From 1984 to 2015, Inquiring Mind was a semiannual print journal dedicated to the transmission of buddhadharma to the West. The archive contains all thirty-one years of Inquiring Mind interviews, essays, poetry, art, and more—now hosted by the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies. Please consider a donation to help with the ongoing expenses to keep the site running. Baseball Hall of Famer and SF Giants great Orlando Cepeda (aka “Baby Bull,” aka “Cha Cha”) passed away Friday, June 28, at 86. This piece is presented in his memory.

“Buddhism saved me,” says baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (1937–2024), who transformed his life through Nichiren Buddhist practice. Nicknamed “The Baby Bull” after his father, “The Bull,” the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico, Cepeda grew up playing baseball. He was a powerful slugger, with a lifetime batting average of .297 and 379 career home runs. After his 1974 retirement, he suffered from financial, marital, and legal troubles, culminating in a ten-month prison term for marijuana smuggling. Despite his stunning career, Cepeda’s election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame took more than twenty years. He credits his 1999 election to his daily chanting, which he believes helped turn the hearts of the baseball writers who had repeatedly voted against his induction.

Cepeda was a member of Soka Gakkai International, a sect of Buddhism based in Japan. Nichiren practice traces its origins to 13th-century monk Nichiren Daishonin, who tried to simplify what he saw as formalistic and elaborate Japanese Buddhist practice by returning to basics. He taught the chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which signifies homage to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra and teaches the ultimate perfectibility of human beings. Followers of Nichiren such as Cepeda believe that by diligently chanting this single phrase, you can awaken to your higher self and discover that you are a buddha.

In November 2005, Inquiring Mind staff members Barbara Gates, Wes Nisker, and Alan Novidor talked with Cepeda about chanting, rebirth, and changing your destiny through spiritual practice.


In 1999, when you were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, you were the first Buddhist to receive that honor. How did you get involved in Buddhism? I had been living in Puerto Rico, and I was going through very, very tough times. A friend of mine in LA saw me and said, “Orlando, you look very unhappy.” I said, “I am very unhappy. I’m nothing. I’m losing everything.” He said, “Why don’t you try this?” He gave me a pamphlet about Buddhism, Soka Gakkai. I said, “Why not? I’ll try anything.” I thought, “Oh, this won’t work!” I wanted to show that it wouldn’t work.

But it did. I went to my first meeting in Los Angeles in 1982. Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, and Buster Williams were there. They all encouraged me. That was a Saturday, and on Sunday, I received my gohonzon, the scroll. In the center, it says “Nichiren, devotion to the mystic law through a sound. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” We have this book called the Lotus Sutra. We chant from it in the morning, and we chant from it in the evening. When you chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, there’s a connection between you and the universe.

When you first started chanting, how did it affect you? At that time, I didn’t want to have anything to do with baseball. I had retired in 1974, and I didn’t like baseball. I was bitter. I was blaming everybody but me for some things that had gone wrong. But when I started doing the practice, I found out that I was my problem. This practice is like going to school. Some people go to school to be lawyers, to learn the law of society. With Buddhism, you learn the law of life, because life is based on cause and effect.

Karma. So it shifted your whole understanding of yourself and the world? With this practice, you know where you’re going, and you know where you’ve come from. If you want to know how your life used to be in the past, look at what you’re going through now. If you want to know your life in the future, look at what you’re doing now.

While you are chanting, what is happening in your mind? When you chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, it’s like a picture, like a wide-screen TV. You might see your life of forty years ago because what you’re going through now started in 1965. Your mind goes through so many things. Like, if you have somebody who works with you who doesn’t like you or makes it hard for you, you chant for his happiness and you chant for yourself to change what you have to change so [that] he can change also. Through this practice, you learn that whatever happens in life, you create it. Nobody else creates it for you.

Some people say that they chant for their own well-being and it works that way, but it also works to chant for somebody else or for peace in the world. I chant for me, for my friends, and for others. You know, we all have problems. Me, I didn’t have anything, so I chanted for a car. Because I was living in Sacramento, I was asked to bring some youth to San Francisco for a big convention there. I said, “Gohonzon, I need a car.” Boom! I got a car. Whatever I chanted for, I got it.

It sounds like you kept praying and that your prayers were answered. But in our practice, we don’t worship anybody. Our leader says, “Don’t follow me, join me, for world peace.”

It’s like what the Buddha said: “Don’t believe anything I say. You’ve got to find out for yourself.” Yeah, whatever I say is coming from Shakyamuni.

If you had been chanting when you played ball, do you imagine that your attention, or your attitude, as you went up to bat or stood on the field might have been different? Baseball’s an unusual sport that has a lot of time where you’re needing to be paying attention but you’re not necessarily in motion. How might you have played the game differently, inning to inning? Baseball is very much a game that requires a lot of concentration. I believe chanting is good for that, because when I’m chanting, there can be music all around me and I don’t listen to anything. I just focus. Buddhism could have helped me in the mental preparation because I did so many bad things at that time. I stayed up all night to go to clubs and dance. They used to call me “Cha Cha.” Right now, I get up at 6:30 a.m. every morning, and in the evening when I go to my friend’s house, I’ll go over early, because I have to get up early the next day, and I want to be fresh when I chant.

You had such an amazing major-league career—20-year-old Rookie of the Year, seven-time National League All Star… But with Buddhism I could have batted over .300 and hit 500 home runs. I missed five years because of my injuries. The reason I didn’t play ball was that I wanted to party every night. I never drank that much, but I’d smoke weed. The next morning, I didn’t want to go to the ballpark. If you have your common sense, you know you’re a ballplayer. You know how to take care of yourself.

I was born with karma with my knees. When I was 15 years old, I had my first surgery. Then in 1962 I was working out, and a ninety-pound weight crushed my knee. In 1970 I was going to have my best year in baseball. I was 30 years old, in my prime. I got up to answer the telephone, and this knee crashed.

The injuries might not have happened if I’d been chanting. In Buddhism, you always find out where to go to be in the right place at the right time. If I want to go someplace, I chant before I go to make sure that’s the right place to go. When I go to the airport, if they cancel my flight, I say, “Thank you, gohonzon.” Because you never know what could have happened. When you do the chanting, it’s a picture in front of you. You can see everything out there.

So the chanting allows you to really notice what’s happening with you right now. You’re asking, “Am I supposed to be going here?” and you’re able to recognize what your mind and your body are telling you about that choice. Are you saying that your injuries were your own responsibility, that when you got injured you weren’t noticing what was happening? Yeah. In 1966, I was taking batting practice. My dad, they called him “The Bull” in Puerto Rico, always told me, never give your back to the hitter, even in [batting practice]. So I’m in right field, 345 feet from home plate. I just turn, and the ball comes and hits me. Things like that happened to me. I wasn’t protected.

The reason I practice Buddhism is because of what I went through with my injuries, with the law. I didn’t have anything. I had to do something. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be practicing today.

I remember in 1983, about five days before I got my gohonzon and started chanting, I went to Dodger Stadium, and they threw me out from the field because of the trouble I’d been in. “We know who you are,” they told me, “but you gotta get out.”

But when I went to the Soka Gakkai meeting, they told me, “Orlando, you’re gonna be in front of 60,000 people, get a standing ovation.” I said, “No way, it can’t be.” They said, “You’re gonna go to the Hall of Fame.” When people used to mention the Hall of Fame, I’d say, “I don’t want to talk about the Hall of Fame. It’s a bunch of politics in there.” Inside me, I wanted to be there. Are you kidding me? But I was showing I’m a macho man.

So one day, about a year after I had started chanting, there was a thing on me in the L.A. Times, a couple of pictures, huge. And I said, “I couldn’t care less about the Hall of Fame.” That was a Sunday. Still, my anger was there, coming out. So Monday night I went to a meeting in Santa Monica. This Japanese leader who’s been chanting for forty years says, “I want to talk to you, Orlando. I read the paper yesterday. Very nice, but you are talking too much.” “What do you mean?” “Misfortune comes from your mouth. Stop talking, chant to change so everybody will change.” When I got home, I said, “Makes sense, what he said. You chant for happiness, boom, boom, boom.” And right after that, everything started to change.

You really can change your destiny through this practice. It’s learning—you learn how to live the proper way. You learn how to respect human beings. You learn how to love your friends. You learn how to value things in life that before you took for granted.

Before I practiced Buddhism, my mind was very cloudy and I couldn’t see myself because my life was so ugly. But when I began chanting, my life became polished, polished like a mirror. There’s a book that we have out called The Buddha in Your Mirror. It’s a great book. When you look at your mirror, you look at yourself. You’re a buddha.

Have you always been on a spiritual path? Very much, yeah. I was an altar boy when I was a kid. And my mom, she used to go to a place in Puerto Rico, in the country, called La Silencia del Spiritismo. I grew up going to that place with my mom every Monday and Friday. Like Buddhism, it’s all about cause and effect, life conditions.

Buddhist practice is based on life conditions. You gotta chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every day, every day, every day, because if you don’t do it, your life condition goes down. If I stopped practicing now, I might go back to the way I was before.

Is there a similarity between the concentration that you brought to playing ball and what you bring to chanting? No, you can’t compare [them]. And that’s why I got in trouble. It’s a different concentration, [in] playing ball and in life. It’s a different ball game, completely. Right now, every move that I make, it’s for a reason. Since Monday I’ve been working on this interview. Because it means a lot to me, these conversations.

But there must be some carryovers from the way you practiced baseball to the way you practice Buddhism now? I give 100 percent when I play ball, so I can give 100 percent in my practice now. I travel all over to talk to people. I go to Santa Rosa. I go to Sacramento. I go to Japan. I go to Argentina. I go to share with them. Every day I chant for my friends. Friends mean a lot to me.

Do you call yourself a Buddhist to your friends? No, but they know it. See, Buddha is a way of life. Buddha is a teaching. Buddha means awareness. And believe me, it is!

You know, we do a Buddhist practice too, a silent practice. We don’t chant. We sit silently and focus on our breath. In some ways, it’s like what you describe with the big TV. When you focus on the breath, you can see everything. But the sound of chanting is very important. It’s the rhythm of life. In Puerto Rico, when I was a kid, at home we didn’t have a clock. But the church bells rang every hour. Ding, ding, ding. It’s three o’clock, gotta go. Sound is rich. Like the alarm in the morning to get up, sound wakes things up.

There’s one baseball question I’ve been dying to ask. You played alongside great ball players like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and batted against some of the greatest pitchers of all time like Bob Gibson and even Warren Spahn. But what I really want to know is what it was like batting against Sandy Koufax. I hit six home runs off of him!

Wow! He gave up only 204 home runs in his entire career. You must have had his number. Yeah, I did well against him. I was a curveball hitter, and he had an incredible curveball. He once walked me on four straight with nobody on base. He was something!

Clearly, so are you! You’re an amazing role model, you’ve gone through an incredible change, and you speak to a lot of people all over the world. It’s very important. I learned from the practice and from my mentor that you don’t have to say anything, just behave like a human being. Being that way, you help other people. And sometimes your wisdom comes out in situations. Like a month ago, I was driving to a meeting in Brisbane [California] and almost got in an accident. The other driver turned back and followed me. He called me every name in the book. I said, “Wait a minute!” But then I calmed down and said, “You know what, nothing happened to anybody. ‘Almost’ [doesn’t] mean anything. You want to fight because of that? Are you going to gain anything [if] you fight?” He kept on chewing me out [but] something told me to go back to my car. My wisdom came out.

This practice is based on wisdom and common sense and reality. It’s like this: When you’re born, you’re going to die. You’re born, you get sick, you get old, and you die. And that’s Buddhism. Buddhism is dealing with what’s between birth and death.

Does Nichiren Buddhism believe in rebirth? Yeah. Cause and effect. You die the way you live. If you want [a good] future in your next life, look at what you’re doing [right] now on. I want to be born as a baseball player. And [to] be [a] fortune baby, born in a house with a gohonzon, [and to] start practicing when I’m 3 years old, [to] play baseball, [to] go on to the big league, kicking butts and talking about Buddhism.

This piece has been adapted from the Spring 2006 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 22, No. 2) © 2006 Inquiring Mind. Photographs courtesy Orlando Cepeda and Laurence J. Hyman. 

Related Inquiring Mind articles:

Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports by Andrew Cooper

The Improvisation of Presence: A Conversation with Ruth Zaporah

Interview with Mayumi Oda: Art Goddess on the River of our Mind

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