Soka Gakkai in America (2001)

Soka Gakkai is the largest “new religion” in Japan with eight million official members in 1992. It has branches throughout the world, and it is the clearly the biggest Buddhist organization in the United States.

Currently, estimates very widely as to the American membership, but the truth is probably somewhere between the 300,000 of Soka Gakkai’s official 1997 census and Philip Hammond’s conservative estimate of approximately 36,000. Soka Gakkai represents the largest and most ethnically diverse group of Buddhists in the United States. One study in Miami suggests the following: 32.81% of members consider themselves to be Caucasian, 10.94% African American, 10.94% Japanese, 37.5% Hispanic, and 7.81% other. Together, these ethnic groups hold close to a proportional role in the leadership of the organization in the United States.

Throughout its history Soka Gakkai has attempted to create a place for itself in the balance between a Nichiren sectarian religious group and a humanistic institution for the educational creation of value.

However, the many tensions between Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood led to a break between the two in 1991. At least popularly, this particular issue culminated in the priesthood’s anger at the “Ode to Joy” being played at a Soka Gakkai event. Other tensions seem to have resulted from complications concerning charges for priestly rituals and a fear over the growing charisma of Soka Gakkai president Ikeda Daisaku, as well as from the radical increase in religious tolerance under Ikeda’s leadership. These differences contributed to a breakdown in the relationship between Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which culminated in a massive excommunication of Soka Gakkai by the sect’s high priest.

This break with spiritual authority caused Soka Gakkai to undergo a radical restructuring that continues into the present. This change has forced Soka Gakkai to conceive of itself differently and move into a position of greater accommodation and self-sufficiency. Part of this process has encouraged Soka Gakkai leadership to take an even larger action in peace work, and to grant further autonomy to expanding international branches.

Boston Research Center for the 21st Century

Emblematic of the new structures arising from Soka Gakkai International is the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (the BRC). This organization was founded by Ikeda Daisaku in 1993. In its charter the BRC articulates its purpose as:

The BRC brings together scholars and activists in dialogue on common values across cultures and religions, seeking in this way to support an evolving global ethic for a peaceful twenty-first century.

The BRC functions as a meeting center and a publisher, working to foster dialogue concerning peace and other social issues. Under those auspices, it has instigated a series of conferences on such topics as the Abolition of War, Religion and Ecology, and a Forum on Women’s Leadership. Further, it has published a number of books including David W. Chappell (ed.), Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace(along with Wisdom Publications) and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher (ed.) Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions.

Institutionally, the BRC is largely funded by Soka Gakkai International, yet it is independent from SGI’s direct control. Thus, sitting outside conventional ideas of a religious organization, it furthers the ethical goals outlined by Ikeda, but it is non-sectarian in its focus. In that sense it represents a humanistic outreach, which is understood within a Buddhist context.

If we examine it in relationship to the larger Soka Gakkai religious building, in Waltham, Massachusetts, we are struck by the bicamerality of the place Soka Gakkai International has created for itself in the balance between religious practice and relativist humanism. SGI attempts to find a point between a social organization for the promotion of positive values and a particular religious outlook. In the Boston area there are two large centers, not wholly distinct, for the promotion of both Soka Gakkai’s brand of Buddhism and non-sectarian humanism distantly inspired by Makiguchi.

Soka University of America

In 1987, Ikeda established the first American Soka University at Calabasis (near Los Angeles, California). It was the first full extension of Soka Gakkai educational practice to the United States (and thus globally). However, initially the mission of the American campus was not to be a fully functional undergraduate university. Instead the focus of this campus was to train Japanese students in English (and later other international students in language education). As a result, the Calabasis campus does not offer undergraduate degrees; instead, it has a small master’s degree program in foreign language education, as well as offering non-degree granting ESL classes for students from Japan and other foreign language classes for students from a wide range of countries. It is approved by the California State Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.

On August 21, 2001 Soka University of America opened its second branch at Aliso Viejo, California. With an endowment of more than three hundred million dollars, the university is off to an impressive start on a beautiful campus. This university is intended to more fully parallel Soka University Japan in the range of its curriculum, as well as serving as a center for Soka Gakkai-inspired education on a national level. At this point, it offers a B.A. with three areas of specialization in Humanities, International Studies, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. However, in the long run the Soka University Aliso Viejo campus plans to offer a more full range of concentrations for students.

The first class in the fall of 2001 began with 120 students. Women are the majority at 60 percent of this entering class. Approximately half of the student body come from the United States, while the other half come from a wide range of countries including Switzerland, Argentina, Mexico, Ghana, Turkey, India, Thailand, Korea and Japan. Although many of the students consider themselves to be Buddhists, religious affiliation does not appear as a question on the Soka University application form.

Soka Gakkai’s relationship to this Soka University is similar in many ways to its relationship to the BRC. The initial funding and board of trustees are heavily affiliated with Soka Gakkai (as are many of the faculty and students). In many ways it follows Soka Gakkai founder Makiguchi Tsunesaburo’s initial educational mission. Its guiding philosophy is also conceived of in Soka Gakkai religious terms. However, Soka University is officially non-denominational and accepts students from all religious backgrounds.

Soka University is thus one example of a way to balance the potential conflict between religious and humanistic goals (a route that has been taken by many other American universities who then moved to distance themselves from their religious roots by severing their ties to particular denominations). However, Soka University should also be seen within the context of the larger structure of Soka Gakkai International.

As one of a number of “secular” structures founded by Soka Gakkai, Soka University America serves a multitude of purposes. One of these purposes is the furthering of religiously validated humanistic goals (such as education and the promotion of peace). Soka University will also probably train SGI members from a range of countries, who will continue to promote Soka Gakkai in an international arena. Additionally, this university will increase American interest in Soka Gakkai. Finally, the presence of this institution will serve to further legitimate Soka Gakkai’s activities and further differentiate it from a “cult” in the eyes of the American public. Thus, we can see that an ostensibly secular structure can promote a series of religious goals.

However, despite these motives the creation of Soka University in America (and the BRC) represents the commitment of Soka Gakkai resources toward humanitarian purposes as well as necessitating a continued moderation of sectarian exclusivity (at least in these institutions). This organization can be seen in tension (if not conflict) with the older more extreme ideas of Nichiren sectarianism. Thus, it represents a new balance (perhaps began under Ikeda) between religious sectarianism and its original humanitarian goals.

— Jason Josephson, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate