There are three main branches of Nichiren Buddhism: Nichiren Shu; Nichiren Shoshu; and Soka Gakkai International. I am intimately familiar with the Soka Gakkai International (in the U.S. known as SGI-USA), but only marginally familiar with the other two branches.
Soka Gakkai is the best known of the three schools, and has been heralded as everything from “The Answer,” to a cult. The “president” of Soka Gakkai (SGI), Daisaku Ikeda, is, perhaps, the primary reason for SGI’s reputation of being somewhat “cultish,” but that’s only because Nichiren Shonin, himself, was a do-it-yourself separatist who taught that enlightenment was more than a distinct possibility, within this, one lifetime, simply by chanting “Daimoku,” and of course, living a good life. And did I mention that SGI believes that the clergy is superfluous? So, it is not surprising that of the three schools, only Soka Gakkai is, literally, without a clergy – so being ex-communicated by Nichiren Shoshu wasn’t such a big deal… OK. That was a gross understatement. And in place of a clergy, SGI practitioners, a lay organization, are all supposed to believe that Mr. Ikeda is their “personal mentor,” – whether or not they have ever met or talked to him.
The whole “mentor” idea probably seems more “cultish” to people who are not Buddhist and are unfamiliar with the fact that “mentoring,” by a teacher, guru, Rinpoche, etc., is a common feature on the Buddhist path, particularly for those seeking more than a casual affiliation or practice of this particular faith. So, it is not uncommon to hear SGI practitioners refer to Daisaku Ikeda as “my” mentor. Personally, though I progressed in other ways, I never got that far. I’d never met Mr. Ikeda; never expected to; and even wrote him once (several months ago), and have yet to hear from him (but in all fairness, I was only one of thousands, if not millions, who write him yearly).
Another unique aspect of Soka Gakkai Buddhism is that it is, quite obviously, the most racially diverse group of Buddhists just about anywhere. Rocker, Tina Turner, and jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, are two of the best-known Nichiren Buddhists. Never, either before exploring Soka Gakkai International, or after, have I ever seen so many Black Buddhists, i.e., “Black” people (not “Black Hat Buddhists”). Honestly, one certainly expects a few Asian folks to be there, but then everybody else is usually, always White/Caucasian. Mind you, there are exceptions, but outside of Soka Gakkai, I have never met a “person-of-color” Buddhist. Literally, all of the Buddhists I’ve met, in the Detroit, Vermont, and New York areas have been, apparently, Caucasian, if not Asian (mostly Tibetan Buddhist groups). Nonetheless, there was only one sangha (Buddhist community of believers) where I ever felt not-so-welcome. And that says a lot considering the (*)Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended in 1995 with a friend whose minister refused to shake my little brown hand at the end of the service. You see, I was, until the age of 12, raised in the Lutheran Church. But that’s another post…
Nichiren, known as Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), was a radical Japanese priest who so agitated his neighbors, fellow practitioners, and local government that he was, literally, persecuted for most of his adult life. I mean, there were samurai running around trying to take the man out! And once, just a few minutes before he was to be beheaded, there was a meteor shower (or something) which literally scared the hell out of the executioner and guards, leaving only him, a few devotees, and some disappointed sight seers at the chopping… stone. And the story has it that he called after the executioner to return, finish the job, and quit wasting his time…
Nichiren (correctly) predicted that there would be all manner of natural, and unnatural, disasters (during an unusually disastrous period in Japanese history and weather) due to people not practicing his Buddhism. He also declared himself the “Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” (the Lotus Sutra, according to Soka Gakkai, being not only the Buddha’s last great transmission, but essentially the only one which truly matters). The Votary was someone long-ago revealed, through ‘scripture,’ to be the one who would champion the true Way.
That said, Soka Gakkai practitioners are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There were several rather close-knit ‘communities’ of them in my area. Additionally, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are the most gung-ho Buddhists around in that they aggressively proselytize, something quite foreign to most Buddhist sects, because while they truly believe that only they practice the true faith, they can get along with almost anyone but the Nichiren Shoshu sect. But again, as I said, they’re nice folks; so, they still treat everyone with respect, and not even in private did I ever hear any one of them ridicule other faiths, or sects of Buddhism.
Nichiren Buddhists chant something called “Daimoku,” which translates as “the title.” And that title is the title of the aforementioned, all-important Lotus Sutra, or “Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo.” Soka Gakkai practitioners do not pronounce the ‘u’ in “Nam(u).” Again, the chanting, especially because it is their primary practice, is also something that many believe akin to “cults.” But I don’t know of any Buddhist traditions where chanting is not known. So, to call SGI a cult simply because they chant is, at the very least, uninformed. Nonetheless, chanting Daimoku is so fundamental, and such a primary practice to the Soka Gakkai that almost nothing else matters. Never once did I ever attend a meeting where anything like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path was discussed. But I could have been in the ladies room at the time… That said, chanting ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ through some of the darkest days, and nights, I’ve ever known, literally saved my life. And I know this because for awhile, that was literally all I had. Though I’m no longer part of SGI, I still chant Daimoku, among other things, and always will.
Additionally, I did eventually choose to leave Soka Gakkai (though I was never officially a dues-paying member because I was unemployed). And when I did finally leave, I wasn’t hounded, or threatened, or, as far as I know, the subject of any fire-and-brimstone-she’s-gonna-burn Buddhist talks (we didn’t have ‘sermons’). In fact, except for a couple of folks, I never heard from any of them again. And it’s important that you understand I mention this only to emphasize that no one ever tried to “drag” me back, or force me to do anything – except maybe believe…
Finally, unlike other Buddhists sects, Soka Gakkai practitioners, chant, unabashedly, and at length during marathon chanting sessions for things like cars, better jobs, raises, and nice houses. They are, unlike some people, very much concerned with this life. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad; I just realize that it’s a very different focus and way of defining “life.” That’s why they claim that the secret to becoming happy and wealthy is… Oh, wow, wouldja’ look at that? I’ve reached my promised “never-more-than-two-pages-unless-it’s-a-book-review limit!”
(*) During the 1960s, Black people dared not enter Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches due to a longstanding ban on then-“Negro” membership. The other faction, the LCA (Lutheran Churches of America) prohibited racial discrimination. It was this part of the Lutheran Church to which my father belonged, and in which I was raised in the early part of my childhood. Even so, we were one of only two Black families in a church full of kind, loving, accepting blond, blue-eyed people named Svenson, Anderson, Olafson, and so on… And interestingly enough, that church was located in the poorest, Blackest part of town. When I visited my friend’s church in 1995 (in the same town), I had no idea if the ban had been lifted, or not, and I truly wasn’t that concerned. I only know that my reception was especially frosty, and I don’t know where the Missouri Synod stands to this day…
Is Buddhism a Religion? from mgmgfilms: The Writings of Marc Ginsburg (blog)
(1) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Sweep the dust, Push the dirt (blog)
(2) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Humanism of Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Humanism.com (Website)
A Lotus, A Scotsman, SGI, and an Open Path from Fly Like a Crow (blog)
Unshakably Happy from Making Baby Buckley (blog)