Lately, I’ve had a bit of free time while my wife and kids are in Japan (not much, but a little), so I have been visiting a couple of Buddhist temples, including a Korean-Zen temple I had visited before.
Then, I decided to visit a group in south Seattle which I had not visited before: Risshō Kōsei Kai. Rissho Kosei Kai (立正佼成会) is a Nichiren Buddhist group from Japan, but not related to a certain other well-known Nichiren group who has a reputation for being aggressive. Like that other group, Rissho Kosei Kai is a lay-Buddhist organization that started in the 1930’s, and came from a parent organization. In the case of RKK, they came from an older group called Reiyūkai (US homepage here), which is still around and popular with Japanese nationalists. More on that later.
Anyhow, Rissho Kosei Kai has a small temple in south Seattle, which is about 35 minutes away by car. I drove there last Sunday morning and just dropped in for a service. There were about 15-20 people total, and nearly all were Japanese who grew up in Japan. I was worried about not fitting in, but people were very friendly and I met a couple other non-Japanese as well. The service that Sunday was for Urabon-e, a special Buddhist holiday in Japan related to the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mogallana (mokuren 目犍連 in Japanese), and his mother who was suffering in a Buddhist hell. So, it wasn’t a normal service, but they did things that you typically see in Nichiren Buddhism:
- Recite the odaimoku (お題目) which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. This chant was devised by Nichiren himself, and in its simplest form means “Praise to the Lotus Sutra”.
- Recite parts of the Lotus Sutra, particularly chapter 2 and chapter 16. The English-language service books (kyōten 経典) had a nice translation of the sutras. We recited in English. For some reason I always find English sounds funny when chanted. 😉
- Dedicate good merit to benefit others. In the case of RKK, they focus on dedicating to one’s ancestors too. Dedication of merit (ekō 回向 in Japanese) is a very common Buddhist practice in many cultures, and has two benefits: one it might help others find happiness, but it also cultivates goodwill in one’s own heart.
- Recite the Three Treasures: “I go to the Buddha/Dharma/Sangha for refuge.” This is also one of the most fundamental practices in all of Buddhism.
Finally, there was a kind of “Dharma Discussion” at the end. The friendly, informal discussion was about the importance of one’s ancestors and why Urabon-e is significant. I had heard similar discussions before in Jodo Shinshu temples so it was nothing new to me. It’s an important part of Japanese Buddhism, in my experience. The discussion was mixed Japanese and English, which worked pretty well. The overall atmosphere of the discussion was very friendly and open. People cracked silly jokes, and also I learned some good things about the four reasons for Buddhist chanting.1
Afterwards, there was a nice potluck-style lunch downstairs, and I ate a good mix of Japanese and American food, and talked with other converts like myself. It was a good discussion, and I also chatted with some of the Japanese ladies. I was surprised to see how many of them grew up in the same city as my wife (Kawasaki), which is unusual. Most Japanese-American or Japanese immigrants I’ve met usually come from other parts of Japan.
A few things about Rissho Kosei Kai stood out to me, though.
First, RKK definitely reveres its founder Niwano Nikkyō (English here). He was sometimes referred to as a Bodhisattva (bosatsu 菩薩) and there are pictures of him in the temple some quoted sayings, etc. Actually, RKK has two founders: Mr. Niwano and a woman named Naganuma Myoko and both are referred to as bodhisattvas, sometimes. Mr. Niwano passed away 15 years ago in 1999, but people still mention him a lot. This was similar to my recent experience with Makuya where Mr. Teshima the founder was respected. Japanese Buddhism in general seems very founder-centric.2 In Shingon Buddhism, they practically worship Kukai (Kobo Daishi) by reciting mantras to him, and praying for rebirth in the Tushita Heaven with him. In Jodo Shinshu which I left, they often don’t chant sutras, but they do chant hymns written by Shinran.
Second, object of veneration in RKK is a little different than some other Nichiren groups. Instead of a Gohonzon, it is the “eternal Buddha” of the Lotus Sutra. RKK calls this the kuon honbutsu (久遠本仏) or “Original Buddha from the Eternal Past” or something like that. In the Lotus Sutra, the Shakyamuni Buddha in there is not the historical Buddha, but the personification of the Dharma itself, teaching and liberating people throughout time. Also, in home altars for RKK members, they use something called sōkaimyō (総戒名) which represents all your ancestors from the past. So, twice daily, you are encouraged to make offerings and pray to your ancestors. This is supposed to help them find happiness, and indirectly help you as well. Again, this is actually not that unusual in Japanese Buddhism, but RKK seems to emphasize it more than others.
Third, RKK is definitely a Japanese organization. Unlike certain other Nichiren groups, it hasn’t quite figured out how to translate its religion and culture to Americans. For example, the practice of praying to one’s ancestors is not really found at all in American culture. Even for me, it feels a bit awkward sometimes. I appreciate my ancestors, and even pray to them on death-anniversaries Buddhist-style, but still I think this kind of thing is difficult for Americans to relate to. Also, if you don’t speak Japanese, and know much about Japanese culture, you might get a little intimidated at first. Still, they did a good job balancing English and Japanese in the ceremony, and for publishing service books in nice, fluent English translations. I might purchase one of their service books if I visit again.
Fourth, RKK is pretty open about other religions. This is a big difference I feel compared certain other Nichiren groups I’ve seen. I told the priest at one point that my background was Pure Land Buddhism and I usually recited the nembutsu, but sometimes also the odaimoku. The priest didn’t seem bothered by this at all, even when I asked if it was ok to recite both. That was quite positive in my opinion. In fact, I don’t remember being told even once that I should recite the odaimoku. RKK does have something called omichibiki (お導き) which means “to guide”. This means to evangelize Buddhism and in particular the Lotus Sutra, but not in a threatening way as far as I can tell. It’s more about leading by example: practicing good conduct and being patient with others, but also sharing the happiness one has learned through Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra. So, RKK is definitely evangelical Buddhism, like other Nichiren groups, but so far I don’t find it intimidating in any way.
Anyhow, it was a good experience overall, so I took some books home with me and have been reading them. Rishho Kosei Kai felt like a genuine Buddhist community to me. I feel I could bring my family there, and that’s a big plus for me. I didn’t feel like an outsider like my old Jodo Shinshu temple or the local Vietnamese temple, and I didn’t feel stupid, like some of the convert-only temples I’ve seen in Seattle.3
So, although I feel cautious, I have to admit I would like to go back again. It is far from my house, but I think it’s worth visiting 2-3 more times before I decide to become a member or something.
Time will tell.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo
1 I wish I had written it down though…. I kind of forgot. :p
2 In this great blog post, the author explains that Japanese Buddhism is like a bento box where the food is separate from each other, while mainland Asian Buddhism is more like Korean bibimbap, where it’s all mixed together. Great analogy and matches my experience. It’s one of the reasons I like visiting the nearby Vietnamese temple: very eclectic without pressure to follow one thing or another. But since I’m not Vietnamese, I feel self-conscious going there.
3 The temple in Arizona was quite friendly though. I liked the intro Zen class there, and met some cool people. Sadly, I haven’t found a similar community yet in Seattle. The atmosphere in most convert temples in Seattle (not just Zen) I’ve seen so far is polite, but kind of tense. Like, if I farted4 during meditation, people might ostracize me. It’s hard to feel welcome in that kind of environment, to be honest. Maybe I’m exaggerating things though, what about you guys?
4 No, I don’t fart in Buddhist temples, but I do yawn a lot during chanting. I don’t know why I do that. :p