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 third ex-member, living in central Florida, refused to discuss 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 respond playfully. "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, according to Aiken. It was called "street shakabuku," and it involved confronting people in public and haranguing them to join. Quotas were established, and members were evaluated on the basis of how many people they stopped.

That practice was eliminated about ten years ago. Aiken explains: "It was more of an awakening that this really isn't the way to carry on an American religious movement." Today SGI-USA employs 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 past 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 Nineties, Soka Gakkai leader Ikeda criticized the 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 followers the temple door. The priests took the name Nichiren Shoshu; Ikeda's faction stuck with Soka Gakkai.

Bill Aiken puts a positive spin on the split, saying the division freed Soka Gakkai from the fanaticism of the fundamentalist priests. Without the clerics there would no longer be a 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.," Aiken says, "and it didn't work."

Which brings us to the late Nineties, a time when Soka Gakkai's power is increasing in Japan and spreading around the world. (The group is especially 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 Internet newsgroups are 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.

Some SGI-USA members have poured a lot of time and karmic energy into efforts to close the six Nichiren temples in the United States. 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," he says.

Steven Heine is one person who doesn't fully buy into the notion of a more benign SGI-USA. As a professor of religious studies at Florida International University, Heine is quite familiar with Nichiren Buddhism. He believes its fanatical side has been downplayed for the American palate, but that it's still there. "What they do in America," Heine asserts, "they offer what I call 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."

But Heine believes the true nature of Soka Gakkai comes through after followers practice for a while. "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." By way of illustration, Heine points to the parable of the burning house, from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

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 the word fire. 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 the uninitiated masses are the children: "The end justifies the means. It's the Buddha as father figure, the compassionate father who must figure out a way to save his children. We are all his children."

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