What initially drew you to Soka Gakkai International?
Shortly before America invaded Iraq in 2003, I ran across a photograph of some Buddhist prayer beads made by Josei Toda, the second president of the SGI, while he was imprisoned for opposing the Japanese military during World War II. Toda chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—the title of the Lotus Sutra—millions of times in his cell, and the experience convinced him that war was a great evil that every Buddhist should vigorously oppose. I’d never seen a Buddhist sect whose stance on war was as firm and well-articulated as that of the Soka Gakkai. It felt like a wake-up call with my country on the verge of yet another war.
You write that SGI is fundamentally different from other religions. How so?
For a religion to work in the long run, it has to be held accountable to life. It must demonstrate practical benefits for those who embrace it. Nichiren (the monk who founded the branch of Buddhism to which Soka Gakkai belongs) called this “actual proof”—positive changes you can actually see in your life. That is the main difference. Most religions favor a model of life serving religion. The Soka Gakkai believes it should be the other way around: religion ought to serve life.
SGI members chant, but they don’t meditate. You suggest that they are more likely to gain real-world benefits from their practice than meditating Buddhists. Do you think that meditation is overrated?
Most people don’t understand that the purpose of Buddhist meditation is to eliminate desire. Whatever other benefits may derive from it are purely incidental from a Buddhist point of view. If the Buddha had been designing a practice for laypeople, he would have given them the tools they needed to negotiate worldly desires instead. The Nichiren Buddhist practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is exactly that kind of practice. It’s a practice for people living in the thick of it all, a practice for people who are in the process of attaining Buddhahood in the midst of ordinary life. Meditation is fine if you’re a monk trying to eliminate desire. But if you’re trying to break through obstacles at work, or to conquer an addiction, or maybe to beat cancer, you might be better off with chanting. It’s a powerful form of prayer that focuses intentions, uniting them with the energy that interpenetrates all things. Nichiren Buddhists chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a way of activating that energy and setting it in motion in their lives.