Friday, December 23, 2011

Richard Causton's "The Buddha in Everyday Life": Book Review

After evaluating three scholarly studies of Nichiren Buddhism, I compared this insider's version aimed at inquirers. Causton was Soka Gakkai's British leader; this revision was finished the year of his death, 1995. It revamps his 1989 "Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism: A Popular Introduction to the Worldwide Religious Movement That's Showing Millions How to Find Peace and Prosperity in Everyday Life." This merits mention, for the schism that separated the lay-led SGInt'l from priestly Shoshu control in Japan shifted how an affirmation of this pragmatic, ethically flexible, peace-promoting, diverse, international society would be conveyed to Western readers.

Bryan Wilson (quoted here as a sociologist of religion; this lacks paginated citations but lists a few references) analyzed what's now SGI-UK in "A Time to Chant" (1994, with Karel Dobbelaere) and in a 2000 collection edited (with David Machacek) as "Global Citizens." Wilson (who cited Causton's earlier ed.) found that British SGI adopts a freer, libertarian bent, as it's far from Japanese influence and considerably multicultural. Causton's rendering of SGI's neither analytical nor academic, in contrast with the two above (reviewed by me). His can be very philosophical and complex. He aims to convince seekers of SG's merits. This provides strengths and shortcomings for one seeking a balanced view of SGI. It's informed by members, not critics.

Strengths are its friendly tone, its use of vivid narratives by members of how they overcame difficulties, and its insights from such sources as Hardy, Donne, Dostoevsky, Einstein, Proust, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Primo Levi, and Tom Wolfe. Good for savvy, clever, creative folks, curious about SGI's message. Causton assures that chanting as practice equals no "magical cure" (91; cf. 194), but a transforming power of "daimoku" (125) tapping into what's released as a "cosmic life-force" (193) sparks environmental and personal change. SGI uses this to prove how chanting creates, by greater energy and practical benefits, "value." A neutral observer may wonder if "success" comes by the chanter's compromise, prevarication, or coincidence, as Wilson & Dobbelaere aver; note p. 194 again. SGI believes a member will see the "conspicuous benefits."

This is not to diminish the sincerity and good works of this sometimes controversial movement. I wish to discuss what other {Amazon} reviews by those convinced have not: such a book is not by definition going to contain objections, for after all, it's aimed at persuasion. But some critical material might have strengthened it; one finds here a sharp, rapid tilt away from conventional Buddhism to Nichirenism. It displays a minimal foundation in earlier Buddhism before it reconstructs it with SGI's reformed "testament." Everyone can become enlightened; Nichiren supplants Shakyamuni as the latter-day Buddha model. Attributing radical changes in personal and communal success (see the subtitle of the original work) by chanting is the promise at the heart of SGI's interpretation of Nichiren's radical message which keeps only the Lotus Sutra as the "Middle Way" between latent and manifest effects that can literally alter the course of karma for the better.

This book's openness to rationalism and science enrich its contents, which can be challenging even as this simplifies Nichiren philosophy, itself no easy task. (Compare my review of a work aimed at a similar level on this subject, Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus.") It elaborates karma intriguingly; it compares life and death, manifest and latent powers to a black cat, seen and not seen as it walks a "zebra crossing"! (138) I found its explication of the Ten Worlds doctrine sensible and engaging; SGI-UK's study guide online sums up this version of Causton's presentation. Ten Factors earn analogies to a knife, a lover's breakup, and a Van Gogh painting, for example. Also, its ties to physics, sleep research, and anger management prove valuable.

The modern vs. the ancient in light of what scholars say about the origins of the "Mystic Law," on the other hand, comes free from the critical examination that might be wished for by a reader looking for an intellectual context to accompany the inspirational one dominating here. The Lotus Sutra's understood by scholars to have been composed hundreds of years after Shakyamuni Buddha is said here to have delivered it as his definitive teaching. "Roughly 3,000 years ago" is given for the historical Buddha's career, further back than conventional estimations. This implies (255-6) wiggle room for periods of 500 years that comprise Nichiren chronology, but Causton never mentions those widely accepted birth-death ballpark figures for the Buddha.

I know that SG and Nichiren ease the impact of the historical Buddha, to elevate Nichiren and the Mystic Law, but those opening this book to find out about "Buddhism" as conventionally rendered may not glean much, compared to SGI's insistence on how Buddha-hood for all has been manifested by Nichiren and his followers since the 1200s. You understand, say, "Four Higher Powers" but "Four Noble Truths" gain a cursory mention; "Six Lower Worlds" earn abundant detail, but how they emerge via "Six Realms of Existence" gets little attention. (It's like reading about the Catholic Mass with barely a glance at a Passover Seder. Even in a defense of a denomination today, more credit of nonsectarian influences might be expected.)

If this sounds like quibbling, it's central in fact to how SGI leans towards a more exclusive, if globally accessible, "mission" with their Buddhism as the ultimate, definitive version. This book tends to blur dharma's historical context and denominational varieties; it's akin to a work introducing one to evangelical Lutherans which skims over the control of the medieval papacy, or how the 95 theses were composed. Daisaku Ikeda, revered SGI president, gains many quotes and serves as Causton's role model. Therefore, Causton provides as expected the "authorized" expression of SGI, but for those curious about what religious scholars have to say about the historical creation and textual evolution of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren, his account will not offer much critical context. This book's meant to welcome one into SGI, not to dissect its ideological claims. 

Therefore, if you want an introduction to SGI from one convinced, this is recommended. If you prefer an academic study, check out Montgomery for Nicherinism, and Wilson's co-authored two studies above. (Amazon US 11-29-11)

1 comment:

simon matravers said...

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