The Colgate Scene
Key to the Universe
In his new book, Woody Hochswender '72 shows how "practical Buddhism" can make your world better
|by Sally Baker|
For most Westerners, Buddhism is largely a mystery. It is monks in saffron robes living in quiet isolation. It is a religion whose ultimate goal -- reached through years or even lifetimes of stringent self-denial -- is personal enlightenment and inner peace. It seems to have no place in the day-to-day lives of those who race from a snatched breakfast to a 10-hour workday to the kids' soccer practice to housework to bed.
Woody Hochswender '72, coauthor, with Greg Martin and Ted Morino, of The Buddha in Your Mirror: Practical Buddhism and the Search for Self (Middleway Press 2001), means not only to dislodge our notions of Buddhism itself but also to show us how its practice can fit into -- and vastly improve -- our lives and those of everyone around us. It apparently is a message many people want to receive: the book is in its fourth printing, is being translated into Spanish and Korean and has appeared on the Boston Globe and New York Post bestseller lists. It also has been on the Barnes and Noble "Top 100" list for several months.
Hochswender practices Nichiren Buddhism, named for the thirteenth-century Japanese monk on whose teachings it is based. There are several things that set the Nichiren school apart from other forms of Buddhism, he says, but one of the most important is its accessibility. "This is the most condensed form of Buddhism. It's so succinct. Anyone can do it," Hochswender said. "Buddhism throughout history has been somewhat of an elitist pursuit. We have everyone from cabdrivers to Harvard Law School graduates practicing [Nichiren] Buddhism." Hochswender mentions Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda and musician Herbie Hancock (who wrote the book's introduction) as prominent Nichiren practitioners.
Hochswender first became interested in Buddhism at Colgate. He bought a copy of A Flower Does Not Talk, a collection of essays on Zen Buddhism by Zenkei Shibayama, and was one of a small group of students who liked to hang out in Chapel House talking about enlightenment. After graduation he kicked around New York City for a few years, working variously as a cab driver, as an electric yo-yo salesman, on the UPS night shift ("with all the hookers in Times Square") and as a bicycle mechanic in Central Park. He was trying to write, but not very hard: "Like many would-be writers," he said, he wasn't able to admit that "it's all in the doing."
Then, in 1975, he met a woman who introduced him to Nichiren Buddhism. Hochswender is certain that the encounter led directly to his future success. In order to understand how that could be, it helps to read the basic introduction to the school's history provided in The Buddha in Your Mirror.
Through study of Buddhism and its sages, the writers say, Nichiren determined that the Lotus Sutra, a teaching of Buddha, contained the law of life -- similar to the laws sought by modern physicists to explain how the universe works. Nichiren also declared that the Chinese characters of the sutra's title contained within them the eight volumes, 28 chapters and 69,384 characters of the entire sutra. Therefore, he said, chanting the sutra's title (in Sanskrit, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) has the power to call forth our higher selves.
Nichiren Buddhism says that everyone has a "Buddha nature" inside. "We have no commandments or systematized morality," Hochswender said. "However, we believe that Buddhism does give rise to the most enlightened way of conducting oneself in the world. The pursuit of enlightenment, or Buddhahood, is itself an ennobling activity. We think the only way really to change the world is individual by individual. So our goal is world peace through individual enlightenment."
Children's Buddha, Nagano, Japan
Nichiren Buddhism puts a premium on personal responsibility. No matter what
happens to you, it says, you made it happen. If you have a lousy boss, well,
you're choosing to work for her (and by the way, your behavior is influencing
hers). If you get on an airplane, you are accepting responsibility for the fact
that it may crash. It sounds harsh, but the point, the authors say, is that
there is no such thing as coincidence. Buddhism recognizes an ironclad law of
cause and effect. And for those who take this idea into themselves, it is a
source of power. "It goes against the intuition of Westerners," Hochswender
said. "We think that we are at the mercy of the environment. But the
environment mirrors the inner lives of people who live there. You make your
The way a body of water lying deep underground needs a well to tap it, we need a tool to tap our highest selves, said Hochswender, and that tool is chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. "[T]he chant works whether you understand it or not, whether you believe it works or not," he and his co-authors write in The Buddha in Your Mirror. "In fact, many people begin chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the express intent of proving to friends that it doesn't work -- and, invariably, they are surprised to find out that it does." They compare the chant to Einstein's Theory of Relativity. "This is a foundation stone of our view of the cosmos. But do we really understand it? . . . Though general readers may have only a vague sense of what these terms mean, they are well aware that the symbols Einstein used -- E, m, c -- stand for concepts of physics and mathematics that, although abstract, relate to the realities of time, space, energy and matter in our world. The same holds true for each of the characters in Nam-myoho-renge-kyo."
That was the message Hochswender got on the streets of New York 26 years ago. He was skeptical, but he began to chant. Soon after, he got a job writing dust jacket blurbs for Avon Books. He moved from there to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where he was a writer and editor. Then came stints as features editor for Harper's Bazaar, style reporter and columnist for The New York Times and senior editor of Esquire. Now a writer who works from home, he has written two books -- Men's Wardrobe and Men in Style: The Golden Age of Fashion from Esquire -- in addition to The Buddha in Your Mirror. He is a frequent contributor of stories and reviews to national publications. In the last two months, for example, he has published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about Yves St. Laurent's retirement and a New York Times story about a guitar camp run by Jorma Kaukonen of the rock groups Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. "I started practicing Buddhism, and that's when I started getting my publishing jobs," he said. "It turned my life around."
Hochswender and his Buddha in Your Mirror coauthors acknowledge that eyebrows will rise at the idea that chanting a Sanskrit phrase "invariably" improves the life of the chanter. But the book is not an apologia for the difficulty we may have in believing the principles it sets forth. It is a practical, how-to guide to Nichiren Buddhism; the motivation to appreciate its fine points must come from the reader.
"We in the West always want to see the proof first, and then we'll go and do something," Hochswender said. "The Buddha said no, take the law and use it in your life and prove it through use . . . . In Christian thought, faith is belief -- the key word being belief -- that God exists, that Christ died on the cross, that there's a trinity, etcetera. Buddha asks only that you take the chant and try it. Chant. See what happens."
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