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Published February 22, 2017
Transformative Buddhism: A way of life for several Lamorindans
SGI members meet at the Gelbaum's: Bill Waterman, top left, next to Martin Gelbaum. Carla Gelbaum, front left. Photo Sophie Braccini

Several times a month Lamorinda members of the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) gather to share their commitment to their Buddhist faith, often meeting at the home of Carla and Martin Gelbaum in Moraga.
Approximately 20 members of all ages and ethnicities arrive and greet each other before sitting facing the Gohonzon, a scroll enshrined in an altar, to chant together the mantra "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo." One member then reads from the Lotus Sutra, before all willing participants share personal reflections based on their life stories.
They talk of how the reflective and spiritual practice has transformed and enriched their lives as well as those of people around them.
The Gelbaums were introduced to SGI in their early 20s. Carla Gelbaum was a student looking for her true calling; Martin Gelbaum was questioning what real happiness was as he witnessed his highly educated family struggle with destructive behaviors. Both found a way to SGI by chance and decided to stick with it, as the practice of Buddhism started to produce results in their lives. That is also how they met each other, and they have stayed together for more than 30 years.
Bill Waterman often joins the group at the Gelbaum's. The Orinda lawyer and mediator also crossed paths with SGI in his early 20s during his second year at the University of Oregon, and stuck with it. He was drawn to a philosophy he describes as not having moralistic rules and where people develop their own wisdom by making the right decisions.
He also liked the idea of causation, or karma: "The karma is the sum total of your past actions and thoughts, and every moment you have a chance for new thoughts and new actions," explains Waterman. "You can therefore change your karma. Destiny is not fixed, a person can change the situation they find themselves in, for the better and you learn from your mistakes."
Waterman and the Gelbaums feel that the learning and practice has brought richness and happiness to their lives. Waterman says that his objective then and now was to reach enlightenment. Carla Gelbaum adds that the daily practice strengthens the higher self and permeates every aspect of her life, as well as the lives of people around her.
The three Lamorindans credit their faith for the good experiences in their lives. Waterman talks about spiritual contentedness, of feeling at peace with himself. He believes that his good fortune resulted from his spirituality. Life has not been free of difficulties; Waterman has had some serious health challenges, but he met them with acceptance, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Carla Gelbaum also says that the practice is not a magical way to ward off life's challenges, but that it allows people to engage each day with a feeling of empowerment: Happiness is not something dependent on what happens in one's life, but comes from inner wisdom, she says.
Waterman believes that his career path has also been led by his faith. He believes that lawyers need to have an overriding sense of justice, that losing this would jeopardize the integrity of the system. He now mostly serves as a volunteer mediator for the judicial system. Service and support of others is an essential part of the Buddhist practice.
Chanting, studying the texts and serving others are the three ways they lead their lives. There is also a desire to seek peace through the growth of each Buddhist practitioner, what Josei Toda who was SGI's second president called "the human revolution."
The Gelbaums add that everyone is welcome to join their group. In it are people who have been with SGI most of their adult lives, people whose parents were involved and were raised in that faith, and also newcomers who joined a few months ago. When they enter the group, they become part of a wider East Bay community that meets in El Cerrito and they can partake in activities for all ages.
The SGI is the world's largest Buddhist lay organization, with approximately 12 million Nichiren Buddhist practitioners in 192 countries and regions. It characterizes itself as a support network for practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism and a global Buddhist movement for "peace, education, and cultural exchange."
The history of the SGI can be traced back to the 13th century and Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren. Nichiren is known for his sole devotion to the Lotus Sutra, asserting that this text being Shakyamuni Buddha's ultimate teachings, it was the exclusive method to attain enlightenment. Today there are several religious and lay Nichiren Buddhist movements, SGI is the largest one.
For more information, go to sgi.org. To contact the local chapter, call (510) 527-4402.

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