Soka Gakkai is a Buddhist movement imported to the United States by Japanese immigrants. Originally practiced mainly by the Japanese wives of American military men, the movement began to grow rapidly following changes in U.S. immigration laws in 1965. The new immigration laws, combined with the expansion of the Japanese economy into U.S. markets, brought growing numbers of educated Japanese professionals and entrepreneurs to the United States. These new immigrants gave Soka Gakkai access to a much broader recruitment pool and positioned the movement advantageously with regard to those young Americans most likely to take an interest in Buddhism—that is, young, educated, middle-class, white-collar workers in urban environments.
The movement was founded in Japan in 1930 by an educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944), who organized the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value Creation Education Society) in an attempt to inject a dose of humanism into the Japanese educational system. Shortly before the entry of Japan into World War II, Makiguchi and his protégé, Josei Toda (1900–1958), converted to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism—a sect that claims to teach the "true Buddhism" as taught by Nichiren, a thirteenth-century monk who believed that all individuals contained within themselves the potential for enlightenment and that this potential could be unlocked by exclusive devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Thwarted in their attempt to reform the Japanese educational system, Makiguchi and Toda were imprisoned on charges of lèse majesté for their refusal to cooperate with the Religious Organizations Act (1940), which created a three-religion establishment, centered on State Shinto and designed to promote patriotism and loyalty to the increasingly militarist regime.
Following Makiguchi's death in prison and the end of World War II, Toda reorganized the movement as a lay association of Nichiren Shoshu. In the chaotic aftermath of the war, Soka Gakkai grew rapidly, mostly among the displaced residents of urban environments. Daisaku Ikeda (1928–), Soka Gakkai's charismatic third president, led the international growth of the movement. Today, Soka Gakkai International (SGI) claims millions of members in about a hundred countries, with significant representations in the United States, Brazil, Britain, and Italy.
Doctrine and Practice
The fundamental truth expounded by Nichiren and promoted by Soka Gakkai is that every individual has the potential for enlightenment, and the key to unlocking that potential is contained in the Lotus Sutra, which is understood to be the most perfect expression of the Buddha's wisdom. By chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra, Nam myoho renge kyo, one forms a connection with the ultimate reality that pervades the universe—the karmic law of cause and effect. Soka Gakkai members chant this phrase, along with portions of the Lotus Sutra and prayers for world peace (collectively called Gongyo) in front of a personal copy of the Gohonzon, a mandala originally inscribed by Nichiren, which features the title of the Lotus Sutra surrounded by characters representing the "ten realms" of consciousness and is understood as something like a road map to enlightenment. The ten realms describe ten basic life conditions that everyone possesses and experiences—Hell, Hunger, Animality, and Belligerence, through Tranquility, Rapture, Learning, and Realization, to Bodhisattva, and ultimately Buddhahood or enlightenment. These "life conditions" are not understood as external circumstances imposing upon the individual, but rather as modes of being. Thus one's external circumstances are but a reflection of one's inner life condition, and by changing one's way of being in the world, one can improve the external circumstances of one's life.
Soka Gakkai, furthermore, promotes the belief that individual enlightenment is the first step toward world peace. As individuals learn to take responsibility for their own life condition and for the impact of their lives on the external world, they can work together to raise awareness of issues of intercultural understanding and tolerance, issues of the environment, and the threat of military technology. As an organization, therefore, Soka Gakkai sponsors a variety of educational, cultural, and political projects, and participates in the United Nations as a recognized nongovernment organization.
Soka Gakkai in the United States
Soka Gakkai has experienced phenomenal growth in the United States, mostly through the conversion of non-Japanese, middle-class baby boomers. The organization claims to have about 300,000 members in the United States, although 45,000–50,000 is probably a more realistic estimate of the number of currently active members. Today, ethnically Japanese members are a minority, constituting less than a fourth of all members. White members are the majority, while black, Latino, and mixed-race members represent significant minorities.
As elsewhere in the world, SGI-USA is active in efforts to promote art, culture, and education in the United States. Soka University, located in Southern California, is modeled on the pedagogical theories of Makiguchi. The Boston Research Center for the Twenty-first Century, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is dedicated to research on issues related to nuclear power and world peace. The Florida Culture Center provides a venue for a variety of cultural and educational events. These foci of activity are complemented by a variety of more local efforts to clean up parks, educate through traveling art exhibits, and entertain with a variety of musical and theatrical performances.
The Schism of 1991
For more than fifty years, Soka Gakkai existed as a lay movement affiliated with the Nichiren Shoshu sect. Its aim, in part, was to raise money as well as to obtain a dedicated following to support the priesthood. But latent tensions between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu leadership came to a head in 1990 when the high priest accused Daisaku Ikeda, who remains the movement's primary spiritual figurehead and president of the international organization, of slandering Buddhism by asserting that the priests and laity are equal before the Gohonzon. Although a formal apology was issued by the Soka Gakkai leadership, and apparently accepted by the priests, tensions between Soka Gakkai leaders and the priests continue to grow. When the priests raised obligatory fees for funerary and other ritual services, Soka Gakkai leaders objected that the priests had become greedy and authoritarian. In November 1991, the high priest of Nichren Shoshu ordered the Soka Gakkai to disband and issued a writ of excommunication for all members who remained affiliated with the Soka Gakkai.
Ironically, Soka Gakkai seems to have benefited greatly from that split. The schism served to enhance the autonomy of the various national organizations, making it easier for these organizations to adapt to the needs of members and circumstances in their immediate environments. To fill the gap left by the priests, Soka Gakkai developed roles for voluntary "ministers of ceremony," who now preside over weddings, funerals, and other ritual services.
In the United States, the changes in SGI since the split suggest movement toward the congregational form that dominates in American religious organizations. There is a growing emphasis on the autonomy of local organizations and participation by members in making important decisions. This new autonomy, coupled with the declining presence of Japanese immigrants in positions of leadership, suggests that the organization will lose much of its remaining Japanese patina and become more and more like an American denomination.
Eppsteiner, Robert. The Soka Gakkai International: Religious Roots, Early History, and Contemporary Development. 1997.
Hammond, Phillip, and David Machacek. Soka Gakkaiin America: Accommodation and Conversion. 1999.
Hurst, Jane. "A Buddhist Reformation in the Twentieth Century: Causes and Implications of the Conflict Between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu Priesthood." In Global Citizens: The SokaGakkai Buddhist Movement in the World, edited by D. Machecek and B. Wilson. Forthcoming.
Tamaru, Noriyoshi. "Soka Gakkai in historical perspective." In Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World, edited by D. Machacek and B. Wilson.
David W. Machacek