Launched 11/18/04


The "C" Word
About the Press

                             by Jim Celer

 It was late, and I was tired and trying to get the 2-year-old to bed.  In my arms, he rubbed his eyes, pointed to the altar and said “There!”  Never one to pass a chance to be amazed at my child’s Buddhist precociousness, I decided to put off bedtime for a few minutes to see what  he might be channeling.  He pulled out the chair and said “Sit daddy.”  Then he ran off.  I turned to see him standing at the bathroom door, and when I started to move he held up his hand and said “Pwease no — stay there daddy.”  Then he ran into the bathroom and closed the door.

So I faced the Gohonzon and told myself I’d chant that he didn’t hurt himself or break anything in there.

I got out “Nam myo” before it hit me:  I’m the Dad, and if I want to protect him, I can just go into the bathroom — whether he says “pwease no” or not.

The moral of the story:  We can all become glassy eyed cult zombies if we want to be.

SGI has been accused of being a “cult”: by western organizations for whom anything eastern is a “cult”; by other Buddhist sects with their own agendas; by ex-members and even by some current members. 

What do they mean?  I’m not going to address prejudices of  the external critics — the “cult watchdogs” and rival religions — but will concentrate on the concerns of those who have actually been SGI members.

And I will argue that they can, indeed, be members of a cult – if they want to be.

Their arguments seem to be:

  1. There is great emphasis on the activities, speeches and writings of the SGI president, to the point where many feel he is “worshipped”;
  2. Control: dissent is not allowed, the leaders are authoritarian and there is no forum for member input into decisions.
In responding to these allegations, I will rely frequently on my own experience as an SGI member for over 30 years.

POINT 1: “There is great emphasis on the activities, speeches and writings of the SGI president, to the point where many feel he is ‘worshipped’.”

Indeed there is great emphasis on the current president, Daisaku Ikeda: in publications, in guidance, in members’ lives.

The sole purpose for the existence of the SGI is to widely disseminate the Buddhism of Nichiren, based on the understanding that Nichiren Buddhism has an actual positive effect on the real lives of its practitioners.

In 1951 the Soka Gakkai was a fairly small lay organization.  That year, its president Josei Toda vowed to expand to a quarter of a million households. That goal was realized by the time of his death seven years later.

It didn’t happen by accident, or by divine decree. It happened because real effort was made, daily, teaching individuals, one by one, the efficacy of Nichiren’s practice. Leading the way in these efforts — doing the actual work — was Daisaku Ikeda.

Mr. Ikeda became the president in 1960, and immediately began exporting the Soka Gakkai to the world. That year he visited the United States and other countries, encouraging the few individual Gakkai members he found, setting up organizations and helping in propagation. 

From that start, the SGI has organizations in 190 countries (as of Fall 2004).

Those who wish to help the SGI fulfill its purpose, then, have as their president someone whose experience in this regard is invaluable: he’s done it. Neither he, nor the organization on his behalf, claims any special prowess arising out of his office (like the pope, who becomes infallible with his ascension). It is not claimed that he is the reincarnation of anyone especially noteworthy (as are the leaders of some other Buddhist sects, or the Rev. Moon). There’s no claim of a special state of life, or special insight, available only to him (like the high priest of another Nichiren sect).  There is no claim that it is his blessing or wisdom that causes benefits for others.

Very simply: the purpose of the SGI is to widely propagate Nichiren’s Buddhism. Mr. Ikeda has done this, more successfully than anyone in history. Therefore the SGI cherishes his counsel, based on actual accomplishment — not his office, not his name.

So it is only natural that we cite his encouragement, that we sometimes voice our determination to further what he has started.  This may be construed as “worship” by those who have missed that the man has led an actual life, and has accomplished great things through day-to-day effort — the same kind of effort, with the same struggles, we ourselves face daily.  Since we want to succeed in those efforts, we look to a man who has succeeded, to a greater extent than anyone in history.

POINT 2:  “Control”

The implication here is that SGI-USA is a closed, secretive organization whose members are expected to be docile and unquestioning.

In the first 20 or so years of my practice, I didn’t dissent much, but I never witnessed anyone punished for dissenting. In fact, the loudest and most persistent dissenter in my local organization kept getting appointed to more responsible positions, until by the time he moved away, he was a vice-headquarters chief.

In 1990 President Ikeda began redefining the organizational culture of the SGI-USA. He stressed each individual’s direct connection to the Gohonzon. He emphasized personal initiative and the power of intellect. He directed those in positions of responsibility to be open and supportive. He said he wanted our organization to be “overflowing with smiles, friendship and humanity”.

More recently (February 2004) he told the top leaders of SGI-USA that “leaders must also value those who offer opinions. Growth and development require change and innovation. Innovation cannot take place where fresh ideas are ignored or suppressed.” 

My experience is that SGI-USA has been applying those ideals for years.

I’ve had disagreements with leaders, national to local, over matters trivial and vital. Sometimes they came around to my thinking, sometimes I came around to theirs.

Here are some of my experiences.  Note that there is a common thread.

A few years ago complaints and accusations swirled through the Internet about leaders — even leaders from Japan — showing up unannounced at the homes of people who had not exchanged their Gohonzon. Many of those people were miffed, and it gave ammunition to those firing the “cult” bullet.

We were told a couple of leaders from Los Angeles would be visiting our area, wanting to speak to everyone who had retained their old Gohonzon. So, in the days before they arrived, we made an effort to contact those people. We couldn’t reach everyone, and some of those we did reach said they didn’t want to talk about it.  The visiting leaders never as much as heard their names, and we took them to meet only those who had agreed beforehand. That seemed the polite thing to do, like a way consistent with an organization of “smiles, warmth and friendship”.

The visiting leaders had no problem with that at all. They agreed we had acted with consideration for the people we knew, and were happy to talk to people who welcomed the discussion. And, not everyone they talked to was convinced to exchange Gohonzon;  the leaders were understanding of that, too.

The leaders in any locality know the members in that locality better than “senior leaders” who live hundreds of miles away, and understand what is encouraging to those members. And it seems the senior leaders who live hundreds of miles away understand this. 

There are examples from all around the country of people who took initiative to hold activities outside the box of SGI tradition. I’ve been involved, or observed, a few of these. In each case, the initial reaction from the leadership was “What in the world are you doing?” And as each proved to be encouraging to the members, and consistent with the SGI’s mission, the later reaction from those same leaders has been “Nice going!”

That happened to me with an Internet project I was urging in the early Nineties, when I was told it was “a waste of time.” But I persisted, and after a while the same people were just as persistent in their thanks.

In 1999 our Area wanted to stage a culture show, and I was on the committee. We decided to do a musical comedy rather than the traditional variety show format. Resistance was strong, and it took nearly daily discussions with leaders for two months before we got the green light. The main concern was that there was a certain expectation on the part of people who had practiced for years, and though we wished it weren’t so, we had to admit that was legitimate, and we would be wrong to exclude them. So we compromised with a short “traditional” show to start the evening, followed by the musical. 

An estimated 100 guests attended; and, because of their participation, about a dozen youth started practicing on their own. Leaders who had resisted the idea later went out of their way to express their joy.

The common thread?  All these issues were resolved by discussing them with the leaders involved. There were no demands. I didn’t threaten to go public, and I didn’t recruit others to pressure those with whom I disagreed. Both sides were always open to the possibility that the other had sincere concerns that had to be addressed. 

I think those who claim the SGI is a closed and authoritarian “cult” have somehow missed a number of opportunities. I believe they’ve made assumptions that could easily have been tested. I believe they, like me, had some non-traditional ideas, but were adamant about them, and insisted that not only they, but others also go the way they had chosen.

Personal initiative begins with one’s own awareness, which he/she shares with others through dialogue — dialogue tempered with the understanding that not everyone else will be in agreement. When one is insistent that others, whether in agreement or not, support one’s initiative, then any resistance may be interpreted as a cultish “my way or the highway” attitude. Our intention with the culture show was to allow youth to feel included in the SGI, and our idea for the musical was arose from our conversations with them. If, when the idea was resisted, we had gone back to the youth and complained about the leadership, the show never would have happened and those youth would not be practicing today.

And when one assumes that a cultish atmosphere prevails,  then absolutely anything can be construed as “proof.” If we had assumed when those leaders came to visit that they would not listen to us, then we never would have discovered how much they valued our own familiarity with our members.

The SGI is an organization that cherishes each individual’s growth, that values each individual’s contributions. Many different members have many different opinions about things as fundamental as the significance and origin of the Dai Gohonzon, but no one has been expelled for heresy. There are differences of opinion on many topics, and addressing those differences opens avenues of awareness, encouragement and, ultimately, appreciation of the great mission of our SGI.

Or, we can just let our eyes glaze over, and be led thoughtlessly by anyone. Even a two-year-old.

This website is owned and maintained by Kathy Ruby. No one else is responsible for its content. Any resemblance to any other website is purely accidental and/or satirical. Any abusive email will be read and chuckled over. Any articles documenting my personal experience are just that -- my personal experience. Your mileage may vary. Isn't that so true in life? Pages are subject to change at any time based on my whim.