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My most personal (and perhaps controversial) post yet. An examination of my relationship with organized religion and most notably with a prominent sect of Nichiren Buddhism (I was going to use the name of this organization, but frankly, I'm not interested in writing a "tell all" piece trashing the group I left as I am only accounting my limited personal experience, I'm sure a devoted member of this unnamed organization could rip this blog to shreds).
I live near the a large meeting place of a large Nichiren Buddhist group. After finally freeing myself from a very toxic Hollywood Assistant position that would make the job behind _The Devil Wears Prada_ (aka Anna Wintour's asst position) look like an afternoon sunbathing on a yacht, I was full of negative energy and wanted to make sure I used my time well and made the most of my life, I looked at my roommate who seemed to be full of constructive things and decided to try out her organization, which she said really helped improve her life. Now, first off, let me say I came to her. She did not come to me. She has actually been the most down to earth about this whole process. Perhaps if I had seen more behavior like hers in others..
I went to an intro meeting where we chanted and then talked about how "just saying 'Nam Myoho Renge Kyo' even just once can transform your life" People told stories about how chanting and imagining money brought them money, etc. However, these tales were couched by the following disclaimer "you chant for what you want to learn that what you want will not bring you true happiness, then you learn to chant for happiness." Oh wait and I forgot the ultimate goal of the organization was world peace. But all those larger goals aside, chanting could bring you what you wanted....so it was hard to move beyond that. It's a bit like if someone keeps putting Mrs. Fields cookies in front of a plate of broccoli and kale. You keep meaning to get to the veggies but the cookies taste so good, so you keep eating them even though you know you shouldn't.
Quick Karma Quiz:
If a speaker was called to present at the last minute and he got from Toluca Lake to Santa Monica in less than 30 mins....how did he do it folks?
A. It was sunday morn traffic was light
B. Broke the law and drove too fast
C. Chanted the whole way to get there on time.
If you answered "C" you would be right. Now this gets to another problem I have with the chanting, excuse me, Diamoku. You can't just do a little, you have to do a lot. At one point, I was chanting 15 minutes per day and was happy with that. Well apparently, that was not enough, I needed to be chanting an hour a day. I tried this and kept falling asleep as I was chanting. It was just too much. Now on the topic of too much, let's discuss the meetings and campaigns.
We had meetings about the April campaign to chant for the youth until youth day, we then had the campaign to plan for the gongyo (world peace prayer meeting, or to use conventional jargon revival meeting/church service). Then we had to plan for the next district gongyo at someone's house, so we had some planning meetings for that, then the next campaign for the youth meeting, then the next campaign for the day presentation at the park, then the family fun fest, then....
Well kids, it all becomes overwhelming. And here's the result. I was pretty involved, there regularly, participating regularly, and then if I were gone for five minutes....here came the calls. We're having a meeting tonight, can you make it? Once I went out of town for four days to visit my sister and mother. This happened to be during the time when New Years day gongyo was going on...and I recieved call after call. "When are you back?" Takao and Ruta would call and ask. Ruta and Takao were in their early 20s, both from Japan, where apparently this sect of Nichiren Buddhists practice more fevently than here in the USA. Thus Ruta and Takao were both worried about me when I wasn't chanting (which I was at the center several times a week at this point). I kept trying to explain that I was writing or doing something constructive. I felt I had to answer for every moment of my life when I wasn't there. I felt like I didn't own my own life anymore.
And this is where it got a little crazy. You chanted to make your dreams come true, but I thought you had to work to make your dreams come true. So I thought the answer was chant a bit to give you the strength to be a determined person. Well apparently the answer was chant all the time. But then everyone was always sitting around talking about how the chanting was going to make it happen. Well how can the chanting make it happen if you're sitting in a room talking about how you can make it happen. Not that people didn't advertise any success as proof of the chanting. Because they did. In fact, I felt that people who came from an advantaged background who were in this sect had an extra advantage because even though "you could achieve buddhahood as you are" was a principle, those members that had well-heeled lives or were famous (of which I can name two actors, a senator and a legendary Jazz musician) were trumpeted because they provided "actual proof." That was another aspect of the practice, you got "actual proof" in your life that it worked. I thought the whole point of religion was that it wasn't about looking for "actual proof." Job got "actual proof" but I don't think that sort of "actual proof" is the kind this sect is using to increase membership.
Now, perhaps other people dealt with it differently, but this whole aspect of the practice made me more neurotic than I already was. I kept putting all my fears and dreams and goals and worries on the chanting and focused on them as I was chanting, expecting things to change. I began to feel like I was trying to use one plug to keep afloat a ship with three holes. I needed to chant about this, but what about that, and am I seeing progress in my social skills and ability to relate to people? What about my writing? Well, how the fuck am I going to relate well to people if I'm relentlessly focusing on it? I felt that spirituality was designed to help you handle and accept life with grace. I really stopped when I began telesales as my job and I realized I could chant for more sales and that felt so spiritually chickenshit that I wanted to wash my hands of the whole thing. Perhaps this is my problem. Others seemed to be on such a plane of understanding with it. They would get up at meetings and ask leaders questions in the vein of "So if I'm chanting with deeper devotion but someone else is not, how do I express to them the importance of chanting with deeper devotion?" Frankly, when people get up to ask "sincere questions" about their faith at large revival meetings (insert some Japanese word that is the equivalent of revival meeting here) it is laced with self-satisfaction. Sort of like when a bunch of hard-bodied gay men gaggle about eating too many carbs after working out for 2 hours. To quote Nell Carter, one who did not count carbs, "It's time for my piece of cake, Gimme a break!"
And so after 11 months of devoted service to the organization. I dropped out. At first people called (and sent me notes showing me the schedule of events [as if I did not know they were still going on] and bookmarks with inspirational quotes etc) and I had a few one-on-one meetings where I read a section of the Gosho (the letters of the founding father of Nichiren Buddhism, Nichiren Diashonin) about not slandering the practice or bad things would happen to me. I kind of felt that I shouldn't come back to the practice out of fear but rather out of love.
But then there is a nagging part of me that feels like 'what if'? What if I had grown because I chanted? What if my writing was better and my life was under more control because I chanted? What if the organization (even with it's flaws) could have made me better and I just didn't have the level of commitment needed to get that place?
The message of hope was powerful, but eventually for me the aggressiveness of most of members and the belief that "this practice was the correct practice" was too far out of line with my Unitarian belief that no one religion took preference over another. However, as much as I preach about the power of the Unitarian Church, I have yet to go back. Part of the reason I am unable to attend traditional religious services is not because of my homosexuality (one can find in LA, thankfully, open congregations of all faiths) but because I swim on Sunday Mornings. It is the one time I know I will almost always make and swimming is something where I see "actual proof" in the difference in my life from doing it and that is something I won't give up. Perhaps if I am looking to swimming for my only reassurance, maybe that is the fault of growing up Unitarian.
I deal, as most people do, with a great degree of fear and negativity. Life is about continuing to plug away at something, that is how I believe greatness is achieved. However, particularly in this day and age where the quest for "actual proof" is constant, how does one find the strength to do that? I look at my life and see very little actual proof, thus I look to something external to give me that gumption, but again the quest for hope rather than feeling steady, is me pushing that cork into various holes. I used religion the way I use everything else, to run away from what I really need to accept and face in my life. Those things I need to face are the holes in boat that feels like it is sinking. However, my therapist says I need to come in twice a week to make progress and even on a sliding scale- how the fuck am I going to afford that?
That is what I struggle with...honestly, laziness in my life has hurt my spiritual quest. Instead of doing a comprehensive search for truth and comfort in religion. I threw myself into the first thing I found. My quest for religion was a bit like "Eat, Pray, Love" for the age of drive-thrus and internet hook ups. But then again, that is my personality, it took me years to figure out that internet hook ups are not worth emotional investment (and as of last week I was still upset that some hunky doctor in San Diego didn't want to meet for coffee after a series of lurid text messages) and that macaroni and cheese cannot be consumed multiple times per week, no matter how many carrot sticks one eats. I do feel like there is a greater center out there, a greater level, however it is a constant struggle. To quote another big beautiful black woman, Jill Scott from her Rolling Stone profile...'Positivity and peace is not a bus stop you get off at. You gon' have to work on it every day for the rest of your life.'
The fact that I am quoting a woman who stars in Tyler Perry movies and now has her own personal "big girls" bra collection speaks volumes about how I am too far gone for spirituality. But are we all too far gone? Today everyone, even the Dalai Lama to the president of the religious organization I am discussing to even Unitarians, connects with celebrities. Jesus didn't seem to have any famous friends, rather he had famous enemies, so he died. As did other martyrs of faith. Where are our martyrs in a world where self-advancement is no longer Machiavellian, it is embraced?
I still chant a few times a week (for 15 minutes) to try and connect to some super me...
Sometimes I think living is a religious experience all on it's own and maybe that occasional realization is the only 'actual proof' I am going to get.