“Encountering the Dharma: Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai, and the Globalization of Buddhist Humanism” by Richard Hughes Seager, reviewed by Martin Baumann.
Ten years ago, I ran into a fellow from my school days. He was known for being a rigorous handball player, tough and uncompromising. At some point in our conversation, he mentioned that he had read bits of my work on Buddhism in the West, as he was now a practicing Buddhist. This was completely unexpected. Adding to my surprise, he explained that he had joined the Soka Gakkai, chanted “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” every morning, and served as the contact person of a Soka Gakkai regional chapter. All this was out of character for the man I once knew. I also noted the change in his manner—his style of speech had softened and his body language was smoother. As we parted, I remained perplexed by these changes and by the obvious impact Soka Gakkai had made on his life.
Richard Hughes Seager’s new book is a broad and well-researched guide to understanding the Soka Gakkai phenomenon. Seager, a historian of religions at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and author of Buddhism in America (1999), traveled to Japan, Singapore, Brazil, and sites in the U.S. to gather information and develop a picture of the Soka Gakkai (SG), a Buddhist group that originated in Japan in the 1930’s and spawned a global movement.
Critics of the Soka Gakkai (SG) dismiss it as a new religious movement embroiled in financial and political controversies and commanded by a messianic leader. Though today it is one of the many Asian spiritualities heralded in Western countries, SG has often been viewed as quite distinct from other forms of Buddhism, and is sometimes regarded as a “foreign cult,” far removed from both traditional Western religious sensibilities and from forms of Buddhism emphasizing meditation. Encountering the Dharma tackles these issues of otherness and the allegations—founded and unfounded—against the organization, and examines the appeal and success of the SG in postwar Japan. Seager also aims to provide an informed impression of Daisaku Ikeda, the movement’s current president, leader, and teacher. Moreover, he attempts to trace the trajectories of the movement’s globalization and its adaptation to local settings. He achieves these aims and more.
Seager uses an entertaining narrative tone in presenting his research. The book tells at least three interwoven stories: the rapid social and national change in twentieth-century Japan; the emergence, explosive growth, and globalization of the SG; and the evolution of the narrator’s attitude from skeptical interest through doubt to appreciation. Seager successfully balances personal narratives with the descriptive and analytic elements of the book. The stories provide accounts of the modern history of Japan, starting from the 1868 Meiji Restoration; the internal changes the once-tiny movement went through; and the personal trauma the author himself faced with the recent passing away of his beloved wife. Seager skillfully gives voice to his interviewees, who range from ordinary devotees to the top-ranking members, and it is often they who tell the story and offer valuable insights.
The story is arranged in eight chapters sandwiched between a brief preface and epilogue. It begins with Seager’s first visit to Tokyo. Longtime American SG member Rob Eppsteiner and translator Rie lead him through the puzzling new environment and arrange visits and interviews. Seager has the privilege of meeting Ikeda, and he describes Ikeda’s critical stance toward Japanese nationalism and exceptionalism.
Next, Seager discusses Nichiren, the uncompromising thirteenth-century critic and reformer of Japanese schools of Buddhism. This historical exploration provides the background for understanding the centrality of the Lotus Sutra and the chant “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” This mantra, which is the sutra’s title in Japanese, is believed to embody the essence of the teaching. According to Nichiren and the evolving Nichiren traditions, the invocation of the title forms the central spiritual practice in this age of degeneration (Jap., mappo); it is the only remaining path to attaining enlightenment.
Subsequent chapters introduce the leading figures and religious concepts of SG. In 1930, Tokyo teacher and schools administrator Makiguchi founded the Value Creating Education Society. In view of Japan’s increasing militarization and its eventual entry into World War II, Makiguchi’s primary interest was to foster values, happiness, and benefit –though not necessarily using a religious tone. His resistance to venerating the emperor and State Shinto brought him into conflict with imperial Japan. Makiguchi was imprisoned and died a year before the war ended. His successor was Josei Toda, who transformed the disbanded group of educators into a mass movement and strengthened ties with the Nichiren Shoshu.
The SG grew rapidly in postwar Japan, as Toda emphasized the transformative force of Buddhism in culture and politics. During the1950’s, the SG’s evangelical style of proselytization emerged. Youth divisions and other organizational units carried out campaigns to empower voiceless people, such as working-class men and women, small-business owners, shopkeepers, and housewives. “Often traditional in background and instinct, these people had been displaced by war and rapid social change,” Seager writes. “They were also neglected by big government, unions, and business and plagued by the kyodatsu condition [state of postwar depression]. To these people the Gakkai gave meaning, motive, and community.”
Toda and his people worked to raise consciousness and promote transformation on both the individual and social levels. Among the activists working with Toda was Daisaku Ikeda, who became Toda’s successor and the third president of the SG, governing from 1960 to the present day. Ikeda promoted outreach of the SG with his journeys to the Asian mainland, the Americas, and Europe, and in 1975 he established the globally operating Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Ikeda promoted the ideal of Buddhist Humanism, worked for reconciliation with mainland Asian nations, and emphasized the importance of creating peace through culture and education. During the 1970’s, he encouraged members to moderate the aggressive mission style and adapt Nichiren Buddhism to local settings. A spirit of openness, egalitarianism, and democratization pervaded the SG, giving new life to the idea of self-empowerment.
In 1991, these liberalizing developments led to the split between the Japan-oriented, priestly Nichiren Shoshu and the laity-based, globalized SGI. The conservative priesthood excommunicated the SGI, depriving it of its central place of pilgrimage, the Taisekiki Temple. It also stopped issuing gohonzons (the objects of worship) to SGI members. Now on its own, the SGI developed new places of central religious importance, like the Makiguchi Hall in Tokyo, and legitimated the prime objects of worship through the Tokyo headquarters and another Nichiren high priest.
The final two chapters of the book provide informative snapshots of the SG’s global outreach and adaptation. Seager interviewed rank-and-file members, children, and leading officials in Singapore, the U.S., and Brazil. In each of the different settings, he observed efforts both to preserve the essential spirituality and intention of the SGI, developed in Japan by Japanese, and to form new modes of expression adapted to the particular culture.
In the U.S., SGI has succeeded in attracting African-Americans and Hispanics, in contrast to most Buddhist groups and traditions. The SGI’s emphasis on empowerment, community, patriotism, and the liberalizing spirit of inner transformation have helped to generate broad interest in this movement. Similarly, in urbanized Singapore, the movement is made up primarily of Chinese people who are attracted to its dynamism and ideals, such as optimism, happiness, personal empowerment, and social responsibility. In Brazil, the story of SGI’s adaptation and success is linked to its stimulation of self-esteem, hope, responsibility, and achieving personal ends. “Benefits from practice are inconspicuous,” says Seager, “but highly tangible: improvements in speech, conduct, and grooming, all of which contribute to their sense of well-being, their happiness, and their upward mobility.”
Seager is a talented writer and provides vivid impressions of his encounters, interviewees, and journeys. The book contains endnotes, a helpful glossary of Japanese terms, a bibliography, and a detailed index. The narrative style, which contains autobiographical elements, may have prevented Seager from attempting more analysis and offering more theoretical insights. Seager is trained as a comparative historian of religions, and I wondered why he did not go deeper with his discussion of the tension between the preservation of tradition and the innovative adoption of a transplanted religion. How much “Japaneseness” is possible in Brazil or the U.S., and at what point will the SGI become co-opted by society and deprived of its “empowering spirit”? What can we infer from other globalized religions with regard to the tension of preservation and acculturation?
Also, Seager classified the SG as an expression of “Buddhist modernism,” applying a term from the late Buddhologist Heinz Bechert. What exactly, however, does he imply by “modern” or “modernist” in the case of Japan, and does this apply also for the U.S., Singapore, and Brazil? Furthermore, modernity not only has the supposedly positive side of happiness, freedom, and liberty, but also the dark underside of suppression, mass exploitation, and gargantuan world wars.
Finally, Seager convincingly argues that much of the dynamism and appeal of the SGI is related to the idea of personal and communal empowerment. This is an important point and presents a new perspective on the movement, which now has about twelve million members worldwide. It would have been worthwhile to compare the approach of the SGI with other grassroot movements of empowerment, such as Ambedkar Buddhism in India and Christian Liberation Theology in Latin America. What is specific to the SGI, and what is common to such movements of empowerment? And, don’t religious empowerment movements inevitably violate the separation of religion and politics, a reproach critics voice against the SG-Japan?
Despite these minor reservations, Encountering the Dharma successfully achieves its goal of stripping away the remoteness and strangeness of Soka Gakkai spirituality for those unfamiliar with it, and sheds some intelligent light on the appeal of the movement.