Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Soka Gakkai International has an estimated 12 million adherents in 192 countries (Gebert 2017). There are SGI organisations in more than 30 European countries with a total membership of more than 135,000. SGI-UK has a membership of 14,000 spread across 630 local groups. In Japan, Soka Gakkai has more than eight million affiliated households (Baffelli 2011: 217).After the schism between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu, SGI organisations were able to claim greater autonomy and adapt more flexibly to their national and local contexts. In Japan, the post-schism organisation of Soka Gakkai is dependent upon its links with its political party, New Komeito. Komeito enjoyed electoral successes since its founding in the 1960s, but gained unprecedented influence when it re-launched in 1998 as New Komeito and became the junior partner in a government coalition in 1999, led by the Liberal Democratic Party (Baffelli 2011: 224; McLaughlin 2015: 3).
Traditionally, New Komeito’s elected representatives have upheld Soka Gakkai’s principles when voting in the Diet (the national legislature of Japan, composed of the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives). This includes the Diet’s commitment to pacifism, which is also enshrined in Japan’s post-war constitution (Article 9). In 2014, however, the overwhelming majority of New Komeito parliamentarians said they supported Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal to amend the Constitution to allow for limited participation in ‘self defence’ (McLaughlin 2015: 8). They saw this not as a relinquishing of pacifism, however, but as a compromise through which other clauses on human rights, privacy and protection of the environment, might be added (Harding 2016).
The shift in attitudes amongst New Komeito’s Diet representatives sparked off major protests amongst Soka Gakkai members starting in 2015. The Soka Gakkai leadership has officially distanced itself from the protests (McLaughlin 2015: 9). Meanwhile, New Komeito politicians continue to enjoy high levels of support at the local government level. These political developments within Japan do not appear to have had a negative impact on the organisation of SGI organisations in other parts of the world.
Soka Gakkai teachings emphasise the importance of people transforming themselves at the individual level as a means of transforming the world, through ‘mentor and disciple’ relationships (SGI-UK 2017: 3). SGI organisations are largely concerned about the negative impacts of climate change, nuclear armament, and poverty, and uphold a common charter with the following purposes and principles (Soka Gakkai International (SGI) 1995):
1. SGI shall contribute to peace, culture and education for the happiness and welfare of all humanity based on Buddhist respect for the sanctity of life.
2. SGI, based on the ideal of world citizenship, shall safeguard fundamental human rights and not discriminate against any individual on any grounds.
3. SGI shall respect and protect the freedom of religion and religious expression.
4. SGI shall promote an understanding of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism through grassroots exchange, thereby contributing to individual happiness.
5. SGI shall, through its constituent organizations, encourage its members to contribute toward the prosperity of their respective societies as good citizens.
6. SGI shall respect the independence and autonomy of its constituent organizations in accordance with the conditions prevailing in each country.
7. SGI shall, based on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, respect other religions, engage in dialogue and work together with them toward the resolution of fundamental issues concerning humanity.
8. SGI shall respect cultural diversity and promote cultural exchange, thereby creating an international society of mutual understanding and harmony.
9. SGI shall promote, based on the Buddhist ideal of symbiosis, the protection of nature and the environment.
10. SGI shall contribute to the promotion of education, in pursuit of truth as well as the development of scholarship, to enable all people to cultivate their individual character and enjoy fulfilling and happy lives.”
Some tips from Soka Gakkai on how to chant include (SGI-UK 2017: 14):
• Sitting upright with palms together and eyes open
• Repeating the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, focusing on sincerity and correct pronunciation
• Chanting in a ‘firm, clear, vibrant’ voice without worrying too much about volume
• Chanting for as long as it is desired
Soka Gakkai also engage in regular study of the letters (‘gosho’) addressed by Nichiren Daishonin to his disciples. These individual practices are complemented by collective Buddhist activities organised by what are known as ‘local districts’, which can take the form of discussion meetings held in people’s homes (SGI-UK 2017: 5). Sharing the teachings with others with a view to helping them overcome their problems is a central practice of SGI.
Soka Gakkai voluntary ‘ministers of ceremony’ perform life cycle rituals for members including weddings and funerals.
This relates to a belief common to most (Mahayana) Buddhists, that all living creatures are part of this cycle of birth and death and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana (enlightenment) (Keown 1996: 29). However, Buddhist teachings hold that neither the beginning of cyclic rebirth nor its end can ever be known with certainty. At the same time, it is widely held that the number of rebirths a person can go through is almost infinite. The concept of reincarnation predated the emergence of Buddhism in India and was already associated with the doctrine of karma – the idea that our moral deeds in our present lives would determine the circumstances of our rebirth.
The Soka Gakkai understanding of nirvana and karma is slightly different from that in some other forms of Buddhism, however. The Lotus Sutra teaches that one is already enlightened – “the essential nature of our lives at any moment is that of a Buddha”, a state also known as “Buddhahood” and as “awakening to the greater self” (SGI 2015). When this is realised, life can be lived full of joy and purpose – with the primary purpose being to awaken others to their Buddha nature. The circumstances of our lives, including suffering, “become the means to demonstrate the power of the Buddha nature and form bonds of empathy with others” (SGI 2015). Our lives are not then guided by karma but by this mission.