Strand (How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, 2008), a religion writer and former Zen monk, delves into the history and mission behind Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect perhaps best known for its peace activism and belief in fair wealth distribution among people. While this may be the denomination’s primary identity in America, Clark is quick to point out its racial and economic diversity, its international scope, and the political activity that sets it apart from other Buddhist traditions and from many other religions as well. He explores the lives of Soka Gakkai’s founders and major players—Makiguchi, Toda and Ikeda—and shows how each furthered a particular mission that gave the faith a global reach and broad appeal. Most notably, perhaps, he shows how Soka Gakkai’s seeming emphasis on material things, the aspect for which it receives perhaps the most criticism, in fact makes it “a dynamic and practical philosophy of life that, for the first time in human history, privileges life over religion, rather than religion over life.” Strand’s perspective is broad, with an academic distance that is nevertheless fair toward Soka Gakkai, and cogent in his analysis of American Buddhism as a “baby boomer” faith that suffers many of the flaws of the modern era. The ultimate goal and intended readership of the book, however, are somewhat unclear. It covers ground sure to be interesting to Buddhists, religious scholars and practitioners of Soka Gakkai in different measure but perhaps without fully serving the curiosity of any particular group. While the prose is clear and readable, there is a lack of organization that makes the narrative hard to follow, especially with regard to Soka Gakkai’s history and to Strand’s own place within the movement and within American Buddhism more broadly. Overall, the work perhaps best serves as a jumping-off point for people interested in learning more about this unique denomination.
Thoughtful, clear and informative, if somewhat scattered.