Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Richard Hughes Seager's "Encountering the Dharma": Book Review

This sympathetic survey of "Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai, and the Globalization of Buddhist Humanism" combines a personal narrative of this professor's encounters in Japan, Brazil, and America with an accessible introduction to its function as a modernizing "vehicle" (98) for change. This small reform movement spread from a 1930s "value creation" in education society to a postwar missionary effort bent on a self-actualizing Buddhism to an export via war brides and immigrants and businesspeople to hundreds of locales today. As a professor specializing in Asian religions in America, he's well-suited to study this phenomenon, even if as he admits he has a lot of catching up to do about Japan.

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)


Anonymous said...

I ran across this by accident. Thanks, It is a nice review of my book. I think you got into the spirit of what I was about when I did this work.

You are correct in wondering about attrition questions, but I did not want to get too deeply into sociological detailing that would be hard to work out cross culturally. Also about money issues, but those are hard to get at within any movement. Following the money takes very special skills. I would love to see a book devoted to where American Buddhists -- the whole Euro-American meditating crew -- get theirs, including the Tibetans. Money is almost always gnarly. I am, by the way, not an Asianist but an Americanist who works on the East-West encounter.

Mine is not really an authorized version of SG history, but I did have lots of access. I think some in the Japanese community were disappointed that I was thinking aloud about how to interpret their past. But it was,finally, pretty sympathetic. Among other things, it just seemed time to stop fretting about the Gakkai. There are so many really bad people and movements in the world that worrying about the Gakkai seemed to be something to be done with. Personally, I found it quite exhilarating to be immersed in a globalized movement that was so passionately dedicated to humanism and peace. And surprised to find such grounded in Japan.

P.S. I like the tone of your blog. Vale of Tears. Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy. Tell me about it.

Fionnchú said...

Dr. Seager, I appreciate your comments (and slight correction) very much. I read your book in order after a few others, building up to it last year. I compiled in the entry after this a closing statement on SGI and related materials here. Your own book, enriched by your personal quest, helped me to understand my own, from a not dissimilar denominational upbringing. This entry may explain my own blog's tone!

As for following the money, I reviewed Michael Downing's "Shoes Beside the Door" which was a necessary lesson. I wish more such books explored this side, not sensationally but thoughtfully. I wonder if even in Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn," the author had a loss of nerve, or if she encountered (as you did) a glimpse of meaning beyond what others figured was a facade? I heartily agree regarding the necessity for covering what's become of Tibetan marketing now. That's what lets me down about books offering but not following through on what could have been a more critical investigation for a wider audience, as in Jeffery Paine's "Re-Enchantment". Folks want more discriminating studies than these: I was chatting about this with like-minded friends immediately after reading your note.

I understand your letting go of worry about SGI, and I found your thoughtful analysis a refreshing counterpart to SoCal coverage (I live not that far from Soka U.) such as in the O.C. Weekly. When my late parents, very Irish Catholic, suggested I apply to teach at the then-new campus a while back, I am not sure if they realized the SGI backing, but times are changing. I see now the handsome ads for the elegant performing arts center recently completed on that same campus.

Again, thanks for your comments, and I will continue to read your work and follow your own insights!

Doris Fromage said...

Hello, Fionnchú. I realize my reply is rather a case of coming late to the party - I only hope you remain alive and kicking across the intervening years! I was a member of the Soka Gakkai International - SGI-USA was the latest name here in the US - and I practiced their pseudo-Buddhism for just over 20 years. I rose as high up the leadership ladder as a Young Women's Division Headquarters leader, the highest Youth Division leadership position at that time.

What you should be aware of is that, aside from Montgomery, all the authors you have cited re: Soka Gakkai are apologists. They can be counted upon to provide only positive, even glowing, accounts of the SGI. One is a UK top leader. So you're only getting one side of the story from them.

For example, recent studies have shown that SGI members are more likely to be divorced, unemployed or under-employed, and living far from their families of origin - in other words, these are the most vulnerable members of society. 95% of everyone who tries the Soka Gakkai/SGI quits; the SGI-USA's widely touted membership of "500,000" back in the late 1970s (when it went by the name NSA) is widely recognized as empty self-promotion. The SGI-USA today boasts a mere 35,000 members; that organization's campaign last year was to increase their subscriptions to 50,000, even if that meant members should purchase multiple subscriptions. If what they're promoting really worked, why would anyone quit, much less 95%?

There are so many different flavors of Buddhism in the world, and perhaps the only thing all can agree on are the Four Noble Truths, one of which is that attachments cause suffering. But SGI teaches that attachments are enlightenment! SGI's leader, Ikeda, teaches that winning is everything and warns people against becoming losers in life. This turns the Four Noble Truths on their head; SGI actively promotes attachments, which in turn is a means of deepening the members' dependence upon the cult. Sure, it would be great if chanting a magic chant truly changed reality in one's favor, but it doesn't. Though the Soka Gakkai promises material benefits, in my 20 years within this organization, I noticed that the members were very average, even lower-socioeconomic-strata, and that they were largely dissatisfied and unhappy, despite the happy masks they put on at meetings to try and convince "guests" to join (which they didn't). During my last 6 years with the SGI-USA, though we had at least one guest at virtually every meeting, not one joined. Not one came back for a second meeting, for that matter!

If you would like some in-depth information from the other side, both from those who have been in (some for longer than me!) and from scholarly sources, there are a bunch of these collected at the sgiwhistleblowers site on reddit. You should be able to get there if you type "reddit sgiwhistleblowers" into your search engine.

Best of luck in all your esoteric interests - may they all bear the fruit of satisfaction and fulfillment!

Doris Fromage

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Thanks, Doris, your firsthand testimony is welcome--however belated! I will check out the Reddit site as I have been curious to get both sides of the situation. There was a bit of coverage on Soka U by the OC Weekly a few years ago, but other than that, given their prominence locally, nothing else, to my bafflement. I am trying to get a balanced perspective, given as you say the predominant perspectives are positive. I wish you too all the luck, and I appreciate your response to my inquiry. Fionnchú