Friday, August 22, 2008

My Personal Take on Sokagakkai

If I rot in hell, I’ll blame Michael Reimer and Mark Oppenheimer, who inspired this post.
I came into personal contact with Sokagakkai in the early 60s, when it was still an aggressively proselytizing sectlaic organization linked to a prominent Nichirenshu temple*. As such, it promised to heal diseases, repair marriages, revive failing businesses, etc., etc., and chronicled success stories in its official newspaper Seikyo Shinbun. In other words, Daisaku Ikeda was no worse than any American televangelist or mail-order-DVD motivational speaker or, to be honest, any religious entrepreneur of note that I am aware of except Gautama Siddhartha and to a lesser extent Jesus Christ. But Sokagakkai did compete directly with powerful and traditional, mostly heirloom, Buddhist sects** such as Jodoshinshu, which, together with the Shinto shrines, dispensed their own versions of worldly benefaction in exchange for professions of faith as evidenced by offerings of monies and other means of corporeal sustenance. Needless to say, persecution is the fate of all such challengers to the status quo; Jesus was crucified, Mohammed was kicked out of Mecca, Marx died a penurious death in London…

Sokagakkai however has followed the route taken by most if maybe not all successful religions and matured; it has lost its aggressiveness and now, if the absence of its missionaries in my neighborhood is any indication, relies mainly on the offspring of existing disciples to maintain and grow its membership. Thus, it joins the ever-expanding number of heterodoxies, heresies and paganisms that make their way out of the minor league, so to speak, to prosper and enable their leaders to hobnob with kings, presidents, prime ministers and other holders of temporal power.

Speaking of which, isn’t it amazing how Daisaku Ikeda manages to cop photo ops with every university rector, Nobel Prize winner and other prominent members of civil society in emerging-market and developing economies on this planet, yet never appears with any Japanese notables? Does he have Nippon cooties or what? Who is to blame? Sokagakkai, or Japan? Just sayin’.

* The cleric and the laic long harbored an uneasy relationship here that in 1991 ended up with the temple excommunicating Sokagakkai.

** Religious assignments appear to be as hereditary as Diet membership.


Michael Reimer said...

Thanks Jun. That's more or less what I was hoping for and I accept full responsibility for your possible damnation. It's easy to do so since I'll be there too.

Mark Oppenheimer's article made me uncomfortable because Scientology makes me uncomfortable, but I can't really find any fault with it. Something to think about, I guess.

Regarding Ikeda's popularity or at least acceptability most anywhere outside of Japan and perhaps France*: In North America, at least, the umbrella of "Buddhism" comes with a positive and kind of chic image. If you practice any otherwise strange religion and then add "we're a Buddhist sect" the general reaction will be "oh, that's OK, they're Buddhists, that's what they do". Basically I think that in any country where another Buddhist sect isn't already well established, SGI can cash in on the image of Buddhism without suffering for its heretical origin. Since Nichiren originated in Japan, the heresy is most damning there.

* In France, if I recall correctly, a prominent SGI member murdered someone and that got SGI declared a cult. I think this is just a typical fallacy - if a person belonging to some group that isn't entirely trusted commits a crime, the group becomes suspect. Minority religion, ethnicity, social class, etc. I suppose this also contributes to the difficulties that new religions face - if a Catholic commits a crime, it's generally his/her own fault, not the religion's.

Jun Okumura said...

In France, if I recall correctly, a prominent SGI member murdered someone and that got SGI declared a cult.

That’s wrong. Is it true, Sophie? By the same token, Catholicism would be labeled a deviant-sex cult many times over. On the bright side, the French won’t force SGI Buddhists to emulate their eponymous leader by throwing them to the tigers, will they?

As for Mr. Oppenheimer, he obviously harbors irreverent thoughts with regard to the Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition. More generally, you can get away with anything in America if you label it Christian. And in defense of Sokagakkai, their claims of holy intercession are no different in essence from those made on behalf of valued personalities and artifacts belonging to more traditional sects or the Catholic faith, not to mention the rest of the Buddhist and Shinto world.

That's it for now. See you in hell, Michael.

Michael Reimer said...

That’s wrong.

Checking it now, I think I conflated two stories there. It looks like the French government does indeed consider SGI a cult, but not for the reason I gave.

Jun Okumura said...


What exactly does it mean that the French authorities “consider SGI a cult”? Does it mean anything more than that they do not recognize it as a religious entity? In many countries including Japan and the United States, religious entities and/or their donors are entitled to certain tax benefits. The same could be the case in France. The SGI is a laic organization, so that could be reason enough to disqualify it in France, just as it is, I assume, in Japan. A corporation publishing Buddhist books would be similarly disqualified regardless of its cult/non-cult status.

Michael Reimer said...

What exactly does it mean that the French authorities “consider SGI a cult”? Does it mean anything more than that they do not recognize it as a religious entity?

I'm not speaking from even a modicum of authority here, I just did some googling. It looks like it does mean more than that. The French government maintains a list of organizations considered cults, and they're subject to an anti-cult law that severely limits where they can have property, get building permits, or advertise, and makes it easier to criminally charge corporations they operate under.

Scientology is on the list as well, of course, and was apparently quite vocal in their opposition to the bill.

It's when I read stuff like this that I can't be as accepting as Oppenheimer of Intelligent Design. (The headline: Dinosaurs helped build the pyramids, [creationist] school director says)

Jun Okumura said...


The lists in the 1995 French National Assembly report also include Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and transcendental meditation. My guess is that cult and culte are similar but not identical words. The report, translated by someone who does not seem to have a legal or accounting background, does list many consequences arising from differences in legal status, but most of them—possibly all the important ones—are related to tax incidence. The report moreover does not appear to be linked to the 2001 About-Picard Law, to which you refer. There are no lists associated with the About-Picard Law, under which only one cult leader has been prosecuted so far, according to Wiipedia. The “sect” itself does not appear to have been subjected to any legal sanctions.

As for dinosaurs, if they could help our ancestors do this, I’m sure they could have helped build pyramids as well.

Michael Reimer said...

All right, I guess I'm jumping to conclusions from lazy reading. The main reason is that I met an SGI member practicing in France and she was very upset about their legal status, so much so that I couldn't believe it was just about taxes. I still have a feeling that there's some other part of this that I haven't been able to find, but... it's the weekend, and the summer, and I'm not Steve Barber so, you know. I concede!

Jun Okumura said...

Aha, so you concede that dinosaurs help build pyramids too? Chalk one up for Intelligent Design then.