Soka Gakkai International: Past, Present, Future

Part I: Origins, Development, Controversy

Eiheiji Statue
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Most non-Buddhists who have heard of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) know it as Buddhism for the stars. If you saw the Tina Turner bio-flick “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” you saw a dramatization of Turner’s introduction to Soka Gakkai in the late 1970s. Other well-known members include actor Orlando Bloom; musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; and Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl.

From its origins in pre-war Japan, Soka Gakkai has promoted personal empowerment and humanist philosophy combined with Buddhist devotion and practice. Yet as its membership grew in the West, the organization found itself struggling with dissension, controversy, and accusations of being a a cult.

Origins of Soka Gakkai

The first incarnation of Soka Gakkai, called Soka Kyoiku Gakkai ("Value-Creating Education Society"), was founded in Japan in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and educator. Soka Kyoiku Gakkai was a lay organization dedicated to humanistic education reform that also embodied the religious teachings of Nichiren Shoshu, a branch of the Nichiren school of Buddhism.

During the 1930s the military took control of the Japanese government, and a climate of militant nationalism gripped Japan. The government demanded that patriotic citizens honor the Japanese indigenous religion, Shinto.

Makiguchi and his close associate Josei Toda (1900-1958) refused to participate in Shinto rituals and worship, and they were arrested as “thought criminals” in 1943. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944.

After the war and his release from prison, Toda re-formed Soka Kyoiku Gakkai into Soka Gakkai ("Value-Creating Society") and shifted the focus from education reform to the promotion of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism.

In the post-war era, many Japanese were attracted to Soka Gakkai because of its emphasis on self-empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.

Soka Gakkai International

In 1960, Daisaku Ikeda, then 32 years old, became president of Soka Gakkai. In 1975 Ikeda expanded the organization into Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which today has affiliate organizations in 120 countries and an estimated global membership of 12 million.

In the 1970s and 1980s SGI grew rapidly in the West through aggressive recruitment. Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on the popular 1980s television series Dallas, became a convert and spoke glowingly of SGI in many widely read interviews. SGI also drew attention through splashy publicity events. For example, according to Daniel Golden of the Boston Globe (October 15, 1989),

"NSA [Nichiren Shoshu of America, now known as SGI-USA] stole the show at Bush’s inauguration in January by displaying on the Washington Mall the world’s largest chair — a 39-foot-high model of the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Continental Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records has twice cited NSA for assembling the most American flags ever in a parade, although in one mention it misidentified the group as 'Nissan Shoshu,' confusing the religious organization with the automaker."

Is SGI a Cult?

SGI came to widespread public attention in the West during the 1970s and 1980s, a time of growing concern about cults. For example, it was in 1978 that 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult committed suicide in Guyana. SGI, a rapidly growing, sometimes flamboyant non-western religious organization, looked suspiciously like a cult to many people and to this day remains on some cult watch lists.

You can find diverse definitions of "cult," including some that say "any religion other than mine is a cult." You can find people who argue all of Buddhism is a cult. A checklist created by Marcia Rudin, M.A., a founding director of the International Cult Education Program, seems more objective.

I have no personal experience with SGI, but over the years I've met many SGI members. They don't seem to me to fit the Rudin checklist.

For example, SGI members are not isolated from the non-SGI world. They are not anti-woman, anti-child, or anti-family. They are not waiting for the Apocalypse. I do not believe they use deceptive tactics to recruit new members. Claims that SGI is bent on world domination are, I suspect, a tad exaggerated.

Break With Nichiren Shoshu

Soka Gakkai was not organized by Nichiren Shoshu, but after World War II Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu developed a mutually beneficial alliance. Over time, however, tensions grew between SGI President Ikeda and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood over questions of doctrine and leadership. In 1991 Nichiren Shoshu formally renounced SGI and excommunicated Ikeda. News of the break with Nichiren Shoshu rippled like shock waves through the SGI membership.

However, according to Richard Hughes Seager in Buddhism in America (Columbia University Press, 2000), a majority of American members remained with SGI. Before the break they had had little direct contact with the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood; SGI-USA had always been run by laypersons, and that did not change. Many of the issues causing the rift made little sense outside Japan.

Further, Seager wrote, since the break with the priesthood SGI-USA has become more democratic and less hierarchical. New initiatives placed women in more leadership positions and enhanced SGI's racial diversity. SGI also has become less exclusionary. Seager continued,

"Religious dialogue, both interreligious and inter-Buddhist, is now on the SGI agenda, which would not have been the case under the sectarian leadership of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. All of these initiatives have contributed to an opening up of Soka Gakkai. A frequent statement in leadership circles is that a new, egalitarian SGI is a 'work in progress.'"

SGI-USA: After the Break

Before the break with Nichiren Shoshu, the then-named Nichiren Shoshu of America had only six regional temples in the U.S. Today there are more than 90 SGI-USA centers and more than 2,800 local discussion groups.

Soka Gakkai has taken on the priestly functions of conducting weddings and funerals and conferring the Gohonzon, a sacred mandala that is enshrined in SGI centers and on members' home altars.

William Aiken, Director of Public Affairs for SGI-USA, said that since the split, SGI has worked to clarify the distinctions between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai. "This has been a process of defining Nichiren Buddhism apart from the relative exclusivism and rigidity of Nichiren Shoshu," he said.

"What has emerged -- as epitomized in the writings of SGI President Ikeda -- has been a modern, humanistic interpretation of Nichiren Buddhism, more befitting the pluralist society we live in today. One of the main themes of President Ikeda has been that 'religion exists for the sake of people and not the other way around.'"

Soka Gakkai Practice

As with all Nichiren Buddhism, Soka Gakkai practice is centered in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Members engage in daily daimoku, which is chanting the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, "Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra." They also practice gongyo, which is reciting some part of the Lotus Sutra.

These practices are said to work an inner transformation, bringing one's life into harmony and a evoking wisdom and compassion. At the same time, SGI members take action on behalf of others, actualizing Buddha-nature in the world. The SGI-USA website provides a more comprehensive introduction to SGI's approach to Buddhism.

Bill Aiken of SGI-USA said,

"When things are difficult, it is tempting to look for someone stronger and more powerful than you -- be it a political leader or a transcendent being -- to save you from the trials and hazards of living. It is much harder to believe that you can find the resources you need by opening up the vast potential within your own life. The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra -- Nam-myoho-renge-kyo -- is in a sense a bold affirmation of the positive potential of the Buddha that lies dormant both in the human heart and in our environment."

Kosen-rufu

The phrase kosen-rufu appears frequently in SGI literature. Roughly, it means to declare widely, to take forward like the current of a river or to spread out like a cloth. Kosen-rufu is the dissemination of Buddhism, peace and harmony in the world. Soka gakkai practice is intended to bring empowerment and peace into the lives of individuals, who can then spread that empowerment and peace to the world.

My impression is that SGI has matured considerably from the 1970s and 1980s, when the organization seemed consumed with frenetic proselytization. Today SGI actively reaches out to work with others on humanitarian and environmental projects. In recent years SGI has been especially supportive of the United Nations, where it is represented as an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). The idea seems to be that nurturing understanding and good will through humanitarian work will allow kosen-rufu to manifest naturally.

Daisaku Ikeda said, "Simply put, kosen-rufu is the movement to communicate the ultimate way to happiness —- to communicate the highest principle of peace to people of all classes and nations through the correct philosophy and teaching of Nichiren.”

I asked Bill Aiken of SGI-USA if SGI is finding its niche within the great diversity of religion in the West. "I believe that the SGI is establishing itself as a human-centered religious movement based on the life-affirming tenets of the Lotus Sutra," he said. "The core principle of the Lotus Sutra -- that all living beings possess the Buddha-nature and are indeed potential Buddhas worthy of deep respect -- is an important message, especially in an era of religious and cultural division and the demonization of the 'other.'"

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Soka Gakkai International: Past, Present, Future." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/soka-gakkai-international-past-present-future-450039. O'Brien, Barbara. (2017, February 22). Soka Gakkai International: Past, Present, Future. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/soka-gakkai-international-past-present-future-450039 O'Brien, Barbara. "Soka Gakkai International: Past, Present, Future." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/soka-gakkai-international-past-present-future-450039 (accessed October 24, 2017).