Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Soka Gakkai International: Reflections

We pull up alongside the curb of a stranger's home. The muggy drizzle fogs up our windows and we stop ourselves from leaving the car before we know what we're doing here. We go over the our questions and our professor's guidelines once again, wait until the hour rounds out, and leave the vehicle to attend our first cult meeting.

Soka Gakkai International is a lay Buddhist sect whose practitioners attempt to bring their inner Buddha into manifestation through Buddhist practice. My group and I came to this place for our class on New Religious Movements in to study what one of SGI's "discussion meetings" are like up close.

Our host was a man named John Paxton, who greeted us at the door, made a joke about college kids sitting in a fogged up car, and told us that "we remove our shoes". John had a friendly British accent as well as a caring, informal personality. We would see how informal shortly.

One of the main practices of SGI members is chanting. They chant a mantra which can do just about anything -- like praying, you keep a goal in mind, and chanting this formula is supposed to make it happen. So, we were led to a room which has an assortment of chairs situated towards the center of the room, where a scroll is placed inside of a wooden display case. This scroll is the Gohonzon, the focus of chanting, or, the object of worship. One man is already chanting quietly, situated directly in front of the scroll and a small gong.

John Paxton introduces us to some of the other members, such as the owners of the home we're in now. SGI's discussion meetings usually do take place in the private residences of members. We are seated, told where the bathroom is, and wait patiently. We were told ahead of time that chanting would come first, for a half an hour, and then we would see just what "discussion" would be like. Some people in my group weren't looking forward to what would certainly be a long half hour of chanting.

About twenty-five people were present for the meeting, including my group. Ethnically, the group was very diverse.

Well, the chanting started. At first, I was surprised at how informal it was. People were still shuffling in when the chanting begun and others took breaks from chanting to greet each other. John Paxton even got up, went all the way across the room, and told us where the bathroom was again, in the middle of the chanting. This wasn't Sunday at the Catholic Church, that's for sure.

The mantra, known as the Daimoku, is chanted in Japanese: "Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō". It means, roughly, "I devote myself to the wonderful/honorable Lotus Sutra". It is the Lotus Sutra which is inscribed on the Gohonzon, and I could probably talk to you about it in more detail, but that's not what matters here. What matters is the unison of voice I heard, reverberating around the room, of this inspiring chant, which was picking up. Over and over, "Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō". John Paxton's voice boomed and each syllable was given even and rhythmic attention. Each members hands were held together as in prayer, and some members held beads over it. My foundation shook from the force of experiencing religion this closely after a long period without it. I honestly wanted to try it out for myself, right here, in front of all of these people, but I couldn't bring myself to do it due to my silent peers sitting next to me. Still, I wonder if they were feeling as inspired as I was at that moment.

The members of SGI went into another chant, this one long and varied, complicated and quick: it was also in Japanese, and the rhythm was almost musical. I later found out that everyone in my group was impressed by its complexity and the way that some of the members had it memorized. Afterwards, the chanting stopped. It certainly didn't feel like a half hour had passed, but it had.

Other Voices
Our experience with rhythm and SGI wasn't done just yet, though. The woman whose home we were in lifted her guitar from its place in the room and sheets of lyrics were passed around to a song that she apparently wrote. The song was titled "Who we are". We were invited to just follow along with the melody and sing with the group. So the members and I (don't know about my peers) did just that. It was nice. I can still remember the first stanza:

  We take action to
  That our lives are going
  Will be ours~

It was nice. I can honestly say that I haven't been in a group that was so open to others this much at all, and I'm not sure when, in the future, I will again.

What do members of a new Buddhist-based religious movement discuss among themselves? Well (and I think this was for our benefit) their history. The main point of discussion, though, ended up being on the concept of "Actual Proof" and how it legitimizes their chosen system of belief, i.e. Buddhism. The idea is that you can legitimize your religion through historical and documental proof, but "Actual Proof" is all that matters. And SGI is quite practical. The proof that chanting the Daimoku will bring your prosperity in all its forms is in the practice. It just works, whether you believe in it or not.

So we got to hear some of the members' stories, how chanting makes one mother's day soar by in good spirits, or how John Paxton's life was turned completely around by the practice over 30 years ago. I think what was the most inspiring about hearing this discussion was the openness the members clearly had in speaking to another, and empathizing with each other about their life journeys. I found that SGI's inclusion of discussion as part of religious practice here was enlightening. The movement doesn't just claim to want to bring the world together, they do so by having these open meetings wherein people can be socially accepted with sharing their ideas, hardships and triumphs. I would return to school that day feeling like I was missing something by not being a part of this movement. Maybe I was just missing Religion in general.

I do have a lot more to say about SGI in the future, but I think this post has run on quite a bit. Please leave me a comment if you have any lingering questions about my experience, or any constructive criticism if you feel my article rambled on in the wrong parts. 

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