Note: The original publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Membership and Outreach Committee of the Buddhist Churches of America and is also available at www.americanbuddhist.org
By Roger Corless
If civilization advances and people [begin] to disfavor the current Shinshu as “false”, then certainly another Shinshu version could arise.
We must grasp the nettleShin Buddhism is on the decline in North America. Although pockets of life and regeneration occur in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the Buddhist Churches of Canada (BCC), and the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii (HMH), the general picture is not encouraging. At a time when Buddhism is experiencing something of a bonanza, with Zen and Vipassana centers in every major city, works by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh in bookstores throughout the region, and movies like Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet, and The Little Buddha drawing significant audiences, the teachings of Shinran, and indeed any form of Pure Land Buddhism, remain largely unknown to most North Americans.
In an earlier work I made some suggestions for the renewal of Shin Buddhism in North America, focusing on broad visionary issues and the development of a new Shin “Dharmology” (Buddhist Theology; 1). Here, I will expand on these suggestions by addressing (once again, in broad terms) the institutional organization of Shin Buddhism in North America, taking a careful look at the dramatic success of another form of Japanese Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which traces its origins to Nichiren. Soka Gakkai is often ignored by other Buddhists as, at best, an embarrassment, due to its history of fanaticism and exclusivity. But, as we shall see, SGI today is very different from what it was and it need no longer be feared as an enemy. I propose that much can be learned from SGI’s success about how best to present Shinshu effectively in North America.
The Success of SGI
A visitor to any SGI cultural center (as their “temples” are known) is immediately struck by the diverse makeup of the congregation. Instead of the white, upwardly mobile, middle-class whites of most Dharma centers of Elite Buddhism, or the largely Asian population of Ethnic Buddhist temples, one sees a social mix that reflects the region in which the SGI center is located (2). In Washington, DC, for instance, the practitioners are largely African-American, whereas in Honolulu, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders predominate. Persons of Europeanrather than Asiandescent hold most of the leadership roles. This diversity is not accidental: It is actively encouraged by oversight committees at all levels of the institution (3). Within the past few years, this racial and class diversity has been expanded to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) persons, whose presence is not merely tolerated but actively celebrated (4).
As a result of this openness to the pluralism of North American society, SGI is perceived as welcoming in a way that other groups, especially Jodo Shinshu churches, all too often are not. Persons can go to SGI just as they are, with their individual family histories and different personalities and lifestyles, and find acceptance rather than suspicion or, perhaps, criticism. At its heart, Jodo Shinshu is just as accepting, but the Nichibei (heavily Japanese) cultural context of Shin in North America means that it is the visitor who must be accepting of the mise-en-scene, exercising patience and perseverance until he or she penetrates to Shinran’s universal and classless message of liberation. Would it be better not to impose this burden on enquirers? Can we learn from SGI how to lift this burden? I suggest that we can.
From NSA To SGI
Nichiren (12221282) was famous for his outspoken denunciation of the Buddhism of his day. His forcefulness was somewhat unusual in Buddhism and reminds us more of the prophets of the Abrahamic Traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Indeed, he has been called the “Buddhist prophet” (5), and his Buddhism has been classified as “prophetic” in the sense proposed by Friedrich Heiler (6). His forthrightness has been continued by SGI, and at first it was difficult for observers to get beyond the surface noise and study the doctrinal basis (7). However, when I interviewed members of SGI in San Francisco in 2002, I kept hearing words like process, development, and transformation. I rarely hear these words when I speak to Shin Buddhists. SGI understands itself as a work in progress, and it has been through at least two very different phases since its founding. In Phase I it was fanatical and exclusivist. In the United States it was perceived as an alien Japanese transplant controlled by the priesthood at Taisekiji, the head temple in Japan. Many observers still think of SGI in these terms, but, in Phase II, it has become not only open to other viewpoints but actively involved in interreligious dialogue, and its organization is democratic and indigenous.
Nichiren’s reputation for fanaticism is not undeserved, but it must be seen in context. He was regarded as a threat to the stability of Japan, even though he proposed, in his Rissho Ankoku Ron (Treatise on Keeping the Country at Peace by Buddhist Orthodoxy), a way to defend it by practicing Buddhism (8). In the 1930s “Soka Gakkai sought to promote values opposed to the imperial militarism that led to World War II” (9). It is understandable that Nichiren would be portrayed in the Japanese high schools as a fanatic (10), and that post-War Japanese would be nervous at the sight of the mass meetings, which Soka Gakkai then favored. A less culturally conditioned view of Nichiren would see him as a reformer opposing real abuses of power.
The term Soka Gakkai, “Value Creating Society,” is taken from the title of a four-volume treatise, Soka Kyoikugaku Taikei (A System for Promoting Values through Education), written between 1930 and 1934 by Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (18711944), which proposed that education should nourish a student’s sense of values. Makiguchi, a mild-mannered school teacher, was befriended by Toda Josei (19001958), who was a consummate organizer. Toda joined Makiguchi in Nichiren Shoshu after seeing a connection between religion and education, and Soka Gakkai took off with explosive force, attaining and then surpassing Toda’s goal of the conversion of 750,000 families. During this early period, Soka Gakkai “adopted a traditional Buddhist method of proselytizing called shakubuku, which is characterized by its activism, but members pursued it with such zeal as to arouse considerable criticism and ill feeling,” (11).
Under Toda, the objective was the conversion of Japan. His successor, Daisaku Ikeda (1928), expanded the principle of kosen-rufu (broad propagation) to include the whole world. Thus, at a meeting in Guam on January 26, 1975, the International Buddhist League was formed (12). This soon changed its name to “Nichiren Shoshu”, followed by the name of the country in which it operated, so that in the United States it was known as NSA, Nichiren Shoshu of America. Although its General Director changed his name from Masayasu Sadanaga to George M. Williams and strove to become as American as possible (eating, it is rumored, a hot dog a day for a year), the customs of NSA were markedly Japanese. Practitioners removed their shoes on entering the sanctuary and sat on the floor, women on one side and men on the other. At a conference in Hawaii in 1985, the women were required to wear sailor-suit uniforms, which was the “correct attire” for young ladies in a Japanese organization at the time (13). When shown a copy the NSA New Members’ Handbook by George Williams (Santa Monica, CA: Organization Center, 1983), SGI member David Eisenberg commented, with some amusement, that it looked so formal. He remembered that it was presented as dogma, with no room for discussion. Today, he said, a variety of introductory materials and members enter into dialogue with enquirers, emphasizing the spirit of the teachings, not the formalities.
According to David Chappell, Phase II of the movement began around February 1990, when President Ikeda visited the United States and the prefix “Nichiren Shoshu” was replaced by “Soka Gakkai International”. NSA thus became SGI-USA (14). Jane Hurst, however, traces the beginning of the change back to 1978 when, after the mass suicide/murder at Jonestown, NSA (as it still was) “became frightened of its own power” and discontinued shakubuku (15). The word is still used, but it is now understood to mean something like “introducing Buddhism to somebody” rather than forced conversion (16).
The changes went into high gear after November 8, 1991, when the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood in Japan, apparently afraid of the increasing power of SGI that greatly outnumbered it and angered at what it regarded as its insubordination, issued to SGI an “Admonition to Disband”, followed on November 28 by the dramatic step of excommunicating SGI as a whole. That this extraordinary action did not have the effect that the priesthood desired is shown by the fact that the admonition was characterized by a headline in Chugai Nippon, a Japanese Buddhist newspaper, as being “Like a Dog That Has the Courage to Bark from Afar”, and the excommunication was hailed by SGI as “The Independence Day of the Soul” (17).
The details of the split between Nichiren Shoshu and SGI, which was long and bitter, do not concern us here, and they have been well catalogued elsewhere (18). The result of the split was that SGI was free to go its own way without the imposition of Japanese cultural norms, especially the stultifying clericalism that had afflicted Buddhism ever since the time of the Shogun Yoritomo Minamoto, who established the Bakufu (Junta) in 1192, initiating 700 years of military dictatorship with the Emperors as puppet.
The emphasis in Phase II, which Jane Hurst calls the “middle age” of SGI (19), is on transforming oneself, realizing one’s full potential as a Buddha, being socially engaged, and praying for world peace. Instead of meekly bowing to authorities, SGI members now share dialogue with each other and strive for a democratic consensus. They sit on chairs for meetings and services, with their shoes in place, and are altogether American in their customs except for the chanting, which is still done in the traditional Japanese because, as many members told me, it works better that way.
David Chappell has called the two phases (or periods, as he prefers to say) those of shakubuku (evangelization) and taiwa (dialogue) (20). Danny Nagashima, the current General Director of SGI-USA, has frequently compared Phase I to a bus. Everyone was supposed to board it, and it would take people where they were supposed to go. Phase II he compares to a private car, in which one takes responsibility for driving oneself to enlightenment (21). What could be more American?
Nichiren and Shinran
Nichiren and Shinran were near contemporaries, and they were alike in upholding democratic ideals and the rights of the masses against religious and secular autocracy. Their respective lineages are also alike, unfortunately, in becoming that which they had rejected.
The significance of rule by the Shogunate cannot be exaggerated in the attempt to understand Japan today as well as at the time of Nichiren and Shinran. It was a dictatorship that came to use Buddhism, especially Jodo Shinshu, as its watchdog. Over time, registration with one’s local Buddhist temple (the danka, “family altar” or parish system) became a requirement for full citizenship, and Buddhism, like so much else in Japan, became a matter of servitude to the authorities. The image of Japan as a nation of drones marching in lockstep with their leader comes from this period of seven centuries, during which the proverb “The nail that sticks out is knocked back in” was all too true. Although Japanese culture in 2004 is very different from what it was under the Shogunate, the folk memory of oppression and the danger of dissent lingers.
SGI re-examined the teachings of Nichiren and realized that, because they were based on the Lotus Sutra and its doctrine of the universality of the Buddha Nature, they were compatible with democracy and North American culture. Shinran’s teachings are open to a similar interpretation. He said, “I do not have even a single disciple” (22), and Shinshu practitioners are called dobo (companions, literally “equal-rank friends”), rather than followers. If all are equally embraced by Amida’s Vow, democracy is natural.
Suggestions for a New North American Shinshu
What can Shinshu learn from the dramatic turnaround of Soka Gakkai? How does the change suggest a reform of Shinshu in North America?
It should be possible to reform Shinhsu in North America without the rancor of the Nichiren ShoshuSoka Gakkai split. The situation at Honpa Hongwanji is brighter than it was at Taisekiji. Although Hongwanji exercises doctrinal and (perhaps more importantly) financial control over its foreign missions, it is not as arrogant as Taisekiji and is refreshingly free from moral corruption. When Nichiren Shoshu priests visiting the United States demanded to be provided with sex workers, in open violation of their monastic vows, they shocked and alienated their lay followers. There has not been a similar widespread transgression of the marriage vows by Shinshu ministers.
Further, the main vision for a reform of Shinshu has already been proposed. Towards the end of World War I, Yemyo Imamura (18671932), first Bishop of HMH, published a tract, “Democracy according to the Buddhist Viewpoint.” This important and unjustly neglected document has recently been republished (23). It deserves careful study. In a brave and forthright, way Bishop Imamura assessed the war and offered a Buddhist response. The struggle, he writes, is ultimately about “democracy and liberalism against militarism and autocracy,” and Buddhism is on the side of democracy (24).
His words are those of a reformer. Given the prevalence of autocracy in Buddhism, Imamura’s view is better understood as a sermon on what he takes to be the true, ideal, Buddhism rather than an impartial account of its history. He emphasizes the Buddha’s denunciation of caste and the social equality stemming from what he calls the “absolute monism” of Buddhist philosophy (25). He expands on Shinran’s remark that he had no disciples, only “honorable friends” and “honorable co-workers.”
He must have been aware of the irony of his remarks, in the face of the heresy hunts for which Shinshu is famous, when he claimed that Shinshu is “founded upon the principle of absolute equality,” but he disdained to attack Hongwanji directly. In a very Japanese way, he kept his condemnation implicit (26). In a manner strikingly similar to that of the Soka Gakkai reformers, Imamura finds a doctrinal basis for democracy in the teaching of the universality of the Buddha Nature and, in a lyrical passage, he looks forward to a time when “the whole world is transformed into a Pure Land of Amita” (27).
Imamura died before his work could be completed. He had to juggle an autocratic Japan and a democratic United States. Since then, Japan has become a democracy, while the United States and Canada have continued to uphold the democratic ideals of their founders. The time is now ripe for honoring Bishop Imamura’s memory by bringing his vision into reality. Today, as we assess his many achievements, Yemyo Imamura’s guiding spirit continues to hold a shining value which has never lost its luster, a set of ideals and principles that continue to inspire us to carry out his vision here and now (28).
It is not the purpose of this essay to spell out the reform of Shinshu in detail. It is the job of the entire membership of the BCA, BCC, and HMH, meeting as dobo, to consider how best to proclaim Shinran’s message of perfect freedom in the 21st century. Bishop Imamura prophetically called for this reform more than 80 years ago. SGI has shown that reform is possible.
1. Corless, Roger. “The Pathless Path for North America” in The Pure Land (New Series) 1314, December 1997, pp. 618.
2. For an explanation of the terms “Elite Buddhism” and “Ethnic Buddhism” see Jan Nattier, “Who Is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America” in The Faces of Buddhism in America,” edited by Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998, pp. 188190.
3. For a statistical study and analysis, see David Chappell, “Racial Diversity in the Soka Gakkai” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, edited by Christopher S. Queen. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000, pp. 184217.
4. Corless, Roger. “Mainstream Queer Buddhism: LGBTQ Groups in Soka Gakkai International,” paper read at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Western Region, Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California, March 2426, 2002. Unpublished.
5. Anesaki, Masaharu. Nichiren the Buddhist Prophet. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1916. This classic work is still the best introduction to Nichiren.
6. This is the viewpoint of Noriyoshi Tamaru, “Soka Gakkai and Japanese Politics”, Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World, edited by David Machacek and Bryan Wilson. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 21 and note 6, who calls this “‘prophetic’ character without precedent in Japanese history, and…a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.”
7. A good example of this panicky approach is Noah S. Brannen, Soka Gakkai: Japan’s Militant Buddhism. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1968.
8. This was not an unusual idea. Zen Master Eisai wrote Kozen Gokoku Ron (“Treatise on Protecting the Country by Propagating Zen”), and in fact the notion was so common that it eventually gave birth to a slogan: goho-gokoku (“Protect Buddhism so as to protect the Country”).
9. Hurst, Jane. “Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai in America: The Pioneer Spirit” in The Faces of Buddhism in America, p. 89.
10. Interview with Richard Yoshimachi, Vice-General Director of SGI- USA, San Francisco, March 20, 2002.
11. Murata, Kiyoaki. Japan’s New Buddhism: An Objective Account of Soka Gakkai. New York and Tokyo: Walker/Weatherhill, 1969, pp. 1718.
12. Interview with Richard Yoshimachi, cit.
13. Information derived from interviews with David Eisenberg, Richard Yoshimachi, and Diana Elrod, at the San Francisco SGI center.
14. Chappell, David W. “Racial Diversity in the Soka Gakkai,” op. cit. Note 3, p. 189.
15. Hurst, Jane. “Nichiren Shoshu,” op. cit. Note 9, p. 89.
16. Interview with David Perry, an SGI Vice Chapter Leader, San Francisco, March 14, 2002.
17. Van Bragt, Jan. “An Uneven Battle: Soka Gakkai vs. Nichiren Shoshu” in Bulletin of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture 17, Spring 1993, pp. 1920.
18. The best overview is Appendix A: The 19901991 Schism of Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai, pp. 232245, in Bryan Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere, A Time to Chant: The Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Britain. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1994.
19. Hurst, Jane. “Nichiren Shoshu,” pp. 90 and 95.
20. Chappell, David W. “Racial Diversity,” p. 186.
21. Reported by David Eisenberg.
22. Tannisho 6, translated by Dennis Hirota et al in The Collected Works of Shinran. Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, volume 1, 1997, p. 664.
23. Tomoe, Moriya. Yemyo Imamura: Pioneer American Buddhist, translated by Tsuneichi Takeshita, edited by Alfred Bloom and Ruth Tabrah. Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center Press, 2000. The tract on democracy appears on pages 87 to 109.
24. “Democracy,” pp. 88 and 89f.
25. “Democracy,” p. 90. Although Imamura wrote excellent English, he was apparently unaware of the important distinction between the English philosophical terms “non-duality” (for the Buddhist viewpoint) and “monism” (for a viewpoint that Buddhism regards as mistaken). Mutatis mutandis, however, his argument remains cogent.
26. “Democracy,” p. 97.
27. “Democracy,” pp. 102 and 105. The influential Chinese Dharma Master Hsing Yun also calls for the building of Amita’s Pure Land in the human realm. See, for example, Fu Chi-Ying, Handing Down the Light: The Biography of Venerable Master Hsing Yun, translated by Amy Lui-Ma. Los Angeles: Hsi Lai University Press, 2000.
28. Imamura, Yemyo, p. 70f.
Growing American Jodo Shinshu: Are There Lessons in the Christian Mission Model?, by Gordon Bermant
| Library Menu | Home |