Buddhism saved me,” says baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who transformed his life through Nichiren Buddhist practice. Nicknamed “The Baby Bull” after his father, “The Bull,” the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico, Cepeda grew up playing baseball. He was a powerful slugger with a lifetime batting average of .297 and 379 career home runs. After his 1974 retirement, he suffered from financial, marital and legal troubles culminating in a ten-month prison term for marijuana smuggling. Despite his stunning career, Cepeda’s election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame took more than twenty years. He credits his 1999 election to his daily chanting, which he believes helped turn the hearts of the baseball writers who had repeatedly voted against his induction.
Cepeda is a member of Soka Gakkai International, a sect of Buddhism based in Japan. Nichiren practice traces its origins to thirteenth-century monk Nichiren Daishonin, who tried to simplify what he saw as formalistic and elaborate Japanese Buddhist practice by returning to basics. He taught the chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which signifies homage to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra and teaches the ultimate perfectibility of human beings. Followers of Nichiren such as Cepeda believe that by diligently chanting this single phrase, you can awaken to your higher self and discover that you are a buddha.
Inquiring Mind staff members Barbara Gates, Wes Nisker and Alan Novidor interviewed Cepeda in November 2005.
Inquiring Mind: In 1999, when you were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, you were the first Buddhist to receive that honor. How did you get involved in Buddhism?
Orlando Cepeda: I had been living back in Puerto Rico and I was going through very, very tough times. A friend of mine in L.A. saw me and said, “Orlando, you look very unhappy.” I said, “I am very unhappy. I’m nothing. I’m losing everything.” He said, “Why don’t you try this?” He gave me a pamphlet about Buddhism, Soka Gakkai. I said, “Why not? I’ll try anything.” I thought, “Oh, this won’t work!” I wanted to show that it wouldn’t work.
But it did. I went to my first meeting in Los Angeles in 1982. Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner and Buster Williams were there. They all encouraged me. That was a Saturday, and on Sunday I received my gohonzen, the scroll. In the center, it says “Nichiren, devotion to the mystic law through a sound. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” We have this book called the Lotus Sutra. We chant from it in the morning and we chant from it in the evening. When you chant, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” there’s a connection between you and the universe.
IM: When you first started chanting, how did it affect you?
OC: At that time I didn’t want to have anything to do with baseball. I’d retired in 1974 and I didn’t like baseball. I was bitter. I was blaming everybody but me for some things that had gone wrong. But when I started doing the practice I found out that I was my problem. This practice is like going to school. Some people go to school to be lawyers, to learn the law of society. With Buddhism, you learn the law of life, because life is based in cause and effect.
IM: Karma. So it shifted your whole understanding of yourself and the world?
OC: With this practice, you know where you’re going and you know where you’ve come from. If you want to know how your life used to be in the past, look at what you’re going through now. If you want to know your life in the future, look at what you’re doing now.
IM: While you are chanting, what is happening in your mind?
OC: When you chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” it’s like a picture, like a widescreen TV. You might see your life of forty years ago because what you’re going through now started in 1965. Your mind goes through so many things. Like if you have somebody who works with you who doesn’t like you or makes it hard for you, you chant for his happiness and you chant for yourself to change what you have to change so he can change also. Through this practice you learn that whatever happens in life, you create it. Nobody else creates it for you.
IM: Some people say they do the chant for their own well-being and their own wealth, and it works that way, but it also works to chant for somebody else or for peace in the world.
OC: You chant for me, for my friends and for others. You know, we have problems. Me, I didn’t have anything, so I chanted for a car. Because I was living in Sacramento, I was asked to bring some youth to San Francisco for a big convention there. I said, “Gohonzen, I need a car.” Boom! I got a car. Whatever I chanted for, I got it.
IM: It sounds like you kept praying and that your prayers were answered.
OC: But in our practice, we don’t worship anybody. Our leader says, “Don’t follow me, join me, for world peace.”
IM: It’s like what the Buddha said: “Don’t believe anything I say. You’ve got to find out for yourself.”
OC: Yeah, whatever I say is coming from Shakyamuni.
IM: If you had already been chanting when you played ball, do you imagine that your attention, or your attitude, as you went up to bat or stood on the field, might have been different? Baseball’s an unusual sport that has a lot of time where you’re needing to be paying attention but you’re not necessarily in motion. How might you have played the game differently, inning to inning?
OC: Baseball is very much a game that requires a lot of concentration. And Latin players, we lack concentration. You know what I mean?
IM: You mean you have passion . . .
OC: Yeah. Too much. I believe chanting is good for that, because when I’m chanting there can be music all around me and I don’t listen to anything. I just focus. Buddhism could have helped me in the mental preparation because I did so many bad things at that time. I stayed up all night to go to clubs and dance. They used to call me “Cha Cha.” Right now I get up at 6:30 every morning, and in the evening when I go to my friend’s house, I’ll go over early, because I have to get up early the next day and I want to be fresh when I chant.
IM: You had such an amazing major-league career—twenty-year-old Rookie of the Year, seven-time National League All Star . . .
OC: But with Buddhism I could have batted over .300 and hit 500 home runs. I missed five years because of my injuries. The reason I didn’t play ball was because I wanted to party every night. I never drank that much, but I’d smoke weed. The next morning, I didn’t want to go to the ballpark. If you have your common sense, you know you’re a ballplayer. You know how to take care of yourself.
I was born with karma with my knees. When I was fifteen years old, I had my first surgery. Then in ’62 I was working out, and a ninety-pound weight crushed my knee. In ’70 I was going to have my best year in baseball. I was thirty years old, in my prime. I got up to answer the telephone and this knee crashed.
The injuries might not have happened if I’d been chanting. In Buddhism you always find out where to go to be in the right place at the right time. If I want to go someplace, I chant before I go to make sure that’s the right place to go. When I go to the airport, if they cancel my flight, I say, “Thank you gohonzen.” Because you never know what could have happened. When you do the chanting, it’s a picture in front of you. You can see everything out there.
IM: So the chanting allows you to really notice what’s happening with you right now. You’re asking, “Am I supposed to be going here?” and you’re able to recognize what your mind and your body are telling you about that choice. Are you saying that your injuries were your own responsibility, that when you got injured you weren’t noticing what was happening?
OC: Yeah. In ’66, I was taking batting practice. My dad, they called him “The Bull” in Puerto Rico, always told me, never give your back to the hitter, even in B.P. So I’m in right field, 345 feet from home plate. I just turn and the ball comes and hits me. Things like that happened to me. I wasn’t protected.
The reason I practice Buddhism is because of what I went through with my injuries, with the law. I didn’t have anything. I had to do something. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be practicing today.
I remember in ’83, about five days before I got my gohonzen and started chanting, I went to Dodger Stadium, and they threw me out from the field because of the trouble I’d been in. “We know who you are,” they told me, “but you gotta get out.”
But when I went to the Soka Gakkai meeting, they told me, “Orlando, you’re gonna be in front of 60,000 people, get a standing ovation.” I said, “No way, it can’t be.” They said, “You’re gonna go to the Hall of Fame.” When people used to mention the Hall of Fame, I’d say, “I don’t want to talk about the Hall of Fame. It’s a bunch of politics in there.” Inside me, I wanted to be there. Are you kidding me? But I was showing I’m a macho man.
So one day, about a year after I had started chanting, there was a thing on me in the L.A. Times, a couple of pictures, huge. And I said, “I couldn’t care less about the Hall of Fame.” That was a Sunday. Still, my anger was there, was coming out. So Monday night I went to a meeting in Santa Monica. This Japanese leader who’s been chanting for forty years says, “I want to talk to you, Orlando. I read the paper yesterday. Very nice, but you are talking too much.” “What do you mean?” “Misfortune comes from your mouth. Stop talking, chant to change so everybody will change.” When I got home, I said, “Makes sense, what he said. You chant for happiness, boom, boom, boom.” And right after that, everything started to change.
You really can change your destiny through this practice. It’s learning. You learn how to live the proper way. You learn how to respect human beings. You learn how to love your friends. You learn how to value things in life that before you took for granted.
Before I practiced Buddhism, my mind was very cloudy and I couldn’t see myself because my life was so ugly. But when I began chanting, my life became polished, polished like a mirror. There’s a book that we have out called Buddha Is in Your Mirror. It’s a great book. If you can, get it. When you look at your mirror, you look at yourself. You’re a buddha.
IM: Have you always been on a spiritual path?
OC: Very much, yeah. I was an altar boy when I was a kid. And my mom, she used to go to a place in Puerto Rico, in the country, called La Silencia del Spiritismo, very close to Buddhism. I grew up going to that place with my mom every Monday and Friday, like Buddhism. It’s all about cause and effect, life conditions.
Buddhist practice is based on life conditions. You gotta chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” every day, every day, every day because if you don’t do it, your life condition goes down. If I stopped practicing now, I might go back to the way I was before.
IM: Is there a similarity between the concentration that you brought to playing ball and what you bring to chanting?
OC: No. You can’t compare. And that’s why I got in trouble. It’s a different concentration, playing ball and in life. It’s a different ballgame, completely. Right now, every move that I make, it’s for a reason. Since Monday I’ve been working on this interview. I’m thinking, I gotta go today. Because it means a lot to me, these conversations.
IM: But there must be some carryovers from the way you practiced baseball to the way you practice Buddhism now?
OC: I give 100 percent when I play ball, so I can give 100 percent in my practice now. Now I travel all over to talk to people. I go to Santa Rosa. I go to Sacramento. I go to Japan. I go to Argentina. I go to share with them. Every day I chant for my friends. Friends mean a lot to me.
IM: Do you call yourself a Buddhist to your friends?
OC: No, but they know it. See, Buddha is a way of life. Buddha is a teaching. Buddha means awareness. And believe me, it is!
IM: You know, we do a Buddhist practice too, a silent practice. We don’t chant. We sit silently and focus on our breath. In some ways, it’s like what you describe with the big TV. When you focus on the breath, you can see everything.
OC: But the sound of chanting is very important. It’s the rhythm of life. In Puerto Rico, when I was a kid, at home we didn’t have a clock. But the church bells rang every hour. Ding, ding, ding. It’s three o’clock, gotta go. Sound is rich. Like the alarm in the morning to get up, sound wakes things up.
IM: There’s one baseball question I’ve been dying to ask. You played alongside great ballplayers like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and batted against some of the greatest pitchers of all time like Bob Gibson and even Warren Spahn. But what I really want to know is what it was like batting against Sandy Koufax.
OC: [Eyes light up] I hit six home runs off of him!
IM: Wow! He only gave up 204 home runs in his entire career. You must have had his number.
OC: Yeah, I did well against him. I was a curve ball hitter and he had an incredible curve ball. He once walked me on four straight with nobody on base. [Pause] He was something!
IM: Clearly, so are you! You’re an amazing role model, you’ve gone through an incredible change, and you speak to a lot of people all over the world. It’s very important.
OC: I learned from the practice and from my mentor that you don’t have to say anything, just behave like a human being. Being that way, you help other people. And sometimes your wisdom comes out in situations. Like a month ago, I was driving to a meeting in Brisbane [California] and almost got in an accident. The other driver turned back and followed me. He called me every name in the book. I said, “Wait a minute!” But then I calmed down and said, “You know what, nothing happened to anybody. ‘Almost’ don’t mean anything. You want to fight because of that? Are you going to gain anything because you fight?” He kept on chewing me out. So something told me to go back to my car. I’d create more problems for his karma. See? So my wisdom came out.
This practice is based on wisdom and common sense and reality. It’s like this. When you’re born you’re going to die. You’re born, you get sick, you get old, and you die. And that’s Buddhism. Buddhism is dealing with what’s between birth and death.
IM: Does Nichiren Buddhism believe in a rebirth?
OC: Cause and effect. Yeah. You die the way you live. If you want your future in your next life, look at what you’re going to be doing from now on. So I want to be born as a baseball player. And be the fortune baby, born in a house with a gohonzen, start practicing when I’m three years old, play baseball, go on to the big league, kicking butts and talking about Buddhism.