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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Why I Miss the NSA

No, not the National Security Agency. I mean the Nichiren Shoshu of America. They don't exist under that name any more; they're now called the Soka Gakkai of America, probably since the mid-90's, and I understand they're a lot different these days. It really doesn't matter, since I quit my affiliation with them in 1988 and have no intention of going back. But at times when I find myself question my place in the Buddhist community and in the world, I find myself having fond memories of this organization, despite the apparent absurdity of its premise and practices and some other serious faults, certainly knew how to build a sangha and to help each member find his or her place in it.

In February, 1986, at the age of 28, I'd had enough of my life as it was and decided to make some changes. Without recapitulating my whole biography, I'd ridden myself into a dead end with a failed law practice I hated and nothing positive going on in my life. I was drinking way too much, and I was out of a job. Desiring just to change everything, I took one last look at my Scotch bottle and quit drinking; I didn't touch another drop of alcohol for five years, and during that time took a journey through previously unknown territories. Within a couple of weeks, my brain chemistry had completely changed and I began to wonder what else I could do that I'd been denying myself before. I joined a gym in Albuquerque and began working out seriously for the first time in my life. And still within that same month, I made a phone call to what turned out to be the Albuquerque headquarters of the Nichiren Shoshu of America, and pretty much completed the still unspoken formula alluded to in my previous entry for what turned out to be power in my personal life.

I'll save the rest of the formula for later. The point is for this blog that I started practicing Buddhism for the first time in about eight years, and really committed to it for the first time ever. I'd flirted with Zen in my readings and tangentially in practice during my years in California, starting at the San Francisco Zen Center, but I was, as I have said elsewhere, too young and too dissolute to stay with it. In that magical February, with these unknown wonderful and natural chemicals allowed to generate in my brain for the first time ever, I pulled out the phone book and began looking for Buddhism.

Just how I wound up with Nichiren Shoshu is sort of a puzzle to me. These days when I Google Buddhism in Albuquerque, I come up with every conceivable school. But it seems in memory all I could find listed at that time was some unpronounceable Southeast Asian (probably Theravadan) temple, and the NSA headquarters.

Most of the NSA's recruiting in those years was through the practice of shakubuku; basically they handed out pamphets, went door to door and out in the streets, dragged people to meetings like Moonies, and tried to get them to receive the Gohonzon. The Gohonzon, pictured above in a fairly nice butsudan, was the object of worship for Nichiren Shoshu.

OK, let me back up here. For some of you faithful readers, I've been here before. Nichiren Shoshu of America was the American branch of the Soka Gakkai, which was the lay organization of a branch of Japanese Buddhism known as Nichiren Shoshu. The Soka Gakkai was founded after WW II and had a powerful corollary political organization in Japan. The Soka Gakkai, and its American version, functioned in a fairly cultish way, and could actually be or have been a cult, depending on your definition. If it was a cult, it was a very benign one. I was with the NSA, or the SGA, from February, 1986, until August, 1988. I left because ultimately I rejected some of the more absurd underpinnings of the practice, but mostly because I felt smothered by the organization itself. I don't need to go into detail here; you can find all sorts of stuff on the internet on this subject, and if you want something fairly objective, just look at the links to Ryuei's stuff (to the right, kids). Anyway, somewhere around the early 90's, the priests excommunicated Soka Gakkai President Ikeda and the entire lay organization. But I was long gone.

Despite all the negativity about the NSA/SGA, they sure knew how to raise a sangha. First, of course, the organization was extremely hierarchical; the president of the NSA, a Japanese who had adopted the name George M. Williams, was just a flunky of Ikeda, and the everything flowed from there down like the best pyramids in Amway. The New Mexico headquarters was divided into I think three or four districts (and I believe I had risen to the level of a district leader when I quit). Each district was divided into hans, or groups. The hans were divided into junior hans. On a parallel note, the whole organization was divided into men's, women's, young men's and young women's divisions, so that for example each district had a men's leader (who was always the district leader; no gender equality here at that time), a women's division leader, etc. You get the idea.

I was as I said 28 when I joined. There were guys older than me in the young men's division, but I was kept in the men's probably because I was a practicing attorney (my practice having revived itself with all my other changes). My role, after the first few months, as a hansho (han leader) and then a district leader, was to lead the meetings. The meetings consisted of conducting gongyo, the twice-daily ceremony, followed by lots of chanting of nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which was then hopefully followed by a question and answer session for guests, who may have drifted by, been brought by a member, or shanghai-ed off the streets. So was a Buddhist leader, although of questionable vintage, involved in the propagation of Buddhism from about 1987 on. I found that I really enjoyed leading the meetings and answering the questions. I liked being entrusted with more and more responsibility and having people look to me for questions with their faith.

OK, so there was a lot of bullshit involved, too. The publications and ideology of the sect were frankly, embarrassing and often idiotic. How someone with my educational background and acquaintance with what I now consider to be more authentic schools of Buddhism could have stayed with the fundamental bullshit of the NSA for 2 1/2 years, is questionable, as I was fighting my mind the whole time. Just ask Ryuei Michael McCormick, now a Nichrien Shu priest and a Buddhist seeker who was with the NSA during this same period, about it sometime. The Philadelphia rally and the Freedom Bell. I really don't want to go there.

So, how could I have stayed? The answer was, I felt like I belonged. I had become just as disenfranchised in my own way as the people on the streets who were dragged into the meetings. But I had a ritual that framed my life and my practice and made it all worthwhile, and I think there is a real human need for that. I had a place to go every morning and every evening if I wanted to share that practice with others and didn't feel like chanting at home alone. I had responsibilities. I had an ersatz family with whom I shared a lot of time and a lot of common experiences.

Since my return to Buddhism and my ultimate return to Zen in the last few years, I fell that I have found the right practice for me. I have been formally inducted into Buddhist practice twice; most lately last September as documented on this blog, but the first time was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in early 1986 when I received the Gonhonzon. I think I still have the thing in a drawer somewhere. I made the right choice when I left the NSA in 1988, and I very definitely made the right choice in committing to Zen. My problem has been in finding a sangha.

The Nashville Zen Center had its annual Board of Directors meeting the other day. I left feeling kind of sad. I am still a director of that organization, and I will continue to sit with them. These are the people who encouraged me when I first stuck my foot back in the Zen waters, and some of them have become my friends. But they have no teacher and seem content to stay exactly as they are: a group that sits on Saturday mornings and does little else. This all sounds very Zen I guess to lay people, but it doesn't give me the support I need for my personal practice. The Atlanta Soto Zen Center, on the other hand, where I have made my formal commitment, has the support and opportunities I need, at least to some extent and moreso that what I have here, but they're a long way away and I'm committed here, at least for now. I am strangely sad when I see their website and emails and all the things I can't participate in.

I try to do what I can. If anyone's interested, I'm doing a presentation and/or a Zen service of sorts for the Middle Tennesee Anime Convention in April, trying to bridge my love of Zen and anime, and hoping maybe without hope that some of the young people at the convention might be mature enough to develop a Zen practice. I'd really love to do a beginner's meeting on a regular basis, but I don't feel I have the support I need to do this.

No one reading this is going to have the answers to any of the questions or longings stated or unstated herein. I just wanted to get it down in writing (I almost said, on paper) and to express my nostalgia for a time when I felt responsible and needed in the context of Buddhism. I hope I didn't bore or alienate you. Wish me luck.


Ryuei said...

Hi Bob,

I miss many things about my NSA days too. I missed the energy and enthusiasm of those meetings, and I miss being in a roomful of people chanting fast and loud at the top of their voices (if anyone wants to get a feel for those early NSA meetings just see the movie The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson). But the BS just wasn't worth it. I did, however, actually enjoy the hokey parades and the human pyramids on roller skates and all that - but I was a punk in my 20s so what did I know?

Anyway, I have been fortunate. I left NSA (actually they kicked me out then let me back in as long as I didn't speak to anyone, and then I quit) and began practicing with a Korean Zen group (another new religion called Won Buddhism actually - but they are pretty cool and I am still friends with them). Then I came out to the West Coast and found out that Japanese immigrants had established the much more mainstream Nichiren Shu about a century ago. That was where real Buddhism (and real Buddhist attitudes and teachings) came together with the Lotus Sutra and chanting practice that I had come to really enjoy and which continues to be a powerful primary practice for me. Though I have also kept up with Zen, lately through Taigen Dan Leighton who is himself a fan of the Lotus Sutra (he wrote his Ph.D. about Dogen's use of the Lotus Sutra and it will be published in the Spring).

Unfortunately, SGI hasn't changed as much as I had hoped. I make a habit of visiting various Buddhist centers in the Bay area and I especially like to browse their bookstores and sometimes chat with people there about general Buddhist stuff (I try to steer away from contentious issues when I am a guest). I am invariably made welcome. Only at the SGI bookstore have I ever run into people who seem deeply suspicious and who have accused me to my face of coming to recruit people or stir up trouble (a little projection I fear). I am even de facto barred from shopping at their bookstores presently though one leader has told me he is willing to "dialogue" with me about it. Funny that I never have to "dialogue" about going to the Zen Center bookstore of the Fo Guan Sha bookstore and so on.

So I know what you mean about missing some things about them. Unfortunately those good things didn't outweight the sectarianism, paranoia, triumphalims, dogmatism, and authoritarianism. And sad to say it seems that despite my hopes, SGI hasn't really changed that much. Best to move forward without regrets.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,


I'm a gung ho SGI'er, joined in 1977 and still harbor negativity about NSA. It was basically idiotic to attempt to transplant the lay organization into US society without change... we miss the old NSA the same way combat veterans miss their wars -- misplaced nostalgia ... better to concentrate on the present (ho-nin-myo and all that)... at least for me SGI has changed, mostly because I've changed ... catch on the cosmic flip-flop

bruce (SF Bay Area)

Ryuei said...

Hi Bruce,

Sorry to tell you but there is no comparison between SGI and other Buddhist groups if you want to talk about openess and civility. I challenge anyone to go to the San Francisco SGI Community Center and try to inquire about what SGI thinks of other forms of Buddhism, even Nichiren Buddhism, and you will see how very different it is. You will encounter an exclusivism, triumphalism, and sectarianism that you would never encounter at any other Buddhist center or temple. In fact, you will most likely find yourself escorted to the door. One area leader Montgomery Bray told me to my face that it wasn't just me but if a Zen Buddhist came to their center he'd show them the door as well. I really feel sorry for you guys, maybe as individuals you can be tolerant and broadminded (like Daisaku Ikeda appears to be in his dialogues), but in an organizational/institutional setting you will just not be permitted to do that. And then there are the many reports I have received from longtime SGI members who are not fringe members or independents who have experienced shunning and sometimes even reactions of outright superstitious fear and loathing from other "gung-ho" members. If that is Buddhism - I am glad to not be a part of it. Fortunately I have discovered Nichiren Shu, which the Japanese-American immigrants brought over a century ago, and found that traditional Nichiren Buddhism is no more intolerant, authoritarian, fundamentalist, or dogmatic than any other Buddhist organization.

Both Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen) and Nichiren had harsh criticism of their Buddhist contemporaries. Granted that Nichiren's writings are far more polemical on the whole than Dogen, but still Nichiren was far from the only one who had his critiques. But what you won't find among the traditional lineages of Soto Zen and Nichiren Shu is an attempt to perpetuate medieval polemics and sectarianism. In fact, the Nichiren Shu a few years ago even decided that they no longer wanted the word "Shu" translated as "Sect." The former abbot of Kuonji at Mt. Minobu even instructed a class of ministers-in-training that not only should Buddhists dialogue with each other now, but people of all religions must dialogue for the sake of world peace. This is a far cry from SGI which seems to believe that any attempt to dialogue with their membes is an attempt to confuse or recruit them.

I really hope two things;

1. That no one looking to practice Buddhism is fooled by SGI's rhetoric of grass roots democracy, tolerance, and dialogue when in fact they are highly authoritarian, very top down, very dogmatic, and "dialogue" is really a cover for their own proselytization efforts and not at all about a real sharing and clarifying of views between dialogue partners with mutual respect.

2. That no one comes to mistakenly believe that SGI is representative of traditional Nichiren Buddhism because it is far from that, and even the Nichiren Shoshu that SGI once represented as a lay organization is in fact viewed by all other Nichiren Buddhists as no longer Buddhist because they teach that Nichiren is a Buddha who has replaced Shakyamuni. That is simply not at all what Nichiren taught - and even SGI's own translations of the gosho do not support that teaching.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,