Today's essay consists of three sections, under these headings:
What is a Prosperity Buddhist?
Modifying the Basic Sales Pitch
Some Anecdotes: Ten revealing episodes from my years as an SGI Buddhist.
What is a Prosperity Buddhist?
A Prosperity Christian is a "Christian" who believes that God wants him to be rich. A Prosperity Buddhist is a "Buddhist" who believes that his practice will make him rich. Many of the Buddhists I'd met during my years with the cult known as the SGI-USA (Soka Gakkai International - United States of America branch) fully believed that proper Buddhist practice, as defined by the SGI, would allow them to receive "material benefits." There were fewer, though still a sizable minority, who took this claim one step further: "I'm going to be a millionaire someday."
The latter group make sure their voices are heard during SGI public discussion meetings. And the members in attendance enthusiastically applaud their various rags-to-riches stories. I even heard one long-time member (himself Japanese - "oddly" enough) who tried to lend gravitas to the high-level leaders he'd met in Japan (SGI's home base) by saying, "Oh, all these guys are millionaires." The irony of all this is, the founder of SGI's brand of Buddhism was a 13th century Japanese monk, Nichiren, who spent his entire life in a state of homelessness living off the charity of others.
The concept of "benefit" is huge in SGI Buddhism. When new members are welcomed into the fold, they are told, "You can chant for anything you want." They are told, "You will receive benefits as the result of your practice." Of course, donating money and time to the organization are forms of "practice" (almsgiving) that would vastly increase the amount and earlier arrival of these benefits.
To be sure, there are scriptural references* that could be used to support such claims. However, the vast majority of other references* describe the truest benefit as being the attainment of Buddhahood itself. This is the highest goal, the greatest benefit, as detailed in the scripture which the SGI pays lip service (and only lip service) to being the greatest: The Lotus Sutra. This greatest benefit" would, ironically enough to Prosperity Buddhists, come about by rejecting materialism in one's personal life and (instead) making sacrifices for others - these are among the practices encompassed by the six paramitas*.
Modifying the Basic Sales Pitch
The SGI philosophy is based on cause and effect. By putting out good causes in one's life, and reducing the number of seriously bad causes, a chanter can obtain anything he wants. We were told to try the practice for 100 days. If, by the end of that trial period, we felt we weren't getting at least some sign that there was something to this practice, then we'd be fools to continue. This period was likened to going to work for a new boss. The good causes you'd put out would be your diligent, positive, and successful efforts on behalf of your boss. You aren't paid immediately for each good cause you put out, but (rather) at the end of a pay period - typically two weeks. If you didn't get paid at that time, you'd know something was seriously wrong.
Emphasizing that chanters wouldn't be "paid immediately for each good cause" was meant to counter the expectation of immediate gratification.
Why 100 days, you might ask? That would be "enough" time to learn gongyo, though memorizing wasn't required. Gongyo is the chanting, in an ancient Chinese dialect, of certain portions of the Lotus Sutra. It was also enough time to attend SGI meetings and to engage in some of their activities (including lectures and study sessions) in order to learn more about the practice. At the time I first joined (in 1975), there were a lot of very good things the SGI had going for it - including a certain sense of destiny which I've described in some of my other essays. Plus, a lot of young people had been attracted to it. So...boys being boys and girls being girls, that was yet another good reason to stick with the philosophy.
But after a while, a sizable number of new members would start asking questions like, "I'm not getting what I want - in fact I got hit by a truck and broke my arm." As for the first part, the usual response would be, "When you chant, you either get what you want, something better, or you lose the desire for it due to you having become a better person." It was also mentioned that all good things take time, and that we shouldn't rush the gohonzon (the sacred scroll we prayed to). Also, you couldn't "just chant" to get what you want, you had to chant and take action - though your chanting would reveal to you what kind of action was needed. All of this served to at least buy time in order to give the practice a chance to work.
As for that truck: "Your negative karma, accumulated over millions of lifetimes, was the cause for that accident which should have killed you. Instead, you only got a broken arm, which was because your practice served to lessen your karmic retribution."
All of this is well and good, and can even be supported by the Lotus Sutra. The SGI chose to emphasize only selected portions of that Sutra, while ignoring the rest. Which is a pity, since the Lotus itself repeats many times that correct practice consists of reading, reciting, pondering, and teaching to others this Lotus Sutra (the whole thing, not just "selected portions"). SGI went even further - promoting the writings of their international president instead. But the worst punishments in the world of Buddhism are reserved for those who should know better. For that reason, I don't hold out much hope for a happy afterlife for SGI's top leaders.
I will now offer some anecdotes from my days with the SGI-USA:
In the mid-70s, I lived with three other Buddhists as roommates - all guys. One of them, Phil, completed his law degree around the time I left the SGI (which I rejoined in 1993). He was a member for at least 15 years that I know of. Out of curiosity, I googled his name recently. Turns out, he pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to his law practice and was sentenced, in August of 2013, to 60 months in prison. I remembered Phil as having put in a lot of time and effort into his SGI activities. I just cannot comprehend that he would have come to this - including losing his law license.
But prison itself doesn't have to mean the end of the world. I remember another Buddhist (of a different sect) going to prison. He used that as an opportunity to become a model prisoner by practicing his form of Buddhism "as if my hair were on fire." I pray that Phil decides to emulate this example.
In the 90's, I was in a car with my district chief Dale, and two other members. He mentioned a new member who was chanting for his hand to grow back. I don't know if his loss was congenital or accidental. But he was determined to accomplish this "impossible dream." You might remember the musical The Man of La Mancha (Don Quixote), who sang "To dream the impossible dream." The SGI-USA adopted that theme, encouraging its members to dream bigger and more impossibly than their pre-SGI selves would dare imagine.
Dale kind of chuckled when talking about a hand being magically conjured up. His thinking was more along the lines of advancements in prosthetic science might come to the rescue. My thinking was: "Who are we to judge another member's earnest, heartfelt goals? To chuckle about their impracticality behind their backs?" We in the SGI are supposed to believe in miracles - not only believe in them, but come to expect them
Dale might or might not know this, since I doubt he read the Lotus Sutra even once, but in Chapter 23 that Sutra speaks of Bodhisattva Medicine King whose arms were burned off. He declared: "I am certain to attain the golden body of a buddha. If this is true and not false, then may my two arms become as they were before! [Immediately], his arms reappeared of themselves as they had been before."
Back in the 90's, I was talking up an idea I had with a couple of SGI members in the Chicago Community Center. I knew that many members brought their young children to the Center, hoping they'd sit quietly as they themselves chanted. Sometimes, though, these chant sessions could be quite lengthy, giving rise to juvenile impatience. So I suggested that an empty room upstairs could be used for me to host, free of charge, a chess program for these kids so their parents wouldn't have to worry about them running around or being disruptive - or just plain bored.
A few of the members seemed agreeable. While not disagreeing, David Grilli said, "Chess is your thing." His context was, anything done in the Center should be Buddhist related. I didn't push it, but I thought: "And yet the SGI embraces the slogan that 'Buddhism is daily life.' And chess teaches certain life lessons that could be invaluable to the young. I should know: I'd been teaching chess for years as a volunteer in local schools."
But judging from David's demeanor, I could tell he'd already made up his mind. And that was enough to turn off the others who were present. I had one more thought about David's comment: "Back in 1975, the SGI strongly encouraged its Young Men's Division members to join its Brass Band, of which David Grilli was in charge. At the time, I didn't say, 'No thanks, that's your thing, not mine.'"
I had also run my idea by a senior leader who spoke to me one-on-one, after I had submitted my proposal in writing, even offering to provide all necessary equipment at no charge. His denial was based on the idea that the newly-completed Center on Wabash Avenue should have its rooms used for religious purposes only. [Sigh!] The Buddha taught that people could be encouraged in faith by a wide variety of skillful means, extending to those that weren't even related to Buddhism - though I suppose everything is in some way at least indirectly related.
This leader's response would have been better received by me had it not been obvious the man had been drinking the night before. His sleepy demeanor and body odor gave that much away. Not that the odor was overwhelming by any means, but since I grew up with an alcoholic father, I knew that smell - faint though it might have been from this particular individual.
Even among Buddhists, you'll find occasional examples of anger rearing its ugly head. Back in the 70's, we had a very popular and handsome leader we called "Homencho Jackson" - Homencho being his title within the Chicago organization. After the crowded meetings in which he was usually the final, featured speaker, he would lead the members in singing songs - the SGI versions of rah-rah stuff like "Onward, Christian soldiers." He led us by standing on two folding chairs - one foot on each chair - waving enthusiastically, while two volunteers braced the chairs for him so he wouldn't fall.
Later, I heard one of these lads talk about how important this task was, saying, "I'd feel sorry for anyone who let Homencho fall because he failed to steady the chair. A whole bunch of Young Men's Division members would start chasing after him." The idea being to kick his ass, to put it crudely. However, Buddhism teaches that each of us bears responsibility for his own actions. Maybe, if Homencho were ever to take a tumble, that might have been due to his karma. But he could avoid that fate by simply leading us in singing - without the use of chairs. The stage he was standing on was high enough for all of us to soak in his glory.
Years later, I found out Homencho Jackson had died of throat cancer. I thought, "Too bad, but he had that fate in his hands too - if only he would've decided to stop smoking like a chimney." Fellow members told me he chanted for four hours per day to beat his disease - not easy with throat cancer. I knew about members who had successfully chanted their way to back to health, even when faced with cancer.
I myself used my Buddhist practice (though not SGI's practice) in this manner. Even though I still have terminal Stage IV liver cancer, I beat my doctor's prediction (made 17 months ago) that I'd only have five to eight months to live. My cancer is 95% gone and my condition is stable. I made up my mind that I'd like to go to my doctor's office someday, only to see him look up from the latest CT scan and lab reports and ask, "Okay, Steve, what did you do with your cancer? It's all gone. Not a trace." That would be my "impossible dream," but you see: I firmly believe there are exceptions to even the strictest rules.
One of my impossible dreams I shared with my fellow members after a meeting in 2007. I announced that I was actively campaigning to be elected President of the United States in 2008. I said this in a district meeting of some 15 people in the district leader's house. We were always encouraged to aim high, so I thought President Steven Searle has a nice ring to it. After the meeting, the members were socializing and one young man walked up to me, asking if I was serious. So I gave him one of my campaign flyers, which he read on the spot. He seemed to like what he read and wished me luck. He was the only member, then and since, who ever showed any interest.
I never spoke about my campaign in any attempt to solicit volunteers or donations. I wanted to show what the power of faith could accomplish in terms of opening doors. Neither of my presidential campaigns ever developed any traction, but I still gained huge benefits for trying. Anyone reading the earlier posts on this site can see that I came up with a lot of highly plausible and creative ideas in the political realm. And that was my benefit: How much my mind opened up and showed a creativity unmatched earlier in my life. I was drawing inspiration from many sources, large and small, likely and unlikely.
But still, I thought it would have been really cool if at least one other SGI member had shown any kind of interest. I would have shared my vision of what being a Buddhist president would have been like. But I guess too many of the members were more interested in the material things SGI practice promised. And they might have been wondering, "Where are your millions?" To which I would have answered, "I never chased after money, things, or prestige, and yet I consider myself the wealthiest man on this planet, bar none.
In the mid-seventies, I attended Sunday services in the Chicago Community Center on Lawrence Avenue, near Kimball. After the chanting was over, speeches were made including the giving of experiences. Members were encouraged to share with the group the benefits they obtained from their chanting. New members would be asked, in advance, to give an experience, though many of them would say, "I get a good vibe from the practice but I can't say I've actually gotten any benefits yet." To which they would be told, "Let me schedule you anyway. You know, giving an experience [testimonial], no matter how modest is a good cause for obtaining even greater benefits in the future."
On this particular Sunday, a young, very sullen looking black man found himself standing in front of a mostly white audience of members. And you could tell he didn't know what to say. After being introduced to thunderous applause, he stood there for a few moments, obviously thinking. He finally said, "I haven't been chanting long - for about two months." More thunderous applause. "Two weeks ago, I went for a walk and found a dollar on the sidewalk." More thunderous applause. Then, he seemed to "get it," for he followed up with, "Last week, I found two dollars on the sidewalk." And then he sat down to more thunderous applause.
We were always encouraged to warmly respond to any experience that was offered, especially by new members who needed encouragement in their fledgling practice. I wonder to this day, though, if that dollar-finder is still a member. Many members from the early days no longer practice, at least not with the SGI. But...there are reasons for that as I've detailed elsewhere on this blog.
I always had a great admiration for one of the more internationally-known senior SGI leaders, a flamenco dancer by passion and profession - Pascual Olivera Jr. You couldn't find a better example of an enthusiastic and genuinely sincere SGI Buddhist than this very charming and engaging gentlemen. I had seen him in action a number of times during member activities I participated in. Always encouraging, always sunny. And his dancing was exquisite and inspired.
We never exchanged words, though it cannot be said we ever directly crossed paths - except once. He was a guest speaker at a district meeting I attended. When it came time for discussion after the chanting was over, I read from a list of points dealing with how I thought the SGI could improve. No one responded to any of these. But after the meeting, the lady of the house pulled me aside and said, "Steve, when you were reading those points, I looked at Pascual's face and I tell you - he was absolutely terrified at what you were saying."
I was surprised to hear this. But, consistent with my inability to generate dialogue within the SGI, this opportunity too passed without Pascual saying a single thing to me. Which is odd, since it is considered an SGI leader's job to refute the erroneous. Though perhaps I wasn't in error at all on that particular day.
I saw Trinidad at a Christmas Party in the 90's, attended by a lot of SGI Buddhists. I remembered her from my early SGI days in the mid-70's, as this earnest high school student whose brother Carlos had also joined SGI. Well, about 20 years and four children later, Trinidad still looked pretty much the same - serene, happy, and enthusiastic. However, the one comment I heard her make saddened me: "I think this whole idea of SGI benefits was just something that was promoted in order to keep us going."
That was quite an amazing statement, since she had married the man who was our chapter leader. That's quite a karmic connection and I would consider that alone to have been a huge benefit. I didn't respond to her statement, since I only overheard it and wasn't its intended recipient. Still, I was curious: And what "keeps you going" as you chant these days?
I'm pretty sure she never read the Lotus Sutra, the text SGI is nominally based on. For if she had, she would have known how benefit is defined and obtained by practicing correctly. I felt she had never studied much about Buddhism above and beyond the over-simplified articles in SGI's organ publications. If she had started reading the Lotus Sutra right after this Christmas party, I'm sure she would have seen that she had been misled into practicing incorrectly all these years. Her heart was sincere, I'm sure, but good intentions alone aren't good enough. Perhaps she'll be lucky enough in the future to be drawn to reading the Lotus Sutra, and then correcting the errors of her practice.
It's never too late.
Around the time I quit the SGI in 1977, I overhead my chapter chief talking to a friend, saying in a joking manner, "If this SGI thing doesn't work out, I could always beg my dad to take me in." I was always a little uneasy about Jeff and how he came across as superficial at best or an opportunist at worst. But I was amazed he'd actually put this into words where he could be overheard.
I couldn't help but think of a lot of members who sacrificed so much for so long, putting their lives on hold, hoping their efforts on behalf of the SGI would hasten the arrival of world peace due to the popularization of SGI's brand of Buddhism. Many of them, I suspect, didn't have the same kind of golden parachute Jeff had.
I was reintroduced to Rick in the 90's, whom I had first met in the 70's when we were both new members. I remembered him as this joyful, vibrant young man who was in excellent physical condition. After one meeting, he walked on his hands, causing one member to exclaim, "Wow, this dude's in shape!" Which he was - young and full of vitality. In preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial Independence Day parade in New York City, in which we would march as members of the SGI Brass Band, he chanted one million daimoku. That means he chanted "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" one million times during the year preceding this monumental event.
We were all encouraged to chant more for the success of this parade, but few took up the challenge to chant 1,000,000 daimoku. When he finished his million, he told us and we believed him. To this day, I still believe him, for he seemed to honest and guileless. And he had nothing to gain by lying about such a thing.
But when I saw him again in the 90's, he seemed a shell of his former self. It turned out that he became a severe alcoholic, perhaps influenced by too much partying with his fellow members back in the heady days of the mid-70's. Rick barely recognized me and seemed like a walking zombie. Someone pointed out his wife to me, a very attractive but anguished Japanese woman. I felt so sorry for her, and for Rick of course, because he seemed past the point of no return in his addiction.
What happens to people, that causes them to sink so low? Was there no one in the SGI who tried to be there for him at any point when he started losing it? Rick deserved better than this, though I doubt he's still alive now. [Disclaimer: I would love to hear otherwise, that he had turned his life around and was living the life full of benefit which the SGI always promised.]
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Steven Searle, just another member of the Virtual Sangha of the Lotus and
former candidate for US President (in 2008 and 2012)
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
scriptural references* and references* - Here, I am referring solely to The Lotus Sutra venerated by Nichiren, founder of the SGI's brand of Buddhism, as the highest of the Buddhist scriptures. I am NOT referring to the writings of Nichiren himself or those of any past or present leaders of the SGI.
six paramitas* - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C4%81ramit%C4%81