The Joy of Sect

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

A third ex-member, living in Central Florida, refused to talk about SGI-USA at all, fearing his house would be firebombed if he did.

As SGI-USA's public relations director for the East Coast, Bill Aiken has heard it all before. And he's savvy enough to roll with the punches.

"We didn't buy our [U.S. headquarters in Santa Monica] from the CIA," he says, chuckling at a rumor. "But we do get our black helicopters from them."

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

Most of the criticism stems from SGI-USA's earlier, more strident approach to recruiting, he says. It was called "street shakabuku," and it involved confronting people in public and haranguing them to join. There were quotas, and members were judged on how many people they stopped.

The practice was stopped about ten years ago, says Aiken. "It was more of an awakening that this really isn't the way to carry on an American religious movement," says Aiken. Today SGI-USA has a soft touch when it comes to recruiting. Members are instructed to share their beliefs with friends and family but not to be bothersome about it. As a result growth has come at a much slower pace -- Aiken says SGI-USA has attracted about 1000 new members per year for the last eight years.

The genesis of the new, more cuddly SGI-USA occurred in 1991, when Soka Gakkai leaders in Japan split with the sect's priesthood in an acrimonious divide many members compare to the Protestant Reformation. In the early '90s, Soka Gakkai leader Ikeda criticized his sect's priests for being lazy, greedy, and corrupt. The priests, in turn, countered that Ikeda was making a power grab for the millions of Soka Gakkai members in Japan and throughout the world. The sect was rotten to the core, they believed, so they showed Ikeda and his millions of followers the temple door.

Aiken, SGI-USA's PR man, puts a positive spin on the split, saying it freed Soka Gakkai from the fanaticism of the fundamentalist priests. Without the priests there would no longer be any need for aggressive proselytizing, no more talk of world domination, and no more intolerance of other religions. "We were saddled with this dogmatic approach to religion while in a pluralistic society like the U.S., and it didn't work," he says.

Which brings us to the late '90s, a time when Soka Gakkai's power is increasing in Japan and spreading throughout the world. (The group is very popular in Brazil.) SGI-USA certainly is a more culturally sensitive organization today than it was a decade ago, but the schism has also brought out flashes of the old-style fanaticism. Soka Gakkai newsgroups are still alive with name-calling and smear campaigns. (One entertaining site,, shows a picture of a Nichiren priest surrounded by fully clothed Japanese women, the Buddhist equivalent of a sex scandal.)

Though not officially sanctioned, SGI-USA members have poured a lot of time and karmic energy into getting the six Nichiren temples in the U.S. closed. Factions on the Internet are calling for a chant-a-thon of sorts to shutter the temples, which Aiken says were built with donations from SGI-USA members prior to the split. "They feel very unhappy they are now centers for attacking and criticizing our efforts."

Steven Heine is one person who doesn't fully buy into the notion of a kinder, gentler SGI-USA. Heine is a professor of medieval Japanese religion at Florida International University. He knows Nichiren Buddhism and believes its fanatical side has been played down for the American palate. But it's still there.

"What they do in America, they offer what I call the prosperity theology, the idea that if you do these things you will get a better job, a better house, more money, and so forth. They kind of keep that fundamental strain and exclusivity in the background. They are good at promoting 'what we can do for you' to Americans who are looking for an answer in a very practical sense."

After followers practice for a while, though, Heine believes the true nature of Soka Gakkai comes through. "I think there are a lot of stages you go through where it is not manifested," he says. "They lure you in by offering you the prosperity stuff."

Heine uses the parable of the burning house, from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, to illustrate his point.

A man's house is on fire and his children are trapped inside. They'll die if they don't get out, but they don't respond to the man's urging that they flee the flames, because they don't understand what the word fire means. So the man lies to his children, telling them there is a chariot outside waiting to take them away. They run out of the house and are saved.

Soka Gakkai is the father, says Heine, and everyone else the children. "The end justifies the means. It's the Buddha as the father figure, the compassionate father who must figure out a way to save his children. We are all his children."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

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