I found one of Wendy Byrd's columns, "Choices and Voices", archived at Buddha Jones [www.buddhajones.com
] - here it is:
July 10, 2008
Choices and Voices
As usual, I've been thinking about Nichiren Buddhism and how it translates into Western language and culture. I've also been thinking again about a discussion I had a couple of months ago with some SGI-USA leaders, one of whom had recently been to Japan.I think we Americans puzzle our Buddhist mentors in Japan. Why, if we in the US have such a diverse population, and so many people here who can benefit from the Nichiren Buddhist practice, is the SGI-USA organization not growing by leaps and bounds? I can see the earnest souls in Tokyo scratching their heads and wondering, "What's wrong with the Americans?"
I think I can answer that question (or at least kick off a discussion), and I hope I can do so in a way which will aid in our mutual understanding.
So, starting today, I will be writing on the question of why the SGI-USA is stalling
, and what, if anything, can be done about it? In other words, "What's wrong with the Americans?"
One simple way of approaching the issue (and it's easy to remember because it rhymes!) is to keep in mind that Americans like to have CHOICES, and we like to have VOICES.
Americans define ourselves in terms of how we use our choices and our voices. We're a nation of pamphleteers -- in fact, our country was founded by people who were inspired by a seditious little book called "Common Sense". We started out with pamphlets, and now we've become a nation of bloggers. That's just the way we are - we treasure our choices and our voices. If Americans don't have choices or voices, we get frustrated, bummed out, depressed, cranky, and, ultimately defiant of whomever or whatever we believe to be depriving us of our choices and our voices.
That's just the landscape of this country - it's not rhetorical or ceremonial. It's a part of how we see ourselves, and who we are. We don't surrender our choices and our voices without resistance, and this, I think, is where the SGI-USA has run into trouble.The entire governance structure of the SGI-USA is built on the principle that world peace (or "kosen-rufu") can best be achieved by depriving individuals of meaningful choice. This approach will not have long-term success in the United States. For example: we have no voice or choice in who our "leaders" are. We have no voice or choice as far as what we can read or discuss in a group (our "study materials" are assigned on a national level every month). We have no choice or voice as to whether we can pursue any program of higher learning or advancement in the church. We have no choice or voice as to acquiring property for the members to use. We have no choice or voice in how our donations are spent. The organization reacts with alarm and disciplinary action when people exercise their choice to worship with members of other Nichiren denominations. We have no choice or voice in anything, really. I suppose we might have a choice or a voice as to what the theme for this month's discussion meeting will be, but that's not a very substantive choice or voice.
The organization typically responds to this kind of observation ("we don't have a choice or a voice") by crying, "Don't complain!! Be the change you want to see!" Actually, I don't think it's complaining so much as it's observing, and yes, I am being the change I want to see -- that's why I've been cultivating interdenominational gatherings of Nichiren Buddhists and supporting them in whatever way I can. Of course, if I do that (being "the change I want to see"), I'm "breaking unity", but that's another blog entry.Another example of this issue (choices and voices) is the SGI-USA's recent push to have the organization's leaders sign off on a mandatory code of conduct form, a push which has met with some grass roots resistance. This has to be confusing to the Japanese...the SGI-USA general membership has been complaining for years about leadership misconduct on various levels, so why are Americans resisting a set of rules? It's simple....the leaders who were being asked to sign didn't have a choice, and they didn't have a voice. It's also possible that these Americans (both as individuals and as a group) simply went without choice or voice in the SGI-USA for so long that they decided to put their feet down and say "this far and no further" to any more directives from above.
Not being a leader myself, and therefore not being privy to what is discussed at leaders' meeting, I can only speculate, of course.
Some people in the SGI-USA have criticized me for worshipping with members of the Nichiren Shu and for advocating some traditional Nichiren practices, such as copying the sutra, chanting the sutra in my native language, or chanting to the beat of a taiko drum. In my defense, I must point out that having these kind of choices keeps my practice fresh and interesting. It keeps my prayers from becoming mechanical. After almost 24 years of chanting, I appreciate that.As long as Americans have to surrender their choices and their voices in order to practice "united" Buddhism within the SGI, our organization will have an extremely limited appeal in this country.
Of course, that doesn't mean that Nichiren Buddhism needs to have a limited appeal - not at all.
Thanks for reading, everybody. For those of you scratching your heads on the other side of the Pacific, my next entry will discuss the differences between UNITY and UNIFORMITY.
Stay smart, stay happy, stay cool,
Byrd in LA
Posted by wahzoh at July 10, 2008 07:53 AM
CommentsI remember when we were told we could choose to exchange our Nikken inscribed gohonzon for the SGI Nichikan. Turns out, there was no real choice at all. Currently, we are told that the disciple chooses the mentor. Again no real choice. I wonder what the Japanese understand the word choice to mean.
Posted by: Brian Holly at July 10, 2008 03:16 PM
I wonder if having a published code of ethical conduct and signed agreement form might be a new IRS for officers of non-profits? I ran into this elsewhere.
Posted by: robin at July 10, 2008 06:38 PM
That's a good point, Robin - but of course, the SGI "leaders" being asked to sign the form are not "officers" of the SGI as a non-profit corporation. They're just functionaries, with no actual decision-making powers (that I know of). Interesting question, though.
Bye for now, Wahzoh
Posted by: Byrd in LA at July 11, 2008 07:21 AM
I omitted the word requirement.
Posted by: robin at July 11, 2008 08:37 PM
With a fraternal benefit society I work with, anyone who handles society money has to sign a pledge this year.
Posted by: robin at July 11, 2008 08:40 PM
That may be a revenue requirement, Robin - I don't know. But it hardly applies to the general membership of the SGI, as the average Joe has no contact with assets at all.
I was more interested in issues surrounding choice of what to read, discuss, whom to admire and why, etc.
I will get into other issues next week - for now, I have a writing deadline to hit.
Bye for now, Wahzoh
Posted by: Byrd in LA at July 12, 2008 10:53 AM
Hi Byrd, interesting post. There are some things I don't get though. First, you do have a choice, you can always leave. If the organization is as bad as you describe, why do you continue to stay with it, even with one foot in and the other out? It sounds like torture to me.
Secondly, the mistake that many people make is in thinking that this is "their" organization, it's not. Mr. Wada long ago explained that Buddhist Democracy (SGI Democracy?) is different than "American" Democracy, making it clear that everything is a satellite that revolves around Japan, meaning Pres. Ikeda. By now, do you really think it's likely to ever change?
I don't know anything about it, but on the surface a code of conduct for leaders sounds good and long overdue. Forcing people to sign it sounds bad. If I was still in the SGI and a leader, I wonder what would happen if I went to my higher-ups and said, my junior leaders are misbehaving, so can I force them to act a certain way? I think I would get a resounding "no" and be told to chant for their happiness, chant for the change. Why don't things like that ever apply to the "officers" of the SGI? Why don't they chant for people to sign the pledge? Another example, I think, of the SGI not practicing what it preaches.Asian Buddhism is dead meat in America, simply because what works for the Asian mind is not necessarily what works for the Western mind. There are similar problems to this in other traditions. Asian "leaders" keep pushing, American "followers" keep resisting and no one goes anywhere. Stuck in a holding pattern. I say that if you don't like it, cut loose.
Start putting your energy into helping home-grown group develop. That is, after all, the next step in Buddhism's Western evolution.
Posted by: David at July 12, 2008 03:18 PM
If I raise those same points I am trying to start an argument.
Posted by: Bruce Maltz at July 13, 2008 11:07 AM
"Didn't you hear? We have to vote for the best man. 'Oldest is Bestest,' you know. That's what Democracy means, the freedom of choice. They read us the ages and we choose which is oldest."
from Search the Sky by Pohl and Kornbluth
Posted by: Jeff Jones at July 13, 2008 11:20 AM
Byrd and David,
The whole mandatary signature form for leaders In the SGI-USA is exactly confusing unity with uniformity, or what it actually is: conformity. But it isn't going to happen because 50% of the leadership are actually thoughtful people who refuse to acquiesce regardless of the religious fanatics who promulgate their own narrow minded and exclusive visions which have absolutely nothing to do with Buddhism or that misnomer kosen-rufu, and regardless of what they regurgitate out of their mouths while clutching Nichiren's book of letters and piously wrapping themselves up in a Gohonzon. And the SGI-USA isn't willing to lose those heretics just yet because there isn't anyone to take their place, not even more religious fanatics who love to be told what to do and think by those who love to do the telling. SGI isn't practicing what it preaches because a lot of the practitioners are fighting for change by staying for the fight. And they stay even though fingers are pointed at them by their fellows. That's the courage Rev. Greg showed.
Posted by: joe at July 13, 2008 09:07 PM
Gohonzon is the Ceremony in the Air, it is not Nichiren's life, I had talked about that with Greg, if you want things to change, you leave focus on the SGI and get Buddha in your mind, not Ikeda in your mind, or Nichiren in your mind, or Georgia on your mind. OK..don't start throwing rocks at me, but in the SGI you were not taught Nichiren's way, you were taught Ikeda's way, that is your problem.
No,Byrd, I am not trying to start an argument here, I am trying to offer solutions. I was there in 1967, I saw the beginning, I know what happened, you guys have just no idea, I know, the Org, I know Ikeda, the Japanese Org.
You guys, just don't know Nichiren or the Lotus Sutra, sorry, but it is true.
You don't see me in water drowning in your problems, I am the one trying to pull you out, and NO, don't try to pull me in with you.
Posted by: Bruce Maltz at July 14, 2008 08:43 AM
I agree with Bruce, up to a point, and to expand on his thought, I'll say that Nichiren's Way is not Buddha's Way, which is broad not narrow
. That is however, a great suggestion, just have Buddha in your mind. That's all you really need.You should forget about which sutra is superior, which Buddha is True, which group is upholding justice or practicing authoritarianism and all that stuff--Buddha would never have gone in those directions.
The future of Buddhism in America is non-sectarian. Small steps are being made in various quarters, but based on what I see online, in the Nichiren community everyone is either caught up in anger, whining, elitism, or busy being some kind of cheerleader.
Those who are unsatisfied with the status quo will someday have to face up to the fact that "if you want things to change" then you're going to have to move on, or at least move beyond. If you want to be the change you want to see, then you have to leave the past behind and quit trying to fix something that can't be fixed.
Of course, if everything is hunky-dory with you, then stay where you are. That's my four cents.
Posted by: David at July 14, 2008 12:00 PM
We are talking Ichinen Sanzen. We have Buddha Nature, and when we have Buddha in our mind, we have all possibilities open to us. All the members of SGI know this, but they become hard of hearing when it comes to SGI, you can't make the distinction between Buddhist teaching and Ikeda teaching. No need to rocks or bombs, or shouting or bazookas. Anyone want to talk? Whisper? Shout? Yell?
I am tele-pathetic!
Posted by: Bruce Maltz at July 14, 2008 01:14 PM
Sorry, I know that's long, but there were some *excellent* comments below and I couldn't resist! :P