When I first began to practice Buddhism, I knew very little about it from an intellectual, academic standpoint. The only thing I did know was that the sound of chanting the Odaimoku [sacred title] of the Lotus Sutra, as well as various portions of the sutra itself, captured my heart and my spirit. I was immediately drawn to the chanting and the ritualistic aspects of practicing—the smell of incense, the greenery, the flickering candlelight, and the rhythmic sounds all provided an avenue to explore myself from the inside.
After a half century of practice, I’m still chanting. But I also learned quickly that faith, practice, and study were prescriptive for a deeper experience and understanding of my life through the lens of the teachings. In addition to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shonin’s writings, I consulted texts from modern teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I read a ton of books. As my knowledge expanded, I gained a deeper appreciation for all that I had already learned through my actual lived experience of faith.
I had no problem thinking of myself as a Buddhist until I encountered others who sought from Buddhism either an intellectual debate or a meditation technique. I have been confronted by blunt accusations that I was not an authentic Buddhist because I did not revere the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. I have been laughed at by those who thought the practice of chanting the title of a sutra was ridiculous. I have been questioned about the legitimacy of that chanting because all real Buddhists practiced silent meditation just like the eternal Buddha Shakyamuni. I knew this to be incorrect; historically the transmission of the dharma has been carried out by reciting the Buddha’s teachings. But I heard so many different things from so many different Buddhist practitioners that I began to see my relationship to other Western Buddhists as a waste of time.
My subsequent encounters with Buddhists from Asia opened my eyes to the essential foundation for all Buddhist practitioners: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. With them, there was never a question of whether I was a real Buddhist, only acceptance of me as a fellow practitioner on the same path. While the Buddha identified in each of our traditions was not the same, we all honored Shakyamuni Buddha for bringing the teachings to light. In short, our commonality was expressed in our devotion to the three treasures—not in meditation.
I actually didn’t take formal refuge in the three treasures until nearly 20 years after beginning my practice. Even then, I did not fully understand the importance of the act. I only knew that I had always been welcomed as a valued member of a sangha; that the teachings of the Buddha were to be studied, absorbed, and lived; and that the Buddha was like my dad, my teacher, and my president (I was a military brat). This way of thinking assured me of the depth of the protection to be found within my community and my faith.
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