Interview

Prayer and Unity Lead to Powerful Growth

District Profile: River District, of downtown New Orleans.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/CrackerClips


SGI-USA’s River District is located in the heart of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and home to some of the richest culture in the United States.

River District members have been fighting heart and soul to create a kosen-rufu bastion in downtown New Orleans, and their years of effort is bearing fruit. Discussion meeting attendance has blossomed to an average of more than 30 members and guests. And in 2016 alone, 11 people have received the Gohonzon.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, members gather for chanting sessions to call forth the bodhisattvas of New Orleans. In addition, district leaders keep in close communication by reporting each time they visit members and have dialogues with friends about Buddhism.

River District members have made significant strides in developing downtown New Orleans into a land of harmony amid diversity, actualizing the principle of “many in body, one in mind.”

Members of River District after another joyful discussion meeting, October 18. Photo: Martha Manzanares.
Members of River District after another joyful discussion meeting, October 18. Photo: Martha Manzanares.

Q: HOW HAS RIVER DISTRICT DEVELOPED INTO SUCH A STRONG FORCE FOR KOSEN-RUFU?

 

Thomasine Bartlett
District Women’s Leader

riverdistrict_thomasine-bartlettA: I’ve been practicing in New Orleans since 1977. I was shocked to find a religion I could practice that still let me be myself.

There weren’t hard-and-fast rules about behavior other than trying to uphold the basic philosophy of Buddhism that all people have the Buddha nature.

In the beginning, I didn’t see tangible benefits, but I became a great deal more confident in myself. I’d always wanted to do something to better the world, and I now knew what to do: kosen-rufu!

In the mid-1980s, I began chanting to develop a district in downtown New Orleans. While the city has a lot of history, especially as the birthplace of jazz and where Mardi Gras happens, it continues to fall victim to segregation and mistrust.

I vowed to develop a district that would bring people together and create beautiful harmony amid diversity. We finally established River District, which covers downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 7 a.m., I host district chanting sessions for the unity of the district and to call forth many more Bodhisattvas of the Earth in New Orleans. Whenever I chant, I open the windows and take a good look at the neighborhood. I then chant, picturing each Nam-myoho-renge-kyo I recite penetrating the whole community. I imagine ripples of harmony and beauty spreading throughout the city.

Through our prayer as a district, we continue developing unity for kosen-rufu. As a result, we have attracted many youth and new members, welcoming some 30 to 40 people to our monthly discussion meetings.

Like any district, we do have challenges, but our united spirit to do kosen-rufu in New Orleans as SGI President Ikeda’s disciples always helps us find a way forward. Our district has become the example of harmony amid diversity in New Orleans that I have been chanting for all these many decades. I can now see that no effort is ever wasted.

 

Tim Foushee
District Men’s Leader

riverdistrict_tim-fousheeA: My greatest benefit of practicing Nichiren Buddhism is having grown up in the organization. My family joined the SGI-USA in 1979 in Philadelphia, when I was 3. I attended so many activities that I feel as though the pioneer members raised me, and I became a cultured person, who could talk to people of all backgrounds and relate to all kinds of situations. At age 10, I started playing drums in the young men’s Brass Band, traveling all around the country to perform in front of thousands. I never would’ve experienced that without the SGI. Though I was not always a model Buddhist, no one judged me or gave up on me.

Tight communication and united prayer have been the key to our district’s development. We communicate every day about the actions we are taking to support the members.

For example, after we visit members, we take a photo with them and share it with the district leaders. We strive to have the same spirit as President Ikeda to not leave a single member behind. As a result, we have 30 to 40 people at our discussion meetings, and about 20 at our study meetings.

Each district leader is unique. Our district women’s and young women’s leaders are university professors, while I’m known in the New Orleans club scene as “The Buddha on Bourbon Street.” Some of us introduce many people to Buddhism, others focus on visiting the members and guests, while others bring strong Buddhist study to the table. We complement one another beautifully.

Based on our vow for kosen-rufu, we unite around our strengths and have developed a strong team. River District is truly a family. Whenever we have familylike struggles, before pointing fingers or getting self-righteous, we take it to the Gohonzon and discuss matters as Buddhas, making our unity ever stronger in the process.

riverdistrict_discussionmeeting

Four Keys to Our Progress:

1. Strong and consistent prayer to call forth Bodhisattvas of the Earth in New Orleans and for each member to have a faith experience.
2. Constant reporting among district leaders about daily efforts to encourage members and share Buddhism.
3. Strong unity among the district leaders to complement one another’s strengths.
4. Giving the youth as many opportunities as possible to express ideas and lead meetings.

riverdistrict_dialogues

William Moody
District Young Men’s Leader

riverdistrict_william-moodyA: I began practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 2013. Before then, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, consuming lots of alcohol and using a number of drugs recreationally. After I received the Gohonzon, I felt more vibrant and alive, and I put my life on a healthier trajectory. Chanting consistently made me feel happier, I developed a strong sense of purpose and identity, and I learned to overcome my tendency to seek happiness outside myself. I simply lost the desire to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The district has been the place where I have developed my faith, especially after taking responsibility as the district young men’s leader. Having the responsibility to study and support the members always helps me whenever I find myself in a rut.

I have seen amazing development in the district, especially with 11 people receiving the Gohonzon this year alone! The key to our growth has been strong and consistent prayer. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we gather at Thomasine’s home to chant, and every Tuesday evening we hold a meeting, which usually turns into an introductory meeting with a handful of guests.

In addition, one young men’s division member who received the Gohonzon in March 2016 has been helping me encourage the young men in the district. He brings out guys whom I haven’t even been able to reach and is now a unit leader.

I’m determined for River District to lead kosen-rufu in America by having new Bodhisattvas of the Earth flock to our district and by raising many more capable youth.

 

Elena Daniele
District Young Women’s Leader

riverdistrict_elena-danieleA: This district is my foundation. When I started attending meetings as a guest in Boston in 2011, one of the district leaders asked if I was chanting. I told her, “No.” I was more attracted to Buddhism intellectually, as a beautiful philosophy, rather than to the religious aspect of it. But the members and their stories kept me going to meetings.

She wholeheartedly encouraged me, saying: “This is a practice. To understand it, you actually have to do it.” I have since received the Gohonzon and have seen wonderful benefits through my practice. The members of my first district in Boston supported me so warmly.

In 2013, I was offered a job at Tulane University in New Orleans as an Italian language instructor and moved here. I immediately jumped into River District activities but missed all the members back in Boston. SGI President Ikeda’s guidance that always gives me hope is “Continue to ascend step by step, one by one, the mountains large and small that rise before us each day” (p. 16). I began chanting to win in my present circumstances and support my district to become more youthful and dynamic.

As a district young women’s leader, I have made visiting members and talking with them one-to-one my priority. I try to get to know each of the young women on a personal level and develop bonds of trust and friendship. At times I feel overwhelmed with my leadership responsibilities and SGI activities, but I always remember Sensei’s guidance to challenge the task in front of me. This year, many youth have joined our district, and they just seem to understand the practice right away!

Rather than living in fear of my circumstances, through my Buddhist practice and leadership opportunities, I have found a solid philosophy that enables me to live with a positive attitude. This change in attitude has been my greatest benefit, and I couldn’t have developed this without the unconditional support of my fellow SGI members.

(pp. 26–29)