"It didn’t start to dawn on me that SGI is a cult until I tried to leave."
Some members say, “So what if it’s a cult? SGI has helped me, given me structure and a sense of purpose. Besides, I don’t care about organizational stuff. I just care about practicing Buddhism correctly.”
This is the most insidious thing about SGI, in my opinion: the organization distorts Nichiren Buddhism to undermine members’ autonomy and increase their dependence on SGI, and promotes this as “correct practice.”
For example, consider the fact that members do not own the SGI-issued Gohonzon enshrined in their homes — "your" Gohonzon is the property of SGI.
For a one-time fee, SGI will loan you a Nichikan Gohonzon, the “banner” of SGI. Leaders and members spread rumors that other Gohonzon are “demon infested” or “don’t work.”
Some members think, “Great! We have more unity in SGI because we all embrace the same ‘edition’ of Gohonzon.” Conformity is often praised as unity in SGI. But what’s more insidious is that SGI inserts itself into the most sacred and central aspect of Nichiren Buddhism: the relationship between the practitioner and the Gohonzon.
"If SGI owns your Gohonzon, it’s not such a leap to say that they own your practice.
''And if they own your practice, it’s not such a leap to say that they own a large share of your mind and heart. After all, the Gohonzon is not just a paper scroll, Nichiren teaches, but the very essence of our life itself.
To be a good SGI member, you must have a Gohonzon that is approved by SGI. Leaders may rationalize this as “protecting the members,” but even Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren himself are not approved by SGI. Perhaps many members are relieved that they do not have to choose from the dozens of Nichiren-inscribed Gohonzon available for free. But my point is that SGI pays lip service to freedom of choice and diversity, yet there is no choice with regard to the most essential and personal aspect of Buddhist practice.
"Granted, most SGI members do not believe that the teachings of Nichiren have been manipulated to serve the self-enriching interests of a cult. We have been told for so long that SGI serves all humanity. Serving SGI is wonderful, we are told, because SGI alone is fulfilling the Buddha’s decree. In other words, the group itself perpetuates a belief in the unquestionable greatness of the group.
"Most destructive of all, SGI members are indoctrinated to "never give up.” In Buddhism, “never give up” means never give up on your own life and practice, and to be persistent in your quest for liberation for yourself and all living beings. This is a great Buddhist attitude.
But in SGI, “never give up” is often invoked to mean never give up on the organization.
"I’m talking about indoctrinating people with a fear that serves to benefit the religious corporation rather than the practitioner -- a fear that is not instructive or helpful, but is destructive and manipulative.
By contrast, I had been a confirmed Catholic for more than ten years before I decided to join SGI, but I never gave the Pope a second thought. I just moved on to a religion that I felt was better for me.
"Leaving the SGI, on the other hand, was difficult and terrifying."
"“SGI used to be a cult, maybe, back when members wore uniforms and aggressively recruited people,” I would explain. “But that has all changed. We don’t worship President Ikeda. We learn from him and try to emulate him. Besides, my life has improved since I joined SGI. President Ikeda always talks about freedom and the importance of the individual. I’ve learned a lot from him about standing up and speaking out. You’d never learn that in a cult.”"
I joined SGI almost 14 years ago. I've worked for the SGI as a paid propagandist — first as a staff writer for the World Tribune and more recently as a freelance ghostwriter for SGI-USA's Middleway Press. SGI is on my professional résumé. I've defended the SGI in print. I've tried to explain away charges from friends, family and strangers that SGI is a cult. I've tried to convince myself that SGI might one day change.
But cults like SGI change only in the sense that they become more sophisticated or perhaps more subtle in their workings. They may take Ikeda's photo down from the wall in the Gohonzon room, and stop making members wear white uniforms — they may look less cartoonishly cult-like. But the goal remains the same: to make members believe that they will suffer without the group, and whatever happiness and success they have is attributable to the group, and they owe everything to the group. This is *not* Nichiren Buddhism — this is SGI-ism, and it's precisely what makes SGI a cult.
SGI members are programmed to believe (whether we are aware of it or not) that we will suffer if we get crosswise of the SGI or part with it voluntarily. Only cowards, weaklings and corrupters leave the SGI voluntarily, we are told. We are convinced that the correctness of our Buddhist practice is dependent on our SGI affiliation, even if that affiliation is loose or sporadic. Being an absentee member for a few months is fine, but leaving SGI will invite the wrath of all the Buddhist gods and our lives will become nothing but misery.
During my years as an SGI member and as the editor of BuddhaJones.com, I have observed the extreme fear and superstition that SGI members feel toward their own organization. Many write to tell me about some crappy thing that happened to them in the SGI, but they beg me not to publish their letter, or to post it under an assumed name — and some ask me not to tell anyone that they were even reading my web site. They are afraid of being in trouble with SGI, of being shunned, of having misfortune rain down upon them because they dared to displease "the org."
One of the reasons why I say SGI is a cult is because it instills in members this irrational fear that harm will come to them unless they remain members in good standing. It’s not as if some leader says: “OK, now we’re going to indoctrinate you with fear and irrational beliefs.”
Instead, we are indoctrinated with what it means to be a noble soldier of Soka:
...You are the SGI. If you are not happy with SGI, you must work harder to make it better. Leaving the SGI is the same as trying to escape your karma, which can’t be done. The people who quit are deluded traitors. Those who betray the SGI are betraying Nichiren. They will experience retribution. Those who leave come crawling back to SGI begging for forgiveness....
There is nothing in Nichiren’s teachings to support the notion that correct practice is dependent upon compliance with or commitment to a particular religious corporation. It’s utter nonsense…unless a group of people you trust tells you repeatedly that it’s absolutely true, and you chant with all your heart to internalize the lesson.