How Nichiren Buddhism Taught Me to Believe in Myself
Once I understood the importance of chanting, I embraced the benefits of this spiritual practice.
At the first Buddhist meeting I attended, I was taken aback by the chanting.
It was so loud and fast.
I had done chanting before during yoga teacher training, but that was slow and melodic. At this meeting, everyone was chanting vigorously, which didn't make sense to me at first. But the more I learned about this Buddhist practice, the more I came to understand why. Each person was trying to change their life for the better, and they were trying to do it through chanting. Whereas yoga is about finding inner peace, this Buddhism, called Nichiren Buddhism, is about becoming the best version of yourself and winning over obstacles. It’s a totally different vibe, and it was just what I needed.
I had been practicing yoga for years but still struggled with depression and feeling lost. I had dropped out of medical school, and not knowing what to do next was unnerving. I was just working the front desk at a yoga studio, grasping at spiritual straws hoping to feel better. Then, one day, a yoga teacher approached me and asked how I was doing.
“I’m OK, just tired.”
“Your soul is tired,” he said.
I felt that.
“What about Buddhism?” he asked. Oh yeah! I knew a friend who did that with a lot of success. I always meant to go to a meeting with her, but never did, and we lost touch. This time, I was ready. He followed the protocol of connecting me with a young woman living in my area who could take me to an introductory meeting. He told me her name was Gaia, a unique name that sounded familiar. Sure enough, it was someone I knew from high school, a good friend’s sister. She brought me to that first meeting and the rest is history.
Through Chanting, I Learned to Take Responsibility of My Life
From that point, I pretty much just kept saying yes to things. I didn’t have a lot going on at that time, so I went to a lot of meetings and learned about the lay Buddhist organization that these people belonged to called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). After a few months, I officially became a member. This involved receiving my own gohonzon, the scroll that we chant to. It has a bunch of things written in Japanese that are meant to represent all of the possible life states: hell, hunger, anger, rapture, learning.
Down the center, in bold, is “nam myoho renge kyo,” the phrase we chant, which is supposed to represent the highest life state of Buddhahood. This isn’t the type of Buddhism that worships the Buddha as a deity but rather one that nurtures our own inner Buddha, our inner wisdom and compassion. I don’t know if it’s the sustained breath control or the vibrations of the sound massaging my vagus nerve, but chanting made me feel calmer and centered right away, and my outlook on life began improving.
According to Nichiren, the 13th-century Japanese monk who founded this type of Buddhism, everything is based on cause and effect. I realized that I wasn’t a victim of circumstances but rather a summation of my thoughts, words and actions. I am responsible for my own karma. Taking responsibility was difficult but also empowering. I realized that I needed to start making better decisions. It sounds so simple, but this was the first time I was doing it for myself, and not because I was guilt-tripped by a religion or authority figure to do what I’m “supposed to”.
I Became More Involved in Nichiren Buddhist Meetings
As time went on, other members would ask me to participate in meetings, and so I started acting as an emcee or helping with various presentations. About six months in, I was asked to share my experience with our district: a smaller subgroup of 30-40 people who met monthly to chant and have discussions. It wasn’t until I sat down to write about my experience with the practice that I realized how much I had changed.
I wrote about two people. One was lonely and sad, directionless, stuck at home. The other had a new relationship, new job, new apartment, new lease on life. They were me, before and after chanting, and I couldn’t believe it. I guess my story was inspiring because they asked me to share it at a bigger meeting in front of hundreds of people.
But these changes were relatively superficial; I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was supposed to be a doctor, and now what? Change to tech? Start from scratch? Some of the leaders who had been practicing for a long time and who I respected for their success, both in careers and life, told me that if I wanted to level up my career, then I needed to level up my involvement in the SGI.
The Practice Helped Me Find Direction in Life and Overcome Everyday Obstacles
Around this time, the opportunity came up to volunteer at the Friendship Center, ushering meetings and manning the welcome desk. I kept to my rule of always saying yes, as it had been working out well. In my entrance interview for the role, they asked me what aspect of my life I was challenging. I said that I really wanted to connect with my personal mission. I wanted to take the karma of being a med school dropout and turn it into something positive.
A couple months later, I accidentally got an acupuncture treatment and was so inspired that, before I knew it, I was starting a master’s program in traditional Chinese medicine. I now had a path, a direction. It was a lightbulb moment, and my family asked why I hadn’t thought of it before.
And that’s the crazy thing.
I had gotten acupuncture the year before from a referral and was so underwhelmed that I brushed it off. But by chanting and showing up, I was able to reveal the potential of an opportunity that I didn’t see before. I realized I could still get a graduate degree, diagnose and treat patients and use all of my Western medicine knowledge in a way that aligned my spiritual side with my ultimate goal: to genuinely help people. They say chanting “polishes the mirror” so one can see things clearly. I feel like chanting polished my mirror, and I went from having no clear future to having a career path that I absolutely love.
Since then, I have used this “strategy” countless times. When I’m facing a challenge and I seem to be hitting a wall or don’t know what to do next, chanting somehow changes the energy and unlocks potential in a situation. As one example, there was a time my boyfriend and I decided to get our own place. We thought it would be easy, so we put in our notice with the roommate. Well, it proved to be more difficult than we thought, so we had all of our stuff packed up in a U-Haul and still no place to go. Basically homeless and stressed, he wanted to keep running around to apartments filling out applications, but I insisted we go to the Friendship Center for my weekly young women’s meeting.
While there, we chanted, and I talked to them about my situation, about how we couldn’t find a place and how I was probably going to have to have my dad co-sign with us. They encouraged me, saying that I would be able to find a place and to do it without needing a co-signer so that I could be truly independent. It seemed unrealistic at that point, but the thought was nice, and having other people believe in me made me feel better. And then, as we were driving away from the center, the leasing office from the apartment we wanted called us to say that we were approved without a co-signer! I couldn’t believe it.
I Keep Coming Back to Nichiren Buddhism and Its Healing Power
I have dozens of stories like this, and so does everyone who has been practicing for a while. Sometimes, I don’t understand why more people don’t join, but then I remember how weird it all seemed when I first started. And maybe some people get the aspects of encouragement and support from family and different communities. There are aspects of it that aren’t always ideal, and it can feel religious at times. But as far as religions go (I was raised Catholic), this Buddhism is pretty chill overall. There aren’t any rules, just suggestions, and they all focus on becoming happy and making the world a better place.
Would I love to get the benefits of practice without having to chant a strange phrase to an inscription I can’t even read? Sure. And attend countless (now Zoom) meetings? Yes. And I’ve always given myself that freedom. If I find something better or easier, then I will do it. If my depression and anxiety and self-doubt magically go away, then I will stop. I have actually taken breaks from it because it is work and, at times, annoying.
But it’s been six years. And I always come back.
I’ve tried a lot of different things for my mental health, but this one has it all. No one can argue with the fact that taking time out of your day to pray or chant and be mindful is good for you; no one can contest that aligning with your goals on a regular basis will help you achieve them; and no one can dispute that having the support of people who truly want you to succeed will add joy to your life. But for me, what I gain from this practice as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.