The Fighting Forces of the Lotus

Recently I read a post at Emergent Dharma, described as a “Young Buddhist Blog,” in which the author writes of his visit to a Nichiren Shoshu temple in Ghana. A temple member introduced him to another member, saying the author was new to Nichiren but had been practicing Zen for a while. The second temple member replied, “Zen, huh? That is inferior.”

Anyone who has interacted with folks from the major Nichiren traditions will recognize this as a fairly typical experience. Now, there’s nothing wrong with believing your religion to be best. After all, who wants to practice a second rate religion? However, most of us don’t say to people right off in our first casual encounter that their religion sucks. And there is nothing new about Buddhist elitism. Many of us are aware of how the Mahayana continually criticized the so-called Hinayana for being inferior.

The difference here is that prejudice against other religions and forms of Buddhism is part of the Nichiren doctrine, and when prejudice and elitism are integral to a religion’s canon, it can be a dangerous thing. Eventually, the old Mahayana elitism diffused as it spread throughout Asian and time wore on. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the schools of Nichiren.

Nichiren’s belief in the superiority of the Lotus Sutra is founded on a number of assumptions. The first being the idea that the historical Buddha saved the Lotus Sutra as his highest teaching to be expounded during the final eight years of his life.

But there’s no historical evidence to support this. The Lotus Sutra is part of the Mahayana group of sutras that no reputable scholar in the world today believes the Buddha directly taught, since they were compiled centuries after the Buddha’s passing, a point that is conceded by leaders and scholars in the Nichiren traditions. Yet, among the rank and file, and for the purpose of disseminating their dharma, this inconvenient truth gets shoved aside. This notion is based in part on a doctrine called “Five Periods and Eight Teachings,” a classification of sutras erroneously attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i. [1]

So, all other forms of Buddhism before the Lotus are “provisional,” and the Lotus alone is the “essential” teaching. Only chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra works in Mappo, the mythical “Latter Day of the Law,” every other Buddhist practice is impotent. There is a bit more to it than this, but that’s the gist.

When I was a member of the Soka Gakkai, I would hear variations of the same spiel over and over, “The historical Buddha’s practices are impotent; the Dalai Lama just talks about being a Bodhisattva, we actually help people; bad things will happen to you if you quit practicing Nichiren’s Buddhism” and so on. You weren’t allowed to have Buddhist statues or artwork, only Nichiren’s mandala, the Gohonzon. No Buddhist books, except those put out by the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu.

I knew it was BS, but I put up with it, for reasons too complicated to go into here, until like Popeye the Sailor, “That’s all I can stands, cuz I can’t stands n’more!”

In Japan, hobobarai, or “removal of evil religions,” was an essential concept behind the Soka Gakkai’s aggressive conversion campaigns. Conversion has always been an important part of Gakkai activities. During my day, you were expected to convert people to Nichiren Buddhism, and your “faith” was often judged by the number of individuals you brought into the organization. Outside of Japan, the idea of “removal of evil religions,” was promoted with a soft-sell, but in Japan, especially in the early days of the Gakkai, it was militant.

Conversion is called shakubuku, a tradition Buddhist term that means “to break and subdue.” Gakkai members went to such extreme lengths to pressure people to join that according to Kiyoaki Murata, in Japan’s New Buddhism, “These tactics not only made the press highly critical of Soka Gakkai; they also alarmed the police and . . . the Ministry of Justice.” [2]

In the U.S., shakubuku turned many people off, with good reason. We would often do “street shakubuku.” Go out on the street and corner strangers. I hated it and tried to get out of doing it as often as I could.

The Gakkai became so large in Japan during the late 1960’s that it was able to drop the aggressive tactics, but it didn’t cut loose from the philosophy behind it. In the United States, however, all through the 1980’s we participated in month-long membership drives twice a year. Every night of the week during February and August members were expected to carry out conversion activities. In 1985, the US branch of the Soka Gakkai, then called NSA, “converted” over 65,000 people. Only a tiny fraction of those remained with the organization for longer than six months.

On the Wikipedia page for Nichiren Buddhism, it reads “most Nichiren Buddhists enjoy a peaceful coexistence with other religious groups in modern times . . .” This is generally true. But there are several caveats. One being the superior attitude mentioned above. Another being that the different Nichiren factions tend to bicker each other – a lot. The most extreme example of this is the war between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai that has been running for twenty years now.

Nichiren Shoshu is an official school of Nichiren Buddhism, and until the Soka Gakkai came along it was a relatively minor school. The SG was the lay organization affiliated with NS, but there were always problems between the two groups. Things first came to a head during WW2 when the NS priesthood was willing accept Shinto talismans that the Japanese military government was insisting everyone have to support the war effort. The 1st president of the SG, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and 2nd President, Josei Toda, balked at this and were thrown in jail, where Makiguchi died in 1944.

One can certainly admire the two men for their unwillingness to compromise their principles, yet those principles came from Nichiren doctrine that it is a grave sin to possess religious items from evil religions, which is any religion other than Nichirenism.

Toda was released from prison in 1945, but he was no Nelson Mandela. He held a grudge against the NS priesthood for causing Makiguchi’s death. In 1952 Toda, and future 3rd President Daisaku Ikeda, led a group of Gakkai members who kidnapped and physically assaulted an elderly Nichiren Shoshu priest, Jimon Ogasawara, whom they believed responsible for the organization’s misfortune during the war. This is a well documented incident, one that to his credit, Ikeda provides a detailed description of in The Human Revolution, his account of Soka Gakkai history.

Fast forward to 1990, when all hell broke loose. After decades of rough relations, Ikeda formally denounced Nichiren Shoshu, and they responded by excommunicating the entire Soka Gakkai. It’s been like the Hatfields and the McCoys ever since. In my opinion both sides are to blame for this unfortunate schism, and neither seems willing to maintain peaceful co-existence. Each is out to destroy the other.

In Japan there have been accusations leveled at both groups regarding acts of violence. In recent years, I have heard accounts of U.S. Gakkai members getting together to pray for the destruction of Nichiren Shoshu, disrupting NS activities, and vandalism against NS temples. I have no doubt that those on the Nichiren Shoshu side have not been perfect angels either.

The Soka Gakkai in the U.S. maintains a website dedicated to setting the record straight on the “evil” Nichiren Shoshu. It’s called Soka Spirit which is described as,

[The] spirit to protect and propagate the correct teaching of Nichiren Daishonin. It is the spirit of the disciples to uphold the truth and justice of their teacher and mentor. It is the spirit to recognize tendencies in human nature to distort the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism for personal gain and to confront those who act upon those tendencies. It is the spirit to defeat the fundamental darkness inherent in all life and manifest the Buddha nature.”

Manifesting Buddha nature sounds good, but “teacher and mentor” is a veiled reference to the near-deification of Ikeda, who are SG members are encouraged to regard as their “eternal mentor in life,” and “distort the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism for personal gain and to confront those who act upon those tendencies” smacks of the familiar paranoia, persecution complex, and aggression.

There are articles on the Soka Spirit website such as “The Characteristics of Devils” (in other words, how to choose friends who are not anti-Gakkai), and “The Role of Rumors as a Function of Fundamental Darkness” (only believe what we tell you). This was the sort of thing that really drove me from SG. Articles that on the surface seem innocent and reasonable enough, but when you read between the lines you recognized a subliminal message that always coincided with whatever the organization was promoting at the time. Even the seemingly noble peace exhibits and seminars, seemed to be designed solely for the purpose of furthering the SG’s aims and lauding the greatness of Mr. Ikeda.

And of course, Soka Spirit has speeches from Mr. Ikeda. In one from Nov. 25, 2003, he told members of the Soka Gakkai,

As comrades, family, brothers and sisters, fellow human beings, we will fight all our lives for kosen-rufu. This is our mission. This is what unites us. We are a fighting force, a fighting fortress.”

Publically, the SGI says that kosen-rufu “has been informally defined as ‘world peace through individual happiness’” and they link it back to a line in the Lotus Sutra. But within the Soka Gakkai, kosen-rufu really means a time when one-third of the world will believe in Nichiren’s Buddhism, one-third may not believe but will support it, and the remaining third oppose it.

There is much more to be said, but blog posts have their limitations. In these last two, I have focused on the troubling aspects of Nichiren Buddhism, because there were things that needed to be said, and no one else has been saying, or writing about them.

Extremists are uncompromising, prone to engage in fanatical behavior, and terrorism often begins when a group views themselves as victims persecuted by outside forces. In an open society, troubling things need to be brought into the light, aired, discussed, or else we remain in ignorance, the great ally of intolerance, extremism, and terror.

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Peter N. Gregory, “The Place of the Sudden Teaching,” Buddhism. Vol. 8. Buddhism in China, East Asia and Japan, Paul Williams, ed. Taylor & Francis US, 2005, pg. 180

[2] Kiyoaki Murata, Japan’s New Buddhism, Weatherhill, 1969


13 thoughts on “The Fighting Forces of the Lotus

  1. Dear friend, about your last two posts, I would mention Aldoux Huxley, to express my opinion about the religions.


    “The True Religion is Single and not Sociale possible that the religion of solitude is somehow superior to religion and social formalized. What is certain is that it appeared later in the course of evolution. In addition, the founders of religions and sects have been historically more important all except Confucius, lonely. Perhaps it is true to say that the more powerful and original a mind is, the more it will tilt the religion of solitude, and it will be less attracted towards religion or social impressed by their practices. By his own superiority religion of solitude is doomed to be the religion of minorities. For the vast majority of men and women still means religion, which has always meant formalized social religion, a subject of rituals, observances mechanical excitement of the masses. Ask any of these people that is the true essence of religion, and they will answer that it is the proper observance of certain formalities, the repetition of certain phrases in meeting certain times and in certain places, the implementation of emotions in appropriate ways communal.”

    Aldous Huxley, in “About Democracy and Other Studies”

  2. Hi. As a Nichiren Shoshu temple believer I read your article with interest.

    I really have to point out a couple of points.

    Nichiren Shoshu is not fanatical even if some of the writings might make it seem so (re superiority of the Lotus Sutra). Unlike the Soka Gakkai we can read and study whatever we want. Naturally we follow the guidances of our teachers the Priests just like believers of any sect do theirs.

    In regards to the Shinto talisman incidents – I can see you have been reading the propaganda put out by the SGI. At that time the Priesthood guided the members to just accept the talisman and then just dispose of it in secret so no one would get in trouble with the government who had decreed that every home must have one. The Head Temple wanted to protect the members so instead of causing drama they said just accept it and then throw it out. Mr Makiguchi instead chose to refuse it. This act however did not mean he did not support the war effort. He and other Gakkai leaders urged their members to pray for Japan’s victory. So they were no warriors for peace as portrayed by the modern Gakkai.

    Be that as it may… since the Gakkai is no longer part of our sect (thankfully) Nichiren Shoshu is carrying on. It is not true that there has been violence directed toward Gakkai from Nichiren Shoshu. If you say there has been please show proof. We tend to try and avoid the Gakkai fanatics as much as possible. They have done some crazy things to discredit and destroy us. We in return only pray they see sense one day.

    It is hoped that when Ikeda passes they will calm down but I fear they will become even more militant. The Gakkai is not a religious organisation as such but a business, a very rich one and they have infiltrated every corner of Japanese society.

    Anyway. Please do not put Nichiren Shoshu in the same boat as the Gakkai. Please visit a Temple and see with your own eyes. Re the comment you started with …the Africsn members are very enthusiastic and put that statement under that..


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      I don’t know how things are in the UK. My impression has always been that it’s a little more laid back than here in the States. And here, from my own experience, I can say that Nichiren Shoshu members have appeared to be somewhat fanatical. At least to me. Someone else might see it differently.

      About WW2: your account of the Shinto talisman incident does not differ substantially from mine, which I summarized as briefly as I could, since it was already a rather long post. I am not sure anyone has been told the true story of the incident, as both sides have engaged in what seems to be a certain amount of revisionist history on the matter. But you do make a good point that it doesn’t mean Makiguchi did not support the war. I don’t know what the truth about that is, since that’s also been subject to the Gakkai myth-making process, as they had tried to create a Gandhi-like image forn both Makiguchi and Toda, which I doubt is justified.

      As far as violence related to the schism between the Gakkai and NS is concerned, there have been allegations of such leveled at both sides, especially in Japan, and to a lesser extent here in the United States. They are only allegations, however, I have no seen any actual proof.

      My own feeling about the current situation is that, as I said in the piece, both sides share some blame. I felt at the time it began that Nichiren Shoshu was being unreasonable in its resistance to the more modern approach that the Soka Gakkai represented, but that Ikeda really went too far in pushing the situation, and I can never forget how he came to the U.S. in 1990 and threw the pioneer Gakkai members under the bus, many of whom I knew personally, just to facilitate what was really a power grab on his part. It’s really a shame that both sides can’t move on, especially the Gakkai since it is large enough that it really doesn’t need NS. I think that when a particular group holds on to a grudge in such an intense and unrelentingly manner as the Gakkai has, it is not unreasonable to question how well they truly understand Buddha-dharma.

  3. Raymo here from Emergent Dharma. Excellent post. Glad to have been an inspiration haha.

    I heard about some political rumbling within the sect but was unaware of the history. I appreciate your painting this picture of Nichiren Buddhism. It’s good to have the pieces articulated in such a way that explains and contextualized my total discomfort and resistance to Nichiren. It was just too much: the object of worship, the cyclical reasoning, the deification, etc. In hindsight, my zen approach may have dampened the loud alarms sounding off in my mind. Danger Danger: Low Level of Critical Thinking. Abort Abort Abort. haha

    – Raymo

    PS: I may rejoin for the community aspect. I like that they are spreading buddhism (and simultaneously depressed that Nichiren is the largest Buddhist organization here). Ghana will benefit from the presence of Buddhism and non-Abrahamic faith traditions. Fortunately the shakabuku here is nonmilitant and the temple is well aware of how the conversion tactics may come off as offensive. Nonetheless, it’s a start. Or maybe should take it upon myself to spread another form of Buddhism. Maybe lead some amateur vipassana/zen meditation sessions and Buddhadharma discussions on a college campus or two.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Raymo. The community aspect is one of the strongest and best elements in either Nichiren Shoshu or the Gakkai. Other Buddhist groups could really take a page out of that playbook and try to learn how to build a vibrant, cohesive and diverse community of practitioners.

      Best of luck whatever you decide to do. I would encourage you to “lead some amateur vipassana/zen meditation sessions and Buddhadharma discussions on a college campus or two” if you feel qualified to do that. It’s kind of a lonely road, but can be rewarding and who knows, you might start something valuable.

  4. “Modern editors of the Pali Canon, however, have generally contented themselves with trying to establish a textus receptus or ‘received text’. Let me explain. Most of our physical evidence for the Pali Canon is astonishingly recent, far more recent than our physical evidence for the western classical and biblical texts.

    While talking of this, I want to take the opportunity to correct a mistake in something I published earlier this year. In Professor K. R. Norman’s splendid revision of Geiger’s Pali Grammar, published by the Pali Text Society (Geiger, 1994), I wrote an introduction called ‘What is Pali?’ (Gombrich, 1994a). In that I wrote (p. xxv) that a Kathmandu manuscript of c.800 A.D. is ‘the oldest substantial piece of written Pali to survive’ if we except the inscriptions from Devnimori and Ratnagiri, which differ somewhat in phonetics from standard Pali. This is wrong. One can quibble about what ‘substantial’ means; but it must surely include a set of twenty gold leaves found in the Khin Ba Gôn trove near ?r? K?etra, Burma, by Duroiselle in 1926-7. The leaves are inscribed with eight excerpts from the Pali Canon. Professor Harry Falk has now dated them, on paleographic grounds, to the second half of the fifth century A.D., which makes them ujjjby far the earliest physical evidence for the Pali canonical texts (Stargardt, 1995). — Richard F. Gombrich, predident of the Pali Text Society

    Therefore, according to this reliable information, the Sanskrit text of the Lotus Sutra is older than the Pali texts that the Hinayana Buddhists arrogantly claim to be the only authoritative texts of what the Buddha actually taught. Claiming that the Buddha did indeed teach the Lotus Sutra, is at least as valid, if not more, than the claims of the Therevadans that only the Pali texts are the only actual teachings of the Buddha.


    1. I think there is some variation in what the Theravadins claim about the Pali texts. I think most people would agree that at least they are closest to what the Buddha actually taught, and in fact may contain some of his actual words. The claim that the Lotus Sutra or any other Mahayana represent the actual words of the historical Buddha, while not impossible, is so lacking in anything to substantiate it, that it becomes a real stretch.

  5. One other thing, second only to the Christians, Nichiren Buddhists have been martyred more than all the other Buddhist adherents in Japan put together, rarely resorting to violence themselves. For example, tens of thousands of Nichiren Buddhists were martyred at the hands of the Tendai warrior monks in the 16th century. Our heritage of non-violence and widespread martyrdom continued until Tanaka Chigaku, the father of Nichirenism and ultra-nationalist, created the Kokuchukai in 1914. His organization wholeheartedly supported and was embraced by the Japanese militarists.

  6. Hello David, I am reading your post for the first time. I was a pioneer in SGI from 1965. I gradually left the community finally in the mid 2000’s. It was very hard to leave the community I had known for so many years. I still miss the diversity of that group of people and I cared for them. Your site here is a breath of fresh air and is so thoughtful and mind expanding. I very much appreciate your sharing your thoughts and experiences here. Thank you.

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thanks for your comment. From 1965 . . . wow, you are a pioneer. I still have a lot of respect for members and leaders of that era. They really were trying to do some quite unprecedented and it has always seemed a bit romantic and certainly idealistic to me. I understand what you mean about how hard it was to leave, and about missing certain aspects of the organization. I miss the spirit of camaraderie, again the idealistic fervor, even some of the hokey stuff like the songs and the cheers – but not World Tribune collection! Egads, what a painful austerity. Anyway, as I may have said in the post, there were, and are, many positive aspects about the SGI, but for me, the negatives finally began to outweigh them and I felt I had to move on.

      Thank you for your kind words. My best regards to you.

  7. Hey David,
    I really enjoyed your post… or at least it fired me up. I am a current SGI member and really enjoy criticism about the organization more than I do compliments. How are we to improve anything if we do not know our faults? I remember many of the NSA days as a kid and constantly try to make sure we do not make the same mistakes now. Your blog is quite biased but I guess that’s what a blog is for, right? My only question to you is why did you never try to change the things you didn’t like about the organization? Or did you? My impression was that you bottled up your discontent for the organization to the point where you only looked at the faults and lost focus of the intent of the teaching. I am in no way saying that our organization is perfect but it does consist of imperfect hman beings. We really need people such as yourself that are able to recognize the faults of the organization. Again, thanks for your post. I will do my best to improve the SGI especially on the aspects you mentioned. I, of course, believe that Nichiren buddhism is the best for me. However, I do not necessarily think it is the best for everyone. Daisaku Ikeda even said that if you do not think that Nichiren Buddhism is the best for you, you should try other religions that best suit your personal beliefs.

    1. Thanks for your comment. On the basis of this one post, and the post preceding it, it would appear that I am biased. But you’ll also note I wrote that the purpose of the post was to focus on the more troubling aspects of the SGI, since no one else does. Therefore, it has a very narrow focus. There are literally hundreds of websites around that publish only positive things about the organization, and I will be the first to admit that the SGI does have many positive aspects. But there are two sides to every story, and here I am presenting the side that gets little attention. Overall, through some four years of blogging, I have tried, in general, to be fair and objective about this subject.

      The assumptions you make about my time in the SGI are completely erroneous. That, too, is a disturbing trend. I mean the way people who offer criticism are perceived as individuals who don’t understand, are confused, or somehow have “lost focus of the intent of the teachings.” It’s a very convenient way to dismiss the critiques offered. If you are a member from the NSA time, then you know I haven’t made anything up, everything I wrote is true, and thousands of members and former members can attest to that. You may not like the way I characterize it, and that is your right. But let me suggest that you are looking at the situation from the inside, while I am on the outside and perhaps have a wider and more objective perspective.

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