excerpt – Soka Gakkai

Soka Kyoiku GakkaiChapter 1.
History of the Movement

The path that brought Soka Gakkai to its present state within Japanese society and throughout the world was difficult. In 1943 the movement’s leaders were jailed for refusing to enshrine the talisman of the Shinto sun goddess Tensho Daijin and for failing to support the war effort. Founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) died of malnutrition in prison at age seventy-three.


An educator by profession, Makiguchi was the director of several schools and author of works criticizing the Japanese educational system, which he found to be too abstract and focused on science to the exclusion of what might be applicable to daily life. Since the primary schools’ role was increasingly that of preparing pupils for university entrance exams, the system tended toward elitism and neglected the average student. Instead Makiguchi promoted practical education intended to prepare all children for adulthood based on the study and analysis of the pupils’ own daily lives. He believed that such an education would encourage self-confidence and independence. In fact, he became convinced that pupils were capable of developing knowledge by themselves from personal experiences and that the true role of the teacher ws simply to help facilitate this process.

Such were supported by Buddhist beliefs from the Mahayana tradition, the so-called “greater vehicle” of Buddhism. Contrary to the Hinayana tradition, the so-called “lesser vehicle” with its emphasis on the salvation of monks, the Mahayana tradition tends toward populism and is directed towards compassion. In a sense it democratizes salvation through its inclusiveness. Increasingly compelling to Makiguchi were the beliefs and practices of Nichiren Buddhism, based on the Lotus Sutra, the supreme teaching of Gautama Buddha (Shakamuni). Nichiren proclaims that ordinary people may develop qualities necessary to find solutions not only to their own problems but to the much bigger problems of the world, as well.

Along with Josei Toda (1900-58), a young teacher and protégéé, Makiguchi formally converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1928, specifically to the teachings of the Shoshu branch of Nichiren. From then on religion would be as important to Makiguchi as pedagogy, and from this new perspective the school master revisited the question of the purpose of teaching. In 1930 he and Toda created a loosely organized group they called the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Educational Society for the Creation of Value) and published volume one of Makiguchi’s Education for Creative Living. In it he proposed a new hierarchy of values. Whereas in his previous works he had stressed the utilitarian objectives of school and work, from 1930 on he proposed an educational approach that emphasized goodness as the most important achievement, replacing utility.

As Susumu Shimazono emphasizes, “If benefit has a personal value, good has a societal value. Good makes value judgement on a high moral plane possible, enabling one to take into consideration not only one’s own interest but other people’s as well . . . Value-creation requires people to lead lives directed towards goodness, transcending the pursuit of life-based knowledge and utility, namely the pursuit of utility and of a knowledge based on life-experiences” (1995, 45). This change introduced by Makiguchi can be explained, according to Shimazono, by the influence he received from different sociological works on social ethics, including those of Emile Durkheim, and from the religion of Nichiren Shoshu which led him to promote the ideal of life based on goodness as the supreme value.

At first those who joined the association were educators, but from 1937, the date of the society’s formal founding, the membership began to include people from all social strata who were attracted to this interpretation of Nichiren Buddhism. Makiguchi continued his Buddhist beliefs and practices in prison during the war. He died in 1944. It was his and his colleagues’ opposition to the state religion and war that had resulted in their incarceration.


Freed from jail a year later in 1945, Josei Toda devoted himself to rebuilding the movement created by his mentor, of whose death he learned only during his own trial. Toda’s intent was to capitalize on the solidarity of common citizens. In 1946 he renamed the association Soka Gakkai (Value-Creating Society; hereafter sometimes abbreviated SG). In addition, because of his fierce opposition to war, he devoted SG not only to the propagation of the Buddhist faith, based on Nichiren’s teachings, but also to peace. With this in mind, he issued a declaration in Yokohama in 1957 calling for the abolishment of all atomic and nuclear weapons. In fact, today members of SG define themselves as a worldwide movement for the promotion of peace, education, and culture.

Toda had been a teacher like Makiguchi prior to the war and had already applied his master’s pedagogical principles in the private school he directed. He had also published books to help students prepare for university entrance exams. With earnings from his publications, he was able to invest in business. According to Bethel (1996, 89), he controlled seventeen companies by 1943. But he lost everything when he was arrested. It was in prison that he studied the Lotus Sutra and the Gosho (the teachings of Nichiren) and, like Makiguchi, began practicing this religion. As a result, he experienced a deep change: from then on his mission would consist of propagating Nichiren’s teachings as spread by the Shoshu sect.

In 1952 Soka Gakkai was legally registered in Japan as a religious organization. At first the high priest and monks of Nichiren Shoshu, presenting themselves as the sole defenders of the true religion, opposed this move. But since SG defined itself as a lay organization supporting the propagation of the authentic faith of Nichiren, the clerics eventually conceded. However, SG had to agree to a condition: that all members of SG would become active members of the local Shoshu temples. This meant that SG members would continue to call on the traditional monks for the Gojukai ceremony, during which new members receive a copy of the sacred scroll inscribed by Nichiren Shoshu, and that they would rely on the monks for funeral rites and religious services of remembrance.

Toda had been formally invested with the title of president a year earlier, making him the second SG president and successor to Makiguchi. At the time, the organization had less than 3,000 member-households. On the day he became president, he solemnly promised to convert 750,000 families before his death. By the end of 1957, this number had already been reached due to the membership’s enthusiastic proselytism under his direction. In reaching this goal, he promoted one of two traditional Buddhist methods of conversion that had been propagated by Nichiren: shakubuku, meaning “to criticize and to convince.” Nichiren had preached that all previous interpretations of Buddhism were erroneous and should be fought. The other method of propagation, shõju, is more moderate, based on dialogue and example, and is considered more appropriate for non-Buddhist countries and for relations with Hinayana Buddhism. Toda adopted Nichiren’s thirteenth-century conviction that all other schools and sects were wrong, corrupt, and evil, and that one had to combat them through shakubuku. He motivated members by promising them happiness and various benefits (Bethel 1996, 95-96). The social circumstances were ripe for this kind of message because, having lost World War II, many Japanese had lost faith in the civil religion, Shinto, and were looking for other religious certainties.


Toda’s main disciple, Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928), became president of SG in 1960. Under his leadership the movement continued to expand. By 1970 the membership had increased tenfold to 7.5 million households. However, because of the zeal with which some members used the “extreme forms of shakubuku,” a “general attitude of fear and distrust of Soka Gakkai . . . had developed among the Japanese by the late 1950s,” to quote one observer (Bethel 1984, 107-108).

Realizing this, Ikeda asked members to “act and speak with common sense,” though he fell short of renouncing shakubuku “as a conversion method and as a way of life” (Bethel 1984, 108, 110). Under his guidance Ikeda confirmed the importance of worshipping in front of the Gohonzon. Like Toda, he emphasized the respect that lay people should have for monks. He secured important donations to the main temple complex of Nichiren Shoshu, Taisekiji. Toda had constructed the Great Lecture Hall at the site (1958), and Ikeda added the Great Reception Hall (1964) and Great Main Temple (1972). Other structures at the site date back to earlier times. Still, as the religious aspects of the society increased under Ikeda’s presidency, so too did the secular activities. For instance, he reaffirmed the importance of Makiguchi’s philosophy of value-creative education. As Makiguchi had written in 1930: “Human beings do not have the ability to create material; but they can create value, and it is in the creation of value that the unique meaning of human life lies” (Bethel 1984, 49). The expression of this typically human potential is, according to SG teachings, evident in culture, for which education is the cornerstone. SG translated these principles into concrete terms by establishing teaching institutions from kindergartens to universities, cultural halls, museums, a “Concert Association,” and the Makiguchi Foundation for Education. In the Lumannian sense, the activities of such ancillary groups—collectively known as a secular “pillar”—constitute “performances”: religion, here SG, is a resource for non-religious sub-systems, in this case education and the arts. As such, SG is rare among new religious movements in Japan in its incursion into secular society.

In a sense, SG adopts what has been a Christian precedent of creating a pillar of secular activity through parochial schools, educational movements, newspapers and publishing houses, trade unions and hospitals. The justification that SG sees for this—though until now SG has limited its expansion to the arts, education, and the press—is its dedication, according to President Ikeda, to the “welfare of the individual in a mass society,” that religion should “provide for the maximum growth and development of every individual.” This has been the main concern of Ikeda, as it was for Makiguchi (Bethel 1984, 113, 120).

Moreover, as soon as Ikeda assumed leadership, he began traveling abroad to bring encouragement to overseas members who were dispersed in small numbers all over the world. In 1960 he visited North and South America, in 1961 Southeast Asia and India, as well as Europe. Soka Gakkai had indeed already begun to leave Japan and become universal. The channels of this diffusion were diverse. In the United States it was initially through the employees of Japanese subsidiary companies and wives of European businessmen who had worked in Japan. In Brazil the faith was propagated by Japanese immigrants. But there were also missionaries who, inspired by Ikeda’s speeches, left Japan to spread their faith. For example, ten young pioneers went to Germany and worked there in restaurants and in heavy industry and mines to support their ministry.

In 1963 the movement was legally recognized in the United States as a nonprofit organization—the first time to receive such recognition outside Japan. In 1975 Soka Gakkai International (SGI) was created in Guam, and Ikeda became its president. The first general assembly of SGI was organized in Los Angeles in 1980. The European Institute of SGI, as it has been called since 1991, was established in France in 1981 as association cultuelle under French law. The general assembly is made up of delegates and observers from fourteen European countries.

In accordance with the direction of his master Toda, Ikeda has continued to devote considerable energy to promoting peace. In 1978 he submitted to the first Special Session of the United Nations Organization for Disarmament a 10-point proposal for disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1983 he published his “New Proposals for Peace and Disarmament.” Since then, each year on SGI Day, he has published new proposals on the topic. He has also established two centers for the study of peace: the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (1993) and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research (1996). SG is registered as a Non-Governmental Organization with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (1981) and with the Department of Public Information (1981); additionally SGI is registered with the UN’s Economic and Social Council (1983). Ikeda regularly meets with world leaders, including politicians, scientists, and artists, with whom he discusses solutions to world problems. They discuss peace, demilitarization, human rights, the promotion of culture, education, and related issues. In this regard he has also published a work entitled A Lasting Peace.

Nor has his literary output been limited to this; it includes several books on Buddhism, children’s tales, and transcriptions of dialogues with philosophers, scientists, writers, and politicians, including Johan Galtung, René Huyghe, Henry Kissinger, Anatoli Logunov, André Malraux, Aurelio Peccei, Karan Singh, Arnold Toynbee, Linus Pauling, and Bryan Wilson. From 1965 to 1993 he published a serialized novel, The Human Revolution, in Seikyo Shimbun, the SG newspaper, followed by a second serialized novel, The New Human Revolution. The first has been published in several volumes and in several languages. It recounts the hagiographic history of SG under Toda’s leadership, explaining his concept of “human revolution” and designating it as the essence of SG philosophy. The key for an enduring peace and for human happiness, according to the book, lies first in the self-induced change of each individual, not only in social or structural reforms. In this concept of human revolution, we find a reflection of the Buddhist principle that each individual possesses the ability to create unlimited value in harmony with others.

A recurring difficulty for SG has been the tension that has existed between SG as a lay movement and the hierarchy of Nichiren Shoshu. In 1977-79 a new wave of distrust surfaced, to the extent that in 1979 Ikeda was forced to resign as SG president and as sokoto (first representative of the lay believers of Nichiren Shoshu). His book, The Human Revolution, had become central to this dispute. The monks interpreted in its language a claim to be the “modern

Gosho.” Another of Ikeda’s publications, A History of Buddhism, which defended the idea of equality between monks and lay people, stated that the Gakkai was the “clergy of today,” which raised the ire of those monks who already suspected that SG wanted to elevate lay people to the level of masters and reduce the monks to disciples (Wilson and Dobbelaere 1994, 234-37). H. Hojo (1923-81), having worked closely with Ikeda for twenty years and as the general director of SG beginning in 1974, was elected president. Ikeda became honorary president and was reinstated as the sokoto. He has remained the undisputed guide of the Gakkai for nearly forty years. At the death of Hojo in 1981, E. Akiya was elected president, a position he holds today.


Conflict between members and clergy is not unique to Nichiren Buddhism. The tendency has occurred to a greater or lesser degree at all times and in all regions. The history of Protestantism is an example, as are the present tensions between Catholic authorities and diverse grass-roots activists. In general such tension may be characterized as follows. On one side the clergy claim to be the sole interpreters of sacred texts and define themselves as guardians of the scriptures, sacred objects, and places. They base their claims, among other things, on their professional training and consecrated character of the mission they undertake. On the other side lay people—or at least some—seek to reduce the barriers between the sacred and the profane. Bryan Wilson explains these tensions between the Gakkai membership and the clergy:

This then was the mood of the increasingly successful Gakkai movement, in which bold claims were made for a new dynamic approach to spirituality, challenging the staid and settled style of the clergy of Nichiren Shoshu, and setting forth a programme in which modernity was set over against antiquity, faith against ritual, and rational methods and procedures against traditional custom. It went too far and too fast for the clergy who . . . could not but feel threatened by this bold claim to have created a new “third order” of votaries who regarded their own status as equal to that of the religious professionals. Were they to go further and assume the functions of ritual performances, the priesthood might find themselves deprived of both special status and livelihood (Wilson and Dobbelaere 1994, 235).

It was this endemic competition for the control of the faith, believers, and donations that forced Ikeda to resign in spite of the pacifying gestures and retractions by SG. In fact, the two parties had different objectives from the start. The ultimate goal of SG was, and is, to help ordinary lay people live in society while giving them a sense of conviction and the strength to persevere. The monks, on the contrary, were hoping that an increase in the number of SG members would allow them to become the largest Buddhist sect in Japan with the largest number of temples and monks. They insisted on a hierarchical structure with a high priest at the top and, at the bottom, the priests of local temples presiding over congregations of lay people. During its development the SG organization rapidly became distinct from the Nichiren Shoshu sect. It organized meetings at different levels and insisted that members attend at least the monthly discussion meetings to study Buddhist doctrine and to attend bi-monthly conferences on the Gosho. To stimulate the study of doctrine, it organized examinations. Its study department helped members deepen their faith and apply Buddhist principles to daily life, which, according to SG, was the only way to give the principles validity. The result was that the Gakkaiin (SG adherents) became members of local temples in name only; monks no longer were able to control doctrinal development of SG, their task being limited to Gojukai and, in Japan, funeral rituals.

A new wave of conflict took place in December 1990 that can only be understood against this backdrop. Indeed several accusations seemed trivial. For example, Ikeda was reproached for promoting non-Buddhist teachings by having allowed members to sing the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with its allusions to God. He was criticized after a Soka Gakkai scholarly journal ran a picture of the gowns of the English “Order of the Garter” decorated with a cross: the monks stigmatized this as a reference to Christianity.

Other accusations were more fundamental. For example, the president was criticized for having abandoned shakubuku as a method of proselytism in favor of the shõju method. This was later retracted, but only after the monks changed the rules of representation of the laity in the Nichiren Shoshu council to the detriment of SG. Ikeda once more lost his title of sokoto and the other leaders of SG lost their title as daikoto, lay representatives on the council. In this war of communiqués, retractions, and allegations, the leaders of SG claimed that in 1990 the monks had tried to raise the fee to be paid for admission to see the Daigohonzon during pilgrimages to the central temple complex, Taisekiji, and that they had unilaterally doubled the sum to be paid for the commemorative tablets, tõba, presented when a death occurs in the family. Following this, as early as July 1990, SG leaders insisted that the monks limit their financial assessments. President Akiya pointed out that the excuses and concessions made by SG during the conflict of 1977-79 and the resignation of Ikeda from the presidency of SG were motivated solely by a desire to maintain the unity of the movement in order to avoid a split with the clergy. In other words, the time of concessions and of apologies on the part of SG was past. (For a more detailed description of this conflict, see Wilson and Dobbelaere 1994, 239-45.)

In the midst of these problems, the double structure of the movement ceased to function. In reality it had never been fully successful, except perhaps at the beginning when the SG membership was extrememly small. SG seems to have reached the conclusion that the link with traditional monks was less critical than they had thought, especially as the movement expanded. For example, in the UK Express it was emphasized that contrary to other religions where clergy played an indispensable intermediary role, in Nichiren Buddhism followers did not need such mediations in order for their “Buddha nature” to be realized (Wilson and Dobbelaere 1994, 238). Furthermore, in African, American, and European countries the role of monks was limited to performing the rite-of-passage ceremony, the Gojukai. Consequently, as these problems were identified as being structural in nature, SG leaders ceased to feel guilty about the conflicts. Nevertheless members, including some outside Japan, still felt a deep but abstract respect for the Shoshu clergy—monks who had kept the faith and practice for centuries, thus making it possible in 1930 to create SG—a fact which the high priests never failed to underline. The situation was therefore delicate for the SG leadership until in November 1991 the monks undertook a wholesale excommunication of SG members, meaning that there would be no more Gojukai, and from then on the high priest would not give authentic copies of the Gohonzon to new members. Gakkaiin were, moreover, excluded from pilgrimages to the main temple, this privilege being from then on reserved for Nichiren Shoshu members (the Hokkedo) of Iocal temples. How did SG react to these developments?

It must be stressed that not all monks approved of the mass excommunication of SG, a fact that was to be useful to SG leaders. But a grave problem surfaced: new members could no longer receive the Gohonzon, the central object of worship in Nichiren Buddhism. Certainly, new members begin their practice in front of a white wall since, according to Nichiren, the Gohonzon truly exists only inside an individual and can be found only through faith (Reaffirming 1996, 11). However, this sacred scroll serves as a means to facilitate the individual’s realization of Buddhahood, and it is the mirror through which one examines his or her life. In the Gojukai rite of passage, new members receive their own copy of the Gohonzon from a monk and make a commitment to abandon other religions and other objects of worship. Over the years an attempt was made to replace this ceremony with presentation of a certificate of adhesion, but this very rational procedure was not an adequate substitute for a sacred ritual. It was thus essential to find a solution.

On 7 September 1993, close to two years after the excommunication of Soka Gakkai, it was announced that SG had accepted a proposal from Sendo Narita, the Nichiren chief priest of Joenji temple in Tochigi prefecture, to facilitate distribution of the Gohonzon to new members and to those who had not received it during the preceding years. The version of the Gohonzon in question was copied from a scroll transcribed in 1720 by Nichikan, the twenty-sixth high priest of Taisekiji, based on the original Daigohonzon present in Taisekiji. According to the publication of SGI-USA, the decision of SG to distribute a new Gohonzon was inspired by “the intention and the desire of Nichiren to put it at the disposal of all those who seek sincerely to practice the teachings and to give them the possibility to reach indestructible happiness through their faith and practice” (Reaffirming 1996, 7). In addition, previously initiated members were given the opportunity to exchange their Gohonzon transcribed by the present high priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nikken, for a copy derived from High Priest Nichikan’s transcription.

Learning this, the Nichiren Shoshu monks asserted that the new Gohonzons were forgeries because, among other things, they had not been authorized by High Priest Nikken, nor had they been distributed by the main temple. This was refuted by SG, based on historical and doctrinal points, the central one being that the high priest lacked the authority to command the power of the Gohonzon, that this power lies within individuals themselves and can be captured only by faith and practice. While reaffirming the excommunication, the Nichiren Shoshu monks demanded that the Gakkaiin become their subordinates (Reaffirming 1996, 7-57). Taking note of the breakdown of its relationships with the monks, and based on the fact that since 1952 SG has been legally registered as a religion in Japan, and also taking into account laws ruling the constitution of SGI in each country, SG finally named its own priestly exarches and ministers. In France, where it is established as a religious association, SG named two exarches who have “episcopal” jurisdiction, assisted by six ministers. Exarches are named by SGI officials in Japan, whereas ministers are named by exarches. The nomination depends on the level reached in the study of Nichiren Buddhism, on responsibilities previously assumed in the organization, and on at least twenty years of practice. In the U. S. A., conversely, ministers are respected leaders designated by the local organization. This difference in procedure may be explained by the models of the dominant religious culture: appointment of ministers and vicars by the Catholic hierarchy versus the selection of ministers by protestant congregations. The assumption of independent ecclesiastical authority resulted in the restoration of all religious services. However, members are still denied the opportunity of undertaking pilgrimages to Taisekiji, even though the Great Temple was built thanks to their donations. More recently the rupture between SG and the Shoshu priesthood was consummated when High Priest Nikken ordered the destruction of the Great Reception Hall (1995) and then the Great Main Temple (1998), both constructed under President Ikeda.