Saturday, May 5, 2012

Interview with 2 Buddhists

My friend Bret put me in touch with his classmate Yoriko, who is a practicing Nichiren Buddhist.  Last night I spent a few hours with Yoriko and her friend Shara, discussing their Buddhist faith.

The little that I know about Buddhism is from reading the book No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  My summary of that book experience is here:

Yoriko grew up in Japan, where Buddhism is very common.  Shara grew up in a Baptist church in Yakima, and moved to the Portland area in her teens.  Both practice Nichren Buddhism at the Oregon Buddhist Center.  Nichiren Buddhism focus on the lotus sutra, and the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  The lotus sutra is the idea that all people have the ability to obtain Buddhahood.  This is the ultimate enlightenment.  They chant daily, for a period of 5-20 minutes.  They find that the verbal chant is more fulfilling than silent meditation, as the mind tends to wander.

While the Buddhism expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh focuses more on a pantheistic view of the world, these 2 women focus more on the re-birth of a person in another life.  They are still themselves, though they may not have memory of their prior life.  It is believed that people that are close are reincarnated together.  The belief in reincarnation stems from many stories, both current and ancient, of children claiming to recognize each other from a prior life, and are able to explain these past lives in great detail. One child remember her mother from a past life, except the child was the mother, and the mother the child. Additionally, there have been hypnotists who have extracted amazing stories from the hypnotized related to experiences in past lives, sometimes thousands of year ago.  They can’t articulate how a person could die, and yet be re-born in a different body, but they believe it to be the case.  Since Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, they are comfortable not having the answer to this issue.  Unlike western religions, it isn’t necessary to try to prove one’s faith.

Most of the issues that divide people in our culture are not relevant to the Buddhist.  The goal is to improve one’s OWN happiness, not to focus on a future life, or attempt to persuade others.  There is no carrot on a stick.  They practice to improve their quality of life, and that of their family.  They believe that the commitment to chanting brings a focus to their lives, and their life is better for it.  I was struck by how little they seemed to know of other religions, or even other sects of Buddhism.  It wasn’t an ignorance of the mind, it was that they simply had no need for anything else.  Their practice fulfills their needs, so comparisons aren’t necessary.

The idea of nirvana seemed to be of minor importance to these two.  While much of the reading I’ve done has placed lots of important on the shedding of desires so that nirvana can be reached, Yoriko said she thought nirvana was one of the minor sutras, and not terribly worthy of focus.  Shara said that desires give her a goal, and she wouldn’t want to “not want” anything.  To use her words “Just today I was at Costco drooling over their Tvs.  I like my toys.”

One thing I’d not heard before is the idea that the quality of one’s Buddhahood can be seen after someone dies.  Those who don’t practice, for example, tend to have very pale, anguished faces after death.  Practicing Buddhists on the other hand tend to be rosy-cheeked and serene, as if they could just sit up and get out of the coffin.  The human experience has that much greater an effect on the body that even in death, Buddhism is an improvement.

As to the primary questions that religions seem to be trying to answer, Nichiren Buddhism seems to answer the questions a little more clearly than other sects.  The afterlife question is answered via reincarnation (I am still me, even if I’m not in the same body).  Our lives are to be lived according to the wise teachings of the Buddha, though he is not a god, and not to be worshipped.  Following these teachings will lead to enlightenment, the greatest of which is Buddhahood.  Everyone is capable of achieving Buddhahood.  Issues of the Earth’s origin, why the world was created at all, more scientific or epistemological questions, don’t seem to come up at all.  I’m not sure if this is because there aren’t any good answers, or because with this practice, one doesn’t find themselves asking those kinds of questions.  One thing I can tell for sure is that the physical practice of Buddhism seems to be required for one to fully “get it.”  Both these women had conviction in their beliefs, but didn’t seem to care to convince anyone else to try it.  They’re too busy getting happier, day by day.

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