See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nichiren Revisited

Sorry for the long time since the last post. I've actually had a good month, which partly means that I haven't been motivated to write about anything. So be forewarned that I may find myself writing when I have nothing to say. That actually may be the case with this post, or worse, this one may be ammunition for those of you who think I'm getting soft because I haven't blasted anyone or anything lately. Don't worry, it'll happen. This post regrettably (for that portion of my readers) is more evidence of insidious growing tolerance in my positions. Oh my. I'll be discussing the end of the world soon, so keep coming back.

Anyway, if you've read my previous posts on my own personal history in Buddhism, you know about my experience with the Nichiren sect, or more precisely, with Nichiren Shoshu. More specifically, I was a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, which was then the American arm of the Soka Gakkai, the international lay organization affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu. I practiced with them from February, 1986, til August, 1988, in Albuquerque. The practice was a very powerful one which led me to form convictions and perceptions which are also realized in my current practice of Zen. The organization was very screwed up, and ultimately demanded so much of its members, and made such absurd demands, that most of us quit; and soon after, the Nichiren Shoshu priests excommunicated the lay organization and its leader, Daisaku Ikeda. I understand that the Soka Gakkai is still stumbling around out there somewhere, and there are some priests in Japan who still are Nichiren Shoshu.

To pause here, please note that I'll be revising my links section in the next few days. If you really like any of my links, please save them to your favorites, because some of them are coming out, though hopefully I'm keeping the good ones. For example, Warp Spasm's blog seems to have been hijacked by an internet drug provider. Whatever it is, don't buy it. Anyway, I'll be adding in some more Buddhist links and blogs, including some links to the blog and website of Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick. If you want the authentic skinny on anything about Nichiren, please look to him, not me. The instigant for the reflective chance noted in this article was a meeting with Michael at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center's October sesshin this last weekend. As one of the senior students (Marcus) pointed out, I thought I'd never hear anyone chanting "Nam myoho renge kyo" in a Zen Center, but here it was.

Because see, the Soka Gakkai thinks Zen is the devil. Of course, they also probably think Nichiren Shu is the devil, and that's what Michael McCormick is a priest of. Nichiren Shu is the more orthodox branch of the Nichiren school, which is quite popular in Japan, I understand. Their practice to be honest seems a lot like the Soka Gakkai's, but they seem to have a more sane attitute. They don't encourage new converts to chant for money and cars. They don't think Nichiren (who was, historically a thirteenth century Buddhist monk and a rough contemporary of Dogen, main patriarch of Japanese Soto Zen), was the Original Buddha. They seem to be clear of most of the magical thinking which I find to be the main fault of religion in general, and to which Buddhism and even some aspects of Zen are not immune. Then again, that's what Rev. McCormich says, and he may be taking the high road.

I'm in danger of a slippery slope here. A year ago, I might have said that all religion is bad and delusional, and that Zen is good and not a religion. The main thing that leads me to modify this is a new perception of what is known as skillful means. "Skillful means" is used in Buddhism to explain the fact that many of the alleged teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha seem to contradict each other. Some of that seem downright superstitious. Apologists use "skillful means" to indicate that the Buddha spoke according to the abilities of his listeners. So most people can't do zazen, or shikantaza, let's face it. I tried it when I was about 23, and I couldn't do it. But most people can chant "Nam myoho renge kyo," and maybe after they do that for a while, they can sit zazen. That's a rough paraphrase of how Michael McCormick explained his personal progression (he's now studying Zen with Dan Leighton, another product of the San Francisco Zen Center who's now starting his own temples).

This perception came about with my conversation in dokusan with Rev. McCormick as to my frustration with the modern Zen communities I've encountered. We seem to be made up of middle-aged, overeducated white people, for the most part. In fact, Zen is included in the classification of Elite Buddhism, as opposed to the traditional Buddhism of the Asian peoples. Families with kids don't sit zazen with their kids, for the most part. Our Nashville Zen Center is mostly made up of married people whose spouses we never see. One of the things I miss most about the Soka Gakkai was its sense of community; families with children, mechanics and lawyers and teachers and students all chanting together. It really did feel like a big family; I miss it. At the Nashville Zen Center, we sit together, then go away. In a residential community it might feel like a sangha. As it is, it often seems frustratingly empty.

There has been a proposal put to the Nashville Zen Center to participate in a new Buddhist center in Nashville, to be shared by all Buddhists. I pretty much opposed it originally. At some point it becomes the Unitarian church, a bunch of people sharing nothing but the common name of Buddhists. But maybe we need this. Maybe some people need to wave prayer flags and participate in arcane rituals. Maybe some need to chant. And maybe someday when those people grow up they can learn to sit zazen. Hey, even if they don't, it beats the promise of a fiery death in exchange for a heaven full of virgins.

I don't really have a conclusion here yet, just a position in a process. I think the first time I mentioned the Nichirens, I drew a rebuttal from a Nichiren Shu follower who quite correctly took me to task for lumping all Nichirens in with the nuttier elements I'd encountered previously. I still don't understand objectively how chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is any different than chanting Namu Amida Butus, except for the intent behind it, and if there's one thing I've learned from Brad Warner's school of Hardcore Zen and from Gudo Nishijima, it's all about action, not intent. Nevertheless, one of the erudite (young) Buddhist scholars I've met had just convinced me that to some extent I should take Nichiren seriously. So there. So you with the little flags can come in too, I guess.

I haven't updated the links yet. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, keep coming back.

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