Most non-Buddhists who have heard of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) know it as Buddhism for the stars. If you saw the Tina Turner bio-flick “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” you saw a dramatization of Turner’s introduction to Soka Gakkai in the late 1970s. Other well-known members include actor Orlando Bloom; musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; and Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl.
From its origins in pre-war Japan, Soka Gakkai has promoted personal empowerment and humanist philosophy combined with Buddhist devotion and practice. Yet as its membership grew in the West, the organization found itself struggling with dissension, controversy, and accusations of being a a cult.
Origins of Soka Gakkai
The first incarnation of Soka Gakkai, called Soka Kyoiku Gakkai ("Value-Creating Education Society"), was founded in Japan in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and educator. Soka Kyoiku Gakkai was a lay organization dedicated to humanistic education reform that also embodied the religious teachings of Nichiren Shoshu, a branch of the Nichiren school of Buddhism.
During the 1930s the military took control of the Japanese government, and a climate of militant nationalism gripped Japan. The government demanded that patriotic citizens honor the Japanese indigenous religion, Shinto. Makiguchi and his close associate Josei Toda (1900-1958) refused to participate in Shinto rituals and worship, and they were arrested as “thought criminals” in 1943. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944.
After the war and his release from prison, Toda re-formed Soka Kyoiku Gakkai into Soka Gakkai ("Value-Creating Society") and shifted the focus from education reform to the promotion of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. In the post-war era, many Japanese were attracted to Soka Gakkai because of its emphasis on self-empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.
Soka Gakkai International
In 1960, Daisaku Ikeda, then 32 years old, became president of Soka Gakkai. In 1975 Ikeda expanded the organization into Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which today has affiliate organizations in 120 countries and an estimated global membership of 12 million.
In the 1970s and 1980s SGI grew rapidly in the West through aggressive recruitment. Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on the popular 1980s television series Dallas, became a convert and spoke glowingly of SGI in many widely read interviews. SGI also drew attention through splashy publicity events. For example, according to Daniel Golden of the Boston Globe (October 15, 1989),
"NSA [Nichiren Shoshu of America, now known as SGI-USA] stole the show at Bush’s inauguration in January by displaying on the Washington Mall the world’s largest chair — a 39-foot-high model of the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Continental Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records has twice cited NSA for assembling the most American flags ever in a parade, although in one mention it misidentified the group as 'Nissan Shoshu,' confusing the religious organization with the automaker."
Is SGI a Cult?
SGI came to widespread public attention in the West during the 1970s and 1980s, a time of growing concern about cults. For example, it was in 1978 that 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult committed suicide in Guyana. SGI, a rapidly growing, sometimes flamboyant non-western religious organization, looked suspiciously like a cult to many people and to this day remains on some cult watch lists.
You can find diverse definitions of "cult," including some that say "any religion other than mine is a cult." You can find people who argue all of Buddhism is a cult. A checklist created by Marcia Rudin, M.A., a founding director of the International Cult Education Program, seems more objective.
I have no personal experience with SGI, but over the years I've met many SGI members. They don't seem to me to fit the Rudin checklist. For example, SGI members are not isolated from the non-SGI world. They are not anti-woman, anti-child, or anti-family. They are not waiting for the Apocalypse. I do not believe they use deceptive tactics to recruit new members. Claims that SGI is bent on world domination are, I suspect, a tad exaggerated.
Break With Nichiren Shoshu
Soka Gakkai was not organized by Nichiren Shoshu, but after World War II Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu developed a mutually beneficial alliance. Over time, however, tensions grew between SGI President Ikeda and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood over questions of doctrine and leadership. In 1991 Nichiren Shoshu formally renounced SGI and excommunicated Ikeda. News of the break with Nichiren Shoshu rippled like shock waves through the SGI membership.
However, according to Richard Hughes Seager in Buddhism in America (Columbia University Press, 2000), a majority of American members remained with SGI. Before the break they had had little direct contact with the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood; SGI-USA had always been run by laypersons, and that did not change. Many of the issues causing the rift made little sense outside Japan.
Further, Seager wrote, since the break with the priesthood SGI-USA has become more democratic and less hierarchical. New initiatives placed women in more leadership positions and enhanced SGI's racial diversity. SGI also has become less exclusionary. Seager continued,
"Religious dialogue, both interreligious and inter-Buddhist, is now on the SGI agenda, which would not have been the case under the sectarian leadership of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. All of these initiatives have contributed to an opening up of Soka Gakkai. A frequent statement in leadership circles is that a new, egalitarian SGI is a 'work in progress.'"