[TW: sexual assault, date rape drugs]
My wonderful friend Jasper asked me on my Facebook for a list of books related to Buddhism, as they are a Shintoist and curious about the connection between these two faiths. I am happy to say that a reading list of books that inspired me on my journey to Soka Gokkai is already in my drafts! I can’t wait to share these with you – look for that post soon.
In the meantime, Jasper’s question brought up a very good point. Jasper converted to their faith in adulthood – as did I and many of my other friends. Why did Shintoism speak to Jasper, or Judaism speak to my good friend Rose? Why did Buddhism speak to me? Such questions bring up even thornier ones, ones which are difficult (or impossible) to answer, even uncomfortable to ask. Are all of these faiths an equal path to connection with the Universe? Is there one true path?
All I can answer is with my own journey to my own path, and my own convictions in my way.
As I have said before, I have always been a spiritual person, and a curious one. My mother is a Wiccan and raised me as one too; since I was 13 I have been casting spells and playing with tarot cards, visualizing my aura and celebrating the equinoxes. I’ve read and studied about other faiths, sometimes feeling drawn to one faith or another as I learn more.
However, I’ve always felt far away from my own spirituality, as if there were something missing; as if I wasn’t being active enough in my spiritual work. My rituals felt sterile, even ones that were spontaneous. I didn’t feel as if I were being true to myself and honoring my own needs. Spirituality felt like something that you do when you need something, rather than something you live every day, which felt wrong to me. I wanted something that was authentic, and that connected me to other people who felt the same way. I often felt jealous of people who had a real church to go to – a place to call their own! Growing up as a witch, I felt uprooted, as if there was no genuine community I could reach out to. In a way, this is true. The Wiccan community in America is full of infighting, turf wars, and self-aggrandizing, which for a group which claims to worship nature and support peace is quite hypocritical. Even with a loving, supportive mother, Wicca never felt like home for me.
Being sexually assaulted was a sea change in my life. (I know I talk about my sexual assault a lot on this blog, but it was genuinely what brought me to Buddhism, and it was one of the most significant events in my life so far.) The date rape drugs, while they were active in my body, wiped out my sense of self. I truly lost my identity for that hour, and I was terrified that I would never come back to myself. Being returned to my own identity, my own body, was the greatest joy I have ever known – since that day, even though I have gained weight and feel quite a bit of body dysmorphia, I wake up every day simply relieved to be alive and to have a second chance.
There is a very real possibility that my rapist could have killed me had I not had family close by to save me. I realized how lucky I was – how close I had come to death – and it both made me appreciate life so much more, and also want to explore the mystery of existence. I also, understandably, was traumatized, and wanted to find a way out of my suffering.
Being a curious and independent person, I started looking for self-help books on Kindle, hoping to find something that would help explain to me what was going on, and give me some guidance on how to feel better on my own. While I had access to resources outside of myself, I felt uncomfortable going to anyone else about what was going on with me. I felt that no one would understand how I felt and that this was something I needed to do alone, at least for now.
While searching around on Kindle, I came across the book 48 Hours to Enlightenment by Richard John. I can honestly say that this book absolutely changed my life and revolutionized my thinking. As I read through the book and followed the author’s arguments step by step, I saw how much sense they made. When it was revealed that many of these arguments came from Buddhism, I was absolutely hooked.
I went on to explore more Buddhist thought and read through the Pali canon. I couldn’t get enough! I wanted to learn everything there was about Buddhism and dive right in. Absolutely nothing was out of bounds and I followed the most esoteric arguments with delight.
However, some of Buddhist philosophy felt uncomfortable to me. The emphasis on totally destroying the self was painful, as it reminded me of my sexual assault and the drugs that had obliterated my very being. Even though I knew that state of being existed – and was perhaps the true way to enlightenment – I shrank away from this idea. I have worked so hard to learn to love myself, and now I have to give that self up? All of these wonderful thoughts, feelings, joys, and beliefs?
Reading through different discussions of Buddhism, it seemed as if others also felt this same discomfort and that there was a lively argument about whether one could be a differentiated individual while still striving toward enlightenment. Theraveda Buddhism seemed to believe that one must work to destroy all these individual cravings and ideas in order to reach enlightenment, and that Nirvana was a state where the self is totally gone.
Then I began to read more about Mayahana Buddhism, which focuses more on how everyday people can be Buddhists while living ordinary lives, filling their lives with joy and compassion for all beings, and striving for everyone to reach enlightenment just by being themselves. One of the quotes about Mayahana Buddhism that really stuck with me was about someone threatening to push a man off a building. A true Mayahana Buddhist would encourage everyone to jump, believing that all lives are equal and that the suffering of one person is equal to the suffering of all. This might seem crazy in an individualist society, where we value ourselves above all others, but to someone that truly believes that we all have inner Buddhahood, all lives are so sacred that the destruction of a single life is devastating beyond belief. I was deeply moved by this idea and felt that a group that encouraged such deep compassion was right for me.
As I’ve mentioned before, it was a friend of mine from my graduate program who introduced me to Soka Gokkai, one of the sects of Nichiren Buddhism (which, subsequently, is a sect of Mayahana Buddhism, as discussed before). Nichiren Buddhism goes further than Mayahana Buddhism in its acceptance and celebration of the individual life, in that it believes that all of us, through our unique talents and gifts, contribute to enlightenment in our own way.
Rather than wanting to obliterate the self, Soka Gokkai rejoices in how all of us bring something different to the harmony of humanity, and thus each of us has a special role to play in creating a human revolution, one that brings us closer to peace and helps every person awaken their inner Buddha. Through chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, concentrating on the Gohonzon (which is a mirror of ourselves and of the Universe), and reading sacred texts, each of us can learn to be our best self, which in turn allows us to help others on their journey.
THIS, I thought to myself, THIS is what I’ve been missing! And it was. When I chant, I feel myself spreading open, connecting with something deeper. As I’ve explored Buddhism, I’ve realized that each of our lives is about learning different lessons, and through our learning, we all contribute to Universal Enlightenment – the Universe, Itself, learning, coming closer to complete understanding. As we are all both a part and the whole of the Universe, when we chant the Mystic Law to help us realize our own enlightenment, we help to usher in human revolution, and, in turn, Universal Enlightenment. The Gohonzon, representing this enlightenment, helps us focus our energy toward our own lessons, our own goals.
To come back to the question I asked, are all paths valid? Is Soka Gokkai, or Nichiren Buddhism, or Buddhism itself, the only way? I am an imperfect being, without answers to life’s deepest questions. I have found my way toward peace, toward realizing my human revolution, and I would like to help others along their way. But we all have our own paths to take. Buddhism is about peace, lovingkindness, and acceptance, and, in my interpretation, kosen-rufu is about offering others the tools to bring them peace and enlightenment, by sharing our own experiences.
I wish you the best on your own journey, however it may take you, and hope you find your own peace and joy.