reviews – Soka Gakkai
This volume in Signature’s Studies in Contemporary Religion series follows earlier books on Scientology and the Unification Church. Like its predecessors, it is noteworthy for its brevity and balanced approach to a controversial religious movement. Soka Gakkai (“Value-Creating Society”), an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism that began in Japan shortly before World War II, has become an international movement with several million members. It emphasizes the power of individuals to transform themselves and then promote peace and compassion in the world. Dobbelaere discusses recurring tensions between SG leaders and Nichiren monks, the differences in SG practices around the world, and the movement’s educational and cultural institutions.
Interview with Dr. Karel Dobbelaere, author of the book, Soka Gakkai: From Lay Movement to Religion, and Professor Emeritus of the Catholic University of Leuven and the University of Antwerp, Belgium.
What was your motivation for writing this book?
In 1997, I was invited by Massimo Introvigne, the series editor of Studies in Contemporary Religions, to write a compact book on the Soka Gakkai: its history, structure, philosophy and membership. Earlier, in 1994, I had published with Bryan Wilson A Time to Chant which looked at the Soka Gakkai movement in the United Kingdom. My book on the Soka Gakkai was published in Italian in 1998. I continued my research on the Soka Gakkai, and this has been reflected in the present updated and revised English-language version, as well as the French edition.
What are your overall findings?
Very important for me as a sociologist of religion was a finding in our UK study, confirmed by studies in Italy and the U.S.A., that Soka Gakkai converts are generally not “religious seekers”–people in search of a religion. Rather, they are typically confronting problems in the secular world and may suffer from a negative self-image. The Soka Gakkai member whom they encounter appears to have a strong vitality or life force, which attracts them. On that person’s suggestion they try out the practice in order to solve their problems. In my book I analyze this process of conversion and suggest the importance of the small group discussion meeting, which provides converts with social support. This is needed to help them see that the practice is not magical but more a kind of self-directed therapy, which at the same time has a religious character. This finding suggests two important conclusions: first is the need to reconceptualize sociologically the process of conversion, and second is to understand this religion as offering certain methodologies for living, similar in some ways to those offered by mainstream Christian denominations over the course of history.
What is the larger sociological background for your study?
It is part of many sociological studies on New Religious Movements (NRM) which document a changing religious “market” and increasing religious pluralism. This change is most important in Europe where, until the 1960s, most countries were effectively Christian monopolies: Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. This pluralism became possible due to a process of functional differentiation that reduced religion to the place of one subsystem within society, in this way undermining the authority of the traditional churches over other societal subsystems such as politics, the economy, education, etc. This is the process, in other words, of the secularization of social systems.
What is your view on the future of the SGI in Europe and the world?
The globalization of the movement poses problems of encountering and accommodating to different cultural settings. My understanding is that the SGI-affiliated Institute of Oriental Philosophy was founded precisely in order to clarify the essence of Buddhism by stripping away the influence of the traditions and cultures of different countries.
The Soka Gakkai seems conscious of the need to strip its structure and culture of the Japanese context in which it emerged and evolved. This requires a dialogue with the non-Japanese membership, which is a very serious task and imposes a great responsibility on the part of the Japanese leadership both within and outside Japan.
In my book, I describe some of these problems. For example, how does one translate the typical Japanese master-student relationship expressed in the concept of “guidance”? In interviews throughout the world, I noticed that for many members, the organization’s structure suggests a hierarchical relationship and style of leadership which may be unacceptable for historical reasons and hinder the development of the movement. Discussing this with French-speaking Canadian members, it was suggested that this relationship be reformulated in terms of accompagnement, a kind of fellowship or accompaniment that stimulates the “student” to analyze his or her circumstances, to find his or her own way and to make his or her own decisions.
Another problem that emerged during my study was the typical Japanese structure of segregation by gender, which has already been questioned in some national organizations. And as one last example, we see the adaptation of organizational practices such as the appointment of leaders which, in the United States, has been supplanted by a process of nomination, review and approval that involves both peers and other leaders.
One important hope is the development of an interreligious dialogue that formally started after the mass-excommunication by the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood in 1991. Another SGI-affiliated institution, the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, has played an important and valuable role in facilitating encounters among representatives of different faiths and philosophical traditions. The center’s objective is to find a common philosophical and ethical basis from which people can promote respect for human rights, life, the environment, economic equity, sustainable development, peace and nonviolence.
Why is the situation of NRM sometimes so challenging in Europe?
I mentioned already the mono-religious culture that has historically prevailed in Europe. The United States, in contrast, was from its earliest stages conceived as a religiously pluralistic state which institutionalized religious freedom, allowing religious groups to freely worship, preach and proselytize. In Europe, pluralism appeared first with the emergence of a growing number of unbelievers, who rejected the religious heritage that had molded the culture and structure of their countries.
France is a paradigmatic example of the conflict between the secular and religious impulses. The deliberate secularization of the state and its institutions, such as the educational system, was the outcome of this struggle, waged under the banner of “laicization.” Religion was reduced to the so-called private sphere; the public sphere became secular. However, in the late 20th century, so-called religious “irrationality” has reemerged in the form of the New Religious Movements. These movements have not restricted religion to the private sphere but have engaged themselves in secular fields: culture, politics, education, drug abuse prevention, rehabilitation, etc.
To what extent do you see the SGI as part of a larger movement? And, conversely, where do you see its uniqueness?
Many new movements emerging from civil society engage themselves in the promotion of peace, human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development. These are common goals which already find expression in some new political parties such as the green parties. However, what is specific to the Soka Gakkai is that, as a religious movement, it gives a sacred aura to these objectives. In this way the members are transmodern; they embrace post-material values–the environment, human rights and self-fulfillment; they look to the future with optimism but turn to the wisdom of an old religion, the Buddhism of Nichiren, for inspiration on how to proceed.
In contrast to some schools of Buddhism, their wish of attaining enlightenment is not geared toward escaping from or breaking the cycle of birth and death with its attendant sufferings. Rather, they are concerned with the here and now, with helping people and with improving life on Earth. Many of them, it would seem, are actually committed to being quickly reborn after death so that they may continue to share the wisdom of Buddhism with others and to lead more people toward enlightenment. They share the greatest virtue of the bodhisattva: universal compassion translated into action.