Friday, 1 July 2016

Mentor-Disciple Dialogue #1

Over the past few years, I’ve written about different aspects of the mentor-disciple relationship, and this year I decided to represent the importance of this relationship through a dialogue between a member and a district leader.   

Throughout this short series of dialogues, the MEMBER  represents the doubts and concerns I’ve had about the mentor-disciple relationship over the years, and the DISTRICT LEADER represents my understanding of the mentor-disciple relationship today.
 Dialogue Between A District Leader And A Member .

[Daimoku comes to an end… “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.”]

DL:       Thank you, that was wonderful.  I’m so glad we managed to get together today.  The Mentor-Disciple relationship is such an essential part of our Buddhist practice and I wanted to make time to answer your questions and deal with some of your concerns after last week’s chapter study.

AM:     Thanks, I really appreciate it.  I guess my main question is that the Soka Gakkai seems to be the only Buddhist group that seems to stress the mentor-disciple relationship, so is it just an SGI thing or is it a Buddhist concept?  Also, why does a practice that’s supposed to be focused on human revolution and self-development encourage us to form an attachment to a special person?


DL:       Wow, those are two big questions.  I’ll try and cover the second part later, but let’s have a look at the origin of the Mentor-Disciple relationship first, because any Buddhist school that says it’s not based on the spirit of mentor and disciple has already started to stray from Shakyamuni’s true intention. 

AM:     How come?

DL:       In the middle of the Lotus Sutra, the assembled followers are shocked to learn that Shakyamuni is entrusting this important teaching to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, but Shakyamuni knows that it’s only these disciples from previous lifetimes that truly understand his intent and share his vow “to make all people equal to [him]”  (Burton Watson, Lotus Sutra (2009), LSOC2, p70)

AM:     So our mentor-disciple relationship comes from the Lotus Sutra?

DL:       That’s right.  And in Chapter 7, “The Parable of the Phantom City”, we are introduced to a Buddha from the distant past called Great Universal Wisdom Excellence Thus Come One, whose sixteen sons (including Shakyamuni in a previous existence) follow their father’s example and transmit the same Lotus Sutra they were taught to awaken other living beings.  These sixteen princes totally embrace this spirit of Mentor and Disciple.  Later, after Shakyamuni Buddha entered Nirvana, and in some cases even while he was still alive, most schools of Buddhism started to deify him and set themselves the unattainable goal of becoming celestial Buddhas in a long distant future lifetime.  But, once we no longer view the Buddha as a human, the path of mentor and disciple is broken.  That’s why President Ikeda explains “The highest offering to the Buddha is not to worship something reminiscent of the Buddha.  Rather it is to inherit the Buddha’s spirit … as one’s own way of life [upholding] the philosophy that everyone is a Buddha and tirelessly [striving] to save all from suffering” (“Buddhism Day by Day”, p297)

AM:     Did Nichiren feel the same?

DL:       Of course.  As a disciple of Shakyamuni, he was dedicated to clarifying the difference between the provisional and the true teaching of the Buddha, showing that he understood the Buddha’s intent and mission to ensure the Lotus Sutra is protected and preserved for future generations, but he also continues the spirit of equality, when he writes “I and my disciples” (WND – 1, p283) and “Nichiren and his followers” (i.e. WND1,  p395, p479, p618, p1076 and also WND2, p487), fully embracing the oneness of mentor and disciple.  The SGI might be one of the only Nichiren schools following this principle, but that confirms we have stayed true to the spirit and intention of both Shakyamuni and Nichiren. 

 AM:    Wow, I didn’t realise that, but how does that relate to the SGI today?

 DL:      In the same way as Nichiren reaffirmed Shakyamuni’s wonderful teaching of the Lotus Sutra, the two founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai – Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda – refused to compromise their faith when the priesthood asked them to enshrine the Shinto talisman with their Gohonzon, and in May 2014, President Ikeda echoed President Toda’s declaration, that the “essence of the Soka Gakkai spirit is … for each of us to take the Daishonin’s spirit as his own and strive to help others embrace faith in the Mystic Law and realize genuine happiness”  (Newsletter 8982)

  AM:   So why does the mentor-disciple relationship cause confusion?

 DL:      Society can be suspicious of organisations with charismatic leaders – even though SGI members who have left the organisation, and the media, don’t see President Ikeda as charismatic - and  some SGI members’ respect for Sensei can sometimes seem like its deifying him or putting him on a pedestal.  I was initially cynical of the mentor-disciple relationship, especially with the negative publicity in the Japanese media and the framing of the priesthood issue, but this was a valuable lesson for me.  I realized if people misunderstand the mentor-disciple relationship, or the role of the mentor and disciple, they might turn away from the SGI or start to idolize President Ikeda’s greatness, rather than focussing on, and developing, their own potential.  But I know that by chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” – the reality of this relationship will be revealed to them. 

AM:     So what changed your mind?

DL:       I was always moved by Sensei’s sincerity and compassion which shines through in his writings and his down to earth attitude in the HQ videos, but at one meeting, a youth division member answered a question concerning the source of our happiness or benefit, saying “Because you taught us Sensei!” and President Ikeda responded “No.  It’s because Nichiren Daishonin taught us”.  I realised he doesn’t want all the glory.  He doesn’t want us to sit around talking about how great he is, but to share with others how great Nichiren Buddhism is.  And I’ve realised more and more each year that my practice wouldn’t be what it is today without his guidance and inspiration.