Filed in Nichiren, Chanting

As American as Apple Pie?

An Insider's view of Nichiren ShoshuSandy McIntosh

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member



He himself had found real Buddhism, he told me. He was going to study with Trungpa Rinpoche. Had I heard of him? No, I told him, I hadn't. "He's a poet," A. said. "He's not shallow."

A. stayed with Trungpa until Trungpa's death in 1987, and then he proceeded to study with other Tibetan teachers. Despite my friend's counsel, I've continued with the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for more than twenty years.

Others who knew about my involvement with the movement have been harsher than A. The most telling criticisms came from those who practiced other varieties of Buddhism. They wondered where, in Soka Gakkai's visible and frenetic public display—its conventions and parades staged in major cities, its proselytizing groups gathered on street corners or swarming over college campuses—where was Buddhist dharma? Where was the contemplation, the dedication, the struggle for enlightenment, the evidence of responsibility to Buddhist practice that has characterized Buddhism for thousands of years? Where was anything of substance in what I was doing and advocating that others do?

People in the United States and Japan who join Soka Gakkai are not often the same kinds of people attracted to other forms of Buddhism. In the U.S., Soka Gakkai appeals to a spectrum of the population in diverse economic, racial, and cultural groups. Solid demographic and psychographic information is not available, but judging by articles in Soka Gakkai's American weekly newspaper, The World Tribune, today's American membership includes many people living in lower-income, inner-city areas such as Detroit and Watts, as well as middle-class people living in major cities and suburbs. (African-Americans make up an estimated twenty percent of the membership, a significantly larger proportion than can be found in other American Buddhist groups.) Few avant-garde artists, writers, or scholars of contemplative bent (those who seem drawn to other Buddhist groups) appear in news coverage. Meanwhile, the testimonials of famous Soka Gakkai members—including those of Patrick Swayze, Roseanne Arnold, Tina Turner, and Herbie Hancock and assorted sports figures—have made the practitioners known as Buddhists who chant for fame and fortune.

Most people assume that Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai are the same. They are not. Nichiren Shoshu is a religion, a sect of Buddhism. Soka Gakkai is a social, political, and cultural organization. Most Soka Gakkai members practice a version of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism regularly. Yet, although the religion owes its eight to ten million worldwide members and (apparently) uncountable wealth to the lay organization, the complex historical alliance between these affiliations has never been harmonious.

Nichiren Daishonin (Nichiren means "Sun Lotus," and Daishonin means "great sage"), the founder of the sect, was born in Japan in 1222. He began his career as a monk of the T'ien-t'ai sect of Mahayana Buddhism. The teachings of T'ient'ai are distinguished by their reverence for the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra in Sanskrit). T'ien-t'ai places this teaching text a bove all others because of its emphasis on the universality of Buddha-nature and the promise that everyone—men and women alike—may attain enlightenment in this life, "as one is."

AT ABOUT THE AGE of sixteen, Nichiren left his home province for Kamakura, Mount Hiei, and other centers of Buddhist learning. He spent several years studying the sutras and their commentaries as well as the teachings of different sects. In the end, he became convinced that Shakyamuni's teachings in the Lotus Sutra pointed to the Great Pure Law that could lead people directly to enlightenment. At the same time, he surmised that he had been entrusted with the task of propagating the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law, the time identified by the Daishutsu (Sutra of the Great Assembly) as beginning about two thousand years after the historical Buddha. In 1279, Nichiren inscribed the Dai-Gohonzon, a mandala that he declared to be the ultimate purpose of his advent in this world.

Until his death in 1282, Nichiren Daishonin wrote voluminous dissertations on the Lotus Sutra and correct practice. He debated, proselytized, remonstrated with the government, and underwent a series of government-ordered persecutions, including an attempted beheading that was thwarted only by the auspicious appearance of a comet. His prophecies of natural disaster and foreign invasion that Japan would undergo came true. "No matter what you might think of his convictions," I recall my Japanese history professor at Columbia telling our class, "his predictions were completely accurate."

After Nichiren's death, several sects of Nichiren Buddhism were founded by his disciples. By the second decade of this century, Nichiren Shoshu's membership had declined, leaving it one of the smallest of the five surviving Nichiren sects. It took the tremendous propagation efforts of Soka Gakkai to popularize it.

The original name for Soka Kyoiku-gakkai means "Value-Creation Education Society." The organization was founded in 1930 by a teacher and educational theorist named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, whose circle was educational, not religious, in nature, and the membership consisted mostly of schoolteachers.

Makiguchi became friends with a Nichiren Shoshu lay member and school principal. The evangelical Buddhist set out to convert Makiguchi, basing his appeal on those philosophical similarities which both men perceived in Nichiren Shoshu and in Value Creation Theory. According to community lore, their discussions ended in a somewhat formal debate, which Makiguchi lost. As a consequence, he converted to Nichiren Shoshu, along with Makiguchi's followers, including his principle disciple, Josei Toda.

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.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
rick1985's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience!
I myself am member of SGI Brazil (BSGI) since I was born.
When I was a kid I used to attend the meetings (both the adults-oriented and children-oriented) because it was part of my family´s philosophy.
When I reached the age of 14 I naturally started to have my sufferings in life (First Noble Truth hitting my head!) and decided to get involved with Nichiren Buddhism thru my Soka Gakkai local group. I started learning about the philosophy (Nichiren Buddhism in special) and as it was said on the article, chant. Chant for whatever I needed. Being a member of Soka Gakkai since I was born, it never seemed wrong or non-Buddhist to do it so. I had my sufferings and I wanted to solve them.
Well, to make the long story short: I am about 27 years now and I still chant. But, as it was said in Daisaku Ikeda´s interview, the focus of the chanting has gradually changed. I still chant for things every person wants: a better job, a change in life, a better relationship and so on. But I also chant for world peace, peace in my community, better relationship with family and neighbors, improvment of the company I work for as well as for my co-workers´development. Most importantly, I also take ACTIONS towards that. Compassion, as we say in Buddhism. So, as I am used to say here to my SGI fellow members and comrades: " Our chanting does not finish when we close the Butsudan (place in which the Gohonzon is). The chanting continues in our actions for the others because everyone is a Buddha, even though he\she may not be aware of it."
I live in a small neighborhood of São Paulo City ( we are more than 10 million people here). A city that receives people from all over the country and from some close contries as well, with no planning, is subject to big problems. So, I think it is easy to see how difficult is to teach the Buddha Dharma for those people.
Therefore, yes, I see chanting for whatever you want as a door for people to start the Buddhist path. It gradually changes as the most immediate problems are solved. Even though we continually to experience some of them sometimes during many years. But they do have a different value or importance for us as we have gradually changed our basic inner condition of life (Ten Worlds principle).

As for the situation with the Priesthood, it was really a huge thing. I myself did not experience it because I was only 6-7 years old during the year of the formal Split. Here in Brazil, the situation took almost 10 years to be completely solved. As it was said in the interview, there was no information. My grandma, who joined SGI in 1976 and my the sister of my grandpa, who was the first one to join Soka Gakkai in my family in 1968, did not have any clue of what was happening. So, I believe that, from my research on the subject, most members around the world were totally lost when the split came. And well, problems with Clery´s authority had always happened since the foundation of the Soka Gakkai and we can see those kind of problems in History in general as well.
I most recognize that SGI´s leadership (though it may vary depending on the country where SGI has members) made some mistakes while dealing with the subject. In my point of view, as for the experience of the article´s writer, the right thing to be done was to sit and discuss the (serious) matter. After all, there was nothing to hide. If it had been done so, Sandy could still being practicing inside the organization ( as I see that he continues to practice Nichiren Buddhism by himself. So the problem was not the philosophy but what happened in the organization)
Here in Brazil my grandma just stayed in SGI due to her grattitude to SGI President Ikeda, because, as she said " he is the one who struggled to bring Buddhism to Brazil". But if she was to rely on any information on the matter, I don´t think she would have had it. Besides that, she is a very simple woman from whom we cannot ask for a "intellectual appeal". But she has indeed a good heart and as Nichiren says " The heart is what matters the most". I believe it is true for Buddhism in general as well.
SGI now manages the subject of Priesthood better, I think. At least here it is going fine, though occasionally I have to put some points and make somethings clear.
As for me, I have been reading on other schools of Buddhism as well and trying to find some good points in their practice and behaviour of the practicioners.
Misunderstanding comes from ignorance of the others.
I still have faith (Sraddha, in Sanskrit) in the Lotus Sutra and I chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Besides that, I try to put its message in my daily life ( in SGI Brazil we have a monthly meeting called Buddhism in Daily Life, which aims to make the theory something ACTIVE in the member´s behaviour) and therefore I believe I contribute for the spread of the Dharma.

I see no problem chanting for earthly things as they are seen thru the Light of the Buddhism. That light not only puts them in the correc perspective but also extracts from them their true nature, which is also Enlightenment. So, it is not a problem to like beautiful things; the problem comes when we become slaves from them. Buddhism, I believe, is the very way to solve that. :-)

I understand how difficult may be for other traditions to comprehend why we are allowed to chant for anything once Shakyamuni Buddha said that sufferings comes from attachments. But to solve that question ( as maybe for all issues in life) there is only one thing to be done: research, research and research with an open mind and try to get rid of the bias we may have (specially in this case because there is a lot of negative propaganda against SGI in special).

To conclude, congratulations to the magazine and the opportunity to present the readers of other traditions how Nichiren Buddhism and also Soka Gakkai can be very empowering and how they are contributing to the World Peace.

L. Ricardo F.
São Paulo - Brazil

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you for sharing your experiences from Sao Paulo! I began practicing Buddhism in 1973 in San Francisco, CA. I now live in Seattle, WA. It's heart-warming to realize how universal the Law is.