Rangatiratanga--The Work of Keeping True to One's Place
by Ngapaki Emery
New Zealand/ Aotearoa
Ko Tainui te waka, ko taupiri te maunga, ko waikato te awa, ko Waikato te iwi, ko Turangawaewae te marae, ko Ngapaki Emery ahau.
For those of you who may not know, the above is called a pepeha. The purpose of a pepeha is to make links with what is inside the room and what is outside the room. Waikato is a tribe of people I belong to. Tainui is the canoe that some of my ancestors came across the Pacific Seas on to this land. Taupiri is the mountain that is special for the people of Waikato. It is also the resting place of many. Waikato is the river that we acknowledge. It gives sustenance. Turangawaewae is the meeting place.
As I warmed myself up to writing this experience, many things came up that I thought of sharing. I think that my pepeha is the key to what I want to share. I am going to talk with you all about the ways my Buddhist practice has completely changed my relationship to myself and the way I walk in the world as Māori.
Since receiving my Gohonzon in 2007, I have had a turbulent relationship with it. Only in the last six months has my practice of chanting started to sit right in me, in my heart and in my puku, my stomach. Before this I had bursts of chanting but was not very consistent. Whenever things were going wrong for me, I would chant. Always when I chanted things got better. My life-condition would change and I could take on whatever obstacles came or watch them pass.
Yet somewhere deep inside me, there was a belief that this practice was not mine. When I looked around in the meetings, there weren't many people who looked like me. Did I belong? Would I be accepted here? Was this right for me? I also struggled with the idea that I should be looking for things in my own culture to sustain my spirituality.
My mother and father were brought up in a world that was rooted in the values of a Māori worldview and they did a great job of conveying this world to my brothers and sisters and me. We were taught to appreciate that there is wairua and mauri--roughly translated as spirit and life-force in everything, every interaction. However, my parents also were part of the generation that was punished for speaking Māori at school. This caused a very strained and paradoxical relationship in our household. In keeping a relationship with our Māoritanga, we were encouraged to be "Māori" but not so encouraged to speak Te Reo Māori. We were encouraged to follow and study things like history and accounting rather than things Māori, mostly because my parents, particularly my father, believed that following Māori ways would not financially support us in the world.
Looking back, I can see where they were coming from. They had had it ingrained in them since they were small that speaking their own language was inferior. Because a people's language is the heart of the culture, devaluing the language meant devaluing the customary ways as well. Though my parents struggled, they still managed to instil in me a great respect for the places, people and traditions from which we came. The effect this had on me was a deep yearning to be with the Māori side of me. To find a way of walking in a world that generally holds predominantly Western ways of thinking, while still holding onto myself and the values my parents taught me.
As a result, I was conflicted about my Buddhist practice. For a lot of the time I stayed isolated, trying to practice on my own. I thought in some way that if I chanted on my own, that I could secretly hold this practice and avoid looking like a "Buddhist". I didn't want to be labelled, but I now think it was more than that. I didn't want to lose my Māoritanga--something I hold so dear and precious in me, something my parents struggled to hold onto themselves and then pass onto me. I didn't want to lose this gift that was given to me.
I was searching to find the ability to hold onto my Māori-ness in a world that holds a different value system. Also, to grow up in my own country not being able to speak my Māori language, things like this fuelled a frustration, hurt and power in me. I felt these feelings not just for me but also for the generations before me that had struggled and that had to adapt to survive.
Sometimes when I chanted, images came into my mind--my imaginings of the past, of the history of our country. A deep hurt would arise and then anger and then sadness. I feel that the Gohonzon was really giving me the chance to face all of what was inside me.
My confusion caused me to go on a path where for one period I would try to suppress this power, this energy of the anger and hurt. But inside I was hating myself for it. I was so afraid of my own power. I wanted to protect myself and others because I had seen what my anger could do. It wasn't nice, so all I could think of at that time was to shut it off but every time I chanted it came up really strongly.
Why did I continue to go back to my Gohonzon? After a year had passed, I asked myself this question because I didn't have to go back. Nobody would know but me. I wasn't proving anything to anyone. This is something I love about SGI and being a part of this practice. I never felt pressure from anyone to do anything. It was all up to me. I think something deep in me knew that I would always have my Gohonzon. There were times when I thought "This box with this piece of paper in it is useless. Why am I chanting to this thing?" All these dark voices saying negative things. I moved house many times and each time it came with me. It's been the one constant in my life.
I was afraid that if I fully committed and admitted that this practice was important to me that I would lose part of myself. I would lose my Māoritanga.
About two months ago, I went to a friend, who said to me, "Ngapaki, this practice could not take away your Māoritanga. It will make you be more Māori." It had taken me a long time to be able to broach this subject and was so glad to hear that.
From that point, so many things have revealed themselves to me. The power I have in me--the force behind all of that anger and hurt--I now put that energy into my chanting. The Gohonzon has allowed me to see that I don't need to suppress or hide or feel ashamed of the hurt and pain. It wasn't bringing it in front of me to taunt me or punish me, it was bringing it out to allow me to accept it and then evolve it, transform it for the better. This understanding has shifted my life and has flowed out to affect my whole life, especially my relationships with my partner, with my family and friends and most importantly, with myself.
I don't feel like anything has been resolved. Because of the nature of this practice I feel like that is not even the question. Nothing needs resolving. I only need to be able to have a relationship with something that's forever growing and changing in me as I evolve, as the world evolves. When I read Nichiren's writing "The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon" it helped me understand why the darkness that sits inside me is not something to be pushed away or to be ashamed of but is the fuel to transform myself, so that I am a person in the world who is helping to grow it in positive ways.
This is something that I have been learning about on my course as a directing student. To be a director, my teacher said, is to project yourself out into the world. A director is also a "disturber," a person who affects change by the way they disturb. What kind of change do I want to effect? Positive change: change with the seed of compassion in it. It doesn't mean I have to be "nicey nice" or "fluffy". It means--and this is something this practice has taught me--that I can use my power for good. I don't have to suppress it but I do have to be conscious about how I use it and to what end.
In closing, this practice for me is very Māori. I love the ritual of it, the rigour and the simplicity. I feel very fortunate that this tipuna or ancestor, Nichiren, developed it and fought for it to survive, as did his disciples who carried it forth, such as SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, who made it possible for us here in Aotearoa to practice it so we can grow the peace in ourselves and our world.
[Courtesy, SGI-New Zealand]