A Comfortable Doctrine

 by Minna vander Pfaltz

I have a friend who fancies herself a Buddhist. She knows I am a Buddhist well-founded on history and writings, which modern American Buddhists shun, believing that reading is not practice. This, despite the writing of the sutras, which they hold in such awe that they see them, Mahayana, as a school of Buddhism. It is not. It is a mass, most untranslated, of esoteric and exegetical writings that all schools of Buddhism read and utilize in their practice. Another way of putting it is that Mahayana “is neither a Vinaya tradition or a doctrinal school. It is rather a vision or aspiration, and an understanding of what the final concern should be for all Buddhists (Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought, pp. 112-113) [There are only five schools of Buddhism: Sarvastivada or Vaibhasika; Sautrantika; Theraveda; and Pudgalavada. I am a Pudgalavadan.]

Anyway, this woman invited me to a meeting of her group of Buddhists to chant. That is what they do, chant. Or so they call it. I found it to be shouting out a memorized bit from the Lotus Sutra–and in none too cohesive, unanimous or rhythmic a manner. They do this three times for very short periods, perhaps 2-3 minutes. This, to me, is not chanting. Chanting is a means to an end, the end being meditation, the proper mind for meditation. They, in fact, do not meditate.

This group, a tight knit, small group, calls itself Nichiren Buddhist. It is, in fact, something else.

Nichiren Buddhism is not given much shrift by other Buddhists. To begin with, Nichiren and his followers were violently aggressive. This is not part of the canon of Buddhism. Worse, perhaps, is that Nichiren Buddhism is the only sect of Buddhism that is named after an individual. How egotistical. How egomanic. How egocentric. And how very un-Buddhist. One of the major tenets of Buddhism, as translated in the 19th century, is no-self. Well, no self, no life. No self means death. A better, more accurate translation would be no-ego, for it is the ego that brings on suffering via its illusion of what you are, the illusion of your self, often enough of a Dunning-Kruger sort: an unrealistic vision of your self. It is this illusion that creates suffering and must be bypassed. Ergo, Nichiren had not attained any clear understanding of Buddhism nor had he managed to rid himself of his ego. How can he lead a sect of Buddhism when he has not managed to gain mastery over his ego, his illusion of reality, his illusion of his self?

A second problem is that Nichiren Buddhism teaches only one sutra, the Lotus Sutra. As if there is no other sutra or interpretation of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. There are hundreds translated and thousands untranslated. To only see one exegetical teaching is not only philosophically vacuous, it is as limiting as people who burn books.

So, one is able to maintain that Nichiren Buddhism is not, in fact, Buddhism. It is illusion. This is beyond comprehension to Nichiren’s followers, for their practice makes them feel happy. This, happiness, is taught as the major effect of proper practice. This is not the happiness that any other Buddhist school teaches; this is the happiness of ego, as in “I feel happy and good when I do something for someone else.” (One of these people actually said this to me as if this were the end all and be all of Buddhist goodness and virtue.) Oh puke! That’s not giving or doing for anyone but yourself.

Buddhist happiness begins in mind and it surpasses the sensual. Nichiren’s followers like to feel good, feel good about themselves; this makes them happy. So, I ask you, what have they gained or learned? Happiness for Buddhists is the arising of the Awakened Ones; it is the gaining of wisdom; it is not doing evil. You can only attain happiness by following The Eightfold Path and being mindful of The Four Noble Truths.

When I sat in with this group, I asked about The Noble Eightfold Path. No one knew–and, indeed, blew it off. Far too difficult a thing to deal with. This is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, which no one knew of. In fact, they told me that since Nichiren had studied for 20 years there is no need for them to study as he and his followers were teaching them his learning. There will never be enlightenment of any kind, here because imitation is not knowledge. Certainly not self-knowledge, which is one of the things that meditation gets you. But they don’t meditate.

However, there is a cultural element to “20 years” that Westerners completely miss. Amazingly, every Buddhist teacher in Japan studied in China for 20 years. I know of only one for whom this is historically accurate and documented (Kūkai). For everyone else, “20 years” means “for a long time” or “for the appropriate length of time” and can imply gaining insight and understanding. From this, there is nothing “20 years” about Nichiren. The fact that his followers are not interested in learning anything other than his egomanic dogma is a sign of. . .I’m not sure of the word—delusion?

Things get worse in the history these people are fed. In its partial truth, it is no more than propaganda. Somewhere around the beginning of WWII hostilities in Japan (1937 with the invasion of China), Nichiren Buddhism split and a new wing was established, Sōka Gakkai. Sōka Gakkai is not Buddhism. But Sōka Gakkai utilizes Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, to gain its ends–or, rather, to hide ever so transparently its true path. Sōka Gakkai is political. Sōka Gakkai is not well-liked by the people because of its political aspirations; they remember the State religion that led to the atrocities of WWII. As well they should. Any state religion is tyrannical and intolerant and prone to atrocities. It is the natural outcome of fascist organizations and thinking, given that any organization that maintains “my way is the only way” is fascist. This is, indeed, what Fascism teaches: my way is the only way, my way is the right way, my way is the best way. That means, everything else is wrong and what is wrong and heretical must be gotten rid of.

Even more telling is that the leader of Sōka Gakkai is called its President. He is, in fact, a businessman, as his predecessors were. A very rich businessman who flies around the world in his private jet. He knows nothing of Buddhism. He has had no training in Buddhism. Ergo, Sōka Gakkai is fake Buddhism.

When this is pointed out to followers, they deny it. They say it isn’t true. They say it doesn’t matter. They say they are happy. What could be more better? Well, even in the degradation of the West, even in the decadence of the West, it is known that happiness is fleeting; that happiness is not an end to be sought for it begets only unhappiness (suffering). As in, what if you don’t gain happiness no matter what you do? As in, once you’ve got it what’s left for you? This happiness is illusion. It is ego blowing its own horn. How long can you blow? You can never stop or you are no longer happy.

And, so, I remain appalled by these people and wish I could get my friend away from this crowd. She—and they—have no idea of the propaganda because they have bought it lock, stock and barrel. They have study sessions and inspirational speakers (not; they’re actually pretty boring, simply repeating, repeating, repeating the happiness mantra) just like cells or cults so that they know what is right and that what is right is feeling good about themselves, feeling happy. As if to say, no matter what happens as long as I am happy everything’s cool. This makes me shiver.

The proverbial garden path.


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