Letters To The Editor Spring 2004

Chant or Cant?
As a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai, I have certainly come across articles and other writings on our organization. (I used to marvel at the fact that the SGI was rarely, if ever, mentioned in Tricycle and other Buddhist publications, considering its membership size and scope.) As Clark Strand points out in his article “Born in the USA: Racial Diversity in Soka Gakkai International” [Winter 2003], these publications have often maligned SGI. Strand has made an excellent and noteworthy effort in addressing this large oversight. Not only did I find Strand’s writing to be clear and engaging, but his exploration of race within Buddhism, and particularly in the SGI, was rich and informed.

When I first encountered SGI over four years ago, I too was struck by the diversity of its membership and the incredibly empowering philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin and the founding three presidents of the Soka Gakkai (Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda, and Daisaku Ikeda). And I still never cease to be awed by the incredible hard work, dedication, and sacrifice each (as well as other pioneering members and leaders like Ronnie Smith) has made, particularly in shaping the organization into a place for all people.

Strand’s article has brought to the fore the pressing and pertinent issues of diversity and racism within the American Buddhist movement, and, in my opinion, has justly conveyed the spirit of our organization toward addressing these and other realities of the American—and human—experience.

—Jonathan Brody, Northampton, Massachusetts

I read Clark Strand’s article “Born in the USA” with considerable interest and some perplexity. To explain SGI’s racial diversity, Mr. Strand proposes that “when African Americans step into a Buddhist meditation center, [the] invisible [white] culture is the first thing they see.” Mr. Strand fails to mention the fact that SGI is the only Buddhist organization in America that actively proselytizes. Although the aggressive street recruiting of the old shakubuku [literally, “propagation”] days may be a thing of the past, Soka Gakkai members are encouraged to evangelize their friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and schoolmates and bring them into the fold. Left to their own devices, would African and Hispanic Americans seek out Soka Gakkai any more than they do Zen or Tibetan Buddhism? Or is SGI’s diversity more likely a reflection of its emphasis on recruitment than it is the response to a racist miasma, invisible to European and Asian Americans but perceptible to African and Hispanic Americans, which secretly infects all varieties of Buddhism save Soka Gakkai? As the Buddha told the Kalamas, “If it agrees with observation and reason, then believe it.”

—Ralph Doty, E-mail

The article on Soka Gakkai’s ethnic diversity was informative, but the author’s suggestion that Buddhist organizations that are predominantly “white” do not welcome “nonwhites” is weak. Further, it makes no sense to make vague assumptions about the ethnic demographics of various Buddhist groups without bringing real percentage figures into the greater context of historical development.

Non-Asian Buddhists in the United States are mainly converts. Thus, the current ethnic blend of any particular Buddhist group reflects the history of that group’s previous outreach efforts, and may not reflect the attitudes of its present membership or its tenets.

The author cites the active proselytizing by Soka Gakkai members and estimates that roughly 20 percent of SGI members are African American (the African American U.S. population is about 14 percent). To determine whether SGI is inherently more ethnically diverse, as the article implies, or consequentially so, one would have to determine whether Soka Gakkai engaged in conversion activities in similar proportion to the racial diversity of the U.S. population. If it did, one would have to ascertain whether it did so as aggressively in predominantly white communities as it did in the inner city.

It seems that the author is looking not really for dharma per se, but for a culturally diverse group of friends who happen to share an interest in some type of Buddhism. Fellowship is an important function of any church. But when one is meditating (or chanting) with eyes closed or gazing at the floor, all Buddhist centers seem to look pretty much alike.

—Paul Volker, E-mail

Clark Strand Responds

Although it is not entirely true that SGI is “the only Buddhist organization in America that actively proselytizes” (a quick perusal of the advertisements in this magazines will reveal advertisers whose purpose is clearly to win converts—dare I say customers—to its particular form of Buddhism), it is nevertheless true that SGI’s method of recruitment has had much to do with its success in attracting diversity. It is, however, patently untrue that SGI has recruited African Americans more aggressively than white Americans. That it has tried to recruit them at all makes SGI utterly unique in American Buddhism, and this fact, more than any other, led me to investigate why that might be so.

Racial inequity is as much the historic legacy of our country as our Constitution. In psychological terms, it reveals the shadow side of American society, the part we would rather not look at too closely, the part we would rather not see. It is interesting to me that at the end of his letter Mr. Volker writes, “[W]hen one is meditating (or chanting) with eyes closed or gazing at the floor, all Buddhist centers seem to look pretty much alike.” I would simply challenge him to look up for once in his particular Buddhist center and count how many faces of color he sees.

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