Through the years, I have heard people talk of faith. I always assumed that faith came from some form of religious practice. Although I feel a strong sense of Jewishness, I have never had formal Jewish education, nor do I consider myself religious. My sense of Jewishness is my love of family, liberalism, the scents and sounds of holiday celebrations, and the act of performing commandments or good deeds, called mitzvot, similar to stewardship in the Catholic religion, or Buddhahood in Buddhist practice. But for me Judaism was not something I practiced every day.
Two years ago my husband's sudden death made me wonder what questions would have been answered if I had had faith, and would that faith have comforted me?
Recently I watched a Larry King show about where we go after we die. On the panel were a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a born-again Christian and an atheist. There were no Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. The atheist made the most sense to me. She said death is final. We have no proof of any afterlife.
While talking with a therapist in dealing with my grief, we discussed where I thought my husband was. She, being extremely spiritual, told me he was in the next room and that I was focusing on the physical loss and not feeling the never-ending energy of our love. But for me he was not in the next room, and I was totally lost in the darkness and the silence of being alone. Grief became my never-ending shadow. My answer to her was the same as the atheist's: Death is the end. I also realized I would never get over my husband's death, but I would get through my journey with the help of devoted family and friends.
My husband's death was the end of my life as I knew it. It was the end of my future as I wanted to live it. What the atheist also stated was that one should always try and live a full life and be kind to yourself and others. One way of being kind to myself was to explore the attraction I had always felt towards Buddhism. Buddhists believe that heaven and hell are not places, but states of mind, and that grieving is a state of hell. Attaining Buddhahood is the exalted feeling of happiness and an enlightened state of mind. Given my level of grief, that sounded very appealing.
Buddhist faith is a process and a journey towards inner peace and happiness. I explored the Soka Gakkai International, which was formed to support practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism. This form of Buddhism consists of two parts--practice for ourselves and practice for others. Practice for ourselves is chanting, and practice for others is giving compassion in helping others make improvements in their lives that also benefit us: When we help others overcome their problems, our own lives are expanded. As I learned more I realized I was already living according to these Buddhist principles. Although my mother was not a religious woman, she lived her life in community service and passed that commitment on to me. So much of Buddhist philosophy was a part of me from early on.
The three basics in applying Buddhism in one's life are faith, practice, and study. A milestone after beginning practice is receiving the Gohonzon (object of devotion).The Gohonzon is a paper scroll that you enshrine in your home in an altar, and written down the middle is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting this is believed to allow people to directly tap their enlightened nature and is the primary practice of SGI members. Although the deepest meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is revealed only through its practice, the literal meaning breaks down like this: Nam (devotion), the action of practicing Buddhism; myoho (mystic law), the essential law of the universe and its phenomenal manifestations; renge (lotus), the simultaneity of cause and effect; kyo (Buddha's teaching), all phenomena. The Gohonzon can be received at any time and represents your commitment to the practice.*
In Buddhism one strives to attain a state of freedom and unshakable happiness while creating harmony with others, and so with a very open mind I went to several SGI meetings and found many new treasured friends. I was so impressed with the sincerity of the members and the beautiful mix of so many colors and diverse backgrounds that it only enhanced my curiosity. Many of the members have practiced for over 25 years. Those born into the practice are called Fortune Babies.
I started chanting and soon after felt empowered, because through the words my grief started to soften. I felt I could either stay in the state of hell and grieve forever or move forward. I chanted for what needed to happen in my life at that time, in order to move beyond my acute sadness. I sold my home in the suburbs and my car, and found another apartment in a big city and recreated my life. I was fortunate to have treasured family and friends close to me--one son, his wife and my granddaughter--and to have been invited to spend several wonderful months visiting my other son, his wife and my two grandsons. Also, new Buddhist friends and mentors, Michele, as well as Chiara and Nancy, who now live within walking distance from me--attending planning, study and discussion meeting at members' homes is considered vital to the practice--have been devoted to helping me realize my potential to attain a happy state again.
I began to find a sense of comfort in chanting and realized that while some religions teach faith, it can come at any time in one's life. I once read that faith is believing in something that cannot be validated. Daisaku Ikeda, President of SGI, said, "Faith manifests itself in daily life." My faith came from unexpected places and was validated for me. Family and friends reinforced my faith in others and most important was the faith I discovered within myself to move forward in this most bountiful, yet profoundly sad journey to attain joy again . . .
*Some of the explanations of Buddhism in this article were based on information found in The Winning Life, an Introduction to Buddhist Practice, published by World Tribune Press, and the World Tribune newspaper.