Mary Baldwin College When I took a large group of my university students to a Sunday general meeting of Soka Gakkai International Canada (SGI Canada) in Montreal in May 2002, they were stunned by the deep multicultural nature of the whole affair. Roughly half the participants were white Anglophones or Francophones, but there were significant numbers of Indians, Chinese, Blacks from the West Indies, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin Americans, and even a small number of ethnic Japanese. They had never experienced such a mix of races and cultures before and were delighted with the warm reception that they had received.
Canada is becoming one of the great multicultural nations in the world today, at least in such large urban areas as Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. The influx of new cultures has also brought in a wave of different religions including many varieties of Islam and many sects of Buddhism. One of the largest of these religious groups is the Canadian wing of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Japanese-based lay Buddhist movement that started in Japan in the early 1930s. Soka Gakkai is by far the largest of Japan’s New Religious Movements (NRMs). Its Canadian chapter, which began in 1960, today has community or cultural centers in most of the country’s major urban centers and is growing at a slow and steady pace. Its membership today defies any stereotypes – members and friends come from all ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds and from all age groups.
I had studied SGI Canada in the mid-1990s as part of my effort to gain a better understanding of SGI as a global movement.1 I introduced my students to SGI in Canada because it is very multicultural in its makeup and thus a bit like the very multicultural nation I was introducing them to.
Global Soka Gakkai
This work presents the Soka Gakkai, a quintessentially Japanese New Religious Movement with perhaps as many as ten million followers in Japan and between two to three million members in approximately two hundred countries. The Soka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist movement based on its interpretation of the teachings of Nichiren (122-1282), a medieval Japanese monk and scholar who founded Japan’s only native school of Buddhism. Despite its distinctly Japanese origins, the Soka Gakkai claims that it is a global religion with universal applications.
The Soka Gakkai bases its doctrines on Nichiren’s assertion that the Lotus Sutra2is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Nichiren went further to declare that the very title of the sutra, Myoho-Renge-Kyo, very much crystallized the essence of the sutra and that chanting the invocation nam-myoho-renge-kyo allows the follower to embrace the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings and in time to manifest the life condition of Buddhahood. Nichiren himself inscribed several mandala (Gohonzon) with Chinese and Sanskrit characters which are said to represent the enlightened life of the “Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.’
The Soka Gakkai insists that its version of Nichiren Buddhism is not to be practiced in some otherworldly land or in a mystic state, but in each person’s daily life here and now, and that Buddhahood can be attained here in this lifetime. There is a dynamic life force in the universe that is the foundation of life itself and exists in every sentient being. This force is itself Buddha-nature and is therefore an essential aspect of human life. Human nature possesses both the potential for total evil and absolute goodness (Buddhahood). 3 The good or bad traits that any one human might exhibit over the course of a lifetime depend on the state of one’s karma at any given moment.
Since all humans have Buddha-nature within them, they all have the potential for Buddhahood. A Buddha is a person who has overcome all the negative traits in his or her personality and is a peaceful, compassionate being who devotes his/her life to helping others overcome their afflictions. A Buddha embraces life with relish and lives it to the fullest, maximizing his/her life condition. Every human Buddha will experience mortality in due course, but will devote every waking moment while alive working for the development of a more peaceful, harmonious and productive world.
Soka Gakkai Buddhists believe that chanting will activate or release the power of one’s Buddha nature which in turn will transform each follower into a stronger, happier and compassionate person. This transformative process of becoming a kinder, gentler and helpful person is called “human revolution” (ningen kakumei). True world peace would come if each individual experienced his/her own “human revolution” because anger, greed and selfishness would be replaced by kindness, gentleness, and compassion for the welfare of others. The widespread propagation of this Buddhism in the long run would lead people everywhere to become more humane, compassionate and peaceful than in the past. Over time such evils as warfare and human pollution of the environment would abate and concerned Buddhists from every walk of life would work diligently together to redress the economic and social imbalances of society. Thus, the goal of the Soka Gakkai is to provide greater human security by having increasing numbers of people experience its “human revolution” and their subsequent working in the field of their choice to improve the human condition. In accord with the Buddhist concept of esho funi, the oneness of person and environment, each person has the power to then positively affect the environment around him/her. The Soka Gakkai insists that if all humans fully embraced these teachings, the peace that each individual would develop within would eventually be reflected in society at large.
SGI Canada leader Tony Meers summarizes the movement’s Buddhist philosophy:
Each of us is a microcosm of the universe, for we are all composed of the same energy we call life. We therefore possess a vast potential for wisdom, courage, and compassion. When we expand our sense of self from the “small me” to the “greater me,” we can unlock this potential and create tremendous value in our daily lives. By mastering the negative tendencies of anger and selfishness and bringing forth these positive attributes, we generate the power to overcome all kinds of difficulties and ultimately make our lives happy and worthwhile.4 The basic practice of Soka Gakkai members, whether they are in Tokyo or Toronto is based on the three principles of “faith, practice and study.” Faith entails chanting Nam-myoho-rege-kyo daily and reciting gongyo (the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” chapters of the Lotus Sutra). The duration of chanting depends on the individual member; typically one will start off rather minimally (5 to 10 minutes morning and evening), but long-term practitioners frequently chant for at least a half-hour or hour morning and evening. Some members on occasion will chant daimoku toso (“chanting struggle”), which is extended chanting over several hours in a single day. Practice involves chanting as described above, plus participation in member events and sharing practice with others. Study is the dedication of one’s time to the reading of major Buddhist doctrines, most important among them the collected writings of Nichiren, called Gosho. Additional reading materials include the Lotus Sutra, the writings of current spiritual leader Ikeda Daisaku (1928---) and other writers and scholars of the Lotus Sutra and of Nichiren Buddhism.
Brief History of Soka Gakkai
Makiguch Tsunesaburo (1871-1944), a Japanese educator and devout lay practitioner of Nichiren Shoshu (“True Sect of Nichiren”), founded Soka Gakkai in 1930 as a support group to promote his ideas for educational reforms in Japan.5 However, by the late 1930s he and his young disciple Toda Josei (1900-1958), also a teacher, had changed the focus of their group towards religion and had transformed their organization into a lay support group for Nichiren Shoshu. Makiguchi and Toda were imprisoned in 1943 when they refused government demands that they fuse their religious organization with other Buddhist sects and that they incorporate elements of State Shinto into their worship. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944, but Toda, released in 1945, rebuilt Soka Gakkai into a major religious movement in the 1950s. Toda’s successor, Ikeda Daisaku, expanded the Soka Gakkai in Japan and played a key role in the organization’s expansion abroad starting in the 1960s.
Soka Gakkai grew rapidly in the immediate postwar era because its leaders focused on Buddhist teachings that stressed the happiness of the self and others in one’s immediate environment. Happiness was understood in very concrete terms for millions of dispirited and hungry Japanese for whom food, health, finding a mate, and securing employment were of paramount interest. A key point in the Soka Gakkai’s organizational structure is dividing members into small sections in each region and encouraging weekly or monthly meetings for each group. Close interaction in each group fits Japan’s group-oriented mentality very well and was attractive to many individuals who came to major metropolitan areas from their rural homes in search of work and a new life. The very fact that Soka Gakkai offered new adherents a ready-made group they could join made the transition to urban life much easier.
The Soka Gakkai, like several other NRMs, became involved in Japanese electoral politics in the 1950s, successfully running independent candidates for local and national office. Soka Gakkai went one step further, however, in the 1960s when it formed its own political party, the Komeito. Since then the Komeito, now nominally an independent party supported by the Soka Gakkai, has grown to be the third largest party in Japan and joined the ruling Liberal Democrats in a coalition government from 1999 until their defeat in 2009. The Soka Gakkai in Japan remains politically active, but all of its international chapters have always been forbidden to engage in political action of any kind.
Throughout its early postwar history, Soka Gakkai remained a nominal lay support organization for Nichiren Shoshu, but various problems began creating a schism between the two organizations in the 1970s and a nasty divorce in the early 1990s. Soka Gakkai’s vast membership, its independent leadership, and its involvement in politics was too much for the small conservative Buddhist sect. Today Soka Gakkai is an independent lay Buddhist movement dedicated to the propagation of its own version of Nichiren Buddhism.
Criticism of Soka Gakkai and its Legacy
The huge growth and power of the Soka Gakkai has drawn harsh criticism over the years. Some critics maintain that the organization is cult-like in its emphasis on one's dependence on the organization of SGI for one's spiritual advancement and for its praise and adulation of its leader, Ikeda Daisaku. Others maintain that its leaders use religion as a guise to achieve power and wealth and that it is not a religious organization at all. They denounce the fact that Soka Gakkai is also a highly successful political movement and that it has grossly crossed the line separating politics and religion. The Gakkai’s aggressive form of proselytization during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s also became a matter of public concern not only in Japan, but in North America as well.
A common definition of a cult is a religion or religious group or organization viewed by society generally to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. Critics correctly point to the power and adulation in the Soka Gakkai media to the accomplishments, spiritual qualities, and impressive leadership of Ikeda Daisaku. He is praised as a man advancing education, international peace, and the social welfare of the common man. Writings by Ikeda (or by ghost writers and attributed to Ikeda) are seen as central readings.
While it is true that Soka Gakkai members across the globe have a great deal of affection and respect for Ikeda, I have told my Soka Gakkai contacts on many occasions that the huge presence of Ikeda in its media gives the impression that the organization is little more than a personality cult. I have urged that far less attention be given to Ikeda and that there be more emphasis on the lives and work of other leaders and members. On the other hand, it is misleading to call the Gakkai a cult. Its teachings are based on its interpretation of a very traditional form of Japanese Buddhism that is very mainstream. Soka Gakkai members in Japan, Canada and elsewhere lead very conventional lives, devoting only a small percentage of their time to organizational activities.
The Soka Gakkai practiced a very aggressive form of proselytization called ‘shakubuku’ during the 1960s and 1970s where they used intense forms of pressure to gain new members and to force them to abandon their traditional forms and articles of worship. These practices contributed to their rapid growth, but alienated many in Japanese society who decried such confrontational methods. There have even been accusations of “brain washing” of new members. The Gakkai’s emphasis on exclusivity was seen by some as an anomaly by many religious leaders and groups in Japan. This criticism has declined considerably since the 1970s when the Soka Gakkai itself abandoned aggressive “shakubuku” and began using gentler, less aggressive methods of recruiting new members and became much more “mainstream” in its recruitment and organizational practices.
The Soka Gakkai’s huge wealth and political power in Japan alarms critics who feel Soka Gakkai leaders use religion to gain power and financial gain. There have been accusations, on occasion quite legitimate, of political and financial corruption among the higher echelons of Gakkai leadership. The Soka Gakkai counters that it uses its political power to enable it to actualize aspects of its social agenda. For example, it promotes itself as a movement fostering world peace and points to its successful efforts to protect Article Nine of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” which prohibits rearmament. Nevertheless, the Soka Gakkai’s active participation in Japanese politics will continue to raise controversy as long as these practices continue. On the other hand, the Soka Gakkai’s prohibition of any direct political involvement abroad has made it far less controversial in other lands.
In contemporary Japan the SGI is has become much more of a mainstream lay Buddhist organization with a large international presence. It began as a very aggressive, exclusivist and in some respects extremist movement that very justifiably alarmed many nom-members, but today the Soka Gakkai has learned from its mistakes and has evolved into a far mellower and non-confrontational organization that is much more open to criticism and is willing to work with other mainstream elements not only in Japan, but in North America and elsewhere as well.
The Soka Gakkai’s Global Expansion
One of the most interesting developments in the history of Japan’s postwar NRMs has been the widespread diaspora of several of these movements6 to foreign lands. They have achieved their greatest successes in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Peru and the United States, but they also have a notable presence in Canada, Britain, Western Europe, parts of Africa and Oceania. Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which started its international activities in 1960 in the United States and Canada, has been by the most successful of these movements abroad.
Professor Shimazono Susumu of Tokyo University has suggested several reasons for the success of Japanese NRMs abroad:
One of the common characteristics of the New Religions is their response to strongly felt needs of individuals in their daily lives, their solutions to discord in interpersonal relations, their practical teachings that offer concrete solutions for carrying on a stable social life, and their provision, to individuals who have been cut off from traditional communities, of a place where congenial company and a spirit of mutual support may be found. As capitalistic industrialization and urbanization advance, large numbers of individuals are thrown into new living environments, thus providing conditions that require spiritual support for the individual. . . . Japanese religions are abundantly equipped with cultural resources that answer the needs of just these people in treading the path towards the urban middle class.7
The Soka Gakkai is very unusual in that of the many new forms of Buddhism now found in the West, it alone breaks the “Two Buddhisms” paradigm – the idea that there are two distinct groups who join Buddhist groups or become Buddhists—ethnic Asians living in the West and Westerners who are attracted for a variety of reasons. The Soka Gakkai stands out because it is strikingly multi-ethnic and has had success in many parts of the world among native populations including such places as Korea, Malaysia, Brazil, Europe, parts of Africa, India and North America. SGI is unique because it is able to bring a variety of ethnic groups together to practice.
Peter Clark suggests several reasons SGI has been especially successful in attracting a multiethnic following. SGI in particular has succeeded in developing a strong following in many countries because “though a very Japanese form of Buddhism, it appears capable of universal application; no one is obliged to abandon their native culture or nationality in order to fully participate in the spiritual and cultural life of the movement.”8 Soka Gakkai leaders, while maintaining the essential elements of their faith, have released their form of Buddhism from its inherently Japanese roots by skillfully adapting their religious practices to each culture that they seek to penetrate. They recruit local leaders who direct the foreign chapter free of any direct control from Tokyo, conduct all religious exercises and publish all documents in the native languages, and emphasize those traits that are important to the host culture. Clarke, for example, notes that SGI practices in the United States that appeal to many American members are “the absence of moralizing, the stress on individual choice, and the need to take responsibility for one’s own actions.”9 SGI appeals to ethnic Chinese in SE Asia and North America because of its emphasis on individual self-empowerment—the idea that each person is responsible for his/her own happiness and success.
Soka Gakkai has adapted itself to each cultural context in which it finds itself, one key to its success. At the same time it has particular characteristics that make it attractive to potential converts. This is despite much anti-Japanese prejudice left over from World War II in some of these areas. For many countries with a Buddhist tradition, Soka Gakkai's presentation of Nichiren Buddhism is not only comfortable but also potentially life transforming because it offers a new approach to that ancient faith. SGI members in these countries maintained that SGI's emphasis on individual responsibility and initiative, together with the organization's ability to provide them with a strong sense of optimism and a community of believers and supporters made membership in the organization very appealing. As in the United States, the founding members of Soka Gakkai in Southeast Asia were older women, but the membership has become younger as rapid social and economic changes have made this movement, with the characteristics noted above, attractive to a wider circle of people.
Cultural adaptation of a non-indigenous religion in an alien culture is a very complex but necessary step if that religion is to survive in a new habitat. Much of the Soka Gakkai’s success in foreign cultures is due to its ability to find a balanced method of adaptation. The human problems addressed by SGI and its solutions are universal in their scope and are not attached to any one culture or nationality. SGI is also very adept at bringing people together in small distinct groups that work together on a frequent basis. A large number of SGI members I have interviewed in Canada, SE Asia and elsewhere state that the social bonds made possible through SGI are an important factor in their joining and staying in SGI.
SGI chapters throughout the world pay strict attention to the teachings of the Soka Gakkai in Japan. Religious doctrines espoused by the faithful in Tokyo and Osaka are identical to those pursued in Hong Kong or Toronto. Religious tracts produced in and transmitted from Tokyo are read and studied by followers everywhere. Spiritual leader Ikeda Daisaku is revered and studied in every Gakkai chapter I have visited from Montreal to Singapore. This dramatic respect and loyalty to Ikeda plays an important role in uniting the Soka Gakkai worldwide.
National SGI chapters, however, are autonomous on an organizational level. They are run and manned by local nationals and all business is conducted in the local language. Meetings in Quebec, for example, are in both English and French. National Chapters make their own decisions, generally raise their own funds, and choose their own leaders. Links with Tokyo are generally informational. Strong efforts are made to show the community that the SGI follows the culture and customs of its host nation. Its international success also stems from the fact that it does not promote itself or its doctrines as being inherently Japanese, emphasizing instead a form of Buddhism that, though founded in Japan, is applicable to everyone everywhere.
My research on SGI members in Canada, the United States, and throughout SE Asia and Australia indicates that Soka Gakkai attracts followers outside of Japan because it offers a strong message of peace, happiness, success, and self-empowerment. The hundreds of members interviewed by this writer generally perceive that the Buddhism espoused by Soka Gakkai gives them some degree of influence over their personal environments, that through their hard work and devout practice they can overcome their suffering and find happiness here and now. They also find great satisfaction and a sense of community by joining with other people who follow the same faith. The practices of small groups of members meeting regularly to chant, discuss personal and mutual concerns, and socialize as close friends are important social reasons for the success of Soka Gakkai not only in Japan but abroad as well.10 Many of the younger SGI members in these countries are also very well educated. There seems to exist a strong affinity between a religious dogma that emphasizes “mental work” (attitudes and individual focus) who have to work very hard to attain their educational credentials. This phenomenon may explain why this form of Buddhism is attractive to this particular social stratum and also helps to address why Soka Gakkai’s Japanese origin does not seem to matter much to these non-Japanese converts. As Wilson and Dobbelaere and Hammond and Machacek found in their research in Britain and the United States, and as I discovered among a largely Chinese ethnic SGI following in Southeast Asia, the ethic of individual success and self-determination has a certain affinity with the experiences of white-collar professionals.
SGI’s international success also stems from the fact that it does not promote itself or its doctrines as being inherently Japanese, emphasizing instead a form of Buddhism, though founded in Japan, which they believe is applicable to everyone everywhere. There are elements, however, which unite the faith. Spiritual leader Ikeda Daisaku is revered by members everywhere. This dramatic respect and loyalty to the aging Ikeda plays a vital role in uniting the Soka Gakkai worldwide.