By Laurence O. McKinney
Read in French
As our world wobbles towards the Twenty First Century, we see how the omnipresence of media in the lives of educated men and women creates an automatic pyramid of value based on the power of money. Multinational corporations pay millions of dollars for endorsements of major figures who command a world audience. The most difficult to obtain is the academic nod from Harvard University, quite possibly the best known, respected, and thereby most powerful educational institution in the world. And yet Harvard itself is not invulnerable to the ambitions and strategies of those who wish to associate themselves with the world's most legitimizing authority. As Harvard alumnus Tweed Roosevelt once remarked to me "The best metaphor I ever heard was that running Harvard was like herding cats!"
With each college and university department and graduate schools operating with varying degrees of autonomy, it is not that difficult to create the suggestion of acknowledgment or affiliation which may in fact not exist. Harvard is far too decent and disorganized, to have an office of "misappropriation" and few attempt it. It would take a five year strategy, the assistance of a few well meaning academics, and million of Japanese dollars, to try to convince the world that Daisaku Ikeda, recently excommunicated civilian leader of the massive Japanese based Soka Gakkai was in fact a legitimate spokesman for world Buddhism and respected at major world academic centers, chiefly among them Harvard University itself.
At the onset, I should make it clear that I have no hidden agenda. I have at all times been treated with openness and honesty by every member of the Boston SGI (Soka Gakkai International) community I have met. They all have good memories of their sensei and many have been chanting happily for as long as twenty years. I have nothing but respect for any method which helps anyone improve themselves. Likewise, as President Ikeda has introduced millions to a method which has helped so many, he is clearly my spiritual superior. Still, trying to co-opt Harvard at his age is dangerous hubris. The whole story of the Boston Center seems so convoluted that one Harvard professor wondered out loud if perhaps somebody else was behind the Harvard strategy. And that Ikeda was innocent. Another, slated to speak at a Center "Dialogue" was upset that I had been asking questions.
No member of the Boston SGI other than Rob Epstein seemed to have visited or been involved with the Cambridge based Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. It remains as much a mystery to them as it has been to everyone else. Boston SGI even contacted SGI officials in the West Coast and asked them to help out, but there was no response from Los Angeles until the day this article was written and still no answers.
What was behind this multi-million dollar Buddhist World Peace "stealth center" that was already operating in Harvard Square? Nobody knew anything about it, and Buddhists the least. In compiling this article, I spoke to a half dozen Buddhist professors and the department heads at both Harvard and the Harvard Divinity School, and at all times promised to respect their desire for anonymity. This is not about the Lotus Sutra; it is not about World Peace, it is not even about Buddhism. It is mainly about strategic self-legitimization and the academic oversight that allow it to occur in an age when a Harvard connection can make or break global ambition.
Harvard Professor Christopher Queen, lecturer in Buddhism and Dean of the Extension School at Harvard, mentioned that the Soka Gakkai were doing some interesting things in Cambridge and had high praise for the Executive Director, Virginia Strauss. Following his lead, I called and spoke with her about an interview for CyberSangha. The Boston Research Center for the 21st Century was not Boston SGI she explained, but an international research center dealing with broad based social issues. She was busy and tired from her trip to South Africa. Rob Epstein, Soka Gakkai's New England regional coordinator was in Japan. She promised to send me literature and put me in touch with SGI's PR maven, Al Albergate, in Los Angeles. It was the second week in January.
When I received the materials, I experienced the four noble shocks. First, this Center was no office suite of some struggling Buddhist community. These were the very people who had paid millions to purchase and retrofit the largest remaining Georgian structure right next to Harvard, the Elks Club building on Harvard Street, right up against the landmark Old Cambridge Baptist Church and across the street from the Harvard Freshman Union. I was amazed because I also had watched the construction for months, wondering who had come up with the cash for the pricey location. I called up a friend at the Baptist Church, a hive of social activists, where popular theologian Harvey Cox often preaches. He put it in a nutshell. "I call him [Ikeda] the Steve Forbes of Buddhism. It's a simple message, a conservative basis and he could pave the Square in gold. Better that the Elks, but I sure wish he was on the parish building committee". It was true. Someone had just poured millions of dollars into a red brick state of the art Buddhist communications center and nobody had heard about it.
The second surprise was even more jarring. The oldest incorporated Buddhist group in Cambridge is the Cambridge Zen Center, students of the Korean monk Seung Sahn. They had recently helped establish the first local intra-sect Buddhist association and their Victorian row house logo is well known to both Boston Buddhists and the worldwide Buddhist audience of Tricycle magazine. The new logo of the Cambridge based Boston Research Center was nearly identical. It was the facade of the Elks Club and it would have passed at six inches for the logo of the Zen folk who had been here nearly forever. Either Ikeda was trying to associate himself with a well known symbol associated with a venerable Cambridge Buddhist landmark, or they had no idea that there were any other Buddhists in Cambridge. I contacted the Zen Center and they had never heard of the Soka Gakkai Center. Millions of Dollars had been spent in Harvard Square in the name of the Buddha, and not one Buddhist group in Boston knew a thing about it.
The third noble shock was when I discovered that eminent Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and internationally respected theologian Harvey Cox were contributors to the new line of books from the Elks Club Center. These books with impressive titles like 'The United Nations and the World's Religions' were in fact mainly transcripts of talks given as "Dialogues", especially one held at Columbia University nearly a year ago. The Center's own newsletters filled page after page with these events, with even more interviews and quotes from Messieurs Thurman and Cox. I began to read more carefully. Invited to present opening and concluding remarks was Harvard Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox, who said that he had been fortunate to have been in on the Center's thinking about this conference since the beginning of the year." To those who hadn't known what was happening in Cambridge, it sounds like Harvey Cox feels grateful the Center was nice enough to include him.
Bearing in mind that the Center was pouring tons of concrete and erecting a massive forty foot brick elevator shaft right next to the Cambridge Baptist Church's famous flagstone steeple at the time it reads differently of course. Naturally he would be in on the thing from the very beginning, but he's never stepped forward to endorse Ikeda. I have known Harvey Cox since 1976 and Bob Thurman since 1981 and both are fair minded men, intellectually open and both gifted with the rare ability to make legitimate scholarship speak with a common voice.
Still, it seemed unlikely that either of them were fully aware of how their quotes and likenesses were being reproduced and shipped out by the busy elves at the Elks Club. Moreover the same names kept appearing at the dialogues, and they seemed completely heterogeneous. The Center kept calling itself Buddhist but there were no Buddhists in evidence at all. It seemed involved in an entire panoply of charitable discourses and events. Here sat John Kenneth Galbraith having lunch, there an announcement that Ronald Theimann, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School was giving a talk about public religion at the Center, and Professor Bryan Wilson again. This is not the Californian who wrote 'Good Vibrations' but the eminent Oxford don [emeritus] who co-wrote a book in 1994 called 'A Time to Chant' promoting Daisaku Ikeda's side in the very controversy which had so shaken his sect, the mass excommunication of President Ikeda and his entire staff in 1991.
So far the parts made no sense. Why would Ikeda spend so much money in Harvard Square and tell no one about it? Why co-opt the logo of a venerable Cambridge center while telling no Cambridge Buddhists of his existence? Why produce "Dialogues" about all sorts of subjects, attended by small audiences, which were then made into books that nobody would buy? The answer was the fourth noble shock, in a paper published last year by Ms. Straus herself in the scholarly journal Buddhist Christian Studies. At the end of the article, which extolled the work of President Ikeda throughout, was a sentence or two which immediately caught my eye. "In September 1993, Ikeda founded the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. His lecture, 'Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization', delivered at Harvard University just prior to the Center's opening, became the founding spirit."
I was there when that 1993 talk occurred, and remembered it well. Faced with increasing controversy in Japan, Ikeda was not on anybody's welcome mat, and certainly not Harvard's. The talk was given at a small auditorium in the basement of the Department of Asian Studies which had been privately reserved by a member of the faculty sympathetic to his teachings. No Harvard official invited him or greeted him, there was no scholarly interchange, few if any members of the Boston SGI could get in to see their beloved sensei, and fewer Harvard students.
When Harvard professor Charles Hallisey learned that some of his graduate students in Buddhism were not going to be admitted he threatened to boycott the lecture. There was no departmental invitation, the Harvard Press Office knew nothing about it, and it was reported nowhere. One Buddhist senior faculty member grumped for years afterward that he hadn't even known that Ikeda had shaken his hand until he saw it printed in various international SGI publications all that year describing Ikeda's triumph at Harvard. Nobody else even knew about it, except now in a scholarly journal where it was being portrayed as Ikeda's invitation to Harvard and Harvard's respect for his scholarship.
Daisaku Ikeda invited to Harvard? Ikeda lectured at Harvard? That would have been a stretch. I remember slogging through a late winter snow four years ago to hear Rob Epstein discuss the SGI at the Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum. He was articulate, clear, self effacing and open minded.
Masatoshi Nagatomi, Harvard's eminent Buddhist who had helped start the forum was in attendance, and the conversation was lively. It was also sad because only about ten people had shown up. It wasn't the snow. It was exactly the way that the Harvard Buddhist establishment felt about Ikeda and the SGI. Epstein did a good job of setting out the situation he was faced with. Even though Ikeda had been trashed by the evil Nichiren priesthood, his problems in Japanese economic and political scandals didn't really affect the United States SGI. After all, President Ikeda hadn't done anything remotely political or social at all in this country and the method of Nichiren Daishonin still worked for them. If fact, he saw the problems in Japan as leading to a less Japanese dominated SGI and perhaps a new opening to a better future.
However there was a much deeper problem which only the leadership in Japan could have realized. No matter what the disagreement with the priesthood was based on, the excommunication of the Soka Gakkai leadership would be devastating outside their Japanese financial base. While the Soka Gakkai were in charge, and Ikeda was in charge of the Soka Gakkai, they had their own private priesthood and the SGI forged no links to any other Buddhist groups.
Ikeda never appeared with the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or any other religious leaders. His sect was rich, he was all powerful, and aside from token appearances at various UN functions and donating large sums of money, he didn't worry that other Buddhists thought he was not a righteous roshi. He could have cared less.
Now, it was panic button time because without a real lineage, he was just another private citizen with his own cult that happened to use methods pioneered and modernized by the Nichiren Sect. His entire international reputation rested on his recognition and respect as a Buddhist leader, and now he was just the Chantmeister of the Ikeda Society. He had to drop everything and do what he could to re-invent himself as the born again Secular Sort of Buddhist Leader respected by important academics and top universities around the world. It made no difference what the Buddhists thought anymore, they were poor and too disorganized. But it was terribly important that international groups and societies still thought that he represented a Buddhist voice and not just a self financed, self promoted, self indulgent Ikeda-Dharma from his writings to his famous on-the-fly Zen photography.
By 1992 it was becoming clear that getting a Harvard endorsement had become ichiban number one priority. He could have chanted for it but it was faster to erect a huge communications center and scholarly sound stage to create and distribute so much Ikeda and Harvard material worldwide that by the time any Harvard cat-herders realized what was up and asked him politely not to use Harvard's name quite so freely, or at least pay the trademark fee, both the SGI and every NGO they were connected with in every country would have already been saturated with so many Harvard Coxes, Galbraiths, Carnesdales, Thurmans and Thiemanns that the only audience he needed to impress would believe his name was Daisaku Harvard Ikeda, Harvard respected world Buddhist spokesman and leader.
It was a simple strategy, a scholarly 'Field of Dreams'. Just find a convenient location less than two blocks from the Harvard faculty club, get a Harvardy-like Georgian building, spend big dollars fixing and furnishing so it looks like the Harvard Overseers Library, and invite them. They will come. Let them speak on whatever they choose, pay a good honorarium, tape it, edit it, print it, and promote it worldwide. Last fall the Center gave a $20,000.00 grant to a Harvard professor at the Kennedy school. They have a lot more where that came from and a yen to spend it.
No wonder they had made no connections with Buddhist groups or Cambridge social service agencies who couldn't promote him. This wasn't anything to do with Buddhist compassion. It was simply a massive public relations campaign by a man genius enough to realize that an elegant showcase to congregate Harvard scholars in his own name was worth more that the few million he paid for the Elks Club.
Further reading into the Straus article made it clear that this was, indeed, the purpose of the ongoing promotion. "Convinced that the universalism of the academic world enables exchanges to take place transcending national borders and ethnic differences, Ikeda frequently visits universities around the world for discussions with faculty and students and to deliver lectures that elucidate Buddhist philosophy."
Yes, he delivers lectures in tiny auditoriums which are tightly controlled and allow for no substantial exchange. Few faculty and fewer students are allowed to participate and nobody has ever suggested that he elucidate anything except his own press. It continues, "Ikeda has not only forged through these lectures an international network of humanistic scholars but has also pioneered the communications of applied Buddhist philosophy in the West." Really? I guess he never read Jack Kerouac, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn or anyone else.
More to the point, nobody I know considers himself forged into any Ikeda Network. Certainly not Mr. Cox or Mr. Galbraith. Dr. Bryan Wilson, perhaps, but he promotes a book promoting Ikeda. The paragraph ends exactly where one might expect, "In lectures at, for example, Moscow State University, the University of Sophia, the University of Buenos Aires, the University of the Philippines, the University of California at Los Angeles and Harvard University, Ikeda explains in accessible language such concepts as dependent origination, the Eastern orientation towards inner directed spirituality, human reverence for life based on the notion of Buddha potential and bodhisattva or compassionate action." Aside from the fact that "bodhisattva" does not mean compassionate action, that says it all. The scholars reading the article will assume that Ikeda is a welcome repeat lecturer at Harvard, where his ideas get a lot of respect and he is surrounded by admiring Buddhist faculty and students. However the lineup of universities is a tad strange. Moscow State, Sophia, and Harvard? He hasn't started any new Centers in Sofia or Moscow. It's clear that it was worth the investment in the Harvard Square real estate. Those lectures at Sophia weren't getting him any respect.
The PR people in Los Angeles eventually set me up with a SGI stalwart, but they managed not to answer any of our questions until two weeks past my deadline. In the meantime, I met Virginia Straus personally at the Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum.
We spoke cordially as she left a pile of flyers for the latest Ikeda Harvard-Go-Round. These will be yet more "Dialogues", again held in the controlled confines of the Center. "Open to the Public" but limited seating. Go figure. If seating's limited, we expect seating "limited" to be knowledgeable individuals for some critique or peer review. If it's anyone who wants to come, why not have a big place and pay to promote it? It's the same formula as Ikeda's first Harvard "lecture" and the Columbia dialogue, producing the academic equivalent of an infomercial, talking heads with a few eminent Harvard names, a few emeriti and junior faculty, and a few outright apologists speaking before a small audience of those who got there on time. Nobody else to hear them, nobody else to see them, no substantial input to anything really but new grist for a few more books and PR for the Center and Ikeda.
Total cost? A few thousand in honoraria. Within weeks, each talk will be manufactured into books and pamphlets, tapes and teasers, and sent all over the world. The lineup is impressive. There's David Maybury-Lewis from Cultural Survival, and Dean Ronald Thiemann from the Divinity School, there's Christopher Queen and yup, there's Prof. Bryan Wilson who seems to have some "Time to Chant" about Ikeda's crusade at every Ikeda dialogue. None of the speakers are top Buddhists of course, but nearly all of them are from Harvard. There are dozens of good universities in this area, and top Buddhist resources, but instead all these are miscellaneous Harvard people. They could have invited Cornel West from the Divinity School, he knows about religion and race, they could have invited Masatoshi Nagatomi, he's a real Buddhist scholar, they could have invited Gordon Kaufman. The series stretches across an entire spring. I sent another letter to the Center, asking for a meeting. It would only be a few minutes. Wrong move. I'm not a Harvard person. I get a letter back. Ms. Straus was happy to meet me at the Forum, but has no time and declines to meet with Cyber Sangha, the Institute or with myself. She is much too busy producing sensei's informercials, that is the "dialogues". She won't have time to meet with me all spring in fact. Sorry about that. It is now the second week of March, and I am finally awakening to the fact that the lack of cooperation from SGI Los Angeles is quite deliberate. The idea that Ginny Straus can't find fifteen minutes in the next two months is laughable, and we both know the real reason. I'm asking questions and they're spooked. My Harvard professor was right.
Oh well. This weekend Harvard is celebrating the retirement of Masatoshi Nagatomi, the senior and most respected member of the Harvard Buddhist Community. This retirement is being celebrated by two days of talks and lectures by his students for the past thirty years, many of whom have teaching appointments all over the world.
They are returning to Harvard to honor their sensei. Three different Harvard departments are signing on as sponsors. Across the street at the Elks Club, they're in some sort of huff. Either that or they haven't learned that there are real eminent Buddhists at Harvard yet. At least they haven't shown any interest in those who don't shake the hand of Ikeda with a smile and take the darned honoraria with a little respect for the guy who paid for the fancy digs and the spread. Does he have to elucidate that too? It's called dependent origin; the cash to pay for all of this originates in Japan so you don't have to feel guilty about it. Take the podium, take the check and take your time. It' all for you.
The Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum earnestly asks for ten and twenty dollar donations. The Boston Research Center for the 21st Century hasn't sent a yen yet and nobody's holding their breath.
Still, everybody in Ikeda's million dollar palace on Harvard Square knows very well that it's what Nagatomi has that Ikeda would chant all day for if he really thought it would work: Real respect from Harvard, without manufactured press, without the honoraria, the plush luncheons, or the grants. Harvard's respect means more than money, even all the money available to Daisaku Ikeda. It may take him a few more lifetimes to get it, but Harvard's been around a long time and it won't be the first time or the last. If it doesn't work out, he can always open up a supper club and hope for an honorary. Harvard's seen plenty of religious poseurs, but good sushi is hard to find in the Square. Even President Ikeda would agree about that, and if he and Ms. Straus ever decide to open their doors to other than the influential or important, I will be the first to report on their honesty, openness, and generosity of spirit.
Until then, I think they did a great job on the Elks Club, and the SGI of Boston still get my votes as a better show than all the talking Professors at Harvard. Sensei should turn around and appreciate the good he's done, and not try so hard to be the Harvard flavor of the month. It could be a long wait.