Filed in Nichiren, Chanting

As American as Apple Pie?

An Insider's view of Nichiren ShoshuSandy McIntosh

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"This is vulgar," A. pronounced loudly into my ear. "This is vulgarity itself." We were standing under an arch in the gymnasium of a public school in Manhattan in June 1971. Fifteen clean-cut, energetic young men were waving their arms about vigorously, leading the audience in a song called "Have a Gohonzon,"* set to the Jewish song "Havah Nagila":

Have a Gohonzon,
Have a Gohonzon
Have a Gohonzon,
Chant for awhile.
You'll find your life will be
Full of vitality,
Watching your benefits
Grow in a pile ...

*Gohonzon: In Japanese, honzon indicates an object of worship. Go is an honorific prefix. Nichiren Daishonin embodied "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," as a mandala (Sanskrit for an object or altar on which buddhas and bodhisattvas are represented). The Gohonzon may 

be either a paper scroll or wood block with Chinese characters.

The audience, a black-and-white cross section of New York City's diverse ethnic and economic population packed the room; they sang and clapped with ferocious enthusiasm.

"Look at them," said A. "Look at their glazed eyes, will you? They're fanatics."

"The lecture was okay," A. continued in a slightly more conciliatory tone. "That Japanese woman started to make some sense. But those testimonials—'I chanted for a new car and I got it!' 'I chanted for a boyfriend,' 'I chanted for money ...' And this stupid song! All of it's crap! This isn't what Buddhism's about."

The audience sang on:

Your surroundings may be loony,
Just remember:
Esho Funi!

"Now, that part's true," said A.

"This place is filled with very dangerous loonies. What's Esho Funi?"

"It's the doctrine of inseparability of person and environment," I answered loudly, hoping he could hear above the noise. "Your environment reflects your inner life."

"Well, not mine," said A., putting on his coat. "This isn't my reflection. I'm off." And he stomped out.

I stayed on, frustrated that he had seen nothing beyond the egregious testimonials, beyond the silly song with its ungainly lyrics. I thought I had seen something, and, although I was also uncomfortable in those unfamiliar surroundings, I thought it worth exploring.

A friend from college had introduced me to Buddhism six months before. The tradition she practiced was Nichiren Shoshu, a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism best known for its organization of laity, Soka Gakkai. She had joined Soka Gakkai (then called NSA, or Nichiren Shoshu of America) a year earlier. She had shown me her altar and prayer beads, and explained that if I chanted ''Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," I could get anything I wanted.

"Anything?" I asked her, baffled. "Fame?"



"Well," she answered, "the founder of this Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin, said that even one time chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo might be enough." 

"Okay. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! How about going to bed with me?" 

"On the other hand," she continued, "Nichiren Daishonin also said one million might not be enough. It all depends ... " 

Nevertheless, I decided to try the practice. I knew a little about Buddhism from D. T. Suzuki's essays. I had read Hesse's Siddhartha and Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. I was twenty-two years old, a college graduate with a book of published poems but with no immediate plans. I needed focus. I tried yoga briefly, but could not manage the vegetarianism that I understood was mandatory. I looked at Zen, but the practice seemed stark and unfriendly. This Buddhism, strange on the outside, might offer a place to begin. Besides, my friend had acquired a pristine, buoyant spirit. 

I began to chant on my own. My first contact with other Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists took place on a New Year's Eve. We chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo together in their New York City Community Center on West 57th Street. At midnight we applauded and cheered and wished each other Happy New Year. I was elated. I could not fly or see through walls, but I had accomplished something of great difficulty, chanting for four hours without pause. I felt a quiet, reassuring rightness of purpose.

A. and I had known each other for several years. We taught together in the Poets-in-the-Schools program. We spent our summers in the Hamptons, part of the community of writers centered around East Hampton's Guild Hall, the museum and cultural center. We lived nearby in the Springs, the famous artists-and-writers colony where Willem de Kooning lives and Jackson Pollack died. When I first told him about Nichiren Shoshu, A. was intrigued. He too had been interested in Buddhism. I lent him my set of borrowed books and pamphlets. 

A. was disappointed in the literature. "The language is rough," he told me. "And the philosophy is pretty thin." 

I became defensive. I suggested that the sect had been in this country only a short time. Its translation skills would certainly improve. Besides, the book was written for a mass audience who could not be counted on to understand subtleties without schooling. In any event, I had planned to go to an NSA discussion meeting in Manhattan. Would he come along? Reluctantly, he agreed. 

After A. left the meeting I did not hear from him again for several months. When I met him by chance at a party in East Hampton, he asked if I was still practicing with NSA. He shook his head sadly. I would be sorry if I stayed with them any longer, he predicted. "No reasonable, intelligent person is going to fall for that garbage," he warned. "Anyhow, they're not your kind. You're a poet. You've got something to offer. Why waste your time with inferior people?"

He himself had found real Buddhism, he told me. He was going to study with Trungpa Rinpoche. Had I heard of him? No, I told him, I hadn't. "He's a poet," A. said. "He's not shallow."

A. stayed with Trungpa until Trungpa's death in 1987, and then he proceeded to study with other Tibetan teachers. Despite my friend's counsel, I've continued with the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for more than twenty years.

Others who knew about my involvement with the movement have been harsher than A. The most telling criticisms came from those who practiced other varieties of Buddhism. They wondered where, in Soka Gakkai's visible and frenetic public display—its conventions and parades staged in major cities, its proselytizing groups gathered on street corners or swarming over college campuses—where was Buddhist dharma? Where was the contemplation, the dedication, the struggle for enlightenment, the evidence of responsibility to Buddhist practice that has characterized Buddhism for thousands of years? Where was anything of substance in what I was doing and advocating that others do?

People in the United States and Japan who join Soka Gakkai are not often the same kinds of people attracted to other forms of Buddhism. In the U.S., Soka Gakkai appeals to a spectrum of the population in diverse economic, racial, and cultural groups. Solid demographic and psychographic information is not available, but judging by articles in Soka Gakkai's American weekly newspaper, The World Tribune, today's American membership includes many people living in lower-income, inner-city areas such as Detroit and Watts, as well as middle-class people living in major cities and suburbs. (African-Americans make up an estimated twenty percent of the membership, a significantly larger proportion than can be found in other American Buddhist groups.) Few avant-garde artists, writers, or scholars of contemplative bent (those who seem drawn to other Buddhist groups) appear in news coverage. Meanwhile, the testimonials of famous Soka Gakkai members—including those of Patrick Swayze, Roseanne Arnold, Tina Turner, and Herbie Hancock and assorted sports figures—have made the practitioners known as Buddhists who chant for fame and fortune.

Most people assume that Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai are the same. They are not. Nichiren Shoshu is a religion, a sect of Buddhism. Soka Gakkai is a social, political, and cultural organization. Most Soka Gakkai members practice a version of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism regularly. Yet, although the religion owes its eight to ten million worldwide members and (apparently) uncountable wealth to the lay organization, the complex historical alliance between these affiliations has never been harmonious.

Nichiren Daishonin (Nichiren means "Sun Lotus," and Daishonin means "great sage"), the founder of the sect, was born in Japan in 1222. He began his career as a monk of the T'ien-t'ai sect of Mahayana Buddhism. The teachings of T'ien-t'ai are distinguished by their reverence for the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra in Sanskrit). T'ien-t'ai places this teaching text a bove all others because of its emphasis on the universality of Buddha-nature and the promise that everyone—men and women alike—may attain enlightenment in this life, "as one is."

At about the age of sixteen, Nichiren left his home province for Kamakura, Mount Hiei, and other centers of Buddhist learning. He spent several years studying the sutras and their commentaries as well as the teachings of different sects. In the end, he became convinced that Shakyamuni's teachings in the Lotus Sutra pointed to the Great Pure Law that could lead people directly to enlightenment. At the same time, he surmised that he had been entrusted with the task of propagating the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law, the time identified by the Daishutsu (Sutra of the Great Assembly) as beginning about two thousand years after the historical Buddha. In 1279, Nichiren inscribed the Dai-Gohonzon, a mandala that he declared to be the ultimate purpose of his advent in this world.

Until his death in 1282, Nichiren Daishonin wrote voluminous dissertations on the Lotus Sutra and correct practice. He debated, proselytized, remonstrated with the government, and underwent a series of government-ordered persecutions, including an attempted beheading that was thwarted only by the auspicious appearance of a comet. His prophecies of natural disaster and foreign invasion that Japan would undergo came true. "No matter what you might think of his convictions," I recall my Japanese history professor at Columbia telling our class, "his predictions were completely accurate."

After Nichiren's death, several sects of Nichiren Buddhism were founded by his disciples. By the second decade of this century, Nichiren Shoshu's membership had declined, leaving it one of the smallest of the five surviving Nichiren sects. It took the tremendous propagation efforts of Soka Gakkai to popularize it.

The original name for Soka Kyoiku-gakkai means "Value-Creation Education Society." The organization was founded in 1930 by a teacher and educational theorist named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, whose circle was educational, not religious, in nature, and the membership consisted mostly of schoolteachers.

Makiguchi became friends with a Nichiren Shoshu lay member and school principal. The evangelical Buddhist set out to convert Makiguchi, basing his appeal on those philosophical similarities which both men perceived in Nichiren Shoshu and in Value Creation Theory. According to community lore, their discussions ended in a somewhat formal debate, which Makiguchi lost. As a consequence, he converted to Nichiren Shoshu, along with Makiguchi's followers, including his principle disciple, Josei Toda.

In 1943, at a time when Soka Kyoiku-gakkai had a membership of about three thousand, the Japanese military ordered all religions to align themselves with Shinto, the native Japanese religion. Makiguchi, together with a group of Nichiren Shoshu priests, challenged the decree. He was arrested and imprisoned, as was Toda. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944 at the age of seventy-three. His disciple, Toda, then forty-four, was released a year later.

The impact of his master's death, and of his own mystical vision of Buddhism while in prison, led Toda to assume leadership with a mission to expand the organization's membership. By the end of the war, the membership of Soka Gakkai had all but disappeared. Five years later, under Toda's stewardship, the membership had regained fifteen hundred families. At a meeting held at a Nichiren Shoshu temple, Toda made the following pledge to his pupils: "I intend to convert 750,000 families before I die. If this is not achieved by the time of my death, do not hold a funeral service for me but throw my ashes into the sea off Shinagawa." He met his goal by 1957 and died the following year.

Soka Gakkai today claims between eight and ten million members, living in more than one hundred countries. It sponsors an influential Japanese political party, Komeito, several high schools and a university, two art museums, several publishing companies, various newspapers, and many Japanese national and international cultural associations. It has acquired massive amounts of money and property. 

Soka Gakkai's American branch was founded in 1960 by a Japanese law student named Masayasu Sadanaga (now known as George M. Williams), who had been a Soka Gakkai member in Japan. In the eighties, at its high point, the American organization boasted a total of 500,000 members, a number that—if anywhere near accurate—would make the Soka Gakkai the largest Buddhist organization in the United States. 

But in Japan, Soka Gakkai's success has come with a price. Extravagant financial growth over the past fifty years has been accompanied by a reputation for corruption. This spring, the New York Times reported that several years ago the organization was fined millions of dollars for interest payments on undeclared income. In 1990, the police discovered a Soka Gakkai vault containing $1.2 million in yen notes hidden in a garbage dump in Yokohama. More recently, according to the article, $11 million connected with the proposed purchase by Soka Gakkai of two Renoir paintings disappeared. This, in turn, raised questions about whether the lay group was stashing money away for political payoffs. In November 1991, the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the membership of Soka Gakkai en masse. This action is now forcing members throughout the world to choose between joining a Nichiren Shoshu temple or remaining with an unchurched and religiously compromised Soka Gakkai. 

Nevertheless, the organization prospers. Soka Gakkai of America now (more realistically) puts its active membership at about 140,000—significantly lower than earlier estimates but still an impressive figure. Its members hold monthly meetings that seek to initiate new members as well as provide information and fellowship to established practitioners. Although members no longer sing "Have a Gohonzon" during meetings, and street-corner proselytizing has been discouraged, the organization continues to emphasize acquisition of material and spiritual benefits as a path to salvation.

Is Soka Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu the true American Buddhism? To an observer, the practices of Soka Gakkai seem tailor-made for the American fast-food, instant-wish-fulfillment culture. You can chant for money, for a better job, for love, for any of the 108 human desires symbolized by the 108 prayer beads that Nichiren Shoshu members hold while they chant. An observer would note that Soka Gakkai practitioners spend far more time in discussion meetings and other group activities than they do in disciplined contemplation or consultation with Buddhist teachers. Because its emphasis falls on action rather than view, Soka Gakkai appeals to a broad range of Americans with varying educational backgrounds, even as it may alienate those who enjoy meditative Buddhist traditions. Without looking further, an observer might reasonably conclude that Soka Gakkai represents only a simplified version—or even a cynical perversion—of Buddhism created for American consumption. But if Soka Gakkai appeals to the American Dream, it has appealed to the Japanese Dream as well.

In the early fifties, during Soka Gakkai's reconstruction, the then president, Josei Toda, succeeded in attracting a vast number of potential converts by describing the mechanism of Buddhist practice as a money-making machine:

Suppose a machine which never fails to make everyone happy were built by the power of science or by medicine .... Such a machine, I think, could be sold at a very high price. Don't you agree? If you used it wisely, you could be sure to become happy and build up a terrific company. You could make a lot of money. You could sell such machines for about 100,000 Yen apiece.
But Western science has not yet produced such a machine. It cannot be made. Still, such a machine has been in existence in this country, Japan, since seven hundred years ago. This is the Dai-Gohonzon. [Nichiren] Daishonin made this machine for us and gave it to us common people. He told us: "Use [the machine] freely. It won't cost you any money ... And yet, people of today don't want to use it because they don't understand the explanation that the Dai-Gohonzon is such a splendid machine.

Toda's words caught the attention of those Japanese impoverished by the Second World War and desperate for survival. In like manner, the appeal attracts many Americans living in the inner cities who are desperate for a way to improve their lives. For these people who know little material prosperity, the more conventional Buddhist view—that enlightenment is encouraged by abandoning all attachment to material things—is virtually senseless. After all, you must first have an adequate supply of food or own a car or a washing machine before you can give up an attachment to them.

The white middle-class practitioners who follow Zen, Tibetan, or Theravadan Buddhism are wary if not downright disdainful of Nichiren Shoshu but—whether they acknowledge it or not—they are involved in a dilemma with striking parallels. The issue for them is not money but ego. In a culture where low self-esteem and depression are endemic, the question arises: "Does one have to have a healthily developed ego to give it up?" Yet many of the same middle-class, materialistically secure white practitioners of other traditions have remained hostile to Nichiren Shoshu without investigating its different economic and cultural contexts. 

To traditional Buddhists the idea of a Buddhism that encourages its practitioners to chant for BMWs appears blatantly heretical, and the description of the group's object of worship as a machine for granting wishes sounds ridiculous. Even so, the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is not trivial, nor is its effect upon members' lives shallow. Gongyo, the daily practice of the Nichiren Shoshu membership, consists of morning and evening recitations of the Lotus Sutra as well as chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo repeatedly. Gongyo,** which literally means "assiduous practice," is performed while practitioners sit before the Gohonzon, a replica of Nichiren's original mandala. During gongyo, two chapters of the Lotus Sutra are recited from Chinese characters (using Japanese pronunciation) and are repeated five times in the morning and three times at night. After each reading, practitioners silently recite prayers that offer thanks for protection by the Buddhist gods, praise the virtues of the Dai-Gohonzon, acknowledge the succession of the chief priests, present a petition for world peace and attainment of enlightenment, and pray for the well-being of ancestors—all of which have parallels in the daily services of Buddhist parishes in many different Asian cultures, as well as in Japan's Soto Zen tradition. After the final reading, members chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, usually for five or ten minutes, but occasionally for several hours. The liturgy of gongyo encourages one to clear the mind of wishes, anxieties, and other distracting thoughts so that when it is time to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (the most important part of the practice) the mind will be sufficiently stilled to concentrate on the Gohonzon. The goal of this "assiduous practice" is the fusion of one's mind with the reality of the Gohonzon—it means reading the Chinese characters not simply with one's eyes but "with one's life"—through chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

**Gongyo: In general, gongyo means the recitation of Buddhist sutras in fornt of an object of worship. In Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai, gongyo means to recite part of the second chapter and the whole of the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra in front of the gohonzon, followed by chanting.

The literal translation of the chant is "Devotion to the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma." But Nichiren Shoshu provides specific interpretations: Nam—"devotion of both mind and body"—to Myoho, a word indicating that all life and death phenomena are united in a "mystic" or mysterious manner. Myoho indicates "the Mystic Law" of Renge, the lotus that reveals its seeds (its cause) as it blossoms (its effect) simultaneously—therefore, "simultaneous cause and effect." This is invoked in our lives through Kyo, the word for dharma, sutra, or the sound of its teachings. 

What Nichiren Shoshu members unite with when they chant to the Gohonzon is a depiction, in Chinese characters, of the "Ceremony in the Air," described in the Lotus Sutra as an assembly of Shakyamuni's disciples floating in space above the saha (impure) world. When the Bodhisattvas of the Earth appear, Shakyamuni reveals his original enlightenment in the remote past. He then transfers the essence of the sutra specifically to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Jogyo (Vishishtacharitra in Sanskrit), entrusting them with its propagation two thousand years in the future (our own time). Chanting to the Gohonzon then both invites and affirms attendance at this assembly of bodhisattvas. 

The philosophical lineage of Nichiren Shoshu purports that although the material and the spiritual are two separate classes of phenomena, they are in essence inseparable, a "oneness of body and mind." 

T'ien-t'ai sought to clarify the mutually inclusive relationship of the ultimate truth and the phenomenal world asserting with this principle that all phenomena—body and mind, self and environment, sentient and insentient, cause and effect—are integrated in a life-moment of a common mortal. Pre-Lotus Sutra teachings generally hold that all phenomena arise from the mind, but in T'ien-t'ai teachings the mind and all phenomena are "two but not two." That is, neither can be independent of the other. 

In pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, earthly desires and illusions are cited as causes of spiritual and physical suffering that impede the quest for enlightenment, obscuring Buddha nature and hindering Buddhist practice. According to T'ien-t'ai's intepretation of the Lotus Sutra, however, earthly desires and enlightenment are not fundamentally different: enlightenment is not the eradication of desire, but a state of mind that can be experienced by transforming innate desires.

Beginning Nichiren Shoshu members establish their practice by chanting for whatever they want. I had friends who started off chanting for cheaper drugs and free money. Like them, I treated the Gohonzon as a pimp. I wanted to see if chanting would work. I set about praying for things (a summer job, a girlfriend, even a good parking spot) that would fill immediate needs or give instant pleasure. Some things I got; others I didn't. The things I really needed—such as better relationships with people and with myself—eluded me. Nevertheless, I continued to chant. Gradually, my interest in short-term material benefits was displaced by a hunger for longer-term spiritual ones. I found that chanting incessantly about difficult personal problems, like polishing a mirror, brought clarity to my situation. The more difficult or painful the motivation for my chanting, the clearer the mirror of my faith reflected my ownership of whatever troubled me. I could no longer deny the responsibility for my predicaments. In my experience, the activity of chanting for material or spiritual things becomes a process of cleansing one's spirit, not corrupting it; and Buddhists who began by chanting for hotter cars ended up driven to awaken themselves and help others, at times with great energy and joy. 

"Will you please tell me what playing the trombone has to do with Buddhism?" my friend A. demanded. It was during my first year as a Buddhist. I had told A. that I'd planned to join Soka Gakkai's brass band. "You want to be in a marching band? Didn't you do enough parading in military school?" 

Indeed I had. I was sent to military school when I was twelve and remained there until I was eighteen. I promised myself I would never march again. Yet, here I was in the Soka Gakkai Brass Band. 

I had no satisfactory explanation of the relationship between marching in a brass band, attending Soka Gakkai conventions, donating money to the organization, and Buddhism. I had only Soka Gakkai's official answer: these movement activities would yield personal benefits and further the cause of world peace. In any event, they certainly benefited Soka Gakkai. 

In the ten years during which I practiced as a Soka Gakkai member, I attended their conventions all over the U.S. and Japan. These were always spectacular public exhibitions, such as the show performed on a massive floating island stage built off the Waikiki shore. I got to see little of them, however. As a Young Men's Division member, I was often put in charge of luggage and remained at the hotel, or was appointed caretaker of one or another member who had suddenly become unhinged, such as the young man who insisted on walkingnaked—backward up and down the hotel corridors and dressing only to take a shower. 

I cannot say that I entirely relished membership in Soka Gakkai. I confess that playing in the Brass Band was always an embarrassing chore. Discipline was strict and not always administered by wise leaders. Yet, the core of my Buddhist practice remained chanting. 

In 1980, American Soka Gakkai members were not aware that the Nichiren Shoshu clergy and the Soka Gakkai administration had become entangled in a dispute. The clergy alleged that Soka Gakkai was secretly planning to establish itself as an independent sect of Nichiren Buddhism. The scandals and controversies that resulted were documented in the Japanese press but not in the American press. Possibly as part of Soka Gakkai's plot to secede, American members were given new versions of the prayers of gongyo that included homage to Soka Gakkai founders. George M. Williams announced that a new Head Temple might be constructed on a tract of land purchased in the Rocky mountains. Otherwise, Soka Gakkai of America asserted that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. 

My friends and I eventually learned about these things from a young Japanese who had been appointed chief priest of the Nichiren Shoshu temple in New York. He was amazed that Soka Gakkai in this country continued to deny the problems in Japan, especially because he believed that knowing about them was essential to an American member's understanding of the practice. 

With the information provided by the young priest, and from copies of an English-language Japanese newspaper, I began to discuss this situation with the thirty or so active members in the group I headed, and with my senior leaders. Rather than answering my questions, my seniors admonished me, declaring that I was slandering Buddhism. 

When efforts to force the American Soka Gakkai to openly discuss the implications of the political situation failed, the young priest decided to publish the details on his own. Eventually, he printed a heavily documented pamphlet and mailed it to as many members as he could locate. Soka Gakkai successfully pressured Nichiren Shoshu to fire him. 

My friends and I were similarly dismissed. Our dismissal was carried out in a particularly Japanese manner. Instead of being thrown out publicly, our group was simply not included in the next reorganization of groups that define the Soka Gakkai membership. We became, so to speak, nonpersons. 

During these last twelve years of solitary practice, I have had to answer questions I might not otherwise have had to confront had I remained in Soka Gakkai. How deep have the dynamics of mass-movement culture affected my understanding of Buddhist experience? How much of my knowledge of this religion, for example, is knowledge of Buddhism, and how much is Japanese cultural bias? There are no easy answers, although my ignorance makes me a comrade in arms with the many other American students of Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan Buddhism who wrestle with these same questions. 

But in front of the Gohonzon those questions don't feel very important; nor do my friends' descriptions of vulgarity or materialism. I am left where I began: by myself, at my altar, conscious of a larger truth—that the Great Assembly of bodhisattvas described in the Lotus Sutra is a reality taking place now, at every moment of our lives.

Sandy McIntosh, poet and journalist teaches at Hofstra University. He is host of the Viacom Cablevision program Ideas and Images, and Managing Editor of Confrontation.

Image 1 and 2: Columbus Day Parad, New York, October, 1991. Courtesy of Nichiren Shoshu America.
Image 3: Nichiren Shoshu America Youth Division Leaders Meeting, January, 1991. Courtesy of Nichiren Shoshu America.
Image 4: Nichiren Shoshu American General Meeting in Philadelphia, July, 1987. Courtesy of Nichiren Shoshu America.

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steve123's picture

Sandy, it is so wonderful to learn you are still chanting, still practicing the Middle Way! How amazing that you continue the Bodhissatva practice.
I began chanting with NSA 43 years ago in NYC and have continued until this very moment. Now, I awaken every morning with only one thought; how can I lead people to their own enlightenment. Remarkable that the simple act of chanting to a Gohonzon, telling people about how they could attain their own enlightenment and studying the Buddha's writings really do lead to personal enlightenment in this lifetime. But practicing solitary Buddhism generally does not accomplish the true Buddhistic mission. That of helping all people attain enlightenment, so I encourage you to try reconnecting to the people who started you on your path...SGI has matured along with everyone else, and the singing is optional!
I didn't chant to get my BMW, I just bought it and love every moment of my drive and life! I hope everyone reading your story sees that chanting for things is really chanting for their own desire- and puts themselves on their own path to enlightenment. Best wishes for a great life.

jackelope65's picture

Whatever you chant or sing, studies have shown remarkable benefits from the act of chanting/singing itself. When I would arrive at the Sangha to practice after a 14 hour day of a stressful medical practice, I found that chanting in Tibetan while reading the English translation at the same time, soothed my mind and prepared me well for the following meditation then book study. I believe, as the Buddha and Dalai Lama seem to say that once you have found a tradition, that you have studied and researched and it seems sound and suited for yourself, stick with it. I barely have enough time to practice my own form of Buddhism, the Kagyu tradition, without gossiping and criticizing others, although I do find it interesting to read these short articles by authors who practicing these various forms of Buddhism in Tricycle. Thank you.

FabrizioKyo's picture

I was surprised by the conspicuous absence of Daisaku Ikeda’s name in the article. I guess me and the author both share a lack of appreciation for the personage. Shakyamuni said to follow the Law and not the person. Soka Gakkai, above all, turned into a personality cult of its third president. And still is, considering the way they have dealt/are dealing with his loss of health. I have been chanting for ten years now and only had a brief encounter with some Nichiren Soshu’s members who sounded even battier. I must be myself a bit of a nut case myself because I chant every day and the importance of the Practice is becoming ever more apparent. Anyone in San Diego who wants to get together for some chanting?

johnmarder's picture

You're not a nut case. Chanting is a wonderful thing no matter how you experience the various organisations around it.
I heard it said yesterday. 'There is no such thing as a perfect Sangha'..... After all, how could there be? But I do hope you find some people to chant with. I'd be straight over if it wasn't for the bus fare.
John( UK)

johnmarder's picture

I joined Nichiren Shoshu in 1981 and came into the Soka Gakai that way. The priesthood issue was not treated so poorly by the Gakai in the UK but I'm sure we were given very biased information. I remain a member of SGI UK until this day but see myself more as friend than an active member. I have continued to chant and do Gongyo every day for all these years.
I've never really chanted much for material things although I understand how that can be the starting point for some people( the fact that Nichiren Budddhism appeals to such a wide demographic is very admirable) My main impetus for chanting has been the resolution of mental anxieties and depression, which it has helped me with immensely. I also chant for positive outcomes when myself or loved ones are suffering from serious physical illness.
It is true that that the core philosophy, summed up by phrases like ' the sufferings of birth and death are themselves, nirvana' and the 'mind and all phenomena are one' is very profound. My experience is that chanting and reading about this philosophy has enabled me to start to gain some insight into the true nature of things, and hence to remedy the sufferings in my mind.
I respect all forms of Buddhism and learn as much about it all as I can. Silent mediation is also very important for me, though not all Nichiren Buddhists do that. But chanting is a kind of meditation anyway , requiring the same intent towards transformation and the same level of mindfullness, supported by profound philosophy. There is no doubt in my mind that that Nichiren Buddhism, in its various forms, has an important role to play in the general Mahayana intent towards world peace and happiness through human awakening. Hopefully we can all be open minded towards the various manifestations of the Buddha's teachings as.they all play a part in providing a path for the wide diversity of individuals that we together are. I know Nichiren taught a kind of exclusiveness, but that was medieval Japan; now is different (in my opinion, of course).

rick1985's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience!
I myself am member of SGI Brazil (BSGI) since I was born.
When I was a kid I used to attend the meetings (both the adults-oriented and children-oriented) because it was part of my family´s philosophy.
When I reached the age of 14 I naturally started to have my sufferings in life (First Noble Truth hitting my head!) and decided to get involved with Nichiren Buddhism thru my Soka Gakkai local group. I started learning about the philosophy (Nichiren Buddhism in special) and as it was said on the article, chant. Chant for whatever I needed. Being a member of Soka Gakkai since I was born, it never seemed wrong or non-Buddhist to do it so. I had my sufferings and I wanted to solve them.
Well, to make the long story short: I am about 27 years now and I still chant. But, as it was said in Daisaku Ikeda´s interview, the focus of the chanting has gradually changed. I still chant for things every person wants: a better job, a change in life, a better relationship and so on. But I also chant for world peace, peace in my community, better relationship with family and neighbors, improvment of the company I work for as well as for my co-workers´development. Most importantly, I also take ACTIONS towards that. Compassion, as we say in Buddhism. So, as I am used to say here to my SGI fellow members and comrades: " Our chanting does not finish when we close the Butsudan (place in which the Gohonzon is). The chanting continues in our actions for the others because everyone is a Buddha, even though he\she may not be aware of it."
I live in a small neighborhood of São Paulo City ( we are more than 10 million people here). A city that receives people from all over the country and from some close contries as well, with no planning, is subject to big problems. So, I think it is easy to see how difficult is to teach the Buddha Dharma for those people.
Therefore, yes, I see chanting for whatever you want as a door for people to start the Buddhist path. It gradually changes as the most immediate problems are solved. Even though we continually to experience some of them sometimes during many years. But they do have a different value or importance for us as we have gradually changed our basic inner condition of life (Ten Worlds principle).

As for the situation with the Priesthood, it was really a huge thing. I myself did not experience it because I was only 6-7 years old during the year of the formal Split. Here in Brazil, the situation took almost 10 years to be completely solved. As it was said in the interview, there was no information. My grandma, who joined SGI in 1976 and my the sister of my grandpa, who was the first one to join Soka Gakkai in my family in 1968, did not have any clue of what was happening. So, I believe that, from my research on the subject, most members around the world were totally lost when the split came. And well, problems with Clery´s authority had always happened since the foundation of the Soka Gakkai and we can see those kind of problems in History in general as well.
I most recognize that SGI´s leadership (though it may vary depending on the country where SGI has members) made some mistakes while dealing with the subject. In my point of view, as for the experience of the article´s writer, the right thing to be done was to sit and discuss the (serious) matter. After all, there was nothing to hide. If it had been done so, Sandy could still being practicing inside the organization ( as I see that he continues to practice Nichiren Buddhism by himself. So the problem was not the philosophy but what happened in the organization)
Here in Brazil my grandma just stayed in SGI due to her grattitude to SGI President Ikeda, because, as she said " he is the one who struggled to bring Buddhism to Brazil". But if she was to rely on any information on the matter, I don´t think she would have had it. Besides that, she is a very simple woman from whom we cannot ask for a "intellectual appeal". But she has indeed a good heart and as Nichiren says " The heart is what matters the most". I believe it is true for Buddhism in general as well.
SGI now manages the subject of Priesthood better, I think. At least here it is going fine, though occasionally I have to put some points and make somethings clear.
As for me, I have been reading on other schools of Buddhism as well and trying to find some good points in their practice and behaviour of the practicioners.
Misunderstanding comes from ignorance of the others.
I still have faith (Sraddha, in Sanskrit) in the Lotus Sutra and I chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Besides that, I try to put its message in my daily life ( in SGI Brazil we have a monthly meeting called Buddhism in Daily Life, which aims to make the theory something ACTIVE in the member´s behaviour) and therefore I believe I contribute for the spread of the Dharma.

I see no problem chanting for earthly things as they are seen thru the Light of the Buddhism. That light not only puts them in the correc perspective but also extracts from them their true nature, which is also Enlightenment. So, it is not a problem to like beautiful things; the problem comes when we become slaves from them. Buddhism, I believe, is the very way to solve that. :-)

I understand how difficult may be for other traditions to comprehend why we are allowed to chant for anything once Shakyamuni Buddha said that sufferings comes from attachments. But to solve that question ( as maybe for all issues in life) there is only one thing to be done: research, research and research with an open mind and try to get rid of the bias we may have (specially in this case because there is a lot of negative propaganda against SGI in special).

To conclude, congratulations to the magazine and the opportunity to present the readers of other traditions how Nichiren Buddhism and also Soka Gakkai can be very empowering and how they are contributing to the World Peace.

L. Ricardo F.
São Paulo - Brazil

johnmarder's picture

Thank you also. That is all good to hear. SGI UK has also changed a lot over the years. There are far less weird songs and fanatical spreading of the word, and most members are genuinely aspiring towards their own awakening and that of others. I haven't heard of anyone chanting for a BMW for decades.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you for sharing your experiences from Sao Paulo! I began practicing Buddhism in 1973 in San Francisco, CA. I now live in Seattle, WA. It's heart-warming to realize how universal the Law is.


Thank you for this clear, and thorough history of Sokka Gakki , NSA, and Nichiren sects originations. At my mediation center, Gohonzon first received at Myohoji Temple in Etiwanda California, October 24, 1976 with 15 others from "Theatre District L.A." comprised mostly of performers and several members of the original cast of "A Chorus Line" then touring in Los Angeles - through close friend for many years Robert Lupone. In NY 1983, Theatre District NY began to fall apart largely because of the infusion of Japanese leadership who demanded certain strict adherence to Japanese traditions of bowing to leaders etc. and treating us like school children when we began to ask questions with "you don't have to know that" Fortunately, I had found an extraordinary, scholarly English Translation of the Lotus Sutra (The Threefold Lotus Sutra) and three years later joined Rissho Kosei Kai in Los Angeles, its co-founder, Nikkyo Niwano who had initiated the translation. In 1983 in NY attempted to explain to rebellious members of NSA that we were "chanting" to a most profound teaching found in The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, and many didn't even know that "Myoho Renge-kyo" was the Japanese title of The Mysterious Law of the Lotus (The Lotus Sutra)! Fortunately, continued searching, incorporating scientific research (as "The Creation of the Universe" etc.) along with other books and studies so closely aligned with the teachings of the Buddha found in this gathering of all his teachings in the One Vehicle teaching found in the Lotus Sutra. I have been writing a blog for several years now, "The Ancestral Well" and must emphasize that my real appreciation and transforming events accrued from the practice could only have derived from the the writings of Nikkyo Niwano in "Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra" and subsequently his many other writings. We some of us forget at times that all of our practice and its effect and merits earned in our lives have at their source the teachings of the Buddha (not from "being a Buddhist" or member of this or that) - thus it is that each week I "travel" through the entire Sutra - all 28 chapters, and in the last few years that somewhat stained Gohonzon received so long ago is a living thing, as I call out "Nam Myoho-Renge kyo" at the beginning of each chapter - and still the first paragraph of Chapter 2, Tactfulness -- and much, much more found in that chapter, including the Buddha's own "autobiography" about his struggles in discovering and realizing how he would teach after attaining Perfect Enlightenment - connecting me each morning to a celebration of life. All this is in English, not chanted, but certainly read, a much of it memorized--also following the tradition of copying (complete Threefold now on my computer). I have just read through the entire Threefold published by Rissho Kosei-kai/Weatherhill once more, having bought a new copy (twenty-fourth printing in 2007). How wonderful it is! And yes great merit has resulted, mostly in that I have found connections with people from all over the world and am engaged as never before in life!