The following is the edited text of a testimonial speech by a member of Rissho Kosei-kai of New York at the fiftieth anniversary celebration in Las Vegas on August 1.
Let me begin with a quote from the Lotus Sutra, chapter 21, "The Divine Power of the Tathagata": "Just as the light of the sun and moon / Can chase all darkness away, / So these people, practicing in this world, / Can bring living beings out of darkness, / And cause countless bodhisattvas / To at last abide in the One Vehicle."
My name is John Michael Schuh. I have been a member of Rissho Kosei-kai of New York, Chicago Chapter, for twenty-five years. It is a great honor to give my testimony on the fiftieth anniversary of Rissho Kosei-kai's dissemination in the United States.
I am the oldest of three children and was raised in a middle-class Chicago suburb. My father was a laborer and an alcoholic. My mother needed to work a part-time job to help support us. My father would often become drunk and would verbally abuse Mom, my brother and sister, and me. My childhood was often painful and I felt the profound sting of feeling unwelcome early on. In this traumatic atmosphere my siblings and I learned to mistrust and resent our father and fear our mother.
Grade school was another place of torment for me. Some of my schoolmates would make fun of me and I would become defensive and cry. I was laughed at and mocked, and I became a target for regular abuse. Again I felt unwelcome and excluded. I even took to running home from school at the end of the day. Once in junior high school, I was so unhappy and felt so tortured, I remember confessing to a priest that I hated my schoolmates and wanted to kill them all. Between what happened at school and what went on at home, I longed to be an adult and escape my unhappiness.
After graduating from high school, I began my first year at a college seminary, but during my first semester, I fell into a deep depression due to my struggle with my sexual identity, my faith, and my family. I made it through that first semester with the help of a kind priest, a social worker, and friends, but during my second seminary year, I left the seminary as there was no place in the priesthood for someone with a different sexual identity. Again I was left feeling very unwelcome, but the worst was yet to come.
Upon returning home, and facing my parents' anger and disappointment, I was told to get a job to help support my parents and siblings. Dad's alcoholism caused him to develop neuropathy in his hands. Dad was unsure if he would be able to work in the future. I felt confined, oppressed, lost. My parents and I argued viciously over my future. A few weeks later, my parents found out that I was gay. Mom pronounced me dead and gone to hell, and I was banished from the family. I couldn't believe my ears, since years earlier my mother had told us when we were children that we would always have each other. When I asked the reason for her feelings, she told me that her decision was based on her Christian beliefs. At that moment, the very faith that sustained me through the years of my childhood unhappiness had been taken away. I burned with hatred and anger deep down inside. I felt deeply wounded, betrayed, and unwelcome in the Christian church and abandoned by my family.
A few years later, at age twenty-three, I became interested in Japanese Buddhism through a book published by the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism). Around the same time, I started learning Japanese. I told my Japanese tutor that I was interested in Buddhism. She recommended I contact a friend who belonged to Rissho Kosei-kai, and I attended a Sunday service and hoza at a local member's home. When I had arrived, the members were reciting the Kyoten in Japanese. After the ancestor-appreciation service, we had a hoza, and one of the members was kind enough to translate. Afterward, Mr. Yasuo Sato told me about Rissho Kosei-kai, the meaning of the ancestor veneration service, and the founder's teachings. I was very impressed by all that I saw and heard, and I decided to join. There was no hesitation on my part. I felt the joy of being welcome. In Rissho Kosei-kai I found a new spiritual home.
The branch leader assigned Mr. Sato to be my Dharma parent. Through his fatherly guidance, I became very serious in my study of the Lotus Sutra and Rissho Kosei-kai's doctrine. I came to respect Mr. Sato's knowledge of Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra and loved him like a father. It was his kindhearted guidance as my Dharma parent that sustained me for the first eleven years of my membership in our Dharma center. I believe that without his guidance, I might have lost interest and drifted away as other English speakers had.
Through his guidance, I found a new connection with my family through performing daily ancestor-appreciation services. Ultimately, though, that was not enough. I still carried the pain of being exiled from my family and those many years of trauma and hurt whenever I thought of my parents. I felt angry and I felt very sad. I feared my parents would never accept me back. I so wanted their love and acceptance. I so wanted to be welcomed home.
Five years later, after attending many hoza sessions and with the loving guidance of Mr. Sato, I gathered the courage to return home to apologize to my parents for my disrespect and hateful words at our parting. Mr. Sato guided me to have no expectations and accept whatever my parents offered me - even their rejection - as the Buddha's compassion. When I returned home, my parents were surprised at my appearance. I apologized wholeheartedly for what I had said years before. Mom and Dad accepted my apologies. At that time, I felt the great weight I had carried for five years lifted from my shoulders. Even though this all took place many years ago, I am still working on transforming my relationship with my parents and working to welcome them more fully back into my heart.
Our Karmic Ripple
In preparation for this testimony, I have spent much time in deep reflection on my life, my actions, my choices, and my challenges. This has been a painful, but also a growth-filled blessing of the Buddha. I was given the gift of exploring those deep memories of feeling betrayed and unwelcome and also the memories alive with the richness of being welcome. I am now aware that these deep-rooted feelings have strongly influenced my actions, both conscious and unconscious, over so many years. I regret any hurt I may have caused others by lack of inclusion, being unwelcoming, or building walls of division.
What we offer or do not offer to others creates a karmic ripple that continues outward and reshapes this plain of existence.
I have talked about my early years of family, school, and faith when I suffered betrayal and being unwelcome. Then my early adulthood when I found a new spiritual home at Rissho Kosei-kai and felt so welcomed by Mr. Sato, my Dharma parent.
Almost everyone here today is a member of Rissho Kosei-kai, and while we may have many differences and dissimilar journeys, we have found a home together. We have been invited in and welcomed. Our inclusion in Rissho Kosei-kai has been strengthened by our Dharma parents.
This said, how are we in turn being invitational, welcoming, and inclusive of others?
If our slogan "many in body, but one in spirit" is to transcend the level of simple rhetoric, we must work to give it life and meaning in this country. We must explore how we individually and collectively are striving to make "many in body, but one in spirit" a reality. Have we invited others to a Dharma circle? How willing have we been to do dissemination work or be an attentive Dharma parent? Are we open to becoming more diverse? Can we move beyond the often imposing walls of culture?
It was Rev. William Sloane Coffin who said, "Diversity may be both the hardest thing to live with and the most dangerous thing to be without."
If we choose the path to become more diverse and make Rissho Kosei-kai grow, we must explore creative ways to make Rissho Kosei-kai a known organization in the United States, and work to spread the liberating truth of the Lotus Sutra as guided by our founder, Nikkyo Niwano, utilizing the strengths of both its American and Japanese members.
Invitation, welcome, and inclusion are the key. We U.S. Rissho Kosei-kai members must move beyond our fear of dissemination outreach and spread the Lotus Sutra among our circles, family, school, work, and in our communities. I believe this difficulty, in part, relates back to our current crossroads - preserving Japanese culture versus spreading the Dharma and making Rissho Kosei-kai grow in the United States. Our Dharma centers must be places where new people feel welcome and are easily included.
The Japanese dissemination method is a well-tested one, and we North Americans must be willing to speak openly about our society and its activities. We must be willing to share how Rissho Kosei-kai's teachings and its practices have liberated us from our sufferings.
O-michibiki, or dissemination, is an excellent practice for a bodhisattva-in-training. Once an individual is brought to membership, the Dharma parent must understand the great importance of this karmic connection. It is very important that the spiritual guidance of a fledgling member be recognized as a valued skillful means to advance both the Dharma parent's and Dharma child's spiritual growth. Our Dharma parent-child relationships are opportunities to share our struggles and achievements. Such relationships mirror each other, and together the two learn how to better incorporate the Lotus Sutra in their daily lives. This Dharma parent-child relationship practice, along with hoza practice, is what makes Rissho Kosei-kai unique.
As we strive toward greater inclusion, Rissho Kosei-kai in the United States must take care not to pattern itself after other North American Buddhist groups that have chosen the path of individual liberation, as opposed to the bodhisattva way of walking hand in hand together toward enlightenment.
In addition, in the United States Rissho Kosei-kai needs to foster Sanghas that are welcoming and embrace diversity, making it known that our Dharma center community accepts all people, regardless of race, skin color, culture, economic status, gender, or sexual identity.
Our inclusiveness and welcome must extend to our ancestors as well. Ancestor appreciation and respect for parents can also be a vital way to restore a sense of family that has been lost to the pursuit of unbridled individualism. If an individual does not feel a strong familial connection with his blood family, let him or her know the compassionate embrace of our Sangha in the spirit of "many in body, but one in spirit."
So while the work that lies ahead will be a challenge, our efforts will be fruitful if we are willing to roll up our shirtsleeves and take the risks required to spread the teachings of the Buddha and Founder Niwano. In so doing, we will help Rissho Kosei-kai grow into the future.
Together, we, the members of Rissho Kosei-kai, can tear down those walls that divide us and transform those walls into ever expanding circles of compassion.
In closing, I would like to quote Founder Niwano: "Shakyamuni Buddha stated at the end of chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, 'Skillful Means,' 'Rejoice greatly in your hearts knowing that you will become buddhas.'
"If we really want to become enlightened, let us always meet people with cheer and joy. And let us guide people to the faith. Becoming fully aware that if we walk the path of the bodhisattva way, we will, without fail, become buddhas. We must also know that it is only by diligent devotion of repeating our deeds over and over again, day by day, that we will become buddhas.
"And lastly hear these words from Shakyamuni Buddha: 'Make the self your light, make the Dharma your light.'"
John Michael Schuh is a member of the Chicago Chapter of Rissho Kosei-kai of New York.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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