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 victory, yes. But infinitely small in comparison with the tale of healing offered by Don Burroughs, a 40-year-old 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 of the trachea tube that was helping 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 he's ever totally healed," says Burroughs.

Behroz Nowrojee, a fourteen-year-old student at Palmetto Middle School, 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, so she chanted throughout the day. "I was chanting and chanting and chanting," she recalls. "It turned out at about 3:00 p.m. one of the girls came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry for picking on you.'"

Makiguchi Sensei, a depiction of the sect's founder and first president
Melissa Jones
Makiguchi Sensei, a depiction of the sect's founder and first president

Firoza Shivers, a native of Bombay now living in Miami, thought her four-year-old son, Hormazd, was going to die when doctors in India 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 outward appearances.

-- Soka Gakkai president Daisaku Ikeda

The Florida Nature and Culture Center is about as far west as developed South Florida gets, located as it is off Highway 27, eight miles north of the Miami-Dade County line. A half-mile or so beyond the Citgo truck stop and Chickee Hut restaurant, you can 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 from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties gather for monthly prayer meetings. The center is a large, modern, Mediterranean-style structure featuring a conference room that seats 300. All seats face forward toward a fifteen-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 leader Daisaku 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 Soka Gakkai's 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 Stephen 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 around the nation come to South Florida to attend, and they stay in the compound's well-appointed 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 twelve buildings occupy only 35 acres. The remaining 90 are given over to a manmade lake and a nature preserve restored as an Everglades ecosystem. As stipulated in 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 is part nature's grandeur, part emptiness. When conferences aren't in session, it feels like a college campus without students, or a resort without guests.

SGI-USA has 70 community centers throughout the United States. 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 2000. The group publishes a weekly newspaper, the World Tribune, and two magazines, Living Buddhism and SGI Quarterly.

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