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.)