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Religion is Deeper Than Culture: On Being An African-American Buddhist
by M. LaVora Perry
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The following commentary originally appeared in the Religion Section of the Cleveland-based Plain Dealer, "Ohio's largest Newspaper", Saturday, August 19, 2000.

"Your father didn't teach you right, THAT'S your problem," I am told. It's late January, 1999. I sit in a small, maternity ward meeting room at Hillcrest hospital in Mayfield Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. I nurse my baby girl, while sharing childbirth stories with two other post partum moms. The three of us are African American. Our talk turns to religion. I say I'm Buddhist. Next thing I know, my Baptist-preacher father is being called a bad parent. He isn't even around to defend himself.

Almost 13 years ago I emerged from a life of hellish suffering. I had been in and out of battles with eating disorders, suicidal depression and substance abuse, and I had dropped out of college. I found unshakable happiness within myself by embracing Nichiren Buddhism as a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI-USA).

If I had talked to that mother on the maternity ward a bit longer, maybe she would have blasted me for choosing a religion that's not "Black enough," like others have. When I'm labeled a cultural sell-out for not being Christian, I reply that, like many Blacks, I believe that Jesus probably had African ancestry, but most folks also believe he lived in the Middle East, and that area's not known for having much American-style "it's-a-Black-thing" flavor.

More importantly, I think that religion should be about something deeper than cultural identity. Religion should squarely address the three fundamental questions we each need to ask-"Where did I come from? Why was I born? And what happens to me when I die?" Religion should also enable one to live each day joyfully, and with the inner resources it takes to move both mole hills and mountains. In Nichiren Buddhism, all of these requirements are met to my satisfaction.

Buddhist Teachings

This Buddhism teaches that our lives are eternal and that on the deepest level we are all Buddhas, or people enlightened to the ultimate truth of life. It teaches that each one of us is worthy of the greatest respect.

Nichiren Buddhists pray by chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. We do this as often as we like, but traditionally, at least every morning and evening. In addition to chanting, we recite sections of the Lotus Sutra.This scripture was preached in India roughly 1,000 years before the Christian era by Shakyamuni. He is also known as Siddhartha Gautama, or simply the Buddha, which means "The Enlightened One."

The Buddha called the Lotus Sutra his highest teaching. In it, he declared that his true purpose was to show all people that they are Buddhas who are in every way equal to him. He predicted the future birth of a Buddha who would complete his teachings. Around 2,500 years after the Buddha's death, a thirteenth century Japanese teacher named Nichiren formulated the practice of chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra.

"Myoho Renge Kyo" is how the Japanese pronounced a Chinese translation of the title. Nichiren added "Nam." Nam is an Indian Sanskrit word that means "Devotion." Nichiren Buddhists are literally chanting, "Devotion to the Lotus Sutra," but the deeper meaning of this phrase is beyond words. We revere Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the unchanging and eternal Mystic Law of Life. We tap into this law by chanting.

In revealing Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nichiren gave rise to a revolutionary religion that promises to enable anyone to bring forth the absolutely happy, courageous, wise, compassionate, creative and powerful condition called Buddhahood from within.

So was the post-partum mom right? Was there something wrong with my upbringing? Did I miss some parental, spiritual lesson that would have saved me from Buddhism? No.

My Christian parents taught me to treat others like I want to be treated, reach out to people with compassion, forgive, withhold scornful judgment, love, stand against injustice and be a person who creates peace. They taught me to work hard, learn all I can and think for myself.

Full Expression

Being the daughter of my bible-reading daddy and church-going mother, the teachings of Christ will always hit a resounding chord within my soul. I feel that through Buddhist practice I fully express the heart of those teachings. I believe that these same teachings are the essence of what it means to be human.

For me, Nichiren Buddhism enables me to bring these core values to life every day. I think this is why there have even been times when my mother has picked up on a bad vibe I'm giving off and asked, "Have you been praying?" Ma hasn't asked me this often, but whenever my funky mood has led her to do so, truth is that I've hardly been praying at all.

In her Southern Baptist, mother-love way, Ma leads me back to the faith of my choice where I sit before my family's altar and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo until my heart is content.

Keywords: black author, black authors, african american writers, african american writer, Buddhism

About the Author
M. LaVora Perry, East Cleveland, Ohio, USA

In 1995 M. LaVora Perry became American Greetings' (AG's) first African- American greeting card writer. Since then, her words have appeared on gift items worldwide. Today LaVora writes a column for the children's section of the World Tribune-the U.S.A's leading Buddhist weekly.

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