Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Soka Gakkai, Buddhism, and Wanting to be "The Best and Only,"

Adam over at Home Brew Dharma has a heartfelt, in depth post on his experiences with a Soka Gakkai Buddhist community. He brings up a lot of troubling issues, which Soka Gakkai in general has been accused of by many others. The first point Adam makes seems to be the lynch pin for the rest of what follows:

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.

Whenever groups start getting into the "we're the best and only" kind of messaging, it's trouble. I've seen and heard comments in Zen texts and from Zen teachers that are the same thing disguised as something the Buddha supposedly said. Mahayana groups have a long history of denigrating Theravada Buddhists, and it's also true that some Theravadas dismiss everything beyond the Pali Canon as fictional rubbish. So, any claims being made by SGI of superiority are certainly troubling, but aren't really unique in the Buddhist world. The fact is every school has had, and continues to have powerful individuals and groups who claim they are the best, and that everything else is lesser. It's sad, but true.

For some reason, I have felt compelled to offer SGI and Nichiren communities in general the benefit of the doubt. Partly, because they have routinely been the most diverse Buddhist communities out there - attracting people of wide ranging racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. And knowing this, I'm also well aware of how often groups that support poor people and people of color regardless of economic background are easy targets of hate campaigns. The whole ACORN scandal comes immediately to mind because it was so obvious that the flaws of the organization were blown completely out of proportion by the mainstream media, conservative politicians, and corporate leaders who wished to see it disappear.

Adam's commentary doesn't appear to be coming from this kind of place at all. It's really trying to make sense of what sounds like a difficult experience with a spiritual community. It makes me wonder if it's something about that community that is happening. Or if there are certain teachings within SGI that can lead to extremism if any individual group isn't well led or grounded. I don't feel I know enough to really say one way or another.

It does offer us a reminder, though, of the challenges that can come in communities. People want to be united, on the same page. And sometimes, things get terribly twisted in order to get people to think alike and behave alike. And "being the best and only" is a particularly easy way to hook people because all of us have some of that desire within us, so if you are able to be part of a group that claims it is top dog, even if you're life is a mess, you can say "I'm still part of this wonderful group."

So, maybe SGI communities have more problems with this, but it's an issue facing each of us, everyday, in all our interactions.

*photo of members of the Bharat Soka Gakkai group in India.


Adam said...

You're completely on target about the diversity. And it's not just in the general membership, it extends to the lay-leadership as well. White, black, asian, hispanic, native, men, women, young and old, rich and poor, are all represented.

I don't have much experience in the way of other Buddhist groups or sanghas, but from what I gather, the same can't be said for most of the other sanghas and organizations out there.

I think the slippery slope becomes downright dangerous when it goes from "we have a great teaching" to "we have the one and only true teaching". For one reason, the group spends more time trying to validate their "one true teaching" and flaming others than they do focusing on their own development.

This is a great response. Thanks Nathan.

David said...

Nathan, you wondered if if there are certain teachings within SGI that can lead to extremism if any individual group isn't well led or grounded, and that is precisely the case. 99% of the people who join the SGI, or any Nichiren group, have little or no prior knowledge of Buddhism. They are fed an erroneous version of Buddhist history and a lopsided dharma, and it is no wonder that their view of Buddhism is forever skewered.

The extremism begins with the founder, Nichiren, and really to be a follower of Nichiren, who taught that all other forms of Buddhism were invalid and heretical, one must be a bit of an extremist also. Nichiren is supposed have said, famously, that Zen practitioners are devils.

Jack Daw said...

I have offered several (I do mean SEVERAL) SGI buddhists to talk about their practice on ZDZD and I come up empty everytime.

From a personal viewpoint the 'tests' that they have seem suspect in that it allows the teaching to perpetuate itself. The only thing I ever hear about are the damned tests.

My issue with the organization is that it seems similar to the Mormons in that part of the community's duties is to ensure that no-one strays from the flock. Less consideration for the person and her development and more about keeping the group together.

That sort of community pressure is not present in any sangha that I was a part of.

Great post to both of ya!


Daniel-James-Perez said...

As an SGI member of nearly 7 years, I struggle with this point at almost every meeting. I love the diversity, humanism, and social engaged Buddhism that the SGI embodies - but I cannot accept any teaching as the "one and only Truth." There is just too much wisdom and value in other Buddhisms and in other religions. Frankly, its a ridiculously unBuddhist perspective to hold. Even Bodhisattva Never-disparaging, in the Lotus Sutra, bowed and acknowledged the Buddhahood of those who slandered and threw knives at him. It also contradicts the SGI charter which mandates respect for all religions. Labeling another religion or Buddhism as "false" is certainly disparaging and disrespectful. I think a lot of these attitudes come from an overly-literal translation of Nichiren's writings. Nichiren spoke out against corruption that existed in other Buddhisms in his day in Japan. Today, where freedom of religion can be taken for granted, its time to ward off feelings of superiority - and to just cherish our practice and love one another, without judgment.

Trevor said...

Nichiren was right: Zen practitioners ARE devils! We need all the help we can get...

Nathan said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Adam, I can say that I've heard more comments about SGI being extreme and expressing superiority than any other Buddhist group.

David, I don't feel I know Nichiren's teachings well enough to know if he frequently disparaged others. I do know that our schools founder, Dogen, from the same time period, often took shots at groups practicing around him he felt were inferior. It may be of a completely different nature with Nichiren, but I think part of the problem comes when people emphasize statements a founder made that support his or her view as better than others. Dogen was brilliant and is still teaching a great many of us today through his wisdom, but some of his comments can, and have, been used against other groups. I can imagine comments from Nichiren are being used in a similar fashion, and maybe by more people.

Also, it may be true that a lot people coming to SGI have little background in Buddhism, but I see similar things amongst a lot of folks arriving in Zen communities. Maybe a difference is that those coming to SGI communities haven't done a bunch of reading beforehand, although I have no idea if that's the case. In some ways, until you've practiced, either on your own, or in a community, most of what you "know" about Buddhism is way off the mark.

John, I don't get the "tests" either. It seems odd at best.

Daniel, thanks for your comments and perspective.

Petteri Sulonen said...

What if the SGI are just more honest than the rest of us?

I'm pretty certain that almost all of us, at some level, believe that the path we're pursuing is the best one. If we didn't, we wouldn't be pursuing it. Yet few of us come out and say so. Brad Warner does. His teacher did—I hear that when someone asked him where they should study Buddhism, he answered "Everyone should only study Buddhism with me!"

I know for a fact that this is something I have to deal with all the time. Much of the time, the best I can do is give other traditions the benefit of the doubt. I figure the best I can do is file it in the "yet another shadow in the mind" bin.

IOW, yeah, it's irritating, for sure, and the attitude certainly can lead to some very particular bad places. Then again, a syncretistic or very open attitude can lead you to some other bad places.

If Nichiren works for them, and Nichiren includes the overt expression of the belief that other flavors of Buddhism are altogether inferior, then more power to them, I say—it's no skin off my back. (It's also something I personally wouldn't tolerate, but that's just me or my karmic affinity, if you will.)

Nathan said...


I think there's some truth to what you say.

For myself, though, Soto Zen was what I landed in, mostly because it was what the center closest to me was offering. I'd read plenty about Buddhism beforehand, but didn't seek out a particular branch really.

I do think Zen is superior "for me" - which is an imporant distinction. Does it work for everyone? Hell no! Will it always even work for me? I'm not sure. But for the past several years, I've been committed and feel that commitment supports me immensely.

I don't really feel compelled to take shots at the value of other Buddhist schools, even if they confound me. I know I've held some disdain for Christianity, but frankly I'm trying to wear through that as well because it's just another hindrance.

It's seems most intelligent to focus on what path creates awakening in your life.

David said...

To my mind there is a big difference between offering criticisms of other practices as Dogen did and outright condemning them like Nichiren. Dogen comes off far less strident than Nichiren.

In discussing this it helps to remember that Japanese Buddhism, especially at that time, was a pretty argumentative, and sometimes violent, affair. Some of those guys took the idea of dharma debate to a whole other level.

In my experience, Zen groups offer a more balanced overview of Buddhist history and dharma. Every group has some sort of an agenda, still it's one thing to present teachings tilted towards a particular view and quite another to completely mislead people.

Nathan said...


Good points. I guess I don't know what Nichiren said well enough to have clarity.


Algernon said...

Very thoughtful post and comments.

In Cambridge, I did some interfaith work with some members of the local SGI community, and they seemed sincerely broad-minded and open to me. I remember being quite impressed by them.

Other than that, I have little experience with SGI.

In response to Petteri, "I'm pretty certain that almost all of us, at some level, believe that the path we're pursuing is the best one."

I hear this a lot and it sounds logical. It's just not part of my experience. Maybe, like Nathan, it's more that my path works best "for me," but I have no need for certainty even about that. I just do it. When it doesn't work, I'll probably try something else, the same way I've been "trying out" Zen for 17 years.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Algernon, did you always feel that way, or only after 5, 10, 15 years of Zen? From what I've seen, many people who have really practiced deeply and long tend to have this particular delusion sort of worn down. Not always, though, but sometimes.

Algernon said...

To answer briefly, Petteri, there was never a sense of certitude even though this path has always felt appropriate and often joyous for me. It's felt more like an adventure, as exploring wild terrain, than "this is the right thing and other people should be doing it, too!"