- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

My family had just moved east of Seattle in August 1971. My brothers and I had no friends yet and we were bored, so our parents took us downtown on one of those luminescent summer days special to the Pacific Northwest.

As we neared the Space Needle, we noticed a huge parade coming down the street. Nearly 38 years later, I still remember the blazing colors of the costumes, the music that seemed to come from somewhere in Asia, the exotic floats and bands. It was so beautiful, we watched it instead of ascending the Space Needle. I noted the name of the group that sponsored it — Soka Gakkai something — and gathered it had to do with Buddhists.

About 10 days ago, I attended an introductory meeting for the D.C. chapter of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) at its center on Massachusetts Avenue across from the vice-presidential estate. A TV producer who has been a practitioner for years invited me.

Everyone in the room was clasping strings of beads and loudly chanting “nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha’s most famous teaching.

Occasionally a gong would interrupt. By the time the chanting stopped and everyone had introduced themselves, some 40 people were in the room. The guy next to me slipped me his prayer book, which included this petition: “I pray to bring forth the Buddhahood from within my life and accomplish my own human revolution, change my destiny and fulfill my wishes in the present and in the future.”

Hmmm. For a religion that preaches detachment, this seemed like a lot about the self. Buddhism, it was explained, began as a response to human suffering.

It is about transcending suffering and attaining happiness, thus it’s OK to pray for one’s desires.

SGI was founded in 1930 in Japan by an educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who was influenced by the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th-century Buddhist priest who preached the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. It flourished in postwar Japan and migrated here through Japanese brides of American servicemen.

The chanting, I learned, is to bring inner change to one’s life; that is, as one person explained, it activates vast sources of power and wisdom dormant inside us. People talked about chanting helping them feel younger and building perseverance.

And — this is important — the act of chanting not only shapes up your mood, it influences events; it changes — to the good — one’s external circumstances. It’s like speaking reality into being.

“You do this practice,” one believer said, “you’ll see changes in your life.”

So many questions. Why would a set of chants possess spiritual power? Buddhism, a philosophy as well as a religion, does not require belief in God. But isn’t there a deity to whom those prayers are addressed that really bestows power? Buddhists believe in dharma, an impersonal force that keeps the universe humming.

Twelve million Americans belong to SGI, which has 100 centers like the one on Massachusetts Avenue. About 5,000 devotees in the Washington area search for their inner self.

“A good number of our members come from Jewish and Catholic backgrounds,” Bill Aiken, SGI’s spokesman told me. “Buddhism offers a technology of spirituality that other religions glom onto.”

Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washington times.com.

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