I'd like to know if this aspect of practice in SGI departs in a significant way from the Buddhism that Nichiren taught.
Right, so what did Nichiren teach?
I think to answer this, you have to look at the broader message he taught, and then understand how worldly benefits fit in.
According to Nichiren - there is one thing going on in all times and all places - the revelation of the Lotus Sutra by the Buddha and progressive awakening by ignorant beings.
The key to understanding this is through the lens of the Tientai/Tendai doctrine of Trichiliocosm in a Single Moment of Mind. I won't go into trying to explain this sprawling concept (if interested, Brook Ziporyn's Evil and/or/as Good
includes an excellent, albeit dense, explanation of the concept). I'll just skip to some pithy statements that characterize Nichiren's teachings in the mythological language of the Lotus Sutra -
The Buddha is understood to be timeless/eternal. He has always been in the world, teaching the Lotus Sutra and revealing the True Aspect of Reality to all beings; sometimes he appears as himself, sometimes he appears as others; he is always asking himself, "How do I quickly lead beings to attain the body of the Buddha?" and ever acting on this impulse, he responds to the needs of beings in immeasurable ways. All of us, by virtue of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds, are taking part in the revelation of the Lotus Sutra - whether we realize it or not. We are at once awakening ourselves (seeking above; practice for oneself) and awakening others (edify below; practice for others). This is constantly going on in some context at all times. Sometimes you are learning from the Buddha, sometimes you are doing the Buddha's work - and actually, both are happening at all times.
Bob Thurman talks about the Long Tale - at some distant point in the future, each of us will attain full blown Buddhahood, and looking back over the aeons we struggled, we will see that we were enlightened the whole time. Nichiren teaches that rather than waiting for that future vantage point, assume that perspective NOW through the power of pure, sincere faith in your Buddhahood and the Buddhahood of all beings.
Now, based on this Trichiliocosm in a Single Moment of Mind, the Dharmadhatu is considered real (as well as empty, these truths being mutually entailing - see Tientai Inclusive Threefold Truth; See Ng's Tientai and Early Madhyamika). As such, the practice of BuddhaDharma is understood to have real effects in this world. These real effects are both spiritual and material - because all reality is both spiritual and material. Material benefits ARE spiritual benefits, spiritual benefits are material benefits.
It follows that one seeking material benefit based on their devotion to the Lotus Sutra would have their prayers answered. After all, even praying for money is an expedient means that leads to enlightenment. If you don't get your prayers for powerball numbers right, then perhaps what you really need is to question the nature of your prayer and how it accords with reality; perhaps the expectation was a wrong view to begin with and not hitting the lotto was the Buddha's teaching you to direct your practice in another direction... If you do hit it, then "hey hey hey! It works!" This is the "law of fives" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discordianism#Law_of_Fives
, the punch line in the case of Nichiren Buddhism being - "Continue your efforts for Buddhahood, and never cease."
That's the way I see it, anyway. Does it Chanting for material benefits really work? Of course it does. As does the law of fives.
I watched for years as my mother, a founding member of Soka Gakkai in the US, counseled people facing real life struggles. There is a reason why no other Buddhist organization has been able to make inroads into such a diverse population - not everyone is a privileged middle class college educated white person. Real people have real problems, not just first world problems http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/35kv9g/
. I saw people in mentally and physically abusive relationships, with no money and crying kids to take care of grasping for the least hint of hope in life. They didn't need the Buddha to tell them that life is suffering. What they needed was something to hope on and give them the strength to keep forging on in their life.
"Chant for the money to pay the rent."
In practical terms, as meditators know, meditating is a great way to calm the mind. Chanting is particularly effective - especially when the mind is so distracted it would be impossible to count breaths or anything subtle like that. Sometimes people need some time to catch their breath, buy themselves some momentary piece of mind, and just have the smallest sliver of hope to keep going. I saw people faced with incredible odds, take the actions necessary to, for example, make rent - along the lines of the person chanting for a bass boat. Don't underestimate the magnitude of accomplishment in making rent when one is holding on to their place in the world by a thread. Until you've had to counsel someone through a terrible time in their life, or employed it on yourself!, I don't think you can appreciate what a little "law of fives" magic can do.
And when the rent is paid, when the kids are fed, when the immediate danger is passed, when we have been lured out of the burning house with promise of goat carts, horse carts and ox carts, and some of the advantages that enable us to undertake Buddhist practice are secured, then one can start worrying about the True Aspect of Reality and all that stuff the 'elite' Buddhists think is what Buddhism is really