Is Buddhism Only For The Elite?: How do homeless & unhoused practice religions and spiritualities?

Nicheren Daishonin

For around the past 10 years I’ve been drawn to the practice of Nicheren Daishonin Buddhism. I couldn’t tell you why. Even though I’ve been thinking lately that it might just be to assist me with my research, it has only been more recently — over the past number of months — that I’ve actually been practicing, and doing so consistently. In my mind I feel that I’m meant to be a Buddhist. There’s been a series of events that have happened over the past couple of years that I believe drew me in. Specifically, I’ve been meeting a number of Black women who practice. One of the things that impress me about Buddhism is that there are people from all backgrounds. If you find yourself  inside of a Buddhist center, you’ll see that it’s very multiracial and multicultural. At least that’s been my experience. But truth be told I haven’t been to all that many. The universe knows I’m receptive to things Black women tell me. And it just so happens that I’ve been meeting Black women Buddhists everywhere. Unexpectedly, no joke. This has happened even when I’ve traveled outside of the country and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

So over the past months I’ve been deliberate in chanting. I’ve done gongyo (which is chanting daimoku and then reciting parts of the Lotus Sutra that contain silent prayers) and have had more than a few people tell me I need to get a Gohonzon — and there’s no doubt about it — I know I need a Gohonzon, and I want one. The Gohonzon is a scroll, called the object of devotion that reflects one’s life and is inscribed with the words of Nicheren Daishonin, the founder of this sector of Buddhism. If you know any Buddhists or know anything about Buddhism then you’ll know that the Gohonzon is revered. It’s a sacred item that isn’t mass produced nor do they come off of a printing press but are each hand crafted. Having a Gohonzon enriches your practice since it is said to offer a mirror and is a reflection of your life, and aids in allowing you to receive the full benefits of this practice. I was in Utah and asked how important was it to have a Gohonzon, versus one that may appear online — which is one that I’ve found. The response I received that really resonated with me was imagine trying to learn an instrument online versus from someone right in front of you, teaching you, directing you, listening. That makes a lot of sense.

I visited Sokka Gakai International (SGI), the worldwide Buddhist Center) in Santa Ana when I was in California last month. I sought out a meeting and after it concluded I was inside of the bookstore looking around afterward and met a young woman who I began talking with. I basically told her the same thing I’ve just described above — that I’m a new practitioner, have been doing Gongyo regularly, was recently in Salt Lake City, Utah, visited a Buddhist center there and am really looking to getting receiving Gohonzon. She, with excitement in her eyes told me I could receive a Gohonzon right now — tonight! That all I’d need to do is fill out a form, and pay the mandatory $50 which would cover the price it costs to ship the Gohonzon and a one year subscription to Living Buddhism, the monthly magazine, which I was reassured I could receive in digital format. I was so excited about it since I was thinking ‘Finally!’ I told her I needed to have a Omamori — a travel sized altar that literally could fit into my pocket since this is the only way I could practice, really, because of my lifestyle. I didn’t tell her about being nomadic and/or unhoused or in transition to new housing, temporarily living with my sister and her family — whatever — I told her I travel a lot, which is true. And this is the one I’d been eyeing for the past while because of all of the reasons. So she went out of the bookstore to talk to…. someone…. And then came back a few minutes later telling me that new people cannot receive Omamori because they lose them. Then she told me I’d have to have a regular sized Gohonzon for approximately 6 months, and that I’d have to receive it from my section in my city, meaning my local Buddhist headquarters that I belong to. The problem with this is that I do not belong to one because — I’m a nomad. Plus there isn’t a place readily in the city I’m in and the nearest one I could find is 1.5 hours away. So, as you could image I was disappointed.

So, after buying a small book to aid in my study of the practice from said bookstore, that I was reading while at the airport waiting for my flight, I decided to call the number listed — the U.S. SGI headquarters which is in Santa Monica, California. The book said to call with questions and to inquire about receiving a Gohonzon.

And so I did..

And the lady I spoke with told me sternly: “You don’t just get a Gohonzon because you want one.” Apparently it requires various levels of protocol including having a sponsor. She then told me literally that “to have a Gohonzon you must live in a house and the Gohonzon stays in one place and doesn’t move.” I replied to her, asking if that was elitist. I told her that I don’t live anywhere, really, and that I move around a lot. To clarify: the object she was telling me about is about 2 feet. It is enshrined in the front of the house, and anyone who lives on commercial property, in a van, car, on the side of the street, moves from house to house, knows that this virtually impossible. It is impossible for me to erect such an object. After a couple more questions she gave me a couple numbers to somewhere else to brush me off, but this has been the case.

I recently blogged about being in California on vacation and sleeping in my rental car. This was a choice that I made because I wanted to, to save money, because I’ve done it before and because I’m OK with it. And I’m so glad I did that because it really gave me great perspectives on how people are living and how I can relate to them. When I saw about 15-20 homeless people in sleeping bags, on the side of the particular building I parked at overnight and others who were sleeping in their cars and vans — I wondered even moreso about the boundaries of Buddhism — the boundaries of enlightenment. The people I saw were totally and completely homeless, living out of a few bags they carry around with them, and hanging out at the library all day. I began thinking how much trouble they’d have attempting to practice and getting the full benefits of Buddhism. If new people cannot receive Omamori, what could they do? Sure, it’s easy to say ‘well, you don’t need a Gohonzon to chant,’ but that’s truly beside the point and dismisses the inquiry into this form of social inequality. Sure, one can say they can find a center head there, chant with others and practice that way — but even I had a vehicle and it was difficult — it took at least a good 20 minutes to get to the center in Santa Ana — on the freeway!

I was recently in New York City and again visited the SGI Buddhist Center — and just so happened to overhear a woman talking to the cashier about how she was homeless and slept on a bench and couldn’t use her Gohonzon then, so of course this interested me.

To me, it appears that homeless, unhoused and/or nomadic people can’t really become enlightened, change their karma or end their sufferings in the same way that others who have stable environments, can. And what seems to be the most interesting to me is that it appears like no one questions these practices. I’ve discussed my inability to receive Gohonzon with other Buddhists, and no one says — well, that sucks, even given how they’ve talked to me about how the practice, along with chanting to the Gohonzon, has drastically changed and improved their lives. They simply just roll with it. The Buddha of the Latter Day Nicheren Daishonin, himself, who was from a privileged upbringing left that upon his realization of human suffering, worked to rid the world of this suffering and recognized that becoming enlightened is one way. So it seems counter to the narrative that today only the privileged and middle-class are the ones who can receive the full benefits, or so it seems.

No, I haven’t stopped chanting or practicing. Nor have I received Gohonzon yet. But I am asking more critical questions. I’m not saying that practices need to change because EYE need an accommodation. And I know a large part of my influence comes from the fact that I’m a social scientist and social equity, access, race, racism, class elitism, patriarchy, are always on my mind. I’m constantly assessing situations and these that I’ve seen regarding this aspect of Buddhism don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Tell me, what type of religion do you practice? What were your challenges when it came to getting an object of devotion — a Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon? I will admit that I haven’t seen anything like this before, so I’m genuinely curious.

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