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Nichiren Buddhism a view with a secular eye

Before I start, Nichiren Buddhism is a flavor of Tien Tai Buddhism (Tendai in Japan), a flavor of Buddhism founded in China that takes the Lotus Sutra as it’s primary text. Practices include revering the text above all. This is a progressive innovation because the Dharma now outranks the Buddha in terms of importance. The text itself is a bunch of stories explaining how Mahayana is better than other forms of Buddhism. To me, it is ironic that Tien Tai de-emphasizes the rest of the sutras, but you can’t really understand what the Lotus is talking about if you aren’t familiar with the other sutras- the text assumes you know what Buddhism is before you read the text.

My first take on Nichiren Buddhism was, “This is a cult.” In particular, the proselytizing, aggressively seeking new members, the idolization of Daisaku Ikeda, just wasn’t a good story. Years later, I have different opinions.

– Aggressive proselytizing. In the market for religions, you grow or become irrelevant.
– Daisaku Ikeda. He’s more like a celebrity. All organized religions have the problem of superstars.
– SGI vs Nichiren Shu. Nichirenism takes orthodoxy seriously. A side effect is you get schisms- a lot of schisms. This endless series of schisms has gone on since the death of Nichiren.
– Cult? No, they are “totalitarian” which means the org, if you’d like will fill up all your spare time, and if you in Japan, you can go to SGI school, vote SGI, work for an SGI company, live surrounded by SGI people. (A guy wrote a whole book about this theme, I can’t find the reference. His thesis was the Sokka Gakkai acted like a mini-state within a state)
– Chanting for a new car. The instinct is to say, “this is materialism, materialism is bad, end of story” Nichiren was a government employee and assigned a district. He was responsible for all the people in his district. These were ordinary people, so you couldn’t expect them to all become monks, do philosophy, or even read. So chant in front of a mandala for this worldly benefit. The symbolic practices are symbolic- they keep you doing Buddhism when you can’t do anything else. The community is what gets you the new car. After you got food on the table, you can start to think about philosophy & other prestige practices. [I actually don’t know if early Nichirenists chanted for a new ox, but Nichiren definitely was trying to make Buddhism accessible]

Modern SGI/Nichirenism, in my opinion, is theoretically friendly to a secular outlook. The main practices are the symbolic practices of chanting, mandalas, & the 14 ways you can interact with the Lotus Sutra. I read one academic call this “Kamakura mono-practice” because there is so much emphasis on just one practice. So if you don’t believe the cosmology, you can still be a member of the club, since you chant. On the other hand, heterodoxy is “slandering the Dharma,” so maybe not.

Now if you decide you can’t believe in the cosmology, then how does this chanting provide any benefit?

– It is a social activity, and networks create weath and employment.
– It is like loud meditation (those who chant the Lotus don’t necessarily do so in a language they understand), so any benefits to meditation you could potentially get from chanting.
– Nichiren Buddhism is still recognizable Buddhism. It is a self-improvement project where you do symbolic practices when you can’t do anything else and you do real practices when you can. In Nichiren Buddhism, they justify symbolic practices by saying we are in the age of the decline of the Dharma, so we chant. Once your life is in order and you can do more, you’d chant & do more.

** What is a symbolic practice? It is what you do as a Buddhist when you can’t do your core practice, be it meditation or reading/writing philosophy or working at a non-profit for the greater good or what have you. Someone times you’re a Buddhist & you are busy, or you are only 3 years old, or you’re 87 and have dementia- then you avail yourself to the practices you can still do, which will be mostly symbolic. This is probably heterodox for some official organizations which say that chanting alone is enough for full Enlightenment because you can rely on supernatural assistance from the text or the still alive historical Buddha.

Is this the way most SGI/Nichiren adherents see their religion? Probably not, chanting for a car is indistinguishable from practical magic, the two chapters chanted for daily gongyo say that the Buddha faked his death and actually is so long-lived he’s practically immortal, the implications for a non-secular believer being that the Buddha is available today for divine intercession and we too have the prospect for being almost immortal.

One of the benefits of an organization that is so eager to gain adherents is that the organization doesn’t care if you:

– are the right race, gender or sexual orientation
– doesn’t worry much about what you do outside of the core practices
– doesn’t worry too much about what you believe or don’t believe.

Anyhow to sum things up, all flavors of Buddhism are religions with an element of magic, some more than others. They all have cosmologies, superbeings and practical magic which a modern person might be unwilling to take with a straight face. Most projects of secular Buddhism start with one flavor or another (Theravada, Mahayana, etc) and use that as the raw material for their personal project. There is no flavor of Buddhism that historically was magic-free.** Tien Tai Buddhism (and it’s many descendants including SGI) are perfectly good starting points for a secular Buddhist project.

** Both Theravada & “early Buddhism” have magical elements that you have to explicitly remove. You can’t pretend that they aren’t there. If you do, Donald Lopez will write a book about you. (Donald Lopez is always quick to squash folk eager to believe that Buddhists have always been secular, scientific, or what have you.)

TkPk Secular Buddhist Group- Meetup Reorg


This group started out as a bookclub. I ran it for three years and in general it was successful– I read lots of books with people and had lots of good discussions. My daughter arrived and the book club went into hiatus, also meetup changed their prices so I made some experimental changes to the group format, which didn’t work out.

In rethinking, I decided I like book clubs, potlucks, semi-open-ended discussion and I aspired to do some of the “basic practices” of Buddhism, which I tend not to do if I’m not doing them with other people, such as meditation, chanting or the like. But I’m not keen on joining an existing Buddhist organization. The Chinese Mahayanists are most similar to my ideas and practice, but I don’t speak Chinese so I’m severely disadvantaged. Similarly, I don’t want to get into unproductive English arguments about vegetarianism, or if the Bodhisattvas have corresponding existents in reality, or the merits of even trying to earn merit. In short, a harmonious group already agrees on enough issues that they can focus on practice. As it happens, I think Buddhism is authentically pro-veganism, ie takes the preservation of sentient life seriously, is about self-improvement-type practices and not so much about faith in a higher power. Groups that take opposing view points already exist, I wish them well on their noble paths.

What does Buddhism, specifically this Buddhism, promise?
Buddhism has two kinds of benefits, the immediate, this-worldly benefits and the transcendent, ultimate benefits.

This worldly
We chant, sit & meditate, read for calm and peace of mind
for aid in finding a job, a romantic interest,
for health

Transcendent and ultimate benefits
The fundamental problem Buddhism solves is personal pain & misery
While not physically escaping this world, we can escape to a different way of experiencing this world
We move from experiencing personal, meaningless pain to having an existential project- that of dealing without our own pain, then dealing with the pain of others- our day to day ordinary jobs either directly or indirectly are solving the prob

What is the goal of the group?
For ¾ of the people who came to my book club for three years, they just wanted to know what was Buddhism as they rotated through religions and “new age” movements of the moment. The full answer is a confusing mess of “well, there are many sects, more diverse than you can imagine”. I want to be able to coherently explain one Buddhism that is broadly compatible and appealing to people in DC. It is someone else’s job to explain and make the case for Amidaism, Post-imperial reform Japanese Zen, and so on. The first benefit, in modern jargon is mood stabilization, something that might otherwise be treated with anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication or worse alcoholism and mindless TV. Buddhism isn’t a cure for serious psychological problems- schizophrenics should still avail themselves of modern medicine, but is a perfectly suitable cure for that feeling of unease we find ourself in that is somewhere between vacation and being literally sick.

Why is there a monthly vegetarian potluck? You may have read Buddhists aren’t vegetarian. This is a matter of sect. Mahayana Buddhist doctrine include animal liberation, a position even more “hard core” than typical US vegetarianism that prohibits owning pets, let alone eating them or using their products. Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada is not vegetarian. The goal is for this group to be a place that is safe to be vegetarian. In Buddhism, there are many degrees of vegetarianism, such as being vegetarian only a certain number of days a week or only on the numerous holidays.

What will we be reading? I pick books that target the most common forms of Buddhism in the US, which is Zen, Nichiren Buddhism and Shambhala/Tibetan Buddhism.

What do you mean by practice? Buddhism is a religion of practice. Cultivating a state of mind and behavior is the core. As Buddhism was popularized (a thousand years ago!), monks realized that they couldn’t teach people do copy the monks. Easy practices, often with only symbolic content, became the foundation of practice– e.g. yoga, chanting and silent sitting meditation. I’m less certain on the exact details, but even alter maintenance is on the list.

I’d urge you to not project your previous religious expectations onto practice– this isn’t necessarily Christian prayer with cross swapped out for a Bodhisattva statue. In short, symbolic practices are what keep us from forgetting our practice (either in the form of the eight fold path or the paramitas) when in day to day life, we find our selves working a job to pay the rent and not working directly on charity, tolerance, or equanimity.

The ideal goal (the one we work towards but don’t necessarily expect to reach) is where we have internalized all the various meritable qualities into our daily life and we act every day without hate and greed and with equanimity. In the meanwhile, we lay a foundation with symbolic practices.


Bimonthly Practice Review

I’m thinking this should be a regular category of blog post.

The 8 fold path calls for a variety of mental conditions, working in the world and two kinds of meditation– mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samadhi). Of those, the work and meditation are specifically actionable.

I meditated. As usual, I used Samantabhadra as my focal point. Beats staring at the intersection of two wooden spars on the floor.

I read. Working my way through Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Wallis. I discussed it at my book club.

I participated on the Buddhist.SE website. The bodhisattva vows have probably half a dozen precepts related to teaching, as if being a Buddhist obliges you to teach. And then, in the BNS and UPS, there is much handwringing about who is qualified to teach and if people in the position of teaching are arrogant.

Flashcards. The pali jargon is overwhelming me– not so much in the sense of causing distress, but I’m forgetting the words as fast as I read them.

Review again a curriculum for kids. I still haven’t settled on a plan of attack.

What speaks to me today, what doesn’t

What speaks to me
Mahayana Ethics- Woman’s rights, animal rights, peaceful conduct, universal salvation, the de-emphasizing of renunciation as the sole path of liberation. This really is the litmus test for any -ism or -ology I subscribe to. The best way to convince an -ism or -ology that unregulated gun ownership is bad on all sorts of levels is to not participate in the ones that are pro-guns, pro-slaughter.
The psychology of mindfulness- pay attention to what is going on in your head, belly and breath. These are the skills that made the most difference in my ordinary life. It gets a bad rap for being ethics-free and maybe quietism– I think it’s a foundational skill, without it you can be effective in ethics or accomplish anything, either activist or quietist.
Universal interconnectedness of Huayen. Its a formulation of no-self that supports activism. Act because we’re all in this together and what one does matters to everyone.
Recognizable Buddhism. Everytime I go into depth into a particular sort of Buddhism, I run into these walls, things I can’t buy into or believe or use. But overall, things that are recognizable Buddhism are better than the alternatives.
The value system of Zen- simplicity, aesthetics, calm
Theravada and Mahayana paths of liberation– The 8 fold path, the 6 paramitas, the 10 Bhumis.
Mahayana formal ethics. By this I mean precepts. The BNS and UPS precepts are the best raw materials for precepts so far.
Bits and pieces of Nichiren, Shingon, Tantra, Pure Land– but each system as a whole doesn’t add up. Mantras, mandalas, mudras, prostrations– all seem like they are worth trying out. (and in each system, there is so much I’d rather just skip over or transform– mantras should be in English, mudras should be ASL, mandalas should be any soteriologically valuable picture worth meditating on)
Bodhisattvas– but only as instructive fictions.

What doesn’t speak to me
Renunciation. And by that, I mean, the don’t have a family, drop out of society, drop out of society for a very long time, … that stuff. I should write a whole blog post on it.
Indian Theravada Ethics. I don’t want to disparage modern Theravans. I’m sure they are nice people. I want to disparage the sexist, specist, classist ancient Indians, who figured only elite guys could reach enlightenment and they could reach enlightenment with a hamburger in one hand and a cigarette in the other, since hey, technically, those aren’t violations of any precepts because, well, logic.
Nagarjuna and Heart Sutra. These appear to be some sort of Indian style syllogisms, but provided without a background in how that logic system works. If you deny everything, including the opposites and the conjunctions and disjunctions, what’s left is obscurantism.
Yogacara’s “only mind”. I’m not sure what they’re going on about. Either everything is filter through the mind, which seems plausible but of uncertain consequences, or my mind is thinking up you. Which sounds like solipsism and fails to explain how we end up with consensus reality, i.e. on broad, simple things, people agree about reality. It’s just politics, religion and the like where no one agrees.
Yogacara and radical idealism. If we are thoughts without a thinkers, what’s the consequence? This multiperson hallucination seems to follow a lot of strict rules and no one seems to be able to take advantages of of the world being a dream, like lucid flying.
Tathagatagarbha. Reframing the goal so that it’s already accomplished isn’t very satisfying. And if the point is that enlightenment is a realization about who we really are– which had to have been true all along, then the doctrine is vacuous. Of course if we are trying to figure out who we really are, what we realize will have been true all along. The goal isn’t to verify the vacuous point that we are who we are and we have been all along. The point is we want the benefits of such a realization. We seek enlightenment for the consequences of such a realization. What will we do different after such a realization? That difference is something that wasn’t the case before enlightenment.
Radical nondualism. The universe isn’t undifferentiated goo.
Faith. It didn’t do anything for me when it was God and Jesus. It doesn’t do anything for me when it’s Buddha and Amitabha. The reasoning about faith seems like so much “truncated logic.” Why is faith good? Because practice is hard, so faith in Amitabha is better. Sounds plausible, but what if Amitabha just doesn’t exist?
Tantra. If I’m going to do mixed practice, why mix Hindu witchcraft and not, say Asatru magic?
Jataka Tales. These are non-Buddhist (as in not Buddhist) fairy tales. They are as Buddhist as the 3 little pigs, the 3 bears and Pinocchio. A pleasant, moralistic tale doesn’t automatically make it even recognizable Buddhism. It annoys me to no end that if you try to find books for teaching kids about Buddhism, this is 90% of what you find.
Institutions. I like the institutions of book publishers, authors and readers. I don’t care for abbots and group think (i.e. doctrines everyone adheres to because it’s part of membership requirements). I don’t care for the self serving rules that crept into Buddhism, especially in the vinaya, BNS and UPS. And guru veneration. I think I like Bodhisattvas better. For one, they are fictional, so they aren’t going to be writing up rules to get people to toe the line and preserve the institution.

My Practices- A Review for May 2014

Every morning my son and I do altar maintenance. We place a bowl and something food in front of the statues, admit what we did wrong yesterday, promise to stop it, vow to do all the good things Bodhisattvas do, then we do a mantra, the anjali mudra for mind-speech-body.

I do prostrations occasionally. I happens to be good exercise.

I’ve fallen behind in meditation.

I’ve been reading books for my book club and sutras. At the moment I’m trying to work my way through some of the Mahayana Sutras. This old wine–not only does it need a new bottle, it needs to be distilled down to a palatable brandy. Even if I rambled on for a kalpa, I could not over emphasize how the wordy, hyperbolic bombast distracts from the message.

The sutras are iterating a few themes:

– The Buddhist Cosmology and our place in it. Oddly, the sutras expect you to already know the cosmology.
– The numbered items as mini-models of the world
– The vows, which are thematically grouped, So the Medicine Buddha’s vows are about the need to do good here and now, Samantabadhra’s vows about the need to tend to the practices of Buddhism, Ksintigarbha about the need to rescue those who’ve gotten themselves into a mess. Their vows should be our vows, too. The Amitabha’s vows, I’m not sure what to do with them. They’re literally about afterlife concerns. I suppose they are salvagable as the will to create a utopia.
– The ancient logical arguments, which occasionally include a groaner like, “If you asked a blind man what he saw, he’d say ‘darkness'”. I’d say that’s not demonstrated until you get several blind people and ask them what comes to mind when they hear the words that would require vision to understand them. I think a better example would be asking ourselves how we experience echo-location like bats do or how we sense electrical currents in water like the platypus does.

Anyhow, my next sub-project for the BNS is to divide the list into things that are fundamentally Sramana/Biksu precepts and what are precepts anyone could do.

Why start this blog?

I plan to write here all my Buddhism related posts, particularly related to my “Brahma Net Sutra” project, an attempt to create a “one person orthodoxy” and the methodology for others to do the same, that updates the precepts to be usable in the West in our current day, especially in an independent, lay context.

The Brahman Net Sutra (BNS)
The Brahman Net Sutra is a sutra written in China that reforms the vinaya, which was the list of rules that Buddhist renunciates followed. In is not strictly a monastic system, it is available to anyone who wants to be on the Bodhisattvas path.

The BNS is remarkable for a precept that outlines “self ordination.” For the original author, they probably had in mind the situation of an enthusiastic Chinese Buddhist who has returned to his village and now he is only Buddhist for miles and miles around.  But the BNS is two things– it is a moral code anyone can try to follow and it is a rule list that you must follow to stay in good standing in an existing institution. Historically this “self ordination” rule has been inert– why would any abbot allow people to self ordain? In many ancient jurisdictions  there were tight government controls on how many people could become monks.

In the US, there is nothing similar to the nationwide institution of Imperial Chinese Buddhism, or the huge network of renunciates in ancient India. There isn’t an orthodoxy and picking a flavor of Buddhism is as arduous and inventing your own flavor of Buddhism. Like mantras? You can find a temple for that. Don’t like mantras? Same.  Now if you are the sort of person who would just like to be told what to believe… you can’t! You still have to choose which temple to go to and they are all different.

Or if you don’t live in a big city, there are no temples. You’re going to be practicing independently in your bedroom.

The ideal time to decide not to have a family, ever, and dedicate your entire life to the Bodhisattva path is about age 20.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not 20 anymore. The best place to do that, is abroad. There are not a lot of well funded monasteries in the US. Itinerant begging is illegal in most jurisdictions.

But in the US, it is already obvious that us recent converts are not like  Buddhists in countries where Buddhism has been around for 100s of years. The new converts, as a rule of thumb in any religion, are the most enthusiastic.  Few recent coverts in the US fulfill the minimum that say, Chinese society expects. Instead, we are meditating, reading Sutras in the original, taking on practices that normally only monks would do. But we have families, jobs and so on.

The BNS is again a remarkable document in that it seems to be encouraging everyone to take the precepts, both lay followers and officially ordained. In Buddhism there is the concept of lay followers following what precepts they can. If we read the BNS in this way, and skip over the handful of precepts that don’t apply, then the BNS has a way of life that can be followed as a lay person.