Wednesday, 16 April 2014

‘Coming out’ as a Buddhist

When first getting to know someone, the following typically comes up in conversation (in brackets are the usual responses I receive):

Name: Gabrielle Westhead (Gabriel? Gabriella? Okay, Gabby it is)
Year of birth: 1993 (you don’t look a day over 14!)
Hometown: Slough (I'm sorry to hear that)
Current occupation: Student at Oxford Brookes University (Wow, you go to Oxford?)
Ethnicity: Mixed White and Black Caribbean (AFRO! Can I touch your hair?)

I have come to involuntarily bow my head down at this point.

And lastly:
Religious views: Nichiren Buddhist...

Now, the last one comes as a bit of a shock – or at least a surprise – to some. People I meet generally associate being British with being Christian or being mixed raced with being atheist, having no religious beliefs at all. But, nevertheless, I am a Buddhist. I practise Buddhism. Specifically, I practise the philosophy and ideals of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, a Buddhist monk who lived in 13th-century Japan. Practising a philosophy means that Buddhism is part and parcel of who I am and how I live my life.

I'm what we Nichiren Buddhists call a "fortune baby", a baby born to a woman who practises and I, in turn, inherit my mother's "good fortune". Growing up, I went to various Buddhist activities for young people and really felt part of a big family - but never felt that Buddhism was my religion. At around the age of 15 (I say that's the age when you start living your own life), I started to explore religion. I went to a Baptist church with my best friend at the time for at least a year. I learned about Islam through my friends at school. But neither religion gelled with me.

Just as I was starting my GCSEs, I began getting bullied in my all girls' school (over a boy, believe it or not) and this went on for 2 years. It was painful, particularly because it was inflicted by people I had been friends with for many years, but I was determined not to be defeated or to retaliate. I was determined to change this situation, no matter how long it took. This is when I decided to take Buddhism seriously. It was the perfect opportunity to see if it worked for me. Friends kept asking me how I was coping. I wanted to sing the praises of Buddhism, but fear was holding me back.

Like some Christians, telling people I’m a Buddhist, that I practise Buddhism, feels like I’m "coming out". It's as if I'm publicly declaring a long-held secret, and once out I feel more 'like me’. But why? That’s the big question. Responses to my Buddhist "declaration" vary from person to person, from place to place, from country to country. I tend to get one of five reactions though:

  1. Oh, so you meditate… Teach me! (And they always start to hum)
  2. Wait, you’re not Asian… Are you?
  3. Wait, you’re not a monk… Are you?
  4. You worship the Buddha statue, right?
  5. And my personal favourite: So what animal will you come back as when you’re reincarnated? I want to be a fly.

Buddhism, and its many representations in popular culture and even in the classroom, can be steeped in stereotypes and peaked in prejudice. Yes, some Buddhists meditate. Yes, some Buddhists live in monasteries and are monks. Yes, some Buddhists pray to the statue of Buddha. But not all Buddhists. I practise Buddhism within a Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). I chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, not meditate. Soka Gakkai, literally meaning "Society for the Creation of Value", is a worldwide network of lay Buddhists dedicated to a common vision of a better world through the empowerment of the individual and the promotion of peace, culture and education. A just, sustainable and peaceful world.

Everything in this blog is a representation of my beliefs and my beliefs only and in no way do I intend to represent the views of all Buddhists around the world.

SGI was established in 1930s Japan as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (the Society for Value-Creating Education), a study group of reformist educators. The group, inspired by Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhist teachings, were dedicated to reforming the Japanese pedagogy and opposing the militarist government of the time. They were conscientious objectors. Under the leadership of the current SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, my mentor in life, has emerged as one of the largest and most dynamic Buddhist movements in the world. An international movement to reform society. A socially-engaged Buddhism.

Founding president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (front row, centre)
with Soka Kyoiku Gakkai members in Fukouka, Kyushu, 1941

While this all sounds heavily political (with a big P), it isn't. SGI members believe that reformation of institutional structures and creation of social change can be achieved by undergoing "human revolution", an inner transformation or a process of bringing forth our full human potentialBy extension (and person by person), we can positively transform the environments we live in. And that's what I did in school.

On a small scale, we manifest the courage, compassion and wisdom (which characterise the innate Buddhahood or Buddha nature we all have) to overcome daily and ongoing personal problems with employment, family relationships, health challenges etc. On a larger scale, the bigger picture, we make practical efforts to bring humanity closer together. The way I see it, to be a world citizen, you must engage in global issues. SGI members can engage in a wide range of community initiatives aimed at achieving constructive change in our individual lives and society. It's a grassroots movement.

Some of the activities we do include:
  • Regular local discussion meetings, where we ask questions, receive encouragement and simply make friends
  • Public educational programs and outreach projects (as a non-governmental organisation)
  • Contribute to our local communities (even directing relief programmes for victims of natural disasters)
  • Participate in interfaith dialogues to build religious cooperation (as someone once said to me, we can't make everyone Buddhist, Christian or Muslim so the only way to achieve world peace is create forging links between us.)

Being an SGI member permeates the way I think about life, my life and the lives of others. It has given me an awareness of human rights. In 1957, the second SGI President, Josei Toda, made a declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons as an "absolute evil" which threaten humanity's right to live. He asked the youth of the Soka Gakkai to take united action towards their abolition. Every year since 1983, Daisaku Ikeda (the current president) writes a peace proposal to offer his perspective on global issues, which he presents to the United Nations - and this includes nuclear abolition.

I am a member of the SGI-UK Youth Peace Committee (YPC), a group of around 20 young people who meet to study these annual peace proposals and plan practical initiatives that support lasting peace. Doing this "on the side" has opened my eyes to the invisible threat of nuclear weapons, a major factor that undermines the dignity of life. We're currently in the middle of planning a public exhibition, a tour of study lectures on this year's proposal and an interfaith activity.

As a nascent Japanese "export" religion under the operation of an international lay body, this draws numbers of non-Japanese members in and demands scholarly analysis in turn. Scholars of new religious movements, like Bryan Wilson, have noted that there's nothing "monkish" about SGI. I simply see it is an extraordinary movement among ordinary people. Having been brought up amongst the warmth and engagement of SGI-UK (the UK branch of SGI), I'm perhaps a little biased. Just a little...

It has become common practice for the media to warrant derogatory connotations and wrongful stereotypes of Buddhists. Fortunately, the co-founder of Scoop, a New Zealand media outlet, picked up on Ikeda's great efforts and requested an interview with him. Things are changing.

What I actually do.

For me, and 12 million other SGI members around the world, Buddhism is about realising your true identity, transforming every obstacle into an opportunity to grow, actively being a world citizen and sharing a common consciousness and concern for world peace. It's nothing recluse, secret or ascetic. It's about being the best you you can be. It's about using Buddhist philosophy in our daily realities. It's about using the "Buddha resources" we already have within. It's about having hope.

I propose that when Buddhism is spoken about, we should say “Buddhism(s)” so as to not offend or generalise. But as a 20-year-old mixed raced girl from Slough, introducing a new vernacular for a world religion might be a tiny bit tricky. So I’ve come to realise that the best way to diffuse such prejudices is to speak up and speak out with my truth.

Perhaps now when I say that I'm off to a "Buddhist meeting" (which is at least once a week), it will seem a little less ominous and stealth-like.

If you want to know more about SGI, please give this short informative video a watch:

I'm out (pun very much intended).


  1. Great blog Gabrielle - really interesting!

    I find it really sad that the people closest to you in school segregated you due to your religion. I blame a lack of education, immaturity and naivety! If only they had fully understood the principles behind Buddhism (s), and recognized that its such a beautiful and peaceful religion.

    I admire your determination and beliefs, especially regarding the SGI- Youth Committee. It is really easy for every one to brush off world issues such as nuclear weaponry, and take the attitude of 'well I cant do anything about it'. As you have pointed out - we can do something about it!

  2. Really interesting blog Gabrielle.You have definitely shown your passion in your well written article, i must admit you are a good example for other preachers of buddhism. Reading your article makes want to join some of the activities such as the regular discussion meeting and the interfaith dialogues. I look forward for more news on future activities you participated.

  3. Really interesting post Gabby. I love your optimism and how for you Religion helps to find yourself and your identity. Your post really inspired me as now I can see a Religion that encourages positive thinking and allows a person to turn a disadvantage into- as you say- an opportunity to grow. This can be very useful for communities and families.

    I look forward to more interesting posts :)

  4. Very interesting blog - there is so much here about the ways in which in- and out- group status is conferred/denied/reinforced. The notion of religious citizenship is one we did not explore but has given me some ideas for next year. Thank you!

  5. Nam myoho renge kyo to all of the above. Awesome experience Gabrielle! You have inspired us all!

  6. I saw this on Facebook and have reposted it. It's a great explanation of our movement. Well done, and thank you.

  7. Hi Gabrielle, I am also a Nichiren Buddhist and loved reading your blog - I started practicing at the age of 28 and I can truly say that Buddhism has revolutionized my life, top to bottom - and still going. I have also shared your personal account as it is so sincere, insightful and very well written - thank you for taking the time to do this :-)

  8. Very inspiring perspective. Practising ND buddhism up a new world to the future generation and how life should be lived with respect, gratitude and hope. You have spoken out on some issues (although not everyone) which some of us may not have the courage to do so.


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