Soka Gakkai International (創価学会インターナショナル; also, SGI) is the international umbrella organization for Soka Gakkai-affiliated lay organizations in over 190 countries. SGI has over 12 million members, who practice Soka Gakkai’s particular form of Nichiren Buddhism. SGI’s Japan-based parent, Soka Gakkai, was formed in 1930 and is closely associated with the New Komeito, an influential Japanese political party. SGI itself was founded in 1975 and characterizes itself and its constituent organizations as a support network for practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism. SGI members, seeking to change society for the better by applying their religious beliefs to daily life, are actively engaged in numerous community-based programs to promote cultural exchange and understanding among peoples as well as activities to propagate the Buddhism their practice.
Critics cite overzealous propagation efforts, harassment of persons who leave the organization, and overdone aggrandizement of the SGI leadership as negative aspects of school. The organizations have been collectively or individually criticized at by the media, intellectuals, and politicians in several countries and at various times for some of their actions and policies, and at least one European government has accused Soka Gakkai of engaging in cult-like practices.
Soka Gakkai was founded as the Sōka Kyōiku Gakkai (lit. “Value-Creation Education Society”) on November 18, 1930 by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and his colleague Josei Toda. Makiguchi sought to reform Japan’s militaristic education system into a more humanistic one that would support the full development and potential of Japan’s youth. His ideas on education, and his theory of value-creation (sōka), are explored in his 1930 work Sōka Kyōikugaku Taikei (The Theory of Value-Creating Pedagogy). In Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, he found a religious philosophy that reflected his educational theories, which led to the establishment of the Sōka Kyōiku Gakkai. Eventually, the focus of the organization began to shift, as Makiguchi came to the conclusion that the practice of Nichiren Shoshu itself could allow each individual develop the potential within, which he had hoped education alone would achieve. However, Makiguchi and Toda’s thinking was in direct conflict with the goals of the state. When the Japanese government more rigorously enforced Shinto’s position as the state religion (State Shinto) with the enactment of the Religious Organizations Law of 1939, a move designed to impose stricter governmental controls over religions (Engaged Buddhism, p. 383), and began to demand that all citizens enshrine Shinto talismans in their homes (Buddhism in the Modern World, p. 204). Makiguchi, Toda, and 18 other Sōka Kyōiku Gakkai members resisted, refusing the talismans. For refusing to cooperate with the Japanese militarist government by compromising their religious beliefs, the two educators were sent to prison. Makiguchi died there at age 72; Toda was later released and, after World War II, re-built the organization, renaming it Sōka Gakkai to reflect the extension of its membership beyond educators only. Over the years, the Soka Gakkai experienced a period of rapid growth in Japan. An organization, Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA, later also called Nichiren Shoshu Academy, Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America, and finally Soka Gakkai International – USA) was formally organized in the United States on October 13, 1960. Today, Soka Gakkai International and Nichiren Shoshu have parted ways. SGI now has a membership of anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 practitioners in the United States (Barrett, p. 303). Soka Gakkai International (SGI) was founded in 1975 as the International Buddhist League to act as the international leadership of national Soka Gakkai organizations.
From the 13th Century until the 20th Century, Nichiren Buddhism was practiced almost exclusively in Japan. Soka Gakkai emerged as the largest lay organization of Nichiren Buddhist practitioners and today, Soka Gakkai membership accounts for nearly 10 percent of Japan’s population (Engaged Buddhism, p. 386).
When religious freedom took hold in Japan following World War II, Soka Gakkai began to spread Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, initially across the country, then eventually across the globe, as practitioners relocated from Japan and as non-Japanese practitioners returned to their home countries, taking the practice with them. In response, Soka Gakkai began to develop a program of international outreach to help support these members, as it had been supporting members in Japan. In 1960, Daisaku Ikeda, then third president of Soka Gakkai, made a journey that took him from Japan to the United States, Brazil and Canada. During this trip he met practitioners in each of these countries and began laying the foundation for what would later become Soka Gakkai International. In 1975, SGI was formally founded, with Daisaku Ikeda as its president. Since then, constituent organizations have been formed in 79 of the 190 countries where there were practitioners.
Since SGI was initially affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu, this is the school continues to be associated with SGI. However, SGI and Nichiren Shoshu are becoming more and more distinct. SGI’s primary purpose is to provide a supporting organization for its practitioners. On its website, SGI defines its purpose as follows:
For SGI members, Buddhism is a practical philosophy of individual empowerment and inner transformation that enables people to develop themselves and take responsibility for their lives. As lay believers and engaged Buddhists, SGI members strive in their everyday lives to develop the ability to live with confidence, to create value in any circumstances and to contribute to the well-being of friends, family and community. The promotion of peace, culture and education is central to SGI’s activities.
SGI has been guided by Daisaku Ikeda since the death of Second President Josei Toda in 1958. A disciple of President Toda, Ikeda succeeded him in 1960 as Soka Gakkai president and became president of the larger Soka Gakkai International upon its creation in 1975. Ikeda is, however, a controversial figure in Japan. For example, when he challenged the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood on doctrinal grounds, his challenge was considered to be an act of heresy, particularly by a priesthood that viewed and asserted itself as the ultimate authority in Nichiren Shoshu doctrine. As a consequence, he stepped down as Soka Gakkai president in November 1979. According to Nichiren Shoshu followers, he did so to apologize for his organization’s deviations from Nichiren Shoshu doctrine, by which, they claim, Soka Gakkai was bound at the time to observe by its rules of incorporation. Others suggest that it was the action of a man who did not want to be responsible for creating a rift among the practitioners. Regardless of the rationale, however, a division between the followers of Nichiren Shoshu, and those who aligned themselves with Ikeda’s positions, did occur, and continues to be a source of controversy and disagreement amongst practitioners. Shortly after he stepped down, he became honorary chairman of Soka Gakkai in part as a response to Soka Gakkai members’ dissatisfaction with his vacating of the presidency. As of December 2005 Ikeda remains honorary chairman of Soka Gakkai and president of SGI. The current official leader of the organization is Einosuke Akiya.
Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282), was a Japanese Buddhist sage who, having studied the entirety of Shakyamuni’s teachings, and the commentaries of the leading Buddhist scholars of the day, proclaimed that the Lotus Sutra was Shakyamuni Buddha’s ultimate teachings and that, in Shakyamuni’s own words, it was the one true teaching. Nichiren declared that the title of the Lotus Sutra, Myoho-Renge-Kyo, crystallized the essence of the sutra and that therefore the invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo enabled a practitioner to embrace the entirety of the teaching and to thereby manifest the life-condition of Buddhahood. Shakyamuni had revealed in the Lotus Sutra that every individual possesses this life-condition, albeit as a latent Buddha nature. Nichiren Daishonin taught that the essence of the Lotus Sutra was that all men and women, regardless of social class, are inherently endowed with this Buddha nature and could therefore attain Buddhahood. In Japanese, Nichiren Daishonin is written 日蓮大聖人. “Nichiren” is a name he chose for himself when he embarked on spreading his teaching on April 28, 1253. It literally means “Sun Lotus”. The word “Daishonin” is an honorific title meaning “great holy man” for he is believed to be the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.
Nichiren taught that by chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to the Gohonzon (御本尊)—a mandala he inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters representing the enlightened life of the True Buddha—anyone can bring forth her or his inherent Buddha nature and become enlightened. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism taught that Buddhahood is not a static state of being, but exists in mutual possession of other states of being (referred to as the Ten Worlds). This concept is better known as ichinen sanzen, the Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life. Therefore, practitioners believe that Buddhism must be practiced not in a spiritual land or a mystic state, but in each person’s daily life. This is experienced as the result of continuous effort to engage one’s highest life condition, or Buddha nature, to overcome the inevitable obstacles and struggles we all face. In so doing, one establishes an unshakeable state of happiness characterized by peace, wisdom, and compassion, and this ultimately permeates every aspect of one’s life. In accord with the Buddhist concept of esho funi, the oneness of person and environment, each individual has the power to then positively affect the environment around him or her. SGI practitioners call this process a “human revolution.” Nichiren Daishonin argued that when and if human beings fully embraced his teachings, the peace they would develop within would eventually be reflected in the environment as peace in society at large.
The basic practice of SGI members is based on faith, practice, and study. Faith entails chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo daily and reciting gongyo (the Expedient Means and Life Span Chapters of the Lotus Sutra), which takes about 5 minutes. Practice involves chanting as described above, plus participation in the community and sharing Buddhist practice with others. Study is the dedication of some part of ones life to the reading of important Buddhist teachings, most important among them the study of the collected writings of Nichiren Daishonin, called gosho. Many gosho have recently been compiled in a single English volume titled The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. These translations are based on a Japanese volume called Nichiren Daishonin Gosho Zenshu (The complete works of Nichiren Daishonin), which was compiled by 59th Nichiren Shoshu High Priest Nichiko Hori and published by Soka Gakkai in 1952. Translations are available in, or are being undertaken into, other languages as well. Additional reading materials include the Lotus Sutra, the writings of Daisaku Ikeda and other writers and scholars of the Lotus Sutra and of Nichiren Buddhism. The weekly newspaper The World Tribune and the monthly Buddhist journal Living Buddhism provide inspiration, encouragement, and informative articles geared to deepen readers’ understanding of Nichiren Buddhist concepts and practices.
Followers of Soka Gakkai and SGI believe that chanting energizes and refreshes the practitioner both spiritually and mentally, leaving him or her happier, wiser, more compassionate, more productive, and more prosperous in all areas of their lives. Chanting is also believed to have a positive impact on the world at large, for as each individual develops him- or herself, he or she becomes a happier, more productive, more compassionate and wiser person, and this in turn will affect the lives of others as well.
Soka Gakkai and SGI’s other constituent organizations hold regular grassroots gatherings known as discussion meetings. Available on a monthly basis, they are usually held in members’ homes. Important events, monthly World Peace Prayers (Kosen Rufu Gongyo), commemorative meetings, and monthly study meetings are usually held in SGI community centers (larger centers are usually called culture centers).
Soka Gakkai’s official charter is as follows:
Purposes and Principles
- SGI shall contribute to peace, culture and education for the happiness and welfare of all humanity based on Buddhist respect for the sanctity of life.
- SGI, based on the ideal of world citizenship, shall safeguard fundamental human rights and not discriminate against any individual on any grounds.
- SGI shall respect and protect the freedom of religion and religious expression.
- SGI shall promote an understanding of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism through grass-roots exchange, thereby contributing to individual happiness.
- SGI shall, through its constituent organizations, encourage its members to contribute toward the prosperity of their respective societies as good citizens.
- SGI shall respect the independence and autonomy of its constituent organizations in accordance with the conditions prevailing in each country.
- SGI shall, based on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, respect other religions, engage in dialogue and work together with them toward the resolution of fundamental issues concerning humanity.
- SGI shall respect cultural diversity and promote cultural exchange, thereby creating an international society of mutual understanding and harmony.
- SGI shall promote, based on the Buddhist ideal of symbiosis, the protection of nature and the environment.
- SGI shall contribute to the promotion of education, in pursuit of truth as well as the development of scholarship, to enable all people to cultivate their individual character and enjoy fulfilling and happy lives.
In spite of their declared mission for peace, culture and education, the SGI and Soka Gakkai are also a focus of criticism and controversy. Soka Gakkai, the Japanese organization, has a reputation for involvement in Japan’s political arena. Though officially the two are separate, it is closely affiliated with the New Clean Government Party (also known as the New Komeito Party), a major political party in Japan. Though SGI and New Komeito both publicly deny any relationship, and declare that they are separate organizations, accusations that Soka Gakkai in effect controls New Komeito persist and the public perception remains strong.
Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International are perceived by some critics to be a cult or a cult-like group. Their concerns are that Soka Gakkai places an emphasis on recruitment, that it demonizes perceived opponents, and that it uses phobia indoctrination and peer pressure. Some critics also assert that the organization emphasizes dependence on the organization for spiritual advancement. Another point of contention concerns SGI’s application of the mentor–disciple concept.
According to SGI, the mentor-and-disciple relationship is a very important aspect of living a full life, for every human being; detractors see SGI’s version of the mentor–disciple relationship as a cult of personality for its intense focus on SGI President Ikeda. SGI defenders argue that in most cultures, and for most human beings, the idea of looking to those who have come before us, and finding a person who one can feel a kinship with, that one may look to as an example for how to live one’s life, for guidance, encouragement, and support, is a common part of human development, and that there establishing a lasting relationship with such an individual is an important part of life.
SGI members attribute this view to the mentor–disciple relationship of Nichiren Buddhism, which they describe as the central pillar upon which the practice and the organization have developed: Shakyamuni was the mentor to Nichiren; Nichiren, the mentor to his disciples; and they, mentors to future practitioners. Makiguchi took Nichiren as a mentor in his life, while Toda took Makiguchi as his. Ikeda continued the tradition with Toda as his mentor, and now members throughout the world have chosen Ikeda, along with Toda, Makiguchi, Nichiren, and Shakyamuni, to be their mentors.
To those suspicious of Ikeda and SGI, this relationship is viewed as symptomatic of a cult of personality. Critics also question the authority and authenticity of Ikeda’s writings. The use of the familial term sensei (“teacher”) to refer to Ikeda is looked upon with suspicion and considered to be symbolic and further evidence of a cult of personality focused on Ikeda. Many Nichiren Buddhists, SGI members, and non-practicing people around the world view Ikeda and his life as a great example of how to use the practice in their own lives. He is viewed as an inspiration and an example of the power of one person to have a substantial positive effect on our world. For many members, Ikeda, as well as Shakyamuni, Nichiren, Makiguchi, Toda, and a host of other like minded philosophers, and thinkers around the world, are taken as models for how one may build their own lives around ideas of peace, culture, and education, and within all levels of their lives—family, work, friends, and society at large.
Critics of SGI and Ikeda are suspicious of the way he is considered by members to be a living embodiment of the power of the practice of SGI Buddhism. They assert that members are pressured to view Ikeda as their mentor in life. They are also suspicious and distrustful of the idea of mentor-disciple relationships, and question the motivation behind SGI’s application of the concept.
There is controversy about the degree of religious tolerance practiced by Soka Gakkai members. Official materials state all other religions, including other Buddhist denominations, are viewed as valuable in as much as they are able to support the happiness, empowerment, and development of all people. Religious tolerance and a deep respect for culture are strongly emphasized in the organization. (See the .)
Furthermore, the Soka Gakkai has maintained a position in support of religious freedom, based on the firm understanding that it is absolutely necessary for each individual to have the freedom and the ability to engage in his or her own spiritual quest in order to develop spiritual maturity—both within the individual, and within society. Without religious freedom, human beings—and consequently the religious institutions that serve them—are denied and restricted in their own spiritual development. For example, one may point to the evolution in thinking within various religious institutions as indicative of spiritual evolution at the societal level. Nichiren Buddhism is a humanistic religion, based on Lotus Sutra, which espouses that every human being has the potential for enlightenment, regardless of race, ethnicity, social or economic status, sexual orientation, gender, or any other distinction. Over the years, in pluralistic societies with religious freedom, we can see that other religions have grown to become more humanistic in their approach as well.
On the other hand, in nations in which there is little religious freedom, one can see stagnation in individual spiritual development, as well as the stifling of religious institutional development. This leads to a spiritual stagnation of the society as a whole. Clearly, religious freedom is a necessary condition for spiritual evolution. While Nichiren Buddhists and SGI maintain that the end result of such a spiritual quest will eventually lead to spiritual practices which are in accord with the Lotus Sutra, they are not in favor of forcing the religion on anyone.
SGI members attribute the criticism of intolerance to a misunderstanding of one of Nichiren Daishonin’s most important treatises, the (“On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”).
Written by Nichiren Daishonin in 13th-century Japan, the document argued doctrine with other Buddhist leaders of the time. His thesis was that if they professed to follow the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, they must also consider and adhere to his admonitions from his ultimate teaching, the Lotus Sutra. He called their attention to Shakyamuni’s admonitions and remonstrated with them, pleading that they consider the teaching and reform their way of practice to reflect Shakyamuni’s original intent. Contrary to the perception of many critics, Nichiren did not call for an end to other religions with the replacement of his own; he sought for other schools to re-examine their own practices in light of Shakyamuni’s the Lotus Sutra and to bring their practices into accord with it.
In this treatise, Nichiren Daishonin argues that the government and religious institutions of the day had become corrupt and were failing to uphold the essential teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha through their failure to support the development of the people. In this way they were, in Buddhist terms, creating bad karma that was causing the country and the people to suffer. Observing the conditions of his day, a time in medieval Japan filled with all manner of environmental disasters, war, and disease—conditions described in the Lotus Sutra—he concluded that unless these institutions reformed, they and the country would continue to endure all manner of calamity and suffering.
This was a bold statement that earned him the wrath of many religious and governmental authorities. SGI argues that his goal was not the abolishment of other religions, but rather an urgent appeal for religious and governmental authorities to “clean up their act.”
The fundamental practice of Soka Gakkai and SGI members is derived from Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a form of Nichiren Buddhism. However, due to a number of ongoing issues and disputes that existed between the current high priest and the leadership of Soka Gakkai, Nichiren Shoshu’s high priest excommunicated Soka Gakkai and SGI, and later SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in 1992. At that time, Soka Gakkai was a lay organization closely affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu.
The conflict from which this move stemmed had been growing throughout the late 1980s and especially during 1990, but its roots can be traced back to the very beginning of their relationship, in the 1930s. A turning point seems to have centered around the early 1970s when the Shōhondō (“Grand Main Hall”), a building in the Nichiren Shoshu Head Temple Taiseki-ji) compound, was being erected at the request of then-Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda, and with the financial support of Soka Gakkai and SGI membership. The priesthood felt that Soka Gakkai had begun deviating from Nichiren Shoshu teachings and began to admonish its leaders to uphold the school’s doctrines and practices in matters of faith. The priesthood believed that Soka Gakkai was trying to gain effective control over the priesthood, and rising friction and resentment on both sides came to a peak in the late 1970s. To some, the split seemed imminent.
From the perspective of the priesthood and its supporters, it appeared that most of the Soka Gakkai membership was ready to side with the priesthood, and they attribute to this the Soka Gakkai leadership’s eventual backing down and apologizing to the priesthood and a subsequent vow to never again deviate from Nichiren Shoshu teachings. This took place at a leaders meeting at Taiseki-ji on November 7, 1978. On April 24, 1979, Ikeda stepped down as Soka Gakkai president to take responsibility, and the high priest (66th High Priest Nittatsu) decided to give the organization a chance to redeem itself.
From then on, Soka Gakkai officially upheld its promises, but it is said that in private, debate continued amongst members. There are said to have been frequent criticisms of the priesthood and followers of the priesthood were said to have been discouraged from associating with the temples. From the perspective of the priesthood, towards the end of 1990, Soka Gakkai’s leadership again displayed open hostility towards the priesthood. This is said to have led to a heated exchange of documents demanding clarification of the other party’s intentions. At the end of 1990, and effective from January 1, 1991, the priesthood stripped all top lay leaders, including Ikeda, of their leadership positions in the direct Nichiren Shoshu lay hierarchy; the move seems to have been meant to be a warning that Nichiren Shoshu was serious.
The priesthood frequently reminded Soka Gakkai leaders of their earlier promises and urged them to cease from challenging the role of the priesthood, but, according to Nichiren Shoshu reports, Soka Gakkai leaders continued to ratchet up their rhetoric, and the priesthood responded in kind. Each party blamed the other as initiator of the attacks. A final warning from the priesthood came in October 1991, but was rejected. It was followed by a public document on November 7 urging Soka Gakkai to voluntarily disband. Finally, on November 28, 1979, Nichiren Shoshu declared that it was dissociating itself from the Soka Gakkai and SGI organizations, effectively excommunicating the Soka Gakkai and SGI. Soka Gakkai Honorary Chairman and SGI President Ikeda was first personally excommunicated (removed from the Nichiren Shoshu believers roster) on August 11, 1992.
The ensuing years were marked by internal efforts to dissuade Soka Gakkai members from joining the temples, attempts to tempt Soka Gakkai members to join the temples, and counter-attempts to get those who did to leave. Numerous lawsuits have been filed by both parties charging everything from sexual improprieties to defamation of character and demanding everything from the return of previously made donations to apologies. As of November 2005, 172 lawsuits have closed and five are still in the courts.
In 1999, High Priest Nikken had the Shōhondō (“Grand Main Hall”) demolished on the ground that it had been built and donated for what he termed ulterior motives instead of as an expression of faith, and he had it replaced with a building that the priesthood felt was more in line with its interpretation of its significance. Other ferroconcrete temple buildings that had been partially or wholly built and donated by Soka Gakkai, foremost among them the Grand Reception Hall, were also replaced with ones of more traditional design. And a large number of sakura (cherry blossom) trees, also donated by Soka Gakkai members, were also cut down to make way for an open plaza.
Soka Gakkai and SGI are now separate organizations, totally independent of Nichiren Shoshu.
- Buddhism in America. Richard Hughes Seager. Columbia University Press, 2000
- Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition Steven Heine, Charles S Prebish. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- “The Soka Gakkai: Buddhism and the Creation of a Harmonious and Peaceful Society” by Daniel A. Metraux in Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, eds. SUNY Press, 1996.
- The Faces of Buddhism in America. Charles S Prebish, Kenneth K Tanaka, eds. University of California Press, 1998.
- The New Believers: A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions. David V Barrett. Octopus Publishing Group, 2003
The Soka Gakkai Revolution by Daniel A. Metraux (University Press of America, 1994)The Lotus and the Maple Leaf: The Soka Gakkai in Canada by Daniel A. Metraux (University Press of America, 1996)
- “Cults in France: Report Made in the Name of the Board of Inquiry into Cults” (December 22, 1995) Translation donated by Ginny Tosken. Edited by D. A. Reed
(Section on Criticism)
- Time Magazine, November 20, 1995
- BBC News report, June 22, 2000
- San Francisco Chronical, December 27, 1995
(Section on Excommunication)
- Shoshū Hashaku Guide (Jp: 諸宗破折ガイド: Guide to refuting other schools). Taiseki-ji, 2003 (no ISBN); pp. 160–164.
- “Religious Battle Taking Shape in Foothills of Mt. Fuji Japan: The Buddhist order of Nichiren Shoshu has expelled its lay organization, Soka Gakkai. Political fallout is probable.” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1991