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Starting Buddhist Practice … How?

A Reader Asks:

I grew up in the United States in a Christian-Baptist household. I always felt that this was not right for me, and formally denounced this faith as I embarked on my journey into adulthood. Lacking any faith whatsoever, I spent time researching ‚Äúreligion‚Äù as a whole and found many concepts from Buddhism that I could agree with. I was fortunate at one point, to form a relationship with a Japanese woman who convinced me to make a trip back to Japan with her. Once in Nagoya, her family introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism, though I’m unsure of the particular ‚Äúorder‚Äù of Nichiren that I was being exposed to. This didn’t really ‚Äúsink in‚Äù and, after returning to the United States, I lost my desire to focus on this study. I have recently decided to begin this study once again, and primarily have Nichiren Buddhism as a background to begin the study. I located a Nichiren Shu temple close to where I live, attended the Sunday morning service last week, and also plan to visit this service again this week. I have little knowledge of many other denominations, but learned the primary difference between Nichiren Shu and the Soka Gakkai last week. That is the difference of Nichiren Daishonin being the eternal Buddha vs. being a mere messenger of Shakyamuni.

I’ve begun reading books on Buddhism and have learned of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These I agree with completely. One thing that I have determined is that this will be a ‚Äúlife(lives)-long‚Äù process, but I’m unsure of what’s acceptable for me to properly begin this study. For instance, I’ve read that praying is disrespectful without the use of a mala (juzu); that it is like grabbing the Buddha with bare hands. There are so many types of juzu, one I ordered from the Soka Gakkai, but am unsure still if this is right for Nichiren Shu. The bigger question (that I apologize for it taking so long for me to ask) is how do I know what is right for me to begin this journey? Am I being disrespectful by attending this service without knowing how to ‚Äúpractice‚Äù?


You say you are in NC, so I assume that this temple is going to be familiar with Americans, and they will realize that you probably have no idea what the rituals are. As far as what is or is not respectful, that’s purely a cultural thing. In Japan, it’s often appropriate to bow to people you meet; here it isn’t. Many of the things you saw in Japan won’t apply here in the USA (unless the temple is run primarily by and for Japanese people). Although it’s simple good manners to learn how the people at your local temple do things, if you mess something up, you are not going to personally offend the Buddha. If you are unsure how to act or what to do in the local temple, then sit in the back and just observe the first few times. Phone ahead and ask if they have a beginner’s level class you can take. If not, then stay respectful and follow along as best you can; it’s no different than a Baptist visiting a Catholic church for the first time; you just have to “play along” until you understand the significance of the rituals, probably doing a lot of Googling after each visit. You have to go in order to learn; you can read books for years and not understand as well as you could with a single real-life visit.

Now that being said, you will need to decide if this is the denomination you want. This can be hard to do in America, where you may or may not even have a choice in the matter. Some cities may have only one temple, while others aren’t even that lucky. Remember that the Path to Enlightenment is mostly an individual thing. The only one who will get you to Nirvana is YOU. YOU need to do whatever works best for you. Maybe that’s by following every word laid down by Nichiren, or Dogen, or Bodhidarma, or the Dalai Lama, or some other teacher. Maybe it’s some American combination of various Eastern schools of thought.

The way you describe this sect of Nichiren, it sounds like the distinction between them is whether or not Nichiren was a reincarnation of “The” Buddha or not. My question is simply, “who cares?” Take what Nichiren said and weigh it in your mind and decide if what he said strikes you as useful. Note that I said useful, not believable, realistic, true, or respectful. Buddhism is a practice, the beliefs and rituals are secondary. Do what WORKS. Believe in what WORKS. Take to heart the words that are most useful to YOU. There’s a lot to be said for finding the right teacher and following him all the way, but that’s not easy in the west. Most of us have to take bits and pieces pf what we need from several groups unless we just happen find one that fits our personality and needs exactly.

Good luck!

2 comments to Starting Buddhist Practice … How?

  • Candace

    Thank you for this very helpful answer to this question that I also had. 🙂

  • Trust your own innate wisdom to make the right choice for you. I have been a member of Soka Gakkai for 25 years, after being brought up a Catholic and being extremely sceptical about Buddhism and especially organised religion! Practising with SGI has been phenomenal for my life and I am convinced that it is the organisation most aligned with Nichiren’s original spirit. The academics and sociologists frequently comment on how it is the only Buddhist movement in the world to have such a diverse range of members (colour, class, sexuality etc…) and this is because it is the most democratic and accessible of all the Nichiren schools. See Richard Saeger’s acclaimed book ‘Encountering the Dharma’ for more.

    SGI is, as Daisaku Ikeda says, a movement of “ordinary people leading ordinary people to enlightenment” and in that sense my view is that priests are not needed, especially if they act as some sort of ‘middle-man’ between you and your own Buddhahood! SGI also creates an environment where members can more easily chant for each others’ happiness, which in this world has gotta be a good thing! Congratulations on your seeking spirit and may Nam Myoho Renge Kyo permeate your whole life, it is the most joyful ‘sound-track’ to have running constantly in your own mind, and beyond. Best, David H.