American Style Soka Spirit

Recently, there was a training session in Japan for Soka Spirit leaders. I was unable to go, but I chanted about it a lot. What would one be likely to get from such a trip? My answer was that it would probably affect participants in several ways:

  • Faith encouragement from people with a deeper understanding of the issue
  • Additional information about what the temple is doing
  • Additional information about what SGI members are doing in response
  • Personal connections with other members
  • And who knows what else? You really have to keep your mind open to whatever possibilities there are on a journey like that.
One thing that couldn’t be found there, I’m pretty sure, is direction on how Soka Spirit should be conducted in the U.S. Only members in the U.S. can determine that.

One major factor in the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, is the peculiarly American relationship with spirituality. Most Americans (81% from the American Religious Identification Survey 2001) identify themselves as religious. Most of those identify themselves as members of different kinds of religions. BUT most of those do not belong to any specific church or temple. In other words, people say they are Baptists -- it’s in their minds, it’s part of their identity -- but, in truth, there is no church that they go to. And this is the rule, not the exception.

The American Religious Identification Survey 2001 showed also that, of the Americans who identified themselves as Buddhists, just 28% reported affiliation with a specific sangha or group. It also reported that Christians who reported themselves as “nondenominational” had more than doubled since 1990.

It’s clear that the American sensibility is to be religious on your own -- that joining a religious organization means to submit yourself to its rules -- you are then surrendering your precious individuality.

That is why the split with the temple has always seemed so difficult for Americans to understand -- it just seems wrong somehow to make a big deal out of which sect to belong to. Belonging to any sect at all is a turnoff -- and to choose one over another seems like you are judging or putting one down; or like you are following some party line. 

It was different when Americans ONLY had SGI (then NSA), back in the Seventies and Eighties. Where else could you find out about Nam Myoho-renge-kyo? It certainly wasn’t in the media or the libraries. It was like all the options in religion were Coke and Pepsi and this form of Buddhism was green tea. There was no comparison! And there was no option of practicing alone either. SGI had a monopoly on all the study material, all the information, all the religious necessities: Gohonzon, altar supplies, etc. If you chanted Nam Myoho-renge-kyo, chances were that you even bought your white candles through the SGI bookstore, even though there were white candles for sale at your supermarket. It just didn’t “Buddhist” otherwise.

When the split happened in 1990, most American members stayed with what they knew and where their relationships were: with the lay organization SGI. Those who did go the temple were overwhelmingly people who were marginalized in SGI (disagreements with other members or with the structure of the lay organization, imagined or otherwise) or those who preferred a religion centered around a professional religious figure.

In trying to explain the split to American members, many severe mistakes were made. World Tribune criticisms of Nikken and the temple were very shocking to Americans. They had joined SGI and were reading the WT for encouragement in their daily practice of Buddhism -- suddenly, they were reading about priests in Japan plotting against President Ikeda; about Nikken’s lavish lifestyle; about priests driving red sports cars. Where was the encouragement? Where was the Buddhism? What did it all have to do with American members?

SGI tried quickly to bring Americans up to speed with publications explaining the background of the rift. Then the Seattle Incident surfaced and added to the tabloid atmosphere. Some people even felt sympathy for poor Nikken, trying to have a good time in the U.S., but not knowing the language or customs. The temple missed a good chance here to gain favor in the U.S. -- people would have responded very favorably if Nikken had issued a statement early on that said: “I was young; I made a mistake; I apologize.”

The initial reaction of shock and distaste set the tone and remains prevalent to this day. Soka Spirit still seems negative and bound up with criticism of the temple -- it is still too “them”-oriented. It creates a very unBuddhist us-vs.-them dichotomy.

Most disturbingly, the split with the temple has created an atmosphere where SGI is no longer the monopoly on Nam Myoho-renge-kyo in this country. The greatest danger that we now face is not that SGI members will go to the temple -- it’s that SGI members no longer think that they have to practice with SGI. They feel now that there are options.

These options include practicing on your own (independently), which is a very attractive alternative. Being independent is very satisfying to the American mind -- it’s the same spirit that enabled Americans to rise up against the British and conquer the West. Who doesn’t want to be independent? How can you say you are anti-independent?

Another option is Nichiren Shu. This sect has always been around -- it has been in the U.S. for more than 100 years and has more temples here than Nichiren Shoshu. They are the ones really benefitting right now from the split. Their appeal to American sensibilities is that they have a very flexible approach. Look at the Nichiren Shu altars in their different temples: no two are alike. They are very quick to incorporate local dieties and legends into their practices. In fact, some American practitioners have even included statues of Christ or various saints on their altars. How’s that for inclusion and doing your own thing, American-style? It’s having your cake and eating it too.

What should be the response of Soka Spirit to all of this? In my opinion, SGI has to shift focus to a positive celebration of SGI and its heritage, ideals, and future. Soka Spirit must be a celebration of the spirit of the Soka Gakkai. This is the spirit of Nichiren Daishonin, the spirit of the bodhisattva that Mr. Zaitsu spoke about so eloquently, recently here in Washington, and the spirits of Presidents Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda. It is the one thing we have that doesn’t exist in independent practice or in practice with another sect.

No other group has made the efforts in propagation that SGI has. No other group has had the success that SGI has. And propagation activity is important not just for the increase in membership – it revitalizes the older members too. They get outside of their own concerns and develop a sensitivity to and concern for others. In short, they become bodhisattvas. And acting as a bodhisattva is a thrilling activity!

The history of this Buddhism is that of acting as a bodhisattva. It is the history of standing up against authoritarianism, persecution, and intolerance. It is acting as the Buddha of absolute freedom. This is what we must celebrate; this is whom we must become.

I suggest that we emphasize this theme in Gosho study, using Gosho such as the "Rissho Ankoku Ron," showing the Daishonin standing up for what’s right. We should also use yearly cultural celebrations of special occasions, such as Makiguchi’s and Toda’s birthdays to emphasize this spirit of the Soka Gakkai. The story of their stand during WWII should be well-known by every child in our organization. We should be very involved locally in efforts toward egalitarianism and religious dialogue. All of this should consistently emphasize that the spirit of SGI is to speak out against authoritarianism. 

Then, with this understanding, the SGI stand against the Temple is no longer a heavy, negative thing. It is simply a continuation of what we have always done. It will then have CONTEXT.

And I suggest we make this theme more than a theory by making a commitment to clear the deadwood out our leadership ranks wherever possible. Leaders who are no longer growing and who are no longer acting as bodhisattvas are suffering, and their members are suffering. We must initiate new collaborative ways of running our organization. I like the idea of a team approach (I see this is being used on the Region level now) for chapters, districts, and groups. Otherwise, SGI leaves itself open to charges of its own authoritarianism.

Why do we need a community of believers anyway? We need to understand that, although we remain individuals with very different POVs, we can practice together in mutual respect and harmony and that our experience together multiplies and enriches our individual efforts. No isolated practitioner could develop the broad perspective or have the powerful effect that the SGI organization can. As Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it's the only thing that ever has.”

In conclusion, the Soka Spirit movement must become the vehicle for the spirit of the Soka Gakkai. People need a positive reason to remain SGI members. Let’s cast off our transient identities and reveal our natures as Buddhas.

Copyright Kathy Ruby 2002. May not be quoted without written permission.

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