Is being gay good karma? PinkNews.co.uk meets a group of gay Buddhists who are proud to follow a religion that welcomes them.
Barely a week goes by without a religious leader talking about the evils of homosexuality and the damage that gay rights are doing to society.
But deep in South London, men and women gather each week, proud of their religion, unafraid of discrimination, they are gay and lesbian Buddhists.
While the main religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have gay groups, the mainstream versions are less than welcoming of the gay and lesbian community. Unless of course you are prepared to change your ways, repent and live a life of abstinence.
Even some areas of Buddhism have hostile factions towards the gay community. The Dalai Lama, seen as the face of Buddhism, has previously described homosexual acts as a form of sexual misconduct.
But he only speaks for Tibetan Buddhism, meanwhile across the UK, around ten thousand people are believed to practice another form called Nichiren Buddhism, a religious group which prides itself on being open to all.
Robert Brown has been a member of Soka Gakkai International, which follows Nichiren Buddhism traditions, for 16 years, he says the Dalai Lama gives Buddhism a bad image, “If I believed that I would join the Catholic Church,” he says, as three other followers join him in his home to begin an evening of observance.
Four men sit in a flat in Brixton on a cold winter Thursday evening, you would be forgiven for thinking this was some sort of barbershop quartet. Except the tunes are not Motown classics, Robert, Simon, Jin and Mark are reciting an ancient Japanese chant.
Walking into Robert and Simon’s flat, it is like any other person’s home. The television blares out the latest behind the scenes gossip on Strictly Come Dancing while we await the arrival of Jin and Mark.
Jin has been a Nichiren Buddhist for 2 years, he has just arrived from Australia and is looking for somewhere to chant, while Mark has only just begun following the religion.
Nichiren Buddhists must chant twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.
This form of Buddhism dates back to the 13th Century when a Japanese priest known as Nichiren Daishonin, declared that Buddhahood can be achieved in this life by anyone, he opposed all forms of hierarchy in terms of holiness.
Many other types of Buddhism demand that the follower is a vegetarian and doesn’t drink or smoke, Robert says Nichiren Buddhism is a true religion for the 21st Century, “There is no hierarchy, a person who has chanted 10 times is as equal as person who has chanted 100
“You are free to eat meat, drink and smoke, but you must take responsibility and suffer the consequences.”
The rest of the members arrive and we make our way from the lounge to a enter a small room which looks much like a mini Buddhist library.
The shelves are adorned with books on quotes, letters and thoughts from the religion’s founder . The men enter the room, picking up beads and sitting in front of the focal point of the faith, the Gohonzon.
To the untrained eye this is just a small black cupboard, but to Robert it symbolises the correct model of faith and practice.
He insists that no pictures can be taken of the Gohonzon as he opens it to reveal an ancient looking scroll containing Chinese and Sanskrit characters. The centre of the scroll contains the Buddhist chant while one side represents good and the other evil. The message being that by reciting the chant you stay on the right path and keep away from evil.
Simon taps a bell to count his colleagues in, and then it begins, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” chanted three times with passion. Ok so its not Mr Sandman, but at least this has meaning.
The chant reflects the laws of life, Robert explains, “The more you chant more you see Buddhahood. It creates value in your life.”
“The word ‘Nam’ refers to a person’s attitude, it symbolises devotion to the Lotus Sutra, the name for the text.
“Myoho is the states of life, death, old age and sickness. ‘Renge’ represents the lotus flower, which seeds and flowers at the same time – the simultaneity of cause and effect, it also represents the fact that the lotus flower blooms bigger and better the deeper the roots are in the mud – which is a meaning for no matter how rubbish your life is, through chanting, you can make the causes to have a wonderful, brilliant, blossoming life. ‘Kyo’ represents sound and vibrations, the teachings of the Buddha.”
Nicheren Buddhists read from the Lotus Sutra. I open the book to reveal pages of ancient Japanese letters, luckily, just below it are phonetics, which obviously make the chanting much easier.
The phonetics are also available for French, German and Gaelic followers and there is even help for the visually impaired or dyslexic people.
This evening the group is chanting two of the 28 chapters of the Lotus Sutra.
Robert explains the importance of regular chanting and not giving up, “When you chant, you become higher and people are more attracted to you.
“Some people make the mistake of stopping when they think they have Buddha hood, one of my friends got a boyfriend, but then stopped chanting and the relationship went wrong.
Unlike other forms of the religion, Nichiren Buddhism believes Budhaahood, known as the ultimate truth, can be achieved in this life, “In other religions you do things for next life, you suffer for the next life.
“I don’t know what is in the next life, I want this life to be a good life,” Robert says as he begins his evening of chanting.
Each prayer begins with a recital of the nam-myoho-renge-kyo, followed by the other text which explains the
“workings of life.”
As a follower of the Jewish religion, I have grown up with so called objects representing spirituality from
having to kiss an object nailed to the wall on entering a room, to wearing a skullcap on my head to remind me of God’s presence.
Even Nichiren Buddhism seems to adore its metaphors. I watch the men chant passionately while threading beads through their hands.
Robert explains that the beads represent “the ten basic states of life.” Nichiren Buddhists see these as Hell, Hunger, Animality, anger, humanity, heaven, learning, realising enlightenment and Buddha hood.
Followers believe that the first 9 worlds can have negative and positive aspects while the tenth brings out the good from all the previous states.
Each member holds 108 beads on a chain. Robert places his in a figure of eight, “It represents the body, legs, arms and head.”
SGI has branches in around 190 countries including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Ghana. The biggest is in Italy where there are 40-50 thousand members.
Interestingly, Robert points out that the countries with the highest membership are traditionally Catholic or hostile towards the gay community.
The group also holds stalls at gay pride events and Robert claims they are often oversubscribed with interest.
He explains that Nichiren Buddhism openly welcomes gays and lesbians. In fact, the denomination’s spiritual leader, Daisaku Ikeda, recently circulated a message to LGBT members, Robert proudly recites it off by heart, “Nature is diverse, human Beings are diverse, that is the natural way of things.”
Daisaku Ikeda also regularly sends messages to annual meetings of SGI’s gay groups, his most recent said: “Buddhism makes it possible for us to bring forth our innate, brilliant humanity to the fullest, enabling us to manifest it through our unpretentious, natural behavior as genuinely human beings.
“What counts is your heart, your earnestness and your sincerity, not your position or your status. “
Not really statements you would expect the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chief Rabbi to say in regards to the gay community.
Robert says the status of gays and lesbians in Buddhism should be the same as how it should be in society, “Gays and lesbians shouldn’t be separate, it should reflect the fact that we are integrated in society.”
Like other areas of Buddhism, Nichiren believes in reincarnation, “Imagine in a week each day is a life, each night a death, we see death as a rest period.
“Whatever we do on a Monday could have repercussions on a Thursday. There are circumstances caused in this life from what I did in a past life, chanting helps you become prepared for it.”
Simon taps the bell a final time and the pace of the chanting slows down until the room is full of silence. A feeling of contemplation and thought feels the air as another evening of recital is complete, Robert says with a smile, “I wish I knew what I did in a past life to be born go so I can do it again.”
Buddhist chanting sessions are held every Thursday in Brixton, London. Anyone interested in learning should email Robert Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 07950 900516.
There is also an introduction to Buddhism at an SGI Centre in London on Saturday December 9 2006.
Visit www.sgi-uk.org for more information.