Soka Gakkai International is a Nichiren Buddhist group. Their practice, founded by the 13th-Century Japanese monk Nichiren, emphasizes study of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo", or "homage to the Lotus Sutra".
Paula Miksic works for SGI, as the Director for Peace and Community Relations for the East Territory. She gave me a tour of their large building on 15th St in Manhattan. I noted the lack of any Buddha or bodhisattva statues. Instead, the only symbol on the altars is the Gohonzon. Miksic called the Gohonzon a mandala, but it doesn't look like a typical Buddhist mandala: It has no lines, figures, or decoration; it is simply a geometric arrangement of Chinese writing, including "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" and the names of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great teachers.
I interviewed Paula Miksic for True Expression on July 8.
What do you do?
I have a wonderful time, actually.
I work part-time for SGI-USA, it will be two years in October. I still volunteer in other capacities. One of the things that I do is to create a "Culture of Peace" distinguished speakers series. Once a month we have someone who has, with their compassionate action and their intellect and their commitment, in one or another of the areas of the UN's Eight Action Points for the Creation of a Culture of Peace, speak about how to create a new culture based on peace. So we had the economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs here, and we had this woman who, at the age of 22, created the gender equality portion of the Japanese Constitution. Amazing woman. Her name is Beate Sirota Gordon and she's now in her 80s, amazing warm person.
So that's one of my jobs. Creating friendships and relationships with all kinds of people, and in all areas of our community, and promoting understanding of our movement and for us to understand other people, and creating programs for education towards peace is another part of my job.
And talking to you!
Is your membership mostly Japanese...?Most of them are American or people who have come—you know, New York is so diverse, so in New York in particular we have an extremely diverse population.
This Buddhism 60 years ago was transported here by President [Daisaku] Ikeda and a handful of Japanese war brides. And I mean a handful. They couldn't speak English and they wanted to go home, primarily. President Ikeda encouraged them, because it was Nichiren's admonition that we should share this Law throughout the world. He encouraged them to stay here and to learn English and to get driver's licenses and become citizens, which I think was very distressing to them. But they did it, and we really owe a lot to these women. One of them still comes here to the center, she's probably about 90, and she encourages the members with her confidence. She gives guidance to members who are struggling. Still. Never stopped.
You said there are 8,471 active members of SGI in the New York area. How are you so successful? Because, for what I'll call a convert Buddhism, that is not based primarily on an immigrant community, that's just immense!
This is a huge question. There are many reasons that we're successful, but the first thing is: it works! When people start chanting they can begin to see, immediately, real changes in the way they can live their daily lives.
And of course Buddhism was never meant for one specific group of people, an encapsulated community. Shakyamuni's intention was to quickly, he said he wanted to quickly allow people to achieve the same realization, the same state of life that he had achieved. And I think Nichiren's greatness is that he made the practice of the Lotus Sutra, if you will, user-friendly. He made a simple practice that allows people to go to the core of life, and revitalize their lives and their families and their health and their finances, their own humanity. So people get tremendous benefit from this practice, and that's the real reason.
I get why, once somebody starts practicing Buddhism, with SGI or in the Nichiren tradition, it works. It's satisfying. You keep doing it. But how do you do that initial outreach of getting people to try it?
It was my best friend who introduced me to Buddhism, and basically it is human to human, heart to heart. So we don't advertise on television or radio, but through human contact. If you find something that you really like, that's really good.... I found a really fabulous Indian restaurant in Chelsea. I don't know how many people I've already told about it—it's natural. It's really a natural joyful thing. And it's also a courageous thing to do. If you see somebody suffering, and you know something that's going to help them, how can you not?
So, this is the way we bring people, and it just grows exponentially.
When people start practicing, do they consider themselves converted, or do they often remain Jewish or Christian or whatever, while also practicing Buddhism?
I think generally people consider themselves converted. There's a point where people decide, after they've chanted some and spoken to their friends, that they'd like to receive the mandala and try doing the basic practice. And even the newest member does his or her best to engage in propagation as is appropriate for their life.
So propagation is part of being a practitioner.
Absolutely. It's the heart, in a way. If it was the purpose of the Buddha to make all people equal, and to allow all people access to the Dharma, you can't practice for yourself alone. And it's part of developing your humanity, or your Buddhahood if you will, to be able to have the courage and the compassion to experience somebody's suffering, and then work, work for happiness. Find some way, somehow, to support someone else's happiness, their growth and development. So it is really the heart.
Does SGI give members training in how to do that properly, so it's effective but not aggressive?
One of the things we do is we have introductory meetings, most of them are handled by our youth division, with some men's and women's divisions to support them.
So you have an event to invite people to if they're interested.
Several times a week. We also have meetings in 8 languages. We take time to answer questions. Any kind of question that anybody has. So guests come to these meetings with their sponsors or their friends, until they feel satisfied that this is something they'd like to try.
I think that sometimes people, especially when they're new to the practice, they get so excited and they want to introduce their friend, but they hardly even know what they're doing yet. But they've chanted and something's cooking in their life, so of course they can bring them to these things and then as a community we can support their effort to explain.
What's daily practice like for a serious member?
For me it's wonderful. It's wonderful. I love to do gongyo—assiduous practice. Nichiren said you should recite parts of the hoben and juryo chapters [of the Lotus Sutra] morning and evening and chant "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo". So that's what we do, together sometimes.
What is it like? It's like waking up! I have been able to transform every suffering I have faced in my life, into a source of amazing realization, joy, and very often specific, tangible changes in my daily life. When you do a sincere and serious prayer you can conduct your day in such a wonderful way.
And what are you doing with your mind when you chant?
My mind is usually focused on wanting to bring out a certain capability or capacity inside my life, or wanting to advance peace in a certain way that day.
Are you praying to someone or something?
No. We are facing Nichiren's mandala, the Gohonzon. It is the object of fundamental, profound respect. It is Nichiren's enlightenment, it is also my own potential for enlightenment. You use your voice to call forth your own Buddhahood for now. And it's depicted there, it's like a mirror of what is possible in your life.
Do you ever pray to be enlightened?
Sometimes desperately! (laughs) But chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" is enlightenment itself. I pray to be able to take enlightened action, particularly if I'm dealing with some specific, difficult problem.
To pray to be enlightened some day is not consistent with Nichiren's Buddhism. It's the real ability to manifest enlightenment now, today. That's also the great cause for your future enlightenment.
But there is some absolute permanent enlightenment, that you're creating a cause to eventually attain?
Eternal enlightenment really does exist right here, right now. That's something that's wonderful to take seriously. So that we don't put it off, or feel that we're less than....
...less than some perfect state.
Right. Because perfect is a dead stop. But to become whole is to keep growing, keep growing, keep growing under every condition. Even at the moment of your own death. I have witnessed with my eyes, many times, members passing. Their life state is unbelievable. And it's keep growing, keep expanding.
Buddhism's getting really, really chic. I get furniture catalogs in the mail, and they're selling Buddhas.
And on the one hand, a furniture-catalog Buddha is a Buddha, just the way a temple Buddha is a Buddha. And on the other hand I don't think that most people who buy Buddhas from furniture catalogs end up being real practitioners.
But maybe there's something they see that's beautiful. Anything that helps our seeking mind can be positive. Buddhism's what's called a round teaching, so people come to it from many points of view, based on their own karma, their own journey.
There's a tremendous fascination with eastern cultures now, particularly in contrast to the harsh brutal materialism of the Western cultures. People are seeking. If they're seeking a certain kind of art or tranquility in their home, I think it's fine. Strikes me as pretty natural.
One advantage that a Zen sangha has is that people already have an idea of what Zen is. It might be wrong, but at least it's a positive idea, in America. Do people usually know what Nichiren Buddhism is, before they come here?
No. Up to about ten years ago, people would really be surprised. But now very often people will say, "Oh I heard of that somewhere," or "I saw Tina Turner's movie where she chanted 'Nam Myoho Renge Kyo', or I heard Herbie Hancock when he talked about his Buddhist practice."
I was standing in front of this building the other day and a woman asked me, "What is this building?" and I said, "It's a Buddhist center". And she said, "Oh I've been looking!" So I invited her in, and she's going to come back for an introductory meeting. She looked at me and she said, "I'm so glad I met you today. You are like my angel!"