ASPAC was at Soka University of America this year. It’s in the hills above Laguna Beach, just down the road from Irvine, on the edge of a nature reserve. The campus is new — they opened in 2001 — and compact, with shiny new buildings and real ambition. Being a hilltop campus, there’s a lot of stairs; being in southern California, and near a nature preserve, there’s some lovely flora and fauna on campus, and I think I’ve solidified my reputation among my conference colleagues as “the camera guy.” Like so many American colleges, Soka U. has a religious foundation to its community and pedagogy, but is open to non-Soka Gakkai students and faculty1 and has a secular, transformative mission.
Soka Gakkai tends to be something of a sideshow for Japan specialists — a Nichiren sect with a political wing, it’s the largest single religious institution in Japan but usually gets folded in with the rest of the Buddhist traditions; the political aspects of it get subsumed by the LDP’s continuing dominance — but it has a global reputation for peace, environmental and educational projects which goes well beyond their numbers. One of the papers I heard on Sunday was a discussion of the role of foreign language study in Soka Gakkai pedagogy.2 Soka founder Makiguchi Tsunesaburo was an adherent of John Dewey’s liberal humanism and Immanuel Kant’s enlightenment philosophy before he became a Nichiren Buddhist, making it a thoroughly global new religion.3 The engraving on the left reads
- I can’t speak for the student body, but the Soka faculty who’ve dealt with the ASPAC board aren’t SG adherents [↩]
- The paper was arguing that Soka theory leads to a more advanced and effective language teaching system, but most of it sounded an awful lot like the dialogues, N+1 and immersion methods I encountered in the ’80s. The Makiguchi stuff was fascinating, though. [↩]
- No, I’m still not sure how you combine Kant, Dewey and Nichiren in a consistent theological fashion. The tensions between nationalism and internationalism, enlightenment ecumenicism and Lotus Sutra exclusivism, just to name a few, seem substantial. My personal experience with SG members in Japan suggests that it propogates as a sort of Prosperity Gospel, but that doesn’t actually simplify anything. [↩]