An Insider's view of Nichiren Shoshu
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.