Japan’s Other Tsunami

In some other Japan related news . . .

Daisaku Ikeda, President-Soka Gakkai Intl.

There’s an interesting article at the OC Weekly, a sort of expose dealing with some controversies at Soka University, the liberal arts college in Orange Country California run by the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organization centered in Japan. I’ll post the link at the end.

The SGI is a very complicated subject, one that really calls for book-length treatment. I was involved with the SGI for many years, so I know that it is difficult to take a single aspect, in this case Soka University of America, and paint an accurate picture in an article of four or five thousand words.

This is the largest, most well organized, wealthiest Buddhist organization in the world, with branches in over 192 countries and 12 million members, numerous associative and sub organizations, an education system, which according to one SGI website (ikedabooks.com) “includes kindergartens in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil, a complete school system in Japan as well as Soka University in Japan and the United States,” a concert association, an art museum, an institute of “Oriental Science”, a couple of institutes for “Global Peace and Policy Research,” and a political party

More than anything else, Soka Gakkai is Daisaku Ikeda. He built the modern day organization and it is his words, his spirit, his ideas, and his agenda that permeates every aspect of it. Fanatical is not too strong a word to use to describe the respect, love and devotion his followers feel for him. In recent years, the concept of the “oneness of master and disciple” (I forget the Japanese term) has become a central part of the faith, the doctrine.

Ikeda receiving the Leonardo International Award from the Leonardo Club (?), Russia 1994

I think Ikeda holds the world record for most academic honorary degrees. At last count, he has racked up a whopping 300. He gets a lot of prizes and awards, too. Some of these are the result of intensive lobbying efforts on the part of the SGI, and in a few cases, allegedly, extensive gift giving.

I haven’t mentioned the relentless recruitment efforts – or the money. Tons of it. One time the SGI “lost”  a million dollars. It was found at a dumpsite in Yokohama.

So, it’s a complex story to tell. To try to capsulate even the Soka University part of it in a single article is a daunting task, if you want to do it with accuracy and balance. So, I have some mixed feeling about the article. For me there seems to be some pieces missing, some parts that are rather hazy, and some of it doesn’t ring true, based on my experience. I don’t doubt that there is something to the allegations, it’s just that I have questions about the way they are said to have been played out.

The SGI is a multi-tiered organization. At the level of Soka U, which is extremely important to the SGI, things are done with finesse. Frankly, when I hear allegations about threats and intimidation, I wonder. The typical SGI strategy is to marginalize people. They are highly skilled at subtle manipulation and manufacturing consent. Masters of public relations: scour the net and you will find very little negative material. How they do that, I don’t know. It’s a bit different in Japan, where a lot of the skeletons are already out of the closet. And they are sitting on top of a Mt. Fuji of controversy. One of these days, someone is going to put all the pieces together and present it the world. It’s inevitable the way things are today.

In reading the article it is important to keep in mind that Soka University of America is just one spoke in a very large wheel, and as such, and with all things Gakkai at that level, no decision is ever made or action taken without the knowledge and approval of higher ups in Japan. Often, the leaders in Japan give the direction, and they are not always sensitive to the cultures of other countries, and in the case of the U.S., political correctness, especially in regards to administrative, legal and financial matters.

I won’t go into all the other fine points that the article does not make, and I am not really judging the author, for as I said, it is a complex subject, and too, I have no idea what editorial judgments were made. One glaring error is that the Hare Krishna is not “an alternative Buddhist sect.” Those are not the author’s words, yet I would think that including a clarification would have been the more professional thing to do – maybe that’s just nit-picking, I don’t know.

Soka Gakkai has many positive aspects, but some disturbing ones. The question is whether the bad outweighs the good, and that is why it deserves scrutiny. Make no mistake about it, no matter how positive the SGI’s image is publicly, there is a dark side.

Ikeda is quoted in the article saying “I am the King of Japan.” Sounds pretty grandiose, but there is a grain of truth in that. His influence on his society is underrated outside of Japan, and perhaps within, as well. This is why, when someone does publish a well-researched, thorough “expose”, no matter how well balanced, it’ll be like a tsunami hitting the world of the Soka Gakkai, and I think, Japan itself.

Here’s the article.

By the way, a satellite designed by Soku U students in Japan, called  Negai (“wish”), was launched on May 10, 2010 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The satellite is operated by Soka U and now orbits the earth, supposedly as a technological demonstration transmitting pictures to children participating in an outreach program. I don’t think this is part of any plot by the SGI to take over the world, but I’m not sure that I would rule it out.

Author of Ikeda portrait photo: SGI


To care, to cry, to remove the suffering

I had another post planned for today. I think I will save it for some other time, because for the last few hours I have been watching on live television a tsunami devastate the Pacific coast of Japan, and now the entire west coast of the U.S. is under a tsunami warning . . .

It is extraordinary, and heart wrenching, to watch:  A tsunami wave carrying mud and debris (some of it burning)  went up a river to sweep over homes and farm land, cars speeding out of the way, cars and huge trucks swept up and carried along, boats crashing into bridges, buildings filling with water, fires in Sendai, Tokyo . . .

A tsunami warning has been in effect for Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Marianas, and a tsunami watch issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hawaii. By the time you read this, who knows what the situation will be.

I have never been to Japan. I have spent a great deal of time with Japanese people, and I am very fond of them and love their culture. May they and all people in the regions affected be free from suffering.

Whenever there is a natural disaster, people struggle to find an explanation. However, the truth is that there is only the scientific explanation. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not caused by supernatural forces. Buddhism certainly doesn’t try to provide an explanation other than that it is suffering and this is a world of suffering.

Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem enough. There should be ideas or words that comfort, that heal. That’s the compassion part of Buddhism. The Japanese word for compassion is jihi. I believe it corresponds with the Sanskrit karuna. Ji means “to care, to cry” or to have empathy. Hi means “to remove the suffering.”

It is not enough to simply know there is suffering. We must also remove suffering whenever we can. Or make the attempt. There are times, however, when we are helpless, too far away, unable to render any direct service. In such cases, all we can do is heal and comfort ourselves, and those immediately around us.

In that regard, we have two powerful tools. One is the aspiration to remove the suffering. We may not be able to help, but we can still want to help. An aspirational wish, or prayer if you will, can be very effective. Just ask the Dalai Lama:

The root of [aspirational] prayer is compassion. To be interested in one’s own welfare and to desire happiness for oneself is natural. But it is more important to be concerned with the happiness of others. What an altruistic aspiration like this does is counter the self-centeredness that neglects others. If you are centered on your own well-being, and ignore the well-being of others, you will never find true happiness. The act of wishing others to be free from suffering brings great benefits and blessings to you, even though you do not seek them.

Secondly, we have practice. Tibetan Buddhism has a meditation called Tonglen. It means “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.”  You visualize taking into your own body the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath you send out warm thoughts of loving-kindness. There are different ways to do Tonglen. Some are a bit ritualistic. I do “giving and taking” very simply, as I described it here.

Healing and comforting oneself is not selfish. It is an essential requirement to practicing compassion, empathy and removing suffering. Again, the Dalai Lama:

Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.

If you would like to learn more about Tonglen, Pema Chodron’s explanation is a good place to start.

All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body. I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble,  I am not afraid,  nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free.

– Shantideva