Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Young Woman Does Not Take Sukyo Mahikari Lightly

Shoes are lined up on shelves in the small white entry room of the Sukyo Mahikari center on Junipero Serra Boulevard. A cheerful, petite, young Japanese woman wearing a grey cardigan over a collared white shirt and a modest red floral skirt greets me and asks me if I have time to “receive light.” Intrigued, I agree. She asks me if brought any socks with me. I didn’t, so she offers me some from a bin inside a drawer. As I put them on, she asks me to rinse out my mouth and wash my hands at one of the three sinks just outside of the “altar room,” which is referred to as such because of the altar in the center of where the Goshintai – the scroll through which the light is believed to be channeling – is located. She opens the door to the pink-carpeted room and instructs me to kneel in front of her on one of the sets of pillows situated on the floor. I close my eyes while she claps three times, chants the “Amatsu” prayer, and raises her hand to lay it upon my forehead – where she and other members believe that the soul resides. After 10 minutes, she recites the “Oshizumari” prayer before letting me know it is okay to open my eyes. “Do you feel clear?” she asks. Although I don’t feel any different, I am curious to find out what will happen next and I assure her that I do indeed feel clear. She asks me to sit crossed-legged with my back facing her so that she can begin giving "true light" to points on my head and neck. When she is finished, I lie stomach-down so that she can concentrate "true light" into my kidneys, and remain in that position for what seems like an eternity before I hear her calming voice cajoling me from my slumber. I awaken after this 50-minute process feeling relaxed and eager to find out more about this young woman. Atsuko Kajita believes she is a vessel through which, “God’s light” travels.

Kajita, 23, is not only a devout member of the Sukyo Mahikari organization: she is currently training to become a staff member. “To relate it to mainstream terms, we’re interning to become priestesses,” she says. Her three-month unpaid ‘internship’ involves giving light and reading teachings at the center from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends, with one day off per week, and one day per week spent at the Union Square center located at 310 Sutter Street. Kajita is currently living at home with her parents in Marin.
“I’ve known her since she was quite young,” says Sally Roberts, a member of the center for 14 years. “She’s grown up into a beautiful, caring, polite, well-mannered young lady.”
Kajita, a soft-spoken, sweet-natured San Francisco native, is the youngest of four and the only girl born into her family. “She was the daughter that her mother was praying for,” says member Linda Hata. Hata, 59, has been a member of the center for 26 years and knew Kajita’s mother when she was pregnant. Although she was unsure of the year that her parents joined, Kajita recalls that by the time she was born her parents were practicing regularly.
“I was pretty familiar with [Sukyo Mahikari] growing up,” she says. Kajita has very early memories of practicing Sukyo Mahikari. “I remember being really small, maybe like 3 or 4, and my mother was giving me light,” Kajita says. “I was kind of fussy, and I remember she was trying to keep me still.” She remembers her parents becoming less active as she got older because her father became busy with his storage business, Space Creations, and later, Nu Skin Enterprises, his skincare company. Kajita is unsure of exactly why her parents became less active because, she says, she never asked. Her mother is reluctant toward her decision to become a staff member because of the amount of time she must spend at the center. While her father is more supportive, Kajita says that he would like her to take over his businesses by the time she is 30.
Her three older brothers are not members. “I think [they stopped practicing] because my parents stopped practicing,” Kajita says. She, on the other hand, spent a lot of time with her aunt who was always a very active member, and even had an altar room in her home. “I became close to my aunt when I was around 8 or 9, and when I turned 10 and became old enough to become a member, I decided on my own [to join].” Kajita knew she wanted to become a member at age 10, but she remembers making the decision to become a staff member when she joined the youth group at age 14. “Since then, it had been on my mind for a while,” she says. “But then I went to college, and it kind of went out of my mind.” Kajita graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Japanese Language in the winter of 2007. She originally planned to pursue a career in interpreting, and still thinks about that from time to time.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that the thought of becoming a staff member crossed Atsuko’s mind again. “Now I’m trying it out to see how I feel, “ she says.
Those in training are required to dress modestly, particularly by wearing minimal makeup and a knee-length skirt each day. Training is offered to men also, who are required to wear slacks and a dress shirt. “People have said that I have calmed down [since beginning training],” Kajita says. “If we’re just all over the place, crazy, or rude, it doesn’t represent the organization well. It’s our responsibility to maintain self -control.” The center director, Yuka Matsuno, and two other staff members at the center, Ichiko Takahashi and Paul Vauclair, are constantly monitoring the work of the trainees, Kajita says. “We’re supposed to be in the altar room at all times, and we check in before leaving for lunch and before water and restroom breaks,” she explains. As far as her diet, Kajita says that her main concern is staying full. She usually brings leftovers that are rich in carbohydrates, and rarely eats chips or candy.
Despite working long hours, Kajita insists that spending so much time at the center is not the difficult part of training to become a staff member. “The hard part is maintaining self-control,” she says. While doing so has been admittedly difficult for her at times, Atsuko feels that she has developed a stronger control over herself. She is not left with much time to socialize, but Kajita spends some time with friends and others in her youth group.
“Even when we’re out drinking, we still have to control ourselves,” she says, laughing. “We use the term ‘T.P.O,’ which means ‘time, place, occasion.’ If you’re with your friends, you can act differently, but if you’re out in public, just T.P.O.” In regard to dating, premarital sex is discouraged, but not enforced. “We have teachings about that, but what you want to do with it is up to you as long as you take responsibility for the outcomes,” she says.
Of the some 250 members in San Francisco, Kajita estimates that about 100 of them visit the center regularly to receive light. On a typical day at the center, Kajita gives light about four to eight times. When she is not giving light she is usually reading teachings. There are many different teachings, but the main one, Kajita says, is the Book of Holy Words. Additionally, she subscribes to monthly magazines such as The International Journal. According to the teachings, those who practice Sukyo Mahikari believe that all human kind comes from one origin – the creator God – therefore meaning that all religions come from one religion. The goal, claims members, is to unite everyone and allow everyone an opportunity to deepen their relationship with God regardless of religious background.
Erin Main, who is also training to become a staff member, has become one of Kajita’s closest friends in the organization over the past two years. “It’s been so nice that she’s been here because we know each other really well, and we come from a mutual understanding,” says Main, 25, a member of the center for 14 years. “I tend to take things too seriously, and she’ll always bring me up because she’s so lighthearted.”
Kajita maintains friendships with people outside the center, but she values the friends she has within the center because, like her, they place God above all else. “It’s hard to be out there in society when your goal is to be ‘God-first,’” she said. “A lot of people out there don’t believe in God or don’t know what they believe, so it’s nice to have that core group of people that you can really be yourself around. It’s nice to be able to talk about teachings and not have to worry about scaring people or putting people off.”
Kajita completed her internship on October 15th. “This last three months has been a real blessing,” she says. “The whole point of this organization is to improve yourself in order to help the world, because you can’t change other people and the way they act. With this training, we get a lot of guidance, and it’s not always easy to listen to, but I think it’s benefiting me.” When asked about the next step in her training, Kajita explains that staff members make all of the decisions and she is unsure of all of the details. She does know that she will be moving to a center in another state, likely in New York or Seattle. Once she moves, which she expects will be in December, she will be living at that center with about one day off per month, also unpaid. She says she is unsure when she will begin to work for pay, and doesn’t seem perturbed by this financial uncertainty. “Part of the training is accepting what comes, “ she says. After completing that part of the training, she will move on to complete her training at a school in Japan to which she says that she has not yet applied. When asked for further details, Kajita says that she can’t disclose anything else because “new approaches to the process are being tried out” and may or may not be permanent.
Even though Sukyo Mahikari is such an integral part of her life, Kajita is careful not to force others into her beliefs. “It doesn’t help me or them to preach to them, but if they ask questions I’ll answer," she says. “God provides everything. If you put him first, everything you need or want will materialize.”

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