One of the most notable features of Soka Gakkai, the largest Nichiren Buddhism group, is its focus on group discussions, called zadankai, in which every voice is heard. In the beginning, Soka Gakkai members asked Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the organization’s founder, to give formal lectures. But he refused to revert to what he saw as the authoritarian model of religious instruction that had long dominated Buddhism in Japan. “Dialogue is the only way to communicate with another about life’s problems,” Makiguchi explained. “At a lecture, listeners inevitably feel uninvolved.”
The solution was a group discussion format that quickly became the standard for Soka Gakkai meetings throughout Japan. As conceived by Makiguchi, the purpose of such meetings was to encourage individuals to talk openly about how to create positive value in their lives. Later, Makiguchi’s successor, Josei Toda, made the discussion meeting the driving force of the Soka Gakkai. Participants learned how to apply the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism to issues like health and family finances, acknowledging their struggles and reporting their successes as a way of encouraging other members to make positive changes in their lives.
Then as now, most discussion meetings take place in members’ homes. The goal is to support respectful, supportive dialogue between members of equal status. “The spirit of engaging others in dialogue on equal terms is the essence of Buddhism,” writes Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai International’s current president. The egalitarian flavor of such meetings, combined with their focus on practical application of the teachings of Buddhism, has driven the spread of Nichiren Buddhism in recent decades as it has taken root in other cultures throughout the world.
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