This article describes a process, learned through trial and error over many years of introducing new people. Everyone develops a method that works for them but these are some areas to consider.
The dance of shakabaku begins when you first share Buddhism with another person. It seems like a dance because you present something, then watch and see how the person responds. You take the next step depending on their response. What you say will be quite different whether you are talking to someone who knows nothing about Buddhism, has had experience with another form, or has been practicing an entirely different religion.
The person in front of you is always going to want to know why you practice, and what Buddhism has done for you. It helps to answer the question about why they should practice.
The simplest answer is to tell them we chant to live an absolutely happy life, where you can be happy deep inside no matter what might be happening on the outer levels of life. Or you might share an experience of your own. Remember, even though you might be new, you are the one person who is an authority on how Buddhism has benefited your life.
You can tell them that you do a chanting practice. The idea of chanting is going to seem strange, so you might want to show them a card so they can see the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Then pronounce it slowly. They may want to know what the words mean. A simple explanation is best. Some people will try to say it with you, others might say they want to read something first.
Giving Them Something to Read
You might offer to bring them a pamphlet, which will give them some idea of the basics. Giving them The Winning Life or Roadmap to Happiness is one way to see if they are interested in pursuing the discussion. You can give them a pamphlet or they can get these materials at www.sgi-usa.org at the online bookstore. If they read it they may have enough interest to take the next step. You’ll know by the conversation when you follow up.
They may want to chant first and learn some of the basics later. Either way is fine as each supports the other part of the practice.
Following Up is Important
Follow-up on a regular basis is vital when you have a brand new person. Some people are afraid that their sponsee will feel they are being pushy if they call them. Many people’s experience is that a newcomer is grateful that you have cared enough to follow up. Ways of doing this might include: having coffee and building a relationship, letting them know when there is a meeting and the topic for discussion.
Don’t Be Discouraged
Frequently newcomers don’t follow through for one reason or another. You will need to develop patience and perseverance. Never take what your sponsee does or doesn’t do, personally. Not everyone is going to follow through and not everyone is going to practice. Your job is to offer them the opportunity. Their karma will determine what they do with it. You need to remember that no matter what your sponsee does, you are benefiting just by doing the work.
Building a Relationship
First, build a relationship. The discussion about the practice will develop comfortably within that framework. Your sponsee will see that you care about them when you show an interest in what is going on in their life and are trying to help them become happy. You are also showing them that you feel it is important that they are starting to practice.
This means you’ll need a telephone, address and e-mail early in the contact. If a few weeks slide by without follow-up, a new person can drift away. They don’t yet know the value of what they have, are just learning to set a consistent practice, and haven’t had time to see benefits yet.
It’s important for the sponsor to keep in contact with someone new. A new person will rarely call you but you should give them your name and number anyway.
Guiding a Newcomer
At the beginning a new person needs support and someone who will guide them into the practice. If you’ve given them something to read, wait a week or so and then follow up. See what they thought about what they read and whether they have any questions.
If they have a question you can’t answer, tell them you will find out and get back to them.
Researching the answers to questions is one good way to deepen your own practice and the SGI has lots of excellent materials. The basic exam study booklets, Faith Into Action and searchable databases on www.sgi-usa.org are all resources where you can find answers to questions. If needed, experienced practitioners will be happy to help you.
Setting a Goal
Early in the process you might suggest chanting for a goal that is a stretch but not unreasonable. You want them to experience the benefits of the practice as soon as possible. As you know this practice is not an intellectual discussion, but an experiential practice.
Explain to them how to set a positive, concrete goal, one where they will clearly know when it is achieved. Then suggest they chant five to ten minutes a day and plan to continue for ninety days. A concrete goal is important at the beginning so they will know when they have achieved it.
They need to understand this is a prove-it-to-yourself practice and that no one expects them to believe anything without proving it to themselves. Many people are relieved that we are not asking them to believe anything without proof.
Introducing Them to the Gohonzon
Introduce them to the Gohonzon when they decide to chant for a goal. Explain that practitioners chant in front of this mandala, but that we are not praying to something outside of ourselves. The Gohonzon functions as a mirror for each person’s life.
Chanting at Home
They may be curious about how to chant at home. Tell them to find a comfortable spot facing a wall and imagine a focal point on that wall. Once introduced to the Gohonzon they will have a visual understanding when you talk to them about setting a focal point on the wall where they are going to try the ninety-day experiment.
Connecting Them to the District
Take your newcomer to a meeting as soon as possible. Explain that this will be their home group and they will hear Buddhist concepts and experiences of members. Many will be reluctant to come on their own, but feel more confident when they have someone they know come with them. Another person may be quite independent and be more comfortable coming by themselves.
If your sponsee has started to attend meetings and is seriously chanting, it might be time to begin to learn gongyo. One district has slow and fast gongyo on discs. You can direct your sponsee to the website to hear pronunciation of the words or you can go through the book with them and work on pronunciation. If they seem overwhelmed, suggest they just work on three sentences a day.
Getting A Gohonzon?
How do you know whether a person is ready to get a Gohonzon? Generally if your newcomer is chanting regularly, has received benefit, is attending a couple of meetings a month and is learning gongyo you might want to bring up the subject. The only requirement is that they have decided this is the spiritual path for them.
Ask them, “Have you ever thought about getting a Gohonzon?” This question is not to push them but to find out what they are thinking about themselves and the practice.
Sometimes a new person doesn’t ask even though they are interested in moving forward. Another might be ready while a third might be cautious and want to take one small step after another. It varies a great deal but unless you ask them if they have thought about it, you aren’t going to know where they stand.
Setting up An Altar
If your sponsee indicates an interest in wanting to receive a Gohonzon, then you need to determine a place for their altar. Your district leader will be helpful in this. Usually this is done during a home visit where you can discuss where to put it. Don’t place it in front of a window or in a spot where it could be hit by someone opening a door. You want a safe place.
Setting up the altar is an important part of the process. Before the date of conferral set up their Butsudan on the altar. It creates an expectation of the Gohonzon to come.
You might take some fruit or greens to help set up. People usually appreciate this kind of gesture.
Setting a Date to Receive the Gohonzon
You might discuss with your sponsee when they would like to receive the Gohonzon. If they set a date several months out, they may need more time to be sure. Reassure them that there is no rush. You want them to be comfortable with their decision. If they are ready then notify your district leader.
Enshrining the Gohonzon
Set up a time to enshrine the Gohonzon as soon as possible after the conferral. Usually members in the district like to attend. This is an important moment for your sponsee. You will chant with them and do Gongyo for the first time in front of their new Gohonzon.
Keeping On Keeping On
When you have been someone’s sponsor, you have a special relationship with them. You’ll want to check in from time to time to make sure things are going well and if you haven’t seen them for a while you might want to visit them. Many things can come up during the first of year of practice and you want to make sure they are becoming consistent in their practice and receiving benefit. You’ll also want to make sure they are establishing relationships in the district and feel a part of the group.
You will find that being someone’s sponsor is very rewarding and can be the basis for building an important friendship for life.