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Religion in Action: The Soka Gakkai’s Tradition of Zadankai
by Clark Strand

Clark Strand is a former Senior Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the author of articles and books on contemporary religious practice.


"Discussion meetings are at the cutting edge of the times."
                    --Daisaku Ikeda, writing as Shin'ichi Yamamoto

(c) Dion Ogust  

LAST WEEK AN ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE WASHINGTON POST detailing the opposition of a neighborhood action group against the construction of an SGI-USA Community Center on Embassy Row, a prominent area of Washington, D.C. The group's spokesman, John Magnus, claimed that he was not opposed, on principle, to a Buddhist group moving into the neighborhood. After all, the Embassy Row area already hosts the National Cathedral, in addition to a number of other houses of worship. What he disputed was the SGI's claim that its Community Center was, in fact, a "house of worship." "The [SGI] says that 100 percent of their activities are focused on advancing peace, culture and education," said Magnus. "Personally, I think that's fabulous. All my neighbors think that's fabulous. It's just not worship."

When I first read this story, I thought it was a simple case of religious discrimination. Had it been a Methodist Church that wanted to build on the same site, the neighbors might still have grumbled about the increased traffic flow, but they would never have dreamed of challenging its status as a bona fide religious organization. Then I remembered an exchange that occurred sometime during the late 1960s between Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda and a woman whose mother was opposed to her Buddhist practice.

"Do you think your mother would have objected to you joining a religious group other than the Soka Gakkai?" he asked the woman.

"If it had been one of the established Buddhist schools like Pure Land or Zen, I don't think she would mind," was her answer.

"It's not surprising that your elderly mother has some reservations about your practice," admitted President Ikeda. "After all, Nichiren Buddhism is a philosophy on the forefront of the times, that is opening the way toward the future."

In retrospect, I think this is precisely what Magnus was responding to. A new religious paradigm always looks unfamiliar. Magnus might have had a harder time mustering opposition to a Zen temple, with its overtly religious architecture and shaven-headed priests, or to a Tibetan Buddhist shrine with monks in maroon robes coming and going through its doors. The SGI has no dress code, no priests or monks, and no identifiable architectural style. It has preserved the substance of the religious life, and let the appearance of religion fall away.

What remains when the formality and convention of religious worship have been dispensed with? I believe the answer is really very simple: a concern for basic human values—core life values that are common to any and all religious traditions. Perhaps for that reason, to the average person they sometimes don't seem religious anymore. There is nothing about such values that marks them as uniquely Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Buddhist. They simply reflect, at bottom, what every human being wants and needs. That an ordinary, educated person would think religious worship was something other than meeting to share such basic human concerns, to discuss how best to address them in ordinary daily life, and to offer one another encouragement in actually doing so probably says more about the limits of the modern education than it does about the Soka Gakkai. In short, there is nothing wrong with the Soka Gakkai's form of worship. The problem lies in the split between religion and life that exists in the minds of most modern people.

It was the desire to heal that split which motivated the first Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi to establish the tradition of holding zadankai, or monthly discussion meetings. Once when he was asked whether it might be better to have formal lectures instead of a discussion format, President Makiguchi replied, "No, it wouldn't. Dialogue is the only way to communicate with another about life's problems. At a lecture, listeners inevitably feel uninvolved." I believe that President Makiguchi's comment points out a fundamental difference between the old religious paradigm and the new.

Fundamentally speaking, there is very little difference between a lecture and a sermon. The sermon format, which privileges the authority of the speaker, is well-suited to maintaining conformity in religious contexts (in other words, it is effective in privileging the religious vision of the lecturer over the life of his audience) but it is rarely empowering. By contrast, at a discussion meeting, every voice is heard. Such meetings are egalitarian in spirit, democratic in practice, and decidedly life-affirming in their vision of how Buddhist practice might contribute to the happiness of the individual and, in so doing, provide the foundation for a happy society. "Religion exists to resonate vibrantly within each person," writes Daisaku Ikeda. "Even if one discusses the happiness of all human beings, if it is spoken of apart from the happiness of a single human being, that is mere theory." As I see it, the primary difference between the Soka Gakkai and most other contemporary forms of religious worship lies here, in its tradition of openly addressing the challenges to happiness faced by the ordinary individual. That difference is so fundamental I sometimes feel that Soka Gakkai members, who understand their zadankai tradition from the inside out, don't fully appreciate its implications for the world at large. For what that tradition really offers is not just a new paradigm of worship for Buddhism, but for religion in general—and all for one very simple reason: because it makes religion answerable to life rather than life to religion.

A religious journalist contacted me earlier this month to ask if I could provide her with a list of individuals who had been inspired by their Buddhist practice to change their lives in some positive way. Specifically, she wanted to interview "practitioners who were motivated to make a significant change in one specific area of their life as a result of their practice." She gave as possible examples a person who had made a courageous or momentous decision, someone who had triumphed over an addiction, or perhaps one who had moved into social work or some other profession based on contributing to the welfare of others. For the purpose of her article, she defined Buddhist practice as meditation and was therefore primarily interested in talking with practitioners of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, or Vipassana (Theravada style meditation).

In my response to her letter, I applauded the idea of the article she wished to write, but suggested that it was unlikely she would get the kinds of responses she was looking for from American meditators. The reason, I explained, was that their approach to religious practice, while it might look more modern to the Western eye than, say, Catholicism, actually was not. It was based on age-old models of monastic-style practice that privileged religion over life. As a result, those traditions were unlikely to offer their adherents practical ways of confronting the obstacles and challenges that tended to come up in the lives of ordinary individuals, nor were their communities organized to offer the moral support and inspiration necessary to sustain the kinds of prolonged efforts that are required for real and lasting change at the personal level. The focus of their effort was not on being proactive about life-issues and problems, but on "being religions," albeit in a meditative way. If she asked meditators to provide stories about how they came to this or that spiritual insight, how they solved a certain koan or mastered a complex visualization, they were sure to oblige. Ask them how their meditation got them out of a bad job and into a good one, or how it helped them find the right life partner, and they'd probably come up blank.

In fact, that had been the case. The journalist in question confessed that, so far, she had received very few of stories of the kind she'd been looking for. For although the meditators she spoke to might have lowered their blood pressure or their stress level, or enhanced their immune system or their powers of concentration, there was in most cases no direct line of influence between their practice and overcoming personal challenges and obstacles to growth. There was little sense of practical control or life application, little sense that devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their Buddhist practice had led directly to specific positive outcomes in their lives. That was why she had contacted me for advice.

In the end I told her she was right to challenge American Buddhists to show actual proof of the benefits of meditation practice. While she was waiting for them to do that, however, there was no reason she shouldn't visit an SGI discussion meeting in her neighborhood. Their chanting practice, coupled with monthly study and discussion meetings, provided inspiration and support for just the kinds of positive life-changes she was talking about. "Go to virtually any discussion meeting in the Boston area," I suggested, "and you'll hear at least one or two stories of personal transformation."

A week later she wrote to me again. On the advice of the SGI-USA representative I'd put her in touch with, she'd contacted a woman, a well-known marketing consultant, who had a deeply inspiring story to tell. It turned out that she had interviewed this same woman once before, though for an entirely different article, and had liked her immediately. She was surprised to find that she was also a longtime SGI member. I told my journalist friend that, based on my experience of studying the SGI and its members, I wasn't surprised by this at all. "I'm sure the woman you interviewed went to many discussion meetings, heard lots of inspiring stories, and was therefore encouraged to persevere in the face of her difficulties and to overcome them," I told her. "Today, the result is a person whose life you find uplifting and inspiring. But that is because yesterday she went to SGI discussion meetings and learned how to use religious practice to create happiness in her life."

Although, by modern standards, it seems an extremely simple and obvious notion that religion should serve life, not life religion, I believe it is nevertheless an utterly revolutionary idea. And the monthly discussion meeting is, as Presidents Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda have all pointed out, the place where that "human revolution" is taking place. It is, to use an American expression, "where the rubber meets the road." It is where religion is put to the test, where actual proof is sought, and where it is manifested by members through personal stories of overcoming obstacles to happiness. Sharing such experiences builds faith, faith builds lives, and collectively those lives can change society. As President Ikeda has written, "A great human revolution in the life of one person can change the destiny of humankind and the planet."