Meeting Report

 September 20, 2015

James Hilgendorf
Life & Death: A Buddhist Perspective

The meeting was attended by about twenty people who were interested in hearing a Buddhist view of life and death.

James Hilgendorf is a long-term member of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a global Buddhist organization. Mr. Hilgendorf began his presentation by stating that Humanism and Buddhism have much in common, particularly the shared worldview that there are no gods. Instead, SGI members believe in the sanctity of life.

SGI began in 1930s Japan, where it was persecuted by a government that favored Shinto, the state religion. It now has something like twelve million adherents all over the globe.

Mr. Hilgendorf began a narrative tour with the statement that our worldview shapes us. He pointed out that the world was upended by science over a 400-year period that included Descartes’ invention of dualism and Nietzsche’s famous statement that “God is dead,” and continued into the “usual suspects” of postmodern philosophy, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the inner universe, and even holograms, culminating in near death experiences, or NDEs.

He even read a riveting quote from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leon Tolstoy’s remarkable short story that describes the protagonist’s moment of death in breathtaking—though of course fictional—detail.

Mr. Hilgendorf ended his presentation by describing how SGI’s principal activity—chanting—relieves stress and pain, both physical and emotional. And here is where we discovered the apparent value in his philosophy. It is palliation, providing comfort to those who are suffering, which is a worthy pursuit.

In the end, however, Buddhism and Humanism are at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum because, while the former is in essence spiritual, the latter is materialistic (in the scientific, not the social, sense).

Nevertheless, we thank James Hilgendorf very much for his interesting and informative presentation, which gave rise to a fair number of questions and some ensuing dialogue.

Report prepared by Roger Zabkie 

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