As a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist movement since 1985, it’s always exciting when a new book about SGI is written by a distinguished scholar outside my faith. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Waking the Buddha by Clark Strand, a former Zen monk and a contributing editor to Tricycle, the world’s most famous Buddhist magazine.

Waking Buddha book [2]

Strand is one of a growing band of eminent, independent experts intrigued by SGI’s rapid growth and by its social and racial diversity. Yet this book is much more than just a sociological or academic study. What draws you in and moves you most is not so much the author’s expertise, but his humanity and his concern for the planet. What impressed me was not just the rigour of his intellectual enquiry, but the warmth of his seeking spirit, as he sets out to discover why SGI has become more successful than any other school of Buddhism in the contemporary world.  These are the questions he asks:

 

“Is there more to Buddhism than sitting in silent meditation? Is modern Buddhism relevant to the problems of daily life? Does it empower individuals to transform their lives? Or has Buddhism become too detached, so still and quiet that the Buddha has fallen asleep?”

In addressing these issues (after interviewing dozens of SGI members and leaders in the USA and Japan), Strand describes SGI as “the largest, most dynamic Buddhist movement in the world today – and one that is waking up and shaking up Buddhism so it can truly work in ordinary people’s lives.”

Clark Strand

Clark Strand

He adds that SGI has not settled back into the ‘predictable mediocrity of a successful religion.’ He also writes:

  • ‘What the SGI has discovered isn’t just a new form of Buddhism. It’s a new way of being religious.’
  • ‘You might say that the Soka Gakkai is Buddhism taken as far as Buddhism – or for that matter, any religion – can go.’
  • SGI is the next model of progress that the world is looking for. It’s the next model because its focus remains on progress in culture, in human rights, and the human spirit, rather than on the ever-multiplying array of products that masquerades as progress, distracting us from our humanity and poisoning the Earth.’

All of these insights made me stop and think. And I realised, while turning the pages of Waking the Buddha, that I sometimes forget just how unique and remarkable SGI is, so this book made me feel very grateful for the humanistic and revolutionary movement I joined all those years ago. Having said that, the author’s wide knowledge and accessible style mean that this book will not just appeal to Buddhists, it will also be an absorbing read for anyone interested in sociology, religion, philosophy and the future of the planet.

Strand identifies that SGI’s core tradition of people meeting in each other’s homes in discussion groups across the world has been crucial to the movement’s dynamic growth, eloquently explaining that: ‘Sharing experiences builds faith, faith builds lives, and collectively those lives can change society.’

One of the main strengths of Waking the Buddha is just how well Strand captures the extraordinary pioneering efforts made by the SGI’s first three leaders, Presidents Makiguchi, Toda and Ikeda. He points out that Soka Gakkai began as nothing more than a small Japanese educational movement founded by a geography teacher. And that nobody could have predicted that from such humble beginnings would emerge a worldwide religion based on a hitherto obscure 13th century Buddhist teaching. He also explains that when Josei Toda left prison in 1945 (he was there for refusing to give up his faith) Nichiren Buddhism was ‘still what it had been for centuries, a small sect with a big teaching.’ I also learned that in the 1970s, Daisaku Ikeda, through simple yet brave heart-to-heart dialogue with Soviet Premier Kosygin and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, helped stabilise relations between these two countries, just as they were teetering on the edge of potentially cataclysmic conflict.

Strand was inspired to study SGI by a photo of the prayer beads that Josei Toda made in prison from milk bottle tops

Strand was inspired to study SGI by a photo of the prayer beads that Josei Toda made in prison, from milk bottle tops

I expected to enjoy this book on an intellectual level, I expected to find it insightful and I expected to find it well informed. But Strand’s account of SGI is much more powerful than a mere academic study. It left me feeling grateful, hopeful, uplifted and invigorated. In fact, on a level I absolutely did not expect, I found it waking the Buddha, waking the Buddha in me.