"In 1943, at a time when Soka Kyoiku-gakkai had a membership of about three thousand, the Japanese military ordered all religions to align themselves with Shinto, the native Japanese religion. Makiguchi, together with a group of Nichiren Shoshu priests, challenged the decree. He was arrested and imprisoned, as was Toda. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944 at the age of seventy-three. His disciple, Toda, then forty-four, was released a year later.
The impact of his master's death, and of his own mystical vision of Buddhism while in prison, led Toda to assume leadership with a mission to expand the organization's membership. By the end of the war, the membership of Soka Gakkai had all but disappeared. Five years later, under Toda's stewardship, the membership had regained fifteen hundred families. At a meeting held at a Nichiren Shoshu temple, Toda made the following pledge to his pupils: "I intend to convert 750,000 families before I die. If this is not achieved by the time of my death, do not hold a funeral service for me but throw my ashes into the sea off Shinagawa." He met his goal by 1957 and died the following year.
SOKA GAKKAI today claims between eight and ten million members, living in more than one hundred countries. It sponsors an influential Japanese political party, Komeito, several high schools and a university, two art museums, several publishing companies, various newspapers, and many Japanese national and international cultural associations. It has acquired massive amounts of money and property.
Soka Gakkai's American branch was founded in 1960 by a Japanese law student named Masayasu Sadanaga (now known as George M. Williams), who had been a Soka Gakkai member in Japan. In the eighties, at its high point, the American organization boasted a total of 500,000 members, a number that—if anywhere near accurate—would make the Soka Gakkai the largest Buddhist organization in the United States.
But in Japan, Soka Gakkai's success has come with a price. Extravagant financial growth over the past fifty years has been accompanied by a reputation for corruption. This spring, the New York Times reported that several years ago the organization was fined millions of dollars for interest payments on undeclared income. In 1990, the police discovered a Soka Gakkai vault containing $1.2 million in yen notes hidden in a garbage dump in Yokohama. More recently, according to the article, $11 million connected with the proposed purchase by Soka Gakkai of two Renoir paintings disappeared. This, in turn, raised questions about whether the lay group was stashing money away for political payoffs. In November 1991, the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the membership of Soka Gakkai en masse. This action is now forcing members throughout the world to choose between joining a Nichiren Shoshu temple or remaining with an unchurched and religiously compromised Soka Gakkai.
Nevertheless, the organization prospers. Soka Gakkai of America now (more realistically) puts its active membership at about 140,000—significantly lower than earlier estimates but still an impressive figure. Its members hold monthly meetings that seek to initiate new members as well as provide information and fellowship to established practitioners. Although members no longer sing "Have a Gohonzon" during meetings, and street-corner proselytizing has been discouraged, the organization continues to emphasize acquisition of material and spiritual benefits as a path to salvation.
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Is Soka Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu the true American Buddhism? To an observer, the practices of Soka Gakkai seem tailor-made for the American fast-food, instant-wish-fulfillment culture. You can chant for money, for a better job, for love, for any of the 108 human desires symbolized by the 108 prayer beads that Nichiren Shoshu members hold while they chant. An observer would note that Soka Gakkai practitioners spend far more time in discussion meetings and other group activities than they do in disciplined contemplation or consultation with Buddhist teachers. Because its emphasis falls on action rather than view, Soka Gakkai appeals to a broad range of Americans with varying educational backgrounds, even as it may alienate those who enjoy meditative Buddhist traditions. Without looking further, an observer might reasonably conclude that Soka Gakkai represents only a simplified version—or even a cynical perversion—of Buddhism created for American consumption. But if Soka Gakkai appeals to the American Dream, it has appealed to the Japanese Dream as well.
In the early fifties, during Soka Gakkai's reconstruction, the then president, Josei Toda, succeeded in attracting a vast number of potential converts by describing the mechanism of Buddhist practice as a money-making machine:
Suppose a machine which never fails to make everyone happy were built by the power of science or by medicine .... Such a machine, I think, could be sold at a very high price. Don't you agree? If you used it wisely, you could be sure to become happy and build up a terrific company. You could make a lot of money. You could sell such machines for about 100,000 Yen apiece.
But Western science has not yet produced such a machine. It cannot be made. Still, such a machine has been in existence in this country, Japan, since seven hundred years ago. This is the Dai-Gohonzon. [Nichiren] Daishonin made this machine for us and gave it to us common people. He told us: "Use [the machine] freely. It won't cost you any money ... And yet, people of today don't want to use it because they don't understand the explanation that the Dai-Gohonzon is such a splendid machine.
TODA'S WORDS caught the attention of those Japanese impoverished by the Second World War and desperate for survival. In like manner, the appeal attracts many Americans living in the inner cities who are desperate for a way to improve their lives. For these people who know little material prosperity, the more conventional Buddhist view—that enlightenment is encouraged by abandoning all attachment to material things—is virtually senseless. After all, you must first have an adequate supply of food or own a car or a washing machine before you can give up an attachment to them.
The white middle-class practitioners who follow Zen, Tibetan, or Theravadan Buddhism are wary if not downright disdainful of Nichiren Shoshu but—whether they acknowledge it or not—they are involved in a dilemma with striking parallels. The issue for them is not money but ego. In a culture where low self-esteem and depression are endemic, the question arises: "Does one have to have a healthily developed ego to give it up?" Yet many of the same middle-class, materialistically secure white practitioners of other traditions have remained hostile to Nichiren Shoshu without investigating its different economic and cultural contexts.
To traditional Buddhists the idea of a Buddhism that encourages its practitioners to chant for BMWs appears blatantly heretical, and the description of the group's object of worship as a machine for granting wishes sounds ridiculous. Even so, the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is not trivial, nor is its effect upon members' lives shallow. Gongyo, the daily practice of the Nichiren Shoshu membership, consists of morning and evening recitations of the Lotus Sutra as well as chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo repeatedly. Gongyo,** which literally means "assiduous practice," is performed while practitioners sit before the Gohonzon, a replica of Nichiren's original mandala. During gongyo, two chapters of the Lotus Sutra are recited from Chinese characters (using Japanese pronunciation) and are repeated five times in the morning and three times at night. After each reading, practitioners silently recite prayers that offer thanks for protection by the Buddhist gods, praise the virtues of the Dai-Gohonzon, acknowledge the succession of the chief priests, present a petition for world peace and attainment of enlightenment, and pray for the well-being of ancestors—all of which have parallels in the daily services of Buddhist parishes in many different Asian cultures, as well as in Japan's Soto Zen tradition. After the final reading, members chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, usually for five or ten minutes, but occasionally for several hours. The liturgy of gongyo encourages one to clear the mind of wishes, anxieties, and other distracting thoughts so that when it is time to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (the most important part of the practice) the mind will be sufficiently stilled to concentrate on the Gohonzon. The goal of this "assiduous practice" is the fusion of one's mind with the reality of the Gohonzon—it means reading the Chinese characters not simply with one's eyes but "with one's life"—through chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
**Gongyo: In general, gongyo means the recitation of Buddhist sutras in fornt of an object of worship. In Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai, gongyo means to recite part of the second chapter and the whole of the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra in front of the gohonzon, followed by chanting.
The literal translation of the chant is "Devotion to the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma." But Nichiren Shoshu provides specific interpretations: Nam—"devotion of both mind and body"—to Myoho, a word indicating that all life and death phenomena are united in a "mystic" or mysterious manner. Myoho indicates "the Mystic Law" of Renge, the lotus that reveals its seeds (its cause) as it blossoms (its effect) simultaneousl—therefore, "simultaneous cause and effect." This is invoked in our lives through Kyo, the word for dharma, sutra, or the sound of its teachings.
What Nichiren Shoshu members unite with when they chant to the Gohonzon is a depiction, in Chinese characters, of the "Ceremony in the Air," described in the Lotus Sutra as an assembly of Shakyamuni's disciples floating in space above the saha (impure) world. When the Bodhisattvas of the Earth appear, Shakyamuni reveals his original enlightenment in the remote past. He then transfers the essence of the sutra specifically to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Jogyo (Vishishtacharitra in Sanskrit), entrusting them with its propagation two thousand years in the future (our own time). Chanting to the Gohonzon then both invites and affirms attendance at this assembly of bodhisattvas.
The philosophical lineage of Nichiren Shoshu purports that although the material and the spiritual are two separate classes of phenomena, they are in essence inseparable, a "oneness of body and mind."
T'ien-t'ai sought to clarify the mutually inclusive relationship of the ultimate truth and the phenomenal world asserting with this principle that all phenomena—body and mind, self and environment, sentient and insentient, cause and effect—are integrated in a life-moment of a common mortal. Pre-Lotus Sutra teachings generally hold that all phenomena arise from the mind, but in T'ien-t'ai teachings the mind and all phenomena are "two but not two." That is, neither can be independent of the other.
In pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, earthly desires and illusions are cited as causes of spiritual and physical suffering that impede the quest for enlightenment, obscuring Buddha nature and hindering Buddhist practice. According to T'ien-t'ai's intepretation of the Lotus Sutra, however, earthly desires and enlightenment are not fundamentally different: enlightenment is not the eradication of desire, but a state of mind that can be experienced by transforming innate desires.
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Beginning Nichiren Shoshu members establish their practice by chanting for whatever they want. I had friends who started off chanting for cheaper drugs and free money. Like them, I treated the Gohonzon as a pimp. I wanted to see if chanting would work. I set about praying for things (a summer job, a girlfriend, even a good parking spot) that would fill immediate needs or give instant pleasure. Some things I got; others I didn't. The things I really needed-such as better relationships with people and with myself-eluded me. Nevertheless, I continued to chant. Gradually, my interest in shortterm material benefits was displaced by a hunger for longerterm spiritual ones. I found that chanting incessantly about difficult personal problems, like polishing a mirror, brought clarity to my situation. The more difficult or painful the motivation for my chanting, the clearer the mirror of my faith reflected my ownership of whatever troubled me. I could no longer deny the responsibility for my predicaments. In my experience, the activity of chanting for material or spiritual things becomes a process of cleansing one's spirit, not corrupting it; and Buddhists who began by chanting for hotter cars ended up driven to awaken themselves and help others, at times with great energy and joy.
"WILL YOU PLEASE tell me what playing the trombone has to do with Buddhism?" my friend A. demanded. It was during my first year as a Buddhist. I had told A. that I'd planned to join Soka Gakkai's brass band."You want to be in a marching band? Didn't you do enough parading in military school?"
Indeed I had. I was sent to military school when I was twelve and remained there until I was eighteen. I promised myself I would never march again. Yet, here I was in the Soka Gakkai Brass Band.
I had no satisfactory explanation of the relationship between marching in a brass band, attending Soka Gakkai conventions, donating money to the organization, and Buddhism. I had only Soka Gakkai's official answer: these movement activities would yield personal benefits and further the cause of world peace. In any event, they certainly benefited Soka Gakkai.
In the ten years during which I practiced as a Soka Gakkai member, I attended their conventions all over the U.S. and Japan. These were always spectacular public exhibitions, such as the show performed on a massive floating island stage built off the Waikiki shore. I got to see little of them, however. As a Young Men's Division member, I was often put in charge of luggage and remained at the hotel, or was appointed caretaker of one or another member who had suddenly become unhinged, such as the young man who insisted on walking—naked—backward up and down the hotel corridors and dressing only to take a shower.
I cannot say that I entirely relished membership in Soka Gakkai. I confess that playing in the Brass Band was always an embarrassing chore. Discipline was strict and not always administered by wise leaders. Yet, the core of my Buddhist practice remained chanting.
In 1980, American Soka Gakkai members were not aware that the Nichiren Shoshu clergy and the Soka Gakkai administration had become entangled in a dispute. The clergy alleged that Soka Gakkai was secretly planning to establish itself as an independent sect of Nichiren Buddhism. The scandals and controversies that resulted were documented in the Japanese press but not in the American press. Possibly as part of Soka Gakkai's plot to secede, American members were given new versions of the prayers of gongyo that included homage to Soka Gakkai founders. George M. Williams announced that a new Head Temple might be constructed on a tract of land purchased in the Rocky mountains. Otherwise, Soka Gakkai of America asserted that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
My friends and I eventually learned about these things from a young Japanese who had been appointed chief priest of the Nichiren Shoshu temple in New York. He was amazed that Soka Gakkai in this country continued to deny the problems in Japan, especially because he believed that knowing about them was essential to an American member's understanding of the practice.
With the information provided by the young priest, and from copies of an English-language Japanese newspaper, I began to discuss this situation with the thirty or so active members in the group I headed, and with my senior leaders. Rather than answering my questions, my seniors admonished me, declaring that I was slandering Buddhism.
When efforts to force the American Soka Gakkai to openly discuss the implications of the political situation failed, the young priest decided to publish the details on his own. Eventually, he printed a heavily documented pamphlet and mailed it to as many members as he could locate. Soka Gakkai successfully pressured Nichiren Shoshu to fire him.
My friends and I were similarly dismissed. Our dismissal was carried out in a particularly Japanese manner. Instead of being thrown out publicly, our group was simply not included in the next reorganization of groups that define the Soka Gakkai membership. We became, so to speak, nonpersons.
During these last twelve years of solitary practice, I have had to answer questions I might not otherwise have had to confront had I remained in Soka Gakkai. How deep have the dynamics of mass-movement culture affected my understanding of Buddhist experience? How much of my knowledge of this religion, for example, is knowledge of Buddhism, and how much is Japanese cultural bias? There are no easy answers, although my ignorance makes me a comrade in arms with the many other American students of Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan Buddhism who wrestle with these same questions.
But in front of the Gohonzon those questions don't feel very important; nor do my friends' descriptions of vulgarity or materialism. I am left where I began: by myself, at my altar, conscious of a larger truth—that the Great Assembly of bodhisattvas described in the Lotus Sutra is a reality taking place now, at every moment of our lives."
] "Nichiren Shoshu America General Meeting in Philadelphia, July, 1987" (The [in]famous human pyramid.)
"As American as Apple Pie - An Insider's view of Nichiren Shoshu."
From "Tricycle", an old article but recently placed online (?).
Sandy McIntosh, poet and journalist teaches at Hofstra University. He is host of the Viacom Cablevision program Ideas and Images, and Managing Editor of Confrontation.
Link to article [www.tricycle.com
] (1 comment from an sgi-brasil cult member mis-fortune baby, in the discussion portion.)
It's interesting to note that this particular article from "Tricycle" is not officially sponsored by sgi-usa, like this one [www.sgi-usa.org
]. So, the above is the other side of the coin, which all "members" should also be exposed to, consider, and think for themselves.
By the way, I don't fall into the camp of those who have jumped from one cult right into another frying pan (to borrow an Anti-Cult phrase, that I agree with), but I'm just putting this out there for people who are questioning their membership in the $oka Gakkai Dear Leader Ikeda Cult.
If any of this has been posted before, my apologies, but here it is again, nevertheless. (It's my first time seeing it.)