Report of Meeting on January 26th 2016
A talk by David Izen on the two main strands of Buddhism
David Izen was our ‘home-grown’ speaker on this occasion, and chose to tell us about the big distinction in Buddhism between the southern Theravada tradition, and the northern Mahayana tradition. The older southern tradition spread from the Buddha’s home in India, through Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and south-east Asia, while the northern one went through Tibet to China, Korea and Japan. Despite this clear pattern David’s view is that Buddhism is not a single religion, but a collection of thousands of different schools of thought, many of which have departed from the Buddha’s original teaching to incorporate elements of Hinduism and local custom. He quoted from a book recording a dialogue between the Japanese Buddhist scholar Daisaku Ikeda, and the historian Arnold Toynbee, which focused on the question of whether Shakyamuni (as the Buddha is called in the northern tradition) was a theist. The conclusion seemed to be that he was in the northern tradition but not in the southern. Toynbee also raised the question of the apparent contradiction in Buddhist thought between the elimination of desire, and the promotion of compassion, justice and other ‘desirable’ qualities.
We talked about the concept of nirvana, which David says is no longer a destination for Buddhists, but something secondary. ‘The journey is the thing’, and the focus on the everyday rather than the remote future. We also grappled with the concepts of karma and reincarnation.
David also spoke about the origins of his own tradition of Buddhism, stemming from the 13th century Japanese teacher Nichiren, and now known as Soka Gakkai (or ‘The Association for Creating Value’). Nichiren taught that the Lotus Sutra was the final, authoritative teaching of Sakyamuni, who said that all his previous teaching was merely provisional. Nichiren promoted the regular chanting of the Chinese title of the Lotus Sutra, namu myoho renge kyo, or ‘I take refuge in the Lotus of the Wonderful Law Sutra’. Used as a mantra, this invocation can unlock the Buddhahood of any person and they become enlightened. Soka Gakkai members do not proselytise, but the community grows slowly and organically because people find that:
- it has a documentary foundation
- it corresponds to reason and common sense
- it works