Monday, December 19, 2011

David Machacek & Bryan Wilson's "Global Citizens": Book Review

This collects scholarly articles on Soka Gakkai's Japanese, reformed Buddhist ethos and worldwide expansion. Most of the pieces, therefore, examine its growth in the later part of the 20th century. Emphasizing cultural (and also political) contexts, it combines theory with narrative histories, and then multicultural, sociological case studies.

Jane Hurst's "A Buddhist Reformation" cogently parallels the Protestant rebellion with the Soka Gakkai movement's rejection of a "priestly" for a "pragmatic" religious form (85-6). Collective ritual gives way to individual faith, and sacraments to practicality. Traditions recede while mysticism fades. Scripture trumps tradition. While a lack of authority may diminish an engaged, lay-led system's clout, and while ideological purity can be diluted, a global and rational enterprise gains by harnessing individual action to achieve progressive, egalitarian goals in a time of technological transformation and humanistic engagement.

David Machacek studies with Kerry Mitchell how Japanese immigrants spurred initial growth of Soka Gakkai in America. This began as war brides took the movement overseas after WWII. (259) The authors note how declining zeal of those raised in a such a radicalizing version of a faith often occurs, contrary to their parents who may have been converts, but they record how second-generation members appear to be steady with, if less diligent towards, practice. Unlike "world-rejecting" religions, Machacek and Mitchell see in SGI a heartening engagement with repairing social and environmental problems that bodes well for its future sustainability. (279)

In a related article, Machacek studies how "isomorphism" accounts for why SG sparked little controversy as opposed to other Eastern imported varieties of religious experience: SG parallels better the social bonding expected of hard-working Americans, even as its celebration of happiness and success appears to be at odds with Judeo-Christian practices oriented towards self-denial and otherworldly reward. (282) It looks legitimate, it acts respectably, its members keep a low profile. They do not undergo outwardly dramatic or exotic changes; the movement's progress, along often volunteer and now totally non-clerical lines, continues.

Instead of Jan Nattier's claim (qtd. 301) that evangelical Buddhism best defines SG, David Chapell substitutes "socially inclusive" (325) as distinguishing the notable presence of Americans and immigrants of European, African, and Asian descent in its ranks. Unlike the overwhelmingly white presence in Zen, Tibetan, and vipassana "elite" or "ethnic" Japanese cohorts, those involved in SG in the U.S. represent great diversity. Social development, he concludes, accounts for this prominence, as solidarity grows among members encouraged by welcoming and supportive circles of five or six, these in turn answerable to a district, a local chapter, and so on up a pyramidal structure, all led by laypeople (303-4). Abilities are encouraged, and while materialistic or selfish goals may seem to be accepted as legitimate reasons for initial practice or chanting, these are channeled with time and maturity into transformative skills better suited to one's lasting improvement, and that of those around one's self, in the faith and in the wider community. (324-5)

"Changing one's karma" rather than being bound by it distinguishes SG from other forms of Buddhism. Peter Clarke shows in Brazil how SG's third president, Daisaku Ikeda, in 1960 explained for the first time this notion to a Japanese immigrant, recently widowed, burdened with children. Her adversity was instead inspirational; her predicament became a way to overturn adversity rather than be a victim of fate. (337) Using a Nichiren Buddhist concept of "ganken ogo," Ikeda interpreted this as a method of turning difficulties into a vocation to change one's life by one's reaction to karma, and to overcome fatalism by committed action.

In postwar Britain, Bryan Wilson explains, a post-Christian residue of an "ascetic" outlook was overturned for a few by SG's appeal to a consumerist, individually flexible ethos. How traditional Buddhist discouragement of material accumulation squares with SG's "licensed hedonism" (369) puzzles me, but it redistributes restraint with reward. (353) He lauds the compassionate and secular approach that aligns SG with a community open to members allowed to seek happiness and enjoy fulfillment. A quarter of British adherents, from forty countries, were born overseas, a remarkable fact; some informants were introduced to SG by an encounter at a pub or a nightclub or an astrology class. (361) 3/4 of newcomers were not "seekers," and did not belong to another religion at the time of their first encounter. (363) As in America and Japan, the tilt upwards towards the more educated and professional cohorts appears over the decades to be accelerating, although economic, class, and cultural diversity remain hallmarks of global SGI.

Maria Immacolata Macioti looks at comments by guides and visitors left by those attending a 1990s human rights exhibit sponsored by SGI in a Roman museum as part of a chapter on Italian contexts; Metraux pursues the movement's spread into Southeast Asia. Whether into Buddhist, Protestant or Catholic nations, it appears a few committed members manage to convince thousands of others of SGI's advantages. Even in Islamic Malaysia or Indian communities abroad, a few decide to make the commitment to change and chant.

The remaining essays merit mention: Noriyoshi Tamaru on the historical perspective; Dayle Bethel on Makiguchi's educational message; Hiroshi Aruga on Japanese political ties; Daniel Metraux on the Komeito party; Atsuko Usui on women's roles; Takesato Watanabe on Japanese media coverage; Karel Dobbelaere on the "pillar" organization of SG.

Intermittently, I sensed re: SGI an uncritical bias. The generosity of many members is credited; these scholars support the movement's aims. This may not be a drawback for some readers, but I register how criticism of SGI here remains minimal. These scholars examine the evidence, assert their arguments, and defend SGI.

A few authors roamed into side topics or current issues (as of the year 2000) which neared indulgence or stridency. The results can be dry at times, but essays such as Chapell's despite statistics convince by their incorporation of interviews and testimonial enthusiasm. Overall, this is an accessible (if expensive even by university press standards) volume, aimed at the academic with a sociological slant, but newcomers (such as myself) needing an overview will also find this beneficial. (Oxford UP site.; Amazon US 11-18-11)

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