15 May 2009

My answer to a request for comment on Soka Gakkai

A friend who had been introduced to Soka Gakkai here in L.A. asked me to comment on it, as someone with some familiarity with Buddhism in general. I thought my answer might be of interest to others. Comments and critique welcome.

I will give you a response, and if you want to ask about anything further, feel free. I don't pretend to be an expert in any of this, but this is what I know.

Japanese Buddhism (other than Zen) is primarily of the Pure Land variety, which holds that enlightenment is virtually impossible for human beings to achieve, even with Buddha's help, in this world, and so the only useful practice is to make devotions and requests of the Supreme Buddha, whom they call Amida (in Sanskrit, Amitabha, and in another aspect, Amitayus). Sokagakkai aka Nichiren Shoshu is a school of this Pure Land Buddhism, founded in 1222 by Nichiren Daishonin. The other main branch is Shinran, which is similar, but perhaps a little less aggressive in its recruitment and less single minded in its insistence on a particular form of mantra recitation. Shinran seems to be mostly practiced by the Nissei and Sansei communities, with relatively few Western adherents in the U.S. Nichiren Shoshu (SGI) [http://www.sgi-usa.org/ ] promotes the mantra meditation (recitation) of repeating the Amida mantra nam myoho renge kyo.

Fo Guang Shan, and similar schools in Taiwan, are also Pure Land, they have a beautiful temple in Hacienda Heights, Hsi Lai, which I recommend you visit just for the beauty and blessing of seeing thousands of Buddhas. http://www.hsilai.org/en/index.htm . It's the largest Buddhist Temple in the Western Hemisphere, built in the traditional Chinese style.

To my mind, Pure Land is like Buddhist Lutheranism, salvation through faith alone. By trusting in Amida's promise that if you make sincere requests of him, he will use the all but (not quite) unlimited power of his compassion and wisdom to carry you to a Pure Land at death, where enlightenment is not only possible but certain (although it may take a long time of living in a blissful paradise to achieve).

Having said that, I have no criticism of this practice. Buddhists all promote the four immeasurable qualities of compassion, lovingkindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity, and all believe in the pillars of our founder Shakyamuni's doctrine, the Four Noble Truths: (1) the cycle of birth and death is has the essential nature of suffering; (2) The origin of suffering is delusion, all deriving from the root delusion, self-grasping ignorance; (3) The complete cessation of suffering (and of the cycle of birth and death), enlightenment, is possible; (4) the means of attaining the cessation of suffering is the path, which leads to direct realization of the truth, comprised of following the teachings of the Buddha. Anyone who sincerely tries to practice almost any form of this system will work for world peace, compassion, kindness, and respect for others. What can be said against any of that?

My personal orientation is towards a more activist form of Buddhism, deriving from the Tibetan Kadampa (also called Gelug) tradition founded by "the second Buddha" Atisha and consolidated and promulgated as a complete quick path by Losang Dragpa (usually referred to as Je Tsongkhapa) (1357-1419). I hang around the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who will soon be retiring as its spiritual director. Tibetan Buddhism uses not only the so-called Sutra teachings, which are the basis of all Buddhist schools, but also secret mantra, also called tantra, which involves using the power of imagination to become like Buddha, and eventually to become enlightened yourself.

Like all religions, there are unfortunately many controversies and factionalisms in Buddhism, not excepting our school, which has a regrettable and rather bitter schism with the Gelug followers of the Dalai Lama. I refuse to get exercised about that, only praying that everyone will come to see the virtue and necessity of mutual respect and tolerance in time.

NKT is sometimes characterized as a cult by people who don't know a lot about it or who have an axe to grind, as is SGI for more or less the same reasons. Personally, I think you keep your eyes open, and you practice what seems right to you, and you make your own decisions. If you feel pressured, you say so and back off if that's what you want to do; if you disagree with something, you try to understand the other person's point of view or why the teachings maybe have more wisdom than you do (which usually turns out to be the case), or you follow your heart, not what someone else is telling you. But any serious and activist faith will seem like a bit much to those who are doing nothing about improving their spiritual life, so don't be surprised if people think it's a cult.

I don't know if this helps. If you want so see some of the differences between Tibetan style Buddhism and Pure Land, you could check out meditateinla.org (local) and kadampa.org (global). The Dalai Lama's followers have a similar organization called FPMT < fpmt.org >. You might also want to look at Insight Meditation, which is less focused on the religious aspects, less focused on becoming enlightened for the eventual ability to help all others achieve the same state, and more focused on the day to day practice of training the mind through meditation. (Try this, http://www.enabling.org/ia/vipassana/Archive/A/Amaravati/introInsightMeditation.html ... I'm not intimately familiar with them... they have a major center near San Rafael, CA and in Barre, MA.--They are Theravada, not Mahayana, if you want to look up the difference in Wikipedia... all the others I mention are Mahayana). Then there's always Zen. I never could understand why Zen was the main form of Buddhism in the West until recently. To me it's the most difficult, the most uncompromising, and the least user-friendly. But some people find it to be just exactly what they're looking for.

I offer these alternatives more as a way for you to get an idea what's out there... NOT to suggest that you stay away from SGI. SGI teaches meditation, peace, compassion, and wisdom, and it's true Dharma as far as I'm concerned.

Good luck.

I tried in this comment to avoid promoting my own preferred school, which I do believe is the most effective and clear instruction in developing the wonderful qualities and techniques of both sutra and tantra; but I realize that others may have the karma to practice Dharma in other forms, and that's not for me to criticize.

UPDATE: Please see comments for a correction to what's written above. The commenter says that I'm mistaken in lumping Shinran and Soka Gakkai + Nichiren Shoshu together as Amida Buddhism. I do believe, however, that it is correct to refer to all as forms of "Pure Land" Buddhism. This person also notes that there is no longer a direct connection between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu.


  1. I think your source is a little confused, Nichiren Shoshu ("the true teachings of Nichiren")
    is not of the Amida school, nor is the Soka Gakkai a lay organization of it, they were excommunicated a decade ago and are their own group.

  2. Thank you for the correction. My information is obviously a bit sketchy, and as you've pointed out, in at least this instance, inaccurate, which is why I included references to websites, and now you've added another.

  3. Soka Gakkai differs from Pure Land in that Nichiren taught enlightenment is attainable in this lifetime and that all people are equal. (SGI was excommunicated by the clergy because it refused to accept that the clergy is, by virtue of tonsure, superior to lay persons). Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not an Amida mantra but the name of the mystic Law which is elucidated in the Lotus Sutra


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