There is something that I’ve been wresting with for a while now in my Buddhist practice. As some of you might know, I started my Buddhist path in the SGI. Well, kind of (I’ll get to the real beginning later). It’s been nearly a year, and there are too many things that have been nagging me about Nichiren Buddhism in general. So here, I’m going to attempt to explain my experience, and some of my thoughts/feelings on Nichiren and SGI. Please note that I admit that I am completely a dharma-noob, and am fully open to criticism if some of my facts are wrong here.
So, a little over 3 years ago, I started looking into Buddhism. When my wife was much younger, she and her family practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the Nichiren Shoshu school. Later some of the members split off and became the SGI (I’m not going into “the split” in any kind of detail here because it isn’t relevant) and her family practiced with that lay-organization. So she had some background with the SGI, and I started looking there first. I also wanted to know about Buddhism at large, so that’s where I started my search. I wanted to know about the Buddha, what he taught, why there were so many schools (and what each one had to offer) and what made the SGI so special. So I read wiki and listened to podcasts and dove into a couple of sutras here and there, read some contemporary literature and commentaries on sutras, and decided that yes, this is a path that I’d like to start on. It spoke to me like no other religion or philosophy had before. It was in the Four Noble Truths that I found more insight and wisdom than any other text or sermon I’d previously come across.
Flash-forward to last spring/summer. It turns out some of the SGI members that my wife and her family used to practice with years ago are in the area where we live. I didn’t know much about Nichiren Buddhism, but started to look into it. I found Nichiren to be a bit of an extremist in some of his writings, but as I learned a bit about the culture he lived in, it became clear as to why he was so adamant about what he believed. So I thought, okay, I’ll give this a shot. If anything, it was connecting me to Buddhists in my area (I didn’t think there were any up here!) and would give me real live people to talk to about the whole process.
Okay, and now we’re here in the present day. And after practicing for a while, I have some issues with SGI and Nichiren Buddhism in general. Before I get into them, I need to state that the issues that I have are my issues, and I’m not condemning anyone’s religion, nor am I trying to refute anyone’s religion (and hopefully I didn’t over generalize too much). So here are my grievances in no particular order.
1) Nichiren Buddhists claim that Nichiren Buddhism is the only “true Buddhism™” and all other teachings (and schools of Buddhism) are “lesser” teachings. Even the different schools of Nicherin continually attempt to refute eachother and claim ownership over true Buddhism. It’s all over SGI publications and I’ve heard it at several meetings as well. They characterize “old Buddhism” as being fatalistic, not open to the masses, rudimentary, and not generally valid. In the SGI, they talk about priests and monks as if they were just money-hungry hucksters trying to trick people into worshiping them.
This is just more arrogant bullshit. There are few things in the world I can stand less than religious pissing contests over who has the “true” faith. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I also don’t give a shit if I’m “right” or “wrong’ (as if a thing like that could even be quantified). I really don’t. I didn’t pick the Buddhist path because I thought it was the One True Path™, I chose the Buddhist path because it is right for me. Some people like IPAs, I prefer an Amber Ale. There is no “right” beer. Get over yourself.
2) Nichiren Buddhists rely completely on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin and The Lotus Sutra, and take a literal interpretation of much of the sutra. I’ve been told that The Lotus Sutra is the only valid teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, because he supposedly (and this is to be taken literally and as historic fact) said that the Lotus Sutra is the highest teaching, and that every single teaching he spent those 40+ years teaching were only to prepare people for the Lotus Sutra. The SGI basically throws out every other teaching and sutra (both the older Pali and Mahayana) claiming that they are “lesser” teachings, and that everything related to true Buddhism can be found in The Lotus Sutra. They really couldn’t care less about the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path, dependant origination, mindfulness, or cultivating compassion and equanimity the way the Buddha taught it. I’ve been told that those teachings are like “grade school Buddhism”, and that only the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin are advanced enough to be called true Buddhism.
While I find there to be valid and useful teachings in the Lotus Sutra, I am not about to throw out any of the Buddha’s teachings. I can’t bring myself to believe that the Lotus Sutra was actually hidden away in a Dragon Realm for 500 years, or that it is the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha. Most scholars seem to agree with me on that as well. I also don’t find the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to be a good vehicle to be solely relied upon. For me, a better approach is to incorporate the teachings into my life alongside the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. I understand the metaphors as metaphors, and take the teachings to heart. (I should also emphasize that I don’t know if every school of Nicherin Buddhism takes the Lotus Sutra as a historical teaching or not)
3) Recently, I’ve been told that Shakyamuni wasn’t the true Buddha, and that he was simply preparing the way for his mentor who was reincarnated/reborn as Nichiren Daishonin who is the “true” Buddha.
Well, I didnt’ know there was such a thing as a “true” Buddha and an un-true Buddha. That also contradicts the fact that I’ve been told that I’m a Buddha (just haven’t realized it) as well. Does that mean that I’m an un-true Buddha? Crap. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong.
4) Nichiren Buddhism seems to hinge on two things that I find incompatible with reality. First, that the Lotus Sutra is historical and the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha, and second, that Nichiren Daishonin is the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.
I’ve touched on this already, but basically I just don’t believe that the LS was preached by the Buddha, then hidden away in a dragon realm, only to then be revealed as a teaching that was made for the masses. It certainly seems inspired by his teachings, but his literal word? I can’t believe that. Nor does the evidence point in that direction. There are great and significant teachings to be found there, but they need not be taken at their word for them to be meaningful and beneficial to one’s practice.
I found this comment on Barbara’s Buddhism Blog over on About.com back in December that sums up the myth of the latter-day of the law and Nichiren nicely. Basically, you’d have to believe that Shakyamuni lived 3000, not 2500 years ago in order for the timeline to work out. And you’d also have to believe that the Buddha was into making specific prophecies, neither of which I find realistic or necessary on a path of awakening.
5) SGI is a cult of personality (note: I didn’t say cult). Members are taught to look to the leader of the SGI, Daisaku Ikeda, as their leader, mentor, and sensei. It is taught that there is a line of succession from the Buddha to Nichiren to Ikeda, and that he is our mentor.
One of the main pieces of literature for the SGI is The World Tribune. It’s a 6-8 page newspaper that arrives in the mail once a week (for $30/year) and it is basically a press release for Daisaku Ikeda. You can’t go 4 sentences without either reading his name, or reading something that he’s written. I’ve tried. It’s filled with stories about how people’s lives were terrible until they realized their mentor/disciple relationship with Ikeda, and stories about Ikeda having the “heart of a lion king”, and it seems that every week Ikeda is receiving an honorary degree or award from somewhere.
Personally, I find Daisaku Ikead to be largely uninspiring (though he has written some inspriational lines here and there), and wholly lacking any real spiritual presence. He seems more like your average stereotype of a Japanese businessman than someone who is on a path of enlightenment. Ikeda certainly has a skill for talking to people, but less in a Dalia Lama type of way, and more of an insurance-salesman type of way. Everywhere I turn, it seems like I’m being “sold” this religion; and as such, there is very little substance revealed in his or the organizations’ words at-large. It is mostly just dialogue promoting the religion and organization in some way, though at times it can focus on how the SGI is the only true Buddhism, and rhetoric that simply aims to validate their position as “true Buddhism.” And let’s not even begin to get into how many millions of dollars that man holds on to, and how many monuments have been erected in his name (all while he denounces people who have statues of the Buddha as idol worshipers) or how tied in the SGI is in with the government in Japan.
6) Members that turn away from the SGI are either harassed or attempts are made to get them back. It isn’t an issue of “okay, best of luck on your path!”. It is seen as something gravely disappointing and almost evil.
My mother-in-law recently sought out some local practitioners of the Nichiren Shoshu school, and when some of the SGI members found out, they flipped. We were then told that basically, the Nichiren Shoshu was evil, and that all they do is worship the priesthood, and likened them to horrible things like the Catholic Church and the Dalia Llama (exact words – theirs, not mine). We were then given some material which on the cover said that it was a refutation of the Nichiren Shoshu. I glanced at it, but really couldn’t have cared less. You would have thought they’d be happy that there were other Buddhists in the area, but apparently, it’s a very bad thing that they are even practicing here!
Along with this is the whole concept of kosen-rufu and shakubuku which is basically a Buddhist version of what Christians call “witnessing” (basically an attempt at conversion). Personally, I hate it when people try to sell me their religion. Nothing will turn me off faster. I don’t want a one world religion. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to people about what I practice, it just means that I’m not going to go up to people and try to convert them. I think a better approach is to live the best life that you can, and if your greater virtues are rooted in your practice (whatever it may be) and people want to know about it, then take that opportunity to let them in on it if you feel so inclined.
7)The reasons I started on the Buddhist path were many at the time. I sought a philosophy and religion that addressed mindfulness at its core. I have ADHD, and at times my mind resembles a giant projection screen with 40 small screens of picture-in-picture all going at once, each one changing randomly at times. It makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything, and it also makes it impossible to remember the little stuff. I’ve perfected the art of forgetfulness. My emotions can run wild at times, and lead me to suffer because of it. While I don’t want to offer up Buddhism as “self-help”, I do believe there are real world benefits to practicing, and much self-improvement can be gained along the way. I also believe that Buddhism integrates nicely with my other beliefs that center on inter-connectedness and compassion, and help to balance my life in favor of ethical conduct.
I find Nichiren Buddhism to be an unsatisfactory vehicle for most of these things. Again, these are my feelings on the matter. If you or someone you know is able to find comfort or refuge or benefit from practicing Nichiren Buddhism or with the SGI, by all means more power to ya’. I have a few other minor issues with the practice as well, but I’m sure there will be comments on this post (I hope anyway) and I’ll be able to address some of them there.
I should make mention that there are aspects of the practice that I enjoy (diversity in the organization, accessability, ritual, focus, something to share with my wife…. among others), and that it hasn’t been a completely terribble experience. I should also note that I don’t believe that every Nicherin Buddhist (or SGI member) is a fundamentalist, but that the statements made above seem to be part of the “party line”, if you will.
So, where does all of this leave me? Buddhist purgatory I suppose. At the heart of Nichiren Buddhism is the practice of chanting nam myoho renge kyo (daimoku). The act of chanting is something I tend to enjoy, even though chanting in Japanese can be challenging and unfamiliar. For me, it helps to knock me down a few pegs, and bring me down to the mundane. And while I find little connection to the gohonzon itself, it does help to center my practice. I think I’m done with the SGI, though as for chanting, I’m going to make a real effort to chant more regularly. However, my intentions will be decidedly different from that which Nichiren Buddhists hold so dear.
My wife really enjoys the practice, though she’s no fan of Ikeda or the fundamentalism we’ve encountered so far (though we have found some really nice people too, and I’m sure there are plenty more reasonable members out there… somewhere…). As such, chanting together is something we can share, something that will bring us closer together. I haven’t been chanting much lately, and it’s largely due to the issues that I’ve stated here. Getting this out in the open will hopefully help me to re-focus my practice. I want it to be more personalized, and something that truly speaks to me.
So like I said, I’m going to chant with my wife. And sometime in the future, I’ll incorporate a meditation practice. I envision chanting, then spending 15 minutes (to start) afterward in meditation. I see chanting as a tool to use to clear my mind, to sort of “prep” it for meditation or contemplation. But what type of meditation practice? Samatha? Vipassana? Zazen? I have yet to decide. I have a stack of books to read, starting with The Wings to Awakening, followed by a bunch of Zen books (nothing with “and the art of…” in the title) and then I think I’ll move on to just the sutras (prob with commentary) and see what I can find in the way of contemporary Theravadin literature.
I’d like to say I’ll seek out a teacher, but around here there are practically none. I have had an offer to sit with a grassroots Zen group that’s a little over and hour drive from here, but that is simply too far. I have a 17 month old son, and a wife that will give birth to a baby girl at the end of September. My family is my main responsibility in life at the moment, so for now I will have to go it alone. Thankfully, I live in 2010, and am financially secure enough (for now…) to afford access to the internet. I can find many of the sutras online for free (or for cheap on Amazon or local used book stores), and teachers are making themselves more accessable online as well. I also am able to seek the greater iSangha for help and guidance (and laughs) if need be.
I’m not opposed to settling into a tradition at this point. Far from it. What is right for me at this moment is to learn. That’s how I work. I need the intellectual foundation first, and from there I will develop a practice that is meaningful and provides me with the direction and support needed to cultivate the mindfulness, compassion, and equanimity that I started searching for in the first place.