Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Really? I'm a... ?

So I'm looking for religions, learning about religions, practicing religions, right? And my current one has been Nichiren Buddhism. I've blogged about it a couple times, but a quick refresher: it's a relatively recent form of Buddhism (~700 yrs old) started by this guy Nichiren, who read all the Buddhist teachings and discovered/realized/decided that the Lotus Sutra was the important one. The Buddha (supposedly) said "All the other teachings until now were nice, but they're not the total real deal; this is it." And so Nichiren teaches that the thing to do, the way to practice, is to chant "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" (loosely, "I dedicate myself to the Lotus Sutra, or the universal law of cause and effect"). In this way, you'll call out your own Buddha-nature, your best self, and achieve your goals and get all enlightened.

I like it, for the most part. Chanting, meditating, whatever, it's all a daily practice, and specific enough that I've been able to keep it up daily for about 4 months now. Their philosophy is a little vague, but nothing they believe in is distasteful to me. It's down to earth and easy to follow: you don't chant to clear your mind or get rid of suffering, you chant to achieve your goals. (you can even chant for a new car if you want. the idea, I think, is that in the course of chanting for a new car, you'll realize that it's not really a car you wanted. or maybe you do actually need a car, because you need to get to work or something, in which case, why not chant for a car?) As such, it's even psychologically explainable. (your chanting aligns your mind in one direction, which is probably the best way to achieve anything.)

But something isn't sitting quite right with me. The philosophy is not just vague, it's floaty. I feel like I can argue any one position or another with these folks, and eventually we'll just get back to "you have to bring out your own buddha nature, be the best you, and then you'll do fine at everything." Or you just say "chant nam myoho renge kyo" and you're always right. It feels churchy, like old Methodist church I used to go to: there's a lot of emphasis on community over substance, and I just feel kind of silly sometimes. (and silly along with everyone else, not silly in my own way; that's another topic I guess) It's rather connected to political and worldly things; there's this Soka Gakkai (an organization of Nichiren Buddhists) and a political party called New Komeito, and Nichiren Buddhists ~= Soka Gakkai ~= New Komeito. Not to mention the weird cult of personality around the president of the Soka Gakkai, Daisaku Ikeda.

But the overarching theme of this weirdness didn't hit me until I came across a mention of Nichiren in "Hitching Rides with Buddha" by Will Ferguson (great funny travelogue book, I'm a fan), where he labels Nichiren with the f-word. No, not that f-word... worse. And I realized that he's right... I've been following a religion... that's f-- fuh--


It's true: they're fundamentalist Buddhists. Selectively tossing out most of the original teachings? check. Super welcoming to everyone and easy to follow? check. Has megachurches, including one in Seattle? check. (I've been there. It seats like 1000.) Evangelical? check. (Catie noted this when I mentioned that one of Nichiren Buddhism's goals is "Kosen-rufu", defined loosely as "world peace by the spreading of Nichiren Buddhism"; I kinda laughed it off and have mostly ignored the whole kosen-rufu deal) Aforementioned cult of personality? check.

So what? So ultimately it's not my one true path. Well, I hardly expected to find the one religion that would be.

And here's the thing: it's not that bad. Sure, fundamentalist Christianity tends to be terrifying, fundamentalist Islam more so, but this variety of fundamentalist Buddhism? It's as far left as most any religion I know, there aren't weird rules where you can't drink or smoke or dance on Sundays, they don't hate on gay people or Jews or anyone else. (heck, they're up-front about the fact that you could probably be Buddhist and some other religion at the same time.) The religion has drastically improved the lives of many people in the group.

So rock on, Nichiren Buddhists. I'll probably slowly fall out of the group here; I like the people, the beliefs are just a little bit off for me right now. Careful where you go (especially with politics, evangelism, and that guy Daisaku), but overall, I'm more with you than against you.


Edmund Murray said...

I am a member of SGI for 25 years. I understand your uneasiness with Daisaku Ikeda and fundamentalism. Let me explain some things. Daisaku Ikeda is revered because he brought the teachings, with many japanese who resettled in other countries. This had never been done, and was foretold by Nichiren 700 years ago. As for Fundamentalism, Shakyamuni in one of his Sutras speaks of time periods after his death when his teachings would eventually no longer lead to enlightenment. He says that another Buddha would be born to the far east of India (Japan) who would take his teaching and spread it for 10,000 years. The Lotus Sutra is Shakyamuni's teaching, it has been spread to 192 countries in 50 years. No other religion can say that. There are books that do teach Buddhist theory that you can read to get a better understanding of why chanting works, I hope that you take the time to investigate it.

Dan Tasse said...

Hi Mr. Murray,
Thanks for the comments! It still makes me a little uneasy. I understand how we can think Daisaku Ikeda is a great guy or whatever, but even part of the Gongyo is a prayer of thanks to him, Josei Toda, and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. If I were Christian, I wouldn't thank the Pope for bringing Christianity to me; it's about the truth, not who brings it to you.

The fast spread of a religion is no measure of its truth. Nor are claims about other religions. Finally, prophecies are the most suspect of them all, because they're so ripe with possibilities for interpretation. (see: all the "prophecies" about the second coming of Jesus)

I think chanting works! I would like to learn more about it. I would like to learn more about all of Buddhism, and I will continue to do so.

Furthermore, just because I don't think SGI is right for me right now doesn't mean I'm condemning it for other people. It's worked wonders for other people in my group, and I certainly don't want to cast any aspersions on the great human revolutions they've accomplished.