An Insider's view of Nichiren Shoshu
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 longerterm 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 walking—naked—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.