Chanting for Happiness

How much faith can a 'fortune baby' put in the power of good intentions?


| September / October 2004


I was born to parents whose good intentions change the world. That's why they call me a 'fortune baby,' a child born into the practice of Nichiren Buddhism. Among fellow Buddhists, fortune babies like me are regarded with awe and affection. By virtue of my discerning taste in parents, my very existence has been fortified by prayer, millions of chanted repetitions of the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was undoubtedly the sound track at the scene of my birth. It was certainly the white noise of my childhood, and when I went off to college I left the phrase resonating in my wake. As my folks insist, should my sister and I choose to use the power of the practice, there is no end to what we could accomplish. But even without doing all that hard work, our parents' chanting entitles us to a certain amount of karmic nepotism, a virtual goodie bag of cosmic returns.

Asking my parents to define Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (Nah-m MEE-yo-ho RAIN-gay KEE-yo) can provoke more questions than answers. Devotees understand it to mean 'devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect through sound/vibration,' and, simply put, my mother and father believe that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo allows them to tap into the 'rhythm of the universe.' As a child looking for attention, I would do the running man or the robot to the rhythm of the universe, trying to get my parents to crack a smile during evening prayer.

I grew up on New York City's Lower East Side, where nothing is more unfashionable than enthusiasm. And yet, in my family's apartment at least, enthusiasm was inescapable. My parents had discovered the secret to creating 'ultimate happiness' in this lifetime and, naturally, they were excited about it. Even worse, they were determined to share the news with the babysitter, the postman, the supermarket checkout attendant, the crazy cat lady in 3C, and every hapless cabbie who gave us a ride. Later, many of these people arrived at our doorstep, tentatively hopeful, drawn by my parents' invitation to stop by for the weekly chance to see their promise of happiness put to the test. It would be hard to imagine a more earnest gathering of strangers, at least in lower Manhattan.

When I was old enough to recognize America's inexhaustible fascination with Eastern religion, I began indulging in the thrill of casually letting it drop among friends that my parents were Buddhist. I enjoyed cultivating the image of my parents doing hip, mystical Buddhist things, like sitting for hours in zazen on a tatami mat or something, perhaps every now and then turning to give me a contemplative smile. Not quite. The awkward reality of my parents' Buddhist practice -- the fund-raisers and phone trees, the fervent affirmations, the bagels and cream cheese and hysterical effervescence shared at district meetings -- was, at the time, so dorky it hurt. I can remember staging rebellions as early as age 6, when I refused to sing along with the now defunct Buddhist jingle 'Have a Gohonzon!' A gohonzon is the object of devotion before which Nichiren Buddhists like my parents pray. The tune was borrowed from 'Hava Nagila' (apparently my mother was not the only Jew-Bu in the bunch). Despite my strike, the lyrics, perhaps waiting for this very chance at immortality, are burned into my brain: Have a gohonzon / Have a gohonzon / Have a gohonzon / Chant for a while / You'll find that you will be / Full of vitality / Watching your benefits grow in a pile!

That song is a less graceful example of the long-standing tradition of incorporating intercultural elements into Nichiren Buddhist faith. The founder and namesake of the practice, Nichiren Daishonin, was a 13th-century radical Japanese priest who asserted, in a time of clerical corruption, that every living being had a Buddha nature and could therefore attain enlightenment without the help of an ordained intermediary. Nichiren drew his teachings from the Lotus Sutra, one of the final sutras delivered by the Buddha. As the story goes, in order to make the liturgy accessible to everyone in the world, he completed a translation fusing all the known languages of the time. To this day, from New Jersey to Ghana, Nichiren's disciples chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, a combination of ancient Chinese and Sanskrit, pronounced with a Japanese accent.

Unlike their Zen counterparts, Nichiren Buddhists embrace their earthly desires as a means to achieve happiness in this lifetime. My parents have an index card next to the gohonzon on their altar, listing an ever-evolving list of their wishes for themselves, their loved ones, and the world. By forming a direct alliance between their life condition and the rhythm of the universe, my parents believe they are augmenting their purest intentions with universal assistance. They call this process 'human revolution' and have faith that it will lead them to 'become absolutely happy in this lifetime, help others to do the same, and, person by person, create world peace.'