Soka Gakkai has its origins in Japan in the decades prior to the Second World War. It was founded as a lay organization by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a progressive educator and convert to Nichiren Shoshu, an umbrella school comprising some forty sects dedicated to the teachings of Nichiren. A thirteenth-century reformer, Nichiren criticized Pure Land and other schools for being subservient to the state and for not empowering common people. Seven hundred years later, this criticism was leveled once again by Makiguchi.

During World War II, Soka Gakkai was crushed by the government when its leaders were imprisoned for their defiance of State Shintoism, a religion used by the government to bolster its militaristic expansion. After Japan’s surrender, the movement was rebuilt among dislocated and impoverished Japanese by Josei Toda, who had survived imprisonment. Relying on the right to religious freedom that had been written into the Japanese constitution during the American occupation, Toda infused the movement with ideals of democratic individualism and peace activism. At about this time, Soka Gakkai also took on the characteristics of a mass movement.

Chanting at an SGI-USA meeting; San Francisco Gay Pride Parade
Chanting at an SGI-USA meeting; San Francisco Gay Pride Parade

Soka Gakkai became the most dynamic lay group in Nichiren Shoshu. In other affiliated groups lay parishioners belong to the sect largely on the basis of custom and heredity. Priests provide them with services such as memorials for the dead and with opportunities for limited religious study in an association of temples with headquarters on the flanks of Mount Fuji. Between 1950 and 1990, Soka Gakkai built many new temples for Nichiren Shoshu, contributed money to refurbishing existing temples, and labored to maintain harmonious relations between its own members and parishioners and priests. Tensions between Soka Gakkai’s modernism and the priesthood’s traditionalism, however, led to periodic conflicts over authority, doctrine, and the interpretation of Nichiren. These became acute under Toda’s successor, Daisaku Ikeda, the architect of Soka Gakkai’s current internationalism. Tensions came to a head in 1991, at which time Soka Gakkai was excommunicated from Nichiren Shoshu.

Since 1991, Soka Gakkai has become a fully independent lay movement. As with many contemporary religious movements, members now undertake sacramental roles once played by priests. The organization has also been thoroughly restructured. Soka Gakkai International is an umbrella organization headquartered in Tokyo that helps to coordinate the efforts of aUtonomous groups in Japan and in more than one hundred other countries, all together referred to as “the Gakkai.” In the U.S. the group is now called SGI-USA.

The origins of SGI-USA can be traced back to Japanese war brides who settled here in the 1940s and early 1950s. Some had married African-American servicemen, which gave an interracial cast to the movement from the outset, helping to create what is today the most multicultural expression of American Buddhism. Like Zen, SGI-USA flourished during the tumult of the 1960s but what identified with a form of proselytizing called shakubuku. This is a method of evangelization with origins in Nichiren’s ministry but modernized by Gakkai leaders. SGI-USA did not experience the type of sex and alcohol scandals that often accompanied the coming of age of Zen and other forms of countercultural Buddhism. (It had its own scandals, however, related to authoritarianism and leadership issues.) Like them, it too began to stabilize in the 1980s, coming into its own upon independence from Nichiren Shoshu.

SGI youth conference in Philadelphia; Northeastern SGI-USA Youth Conference.
SGI youth conference in Philadelphia; Northeastern SGI-USA Youth Conference.

There are three trends I hope to see strengthened in Soka Gakkai ten years hence. The first is related to philosophy and practice. Since the schism, Soka Gakkai has refined its doctrine to better reflect its lay, humanistic, and democratic ideals. Fundamental principles derived from Nichiren Shoshu, however, remain nonnegotiable, chief among them is the philosophy and practice of chanting the Daimoku, the phrase Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. This translates roughly as “I commit to the wonderful dharma” and is seen as encapsulating Nichiren’s understanding of universal Buddha-nature as expressed in the Lotus Sutra, a text central to East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. Benefits to be gained from chanting are keyed to the varied needs and aspirations of its members. Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda stressed that Buddhism ought to contribute to the happiness of self and others, a message with immediate implications for the common people. In postwar Japan, happiness was understood in very concrete terms: food, health, finding a suitable spouse, employment. This chanting for “material goods” became distorted in the movement’s early years in the United States. Others in Japan always understood happiness in more philosophical terms such as empowerment, character formation, and socially beneficial work, especially in the 1960s with the rise of post-war prosperity and a reorientation of the movement to a global perspective under the leadership of Ikeda.

I hope this philosophical dimension of daimoku is strengthened in the next decade. That would safeguard a tolerant ethos within this highly diverse movement by acknowledging the wide range of personal motives that lead people to religion. It underscores that Buddhism has never been for intellectuals alone but can address more ordinary aspirations and needs. Also, this practice might contribute to the Americanization of the dharma. Recent debates about the efficacy of chanting have tended to dismiss the fact that it has long been a central practice in Asia. Many Westerners assume that sitting meditation is, and will be, normative American practice. In this regard, an appreciation of the Gakkai’s traditions could provide a corrective. If its philosophy and practice were factored into these debates, the real diversity of American Buddhism would be better understood. A keener awareness of chanting might also aid in bridging a “practice gap” that often separates meditating Buddhists, who tend to be largely European-American, from Buddhists in Asian immigrant communities.

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A second trend is related to links between American and Asian Buddhists. I hope that SGI-USA will deepen its ability to address the specific needs of American members, while maintaining its vital connection to Japan, which is, in a real sense, the “mother country” of Gakkai movements worldwide. Soka Gakkai in Japan has always represented a modernist form of socially engaged Buddhism and has grown into a significant force in Japanese politics, arts, and education. Relations between American and Japanese leaders are not without tensions, but they appear to maintain, at the very least, a cordial and productive working relationship. Given the importance of cross-cultural communications in this era of globalization, it is to the benefit of both parties to continue to give this trans-Pacific connection a priority. Even as it further develops its autonomy, SGI-USA continues to need Japan as a counterweight to easy American idealism, as a touchstone for maintaining contact with Gakkai movements worldwide, and as a reminder that when Buddhism engages with the world, it can be an edifying experience even when fraught with conflict. SGI-USA’s experience might also provide other American Buddhists with ways to think about how they are forging, or deciding not to forge, their own links with Asian co-religionists. My own view is that independence is a value Americans tend to understand quite well. Interdependence, especially with Asians, may be more difficult to achieve.

Multiculturalism is a third trend to be encouraged in Soka Gakkai. Given the increasingly complex texture of American society, the multicultural mix in Soka Gakkaiin terms of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class—is one of its outstanding achievements. During the last ten years, initiatives have been set in motion to insure that this diversity is reflected in the movement’s American leadership. The break with Nichiren Shoshu contributed to an egalitarian accent on issues of race and gender. A phrase one hears frequently is that a new, more egalitarian SGI-USA is “a work in progress.”

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