Most people who have spent time in American Buddhist communities would read my title as sarcastic. As numerous writers have noted, many Buddhist sanghas in the United States are largely white. Practicing in these spaces is often an isolating experience where people of color feel erased and invisible, or at times so hypervisible that simply being in the room invites the assumption that they will educate others about race.
Not in my neck of the Buddhist woods. I walked into my first meeting of the Nichiren Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) two years ago—and immediately blurted out, “Why are there so many black people here?” At that point I had already visited many meditation centers, most of them practicing in the Zen, Shambhala, or Vipassana traditions, and nine times out of ten I was the only black person in the room. While this experience had been a common one for me, it remained uncomfortable. From the stares of other practitioners to the frustratingly obtuse mindfulness teachings that ignored the reality of the racialized body and attendant social injustices—I’d had enough. This is not to disparage those traditions; in fact, I am deeply grateful to them, as they provided the initial opening for me to explore Buddhist practice.
Many Buddhist organizations are, in fact, grappling with the lack of racial diversity in their communities by offering special meditation events and retreats for people of color. In 2015, a contingent of Buddhist leaders visited the White House to discuss what Buddhists can do to address issues like climate change, racism, and anti-violence.
But frankly that isn’t enough for me. I don’t want to go to a special retreat. I want to walk into a Buddhist center on a Wednesday night and feel at home, surrounded by people of all races and colors.
For years, I’d thought that this was an impossible dream, until I found that SGI meeting where the room was filled with people of color, many of them black (and a good number white, too). From the moment I sat down, people of all racial backgrounds came over to welcome me, genuine warmth evident in their smiles.
That was not what I had anticipated, and the racial diversity was not the only surprise. Because I was unfamiliar with the SGI at the time, I expected to be guided through a meditative practice. Instead, a leader walked to the front of the room and rang a bell next to a large scroll covered in Japanese characters. Suddenly the room was filled with the sound of dozens of people chanting the words “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” in unison. The mantra comprises the title of the Lotus Sutra, in which the Buddha gives the fundamental teaching that all living beings inherently possess buddhanature—meaning that they all equally have the potential to attain enlightenment. Chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo morning and evening, along with studying Buddhist texts, forms the core of Nichiren practice.
A key component of SGI’s chanting practice is that it usually takes place at neighborhood meetings, which are often focused on using dialogue to overcome the divisions that threaten peace and harmony within the community and the world at large. This emphasis on social change is folded into SGI’s structure and philosophy and speaks volumes to marginalized groups, for whom these issues have a disproportionate impact.
A quick glance at the news tells us that racism is at the heart of many of the divisions in the US. The current national climate of racial profiling is out of control, as black people are policed and profiled for everything from chatting in coffee shops to barbecuing in the park, sleeping in dormitories, eating lunch on campus, renting an AirBnB, or just standing on the sidewalk. Simply existing in public space as a black person in America is a precarious prospect. Which is why I —and many others—take refuge in my Buddhist community.
Over the past year, I’ve interviewed dozens of other black SGI Buddhists who have shared these feelings. One member told me that his Buddhist practice has allowed him to better face everyday challenges with a compassionate outlook that encourages him to “speak up without being angry and cussing people out.” He added, “I’m able to call out racism in a different way. I try to create value while being fearless in the face of injustice.”
Another member told me, “The fundamental heart of SGI is to value each human being—we all have intrinsic value. That’s the problem with social inequality: the basic respect for all people is missing. That’s what SGI speaks to.”
It’s a fundamental SGI teaching that every member should do all they can to create peace and happiness in our lives and the lives of others. In my experience, the community takes this very seriously. We fight to overcome the part of our nature that separates us from others and encourages conflict and division. Doing so requires profound shifts in the way that we relate to ourselves and others: we can’t ignore, shy away from, or avoid difficult issues or conversations. Instead, we are challenged to tackle them head on.
That’s why the meetings involve chanting and heart-to-heart dialogue. We chant for the clarity and wisdom to identify the limitations and unjust thoughts and feelings within, as well as the courage to transform them. Then, through dialogue with others, we build a necessary basis for peace for ourselves, our families, communities, and the world.
The SGI is known as the most racially diverse Buddhist organization in the US. This did not come about by happenstance, but it also is not the result of deliberate outreach or diversity recruitment. Rather, it stems, at least in part, from the leadership of the organization’s president, Daisaku Ikeda. Ikeda has publicly stated a passionate commitment to anti-racist engagement since the first time he visited the US in 1960, when he witnessed an act of racism against a black child in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The moment had a profound impact on Ikeda, shaping his conviction that propagating Buddhism in the US would have to involve directly addressing the prejudice and bias found in people’s hearts—and asking members to fight to overcome it. This is a necessary step to acknowledge and embrace the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. It is referred to as engaging in human revolution, and is the cornerstone of the practice. It is also the basis for achieving kosen rufu, or world peace, which is the ultimate aim of Nichiren Buddhism.
Further, the SGI continually rallies its members around social issues, from nuclear disarmament to environmental causes. Most recently, on September 23, 2018, the organization hosted 50,000 young people in nine locations across the US for a nationwide Festival of Youth. These “lions of justice” gathered to stand up for the dignity of all life, calling for respect for all human beings and proclaiming a fierce opposition to global currents of war, specifically nuclear war. Organizers of the event created a profound mission statement that asserts the importance of challenging oppression and empowering young people to fight for social and environmental justice. It served as yet another reminder of why I practice in this tradition: SGI Nichiren Buddhism is predicated on direct engagement with pressing social issues. Inner transformation is the daily goal, but it is incomplete without directly working to transform the outer environment as well.
Of course, the SGI is not perfect. No organization is. As a new member, I worried a bit over what I perceived as elements of groupthink, including the strong emphasis on attending numerous activities every month, and the focus on viewing the organization’s president as a personal mentor. Based on my natural skepticism, I resisted committing myself fully, and instead began reading everything I could get my hands on about the organization’s history and philosophy.
I found that Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282), the founder of the sect, was a bit of a renegade and free thinker who rejected the oppressive, dominant views of the government and religious leaders of his time. Seven hundred years later, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944) founded the Soka Gakkai. He and his successor, Josei Toda (1900–1958), were religious dissidents who were jailed for refusing to accede to the Japanese military government’s demands to accept Shintoism during World War II. Following Toda’s release, he and Daisaku Ikeda instituted a new way of thinking about Buddhism as fighting for peace through direct rejection of nationalist militarism.
Learning more about this history further strengthened my resolve that I wanted to practice socially engaged Buddhism based on the example set forth by Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda. Perhaps this tradition of fighting for the wellbeing of all humankind while being persecuted as outsiders is why their message resonates with so many black Buddhists today.
In the latest installment of his book series, The New Human Revolution, Daisaku Ikeda writes, “The devilish nature lurking in the depths of human life manifests itself in discrimination and oppression based on ethnic, ideological, and religious differences, and is found at work in the human heart that accepts and condones such discrimination and oppression. Battling this devilish nature is the mission of practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism.” This is at the core of why I practice. When I look around at those practicing with me, knowing that we are fighting for a world that respects the dignity of all human beings, it fills me with a sense of connection to my community. It also doesn’t hurt that a lot of them look like me.
J. Sunara Sasser does not represent the SGI; the views expressed here are her own.