People often ask me about how I ended up in Japan. My first exposure to Japanese culture was through a Buddhist organization called the Soka Gakkai. When I was in junior high school, my mom came home one day and asked us , “what if I told you I was going to become a Buddhist?” the four of us looked at each other and had no idea what it meant. Our mom was the type of person who liked to explore ideas and cultures. In many ways, she was on a spiritual journey in search of truth. She started as a little girl born in a very protestant household. As a young adult she explored the ideals of Islam through the black power movement, Nation of Islam. At that time, black power was not equivalent to white power. White power saw to maintain oppressive control over nonwhite people. Black power sought to bring dignity and equality. When we hear the term white power, we immediately think of white supremacy, which is often associated with violence and subjugation. So, in the 1970s, just a few years after the assassination of Dr.Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, my mother joined the Nation of Islam.
Most of my life as a child was spent observing Islamic customs such as fasting during Ramadan, not eating pork, and the teachings of the Koran. From kindergarten through 2nd grade I went to a Nation of Islam school. Ironically, I don't remember ever seeing my mom pray five times a day. After the Nation of Islam my next religious journey took me to Catholicism as I would be enrolled in Catholic schools from the 3rd grade until I graduated from college. For my mom, the next stop along her spiritual journey was Buddhism.
The Soka Gakkai offered a way for my mother to regain control of her own life. That's the basic purpose of religion, I think. Which religion you follow has a lot to do with your cultural upbringing and whether or not you can identify with the way that religion tries to help you make sense of your life. The Soka Gakkai spoke deeply to my mom. They taught the ideals of self-reliance, taking responsibility for one's own actions, and karma. Of course, like all religions, there was a mystical side to it. In the Catholic Church, all one has to do is confess the things that they have done wrong and all is forgiven. In the Soka Gakkai, one has to chant the phrase nam myoho renge kyo, over and over again as a mantra to focus their life energy on a fixed point. Many of the practitioners believe that through this chanting you can manifest things in your life and change your karma. There was a lot of stuff that my mom wanted to manifest. She was a single mother of four children living in poverty. She had not gone to college, though she would graduate years later at the age of 44 with a degree in social work. Because the organization was both evangelical and had its roots in Japan, I got to meet a lot of Japanese people through the Cleveland branch of the Soka Gakkai.
In Japan, many people hate the Soka Gakkai. It may have something to do with the fact that they have created their own political party or that they are a very aggressive in recruiting new members. That aggressive recruiting style was something I also hated very much. The thing that I loved though was the fact that the people who practiced we're bright and shiny human beings who all had one thing in common, they were trying to make themselves better. They didn't start out bright and shiny, by the way. Many came from dark pasts. Some were thieves who wanted to reform. Some were from broken homes and could find no other place to belong. And some people, like my mother, felt out of control and wanted guidance. One of the things about the Soka Gakkai was its leaders made sure that the members had a spiritual counselor that they could talk to about life. It was like having a community therapist.
Despite a common belief, no one was ever forced to give great sums of money to the organization. Our family was so poor there were many days when I went without food , electricity , or gas. There was no way we could pay whatever dues or fees were necessary if they were necessary. People were, of course, encouraged to donate when they could or purchase the publications which contain the teachings of the religion. Nothing was exorbitantly priced. In my mind, it was no different than the collection plate on Sunday mornings at church.
Because my mom was a member of the Soka Gakkai, I participated in their activities too. I spent many hours chanting or playing saxophone in the brass band. A few times a year, we would have a massive event where many chapters of the organization would get together from all across the country. It was an exciting time and an amazing time, one that most certainly positively contributed to my upbringing as a youth. There was discipline, structure, and always the underlining message of take responsibility for yourself. They used to tell us “if you want to see something change in your life, you have to change it.”
There are a lot of people in the organization who believe that by chanting the phrase magical things would happen. I hated this idea too although I once chanted my head off when I was 19 years old because a condom broke and I thought that I had gotten my girlfriend pregnant. I was so scared I sat in front of the altar and chanted over and over again. It was the only thing I could think of short of getting on my knees and praying to God. Besides that moment, I always thought the magical parts were a bunch of hogwash. I believed that it wasn't the magic of chanting that caused positive change in people's lives, but the focus of ones energies towards self-improvement that did the trick. Chanting was a focal point for that energy. Like all religious organizations, the The Soka Gakkai was a support system for people who had begun this journey. It wasn’t magic that caused the manifestation of change. It was the action of trying to change. Do I know that for a fact, no. However, I think it makes the most sense.
Please don't assume that I am trying to recruit any of you into the Soka Gakkai. Right now I have no religion and do not believe in the absoluteness of ANY organized religion. After all of my religious experiences I have come to the conclusion that the power I need has always, is now, and forever will be in me. I do understand that some people need guidance. I know that religion is a powerful force in people’s lives. What I don't believe is that one religion is true over all others. There must be many roads toward spiritual discovery and salvation. You should choose the religion that best suits you.
So it was in the Soka Gakkai that I first got exposed to Japanese culture. I ate curry for the first time and it blew my mind. It was so delicious. I heard the Japanese language being spoken. I was mesmerized by how efficient and purpose driven everyone seemed to be. Their ability to organize seemed otherworldly. Of course, I know now after living here that there are some people who are like that and others who are not. In the world that I had grown up in, where chaos seemed more common than anything else, Japanese teamwork was a magnificent sight to behold. Since I already had a deep curiosity for things outside of my own world I became deeply fascinated by Japanese culture. I wanted to know more about it. At that time, however, I had not decided to travel to Japan. That thought didn't cross my mind until I entered college and left the Soka Gakkai for good.