Buddhist Sect Draws Notice, and Black Converts

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. _ one of the first Buddhists ever elected to Congress _ seems to have slipped in through a side door while all eyes were focused on the first Muslim ever elected. Johnson may prefer the spotlight to remain on his Muslim colleague, Rep. Keith Ellison, […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. _ one of the first Buddhists ever elected to Congress _ seems to have slipped in through a side door while all eyes were focused on the first Muslim ever elected.

Johnson may prefer the spotlight to remain on his Muslim colleague, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. A spokeswoman said Johnson “considers it a private matter. He will not give interviews on his faith.”

Still, the 52-year-old’s election last fall is a history-making moment, both for Congress and for Soka Gakkai International-USA, the lay Buddhist sect Johnson’s been a member of for 30 years.

(Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, the other Buddhist elected last fall, has said she was raised Buddhist but does not actively practice the religion.)

Soka Gakkai now claims 100,000 U.S. members, most of whom are American converts, according to spokesman Bill Aiken. Fifteen percent are, like Johnson, African-American, a rare display of diversity among U.S. Buddhist groups. According to scholars’ best estimates, there are about 2.5 million to 3 million Buddhists in the U.S.; approximately 800,000 are American converts.

Though more powerful in its native Japan, where it boasts an estimated 8 million members and its own political party, Soka Gakkai has 90 large regional centers in the U.S., as well as an affiliated research center in Boston and university in California. Aiken said the group adds as many as 6,000 members each year.

“Everyone knows that Soka Gakkai is the only form of convert Buddhism that has any kind of diversity,” said Richard Hughes Seager, professor of religion at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and author of a book on Soka Gakkai. “Now everyone wants to know: What are they doing right?”

Initially, fellow Buddhists viewed Soka Gakkai skeptically when it took root in America in the 1960s and ’70s. The early Japanese evangelists seemed to be peddling a kind of “prosperity dharma” _ not unlike the prosperity gospel popular in some U.S. churches _ in which chanting a phrase was presumed to lead to material benefits. The group’s aggressive proselytism and gaudy patriotic displays didn’t help.

But as its membership rolls filled with U.S. citizens, Soka Gakkai adjusted its approach. Now its diversity, organizational strength and growing numbers are the envy of other U.S. Buddhist groups.

While some in Soka Gakkai still chant for material things, many longtime members _ including Johnson’s friends and fellow practitioners _ say their spirituality has matured. World peace is a higher priority than, say, a Cadillac.

“In the beginning, I was chanting to somehow get me a car,” said Sam Harris, 57, a friend of Johnson’s from Stone Mountain, Ga. “Today, the things I chant for are other members’ growth and development. And for some kind of solution for the war in Iraq.”

Soka Gakkai _ the name is Japanese for “Value Creation Society” _ was born in Japan during the 1930s. Like many East Asian schools of Buddhism, it has a humanistic and pragmatic bent, with social engagement preferred over isolated contemplation.

The group reached American shores with Japanese women who had married U.S. soldiers serving in the Korean War. From its earliest days here, the group set about proselytizing to Americans of all backgrounds. And because the group is lay-run, African-Americans and other minorities eventually took on leadership roles, swelling new waves of converts.

Following a 13th century Japanese monk, members of Soka Gakkai believe the Buddha’s teachings can be boiled down to a single phrase, “nam myoho renge kyo” _ translated as “devotion to the mystical law of cause and effect.” Chanting the phrase brings karmic benefits.

Members chant the phrase twice daily for 15 to 20 minutes in their homes while seated before a Buddhist mandala or shrine. They may also recite parts of the Lotus sutra, Soka Gakkai’s foundation text, and study the teachings of Daisaku Ikeda, the group’s charismatic president.

Philip Hammond, a retired religion professor who published a study of Soka Gakkai in 1999, said members will often tout the benefits of chanting at monthly meetings.

“I remember a guy testified that he chanted for a better parking spot at work and he got it,” Hammond said.

Members of other Buddhist sects, particularly those that place more emphasis on the Buddha’s early teachings, were puzzled by such displays. One of the first things the Buddha taught was that suffering is caused by craving. A key to enlightenment, or nirvana, is doing away with desire, according to the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth.

Harris, a member of Soka Gakkai for 28 years and a leader of its Southeast division, said the Buddha’s early teachings are outdated. “It’s almost like using a 1947 calendar in 2007,” he said.

Like Harris, Richard Brown, 52, said the spiritual benefits of Soka Gakkai outweigh material concerns. As young African-Americans growing up in the South, both said Soka Gakkai’s message _ karma places your future in your hands _ resonated deeply.

A magistrate judge in Clayton County, Ga., Brown said he was initially skeptical of Soka Gakkai. “I didn’t see how saying some funny words to a box could make a change in your life,” he said. But after a while, Brown said he realized chanting “is not an intellectual experience in and of itself. It’s a spiritual experience.”

Added Harris, “The typical African-American person, no matter what kind of positive attitude we have, there are some subtle things and some blatant things we have to deal with because of the color of our skin.

“I had a very dim outlook on life, I felt no hope. I felt like my life was in someone else’s hands in the white race. Now after practicing Buddhism, I feel totally different. I can accomplish anything I want,” Harris said.


Editors: To obtain photos of Soka Gakkai practitioners and a file photo of Johnson, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.