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.
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.
SGI-USA officials concede their past, 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, officials claim, the focus is on the practice of the essence of Nichiren Buddhism: bettering the world by bettering oneself.
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 that 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, that 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, which they practice at home. (This group chants together at Bonnell's house just once a week.)
Gongyo is the chanting of the second and sixteenth 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, could attain a state of indestructible happiness, or Buddhahood. Other Buddhist sects believed it would take living many lives to reach the perfect state of enlightenment, so Nichiren's idea was pretty revolutionary stuff 700 years ago.
And the good news is you don't have to sit on a mountain for years to achieve Buddhahood. Nichiren believed you could 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 break 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 a 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," Bonnell says, "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 gohonzon that was inscribed by a high priest. Down the center of the gohonzon, in Sanskrit, is the phrase nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Flanking the words 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 admits. "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 her cohorts.
Heather Adir, an airline administrator, says chanting helped her deal with a tense situation at the office recently. "I got a bad report," she says. "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 superior, the guy praised Adir for having the courage to speak her mind. "I walked out, and my attitude changed," she recounts. "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 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.'"
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.
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.
SGI is recognized as a church both here and in Japan, so it's nearly impossible to gauge its finances. Members are asked to contribute a minimum of $20 per month or as much as they can afford. Bill Aiken, a spokesman for SGI-USA based in Washington, D.C., 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," Aiken reports. "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 reporter Edward W. Desmond estimated the group's worldwide assets to be in the range of $100 billion.
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 that nation was one of rote memorization and obedience. Influenced by Western ideals, Makiguchi strove toward a system that emphasized creativity, happiness, and personal benefit. He believed students should have a positive influence on society, hence the name of his group: Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, or Value-Creating Education Society.
In the years that followed, Makiguchi and his friend Josei Toda gathered a small following of mostly educators. Soon they attracted the attention of Japanese authorities, who were not pleased with their opposition to the 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 other Soka Gakkai leaders. He was interrogated and tortured but refused to compromise his beliefs. A year later he died in prison.
Toda was released in 1945 and set about rebuilding the sect. In the religious vacuum created by Japan's defeat and the subsequent 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. In 1951 Toda became Soka Gakkai's second president; by his death in 1958 the group claimed some 750,000 followers. Daisaku Ikeda was named the third president in 1960 at age 32. Although he is now the honorary president, Ikeda remains, for all intents and purposes, the true leader of Soka Gakkai.
Philosopher, author, artist, and world traveler, Ikeda has 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 him. They can quote him from memory and recount anecdotes that illustrate his warmth, charm, and charisma. "He is the man we really consider our mentor, our leader," says Stephen Bonnell. "It's not like we worship him or anything, but he is our teacher."
-- Daisaku Ikeda
In September 1963, Look magazine published a story headlined, "Japan: Prosperity, beauty, ugliness, and an alarming new religion that wants to conquer the world." The article itself was even more startling. "Soka Gakkai regards itself as not only the one true Buddhist religion, but the one true religion on Earth," wrote 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 too little scrutiny was being given to religious sects such as 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 a Website called 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 harassed by Soka Gakkai while living in Japan. In the United States, 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 spins all manner of theories about SGI-USA, characterizing the group as a kind of "communist cell" organization designed to gather intelligence for Japanese corporations. "They set up these kids like little transmitters," says Peter Graves, a Miami resident who belonged 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 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."
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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."