Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority

 

Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;

 

Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

 

Basic Beliefs

Soka Gakkai is part of the spectrum of Japanese Buddhist movements that draw inspiration from the teachings of the thirteenth-century monk Nichiren Daishonin (1222-82). Trained in the Tendai school of Mahayana Buddhism (Montgomery 1991: 98), Nichiren was opposed to the interpretation and practice of other forms of Buddhism in Japan. (For more background, please refer to ‘Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority’ in the profile on Buddhism on this website.) Most notably, Nichiren was against Pure Land Buddhism, which focused upon the worship of the Buddha Amitabha (known as Amida in Japan) – one of the Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 66). Rather, Nichiren believed that we all contain within ourselves the potential for enlightenment and that this potential can be unlocked by devotion to the Lotus Sutra (a major Mahayana scripture) (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). Instead of reciting the mantra Namu Amida Butsu (‘Homage to the Buddha Amida’) to ensure rebirth in Amida’s paradise (the ‘Pure Land’), Nichiren taught his followers to recite the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (‘Homage to “The Lotus of the Wonderful Law”‘). This refers to the full title of the Lotus Sutra, the ‘Mystic’ or ‘Wonderful’ Law taught in the Lotus Sutra, and the Law of life itself. The phrase encompasses

  • • nam (to dedicate one’s life)
  • • myoho (life and death, or the enlightened Buddha and the ordinary person, as a single entity)
  • • renge (lotus flower, which produces seeds and flowers together and so represents the simultaneity of cause and effect)
  • • kyo (sutra or teaching).

The phrase is said to represent universal law and its repetition “allows each individual to tap into the wisdom of their life to reveal their Buddha nature” (SGI-USA 2016).

These particular beliefs are the result of different conceptualisations of the historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni (literally, ‘sage of the Shakyas’), in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 15). The term ‘Shakyamuni’ usually refers to the historical Siddartha Gautama (c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE) after he attained Buddhahood, but could also signify a transcendent figure whose existence continues. Nichiren argued that the upheavals of his time were the result of people abandoning the original Shakyamuni for Amida (Montgomery 1991: 102). In time, however, many sub-schools developed within Nichiren Buddhism, including Nichiren Shu and Nichiren Shoshu, which survive up to the present and are not affiliated with each other. Eventually, the twenty-sixth high priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nichikan (1665-1726), asserted that Nichiren and not Shakyamuni is the Eternal Buddha (Montgomery 1991: 172). Nichiren Shu followers continue to hold that the Eternal Buddha is Shakyamuni (Lee 2017). Members of Soka Gakkai believe that Nichiren is the Buddha for the ‘Latter Day of the Law’ (see below).

These interpretations of Shakyamuni and Buddhahood are related to the prominent role occupied by the bodhisattva – a figure who endeavours over countless lifetimes to lead others towards nirvana (enlightenment) – in Mahayana Buddhism (Keown 1996: 58). Eventually, the centrality of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism led to the blurring of the boundaries between defining a Buddha and an advanced bodhisattva (Keown 1996: 64).

Nichiren (the monk) also taught that Buddhism went through three general stages of growth, stagnation and decline. Although there were different opinions on how long these stages would take, it was generally accepted that the Former Age of growth lasted 1,000 years, the Middle Age of stability another 1,000 years, and the final Age of Decay (mappō) would last a total of 10,000 years (Montgomery 1991: 107). In thirteenth century Japan, it was widely held that the final age had already begun, but Nichiren was relatively optimistic about this. According to him, Shakyamuni had left appropriate remedies for each epoch. The Eight-fold Path, for example, was the right remedy to achieve nirvana during the Former Age. For the Latter Age, Shakyamuni left the teachings contained within the sixteenth chapter on Eternal Life in the Lotus Sutra (Montgomery 1991: 108). Soka Gakkai characterises the Age of Decay as the ‘Latter Day of the Law’, during which the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra is essential to correct internal confusion and distortion within Buddhism (SGI-UK 2017: 39).

Scriptures

The central scripture for Soka Gakkai followers, as with other Nichiren Buddhists, is the Lotus Sutra, a text which is presented as taught by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, although scholars suggest that it was perhaps composed around 200 CE. The Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana sutras teach that the Buddha had been enlightened from time immemorial, even though historically he appeared to live and die like an ordinary man (Keown 1996: 62).

The Lotus Sutra is the scriptural focus of reverence for Nichiren Buddhists. Its very title forms the basis of the Nichiren chant – nam is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘dedication’ or ‘devotion’ while Myoho Renge Kyo is the name of the Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra (SGI-UK 2017: 18). According to Soka Gakkai, the combination of Sanskrit and Chinese in the phrase also indicates the universality of its teachings.

According to Soka Gakkai, it is not necessary to believe in Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in order to start practising the chant – faith develops organically after the practitioner begins to experience the benefits of chanting (SGI-UK 2017: 6).

In addition to the Lotus Sutra, Soka Gakkai followers also engage in in-depth study of other Buddhist texts, especially The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, compiled by Josei Toda (1900-1958), the group’s second leader. Also known as the Gosho, it carries immense prestige within Soka Gakkai, alongside the Lotus Sutra (Montgomery 1991: 189). Additionally, Soka Gakkai members around the world follow the teachings, public speeches and writings of their current leader, Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928).

Revelation

As a lay movement that had its origins in the Nichiren Shoshu sub-school, Soka Gakkai is not founded upon completely new sources of wisdom. Rather, the establishment of Soka Gakkai helped to transform Nichiren Shoshu from a minor sect into one of the largest religious movements in Japan after the Second World War (Montgomery 1991: 181). Soka Gakkai followers continue to revere the teachings of the monk Nichiren.

Founder

Soka Gakkai was founded by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), a school principal (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1189). Makiguchi had moved south to Tokyo from Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. Makiguchi had been publishing books on education that sold reasonably well, but his approach to individual ‘value creation’ in pedagogy was stymied by the policies of Imperial Japan in the 1930s (Montgomery 1991: 181). In 1928, he converted to Nichiren Shoshu through the influence of another school principal. As a movement, Soka Gakkai dates its founding to the publication of Makiguchi’s Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value-Creating Educational Society) in 1930 (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1189).

Successors and Authority

Makiguchi and his disciple, Jose Toda (1900-1958), were imprisoned during the Second World War on charges of lèse-majesté for refusing to comply with the Religious Organisations Act (1940). The Act effectively established Shinto as the national religion of Japan, and was designed to promote patriotism and loyalty to the rapidly militarising regime (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). However, it was replaced with a new constitution in 1946 which broke the relationship between religion and the State. The new constitution offered religious freedom for the first time in Japanese history and allowed religions to operate free from state interference, but also without state support (Reader 2002: 718).

Toda assumed the presidency of Soka Gakkai after Makiguchi’s death in prison in 1944 and, upon his release, revitalised Makiguchi’s fractured movement. He dropped the word ‘Kyoiku’ (‘Educational’) from the movement’s name and reorganised it as a lay movement affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu. The emphasis on health, wealth and happiness in Toda’s teachings resonated with significantly large audiences in post-War Tokyo, especially those who were displaced, and the movement grew rapidly (Montgomery 1991: 1190).

In 1947, Toda met Daisaku Ikeda, a 19-year-old who greatly impressed him. Toda soon employed Ikeda at one of his companies and became his mentor. In 1960, two years after Toda’s death, Ikeda succeeded him as the president of Soka Gakkai. During Ikeda’s presidency, Soka Gakkai launched its own political party, Komeito (‘Clean Government’), in 1961, which went on to perform well in elections. The political success of Komeito, along with the more assertive proselytising by Soka Gakkai, alarmed many members of the public and provoked a considerable backlash (Montgomery 1991: 196).

At the same time, Soka Gakkai innovated and expanded even further under Ikeda’s leadership. In 1975, he became the first president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) (SGI-UK 2017: 43). Since then, Ikeda has remained the president of SGI, whilst he has been succeeded by other leaders in the presidency of SG within Japan (although he remains the honorary president).

During these post-War decades, there were underlying tensions between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu. Things came to a head in 1990, when the high priest of Nichiren Shoshu accused Ikeda of equating the priesthood with the laity (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). Although the Soka Gakkai leadership issued a formal apology, these tensions continued to grow and in 1991, the Nichiren Shoshu high priest ordered Soka Gakkai to disband and excommunicated all members who remained affiliated to it.

The split with Nichiren Shoshu has appeared to benefit Soka Gakkai International, especially by enhancing the local autonomy of its international organisations which became more able to adapt to their immediate environments. To fill the clerical gap, Soka Gakkai developed roles for voluntary ‘ministers of ceremony’ who now preside over weddings, funerals, and other rituals (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1191) (see Religious/Ritual Practice section below). Lay leaders outside of Japan had already been fulfilling this function prior to the formalisation of the role.