Saturday, December 17, 2011

Daniel Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus": Book Review

This erudite but thoughtful survey looks at Japan's contribution to religious unity and global harmony--amidst seven hundred years of dissension, suppression, antagonism, and idealism. Nichiren Buddhism, founded by a thirteenth-century reformer, challenged the priestly traditions and feudal hierarchies. It served as a parallel of sorts to the Protestant Reformation, in that it elevated lay participation, and confronted clerical dominance in league with political imposition. It very roughly compares to Christian supplanting of Jewish power, via reformer Nichiren--according to many who interpret his own enlightenment as he faced execution, and as he escaped death, as a transformational moment. This rekindled this restive rebel into another Buddha, some say replacing the historical Shakyamuni as the ultimate One who has woken up, and who wants all to awaken.

It's a very complicated story. Filled with splits and schisms, as strong-willed dreamers match their wills against imperious Japanese social structures, Montgomery narrates, with plenty of unobtrusive but solid documentation drawn from a wide variety of sources, how Nichirenism has become, in postwar Japan, its fastest-growing religion and one that appeals to those abroad who have little or no connection with Japanese roots. This globalizing dimension expands the Asian-centered dharma of most Buddhist movements. Human potential for change--and sometimes financial gain and material success as some varieties promise to dedicated devotees--spurs many to missionize, contrary to the mainstream Buddhism of East or West.

This "universal truth, manifested in Japan but applicable everywhere" according to Nichiren's followers as Montgomery introduces the concept, comes from directing "a philosophy of action" (12). It focuses on motivating people towards Buddhist-based enlightenment. Its controversial and energetic (and sometimes aggressive) methods, especially through the largest branch, Soka Gakkai, have sparked controversy and resentment in and out of its homeland, but Nichirenism "remains the most important indigenous expression of the Japanese indigenous spirit" (13) and one that, at least as of this 1991 publication, accounts for some of the same intensity that fueled Japan's postwar rise as an economic superpower.

This aspect does not gain as much coverage as I expected later on, (one drawback in a generally strong study), but in this relatively compact survey, Montgomery prefers to concentrate on the many debates, schisms, and revivals of Nichirinism since its founding. He delves too into the message of the historical Buddha in a marvelously told chapter, full of vigor; his accounts of Central Asian translator of Indian into Chinese texts Kumarajiva, of the bold and rebellious Nichiren himself in his epic life story, and the careers of such disciples as earnest Daisaku Ikeda of Soka and peaceable Nichidatsu Fujii "Guriji" deserve equal acclaim.

Montgomery carefully documents each of the denominations, and he reasons that so many versions exist due to natural tendency in an early religion to engage in fiery bickering as doctrines are contested and scriptures formed, whereas in the later times, of a decaying sect: "The white-hot volcanic eruptions of yesterday are the lifeless subsoil of today." (247) Nichiren had six schools immediately inheriting different interpretations or communal loyalties, and this contention over territory, continuity, and control of the teachings defines then and the centuries since.

Often opposed by the Japanese feudal system and its heirs, today's Nichiren missionaries are freer to promote their energetic message--in Japan, this now involves political campaigns promoting a party representing pacifist, environmental, and humanistic issues in a nation that had fought or co-opted Nichiren's earlier adherents. Elsewhere: "The goal is straightforward: to gain peace for the world and salvation for themselves." (263) The potential lies within the individual to change, however, and this is why, Montgomery shows, the movement's emphasis on one's own conscience and no intermediaries between the believer and the dharma have impelled its often headstrong followers towards strong personalities and self-expression.

The book moves efficiently, but it can be extremely dense in how compacted and intricate can be descriptions of Nichiren's understanding of advanced commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, the core teaching, as well as the multiple and multiplying schools of his followers. It's tough for a uninitiated reader to keep straight Nicho from Nichiko, Niko from Nikko, Nichiren Shu from Nichiren Shoshu. An index, glossary, "how-to" and statistics appendices, and bibliography help. Montgomery keeps control of quite a large amount of data and history and dogma in 300 pages.

This is a work that will please those looking for an introduction that stays unbiased but delves deeply into this movement. "Fire in the Lotus" as of this writing is no longer in print, but it's worth seeking out as a rewarding and balanced introduction to Nichiren's origins and rise as a national and now global phenomenon. (Amazon US 11-14-11)

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