The Buddha Brotherhood

In Japan the Soka Gakkai sect is religiously aggressive and politically ambitious. In South Florida it's about peace, prosperity, and positive thinking.

A pile of 34 shoes sits just inside the front door of Stephen Bonnell's comfortable South Miami home. They came off the feet of the seventeen 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, up-tempo hum that carries some real punch. You can hear it from the approach to Bonnell's house on SW 62nd Terrace. Now and then a subtly divergent voice strays from the monotonal drone 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: Natives of Israel, India, and Japan are in the room; middle-age 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, or maybe a new Lexus. But these aren't airport-terminal religious kooks. These are sincere men and women who, for the most part, look like everyone else in South Florida. Many of them have been chanting twice a day for decades, just as they are this evening. 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, an engineer 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."

This isn't magic. It's more akin to the power of positive thinking. Here's how it works: 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 upbeat 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 every Sunday you use it to give the sweet old lady across the street a ride to church. 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 United States 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, a 48-year-old drama teacher at Ransom Everglades School, handles public relations for the group in South Florida. He says local membership 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 money points to some financial wherewithal; Soka Gakkai has plenty. Estimates of membership in Japan vary between 5 million and 12 million. Four years ago Time magazine pegged 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 nation -- and eventually the world -- to get together and talk about self-fulfillment and making the world a better place.

Which, of course, is all fine and good. But Soka Gakkai also carries a lot of baggage. The sect, which is nearly 70 years old, adheres to the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin (Daishonin means "great sage"), a thirteenth-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, endeavors that would put an American fundamentalist movement to shame. As Soka Gakkai's then-president Josei Toda said during one such campaign in the Fifties: "[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 today, 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 built around its current leader, Daisaku Ikeda, who is known to be an egotistical bully with ambitions for political control. Stories abound in Japan about ex-Soka Gakkai members being harassed after leaving the group.

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