"You're a Buddhist? But you're not bald!"
"Yea, you're not Asian either!" a skeptical onlooker would usually add.
"If you're so Buddhist, where's your orange bathrobe?" a third kid would say before riding off on his bike.
Growing up in a Buddhist family in Virginia in the '80s, I was often on the defensive about my family's beliefs. It was not unusual to be shunned by other kids because I did not believe in God the same way they'd been taught in church. As a teenager, I eventually got tired of such peer pressure and stopped standing up for my beliefs. In one neighborhood where we lived in the early 90s, I convinced every kid on our block that the sound of my father chanting inside our house was actually just noise coming from a broken water heater.
Although I was raised as a member of the Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA), the most diverse Buddhist community in the U.S. with more than 500 chapters and some 100 centers across the country, it was not until I turned 17 and started practicing Buddhism on my own that I realized just how deeply Buddhist philosophy resonates with America's loftiest ideals.
A new web series titled Buddhist in America is a case in point. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Jeremy Joffee, the creative director behind Buddhist in America, in order to learn more about this series.
1) Thanks again Jeremy for taking the time to share more with Huffington Post's readers about Buddhist in America. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the series and about Soka Gakkai International-USA?
SGI-USA, or Soka Gakkai International, is a world peace Buddhist organization that teaches the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to bring forth the courage, compassion, and wisdom within all people to surmount life's obstacles. Life is a tough drama with lots of ups and downs. The Buddhist in America series was created to show actual life stories of SGI-USA members using Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to overcome the difficulties of life.
2) What is the core message of Buddhist in America?
Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the SGI, states, "A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind." This idea of human revolution is at the core of each Buddhist in America episode. Every story illustrates the principle that when we change from within, we can make a big difference in our environment. When it comes to society, it's often easy to feel small, like "what I do doesn't matter," but Buddhism teaches that your life is as vast and as precious as the universe itself. Therefore, you should never give in to degrading yourself. Each of us has the strength within to do something great with our lives.
3) What are some of the biggest misconceptions you have encountered about Buddhism in America? How do you think this series is turning some of those misconceptions over on their heads?
The biggest misconceptions I've encountered is that Buddhism is something exclusive, like for priests or monks, or that you have to go off somewhere special for enlightenment. Buddhism is for all people. Enlightenment is something that occurs from within and can therefore be found wherever you choose to hang your hat, so to speak.
4) What have been some of the most memorable responses to this series, particularly from non-Buddhists?
One of the most memorable reactions was in response to the Hassan Manning episode. An African American viewer didn't know it was possible to be a Buddhist if you are Black. It was explained to her that anyone - regardless of race - can be a Buddhist, and she was then introduced to local SGI-USA members where she lives.
5) Finally, what do you hope people will ultimately take away when they watch Buddhist in America?
I want people to come away with hope after watching a Buddhist in America episode. Each episode shares a story about a regular person overcoming their obstacles through the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and taking action to face their obstacles. I want people to understand and feel that they have the same potential to win in their lives and the strength to make it happen.
Find all episodes of Buddhist in America plus more at www.youtube.com/user/SGIUSAmedia
To learn more about SGI-USA, visit http://www.sgi-usa.org