Daimoku Diva: How a Buddhist Strives for Everyday Happiness

Buddhism is a tricky subject for a lot of people. For a great many, it’s shrouded in an East Asian mist that we don’t know how to look past – or care, for that matter. A lot of people’s only contact with a real-life Buddhist is on a college quad, with a dreadlocked, tofu-swilling pothead who claims to be a devout Buddhist. Of course, he/she also is really into Hinduism, and Shintoism, and a Unitarian, and just, like, the universe, man.

But I never bought that. Entire empires were forged on a foundation of Buddhism. There’s no way it faded into an obscurity plagued by hipsters and bandwagon hopping college kids. Shit, according to Wikipedia, the omniscient sentinel of Internet knowledge, it’s got half a billion followers today.

So, intrepid journalist that I am, I caught up with an old friend and active participant in my local Nichiren Buddhist community (yes, Baltimore has one). Shanita Starks is the Women’s Region Leader for SGI USA’s Chesapeake Bay Region, and we had a great conversation about her practice’s approach to spiritual fulfillment and contentedness – AKA, being happy.

Thanks for meeting with me tonight.

No problem! Happy to share.

Let’s start with a quick overview of your practice.

So, Nichiren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra through a 13th Buddhist monk from Japan. Fast forward to the 1920’s, some educators in Japan revived his teachings, and spread them, even in the face of a totalitarian regime leading up to and during WWII. The group they formed, and that I belong to, is now known as SGI International. The real goal of this Buddhist practice is to create value in your life, through the application of humanist principals to this Buddhism.

So, tell me: what do you consider to be Happiness?

OK, first I want to say that happiness is relative. Depending on who you are, it looks quite different. For me, happiness is being comfortable in my own skin. Being confident in my choices. Being okay with my life and myself, no matter where I am in my life.

Would you say that happiness is dependent on how well your life is going?

Like, how good your love life is, or your career?

Short answer: no. We have this term called “relative happiness,” that’s always in relation to something: your work, your relationship, your financial status, you name it. What we want to achieve is absolute happiness. That means no matter what, [whether] I’m cleaning up at the circus or I’m the CEO of a major company… I want to be happy where I am. I remember years ago learning that Oprah wasn’t happy. And she’s Oprah! And I thought, if she can be unhappy, then I can be happy.

How has your Buddhist Practice helped you get and stay happy?

Wow. I could go on for ages. [Laughs] Well, before I became a Buddhist, I didn’t even think I could be happy. I was raised Pentecostal, but I was always taught the happiness was really outside of me, that it was something I had to ask for, not something I had control over. Through my Buddhist practice, I realized that I can really write the script for my own life. I get to determine what it looks like. I’ve been able to have the relative happiness, but also the absolute happiness through my practice. My practice specifically is chanting “Nam myoho renge kyo,” [which roughly translates to devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect through sound]. I chant twice a day to ground myself, to set my day with intention and end my day with appreciation. In between, I create value. I’ve been able to help myself and help others. I think I learned specifically through this practice is that I cannot be happy in a vacuum. My practice only inspires me to help others be happy.

What do you think makes this Buddhism so much different than other spiritual practices?

I can tell you the number one thing: it’s empowering. It’s a tool I use to be my best self, to take responsibility for my life, and not feel like I’m giving that power – good or bad – that confidence, to anyone or any other thing. It’s all in me. I’m really just unlocking my best potential through this practice. It’s much more active, and existential. It’s something based on the concept of a human revolution, and having some actual proof of [that revolution] in your life. That’s why I do it – it works.

What’s unique about the Nichiren Buddhist approach to being happy?

You have control. Your Karma’s your Karma. But the causes you make, helps you shape your future. That’s really up to you. Most places, I think… there are a lot of universal truths, but in most spiritual practices I’ve seen, [happiness] is always in someone else’s hands. Not yours. In this, it’s completely up to you. You just have to decide to not give in, not give up, and keep fighting.

What one thing do you recommend to us to help us be happy, regardless of our personal spirituality?

Trust that everything that has occurred in your life has gotten you to this point. Right now. And be confident in what you’re going to do moving forward. Find something that works for you. I would say, “try this practice,” but you can try whatever you want. Find something that makes you happy, and go in that direction.

Great. Thanks so much for your time, Shanita!

Of course!

If you want to learn more about this amazing practice, you can check out the SGI website at http://www.sgi-usa.org. You can also check out your local SGI center, there’s one in almost every city. Seriously. There was one down the block from me and I had no idea.

Feature photo: B. Beeler/ VIA Flickr.