Sunday, June 28, 2009

Daisaku Ikeda's "Living Buddha": Book Review

In Japanese, the title's "My View of Shakyamuni." Ikeda, leader of the lay organization Soka Gakkai that stresses outreach, emphasizes how flexible Buddhism can be for our age. His "interpretative biography" cites Karl Jaspers on how in its origins, it emerged during what scholars call the Axial Age, when Socrates, Confucius, and later Jesus preached. Like them, the Buddha's messages weren't written down until later; like them, his teachings emerged from the "middle of the world" to spread to millions. (See Karen Armstrong's "Buddha" biography, also reviewed by me, in the Penguin Lives series for more context.)

Sharing the dharma teaching's foremost; the intellectual understanding, Ikeda tells us, cannot replace action. He places the little factually that we know about the historical Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakyas, within the legends and suppositions that, as with Socrates and Jesus, grew up around the teacher after his death. One key difference: the Eastern conception of emancipation comes not from an oppressive political system so much as a deceptive personal structure. (See Pankraj Mishra's "An End to Suffering" for more on this comparison and contrast within Western & Hindu intellectual history and philosophy.)

Ikeda admits he searches the scanty information we can verify, while allowing the myths also to enter his study, for from both we, as with Jesus and Socrates, have built our perceptions of such men, far more imaginatively and powerfully than a few facts recited could sway so many millions in centuries since. This narrative takes time to look at those who as "voice hearers" (shravaka) listened to the teachings and found enlightenment.

Here, a comparison with Stephen Batchelor's agnostic "Buddhism Without Beliefs" may be helpful. Batchelor wonders why in the original time of the Buddha's talks, many listeners earned enlightenment by hearing them, whereas now, many eons may be necessary for practitioners to find release. Ikeda appears to at first downplay "voice hearers" as a lower level within the Hindu "arhat" stages of enlightenment; while later he puts this stage at a somewhat higher stage (four out of ten?) for some of the first Buddhists. This issue remained somewhat confusing, although looking up information on Soka Gakkai in Donald Mitchell's excellent "Buddhism: An Introduction" from Oxford UP, the importance of ten stages for SG is emphasized as a key precept that may account for Ikeda's subtle downplaying of hearing teachings rather than making them actively part of one's life.

Ikeda, similarly, favors promoting a simpler "Law of Life" as a core dharma rather than a 12-linked chain of causation to elucidate the difficult doctrine of "dependent origination" that underlies karma and rebirth, issues that gain minor attention here compared to a more socially directed, accessible, and practical Buddhism that allows the strengths of all involved in the world's pursuits to gain from it, not only monks. He shows why monks were sent out to spread the dharma not in groups or pairs, but alone. Why? Ikeda muses that this example demands individual initiative, and a creative, positive, and flexible application of Buddhism to one's own experience in the world. This direction unsurprisingly finds Ikeda reminding readers that Buddhism expects personal responsibility, not blind devotion to leaders, fanatical asceticism, or misdirected yoga marathons or Zen meditation that become ends in themselves for egotistical comfort rather than means to enlightenment.

The dying Buddha reminded listeners to take charge of their improvement. The guide, unlike other "religions" (this term is used throughout Burton Watson's fluid translation despite possible confusion for Westerners; I am not sure what the Japanese equivalent term may have been), remains not focused on some external "absolute," but within the self, where one finds the way to conquer the ego and transcend the same self's delusions. Transformation by active habit, rather than information by passive reception, sums up the heart of dharma.

Ikeda throughout reminds us that the few facts of the Buddha that are in this short text expanded, with nods to scholarship and dissenting perspectives and historical situations, do not tell us much in themselves. The data may be scanty, but the insights prove profound. The "dignity of the individual and one's subjective nature" occupy central stage for the dharma as Ikeda interprets it. From within ourselves, we draw out the Law of Life. Practice makes us responsible, he finds, for our own liberation.

He ends this primer: "In other words, one transforms the present changeable self into the self as it should be, the self that is in perfect harmony with the Law"-- the essence of Buddhism's in this "human revolution" inherent within each of us. (133) The book's glossary and index cross-reference and translate terms concisely for newcomers to the Sanskrit vocabulary and Indian places; this along with Karen Armstrong's work may prove ideal for beginners curious about Siddhartha Gautama, although Ikeda moves more into those who followed the Buddha and less on doctrine.

(P.S. I reviewed Armstrong, Batchelor, Mitchell, and Mishra's books on Amazon US & my blog along with the follow-up to Ikeda's biography, "Buddhism: The First Millennium." This review sent to Amazon US 6/18/09.)

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