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.
Karen Walker, a Customer Service Representative for a local hotel chain and owner of a gourmet coffee franchise describes her 29 years in the practice “The adversity that most challenges you in this practice is yourself. When you overcome and defeat the fundamental darkness or negative functions and tendencies within your own life the universe responds in kind.” SGI members believe in the simultaneity of cause and effect a theory that is promoted by quantum physics research scientist. Scientist discovered that the smallest known unit, subatomic particles, is made of energy waves; everything in the cosmos is comprised of one thing – energy waves. Communications between this energy in not subject to time and space travel, so that asking and receiving all happens at the same time. This is how quantum physics explains the universal response of simultaneity of cause and effect Karen has experienced.
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University reported the following in 2006: Soka Gakkai Buddhism first came to the United States as the faith of Japanese immigrants married to American soldiers after World War II. Many of these Japanese women came to the U.S. with the intention of propagating (Kosen-rufu) this type of Buddhism. During the 1960s, a sizeable SGI Buddhist community began to develop in South Carolina, spearheaded by some local Japanese women. At that time, the closest SGI center was in Washington, D.C. Each weekend, the Japanese women would organize trips from Charleston, S.C. to D.C. to attend the weekly activities. When several of these founding women moved from Charleston to Columbia, the center of SGI Buddhist activity in S.C. moved with them.
SGI got national exposure in the powerful true-life story of singer Tina Turner in the film “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” In one poignant scene the leggy Ms. Turner, portrayed by the equally leggy Angela Bassett, chants “nam myoho renge kyo” for the courage to leave the abusive relationship she suffered under her husband Ike Turner. Her faith builds and she in finally strong enough to leave Ike. This strength resulted in her becoming an even bigger international star, proving the power of myoho renge kyo in her life.
Kiose Phillips is a Japanese war-bride, who with the support of her husband Hoyt is largely responsible for the robust SGI community that is flourishing in the Lowcountry. Mrs. Phillips, who is now well into her upper eighties, still radiates encouragement and inspiration when she attends a meeting. Kosen-rufu is a term that means propagation of world peace. One can only imagine the joy Mrs. Phillips must feel as she grazes upon the ethnically diverse practitioners who have followed her into the practice. The SGI Buddhists in the Lowcountry are largely Caucasians and African Americans, but there are Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Mexicans and others.
Another blossoming diversity in the Charleston chapter is its youth division. Heather Brewer at 32 is the Young Women’s Division Region Leader for South Carolina. She has a BA in Communication from the College of Charleston and is looking for work in film and video. “One of my main jobs is to funnel information to the rest of the youth. I help organize major events and bring youth divisions in my region together. I answer questions they may have about the practice and encourage them in their own journey. It is our responsibility to carry SGI into the future and bring about world peace. It is also my responsibility to show with my life how this practice works and be an example for others.”
It was the tragic death of her brother that brought Heather to accept Buddhism. She had been dating a Buddhist and had attended meetings, but after her brother’s death she discovered, “It was (Buddhism) the only thing that explained what was happening without me having to ’trust’ what was happening.”
Alta Campbell, who works at the Miller F. Whitaker Library at SC State College, was exposed to several religions growing up. Her father was a follow of The Nation of Islam, and she later attended church with her grandmother. She didn’t find a sense of enlightenment in those experiences. A friend introduced her to the practice. “I can’t see myself not chanting; it has enhanced all aspects of my life.” Alta won the 2011 Staff Member of the Year for Academic Affairs at State. “I’m a person who always sees the glass as full – because I can always fill it,” she says in a burst of enlightened confidence.
All of the people interviewed for this article were raised in the Christian Church. Karen and Alta sang in the choir – Wayne was being groomed to become a Baptist Minister. They all found a sense of self-empowerment in the three pillars of SGI’s Buddhism; practice, study and faith. The mantra that gets them there is nam myoho renge kyo. They all belong to the Charleston chapter of SGI which is divided into groups that hold weekly meeting at the group leader’s home for discussions, study, and to chant.
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