The Monthly Discussion Meeting
On personal transformation through group discussion.
The following are excerpts from Waking the Buddha, pp. 63–66, in which spiritual writer and journalist Clark Strand discusses how the SGI is redefining religion in large part through its district discussion meetings.
A journalist contacted me a few years ago to ask if I could provide her with a list of individuals who had been inspired by their Buddhist practice to change their lives in some positive way. She wanted to interview “practitioners who were motivated to make a significant change in one specific area of their life as a result of their practice.” She gave as possible examples a person who had made a courageous or momentous decision, someone who had triumphed over an addiction, or perhaps one who had moved into social work or some other profession based on the desire to contribute directly to the community they lived in. For the purpose of her article, she defined Buddhist practice as meditation and was therefore primarily interested in talking with practitioners of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, or Vipassana (mindfulness meditation).
I was enthusiastic about the idea of the article, but I warned her that she wasn’t likely to get the kinds of responses she was looking for from American meditators. There was a simple reason for this: their approach to Buddhism was based on age-old models of monastic-style practice that privileged religion over life. Those traditions rarely offered their adherents practical ways of confronting the obstacles and challenges that tended to come up in the course of ordinary life, nor were their communities organized to offer the moral support and inspiration necessary to sustain the kinds of prolonged efforts that are required for real and lasting change at the personal level. The focus of their effort was not on being proactive about life issues and problems but on being religions, albeit in a meditative way. If she asked meditators to provide stories about how they came to this or that spiritual insight, how they passed a certain Zen koan or mastered a complex visualization, they were sure to oblige. Ask them how their meditation got them out of a bad job and into a good one, or how it helped them find the right life partner, and they’d probably come up blank.
The monthly discussion meeting is “where the rubber meets the road,” Buddhism is put to the test, and the truth of its teachings are manifested by members through personal stories of overcoming obstacles to happiness.
In fact, that had been the case. She confessed that, so far, she had received not one story of the kind she’d been looking for. Although they might have lowered their blood pressure or their stress level, or enhanced their immune system or their powers of concentration, the meditators she interviewed could draw no direct line of influence between their practice and overcoming the challenges and obstacles to growth that people ordinarily struggled with in life. There was little sense that devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their Buddhist practice had led directly to any specific positive outcome in their lives. That was why she had contacted me for advice.
In the end, I told her she was right to challenge American Buddhists to show actual proof of the benefits of meditation practice. While she was waiting for them to do that, however, there was no reason she shouldn’t visit an SGI discussion meeting in her neighborhood. There she would discover that chanting practice, coupled with monthly study and discussion meetings, provided inspiration and support for just the kinds of positive life changes she was talking about. “Go to virtually any discussion meeting in the Boston area,” I told her, “and you’ll hear at least one or two inspiring stories of personal transformation.”
A week later, she wrote to me again. On the advice of the SGI-USA representative I’d put her in touch with, she’d contacted a woman, a well-known musician, who had a deeply inspiring story to tell. It turned out that she’d interviewed the same woman once before, though for an entirely different article, and had liked her immediately.
She was surprised to find that she was also a long-time SGI member. That, it turned out, was the back story to her successful musical career. I wasn’t surprised by this at all. Based on years of watching the Soka Gakkai in action and listening to its members tell their stories, that’s what happened when you held Buddhism accountable for changing your life. Although, by modern standards, it seems an extremely simple and obvious notion that religion should serve life, it is nevertheless an utterly revolutionary idea. The monthly discussion meeting is “where the rubber meets the road,” Buddhism is put to the test, and the truth of its teachings are manifested by members through personal stories of overcoming obstacles to happiness. Sharing such experiences builds faith, faith builds lives, and collectively those lives can change society. As Daisaku Ikeda has written, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”
It is often said that the Soka Gakkai’s teachings on human revolution begin with its second president, Josei Toda, and it is true that Toda gave those teachings their definitive form, but in Tsunesaburo Makiguchi’s life, and in his development of a post-tribal model for religious transformation through group discussion, we can see those teachings already dynamically at work in the world.