The Joy of Sect

For members of Soka Gakkai, the path to enlightenment (and maybe a new car) is through chanting

There's a pile of 34 shoes just inside the front door of Stephen Bonnell's comfortable South Miami home. They came off the feet of the 17 people kneeling or sitting in Bonnell's living room, chanting in unison while facing a small cabinet, the butsudan, hung chest-high on the opposite wall.

Their voices combine in a homophonic, quick-tempoed hum that has some real punch to it. You can hear it from the street on the approach to Bonnell's house. Now and then a subtly divergent voice strays from the melody just enough to make the listener's ear prick up to detect it. Otherwise the aural effect is one of control, discipline, and precision. It is the sound of people united in their religious beliefs and practices, strange as those practices may seem to an outsider.

The folks on Bonnell's floor are a diverse group. There are natives of Israel, India, and Japan in the room. There are middle-aged men and women, teenagers, and young children laughing as they weave in and out of the supplicants.

That old-time religion: Soka Gakkai believers meet in Stephen Bonnell's home
Melissa Jones
That old-time religion: Soka Gakkai believers meet in Stephen Bonnell's home

They're chanting to a paper scroll in the hopes that the exercise will bring them peace, health, and maybe a new Lexus. But these aren't airport-grade religious kooks. These are sincere men and women who look like everyone else in South Florida (with the exception of South Floridians who wear robes or sport shaved heads). Many of them have been chanting twice a day for decades, just as they are tonight. And they swear it works.

"I was able to receive a good job because of the experiences I have built up through chanting, to eventually meet people who would hire me," says Micha Adir, who has been doing this for 25 years. "Every time I think I'm deadlocked, I chant, and something better comes. It's like a well with no bottom."

It's not magic. More akin to the power of positive thinking. It works like this: You chant to bolster your self-esteem and increase your determination. Sufficiently bolstered, you meet the world with your best face on, the first ripple in a pond of goodwill. Your positive demeanor influences those around you, who begin to notice how happy and confident you are. They decide they like you, enjoy being around you, want to get to know you better. Good things come your way. Your boss decides you're really not such a jerk after all and gives you a raise. With the extra money, you buy a new car and give the old lady across the street a ride to church on Sundays in it. She dies and leaves you all her money. You start a charitable foundation and help others. And on and on it goes.

That, in a simplified way, is the practice of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect that came to the U.S. from Japan in 1960 and has been growing ever since. Church leaders put U.S. membership at 300,000 (though one scholar thinks that figure may be inflated by a factor of ten). Bonnell, who handles public relations for the group in South Florida, says membership in South Florida is about 1500 -- and 2500 for the entire state.

While Soka Gakkai isn't new, it got a big boost in South Florida with the opening of a posh, $20 million compound on the western fringe of Broward County in 1996. That kind of scratch points to some financial wherewithal, and Soka Gakkai has plenty of that. Depending on whom you ask, the group has between 5 and 12 million members in Japan. One observer put Soka Gakkai's total assets at $100 billion.

The Florida Nature and Culture Center, as the Broward compound is called, was a gift from Japanese Soka Gakkai members to their American counterparts, the organizational name of which is Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA). The center is a venue for Soka Gakkai members from all over the country -- and eventually the world -- to get together and talk about self-fulfillment and making the world a better place.

All fine and good. But Soka Gakkai also has a lot of baggage. The sect adheres to the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin (Daishonin means "great sage"), a 13th-century Buddhist priest famously intolerant of other people's religious views. Nichiren believed his was the one true way, and if convincing others of that required fanatical proselytizing, then so be it. Throughout its history Soka Gakkai has been known for its almost militaristic organization and aggressive efforts at expansion that would put an American fundamentalist movement to shame. As Soka Gakkai's then-president Josei Toda said during one such campaign in the '50s, "[Proselytizing] is the most profound and most exalted kind of compassion one human being can show for another. It is the active demonstration of love for all people and the desire to introduce all mankind to the true faith and happiness it brings."

In Japan, Soka Gakkai wields considerable political and social power. It has its own political party and a publishing empire that puts out newspapers, magazines, and books. Critics say the church is nothing more than a cult of personality for its leader, Daisaku Ikeda, himself an egotistical bully bent on seizing political control of Japan. Stories abound in Japan about ex-Soka Gakkai members being harassed after leaving the group.

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