Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wilson & Dobbelaere's "A Time to Chant": Book Review

I didn't expect such an engrossing, engaging sociological survey of British "votaries" of this Buddhist self-actualizing, libertarian-tinged, socially aware and creatively populated movement. These two professors interviewed hundreds of Soka Gakkai ("value-creation society") members around 1990, and they place SG within a response to a secularized Britain and a post-Christian ethos based on not an externally imposed system of moral codes but an emerging commitment to personal responsibility and communal action in peace studies, the environment, and global harmony. While for some critics this has smacked of a personality cult and an eerie Japanese export, Bryan Wilson (Oxford) and Karel Dobbelaere (Louvain/Leuven) argue that SG represents a reasonable reaction to an era when Christian morality emphasizing delayed gratification and an ascetic work ethic has been replaced by a consuming culture encouraging rapid fulfillment and "psychic liberation" from guilt and sin.

Nichiren Buddhism, defined as a "permissive, optimistic, and positively oriented religion," (33) takes its impetus from a thirteenth-century reformer who challenged the emerging feudal system. (See my review of Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" for more context.) Some of its followers, in the 1930s, began a lay-led society that eventually, by the time of this book in 1990-91, broke with their sponsoring Japanese priesthood in a controversial schism. An appendix explores the ramifications of this split, and the writers compare it usefully to the Protestant Reformation and modernizing tendencies. What they have in common is a move towards lay control, and less ritual and authority placed in a hierarchy. 

Of course, a system of local and global leadership is the reason for SG International. Therefore, part of the interest in the interviews transcribed and the data arrayed is to see how SGI members in Britain gravitated, all being converts, to a situation where their own libertarian, generally anti-authoritarian outlooks fit into a democratic system based on local circles of "votaries" who then serve their own structured system for mutual support and globalized goals of reform. It may reflect my own bias, but I would have liked more investigation of how a membership composed of those intellectuals, creative types, self-employed, artists and fringe occupations found a congenial mix of a self-motivated chanting and D.I.Y approach to morality within a structured, communal, and mutual-support society stressing cooperation.

Wilson and Dobbelaere separately contributed essays to a subsequent collection of essays, "Global Citizens," [see my review] and these can be consulted for more of their scholarship on this intriguing movement. "A Time to Chant" due to its depth allows a more nuanced examination of SGI, however, and some of the questions that I had when reading their essays in "Global Citizens" are better answered in "A Time." That is, I wondered how chanting for goods or success aligned with altruism or less-selfish or individualized goals, and the interviews and data included here examine this topic.

It may or may not be the fault of this book, but I remain hazy on how traditional Buddhist ideals of letting go of goods and attachments square off against SGI's encouragement of using chanting to generate goods as part of its acceptable goals, but I understand somewhat better the process of how chanting works to spark action, from these interviews. (One note: nearly none of those responding had exposure to other Buddhist practices before SGI, so useful research here as of 1990 was not truly possible.) Chanting, the scholars propose, may serve adherents as a means and an end, that is, those who attribute the fulfillment of their goals to the practice that is at the heart of SGI (and the larger Nichiren Buddhist approach) may express the dual methods of "self-examination and self-help" (186) at the core of the daily practice.

Naturally, the self-selecting limits of such a study, based on a list of members, is itself a predicament, for those responding tend (90%) to be regular practitioners. But even here, the professors take pains to share the honest answers of the few dissidents and skeptics that they can glean, as they seek to make this study the best it can be. Granted the boundaries of this report, its introduction provides a great overview of the organization's history and background, and its conclusion (however briefly) places SGI within countercultural and secularizing trends that in the two subsequent decades have rapidly accelerated in much of our society.
(Amazon US 11-22-11)

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