Most Americans are aware of new denominations, some of them perhaps called sects, that are offshoots of mainline or evangelical Christianity. Other faiths than Christianity have experienced this too. In Islam, for example, we have offshoots such as the Baha’i movement and the Ahmadi’s of India. Modern Japanese Buddhism has experienced this also. One that appeared around the early 1930s is Soka Gakkai.
Japan’s majority Buddhism is Jodo Shinshu, but Soka Gakkai (meaning Value-Creation Society) arose over the claim that there is one sutra, the Lotus Sutra, that is especially insightful, offering the clearest understanding of the truth about enlightenment. And so the Soka Gakkai movement instituted a communal chant that says “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” (meaning “Hail to the Lotus Sutra.”)
I sat in on one weekday afternoon women’s meeting where this sutra was chanted. Only women were there, maybe because their spouses were at work or maybe because this chant fulfilled some need in their lives. It was a man, however, who presided and led the almost 100 women present, beginning slowly and to the beat of a drum, speaking into an amplification system turned up high enough to really reverberate in the meeting hall.
The leader’s chant did not, however, drown out the voices of the nearly 100 women present. This was obviously not the first time they engaged in this chant. They stayed together in their rhythmic chant, saying over and over again, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” An outsider like me could only guess at what motivated their chanting. I don’t know how many knew the content of the Lotus Sutra itself, but their participation in the chant was likely considered meritorious and contributing to their own growth in Buddhist faith.
After about 20 or 30 minutes of this chanting, the man leading it indicated that it was coming to an end by slowing down until one final slow drawn-out and deliberate “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” As far as I observed, there was no spoken introduction or conclusion, only the chant itself.
Soka Gakkai represents quite a departure from the majority denomination of Japanese Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, which means The True Essence of the Pure Land Teaching. It was my privilege to witness also one of its services at which only a small group of monks or priests engaged in a much quieter and less rhythmic chant. Even quieter is Japan’s well-known Zen Buddhism. Zen is basically a Japanese pronunciation of “Chan,” a school of Buddhism brought to Japan from China.
Zen Buddhism is known for its beautiful temples and gardens, but also for its discipline of seated meditation, its monks sitting in the lotus position for hours on end as part of the discipline to achieve enlightenment
Meditation is a practice of Christianity also, not just of Buddhism, and anyone trying meditation soon discovers that control of our minds is not an easy thing. We may start meditating on a passage such as Philippians 2:5–11, which begins “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” But in meditating upon this we may not get past the word “robbery” (v. 6, KJV) without getting sidetracked because of yesterday’s TV news report of a robbery in Chicago.
Some descriptions of Buddhism might say that its object is emptying the mind, but in Christianity the object of meditation is to fill the mind with Christian ideals and values and thereby empty the mind of worldly thoughts.