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
Cuqui Bonnell's painting Makiguchi Sensei depicts the sect's founder and first president
Melissa Jones
Cuqui Bonnell's painting Makiguchi Sensei depicts the sect's founder and first president
Sacred places: one of three altars at the Florida Nature and Culture Center in west Broward
Melissa Jones
Sacred places: one of three altars at the Florida Nature and Culture Center in west Broward
Enlightenment in the swamp: The three-year-old, $20 million compound
Melissa Jones
Enlightenment in the swamp: The three-year-old, $20 million compound

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.

SGI-USA officials concede their past -- this isn't a group that's hiding anything. But they maintain that Soka Gakkai, at least in this country, is kinder, gentler, and more suited to American tastes. No more aggressive proselytizing (called "shakabuku," one translation of which is to "break" or "subdue"), no more condemnation of other religious beliefs. Here, say officials, the focus is on the practice of the essence of Nichiren Buddhism: bettering the world by bettering oneself.

The question, posed here as a pained metaphor: Can a Nichiren Buddhist change his stripes?


If you take faith in this Gohonzon and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo even for a short while, no prayer will go unanswered, no offense unexpiated, no good fortune unbestowed and no righteousness unproven.

-- Nichikan, the 26th high priest of Nichiren Shoshu

It's safe to say many of those gathered in Bonnell's living room don't know exactly what they're chanting. Not because they are willfully ignorant or blindly subservient, but because the words are in ancient Chinese, with a Japanese pronunciation. It's also safe to say, despite the lack of a literal translation, many in this room know these ancient Chinese words by heart. They've committed them to memory through months of study and twice-daily repetition, a ritual called gongyo.

Gongyo is the chanting of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra, the highest teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Indian prince who is credited with establishing Buddhism some 2500 years ago. Gongyo is practiced once in the morning and once at night. It is from these two chapters that Nichiren divined the idea that anyone, not just priests, can attain a state of indestructible happiness, or Buddhahood. Other Buddhist sects believed it would take living many lives to reach the perfect state of Buddhahood, so Nichiren's ideas were pretty revolutionary stuff 700 years ago.

And the good news is you don't have to sit on a mountain for years to get to Buddhahood. Nichiren believed you can get the ball rolling with one simple phrase: "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." It's a phrase people in this room will repeat thousands upon thousands of times when they need guidance in their marriages, when their cars are broken down, when their livers are failing, or when a war threatens.

"Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." It's as simple as that. Go ahead, give it try for five or ten minutes. See if you don't feel better. You don't even have to be a believer.

Bonnell tells the story of one skeptic who joined Soka Gakkai to humor his girlfriend. He secretly chanted for a goldfish and gave the practice two weeks to deliver. Fourteen days later, no fish. Thinking that was the end of that, the man was bathing one night after work when his girlfriend came in and dumped a goldfish in the tub. "On her way home she had passed a pet store," says Bonnell, "and they were giving away goldfish. A woman shoved one in her hand as she passed by."

Loosely translated, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means "devotion to the universal law of cause and effect through the Buddha's teachings." The phrase is also called "daimoku," which means "title," referring to the Lotus Sutra.

You don't need a Gohonzon to chant daimoku, but it helps. The Gohonzon is the scroll placed inside the butsudan, or cabinet. Soka Gakkai members receive a Gohonzon from the church after they've been practicing for a few months and have demonstrated that they're serious about it. Each Gohonzon comes from Japan and is a direct imprint taken from a Gohozon that was inscribed by a high priest. Down the center of the Gohonzon, in Sanskrit, is the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." Flanking the phrase on each side are characters representing the ten realms, or states of life: hell, hunger, animality, belligerence, humanity, heaven, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and Buddhahood.

In his book Soka Gakkai in America, author Phillip Hammond writes, "Chanting the daimoku forms a bridge of sound and vibration between the individual and the Gohonzon, such that subject and object become one. Thus, some Soka Gakkai members report mystical experiences during chanting."

If anyone had a mystical experience at Bonnell's home, he or she isn't talking about it. But many are happy to offer their own testimonials of miraculous healing, empowerment, and even schoolyard salvation.

One woman tells the group she's been fighting depression unsuccessfully all her life. "Since I started practicing, and it's only been a couple months, for the first time in my life I feel like I can do anything," she tells the group. "I want to tell people on the street 'You've got to try this, it's so great!' I just wanted to share that."

Applause from the group.

Heather Adir, an airline administrator, says chanting helped her deal with a tense situation at the office recently. "I got a bad report," says Adir. "I was panicked. I said to hell with it, I am going to go in there and talk to my boss."

Instead of being browbeaten by her tyrannical superior, the guy praised Adir for having the courage to speak her mind. "I walked out, and my attitude changed. The environment started working with me instead of against me. The minute I changed my attitude, I had no fear."

A victory, yes. But infinitely small in comparison with the tale of healing offered by Don Burroughs, a computer programmer with an earthy, John Denver look about him. Six months ago Burroughs came down with a case of what would later be diagnosed as pneumonia. "By the time they figured out what I had, I just wasn't responding," he says. "I deteriorated fairly fast."

Three months later he was in intensive care. "They basically said, 'Well, this guy is going to die.'"

During his illness Burroughs let his practice of Soka Gakkai slip. One day his sister visited him and vowed to begin chanting on his behalf. He felt better the following day. He couldn't chant out loud because he had a trachea tube in his neck to help him breathe, so Burroughs chanted in his head. Four weeks later he was out of the hospital. "My pulmonologist says I'm the person he uses as a reference when he renews his license because I am the only person who he's every totally healed," says Burroughs.

Behroz Nowrojee, a 14-year-old, middle-school student, says chanting helped her avoid getting beaten up. Nowrojee got wind of the fact that a large group of girls planned to pummel her after school one day, so she chanted throughout the day. "I was chanting and chanting and chanting," she says. "It turned out at about 3 p.m. one of the girls came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry for picking on you.'"

Firoza Shivers, a native of Bombay now living in Miami, thought her four-year-old son, Hormazd, was going to die when doctors in her native country diagnosed the boy with congenital heart failure. An operation to correct the ailment would cost 12 million rupees, or about $20,000. She didn't have the money. So she chanted. "I wanted my son to live," she says. "One miracle after another happened, and in a matter of two months, I collected the money."


Happiness is not determined by outwardappearances.

-- Daisaku Ikeda

The Florida Nature and Culture Center is about as far west as developed Broward County gets, located as it is off Highway 27, just a half-mile or so north of the Citgo truck stop and the Chickee Hut restaurant. Pass the parking lot full of snoozing semi drivers and turn east on SW 36th Street, or just look for the Weekley Trucking sign and turn there. There's not much on SW 36th except gravel trucks, a tree farm, and Buddhists.

About a mile down the road, past a pink palisade guarding an unfinished housing development, you'll come upon a broad sweep of manicured lawn leading up to a low concrete wall. Pull up to the guard shack, and if you're one of the faithful (or if one of the faithful has given the guard your name) the wrought iron gates of nirvana will part for you.

Follow the winding road past the low hills dotted with palm trees and flowers, and you'll wind up at the Miami Community Center, where Soka Gakkai members in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties gather for monthly prayer meetings. The center is a large, modern, Florida-Mediterranean design featuring a conference room that seats 300. All seats face forward toward a 15-foot-tall butsudan, which opens at the touch of a button to reveal a six-foot Gohonzon. Nearby is a store where members can buy prayer beads and study books. The walls are decorated with gauzy landscape photos taken by Soka Gakkai president Ikeda, an accomplished photographer who takes his shots by holding the camera to his heart instead of his eye.

These digs are much improved over their old house of worship. "We used to be behind Aventura Mall, and our old place would probably fit in one corner of this room," says Bonnell.

The Miami Community Center is only a small part of the compound. The rest is used to host SGI-USA's conferences, Thursday-through-Sunday affairs held at the rate of about three per month on frothy topics such as diversity, ecology, and human relations. SGI members from across the country come to South Florida to attend, and they stay in the compound's hotel-like dormitories and eat in the high-school-size cafeteria. They also play basketball in the gym, cut laps in the swimming pool, and take walks around the grounds. Some of the meeting rooms seat 1000.

Together the compound's 12 buildings occupy only 35 acres. The remaining 90 are given over to an artificial lake and a nature preserve restored as an Everglades ecosystem. Per an agreement with the South Florida Water Management District, SGI-USA can't use the land, and members aren't allowed on it.

There's a serenity to the place that's part nature's grandeur, part emptiness. When conferences aren't in session, it feels like a community college campus without students or a resort without guests.

SGI-USA has 70 "community centers" throughout the U.S. Most are similar in nature to the Miami center, serving as local places of worship. SGI-USA also built and runs a university in Los Angeles and is in the process of building a second, 100-acre campus in Aliso Viejo, California, scheduled to be finished by August. They publish a weekly newspaper, the World Tribune, and two magazines, Living Buddhism and SGI Quarterly.

SGI is recognized as a church both here and in Japan, so it's nearly impossible to put a finger on its finances. Members are asked to contribute a minimum of $20 a month or as much as they can afford. Bill Aiken, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesperson for SGI-USA, says the majority of U.S. members don't contribute anything financially. "I would say one-third of our members [give money] and two-thirds do not. We'd like to see that increase."

Obviously the economic muscle of the church comes from Japan, where members are hit for bigger and more frequent donations. In a 1995 article titled "The Power of Soka Gakkai," Time magazine estimated the group's assets at $100 billion worldwide.

As religions go, Soka Gakkai is freshly minted. It was founded in 1930 by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi as an effort to reform schools in Japan. At the time the dominant educational philosophy in Japan was one of rote memorization and obedience. Influenced by Western ideals, Makiguchi strove toward a system that emphasized creativity, happiness, and personal benefit or gain. He believed students should have a positive influence on society, hence the name of his group: Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, or "Value-Creation Education Society."

Makiguchi and his friend, Josei Toda, gathered a small following of mostly educators in the years that followed. Soon they attracted the attention of Japanese authorities, who were not pleased with their opposition to state-imposed Shinto religion. Japan was becoming increasingly militaristic, and Shinto (a form of emperor worship) was a mandate. Makiguchi denounced the Japanese war effort and was arrested in 1943 along with all the other Soka Gakkai leaders. He was interrogated and tortured but refused to compromise his beliefs. He died in prison in 1944.

Toda was released in 1945 and set about rebuilding the sect. In the religious vacuum created by Japan's defeat and the American occupation, new religions sprouted like weeds. He dropped "education" from the group's name so that it became Value Creating Society, or Soka Gakkai. He became Soka Gakkai's second president in 1951, and by his death in 1958 the group had some 750,000 followers. Daisaku Ikeda was named the third president in 1960, at age 32. Though he is now the honorary president, Ikeda is, for all intents and purposes, still the true leader of Soka Gakkai.

Ikeda is a philosopher, author, artist, and world traveler. He's always been fond of having his picture taken with world leaders, including Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, and Nelson Mandela. Soka Gakkai members almost always seem to have a gleam in their eye when they refer to Ikeda. They can quote him from memory and are fond of telling anecdotes that illustrate his warmth, charm, and charisma. "He is the man we really consider our mentor, our leader," says Bonnell. "It's not like we worship him or anything, but he is our teacher."


We must never relax in our struggle against evil. We must never drop our guard. We must never forget our determination to defend what is right -- until the roots of evil have been eradicated.

-- Daisaku Ikeda

In September 1963, Look magazine published a front-page story headlined "Japan: Prosperity, beauty, ugliness and an alarming new religion that wants to conquer the world." The story was even more startling. "Soka Gakkai regards itself as not only the one true Buddhist religion, but the one true religion on earth," writes Richard Okamoto. "Its principal aims are the propagation of its gospel throughout the world, by forced conversion if necessary, and the denunciation and destruction of all other faiths as 'false' religions."

Thirty-two years later, Time magazine toned down the rhetoric but was still beating the drum. In the wake of a fatal sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo, Time wondered in print if there were too little scrutiny of groups like Soka Gakkai. "No group is quite so disciplined, determined or focused on political power as Soka Gakkai, which is well positioned to wield immense influence over national affairs."

There's little doubt about Soka Gakkai's political might and ambition in Japan. But how does SGI-USA compare?

"I look at the U.S. organization as a mere pawn for Ikeda's ambitions," writes John Ayres, who runs the Website "Victims of Soka Gakkai International Association" (www.coam.net/~kuvera/e-index.html). Ayers, who responded to inquiries for this story via e-mail, claims he was personally harassed by Soka Gakkai while living in Japan. In the U.S. members don't seem to know or care about the group's history, he writes. "Most SGI-USA members here are in lullaby land. There are a lot of former hippies, idealists, and others seeking some sort of spirituality."

Another ex-member spun off all manner of theories about SGI-USA, characterizing them as a "communist cell" type of organization set up to gather intelligence for Japanese corporations. "They set up these kids like little transmitters," says Peter Graves, a Miami resident who used to belong to SGI-USA when he lived in California, referring to the group's youth divisions. "They have ways they can decipher intelligence. They never know when one of their own will move into a position of power and then they can get what they want."

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."

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, http://members.aol.com/tomoda97/nikken/heritage.htm, 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:
Bob_Whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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