On Tuesday I was doing a lilac shift at LIPC. I was my first time covering the evening weeknight shifts, but not my first time lilac-ing at Sensei’s video’s showing.
One of the girls who was lilac-ing with me, after action gongyo, told the action chief “We can’t hug because I’m lilac-ing, but you know I love you.” and I thought: “Of course, it’s not lilac-like!” (get it? lady-like/lilac-like? Nevermind) and just about controlled my giggles at my wit.
I’m aware that to the non-buddhists, that first paragraph, not to mention the title, probably makes as much sense as a cat wearing braces, which is… well, it’s actually quite cool.
There is a literary device called остранение (astranyenye), or “distancing effect”, which in the words of dear old Brecht “prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer”. The Russian word derives from the noun “сторона”, which means side, and the general idea it conveys is to literally put ourselves on the side, observing the object we try do describe from a new angle.
A masterful example of this can be found in the short story “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse” by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. Read it. It’s short, summarises perfectly his poetical views and will give you the chance to boast that you’ve read Tolstoy, without having to rape your brain with Anna Karenina (I LOATHE that book).
Why am I talking about all that? Because that’s what I’m going to do with the lilac thing. Step on the side, and describe it as if I’d never seen it before.
When you enter an SGI centre, you will be invariably greeted by one of two people: either a guy in white shirt, khaki trousers and a dark red tie, or a young woman with a navy suit, white shirt and a red scarf. Both will smile warmly and welcome you, open doors for you, etc. When you enter a prayer room (or Butsuma), there will be one or two of these same smiling ladies, usually one around the door and one at the front, sitting on the left. If you sit down and pray with the others, you will notice everyone will follow the rhythm given by someone sitting right in front of an ornate scroll (our object of devotion, the Gohonzon), chanting into a microphone. You will also notice the lady at the front occasionally bringing water to said person.
At some point the general chanting will be interrupted, someone wearing a badge will be sitting in the leader’s chair, and we will move onto the daily practice of chanting some excerpts of the Lotus Sutra (something we call Gongyo). Again the young ladies will be bringing water and lighting candles for the occasion (they will also putting them off, always in the same direction).
Furthermore, if you hang around until the very end, when the centre is being closed, one of the “red-scarved” ladies will encourage you to pack away and leave, while out of nowhere another couple, one donning white gloves, will be closing the closet containing the scroll (aka the “house of the Buddha”, or Butsudan), switching the lights off, etc.
These young women are called Lilacs. Yes, they wear a white, navy and red uniform. Nope, no hint of lilac as a colour. The name refers to the flowers.
In the rest of the world, a lilac is called a Byakuren, or “white lotus flower”. When I was living in Italy, I was a Byakuren. I’ve always wanted to be one, since I was 12 and I started chanting and attending meetings regularly, but they wouldn’t let me until I became a member (I was 21 by then, long story).
Here in the UK, we were given this special name. Only here we are called lilacs. We also use the word as a verb, so for example you could say “to do lilac” or just “to lilac”. To me is the coolest lingo evar.
I recently bought a new navy suit for my lilac uniform, and splurged on TWO pairs of flatsies, a navy AND a red pair (the rule says black, blue or red).
Now, based on my little description above, you can understand that lilacs basically act as hostesses, they run the buddhist centres (not on their own, there’s plenty more people, including the guy with dark red tie, called Soka or Soka-han). They are normally inside the Butsuma, welcoming everyone with a smile and dealing with any problem so that everything runs smoothly.
The question is, why do we do it? They definitely don’t pay us! And no, there’s no expectation that you should do it.
In one sentence, it’s just the most awesome activity ever. I’m so grateful for having started so young, so that I can lilac for many more years to come. With every shift, you clean your life just a tiny bit more. You forget your own problems, focussing on making sure that every single person in your care wins, trying to touch as many hearts as possible, and it’s just so amazing I actually feel really selfish when I do it. I take so much out of it!