Chanting for Happiness

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.’

As Nichiren Buddhists, my parents are members of a global
organization called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). In the spirit
of engaged Buddhism, members of SGI, one of the world’s most
ethnically and socially diverse Buddhist groups, base their faith
in action. To this end, SGI works closely with a long list of
peace, education, and environmental protection groups like the
Boston Research Center, the Pacific Basin Research Center, and the
Earth Charter. In addition to their community work, twice a day
every day, in their homes and at local ‘culture centers,’ all the
world’s 12 million SGI members sit down and chant in prayer for
kosen rufu (the spread of the teachings), understood as
the promotion of world peace.

The older I get, the harder it becomes to dismiss the pursuit of
world peace as dorky. But kosen rufu is composed of
millions of individuals’ hopes, desires, and intentions, many of
which are much easier to make fun of. Because my parents have
resolved to see evidence of their prayers wherever they look, they
do. In Buddhist speak, this evidence is called ‘actual proof’ or
‘benefits,’ and recognizing benefits is a way to maintain an
energetic practice.

My parents and I agree that some benefits — such as their
successful marriage, the impulsive beginnings of which have now
become the stuff of family legend — truly do indicate larger
forces at work. My father decided he wanted to get married, so he
asked two girls to a Buddhist meeting and proposed to the one who
was moved to tears. My mother prudently told him she needed at
least a week to decide, dreamed prophetically that my father would
be a good match, and now, 30 years later, they are happily married,
living in the suburbs, with two kids, two cars, a golden retriever,
and many reasons to be thankful. Other declared benefits, like when
the guy at the doughnut shop runs out to the parking lot to give my
father the eyeglasses he forgot on the counter, are not so
clear-cut.

Now that I am reaching the quarter-century mark, though, I have
less energy to rebel against my parents’ resolute benefit-spotting
and blessing-counting. Being obstinate and obnoxious was
age-appropriate behavior at 13, but at 24, and struggling to cobble
my way in the world, I am not about to turn up my nose at a dose of
self-empowering optimism. Nor am I willing to sacrifice my
happiness for the satisfaction of proving my parents wrong. I
realize now that there are worse parental vices than enthusiasm. My
parents gave me the key to creating positive change in the world,
and believe me, when I am driving on a windy, icy mountain road in
a snowstorm, I am chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and I am
not smirking.

The first 18 years of my life were framed by my parents’
prayers, and since I left home I have felt buoyed by the power of
their intention. As idealistic as it may be, I would not deny that
there is something encouraging about being included in my parents’
wish to ‘wrap the world in shoten zenjin‘ (protective
forces). And, admittedly, my life, from my conception on that
fateful day on Martha’s Vineyard (too rainy for the beach), has
been good. As a fortune baby, cradled in the arms of my parents’
focused intent, I had the luxury to take good fortune for granted.
But as my adult path becomes less certain, I find myself drawing
confidence from the navigation techniques I’ve inherited, and I am
grateful. Undoubtedly, this is a benefit my mother and father have
been chanting for all along.

Eliza Thomas is an editorial intern at Utne.

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