anyone, especially when I arrive at work at 4 AM. There are plenty of days I get to work and silently wish, “Just leave me alone until I’ve had a cup of coffee!”.
Founder Niwano knew our minds worked this way. That’s why the Rissho Kosei-kai way simply doesn’t allow us to compartmentalize our lives. Our life in the world reflects the quality of our spiritual practice, whether we like it or not.
This practical emphasis is one reason that, I believe, makes the United States such a potentially valuable place for Rissho Kosei-kai to take root. Most Americans can only read so much theory before they ask “How do I start?” Founder Niwano’s teaching gets us on the road from the very beginning.
So, what can I do, and what can you do, to make people aware of Rissho Kosei-kai?
First, of course, is the traditional way of spreading the teaching—simply talking about it. The people I work with, and my friends, know I’m a Buddhist. Most people are curious. Talk about what Buddhism is, how your practice, and what being a Rissho Kosei-kai member has done for you. As Americans, we’re justifiably afraid of pushing our religious ideas on other people. But if we’re sincere, tactful, and honest, people will be naturally drawn to us and want to know more.
We don’t need to be so traditional, however: the Internet provides us with unprecedented opportunities for spreading the teachings. I’m a member of several Buddhist Internet forums, and will often give the Rissho Kosei-kai perspective on a given topic; those issues can range from the nature of the Eternal Buddha, or how many daimoku does a person recite, or what translation of the Lotus Sutra is the best. I want people who are interested in Buddhism to know what Rissho Kosei-kai is all about, and that we offer a great option for those who need a spiritual home.
I also review the books of Founder Niwano, President Niwano, and Dr. Reeves on sites like Amazon.com. Dr. Reeves always gets five stars, of course. When people are searching for books on Buddhism, or the Lotus Sutra, they can read the reviews, and get excited about reading the book, and hopefully, want to know more. Again, my goal is to have Rissho Kosei-kai’s name out there for people who are searching. Believe me, there are lots of people out there looking for what we can offer.
Compared to the rest of the world, most Americans are enjoying very wealthy and easy lives. But look at the situation more deeply - the disintegration of the family, the collapse of traditional religious structures, and the loss of personal identity have left many of us feeling lost and disillusioned. Buddhism is uniquely equipped to help Americans rebuild families, and relationships, and, ultimately, society.
Lotus Sutra interpretation of the Declaration of Independence
And I have a pet theory as to why America may be an ideal place for the teachings to spread. I see a remarkable harmony between the Lotus Sutra and American ideals. It isn’t too difficult to take this passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
And to reinterpret the same ideals in a Lotus Sutra-centered sense:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all beings are endowed with innate Buddha-nature (and therefore equally worthy of respect), and that all are entitled to Life, freedom from suffering, and the pursuit of happiness by the perfection of the personality.
Another American ideal (one that, tragically, Americans have often fallen short of) is religious tolerance, and the celebration of diversity. The Lotus Sutra is unique in that, while stating that it contains the Buddha’s ultimate teaching, it also celebrates and includes the innumerable other paths to Truth.
While I was putting together this presentation, thinking about the tremendous opportunities Rissho Kosei-kai has in the USA, I experienced an unintended side effect: I began to understand some guidance I received here at the New York Church.
We all receive our individual duties to carry out, and mine was to keep the area by the front door swept. Seeing that I live seven hours away, I wondered how I wound up with this guidance. But now, I see this guidance in what I feel to be a deeper sense.
I understand the guidance this way: Behind the door are the Eternal Buddha, the Lotus Sutra, and Founder Niwano’s teaching. Each of us must open the door for him or herself.
But what we as members can do is to make sure people know the door to the Buddha is available to them. That door may be a few words you say to someone at just the right time; it may be seeing Rissho Kosei-kai mentioned on the Internet; or maybe, the door is a book like “Buddhism for Today”, as it was for me. There are countless ways that the door can appear—it’s truly a Universal Gate. But it takes effort to make sure people see the door, feel comfortable enough to want to open it, and come inside. Our job is to make the way clear.
Rissho Kosei-kai’s teachings of universal compassion, mutual understanding, and respect for the Buddha-nature in all beings are not impossible ideals. Members strive to make them real in their lives every day. This is what’s happening behind the door here in New York, and behind the doors of Churches, Dharma Centers, and member’s homes, around the world.
Let’s let people know what they need is right behind those doors.
||Allan Carpenter has been a member of Rissho Kosei-kai New York for just over two years. He works at Erie, Pennsylvania's #1 radio station BOB-FM. He is single and has one sister.