Many Westerners who have some familiarity with Nichiren Buddhism conflate the whole of the tradition with Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the most widely practiced Nichiren sect in America. But Nichiren Buddhism is not just SGI. More than two dozen non-SGI sects of Nichiren Buddhism collaborate under an umbrella organization called Nichiren Shu. Curious about these other faces of Nichiren, Linda Heuman spoke with Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, a Nichiren Shu priest and the resident teacher at Myoken-ji, a temple in Houston, Texas. 

The daughter of an African American father and a Japanese mother, Myokei Shonin is the first woman of African American and Japanese descent—and the only Western woman—to be ordained as a priest within the worldwide Nichiren Order. (She is also the first female priest in the Nichiren Order of North America.) Speaking candidly of her experience as a woman of color practicing an often-overlooked school of American Buddhism, Myokei guides Tricycle readers into territories that are off the map to many of us.

Photograph of Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, by Erin Trieb
Photograph by Erin Trieb

Tell us about the founder of your tradition, Nichiren Shonin. Nichiren Shonin lived in 13th-century Japan, in what today is known as the Chiba Prefecture. When he was a young man, he made a fervent prayer that he would become the wisest man in Japan—and that’s what he set out to do. He was initially a Tendai monk, and he trained at many temples and monasteries. He felt that the teachings had been corrupted, and he wanted to understand why. He spent years studying the sutras, examining closely the bases for the Tendai claim that the Lotus Sutra was the culmination of all of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddha’s highest teaching. For example, in the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which was preached just before the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha said, “It was with tactful power that I preached the Law variously. In 40 years or more, the truth has not been revealed yet.” On the basis of such statements, Nichiren in the end concurred that the Lotus Sutra was in fact definitive. He believed the corruption of the teachings was due to too much focus on other things besides the Lotus Sutra, such as status and esoteric practices. He wanted to bring Buddhism back to the true intention of the Buddha, and he wanted to make the teachings available for everyone, regardless of their station in life or their education.

Throughout his life he encountered many persecutions, and people tried to stop him. He was thrown into exile. There were attempts to behead him. But he took it all as impetus for promoting the Lotus Sutra.

Chanting, in veneration, the title of the Lotus Sutra “Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” [the Odaimoku, known in some schools as the Daimoku] is our primary practice. Nichiren Shonin understood that for people who were illiterate and impoverished, this was an easy way to open the door. We do also read and chant the Lotus Sutra itself—especially chapters 2 and 16.

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