Ways of Expressing Meaning


Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.


Stories of Faith

The biography of Nichiren Daishonin bears some similarities with that of the Hebrew prophets, who decried the decline of society with the abandonment of true religious convictions. Nichiren’s teachings involved engaging with, and sometimes challenging, the disciplines that he was trained in, including Confucianism and the Chinese classics (Montgomery 1991: 99). This oppositional orientation prevailed within Nichiren Shoshu after Nichiren was designated as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law by the sub-school’s twenty-sixth high priest, Nichikan (1665-1726).

In the history of the Soka Gakkai, the imprisonment of their founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) and his disciple Josei Toda (1900-1958) offer an example of this opposition within a modern context of conscientious objection. Makiguchi has acquired martyr-like status in the official narrative of Soka Gakkai history, which emphasises that he fell victim to “bad treatment, malnutrition and old age” while incarcerated for his beliefs (SGI-UK 2017: 41).

Symbols of Faith

For Soka Gakkai followers, the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not merely expressed through chanting – it is also embodied as an object of devotion, called the Gohonzon. Honzon means ‘object of fundamental respect’ and go means ‘worthy of honour’ (SGI-UK 2017: 19).

Each member of the Soka Gakkai receives a Gohonzon that takes the form of a paper scroll inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters in black ink. Reading vertically downwards along the centre of the Gohonzon are the words ‘Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren’. This design of the Gohonzon is based on a copy transcribed by the Nichiren Shoshu’s twenty-sixth high priest Nichikan Shonin (1665-1726) (SGI-UK 2017: 19). These words are surrounded by characters representing the ‘ten realms’ of consciousness, which refer to ten basic life conditions which everyone possesses and can experience (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). These are (SGI-UK 2017: 34–35):

• Hell
• Hunger
• Animality
• Anger
• Humanity or Tranquility
• Heaven or Rapture
• Learning
• Realisation or Absorption
• Bodhisattva
• Buddhahood

Rather than being external circumstances imposed upon the individual, these ‘life circumstances’ are modes of being that we all experience or could potentially attain. Our external circumstances merely reflect our inner life conditions – by changing our way of being in the world, we can improve our external circumstances (SGI-UK 2017: 1190).

The Gohonzon is also used in the Nichiren Shu sub-school, but here it is regarded as the transmission of the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) from the original Buddha to his disciples and to us (Montgomery 1991: 171). The Nichiren Shoshu, however, hold that they alone possess the true Gohonzon, the Dai-gohonzon, which is sometimes described as the ‘reality’ of the God worshipped by other religious followers, including Christians, Jews and Muslims (Montgomery 1991: 170). Soka Gakkai do not uphold this Nichiren Shoshu doctrine.

Soka Gakkai followers do not have Buddha images or statues as this suggests that Buddhahood is separate from the individual. The SGI website states that the script, rather than a painted image or statue as the object of worship, is a “mirror” of “Buddha nature”, which is “universal” and “free of the connotations of race and gender inherent in depictions of specific personages” (SGI 2015).

Places of Worship

Soka Gakkai followers carry out individual daily worship in their own homes. Group discussion meetings in local districts are also organised in members’ homes.

Prayer and Meditation

Gongyo, literally ‘assiduous or constant practice’, forms the backbone of daily prayer and meditation in Soka Gakkai. It is performed each morning and evening. In Nichiren Buddhism, gongyo refers specifically to the recitation of part of the Hoben (second) chapter and the Juryo (sixteenth) chapter of the Lotus Sutra and the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The recitation of the Sutra serves as the preparation to the main practice, which is the chanting (SGI-UK 2017: 22).

Pilgrimage, art and architecture

There are several temples that have been pilgrimage centres for Nichiren Buddhists throughout the centuries, including Mount Minobu, Ikegami Hommon-ji, and other sites associated with the life of Nichiren (Montgomery 1991: 198). However, the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu – the Taiseki-ji, founded in 1290 – was not considered a major pilgrimage centre until it was visited by the second Soka Gakkai president, Josei Toda, upon his release from prison. Finding it in a state of neglect, he decided to revive it.

The significance of the Taiseki-ji for Toda was that it contained the Dai-Gohonzon (Montgomery 1991: 198). He and his successor, Daisaku Ikeda, made the revival of the Head Temple their priority. By the 1970s, Taiseki-ji was receiving more than 3.5 million pilgrims a year, surpassing Lourdes in France. In 1972, Ikeda inaugurated a new Grand Main Temple, the Sho-Hondo.

In the words of Ikeda, published in the Seikyo Times – the Soka Gakkai’s newspaper – in December 1972 (Montgomery 1991: 199):

Thus completed, the great building lies in all its splendour, immaculately white and brilliant in the brightness of the sun, a magnificent sight in central Japan. It soars towards the sky which is permeated with the immortal life of the universe, and rivals the sacred peak of Fuji in dignity. To the south, it commands the cobalt blue of the pacific, the unbounded expanse of water which reminds one of the infinite wisdom of the Buddha. Its figure is graceful, its appearance spectacular, perfectly blending with the perpetuity of the surrounding landscape. Where can a match be found for this edifice, either in solemnity or in grandeur?

However, Soka Gakkai members stopped visiting this temple when SGI split from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood in 1991. Some of the temple buildings were destroyed by Nichiren Shoshu between 1998 and 1999, but other buildings remain.

Expression and Worship

From its earliest days, Buddhism has been a missionary religion (Keown 1996: 70). The Soka Gakkai are therefore not unique in upholding their concept of kosen rufu, or the mission of converting people to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism (Baffelli 2011: 223).

What many people have often found controversial about the Soka Gakkai is the missionary zeal of its followers, including new converts. The movement’s argumentative mode of recruitment, shakubuku, placed it under increased scrutiny especially after the Second World War in Japan. It led to tensions with other schools of Buddhism and religions, and raised panics that Soka Gakkai members were brainwashed (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). In the decades immediately after the War, the giant rallies and parades sponsored by Soka Gakkai sometimes reminded onlookers of the demonstrations of the wartime fascist groups. These features resulted in Soka Gakkai gaining notoriety in Japan and being labelled a ‘cult’, led by unscrupulous leaders with ulterior motives.

This image needs to be balanced with other perspectives of Soka Gakkai’s worship, especially outside Japan. In the USA, for example, the influence of celebrities within sports and entertainment (including Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr) highlights the creative and inclusive aspects of Soka Gakkai practices.

Art, Music, Drama and Creativity

Although Nichiren Buddhism has a reputation for being intolerant towards other variants of Buddhism, the SGI organisations in different countries have adapted to their unique contexts quite flexibly. Thus, while Soka Gakkai in Japan remains relatively nationalist, SGI organisations tend to reflect the national cultures of their specific context and can be quite patriotic. This combination of patriotism and exotic foreign-ness partly explains Soka Gakkai’s appeal, for example, amongst the so-called ‘hippie generation’ in the USA (Montgomery 1991: 211).

There have been high-profile celebrity converts to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism prior to its schism with Soka Gakkai in the early 1990s and to post-schism Soka Gakkai. These include Oscar nominee Sal Mineo (of Rebel Without a Cause), Grammy-winning rock star Tina Turner, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, footballer Roberto Baggio, film star Orlando Bloom (of The Lord of the Rings fame), and pop star Boy George (nusch 2018).

This popularity of Soka Gakkai amongst international celebrities grew alongside the changes introduced by Ikeda, such as cultural activities, including an Arts Division and a music corps starting from the 1950s (Daisaku Ikeda Website Committee 2018). In 1963, Ikeda founded the Min-On Concert Association to promote “the global exchange of musical culture with the aim of developing mutual understanding and respect among people of different races and nationalities” (Min-On Concert Association 2018).