Seeker on Steroids

Waking the Buddha: How the Most Dynamic and Empowering Buddhist Movement in History Is Changing Our Concept of Religion by Clark Strand. Middleway Press. 184 pp. $14.95

As long as I have known Clark Strand, he has been searching for—and repeatedly finding—the ideal spiritual practice, and writing a book about it that he thought would be a big seller. First he wrote about writing haiku as a practice. I could be forgiven if I doubted (though I didn’t say this to him) that vast numbers of people were going to start writing little poems. Next he wrote about a basic form of meditation that anyone could do, one that was divorced from all religions, and that would take the world by storm. He published that book twice, with two different titles.

He drifted back toward Christianity, began studying Bible passages, and wrote a book about the “koans” of the Bible. I liked that book, found it beautifully written, and thought he was settling down. His multiple trials of numerous spiritual practices seemed to have led him to an understanding that they all might work for the right person, someone who does them—as we say in Buddhism—with their whole body and mind. Maybe his book about Bible passages wasn’t a bestseller—I honestly don’t know—but I thought it was his best book.

I was therefore not quite surprised, but slightly discouraged, when Strand then came out with yet another book about another spiritual practice that was going to change the world (check out that subtitle). Usually people go in the other direction, beginning with a popular almost cult-like religion like Soka Gakkai and then go into Buddhism more deeply. Strand, on the other hand, had practiced for years as a Zen monk. He had known the great Deh Chun—whom he wrote about in The Wooden Bowl—the “most God-filled person” he ever met, who wouldn’t teach anything, practiced strictly by himself, and completely avoided the limelight. Strand went from that to the largest, most cult-like branch of Buddhism, one which recruits as if they were evangelical Christians? Just last summer a man at the Asheville Y, hearing of my woes with my autistic brother in law, handed me a Soka Gakkai card and suggested I come to a meeting. All my problems would be solved.

Strand admits, somewhere past the book’s halfway point, that he isn’t a member of Soka Gakkai, though he has chanted with the group (which means nothing in his case; the man has done everything). He seems to be studying the group as a phenomenon. I can’t help thinking that this man who always wanted a bestseller may also have had his eyes on the marketability of such a book. Soka Gakkai International claims 12 million adherents, and Middleway Press is a publishing wing of the international organization. I don’t know that this book was an international bestseller, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s a bestseller for Clark Strand.

I was nevertheless a little disappointed, especially after my admiration for How to Believe in God (despite my dislike for the idiotic title). I somehow couldn’t find a center to this book, exactly where Strand was coming from. I learned a lot about Soka Gakkai, especially its three famous leaders, but I suspect that a member of the organization knows all this stuff already. I never got to the heart of what Strand thinks is so great.

Several years ago I had a grad student who was not only an avid practitioner of Soka Gakkai, but who had attended the Soka Gakkai University. Daisaku Ikeda, the organization’s famous and very influential president, was interviewed in Tricycle that year, and I let her know about that, got together with her to talk about her practice. She did not, I was pleased to notice, try to win me over. She also was not especially interested in whatever I did. (I’ve noticed that True Believers of one faith are rarely interested in any other. They’ve had their questions answered.) But she told a wonderfully inspiring story of her grandmother, who chanted every morning from 4:00 to 6:00 AM, came to this country to be treated for cancer but acted more or less as if she were on vacation, baked cookies for the nurses at the hospital where she went for treatment, and calmly called in her family and said goodnight to them on the night she died, saying how grateful she was to have known them and to have discovered Buddhism. It was her grandmother’s example that led this young woman to want to practice in the first place.

It might have done the same for me. The woman chanted for two hours every day, the same way a university president prayed whom my wife and I met in Korea, going to a Presbyterian church every morning for those same two hours, the same way Fred Rogers prayed every day for those two hours in the apartment building where my mother lived down the hall. People are getting in touch with God, Buddha Nature, the life force, whatever they want to call it. Doing that on a regular basis improves one’s life. Being especially devoted—doing it for two hours a day, while the rest of the world is sleeping—has even deeper results. It is the dedication the people bring that is special, not the particular faith.

I do think that Soka Gakkai’s organization is interesting. The whole thing is a lay organization; they have no clergy. People get together to chant, also to have discussion groups, at one another’s homes. They also supposedly chant mornings and evenings on their own (I wonder how many of the 11 million faithfully do that). The whole thing is presided over by Ikeda; in fact, Soka Gakkai has always been led by one remarkable individual or another. One can’t help wondering who will be waiting in the wings when Ikeda dies, and whether he’ll be able to fill the man’s shoes. Right at the moment the organization seems to be flourishing.

Soka Gakkai has been accused of engaging in brainwashing, of being a cult. It is said that people chant to acquire material possessions, to improve their place in life. There are accusations that, though the organization is democratic in general, Ikeda is a dictator at the top of it, and has a bunch of enforcers going around keeping everybody in line.

I personally have always been pleased with what I was taught as the primary ethic of Buddhism: seek no one out, turn no one away. I also don’t think the mark of a religion is how many million people practice it, and I find it strange to chant for material possessions. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “If we become involved in dualistic, selfish practice, to support our building or organization, or to support our personal life, there is not much feeling in our sitting or chanting. When we have strong confidence in our way and do not expect anything, we can recite the sutra with a deep calm feeling. That is our actual practice.”

Strand would counter that meditative Buddhism is practiced by a bunch of effete upper middle class white people who don’t need to improve their material circumstances; they’re living off their trust funds. He would say that Soka Gakkai gives hope and agency to disenfranchised people all over the world. Take that, you granola munchers. (The man does live in Woodstock, New York.)

Back when I had my Soka Gakkai student, I did quite a bit of reading on the website, and couldn’t find much to object to. I love and revere the practice of zazen—the practice that Deh Chun engaged in, I might remind Strand—but I don’t think it’s the only practice in the world. Zen students chant, and I have found it a powerful practice. I honestly don’t think it matters what we do. Chant the name of the Lotus Sutra, sit and stare at a wall, pray to God. We all occupy the same universe. And there’s plenty of life force to go around.