Is SGI Buddhism truth or superstition?
Buddhism is based on thinking developed hundreds if not thousands of years ago. This thinking includes propositions about how the world works. Many accepted models of the world that survived for hundreds of years have been rejected due to developments in our understanding. For example, we no longer accept that the world is flat or that blood-letting is a good idea. The fact that an idea is old does not mean that it is more likely to be correct than a new idea. The critical question is: what evidence is the idea based on? What evidence, if any, are Buddhist theories based on? Are there other better competing theories of the world?
Religions frequently attribute infallibility to various historical figures. But given what we know about how unreliable human 'knowledge' is, is that wise? Should any dogma be protected from the most rigorous and unfliching testing and analytical scrutiny?
A fundamental belief in SGI's Buddhism is that chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is uniquely beneficial because it is the 'Law of Life', the way to activate the highest possible state of life ('Buddhahood') and the way to change 'karma'. An alternative view would be that it is not a special phrase and does not bring about these results. What is the truth of this?
There is neurological evidence that repeating words can have a significant psychological effect such as calming the mind. This is true even if the words have no special meaning. Therefore, it is to be expected that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo would have some kind of positive psychological effect. The question is whether that effect is special.
Otherwise words may have an effect because of what they mean, or sometimes because of their sound. It does not seem that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo would have a special effect for either of these reasons: it is not considered to be necessary to understand the meaning of the phrase for it to have an effect, and the sound of the phrase has apparently changed since it was first introduced.
The phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo consists of adding the Sanskrit word namas to a Japanese pronounciation of the Chinese translation of the title of the Lotus Sutra by Kumarajiva (344-413 AD). The Lotus Sutra is attributed by SGI practitioners to Shakyamuni though thought to have been written sometime between 100 BC and 150 AD, a few hundred years after Shakyamuni's death. SGI Buddhists believe that Myoho-renge-kyo is the highest teaching of Shakyamuni. The belief in chanting it entails accepting several propositions: (a) Shakyamuni achieved the highest state of life possible for human beings, (b) Shakyamuni created the Lotus Sutra, (c) its title embodies the essence of his enlightenment and (d) that repeating this phrase (in translation) causes one to achieve the same state. How likely is each of these propositions and what is the evidence for and against them?
Read a translation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and of the entire Lotus Sutra. Do you find their meaning particularly helpful?
Similarly, SGI members chant to a sheet of paper with kanji and Siddham calligraphy on it. This is believed to enable them to bring out the highest state of life. Again, understanding the meaning of the calligraphy is not considered necessary. Is this plausible?
Evidence of benefit
Are the 'benefits' described by SGI Buddhists evidence of chanting having an extraordinary effect or are more ordinary explanations available - e.g. the normal and inevitable ups and downs of life and emotions, coincidences, natural development of personality over time, the result of self-reflection or the result of other processes? For example, studies indicate that some activities carried out by SGI Buddhists, but also carried out by others, can have tangible effects, e.g. meditation, chanting mantras, visualization, participation in religious groups, confidence based on superstitious beliefs, altruistic action, having a sense of purpose and placebo effects. Furthermore some of the ideas promoted in SGI Buddhism - though not unique to SGI Buddhism - are potentially helpful, e.g. self-respect, respect for others, having a sense of appreciation and setting goals.
SGI members describe their life experiences in various publications. Are events or psychological changes recorded in these experiences out of the ordinary or could they plausibly have a non-religious explanation?
Are SGI members giving equal weight to things that have not worked out for them as to things that have gone well, or are their perceptions and reports weighted towards positive developments, under-reporting the less attractive news?
Conversely, is it possible that some aspects of SGI Buddhist practice could have negative effects? There is evidence that repeating self-belief mantras can make you feel worse and visualising aims can lead people to neglect the steps that need to be taken.
Overall, are SGI members experiencing more well-being than non-members? Are they clearly psychologically or physically better off? What is the evidence?
SGI Buddhism states that it is the only way to activate the highest state of life ('Buddahood'). This state is characterized by the qualities of wisdom, courage and compassion. Is it true to say that non-Buddhists cannot activate these qualities?
SGI adopt the theory developed by Zhiyi (538-597 AD) that a single 'moment of life' consists of 3000 'worlds'. The theory is that there are 10 states of life (e.g. anger, tranquillity, etc) and since one can move from one to the other, they each must exist in the other, making 100 (this is multiplied by social and environmental realms to make 3000). So if your mood changes from calm to depression to delight, you'd need to move from (a) tranquillity with hell in it to (b) hell with rapture in it to (c) rapture with something else in it. i.e. you'd need to know what your next state but one is going to be before you change state - so you'd have to be able to see into the future. A simpler way of thinking of this would simply be that people's mood and other psychological functions constantly change.
SGI members also accept the theory of nine consciousnesses. This appears to have been developed by the Indian monk Paramartha (499-569 AD). The first five consciousnesses are five senses. But we know there are far more than five senses.
A belief of SGI Buddhism is that all aspects of a person's life are the effects of causes made by that person, either in their present life or a previous life. The concept means that when a person dies, 'karmic energy' (an 'account' of causes made) traverses death and re-emerges in a baby. Everything about that baby and everything that happens to that baby throughout their life is determined by their actions. Somehow events are attracted to that person based on their actions. Since the same principle would apply to everybody, the world would simultaneously be delivering different appropriate effects for all the different people.
'Karmic energy' is said to be non-physical, so presumably is incapable of being disproved by scientific experiment. The question arises as to how something non-physical is able to extensively act upon a physical world.
An alternative view of the world is that though some things in a person's life are caused by them, others are not, but are the results of various other causes.
Which of these two views is the more plausible?
SGI Buddhism states that Nichiren (1222-1282) was the 'True Buddha' predicted to appear in the 'Latter Day of the Law'. Is this true? The Latter Day of the Law is defined as the period beginning 2000 years after the death of Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni is now thought to have died around 400 BC. 2000 years after this date would be 1600 AD, several hundred years after Nichiren's death.
Superstition and irrational beliefs of various kinds are very common indeed and there is plenty of research illuminating why otherwise sensible people so easily come to adopt them. There are numerous superstitious beliefs about causes and effects, non-physical life essences that survive death and in magical words. Is SGI Buddhism one of these superstitions or not?
Many SGI members spend a great deal of their free time on their practice. Is this time well spent?
Does it complicate and hamper members' lives, e.g because of constant cross-referencing of personal experiences to religious doctrines, including the idea that prayers directly control external events?
Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse (2013 edition).
Supersense: From Superstition to Religion - The Brain Science of Belief by Bruce Hood (2009)
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