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Celebrating in Earnest
Buddhists Mark the Start of a New Year With Joy and a Strong Sense of Purpose

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

For many American Buddhists, New Year's involves much more than eggnog and a casual resolution to lose a few pounds.

For some, the holiday means going to temple, reciting the words of monks who lived centuries ago, ringing a symbolic bell and making "determinations" -- seriously beefed-up resolutions that are tacked up on the home altar.

The influence of Asia's intense New Year's traditions is particularly pronounced for Buddhist groups rooted in Japan, where New Year's goes on for days and is the biggest event of the year. Among those groups is the Soka Gakkai, believed to be the largest Buddhist sect in the United States. Soka Gakkai followers receive a New Year's theme each year from their president, Daisaku Ikeda. He declared 2007 "the year of advancement and victory," and 2008 is "the year of capable people and development."

For followers, today is a time to chant, meditate and set lofty goals. More people go to temple today than on any other day of the year.

"Resisting aggression -- when a person is irritating you, that's an open invitation to challenge yourself to be more compassionate," said Yoko Feinman, 22, a Soka Gakkai follower from Silver Spring. "That's how to create this grand scheme of world peace, by striving to create harmony with others. That's what I'm putting down on my to-do list for the year."

Feinman, a dancer who graduated from the University of Maryland last month, also put a note in a book she recites chants from twice daily. It reminds her to "stay engaged and not slacken" -- a tendency she said she has sometimes in her dancing and her life in general.

Feinman will be with her family today at the temple and community center in Mount Rainier, where dozens of members will chant from the scripture known as the Lotus Sutra and read aloud the New Year's letter of Nichiren, a 13th-century monk who is their core teacher. The letter talks about the importance of understanding New Year's, and the way nature continually produces meaning and beauty from things that seem dark or even dead.

"The pure lotus flower blooms out of the muddy pond, the fragrant sandalwood grows from the soil, the graceful cherry blossoms come forth from trees . . ," reads the letter, which says "a person who celebrates this day will accumulate virtue and be loved by all."

Feinman's mother, Nobue, is from Japan and all week has been cooking New Year's dishes, all of which are symbolic. The dishes include sweet black beans, called kuromame. The last part of the word, "mame," also sounds like the word for a diligent, hardworking person, something you are supposed to be in the New Year. Another dish, herring wrapped in seaweed, is called kobu maki, a play on "yoro kobu," which means joy.

Jo Reed, 60, a lobbyist from Alexandria and a member of Soka Gakkai for 30 years, puts her New Year's determinations on her home altar. She said they are profoundly different from resolutions, which remind her of her pre-Buddhist days, when the holiday was more about parties and having the right dress and date.

"New Year's is so powerful [for Soka Gakkai followers] because they are filled with hope. People come to temple not with the attitude, 'Here I go, another awful year ahead,' or some vain resolution, but a sense that 'my life has power,' that 'I have the capacity to produce change,' " she said.

Reed's list of determinations includes to study Buddhism more consistently, take better care of her health and reach out more to young people. Her list grows out of her understanding of Ikeda's 2008 theme. "It means making consistent efforts to help people grow, both in their faith and in how that manifests itself in daily life," she said.

Clark Strand, a contributing editor of the American Buddhist magazine Tricycle, said Soka Gakkai is the most active Buddhist group in the world. New Year's determinations are so important, he said, because Soka Gakkai is centered so much on "real, verifiable goals. Their teaching says you have to show proof that your Buddhism is working in your life."

Strand, a former Zen monk who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., said he now identifies with Soka Gakkai. His New Year's determination is to write a book about what he calls "the Buddhist Manifesto" -- something he feels all religions will and should evolve to emulate.

Buddhists "really represent a new paradigm of religious worship, because they think religion ought to serve life, not life serve religion," he said. "Life serving religion has been a disaster. People will do extreme irrational things to themselves and others in the name of religion. What if you flip it around and hold religion accountable? Is it improving my relations, it is making me more peaceful, is it serving my community?"

He added, "My determination for 2008 is to clear away obstacles" to write the book.

When it comes to Buddhists and New Year's, it is not possible to draw clear lines between national culture and religion. Buddhism formed differently across Asia, and New Year's is marked in many ways, including at different times of the year.

Among those celebrating today are members of the Buddhist Churches of America, established in Hawaii by Japanese monks in the 1800s. Members trace their roots to 13th-century Japan, although today nearly half of its members are not ethnically Japanese.

For BCA members, New Year's celebrations began last night. At temples such as the one in Fairfax Station, they rang the temple bell 108 times, an important number in Buddhism, to signify the impediments to enlightenment, and they listened to a lecture about the impediments, which they also call "defilements" or "afflictions." Unlike Soka Gakkai followers, BCA members don't focus on determinations.

Today, there is a traditional service and a New Year's potluck, which shows how Buddhism is adapting to America.

"When our temple started 25 years ago, we ate Japanese American food. Today, you find black-eyed peas, ham, collard greens. Not much sushi anymore," said Kennon Nakamura, 62, who lives in Burke and attends the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Fairfax City.

The services have become shorter, Nakamura said, "so we can get to New Year's parties."

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