This article is part of an online special section about Nichiren Buddhism. We hope that by gathering these articles in one place and making them freely available, our Buddhist conversation will be broadened and that we can, all of us, more fully know ourselves in knowing one another. Read the other articles here.
DAISAKU IKEDA is President of the Soka Gakkai International, the world’s largest Buddhist lay group and America’s most diverse. In a rare interview, Ikeda speaks to contributing editor Clark Strand about his organization’s remarkable history, its oft-misunderstood practice, and what its members are really chanting for.
From Hollywood celebrities to renowned jazz musicians to everyday practitioners around the world, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are best known for their familiar chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. What they are chanting is the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra, which posits that all of us—without exception—can attain enlightenment through faith in its teachings.
The Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society) was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi [1871–1944], a Japanese educator whose theories were strongly influenced by the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th-century Buddhist priest who sought to reform Japanese society by bringing its leadership in line with the Lotus Sutra’s teachings. Makiguchi was arrested under the Peace Preservation Act in 1943 by the Japanese government for refusing to consolidate with other Buddhist sects under the banner of State Shinto, effectively challenging the authority of the military government. He died in prison a year later. After the war his disciple Josei Toda [1900–1958] turned the Soka Gakkai into a national phenomenon, increasing its membership dramatically and establishing it as a grassroots social movement that championed peace and the rights of ordinary people. At Toda’s death in 1958, the task of spreading the Soka Gakkai’s Nichiren Buddhist teachings to the international community fell to Toda’s disciple Daisaku Ikeda [b. 1928], who founded the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) on the island of Guam in 1975.
With 12 million members in 192 countries, SGI is the world’s largest Buddhist lay group and the largest, most ethnically diverse Buddhist school in America, where its members gather in 2,600 neighborhood discussion groups and nearly 100 community centers nationwide.
Among Western convert Buddhists, there has always been a sharp division between members of SGI and meditation-oriented students of traditions like Zen, Vipassana, and Vajrayana. Students of the meditation approaches tend to know little, if anything, of SGI. So what is the practice of SGI? What are its teachings, and how do they account for its rapid spread to so many different cultures around the world?
This interview with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, the first granted to any American magazine, was conducted this summer via email by Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand and translated by Andrew Gebert. It is the culmination of a two-year-long conversation with SGI’s top leadership on the future of Buddhism as it relates to interreligious dialogue and issues of pressing global concern.
Most Americans know little about Nichiren Buddhism, except that its followers chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the title of the Lotus Sutra. Could you help our readers to understand the role of this core practice in Nichiren Buddhism? Nichiren used the following analogy to explain the daimoku, or “Great Title,” and how it works: “When a caged bird sings, birds who are flying in the sky are thereby summoned and gather around, and when the birds flying in the sky gather around, the bird in the cage strives to get out. When with our mouths we chant the Mystic Law, our Buddha-nature, being summoned, will invariably emerge.”
To chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to call out the name of the Buddha-nature within us and in all living beings. It is an act of faith in this universal Buddhanature, an act of breaking through the fundamental darkness of life—our inability to acknowledge our true enlightened nature. It is this fundamental darkness, or ignorance, that causes us to experience the cycles of birth and death as suffering. When we call forth and base ourselves on the magnificent enlightened life that exists within each of us without exception, however, even the most fundamental, inescapable sufferings of life and death need not be experienced as pain. Rather, they can be transformed into a life embodying the virtues of eternity, joy, true self, and purity.
On its surface, this seems just like the other single-practice teachings that came out of Kamakura Japan— like Dogen’s practice of just sitting or Honen’s chanting of the nembutsu. As you note, there are apparent similarities between these practices and Nichiren’s practice of chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra. These can, I believe, be attributed to a shared response, conscious or unconscious, to the particular conditions and challenges of the Kamakura era, a conflict-torn age when Japan was transitioning to a samurai-centered political system.
The Zen practice of just sitting is representative of the kind of jiriki, or “self-power,” practice that makes no appeal to any kind of absolute truth or being beyond oneself. On the other hand, the chanting of nembutsu, relying on and seeking salvation in Amida Buddha, is representative of the tariki, or “otherpower,” approach. Drawing upon the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren declared that it was wiser to avoid leaning too much on either the self-power or the other-power approach. Nichiren’s practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo leads us to discover a power and wisdom that exists within us and at the same time transcends us. It embraces aspects of both the self- and other-power practices.
In a sense, then, you seem to suggest that it represents the best of both worlds. Yes, and because Nichiren’s approach is both so accessible and so practical, it enables ordinary people to cultivate the vast sources of energy and wisdom they already possess within. It empowers us to live courageously and victoriously amidst the terrible realities of this era of conflict and strife. As such I am confident that it can play a vital role in illuminating the path forward for humanity.
Nichiren Buddhists chant the daimoku to get what they want—a successful career, better health, a good marriage, even world peace. Nevertheless, from a purely traditional point of view, it would seem a violation of basic Buddhist doctrine to chant for the satisfaction of earthly desires rather than striving to overcome them. Isn’t this a contradiction? If you think that the purpose of religion is happiness, there really is no contradiction. The ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is the realization of happiness for oneself and for others. Nowhere is this more completely set out than in the Lotus Sutra, which recognizes the Buddha-nature in all people—women and men, those with formal education and those without. It declares that all people, without regard to their class, origin, personal, cultural, or social background, can attain enlightenment. Our recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra is a way of renewing our vow to live in accord with this ideal.
Even so, the Buddhist tradition—even the Mahayana tradition—has tended to focus on a monastic approach to enlightenment. Do you see in the Lotus Sutra the suggestion of some kind of populist reform? The Lotus Sutra does not deny the validity of monastic practice, of people dedicating themselves to their practice in a setting conducive to overcoming deluded impulses and attaining a peaceful state of mind. The problem arises when the practice comes to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means of entering into the path of wisdom. Nichiren was the first to make the attainment of wisdom through faith a possibility for all people. By following his teachings, it becomes possible to use every occurrence in life—pleasant or painful—as an opportunity for the further development of our innate wisdom. When Nichiren declares that earthly desires lead to enlightenment, he is describing a process by which even ordinary people living in the midst of deluded impulses and earthly desires can manifest their highest wisdom.
I still think a lot of non-Nichiren Buddhists will have a hard time understanding how chanting for earthly desires leads to enlightenment. Well, to begin with, I think it is important for all Buddhists—even members of the SGI—to understand that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not some kind of magic formula to be recited to fulfill desires. It is a practice that expresses our faith in the truth and brings our lives into rhythm with that truth. It is a path for overcoming the so-called lesser self that is attached to desires and tormented by deluded impulses. It is a process of training and transforming our lives to be able to manifest our greater self, to bring forth our Buddha-wisdom and the compassionate capacity to realize happiness for ourselves and other people.
In its early days, the Soka Gakkai was despised and laughed at in Japanese society as a gathering of the sick and poor. Josei Toda, my life mentor, took this as a point of pride, however, and declared with confidence: “The true mission of religion is to bring relief to the sick and the poor. That is the purpose of Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai is the ally and friend of the common people, a friend to the unhappy. However much we may be looked down on, we will continue to fight for the sake of such people.” Faced with the devastation of postwar Japan, Toda was convinced that, in the eyes of the Buddha, this was the most noble action.
Moreover, the Lotus Sutra doesn’t deny the value of worldly benefit. By allowing people to start to practice in expectation of such benefit, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra establish a way of life based on faith, and through this faith—developed step by step, starting from wherever we happen to find ourselves in life when we come to the Buddhist path, and with whatever natural human worries or concerns happen to have us in their grip at the time—we enter the path of wisdom. By believing in this sutra that teaches universal enlightenment and by purifying our mind, we are then able to bring our daily actions into harmony with the core spirit of Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of Nichiren, there is no essential dichotomy between enlightenment and the lives of ordinary beings.