As I’ve said in previous posts, two of the new House Democrats are Buddhists — the first Buddhists ever elected to the U.S. Senate. One of the two, Maizie Hirono of Hawaii, is discssed here. Now let’s crash ahead to the other Buddhist congressperson, who is Hank Johnson of Georgia. Yes, Georgia.
Johnson’s bio says he is a graduate of Texas Southern Universityâ€™s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and practiced law for 25 years. You might remember that Johnson defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Dem House primaries, so he’ll be taking over her seat. Like Maizie Hirono, Johnson didn’t make a big deal about his religious preferences during his campaign, but Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News Service reports that “A spokesman for Johnson would only confirm that he became a Buddhist some 30 years ago and is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International.”
Soka Gakkai International is a lay Buddhist organization with a proclivity for controversy. It has been accused of being a cult, although I don’t believe it is for reasons discussed below. However, I fear that as soon as Rep. Johnson does anything to draw the attention of the Right he’s going to be smeared as a cult follower. Forewarned is forearmed.
Soka Gakkai (literally, “Society for the Creation of Value”) of Japan was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and educator and follower of the Nichiren school of Buddhism, which I’ll explain in a minute. Makiguchi soon found himself at odds with the militaristic warlords who took control of the Japanese government in the 1930s. SGI literature claims that Makiguchi and his close associate Josei Toda (1900-1958) drew the wrath of the Hideki Tojo administration becase they opposed the war, but other sources say the real issue was that they would not honor Shinto as the official state religion. For whatever reason, the two men were arrested as “thought criminals” in 1943. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944. After the war and his release from prison, Toda rebuilt Soka Gakkai as a lay affiliate of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and through it promoted a program of self-empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.
Daisaku Ikeda, then 32 years old, became president of Soka Gakkai in 1960. After that, the story gets weird.
Under Ikeda’s leadership Soka Gakkai began to act less like a benevolent Buddhist lay organization and more, some say, like a cult. In the 1970s SGI began to employ aggressive proselytizing tactics — proselytizing generally is frowned upon in Buddhism — and developed an intolerance of criticism. In 1975 Ikeda expanded the organization to become Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which has affiliate organizations in 120 countries with an estimated membership of 1.26 million.
I understand there may have been some Soka Gakkai chapters in America since the end of World War II, and the organization had some supporters within the 1960s counterculture. But in the 1970s and 1980s SGI — then called Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) — grew rapidly in the U.S. through well-funded and aggressive recruitment. For a time it looked as if Ikeda was trying to copy some of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s tactics by co-opting American patriotic symbolism to establish itself as a respectable “American” organization. For example, according to Daniel Golden of the Boston Globe (October 15, 1989),
NSA literature displays congratulatory letters from then-Vice President George Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mayor Raymond Flynn, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, among other potentates, and Sen. John Kerry was a featured speaker at NSA’s convention in New York City in 1986.
NSA 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.
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 SGI. Other celebrity members included “Dallas” TV star Patrick Duffy, who sometime in the 1980s was quoted in a magazine interview (TV Guide, I think) saying that Buddhism was a religion in which people chant to get what they want. This quote detonated in the North American dharmakaya like a bombshell. What Mr. Duffy said was analogous to claiming that the central purpose of Catholicism was helping women get abortions. That, combined with the Nichiren school’s intolerance of other forms of Buddhism, created some tension in the American Buddhist asangha between SGI and everybody else.
At this point in the story I must explain Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (1222â€“1282) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who concluded that faith in the Lotus Sutra was the only means of salvation. The Lotus Sutra (a.k.a. the Saddharmapundarika-sutra — I just love those old Sanskrit titles) is a perfectly lovely sutra respected by several sects, although it is not recognized as legitimate by all of them. The original Sanskrit text has been lost; the earliest version of it known to exist is a Chinese translation, ca. 225 CE. Like most of the Mahayana sutras, the author(s) and time of composition of the Lotus are unknown. The Lotus contains a number of parables that some suspect were influenced by Christian parables, which if true would mean it was probably written in the 1st century, but that’s speculation. Anyway, Nichiren fixated on the Lotus as the only sutra that counted. He taught his followers to not only study the Lotus Sutra but to venerate it through devotional practices, such as the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (yeah, that’s where that came from), which translates roughly as “turning the wheel of the Law.” Nichiren Buddhism is the only form of Buddhism I know of with the attitude that it is the only true Buddhism and all of the other sects are wrong.
The Rick A. Ross Institute maintains a web archive of articles about Soka Gakkai and its cultlike propensities. And I agree that many of these articles are alarming, such as this BBC transcript from 1995, and Daisaku Ikeda does come across as a scheming megalomaniac. Some believe Ikeda’s real goal has been to use Soka Gakkai as a vehicle for building a political power base in Japan.
But in the 1970s Ikeda and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood began to butt heads over who really was in control of the sect itself. In 1991 the priests decided it was him or them, so they excommunicated Ikeda and ordered him to disband Soka Gakkai (which he did not do). This meant that Soka Gakkai members were also excommunicated and cut off from the sumptuous temple near Mt. Fuji that their donations had helped to build.
After this the name of the American organization changed from Nichiren Shoshu of America to SGI-USA, and members were sent revisions to the liturgy. But the parent organization did not tell American members why this was happening at the time. I know this because at the time I was active in several Internet Buddhism forums, and the SGI members fell into disunion as word of the split spread among them. There was a great falling out; some stayed with SGI, some left SGI and joined Nichiren Shoshu, and some split from Buddhism altogether.
Compared to other forms of Buddhism, SGI-style Buddhism seems, um, odd. The business about chanting to receive material things, mentioned above, is difficult to reconcile with anything the historical Buddha — the guy who founded the religion — taught. The proselytizing and intolerance of other sects also set it apart. The Lotus Sutra’s place of honor is similar to that of the Bible among Christians, as revealed Truth, whereas other sects of Buddhism regard the sutras as useful guides to understanding but not as Enlightenment Itself in book form.
Yet in spite of these differences, long-time SGI members I have talked to have a remarkably conventional understanding of Buddhism. One SGI-er explained to me that what happens in practice is that, eventually, the desire for material things wears out and is replaced by an interest in the spiritual teachings of the Lotus Sutra (see the story about the student who fell in love with a mysterious lady in this post). Further, SGI members are not encouraged to distance themselves from non-SGI family and friends; nor are they told to stop pursuing individual careers or interests to work for the organization. So it it’s a cult, it’s a loose one. Most of the problems within SGI appear to have come about because of Daisaku Ikeda, who is elderly now and may not be in the picture much longer.
Beside Tina Turner and Patrick Duffy, other converts to SGI you may have heard of include Mariane Pearl (the widow of Daniel Pearl) and Orlando Bloom. A new Broadway pop musical praised by New York magazine, Spring Awakening, was written and composed by SGI followers Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (see sidebar at linked article).
So, although SGI and Nichiren Buddhism generally don’t appeal to me, I’m not concerned that it’s a cult. It may have been on the way to turning into one, but it seems to have pulled back from the edge.
Update: See also Mumon at DK.