Demigods, Swastikas, and Bookstores

“I’m all right now, but you should have seen me last week,” began many a monologue by comedian Rodney Dangerfield. A week after chemotherapy, I am starting to feel human again. The point to having these treatments is to keep the size of the cancerous tumors on my liver small.  If they get too big, a transplant is out of the question. I hope this one does some good. I sure don’t look forward to any more.

But, enough of my gloomy stuff.

EARLIER THIS WEEK I received two emails asking for information and/or advice about the Soka Gakkai International. I thought this was a bit strange, but in the off chance they were legit . . . Dude, if your girlfriend has been in the SGI all her life, my advice is either become a fanatic yourself or find another girlfriend.  You can’t change her. You won’t be able to save her. It sounds to me like you are not that into Buddhism yourself, so I say go find a nice yoga girl  . . .  Now, as to the current state of health of the SGI fearless leader, Daisaku Ikeda – I haven’t a clue. There are rumors that he has been secluded in a hospital for some time, and that he is in a coma, etc. I am sure that no one, outside a small circle of people in Japan knows the truth. There are also rumors that he will be mummified after he passes away. Well, I have heard of crazier things . . .

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD about the controversy stirred up by the sale of Buddhist jewelry at a New York store. Jewish groups and some politicians were outraged and, as the New York Daily News reports, “The apologetic owner of a Brooklyn jewelry store blasted for hawking earrings that look like swastikas said Wednesday that she will stop selling the controversial baubles.”

The swastika is a traditional Buddhist symbol and it is not unusual to see them displayed in temples and on Buddha statues. Although this latest controversy is a different situation, I have long felt that ethnic Buddhists should cultivate more sensitivity about this issue. Regardless of which way it is facing (the Nazi’s turned it around), to many people it is odious symbol, representing hate and mass murder, particularly for those Buddhists with Jewish origins. I, who am not Jewish, know the difference between a swastika and the Nazi emblem. My elementary school in Wichita Kansas had swastikas carved at each corner. I thought that was kind of cool, then. Now that I am an adult and have met a few holocaust survivors, when I walk into a Buddhist temple and see swastikas about, I feel uncomfortable.

The swastika just carries too much emotional baggage and bad karma with it to be useful. Traditional or not, it serves no purpose to continue using the swastika as a Buddhist symbol. Ditch it, or use it with more sensitivity. And you definitely have to wonder what is in the mind of someone who would walk around in New York city wearing swastika earrings . . .

FINALLY, some very sad news . . . After 40 years, Bodhi Tree Bookstore has closed. Yes, that great smelling, cozy little institution on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles is a thing of the past . . . As Teresa Watanabe wrote in the LA Times, the store had served “as a world-renowned spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions — including Gov. Jerry Brown, Beatle Ringo Starr and actress Shirley MacLaine, whose memoir chronicled how her metaphysical journey began at the Bodhi Tree in 1983.”

I spent many an hour perusing the titles in the Buddhism corner, and listened to many great talks there as well. Of course, this is part of a growing trend but I have to say that there is just something wrong about a world without bookstores . . .


Japan’s Other Tsunami

In some other Japan related news . . .

Daisaku Ikeda, President-Soka Gakkai Intl.

There’s an interesting article at the OC Weekly, a sort of expose dealing with some controversies at Soka University, the liberal arts college in Orange Country California run by the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organization centered in Japan. I’ll post the link at the end.

The SGI is a very complicated subject, one that really calls for book-length treatment. I was involved with the SGI for many years, so I know that it is difficult to take a single aspect, in this case Soka University of America, and paint an accurate picture in an article of four or five thousand words.

This is the largest, most well organized, wealthiest Buddhist organization in the world, with branches in over 192 countries and 12 million members, numerous associative and sub organizations, an education system, which according to one SGI website ( “includes kindergartens in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil, a complete school system in Japan as well as Soka University in Japan and the United States,” a concert association, an art museum, an institute of “Oriental Science”, a couple of institutes for “Global Peace and Policy Research,” and a political party

More than anything else, Soka Gakkai is Daisaku Ikeda. He built the modern day organization and it is his words, his spirit, his ideas, and his agenda that permeates every aspect of it. Fanatical is not too strong a word to use to describe the respect, love and devotion his followers feel for him. In recent years, the concept of the “oneness of master and disciple” (I forget the Japanese term) has become a central part of the faith, the doctrine.

Ikeda receiving the Leonardo International Award from the Leonardo Club (?), Russia 1994

I think Ikeda holds the world record for most academic honorary degrees. At last count, he has racked up a whopping 300. He gets a lot of prizes and awards, too. Some of these are the result of intensive lobbying efforts on the part of the SGI, and in a few cases, allegedly, extensive gift giving.

I haven’t mentioned the relentless recruitment efforts – or the money. Tons of it. One time the SGI “lost”  a million dollars. It was found at a dumpsite in Yokohama.

So, it’s a complex story to tell. To try to capsulate even the Soka University part of it in a single article is a daunting task, if you want to do it with accuracy and balance. So, I have some mixed feeling about the article. For me there seems to be some pieces missing, some parts that are rather hazy, and some of it doesn’t ring true, based on my experience. I don’t doubt that there is something to the allegations, it’s just that I have questions about the way they are said to have been played out.

The SGI is a multi-tiered organization. At the level of Soka U, which is extremely important to the SGI, things are done with finesse. Frankly, when I hear allegations about threats and intimidation, I wonder. The typical SGI strategy is to marginalize people. They are highly skilled at subtle manipulation and manufacturing consent. Masters of public relations: scour the net and you will find very little negative material. How they do that, I don’t know. It’s a bit different in Japan, where a lot of the skeletons are already out of the closet. And they are sitting on top of a Mt. Fuji of controversy. One of these days, someone is going to put all the pieces together and present it the world. It’s inevitable the way things are today.

In reading the article it is important to keep in mind that Soka University of America is just one spoke in a very large wheel, and as such, and with all things Gakkai at that level, no decision is ever made or action taken without the knowledge and approval of higher ups in Japan. Often, the leaders in Japan give the direction, and they are not always sensitive to the cultures of other countries, and in the case of the U.S., political correctness, especially in regards to administrative, legal and financial matters.

I won’t go into all the other fine points that the article does not make, and I am not really judging the author, for as I said, it is a complex subject, and too, I have no idea what editorial judgments were made. One glaring error is that the Hare Krishna is not “an alternative Buddhist sect.” Those are not the author’s words, yet I would think that including a clarification would have been the more professional thing to do – maybe that’s just nit-picking, I don’t know.

Soka Gakkai has many positive aspects, but some disturbing ones. The question is whether the bad outweighs the good, and that is why it deserves scrutiny. Make no mistake about it, no matter how positive the SGI’s image is publicly, there is a dark side.

Ikeda is quoted in the article saying “I am the King of Japan.” Sounds pretty grandiose, but there is a grain of truth in that. His influence on his society is underrated outside of Japan, and perhaps within, as well. This is why, when someone does publish a well-researched, thorough “expose”, no matter how well balanced, it’ll be like a tsunami hitting the world of the Soka Gakkai, and I think, Japan itself.

Here’s the article.

By the way, a satellite designed by Soku U students in Japan, called  Negai (“wish”), was launched on May 10, 2010 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The satellite is operated by Soka U and now orbits the earth, supposedly as a technological demonstration transmitting pictures to children participating in an outreach program. I don’t think this is part of any plot by the SGI to take over the world, but I’m not sure that I would rule it out.

Author of Ikeda portrait photo: SGI


Yesterday and Today, Mr. Miyagi, and Kato

A few people didn’t get the joke in yesterday’s post. Obviously, the writer goofed and the SGI in the story is Silicon Graphics International. I thought it was funny, but then I have a warped sense of humor. The photo was doctored too, just in case anyone thinks Daisaku Ikeda really spends his spare time working on computers.

There are no sacred cows in my world. I posted a link a few weeks ago to an article about the Dalai Lama barhopping, for whatever that is worth.

Moving along:

Pat MoritaHave you seen the new The Karate Kid? From what I understand, it takes place mainly in China, which makes me think they should have named it The Kung-fu Kid.

Here is a nod to Pat Morita who starred in the original film. If you are under a certain age, it’s likely that you only know Morita from Happy Days and the Karate Kid series. However, if you are over a certain age, you might remember that Morita was also a very hip stand-up comic. In fact, when he was starting out and playing in places like the hungry i in San Francisco, he called himself “The Hip Nip.”  He was a member of the Groundlings, too.

I loved to listen to Pat Morita speak in his real voice because no one could talk better jive/hipster/beatnik talk better than he could. At Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles Japanese Daily news, Überproducer Jerry Weintraub Remembers Pat Morita.

Now Bruce Lee probably did more to popularize martial arts than anyone else to this time, or certainly, martial arts movies, and he also helped popularize the saying about the finger pointing to the moon when he used it in Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee was a student of both Buddhism and Taoism. Krishnamurti was another major influence. Below is an article Lee wrote to explain the principles of Jeet Kune Do, his non-classical martial arts system. I think it offers guidelines that are applicable to any “Do” or way:

Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate

by Bruce Lee

I am the first to admit that any attempt to crystalize Jeet Kune Do into a written article is no easy task. Perhaps to avoid making a ‘thing’ out of a ‘process’. I have not until now personally written an article on JKD. Indeed, it is difficult to explain what Jeet Kune Do is, although it may be easier to explain what it is not.

Let me begin with a Zen story. The story might be familiar to some, but I repeat it for it’s appropriateness. Look upon this story as a means of limbering up one’s senses, one’s attitude and one’s mind to make them pliable and receptive. You need that to understand this article, otherwise you might as well forget reading any further.

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too….” and so on.

Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

I hope my comrades in the martial arts will read the following paragraphs with open-mindedness leaving all the burdens of preconceived opinions and conclusions behind. This act, by the way, has in itself liberating power. After all, the usefulness of the cup is in it’s emptiness.

Make this article relate to yourself, because though it is on JKD, it is primarily concerned with the blossoming of a martial artist—not a “Chinese” martial artist, a “Japanese” martial artist, etc. A martial artist is a human being first. Just as nationalities have nothing to do with one’s humanity, so they have nothing to do with martial arts. Leave your protective shell of isolation and relate ‘directly’ to what is being said. Return to your senses by ceasing all the intervening intellectual mumbo jumbo. Remember that life is a constant process of relating. Remember too, that I seek neither your approval nor to influence you towards my way of thinking. I will be more than satisfied if, as a result of this article, you begin to investigate everything for yourself and cease to uncritically accept prescribed formulas that dictate “this is this” and “that is that” . . .

Continue reading “Yesterday and Today, Mr. Miyagi, and Kato”


Buddha gets the Big Money

The San Francisco Arts Commission has announced it has won a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support their acquisition of internationally acclaimed artist Zhang Huan’s 26-foot tall, 15-ton copper sculpture of the Three Heads Six Arms Buddha.

zhang huan three heads six
© Zhang Huan Studio, from

I like statues of the Buddha. I own a couple myself. But, $70,000! How many starving Buddhist artists could they feed with that? And what about all that copper? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know.

The big money seems to be flowing up there in San Francisco. A little park over at 16th and Bryant could get a fancy new entrance gate as long as it is named after Daisaku Ikeda and the Board of Supervisors accepts up to a gift up to $180,000 to do it, according to the SF Examiner. Ikeda is president of the Soka Gakkai, the world’s largest Buddhist organization.

Now here is a guy who needs another park, building, monument, and/or gate named after him about as much as he needs a hole in the head. He must have hundreds by now. He holds the world record for honorary academic degrees. He and his followers (I can criticize, I used to be one) seem to crave these things. Over 200 so far, and it was just recently announced that Ikeda has racked up another one. According to PRWeb, “Daisaku Ikeda will receive a doctor of humane letters degree, honoris causa, from UMass Boston for his work as a Buddhist leader, peace builder, and founder of the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge.” The SF Examiner, in their article on the gate monument, calls Ikeda a “peace activist.”

Well, if talking about peace a lot qualifies one as an activist, I guess so. However, if truth be told, Ikeda has done little else in his life other than chase after honors and dole out pithy bits of guidance to his followers.

PRWeb says that “[Ikeda’s] dialogue partners have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks”, while neglecting to mention, out of ignorance perhaps, that some of them were paid to dialogue with him.

I don’t want to go off on a rant about Ikeda and the Soka Gakkai, the unseemiliness of pursuing worthless honors, or about spending obscene amounts of money on statues or gates.

I do think it is worth noting that the Buddha expressly asked his followers not to worship his relics after his death. Buddha didn’t need any statues or honorary degrees. Ok, they didn’t have honorary degrees back then, but you get my point. For several hundred years, Buddhists abided by his wishes and a bodhi leaf, a footprint, or the Wheel of Dharma represented his persona. Then human nature took over, and the statues began to appear.

Money is supposed to be in short supply these days, and it seems to me that a better use could be made of what is available. If UMass Boston just has to give someone an honorary degree, how about me? I don’t have any at all. I would also be glad to sell the San Francisco Arts Commission one of my Buddha statues. Dirt cheap. Only $1000 dollars. I’ll keep $500 (I could use it) and feed some hungry people with the rest.