Waking the Buddha
How the Most Dynamic and Empowering Buddhist Movement in History is Changing our Concept of Religion
By Clark Strand
Middleway Press Copyright © 2014 Clark Strand
All rights reserved.
a change in the life of one individual
In February of 2003, just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I came across a photograph of some Buddhist prayer beads made in a Tokyo prison during World War II. With limited resources to draw from, a prisoner of conscience had improvised them using the bottle caps from his daily milk ration.
I found the "beads" in the photograph strangely moving, even beautiful. Not that they were elegantly made. Far from it. The cardboard bottle caps were dark from handling and worn to the point of falling apart. Nevertheless, the photo inspired me to learn more about the imprisonment of Josei Toda — the man who had made them and then later became the president of the Nichiren Buddhist lay group the Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society). A month later, I wrote a short article for an American Buddhist magazine that began with a series of questions:
What goes through the mind of the person who chooses to go to jail rather than betray his spiritual convictions, the person who, refusing to be swept up in the militant patriotism that precedes most wars, chooses loneliness and isolation instead? It is hard enough to imagine how such a person passes the days and weeks. What of the hours and minutes? Isn't it conceivable that the resolve of the heart might collapse under the weight of even a single moment?
The article went on to describe how Toda and his mentor, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, had been arrested by the government as "thought criminals" because of their refusal to support the Japanese war machine. Makiguchi had died in prison, but Toda survived, renewing his resolve day by day, bottle cap by bottle cap — a moment's weight ... added to another moment's weight ... added to another.
Sometime later, when a friend asked why I'd become interested in the Soka Gakkai, I knew the answer right away. Toda hadn't collapsed. He'd borne up under the weight of countless moments when it would have been easier to accept defeat.
One of the most striking things about the Soka Gakkai from a Buddhist point of view is its emphasis on attaining victory in ordinary life — sometimes under extraordinary circumstances, like the ones Toda had endured. Soka Gakkai members chant the mantra-like title of the Lotus Sutra, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, as a way of harnessing the universal life force inherent in their own bodies and minds. According to the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism, that mantra activates the basic, positive creative energy of the universe — a force that animates all sentient beings, driving them to grow and express their true nature eternally, from one lifetime to the next. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and working for the happiness of others, Nichiren Buddhists seek to improve their current life condition and demonstrate "actual proof" of the Buddhist principle that all things are interconnected — that an inner change in the life of one individual can trigger outer changes in their community, their environment, and ultimately the world at large.
That principle of interconnectedness corresponds with what we know today about particle physics and planetary ecology, both of which support the view that all things are intimately interrelated and dependent upon one another — that nothing exists as separate and alone. Before Nichiren, however, that teaching was mostly theory, a topic for discussion between religious intellectuals or debate among cloistered monks and nuns. It didn't have much application outside of the sedate (some might say sleepy) world within temple or monastery walls. The idea that individuals could use it to awaken to the possibilities for change in everyday life, producing positive effects in their own lives and the lives of those around them, honoring their responsibilities to society and to the life of the planet itself — that had never been put to the test.
Nichiren changed all that. He staked his life on that theory, making it the basis of his teaching and standing alone against the corrupt military government of thirteenth-century Japan. Like Toda and Makiguchi seven centuries later, he believed that religion should serve the lives of individuals rather than merely functioning as a pawn of the state. And, also like Toda and Makiguchi, he ran afoul of the government and of the religious institutions that supported it. Twice attacked, twice exiled, and once sentenced to execution for his uncompromising views, Nichiren refused to back down from his belief that ordinary people could change their karma and attain enlightenment in this lifetime simply by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. It was a revolutionary vision of Buddhism that empowered lay people to take charge of their spiritual and material destiny, and he was widely condemned for it.
Today, you might call Nichiren Buddhism "an idea way ahead of its time." After Nichiren's death, the school of Buddhism he founded grew steadily but never became the dominant voice of Buddhism in Japan. When Toda left prison in 1945, it was just what it had been for centuries: a small sect with a big teaching that had never really come into its own. Were it not for his efforts, and those of his successor, Daisaku Ikeda, it is unlikely that anybody outside of Japan would ever have heard of it. As it is, the Soka Gakkai, the largest and most influential lay group in Buddhist history, has now spread the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism to some 192 countries around the globe. How and why that happened, and what it means for religion in the twenty-first century, is the subject of this book. It's the story of an idea whose time has come, and of the people who made it a reality.
the flame of reform
Life is a struggle. That is one way of understanding the first noble truth of Buddhism: that life is suffering. Given that reality, it is no surprise that human beings the world over tend to experience their lives in terms of whether they are winning that struggle or not — in other words, in terms of gain and loss. And yet, these are seldom emphasized by religion. Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses." Granted, he judged religion mostly on the basis of its failures; nevertheless, it is fair to say that religions the world over have tended to prefer conformity over revolution, complacency over action. Religious teachings offer inspiration and consolation but rarely spark the fire of revolution. Societies prefer the elegant confinement of the candle on the altar over the open flame of reform.
Religions usually grow out of some revolutionary impulse initially — in the beginning they may attempt to address racial or ethnic discrimination or economic inequality. However, as time goes on they invariably choose stability over all else, even at the expense of the ongoing spiritual evolution of humankind. Having woken us up initially, they allow us to grow drowsy again, sometimes for decades or centuries on end. That is probably why I felt drawn to the story of Toda's resistance to the war. It was the wake-up call I had been expecting from American Buddhism in the lead-up to the Iraq War, a call that never actually arrived.
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I expected American Buddhism to provide such a call. With the exception of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), all major schools of Buddhism in America have their origins in the teachings of pre-modern traditions, the appeal of which rests largely upon their antiquity. They are attractive to most converts precisely because they do not engage modern issues but provide some solace — in the form of ritual or silent meditation — from the issues and problems of modernity. This may account, in part, for the popularity of the weekend or week-long retreat model so prevalent in American Buddhism, which provides a kind of "spiritual vacation" from many aspects of modern culture — such as most forms of current communication, including phone, e-mail, the Internet, and news bulletins. It is ironic that American Buddhism won the bulk of its initial converts during the countercultural years of the 1960s only to become religiously complacent, if not exactly conservative in the usual sense, as it grew in subsequent decades.
Doubtless, some of this is due to the inevitable aging and "settling" of the baby boomer generation who first embraced Buddhism, but I can't help wondering if Buddhism didn't also provide us with an escape route from the social turbulence of that era, with its antiwar protests and civil rights marches. The natural rhythms of religious culture seem to involve a certain amount of waking and dozing, only to wake and doze again.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review pointing out that, by the year 2000, SGI-USA was the only school of Buddhism in the United States to have attracted a racially diverse membership, the other Buddhist groups being composed primarily of upper middle-class Americans of European descent. I suggested that the various other schools of American Buddhism might do well to ask themselves why, in a society as diverse as America's, their memberships were so monocultural. In a letter to the editor, one reader defended that monoculture as follows: "When one is meditating with eyes closed or gazing at the floor, all Buddhist centers seem to look pretty much alike." The author seemed quite comfortable with an eyes-wide- shut approach to Buddhism that allowed him to ignore issues of race and class. Thinking back, I have to ask myself if maybe he'd once been very aware of such issues — only he'd forgotten them. Buddhism had become a way of meditatively "tuning out" certain social realities and relaxing into the normalcy of a relatively privileged middle-class life. Ironically, his meditation practice had become a way of falling asleep.
Given this phenomenon, it is all the more ironic that the Soka Gakkai has often been criticized in America for its focus on such middle class values as economic success and security. The comment I most often hear when I speak of Nichiren Buddhism to other American Buddhists is "they're the ones who chant for stuff like cars and money, right?" Because such comments often come from these upper middle-class Buddhists of European decent who have rarely had to worry about money or cars, I've generally felt obliged to point out the hypocrisy of criticizing others for wanting the very things that they already have and therefore take for granted. Nowadays, however, that argument has lost much of its edge.
Today many Soka Gakkai members who joined the movement during the 1960s and '70s have attained the financial security they sought. Open the pages of the World Tribune (SGI-USA's weekly newspaper) and, true to the SGI tradition of reaching out to the disenfranchised and the destitute, you will find stories from those who have recently risen from adversity. But you will also find articles about U.S. congressmen, corporate executives, university professors, doctors, lawyers, artists, and an impressive number of successful small-business owners. Naturally, even those who have attained prosperity still struggle with health issues, relationships, and the countless other challenges of daily life, and as a lifelong path, Nichiren Buddhism helps them to overcome those obstacles to happiness as well. Nevertheless, apart from its racial makeup, which continues to be far more diverse than any other American Buddhist group, the gap between SGI members and devotees of predominantly white, upper middle-class Buddhist groups is gradually decreasing. Sadly, that hasn't affected the perception of Nichiren Buddhism as a kind of "prosperity church." It has, however, changed the way I respond to such misperceptions.
Today, when met with comments like "they chant for money," I answer that, while financial security is certainly an issue for some, we shouldn't let that distract us from the fact that SGI members also chant for the happiness of their friends and family, for human rights and human dignity, and for equal treatment of gays and women and minorities, or that they exert their influence and enthusiasm as a collective body to guarantee religious freedoms for all people — not just for Buddhists. To these I add that many also chant for an end to unprovoked military aggression such as the U.S. war with Iraq. In short, Nichiren Buddhists continue to chant for and take action on behalf of those very "lost values" of the 1960s and '70s that many American Buddhists, although they may also hold such values, do not see as imperatives of a Buddhist life.
It is a forceful argument, but a good one, though it occasionally ruffles some feathers. A few of my Buddhist friends have pointed out, for instance, that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1978, has done important work on behalf of peace, as have followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But when I ask these friends if their Buddhist sects were founded upon the ideals of peace or social justice as their most basic, fundamental teaching, the answer is invariably no. They may personally endorse those values, and they may belong to a Buddhist group or fellowship that works on behalf of them, but the teachings of their school of Buddhism are not squarely founded upon them. Their Buddhism has not yet been fully reinterpreted for an age of global concerns.
To rouse itself from inertia, it is sometimes necessary for religion to reinvent itself through the work of revolution or reform, and I have no doubt that American Buddhism will do just that, modernizing those teachings that have come to it mostly in premodern form so that they address not just the need for peace of mind or an enhanced immune system but the need for a more equitable distribution of wealth and basic human rights for all. What distinguishes the Soka Gakkai from other Buddhist traditions in America is that it arrived on U.S. shores in the 1960s with that work largely accomplished. How did the Soka Gakkai accomplish what no other Buddhist school has, either in Japan or anywhere else? How has it managed to "institutionalize" the revolutionary impulse so that, rather than settling back into the predictable mediocrity of a successful religion, it has spread across the globe? What is the driving force that has sustained the Soka Gakkai and preserved its unity as it has traveled to so many other countries and cultures around the world? How has it made the leap from national religious organization to international spiritual movement?
My interest in answering these questions has less to do with the Soka Gakkai itself and more to do with my desire to discover what comes next for religion itself as we transition into a new millennium. For what the Soka Gakkai has discovered isn't just a new form of Buddhism. It's a new way of being religious.
a thing of lasting beauty
No one knows why, but for some reason the founders of religious movements tend to come in threes. Shakyamuni, his disciple Kashyapa, and his cousin Ananda come to mind when we think of ancient Buddhism, while Jesus, Peter, and Paul are representative of Christianity. The three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai — Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda, and Daisaku Ikeda — follow the same pattern. For there seems to be a natural progression in the creation, development, and stabilization of a new religion, and those three phases each require the talents of individuals with very different temperaments, so that the person who begins the movement is very different from the person whose role it is to give it shape and form, while the person whose work is to refine and extend its teaching is different still. Probably that is why there are usually three founders. Even at its beginning, religion is a communal effort. We cannot create something of collective value on our own.
The initial founder of a religious movement usually takes great risks. That is the reason why he or she is often persecuted and sometime martyred. Jesus is one example, and if we include philosophical movements as well, Socrates would be another. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the first president of the Soka Gakkai, would be yet another.
Making a clay pot is a good metaphor to explain how a successful religious movement is created. In the beginning, the process of creation can be quite violent. The clay is usually cut several times — either with a knife or with a wire. Then it must be slapped down hard upon the wheel to give the pot a solid footing. When we think of what this means for the founder of a religious movement, we can see that it takes a special kind of individual to allow himself to be treated that way for the sake of what, in its early stages at least, is mostly just an ideal (the pot is, after all, at this point only a lump of clay). There may be a loose organization in the beginning, a group of committed followers, a meeting schedule, or even a curriculum of sorts; however, once the trouble begins — as it always does — this nearly always falls apart. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Waking the Buddha by Clark Strand. Copyright © 2014 Clark Strand. Excerpted by permission of Middleway Press.
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