Seeking enlightenment the SGI way

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What do Raphael, Walt Whitman, Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo, Zhou Enlai, Madame Curie and Giuseppe Verdi have in common? If you answered, “Not much,” you clearly have a ways to go on the path to Enlightenment.

Whether they’re Renaissance painters, American poets, European cultural heavyweights or Chinese revolutionaries, each of these names has a special significance for the Soka Gakkai branch of Buddhism.

St. Anthony Park resident Nancy Dunlavy, who has practiced Soka Gakkai Buddhism since she was a teenager says, “Buddhist practices help us to get at our greatest selves, our humanity. Each of them is an example of great humanity.”

Choosing spiritual exemplars as diverse as Raphael and Zhou Enlai might strike some as unhappily reflective of an à la carte approach to faith. Soka Gakkai adherents respond that, on the contrary, the range of backgrounds shows respect for the universality of human aspiration and potential.

Certainly, diversity has paid off in one respect. The organization begun as an off-shoot of conventional Buddhism by a religious dissident in pre-World War II Japan has grown to an extent that could scarcely be imagined by its founder when he lay dying in a Japanese prison during World War II for the crime of denying the authority of the militarist state.

In the last half century, Soka Gakkai has established thriving national organizations in more than 150 countries.

In Japanese, Soka Gakkai means “value creation society.” The concept is not easily translatable, but it refers to the individual’s capacity both for self-improvement and enhancement of the surrounding world. In America, the group is known as Soka Gakkai International, or SGI-USA. Its regional headquarters for Minnesota and surrounding areas is located in St. Anthony Park in a small, pale yellow, one-story cinderblock building on Eustis Avenue.

Inside, there’s office space and a large, plainly furnished meeting room. Overhead are multicolored pennants that read “Peace” in several languages. Standing prominently in one corner of the meeting space is a large-screen TV.

The room could be the headquarters for any social activist group with an anti-violence agenda, except for one thing. There is a large polished wooden altar at one end of the room, flanked with potted greenery. The altar is bracketed by an American flag on one side and what looks like a United Nations flag with the initials SGI superimposed in red on the other.

On a recent Saturday, a planning meeting drew together two or three dozen SGI members to work their way through an agenda that focused on such mundane tasks as fund raising and their upcoming craft and bake sale.

The group is largely middle-aged and middle-class, mostly white with a sprinkling of faces of color. Cheerful, sensibly dressed Minnesota activists of the sort who form the backbone of hundreds of church organiza-tions, service clubs and support groups, they listened respectfully to a report from their GLBT committee representative and nodded agreeably at the words of one of their number who offered hints on the best ways to approach the membership for annual contributions. Describe donating, she advised, as “a great opportunity to expand their faith and deepen their understanding.”

A stranger was greeted with the kind of eager affirmation familiar to organizations whose members all remember what it was like to be a seeker once themselves.

In the outer office, a twice-a-month volunteer named Tom Rooney from Cottage Grove attempted to explain how the central metaphor of his faith, the lotus flower, makes him “relatively and absolutely happy.”

Rooney’s task at the moment wasn’t made any easier by the presence of a seven-year-old named Michael, who had wandered out of the meeting that held such interest for his parents. Thumbing busily at a hand-held Pokemon electronic game that emitted a bouncy and totally distracting series of beeps and tones, Michael allowed as how, yes, he was a Buddhist, but he would appreciate a little less background chatter.

“Just let me pay attention to this,” he said, gesturing toward his game.

It was, somehow, a thoroughly American scene. That’s not surprising, maybe, since scholars who have studied the SGI movement have commented on the ease with which the group adapts Buddhist teachings to the local culture of the many places where it has taken root.

The SGI building serves as a focus for 25 regional “districts” or congregations. The poetically named districts, which style themselves by names like Diamond Chalice, Evergreen and Aurora, each count up to 60 members.

The building is the site for study and discussion groups like the Sophia women’s group, which Dunlavy describes as “a book club based on Buddhist teachings.”

Staffed entirely by volunteers, the SGI headquarters also serves as a resource center for visitors — including the occasional student with a term paper to complete on Buddhism.

What the SGI building is not, however, is a church, synagogue or mosque. In fact, even the concept of a congregation gathered in worship of an external higher power is foreign to the movement.

“We’re not praying to God, not to a deity,” explains Dunlavy. “We’re not asking for something. We’re awakening the Buddha nature within us. Each of us is a Buddha potentially.”

She cites a familiar metaphor to explain the Buddhist concept of the importance of developing the higher nature within each individual. “Each one of us is one drop of the ocean, with all the elements and potential of that ocean.”

What’s most important in Soka Gakkai is not the meetings or the study sessions, but the daily chanting that every member practices, either before the altar at SGI headquarters or in the privacy of one’s home.

Dunlavy has a small, polished wood shrine set up in her living room. She and her family perform a twice-daily, repetitive chant of a short segment from the Buddhist holy book called the Lotus Teaching, or “Sutra,” as it’s known to the faithful.

Rooney explains the significance of the lotus. “The lotus flower grows in mud, but it’s a pure, clean flower that represents the greatest potential of every living being. The muddy pond represents our innate negativity, and the flower represents the Buddha nature within us. Once we change the inner self, we can affect the environment around us.”

The SGI Center is located at 1381 Eustis St. Volunteers staff the building most days. The group’s annual craft and bake sale, which will raise money for the organization’s youth work, will be held on the weekend of June 3 and 4, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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