Hank Johnson

As I’ve said in previous posts, two of the new House Democrats are Buddhists — the first Buddhists ever elected to the U.S. Senate. One of the two, Maizie Hirono of Hawaii, is discssed here. Now let’s crash ahead to the other Buddhist congressperson, who is Hank Johnson of Georgia. Yes, Georgia.

Johnson’s bio says he is a graduate of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and practiced law for 25 years. You might remember that Johnson defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Dem House primaries, so he’ll be taking over her seat. Like Maizie Hirono, Johnson didn’t make a big deal about his religious preferences during his campaign, but Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News Service reports that “A spokesman for Johnson would only confirm that he became a Buddhist some 30 years ago and is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International.”

Soka Gakkai International is a lay Buddhist organization with a proclivity for controversy. It has been accused of being a cult, although I don’t believe it is for reasons discussed below. However, I fear that as soon as Rep. Johnson does anything to draw the attention of the Right he’s going to be smeared as a cult follower. Forewarned is forearmed.

Soka Gakkai (literally, “Society for the Creation of Value”) of Japan was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and educator and follower of the Nichiren school of Buddhism, which I’ll explain in a minute. Makiguchi soon found himself at odds with the militaristic warlords who took control of the Japanese government in the 1930s. SGI literature claims that Makiguchi and his close associate Josei Toda (1900-1958) drew the wrath of the Hideki Tojo administration becase they opposed the war, but other sources say the real issue was that they would not honor Shinto as the official state religion. For whatever reason, the two men were arrested as “thought criminals” in 1943. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944. After the war and his release from prison, Toda rebuilt Soka Gakkai as a lay affiliate of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and through it promoted a program of self-empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.

Daisaku Ikeda, then 32 years old, became president of Soka Gakkai in 1960. After that, the story gets weird.

Under Ikeda’s leadership Soka Gakkai began to act less like a benevolent Buddhist lay organization and more, some say, like a cult. In the 1970s SGI began to employ aggressive proselytizing tactics — proselytizing generally is frowned upon in Buddhism — and developed an intolerance of criticism. In 1975 Ikeda expanded the organization to become Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which has affiliate organizations in 120 countries with an estimated membership of 1.26 million.

I understand there may have been some Soka Gakkai chapters in America since the end of World War II, and the organization had some supporters within the 1960s counterculture. But in the 1970s and 1980s SGI — then called Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) — grew rapidly in the U.S. through well-funded and aggressive recruitment. For a time it looked as if Ikeda was trying to copy some of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s tactics by co-opting American patriotic symbolism to establish itself as a respectable “American” organization. For example, according to Daniel Golden of the Boston Globe (October 15, 1989),

NSA literature displays congratulatory letters from then-Vice President George Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mayor Raymond Flynn, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, among other potentates, and Sen. John Kerry was a featured speaker at NSA’s convention in New York City in 1986.

NSA stole the show at Bush’s inauguration in January by displaying on the Washington Mall the world’s largest chair — a 39-foot-high model of the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Continental Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records has twice cited NSA for assembling the most American flags ever in a parade, although in one mention it misidentified the group as “Nissan Shoshu,” confusing the religious organization with the automaker.

If you saw the Tina Turner bio-flick “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” you saw a dramatization of Turner’s introduction to SGI. Other celebrity members included “Dallas” TV star Patrick Duffy, who sometime in the 1980s was quoted in a magazine interview (TV Guide, I think) saying that Buddhism was a religion in which people chant to get what they want. This quote detonated in the North American dharmakaya like a bombshell. What Mr. Duffy said was analogous to claiming that the central purpose of Catholicism was helping women get abortions. That, combined with the Nichiren school’s intolerance of other forms of Buddhism, created some tension in the American Buddhist asangha between SGI and everybody else.

At this point in the story I must explain Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (1222–1282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who concluded that faith in the Lotus Sutra was the only means of salvation. The Lotus Sutra (a.k.a. the Saddharmapundarika-sutra — I just love those old Sanskrit titles) is a perfectly lovely sutra respected by several sects, although it is not recognized as legitimate by all of them. The original Sanskrit text has been lost; the earliest version of it known to exist is a Chinese translation, ca. 225 CE. Like most of the Mahayana sutras, the author(s) and time of composition of the Lotus are unknown. The Lotus contains a number of parables that some suspect were influenced by Christian parables, which if true would mean it was probably written in the 1st century, but that’s speculation. Anyway, Nichiren fixated on the Lotus as the only sutra that counted. He taught his followers to not only study the Lotus Sutra but to venerate it through devotional practices, such as the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (yeah, that’s where that came from), which translates roughly as “turning the wheel of the Law.” Nichiren Buddhism is the only form of Buddhism I know of with the attitude that it is the only true Buddhism and all of the other sects are wrong.

The Rick A. Ross Institute maintains a web archive of articles about Soka Gakkai and its cultlike propensities. And I agree that many of these articles are alarming, such as this BBC transcript from 1995, and Daisaku Ikeda does come across as a scheming megalomaniac. Some believe Ikeda’s real goal has been to use Soka Gakkai as a vehicle for building a political power base in Japan.

But in the 1970s Ikeda and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood began to butt heads over who really was in control of the sect itself. In 1991 the priests decided it was him or them, so they excommunicated Ikeda and ordered him to disband Soka Gakkai (which he did not do). This meant that Soka Gakkai members were also excommunicated and cut off from the sumptuous temple near Mt. Fuji that their donations had helped to build.

After this the name of the American organization changed from Nichiren Shoshu of America to SGI-USA, and members were sent revisions to the liturgy. But the parent organization did not tell American members why this was happening at the time. I know this because at the time I was active in several Internet Buddhism forums, and the SGI members fell into disunion as word of the split spread among them. There was a great falling out; some stayed with SGI, some left SGI and joined Nichiren Shoshu, and some split from Buddhism altogether.

Compared to other forms of Buddhism, SGI-style Buddhism seems, um, odd. The business about chanting to receive material things, mentioned above, is difficult to reconcile with anything the historical Buddha — the guy who founded the religion — taught. The proselytizing and intolerance of other sects also set it apart. The Lotus Sutra’s place of honor is similar to that of the Bible among Christians, as revealed Truth, whereas other sects of Buddhism regard the sutras as useful guides to understanding but not as Enlightenment Itself in book form.

Yet in spite of these differences, long-time SGI members I have talked to have a remarkably conventional understanding of Buddhism. One SGI-er explained to me that what happens in practice is that, eventually, the desire for material things wears out and is replaced by an interest in the spiritual teachings of the Lotus Sutra (see the story about the student who fell in love with a mysterious lady in this post). Further, SGI members are not encouraged to distance themselves from non-SGI family and friends; nor are they told to stop pursuing individual careers or interests to work for the organization. So it it’s a cult, it’s a loose one. Most of the problems within SGI appear to have come about because of Daisaku Ikeda, who is elderly now and may not be in the picture much longer.

Beside Tina Turner and Patrick Duffy, other converts to SGI you may have heard of include Mariane Pearl (the widow of Daniel Pearl) and Orlando Bloom. A new Broadway pop musical praised by New York magazine, Spring Awakening, was written and composed by SGI followers Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (see sidebar at linked article).

So, although SGI and Nichiren Buddhism generally don’t appeal to me, I’m not concerned that it’s a cult. It may have been on the way to turning into one, but it seems to have pulled back from the edge.

Update: See also Mumon at DK.

14 thoughts on “Hank Johnson

  1. If I’m remembering my junior high and high school days correctly, SGI began gaining adherents in this country in the early 1970s, at the time when many types of “cults” (eye of the beholder, I reckon) attracted disaffected young people. People’s Temple, Unification Church, Children of God, Scientology, etc. SGI may have found itself lumped in with them, although perhaps, as maha notes, it also may have made the slippery slide into cultishness by now. My brother was very briefly involved with SGI in the early 1980s, but he’s too impatient for any form of Buddhist practice. I never had the sense that he’d been lured into a “cult,” and I was pretty protective of him in those days.

  2. I was curious about SGI-USA some years ago, and began looking into them, only knowing that 1) they were basically Buddhist and 2) chanting was a big part of who they are. This article provides a lot of background – thanks.

  3. Further movie reference: There’s also a scene in The Last Detail (early 70s, I think) where Randy Quaid (prisoner being escorted by Jakc Nicholson and Otis Young) meets up with some chanters who encourage him to chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. Great movie, by the way, particularly for a taste of not-in-combat military atmosphere.

  4. so much information! now my noggin hurts. But I do appreciate the effort you go through to be informative. Years ago I knew a short-order cook at the local IHOP who was a Nicheren adherent, and was studying composition(I think) at UNT’s music school. We used to sit around and try to make up names for bands during the down times until the manager showed up and made us clean stuff.

  5. Jonathan,

    Shouldn’t a good Buddhist have been cleaning stuff?
    Anyway, I long for the day when somebody gets elected who refuses to discuss religion and insists that because they serve a diversified secular state their views on religion are nobody’s business. It’ll never happen, but maybe, someday..

  6. I was invited to a Nicheren gathering several years ago, and the emphasis was entirely on chanting for worldly goods.

    The group was led by a former Catholic nun, who seemed to have either been attracted to, or brought with her, all the elements of Catholicism that most former Catholics I know left to get away from. The central authority, the demand that the laity not think, the mindless ritual (for example, we were told not to wonder, much less ask, what the chant means), all that stuff.

    I did not attend a second gathering. Maybe good for some people, not my kind of thing.

  7. I’m a practicing Buddhist in a Tibetan lineage, and I have clearly felt the emotional/psychological effects of chanting mantra (in other Buddhist lineages, the meaning of the mantra is definitely part of the teaching). But always, my lama’s emphasis is on knowing your motivation for your practice. It is that motivation that will determine the outcome of your practice.

    That said, one day I decided, for the heckuvit, to try out Nom Yo Ho Renge Kyo with a focus on changing my financial situation. I sat down on the cushion and spent about 15 minutes chanting and paying attention to my physiological/emotional changes.

    I quit after that short stint, because the effect was a burning power building in me. I thought, “Man, this is playing with fire.” I learned from some friends, afterwards, about “Buddhist” relatives or acquaintances who had become truly vile, ugly people while involved in SGI. The intolerance may be part of it, but my thought is, check the motivation – whatever is the core motivation of your practice with this chant, it will be expanded an multiplied until it becomes your entire life. So if you go in saying, “I lack money, I want more,” that lack and wanting will be your primary life view, no matter how much wealth you have. If you could have a Mahayana motivation, bodhicitta, love and compassion for all beings, maybe the outcome would be different.

  8. I’ve been chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo for 37 years, on a daily basis. While it is true that I chanted for material things in my early years, I quickly learned that the fundamental goal of the practice is to strengthen the Buddha nature within, called by various names, such as absolute happiness/nirvana/enlightenment, etc.

    The act of chanting exercises that nature, which results in it getting stronger over time and enables a person to positively influence their environment. We are always in relationship with the environment and sometimes it’s pretty negative and ugly. How that negativity and ugliness affects us is clear, if you think about it. Imagine being able to have a strong enough condition of happiness which positively influences that negativity and ugliness around you rather than the other way around. That’s the essence of the practice. Daisaku Ikeda has always referred to this as the Human Revolution and stresses that the goal of the practice and the organization is to enable people (empower them) to become happy and positively influence their communities. It’s the ultimate in grass roots campaigns to change the world into a humanistic, peaceful, happy world, one person at a time.

    I recommend that people try chanting and I have seen many positive results over the years when they do. And none of the teachings contain any commandments or mandates that create inconsistencies with other established religions. So you don’t have to worry about hell or damnation if you try it, any more than you would worry about it if you were exercising your muscles at the gym. Exercise your Buddha nature by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and look for the actual proof that will follow.

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  10. I’ve been a member of SGI-USA for over 20 years. I join when I was 19 yrs old. Originally from strong buddhist background from Thailand, as I Thai, I felt chanting words out lound and being taught Buddhism by Americans were very strange. However, after a few months of studying about the SGI approach to Buddhism as supposed to the Theravada approach made much more sense so I decided to try chanting. The emphasis on Nichiren’s buddhism to demand actual proof is crucial (very foreign to traditional buddhism, I bet) and I believe is what distinguish it from other forms and sects. Another important emphasis is that happiness in the deepest level and in all forms can be experienced now, in this life time. It’s a much more dynamic, proactive and action oriented than the Thai buddhism I grew up with. SGI is growing rapidly in Thailand and other SE Asian countries where majority of the people are already buddhists. They’re joining because chanting gives them solid actual proofs in their daily life that Theravada Buddhism couldn’t.

  11. The emphasis on Nichiren’s buddhism to demand actual proof is crucial (very foreign to traditional buddhism, I bet) and I believe is what distinguish it from other forms and sects.

    Not really. I have no experience with Theravada, but the whole point of Zen and many of the other meditative Mahayana sects is direct and intimate experience of the Absolute. Nothin’ like a little kensho to knock your socks off, son.

    I’m very happy for you that you’ve found your practice. However, the wisdom of the many different forms of practice is that some practices work better for some people than for other people. As we say, different strokes for different folks. The Nichiren approach leaves me dead stone cold, and if that were the only form of Buddhism available I’d still be a Unitarian today. But if it works for you, then stick with it and chant away.

  12. Maha,
    I appreciate your openess. Ironically, I believe I do experience the Absolute when I chant – a feeling of being in-touch with the Universe. Connecting my life (microcosm universe) to the rest or the macrocosm Universe. Actually, Buddhism says that they’re one and the same. The material, spiritual, or physical actual proofs are important because without them, how would I know if what I’m doing is not just playing tricks in my mind. It’s great to be able to reach the “Absolute” but other “real” world challenges and needs are just as important to be human. I believe that material possesions are in no way less “holy” or sacred than spiritual enlightenment, they’re neutral and just the means for achieving Buddhahood. In truth, it’s actually up to the “life condition” of the living beings that possess these material things that determine good/bad, value or anti-value. Take a knife or a gun, it could be used to do both good and bad, depending on who’s using it and for what purpose. Anyway, thanks for having this blog, it’s a great forum to exchange ideas and conduct dialogue.

  13. The purpose of Buddhism and the Buddha’s true intent lies in his vow to enable all humankind to achieve the same state of enlightenment as himself. He had never intended people to deify him. On the contrary Buddhism from its inception has been focused on the absolute dignity of each human being.
    It is the Lotus Sutra that affirms this intent with its teaching that all people equally possess the potential to attain Buddhahood just as they are i.e., as ordinary people.
    And it was Nichiren who by fulfilling all of the predictions concerning the Lotus Sutra’s true votary in the Latter Day of the Law, (Latter Day of the Law, beginning with the fifth five hundred period following Shakyamuni’s death, when his teachings are said to fall into confusion and lose the power to lead people to enlightenment, described in the Great Collection Sutra) revealed the heart or essence of the sutra as Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
    Nichiren explained that doubt or disbelief in the basic truth that human beings are endowed with the unlimited power to overcome and triumph over any kind of suffering is the fundamental suffering common to all humanity. And indeed, he established a great path whereby anyone, in any circumstances can, through cultivating the inner truth within their lives, establish genuine happiness. In this way, he fulfilled his mission by making the mystic truth fully accessible to all people.
    Nichiren’s teaching in reality is anything but dogmatic and rigid. He was concerned with dispelling the darkness that shrouds peoples lives. The priests and schools of Buddhism in his time were working in collusion with the feudal government to subjugate the people. Because these various forms of Buddhism were discriminatory and denied the nobility and sanctity of life there teachings exerted a negative influence on peoples lives, and by extension the environment that surrounded them.
    When Nichiren clarified the true cause of the people’s misery he was mercilessly hounded and persecuted by priests and government officials who out of ignorance and cowardice oppossed the a teaching that would truly empower the people.
    If one looks beyond the facile misconceptions and distortions, one will discover that it is Daisaku Ikeda and the SGI who centuries after Nichiren’s appearance, have revitilized his great people-centered Buddhism for this modern era.
    Thanks— Mark

  14. Mark — I’ve read the Lotus Sutra, and it’s fine, but if you haven’t been exposed to the other sutras you don’t know what you’re missing.

    I hesitate to delete anyone’s sincere expressions of faith, but I find Nichiren’s claims to exclusive legitimacy ugly and offensive and very un-Buddhist. I’m turning off comments to prevent further attempts to proselytize.

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