I walked into the Buddhist meeting and everybody was speaking at once. Over and over they repeated the same phrase.
At the front of the room a white man in his 50s leading the chanting. He had the swiftly rolling enunciation of an experienced auctioneer calling out the current bid to a crowd of buyers, but the words were foreign to me.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind and handed me a glossy business card. It had a picture of a lotus flower and the words “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō”.
“This is the chant,” he told me helpfully, “feel free to join in”.
“Thank you so much,” I replied, “that’s really kind, what language is this in?”
“It’s classical Chinese,” he said as he returned to his seat to resume chanting.
The “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” chant continued for some ten minutes before the man with the microphone stood up and welcomed us all. He told us to move our chairs into a circle so that we could all introduce ourselves to one another.
An ethnically diverse group of about forty people followed his instructions and we each went around and said something about ourselves.
I was here with ten students and a professor from Wheaton College Graduate School, near Chicago. It was part of a class I was co-teaching with Dr. Rick Richardson. Rick invited me in 2013 to help him reshape and co-teach the Global Apologetics module for Wheaton’s MA students. We filmed that class in a TV studio with a live class and it has since become part of Wheaton’s distance learning program.
This time, though, we were teaching the class outside a studio (in a three-day intensive format) and we took full advantage of the flexibility this afforded us.
Rick and I are both passionate about understanding the people who we are seeking to engage with the story of Jesus. Listening well so that we can communicate helpfully. So, we figured, what better way to train the class in the art of contextually sensitive apologetics than to spend half a day of our time together out of the classroom.
So on the second day of class we headed to two economically struggling neighbourhoods in inner-city Chicago – one predominantly Latino, the other mainly African American – to consider what apologetics looks like in situations of extreme poverty and urban decay. Church leaders here sat down with us and walked us through their thinking and practice.
Then we relocated to the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Centre in the city centre. Tuesday nights are when this community run introductory sessions for newcomers. We were, essentially, attending a Buddhist Alpha Course. Complete with personal testimonies, vision-setting videos, and open Q&A time, and optional experience of chanting.
“Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” turns out to mean (broadly) “I devote myself to the wonderful law of cause and effect” – in other words: live in a way which changes the course of this and future incarnations. And chanting it has, those present claimed, transformed their lives.
It was a fascinating experience partly because you learn far more about a religion through a field visit than you ever could through books or lectures. It takes you into the heart of their practices and concerns.
I love this kind of approach to education. Learning in context. Perhaps the most tiresome aspect of much Christian education – in the church and in the academy – is that it rarely strays for the template of sitting and listening to a person talk.
But the outcome of this visit was many long conversations about what we appreciated in Soka Gakkai Buddhism (there were a good number of things) and also what specifically we would want to question and challenge about it (since the visit was a listening exercise, we didn’t give much voice to our own views when there). It also generated empathy by keeping us from treating “Buddhism” as abstract concept; we saw the faces of the Buddhists, experienced their kindness and hospitality, and now have concrete people and life stories which will spring to mind next time the terms “Buddhist” or “Soka Gakkai” reach our ears or eyes.
It also provided students already active in communicating about the Christian faith the opportunity to enter a context where members of another faith were gently trying to commend their own religion. The evangelists became the evangelized for the evening and we were saying, essentially, “see how it feels, and reflect on your own practice”.
Now, for their final paper in this module, we are asking all the MA students to repeat this exercise in their own setting: They need to understand their own context, reflect on it, and consider how they might engage with the people around them.
Perhaps it would be worth you considering something similar in your own setting? How might you help people not just to speak well of Jesus, but first also to listen to those with whom they will be doing this?