Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Richard Hughes Seager's "Encountering the Dharma": Book Review
Richard Hughes Seager, as a secularized scholar and a somewhat lapsed Catholic, confesses how his "capacity to entertain faith while remaining the skeptic" (6-7) allows him critical distance. Yet, he finds himself, after the sudden death of his wife and his own midlife predicament, warming to the earnestly presented if impressive achievements of Ikeda and his followers. He learns to regard Soka Gakkai as benevolent rather than calculating, and he finds its outreach to the "favelas" in Brazilian slums, its energy from its encounters with the civil rights and countercultural upheavals of the 1960s in America, and its Japanese endurance despite media suspicion all worthy of respect.
He meets Ikeda, the president of SG, and the professor overcomes his skepticism, if unable to make the "leap of faith" himself. Hughes accepts the Japanese model of a "mentor-disciple relationship" as benign, and he watches carefully as a scholar how Ikeda and supporters react and respond before relaxing into an appreciation of SG's Japanese presence and power. Still, he remains a scholar, trained to observe, even if he wonders early on "whether my critical disdain is related to my intelligence and academic education, as I like to think it is. It may be that I'm just spiritually indolent and existentially lazy." (122)
This admission enriches this investigation. One aspect that remained underexamined is how the chanting and good intentions of SG members transform into altruistic projects, seeing they demand so much of those who often volunteer funds and time. (The finances raised aren't examined in much detail--this appears odd, as both supporters and critics might wish for this professor's unbiased coverage of this issue.) His visit to Soka University in California doesn't elaborate its Pacific Rim aura or explain his allusion to why faculty were at odds with administration as the school opened.
I also wished that, given a reported high rate of SGI attrition (see my review of "Soka Gakkai in America"), that more context was provided in how members convert, and why many may not persist. How Buddhists from other denominations relate, or don't, to SGI could have been integrated, given the author's earlier "Buddhism in America" study. A lot of SGI's material appears filtered by its directors; he acknowledges this but at times it feels an "authorized" version. Everyday folk who support SGI tend to come later in the storyline, in a current-events style which feels more journalistic than analytical, even if it remains always readable.
However, his loneliness and his own quest deepen the relevance, in 2001-02, of this series of encounters. As he sums up SG's appeal: "its teaching of empowerment of self and other to achieve happiness." It's a "modernist spin" on ancient and medieval dharma. It adds to that teaching's "quiet contemplation" the "energizing power of daimoku and gohonzon, the former the performance of Buddha nature, the latter its graphical representation, the two mirroring in each other what Buddhists understand to be a liberating power inherent in the fabric of the universe." (205) Professor Seager's ability to sum up complex theories helps to convey this movement's ethos and accomplishments for a wider, scholarly--and perhaps popular--audience.
P.S. I've also reviewed complimentary studies: Daniel B. Montgomery's "Fire in the Lotus" on Nichiren Buddhism; "A Time to Chant" on SGI-UK; "Global Citizens" by various scholars, ed. Bryan Wilson & David Machacek; and "Soka Gakkai in America" by Machacek & Phillip Hammond. Also see from an insider's p-o-v a book not cited by Hughes, "The Buddha in Everyday Life" by British SGI leader Richard Causton. (Amazon 12-9-11)