Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hammond & Machacek's "Soka Gakkai in America:" Book Review

How does a Japanese "new religious movement" replicate the Reformation, as it exports a global Buddhism bent on world peace, self-actualization, post-materialism and transmodern values? Two UCSB sociologists survey 400 Soka Gakkai members in 1997, and their findings compliment those for British counterparts in "A Time to Chant" (1994; see my review). There, Bryan Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere found many SGI-UK converts from self-employed and creative, artistic professions. Those in America who answered Phillip Hammond and David Machacek's questionnaire tend to be more from corporate and knowledge-industry occupations, but the members' outlooks and scholars' findings resemble each other.

"Accommodation" examines the evolution into 35,000-odd U.S. members, of diverse ethnicities and religious or spiritual backgrounds, of a movement imported in the mid-1950s with a few Japanese wives married to U.S. servicemen. It outgrew its immigrant roots and flourished in the counterculture when its post-war seekers found a spiritual match for discerning "postmoderns." This refers to one of four responses to modernity by American religions. Modernists reject religion as superstition and favor reason and science, breaking up cohesion of past loyalties. Counter-modernists reject modernity for tradition. In between, some take a liberal balance, as mainstream Protestants, that accepts science to "enhance religious understanding." (127)

That leaves SGI-USA among postmodernists, who affirm modernity's limits regarding scientific progress, the human condition's humility, environmental harmony, and a "therapeutic orientation" on "healing and wholeness." They also have "a fascination with the exotic" (128) which celebrates matter joined with spirit, male with female, and culture with nature. This openness also invites consumerism, but more for cultural and artistic pursuits rewarding self-improvement rather than mere acquisition.

This also connects with the outward direction of committed members. While chanting for material benefits has been assumed by observers to be a primary motivation, Hammond and Machacek lean towards data which show a shift from marginal to active to core members that draws SGI's faithful into more communal service as their chanting draws them into work and action that optimistically helps others along with themselves. It's an "ascetic" worldview which converts do not form on joining, but which attracted them as jibing with their previous perspective, as these often young, single, uprooted people found a congenial fit with SGI.

Soka Gakkai's orientation does not reject American culture but reinterprets it. SGI offers a framework that "is now coherent and endowed with sacred meaning." (140) SGI's promise of chanting offers a way to tap into a life-force and to channel energy into not material benefits but a promise of "compensators such as faith, a sense of personal happiness, and confidence" (76) Hammond and Machacek sensitively examine how what members chant for relates to and differs from SGI's collective goals, and why benefits gained may not equal the goals sought. However defined, success makes the convert feel at home with an accommodating force for change that aligns with American beliefs in human potential and responsible use of an optimistic attitude.

The authors explore how SGI-USA aimed not at a foreign-looking, lifestyle-altering, anti-mainstream "cult" status, but a "soft-sell, low-tension strategy" (178) that resulted in less growth but more sustained adjustment to American mainstream society, where SGI blended in rather than stood out. 

While the authors estimate, on the high side, 90% of those who've "received the Gohonzon" (56; the venerated mandala that serves as a mirror for one's practice defining Nicherin Buddhism) from SGI-USA have lapsed from membership (if not practice, for this is hard to tell in a survey drawn from the organization's own list), those who remain turn out to be more committed. The investment in learning chants in archaic Japanese, in attending meetings, and in giving time and donations to SGI pays off for a smaller, but more convinced, cadre. Unlike other Eastern imported movements, SGI-USA appeals by tailoring its mystical  philosophy to a pragmatic set of rewards combined with an altruistic appeal. (The authors downplay criticism of its president's influence, which detractors have charged as nearing a "personality cult.")

SG enriches the "mundane world of daily life with religious significance." (140) Conversion reinforces social values as SGI members socialize "with like-minded others, and legitimates them with a Buddhist religious tradition." (140) The authors demonstrate this by excerpting interviews with marginal, active, wavering, and core members--and a few defectors gleaned admittedly (more than in Wilson & Dobbelaere) from a small sample, given scholars relied on membership lists from SGI for research. One difficulty shared by both reports is this built-in lack of context for more of those disenchanted, but "Soka Gakkai in America" improves upon its British predecessor by trying to document as completely as possible the range of members and outlooks.

This makes a fitting companion to "A Time to Chant"; that book's recommended for its deeper historical context of Nichiren Buddhism, and its study of the split with the priestly caste in 1991. I also note that Wilson with Machacek followed this with "Global Citizens" (2000; see my review), an academic collection of essays by scholars on SGI worldwide, past and present. There's far less background in this very slim volume, but with these two other books as supplements, readers may easily look up more. (Also see Daniel B. Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" on Nichiren and all varieties of Nicherinism; it too's reviewed by me.)

One fresh element added by Machacek and Hammond: supply-side and demand-side economics are mooted as models for SGI, one for the availability of late 20c options in a spiritual marketplace, the other for its ability to meet the needs of seekers. While less vibrant in its narrative than the British version, full of articulate informants, this American successor, even with more "textbook"-toned interpretations of the surveys, incorporates the same conclusions as before that match SGI abroad to a shift into a consumerist, yet ethical and practical, social phenomenon and religious movement. (Amazon US 12-1-11)

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