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Levi McLaughlin

How do Buddhist adherents cultivate their faith and practices within a heteronormative organization if they are not the gender they were assigned at birth? What strategies do transgender and nonbinary devotees devise as they navigate between their institution’s conventions, legal restrictions imposed by their country, and their own developing doctrinal stances? This presentation will draw on McLaughlin’s long-term interactions with transgender members of Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest modern Buddhist organization. It will bring to light dilemmas transgender practitioners face as they devise interpretations of Buddhist causality, the teachings of Nichiren (1222-1282), and the Gakkai’s recently deceased Honorary President Ikeda Daisaku (1928-2023) to address their specific needs. These members must continually develop complex means to cultivate themselves as subjects capable of confronting a religious institution that has historically rejected participation by gender non-conforming adherents, a Japanese state that has retained legislation that demonizes transgender people, and non-Gakkai religious and political opponents who regard the mere existence of transgender people as an existential threat. Through attention to the broader sociopolitical context in which Soka Gakkai members reinvent Buddhism to realize themselves and, in some cases, challenge the fixity of institutional and political norms through inventive doctrinal innovation, this presentation affirms the dynamism of a multiply marginalized Buddhist constituency that has much to teach the world.

Levi McLaughlin is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University. He is co-author of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan (IEAS Berkeley, 2014) and author of Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan (University of Hawai`i Press, 2019; forthcoming in Japanese from Kodansha in 2024), as well as numerous book chapters and articles on religion and politics in Japan.

This lecture is co-sponsored by the Dept. of Religious Studies, the East Asia Center, and the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.