Kelly Onukwe was raised Cherubim and Seraphim - or the white garment people, as he fondly refers to his parent’s religion- attended Catholic school, and was confirmed in the Anglican Church, before he decided to become a Buddhist.
It was sometime in the winter of 1982 when Mr. Onukwe found Buddhism in a train station in Washington D.C., while he was doing his masters programme. A man walked up to him and asked, “Have you heard of Nam myoho Renghe kyo?” It was strange, but after he asked a few questions, he collected some magazines and they decided to meet two days later at the same station. It was that man who took Mr. Onukwe to the community centre for the first time.
“I was expecting to see people with long beards… something like a Buddhist monastery, but it wasn’t so,” he said. “I saw people in mini skirts, you know, regular people, like you and me.”
Delita Whitfield was 18 years old when she unknowingly attended her first Buddhist function. The British national, who lives in Nigeria, said that she was just having fun at first, but when she got home and actually read the brochures, “something just clicked. I thought ‘I quite believe in this.’”
What are you then?
Being Buddhist in the United States and the United Kingdom though, is quite different from being Buddhist in Nigeria.
For the most part, every Nigerian is Muslim or Christian with a few traditionalists and closet atheists tucked in-between. So when people find out that Mr. Onukwe is Buddhist, the usual response is, “like Hare Krishna?” Hare Krishna, an international Hindu group, has nothing to do with Buddhism, but many Nigerians mix up the two religions.
When Ms. Whitfield came to Nigeria eight years ago, she said she was immediately struck by the fact that everybody seemed to go to church on Sundays- and they inevitably invited her to join them.
“People invite you to church, and I say no, I don’t go to church. Are you a Muslim? I say no. Then what are you then? I’m a Buddhist. Lots of people have never heard of Buddhism and they have the fright of their life,” she said.
Ms. Whitfield, who works with several non-governmental organisations in Nigeria, including WOTCLEF- Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation and NAPTIP- National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons, said many of the people the organisation helped assumed her a Christian.
“They just thought [Buddhism] was something really evil and they were quite surprised by the way that I behaved - not to say that my behaviour is all that - but they said I seemed like a Christian,” she said.
A different Buddhism in Nigeria
Both Ms. Whitfield and Mr. Onukwe are Nichiren Buddhists. Nichiren Buddhism is a sect of the religion that originated in Japan. The central tenet is based on the thought that the Lotus Sutra or teaching of Buddha is the most important of all his teachings. They chant “Nam myoho Renghe kyo”, a summation of the Lotus teaching, during meditation.
“You can sit down for five or ten minutes, or four or five hours, if you so desire, to chant Nam myoho Renghe kyo,” said Mr. Onukwe.
The chant roughly translated, means devotion to the law of cause and effect, which is the one basic ‘commandment’ in Buddhism. “It’s up to you at every moment to think properly about what you’re doing…whatever cause you’ve made, you are bound to get the effect,” he continued.
Buddhism is generally referred to as the fourth largest religion in the world and it was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, in Northern India between the 6th and 4th century BCE. Despite this, there are actually no exact estimates of how many Buddhist there are worldwide, and even ambitious estimates of 1.6 million are not very large compared to Christianity and Islam’s numbers. In Nigeria, the statistics are even smaller.
Mr. Onukwe is a member of Sokka Gakkai International or SGI, a lay Nichiren Buddhist organisation with its headquarters in Japan. According to his estimates, there are roughly 60 or 70 SGI members in Abuja, and even more Buddhists, but from different sects. They usually meet for two hours on Sundays at member’s houses. Sunday has no special significance, but it was convenient for most people. They chant for a few minutes, and spend the rest of their time discussing life.
However, Ms. Whitfield has noticed that Buddhism is practiced a little bit differently here than abroad. The main reason, according to her, is that everyone comes from a Christian background, and so they still carry the ideas of their previous faith with them, such as the giving of tithes, which is not compulsory in Buddhism.
There also seems to be a lot of emphasis on material things. During the weekly meetings people are asked to think of three things they want, “People want money, they want to be rich, they want a new car and they want xyz,” said Ms. Whitfield. “They firmly just believe in, if something happens, [then] this is a really great faith, but it can happen if you’re a Muslim or a Christian. You wish certain things to happen, they can happen.”
Religion is a highly sensitive issue in Nigeria, and while Ms. Whitfield is not ashamed of her faith, she is also very cautious. She admitted that at first, she was not very comfortable, when asked to do opening prayers at various functions.
“I was a bit not so comfortable in the public domain…but you’ve got to use wisdom sometimes. Here, in a room full of about 300 people, 40 percent are Muslim and the rest, Christian, and you get up there and you’re trying to say the prayers without saying ‘in Jesus’ name’ and ‘in Allah’s name’,” she said. “You’re very careful in how you say, I’m a Buddhist. People get very sensitive and think you’re against their religion.”
Mr. Onukwe also said he has faced some hostility, but it does not faze him. “I definitely tell them I’m a Buddhist… to be sincere, I don’t fell threatened at all,” he said.
Thankfully, none of the ugly reactions have come from their families. Mr. Onukwe’s parents, who are Cherubim and Seraphim, and his wife, who is born again Christian, were both doubtful about his faith initially. “They saw me as a normal human being, listened to my opinion, saw the way I did things, and felt at ease with it,” he said.
Ms. Whitfield, who grew up in what she described as a very liberal household, said there was never any issue.
“I wasn’t doing anything out of the norm really, so to them, it was just my belief, and they just let it go. I’ve had no real objection from family or close friends in that sense,” she said.
Both say that Buddhism has changed their lives. For Ms. Whitfield, her faith is one of the forces that drive her passion for humanitarian work, the other being her parents. However, she was also pointed out that goodness is not specific to any religion. “These are the tenets of the Buddhist religion and you agree with it and you live your life accordingly. I think it’s the same as being a Muslim or a Christian. It’s just many people don’t follow through,” she said.
“I do this,” she puts her hands together and bows her head, “you may go ‘hallelujah’, and the other one may be bowing. It’s all the same at the end of the day and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just what you believe in and how you live your life.”