The Southern region of the United States is often referred to as the “Bible Belt” because the population is overwhelmingly Christian, but also because the Christian population of the region is extremely active. In the South nearly every social endeavor is viewed through the prism of religion; the air itself is infused with the presence of Christian dogma. The Christian existence in the Lowcountry of South Carolina is a microcosm of the South, where it’s common to be asked which church you attend; the question of whether you attend church being a forgone conclusion. Other religions; Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism exist in the South, but their presences are minor compared to the huge Christian population.
It is no surprise that the dominant religion in the Lowcountry is Christianity, but it is astonishing that in the heart of the Bible Belt there is this tiny, but growing group of people who practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism. This population is even smaller than the other conventional religions in the region. Little is known about Buddhism itself and knowledge about different Buddhist sects is even more obscure. We picture shaved head Buddhists wearing crimson robes and sandals.
Wayne Jones is 64 years old and the owner of an antique furniture refinishing business in Summerville. He is also a retired Army Major. His son Erik (a captain) just recently left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wayne is an extra for the television show “Military Wives.” He is tall, light brown skinned, and he has salt and pepper hair, not exactly the description of the Buddhist we imagine in our minds, but Wayne Jones is a forty year practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism. He was introduced to the practice in 1971 by an old girlfriend. Wayne’s wife Rita is also a Buddhist. Their son grew up in the practice as their grandson is currently doing. Today Wayne is Vice Men’s Division Regional Leader for South Carolina.
Many people think of Buddhism as one religion with one set of beliefs, but just as Christianity is divided into various sects, Buddhism is also divided into sects with different beliefs. Buddhism has three major groupings. Within each major grouping there are other sub-divisions, out of the Mahayana branch comes Zen, Shin, Nichiren, Tibetan, etc. Although there are common teachings that most groups follow, each has their own interpretations, spiritual leaders, and methods of practice.
Berita Martin, Program Director for a Charleston non-profit center, encountered Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism 25 years ago while serving in the Navy in Norfolk, VA. She was searching for a belief that matched her personal perspective of the universe when a good friend introduced her to Soka Gakkai International (SGI). “I found that the basic ideas of SGI corresponded to my personal belief.”
“Chanting helps me to be introspective and reflective,” Berita says, “I am able to calm myself and focus on the real issues of a problem and see past the superficial.” Nichiren Buddhists believe it is possible to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime through faith, study, and practice. Nichiren Buddhism divides into several branches; Soka Gakkai International is the branch that made its way to the Low Country.
Soka Gakkai was founded on November 18, 1930, by Japanese educators Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda and is practiced in192 countries. The organization was structured in the United States on October 13, 1960. Daisaku Ikeda, a disciple of Second Soka Gakkai President Toda, succeeded him in 1960 and became SGI President upon its creation in 1975. Mr. Ikeda is the author of numerous books and has held dialogues toward world peace with scholars and world leaders. He is the recipient of many honorary doctorates and awards including the United Nations Peace Award, the International Tolerance Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Rosa Parks Humanitarian Award, and an award from Denmark College in South Carolina presented by Denmark College President and SGI member Dr. Michael Townsend.
Nichiren Buddhism is named for its founder, Nichiren Daishonin a thirteenth century Japanese monk. Nichiren became frustrated by the many paths of salvation that were taught, and left the monastery for 10 years in search of the true Buddhist path. Nichiren’s independent studies led him to conclude that the Lotus Sutra contained the only true way to salvation and that chanting the phrase nam myoho renge kyo is the way to attain enlightenment. Followers believe that through chanting one becomes energized and refreshed spiritually and mentally making one happier, more productive, and prosperous.