Finding Common Ground

James Shaheen

SINCE MEDITATION IS so closely associated with Buddhism in the West, it may be a surprise to many of our readers that the majority of the world’s Buddhists do not meditate at all. Yet one of America’s most vibrant Buddhist groups—and certainly the most ethnically, socially, and economically diverse—doesn’t practice sitting meditation. Instead, students of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) are known for chanting the daimoku. You’ve no doubt heard the daimoku yourself, whether from Tina Turner on Larry King Live or from a friend or colleague: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—veneration to the Lotus Sutra, which makes the radical proposition that everyone, without exception, can attain enlightenment through faith in the sutra’s teachings.

To a committed meditator this may sound odd. But just as, say, the Zen or Vipassana schools of Buddhism focus on meditation as the linchpin of enlightenment, so adherents of the Soka Gakkai put their faith in the practice of chant¬ing. Still, misunderstandings abound with regard to this practice; many wonder why SGI students often chant for specific things, including material wealth. But is that what they are really chanting for?

In this issue, contributing editor Clark Strand interviews Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International, who answers this question among many others that arise for the Western student of the med¬itative schools. It is Ikeda’s first interview with an American magazine, and he does much to shed light on a tradition rooted in the teachings of Nichiren, the 13th¬century reformist monk whose democratic approach to Buddhist teachings provided a practice available to all: “Because Nichiren’s approach is both so accessible and so practical,” Ikeda explains, “it enables ordinary people to cultivate the vast energy and wisdom they already possess within.” Perhaps this explains why SGI boasts over 12 million adherents worldwide, why it continues to grow, and why its membership is so diverse.

At first glance, SGI and other schools based on Nichiren’s teachings seem a far cry from the Buddhism meditators have come to know. There is so little contact between contemplative schools in the West and a tradition like SGI (or, for that matter, the Nipponzan Myohoji) that we seem to be talking about entirely different traditions—and some, no doubt, argue that we are. And yet SGI finds itself among the “single¬practice” traditions arising out of Kamakura Japan. The single-practice traditions place one practice above all others as the most correct and most effective means to enlightenment. As Zen does with meditation, SGI boils its practice down to a single primary activity. In SGI’s case, the practice of chanting the daimoku is broadly accessible by design and particularly appealing to laypeople. Indeed, SGI is the largest Buddhist lay organization in the world.

THE VIRTUE OF the single-practice approaches—and perhaps we can include Vipassana here—is that they provide an integral yet accessible path to realization. But there are drawbacks. Single-practice schools—whether meditation- or faith-oriented—tend to be highly selec¬tive in what they draw from the whole of the tradition, making it very hard for them to communicate with one another across sectarian lines. This, perhaps, goes to the heart of why there is so little contact—and why there are so many misunderstandings—between the schools. The relative absence of any dialogue between SGI and the meditative traditions, for example, leaves concealed their common history, so much so that we can lose sight of their common goal: liberation from suffering.

In coming issues, we will continue to explore the scope of Buddhist practice around the world and here at home. We hope not only to contextualize our practice in a broader, more inclusive framework but also to reveal the shared history of the Buddhist traditions. Whether you are of the mind that we’re dealing with entirely different religions or not, there is more common ground here than we might think. ▼

James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.