Buddhism is coming home in a new Japanese form – OZY

Ruma Roka is a practicing Hindu and visits temples. But for at least 20 minutes every morning and evening, the 57-year-old’s home in the Delhi suburb of Noida echoes Buddhist chanting. nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Founder of a non-profit organization, Roka works with hard of hearing and hard of hearing children and youth. It’s hard work, but singing “helped empower me,” she says. It is also helping one of the main religions of the world, Buddhism, to regain lost ground in its birthplace.

It was in northern India that the Buddha achieved enlightenment in the 6th century BC. Hinduism which left its learning centers destroyed or deprived of funding. Buddhists today represent less than 1% of the Indian population. Today, a branch of religion based on the philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th-century Japanese monk, is reviving Buddhism in cities across the country, attracting tens of thousands of people with its promise of happiness and a peaceful world.

Globally, Nichiren Buddhism is led by Soka Gakkai International, an organization established in Japan in 1930 with chapters in at least 192 countries. Yet until 2014, Bharat Soka Gakkai, or BSG, the Indian branch of the Japanese tradition, had only 75,000 followers. Since then, however, it has seen its base expand dramatically, doubling to 150,000 subscribers by 2016. The number is now estimated at 200,000, and BSG today has groups in over 300 Indian cities that meet for regular group singing sessions. .

Everyone wants a refuge from problems… they find solace in it.

Hira Paul Gangnegi, Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi

For some, singing is meditative and serves as a path to mental peace and stability in a modern, fast-paced world. For others, gatherings provide a way to socialize and meet new people amid growing urban loneliness. But there is also another key attraction: This tradition of Buddhism does not require followers to give up their existing religious beliefs. Practicing Hindus, Muslims and Christians are among those who gather for the singing sessions in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. On the one hand, this means that the growth of followers of the tradition is not reflected in the Buddhist census figures since most of them identify with the religion to which they officially subscribe. But it also shields this burgeoning expansion of Buddhism from backlash at a time when India is plagued by tensions over religious conversions and majority Hindu politics. Followers may view Buddhism as an additional faith to the religion they grew up practicing.

“There is no concept of heaven or hell,” says Roka. “This [Nichiren Buddhism] believes that every individual, regardless of race, gender, caste, can overcome challenges.

Officially, India has 8 million Buddhists, according to its latest census. But even that figure is mainly due to large-scale religious conversions by lower-caste Dalit Hindus in the 1950s, under the leadership of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution trained at Columbia University. This is why more than 5 million Buddhists identified in India are from Maharashtra, the home state of Ambedkar, itself Dalit. Buddhism’s rejection of the caste system remains attractive to many in India.

Sashwat Malik, a 27-year-old Delhi-based photographer, began taking Tibetan lessons and became intrigued by Buddhism. He belongs to an economically and socially disadvantaged community and has begun to question the impact of his caste on his life. “That’s when I wanted to explore Buddhism and its teachings,” he says. He doesn’t sing but is keen to explore it.

But the new wave of Buddhism is fundamentally different. It is not an act of mass protest against centuries of upper caste persecution. Instead, high-end businessmen, housewives, and college students embrace it to deal with 21st century anxieties that mainstream religion fails to respond to: increased loneliness and emotional turmoil, increased pressures at work. , tensions at home. Indeed, while the GRB movement really started in 2000, it is the recent global focus on wellness and spirituality that is now helping Buddhism develop rapidly in India, suggests Hira Paul Gangnegi, professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Delhi. “Everyone wants a refuge from problems… they find comfort there,” he says.

Divya M., a 29-year-old architect from the Punjabi Bagh district of West Delhi, says she turned to singing as she went through a period of emotional vulnerability a few years ago. For Noida-based Sumita Mehta, a 70-year-old woman who discovered Buddhist chanting two decades ago, the practice has helped her “realize the power of changing myself.”

Community song gatherings help members find fellowship and fellowship. Mehta says she has learned to “really listen to others” through this daily practice. Nichiren, who according to Mehta was “a vocal critic of established Buddhist schools” in his day, pointed out the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism, as a source of enlightenment. Thus, GSO organizes workshops and meetings where members discuss, among other things, the Lotus Sutra. Mahayana Buddhism is one of the two main streams of the religion – Theravada Buddhism is the other – and is the dominant form of faith in China, Japan, South Korea, Bhutan, Nepal and many other parts of the world. many countries in Southeast Asia.

Some mainstream Buddhists are concerned about the emphasis on chanting in Nichiren Buddhism. Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives at Dharamshala – the home of the Dalai Lama in northern India – says that although he “cannot say that what they are doing is wrong,” an entire religion on the glorification of a “one ritual” is a “big deal”.

But Soka Gakkai International also presents itself as a global solution to problems. Each year, the organization’s president writes a “peace proposal” that explores Buddhist responses to everything from nuclear proliferation to environmental degradation. This, Gangnegi says, helps followers feel “like they’re part of something big.”

To be sure, Nichiren Buddhism remains confined to the towns and villages of India. Most of its marketing is done through word of mouth and through Facebook groups. But in a country where 46 cities have a population of over one million, this still represents a great opportunity for growth. It is not that the expansion of Buddhism is what motivates followers like Roka. She is convinced that singing has changed her for the better. “If I didn’t sing,” she said, “I don’t think I would be as compassionate as I am today.