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40 Years Since Stormy April 24, 1979—Part 2

The following article is the second in a five-part series describing the events leading up to April 24, 1979, when Daisaku Ikeda stepped down as third Soka Gakkai president to protect the members from the perverse machinations of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which sought to wrest control of the lay organization. This incident came to be known as the first priesthood issue (the second priesthood issue occurred on November 28, 1991, when the Soka Gakkai was formally excommunicated by Nichiren Shoshu).

SGI President Ikeda’s 1977 Speeches and the Response From Nichiren Shoshu

SGI President Ikeda’s 1977 Speeches and the Response From Nichiren ShoshuIn Part 1 of this series, we introduced excerpts from two of SGI President Ikeda’s speeches in which he clarified basic aspects of Buddhist doctrine. On January 1, 1977, he stated that all those who propagate the Mystic Law in accord with the Buddha’s intent, including lay Soka Gakkai members, are Bodhisattvas of the Earth. This was a direct rebuttal to Nichiren Shoshu’s assertion that only priests could be considered Bodhisattvas of the Earth, whereas lay practitioners were “followers of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.”

On January 15, 1977, President Ikeda delivered another speech where he touched on the original intent of Buddhist temples as places of Buddhist practice, and how Soka Gakkai centers could be considered temples of modern times in that people gathered there to exert themselves in Buddhist practice.

The aim of President Ikeda’s lectures was to orient Buddhism as a humanistic philosophy that could revitalize humankind, and to praise the efforts and mission of Soka Gakkai members. His statements, while rooted strictly in Nichiren Daishonin’s writings and the Lotus Sutra, incensed the Nichiren Shoshu priests. Of this time, President Ikeda wrote, “The Nichiren Shoshu priesthood interpreted this lecture as a criticism of them and used it as ammunition against the Soka Gakkai” (December 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 45).

In the 1960s, while the Soka Gakkai continued building temples for Nichiren Shoshu, the lay organization started to build more of its own centers around Japan and in other countries. This gave birth to a young men’s training group, the Gajokai, on February 1, 1971, with its mission to secure Soka Gakkai facilities.

While these Buddhist centers were a clear sign of kosen-rufu expanding, priests accused the Soka Gakkai of building them with the plan to separate from Nichiren Shoshu. They also increasingly attacked the Soka Gakkai during their monthly temple lectures.

What’s more, many priests treated Soka Gakkai members with disdain, lording their position as clergy over the lay members. Many of their actions toward sincere Soka Gakkai members approached verbal or psychological abuse. In reality, these priests took no personal action to spread the Mystic Law or offer personal encouragement to members. Nichiren Daishonin warns against these types of priests who lack faith:

Though a person may have been fortunate enough to be born as a human being and may have even entered the priesthood, if he fails to study the Buddha’s teaching and to refute its slanderers but simply spends his time in idleness and chatter, then he is no better than an animal dressed in priestly robes. (“The Fourteen Slanders,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 760)

Nichiren Shoshu Heaps Abuse on Soka Gakkai Members

The following excerpts from the “Justice” chapter of The New Human Revolution, volume 27, illustrate the ways that Nichiren Shoshu priests verbally attacked Soka Gakkai members.

A 21-year-old young men’s division member in Miyazaki Prefecture lost his mother and requested his local Nichiren Shoshu priest to conduct the funeral service at his home. The mother had raised him and his two sisters on her own. One of her favorite Soka Gakkai songs was being played before the ceremony. Hearing the music, the priest spat out contemptuously: “Don’t play Soka Gakkai songs! It’s disrespectful!”

The son was astonished. He shook with anger and indignation. In a voice choked with tears, he said, “My mother loved this song,” and let the tape keep playing. When he had finished performing the funeral service, the priest abruptly told the son that he wouldn’t accompany the family to the crematorium, and then left without another word. The son was terribly humiliated when friends and neighbors asked why the priest hadn’t accompanied them to the crematorium.

The problems with the priesthood had degenerated to the point where the death of loved ones was being used as an occasion to harass and threaten Soka Gakkai members. It was now also a struggle against the base inhumanity that had become apparent in the behavior of these malicious priests. (May 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 45)

• • •

The husband of a women’s division member in Fukui Prefecture decided to join the Soka Gakkai. This was the realization of his wife’s long-cherished wish. The local men’s and women’s leaders accompanied the couple to the local temple for the ceremony for new believers . . .

The scheduled time for the ceremony came, but instead of making a move to conduct it, the chief priest began to speak ill of the Soka Gakkai. “You won’t gain any benefit by going to Soka Gakkai centers. Only by going to temples,” he said. “I think it’s very strange when people who never visit their temple while they’re alive suddenly expect to be served there after they’ve died.”

The Soka Gakkai leaders present didn’t want to make a scene by arguing with the chief priest in front of someone who was about to take faith in Nichiren Buddhism. They kept silent, listening nervously, worried that the husband might decide not to practice after all.

The priest went on attacking the Soka Gakkai for 40 or 50 minutes. Finally, unable to endure it any longer, the men’s leader asked sternly whether the priest was going to conduct the ceremony or not. (May 2016 Living Buddhism, pp. 45–46)

Primary Erroneous Claims of Nichiren Shoshu During the 1970s

In the “Justice” chapter from volume 27 of The New Human Revolution, Shin’ichi Yamamoto details the spurious claims the Nichiren Shoshu made about the Soka Gakkai to its members.

Claim 1: Nichiren Shoshu claimed that the Soka Gakkai taught that its president was the true Buddha.

Rebuttal: “The Soka Gakkai had never said that its president was the true Buddha or anything of the sort. It was a criticism based on misinterpreting and twisting the intent of statements of certain leaders that perhaps invited misunderstanding.

“Shin’ichi Yamamoto’s1 mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, had directly rebutted any who called him a ‘living Buddha’ or ‘lord of teachings.’ He always declared that he was just ‘a proud common mortal.’

“Shin’ichi Yamamoto was Mr. Toda’s disciple. He always described himself as ‘the son of a poor family of seaweed harvesters in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, one of the common people’ ” (April 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 41).

Claim 2: Nichiren Shoshu claimed that the Soka Gakkai treated their temples lightly.

Rebuttal: “The Soka Gakkai ardently protected and supported the temples, and was committed to their prosperity. It had worked very hard to improve the facilities and grounds of the head temple and build many branch temples” (Ibid.).

Claim 3: The priests also criticized Soka Gakkai members participating in community festivals “as condoning slander of the Law.”

Rebuttal: “Many community events with long traditions had some kind of connection with religion. But by Japan’s modern period, they had become merely traditional celebrations, with very little religious flavor. They had evolved into cultural and social events that served to cement warm community relations. Anyone who rejected all such events would find it very difficult to participate in society. One way to develop kosen-rufu is to forge ties of trust and friendship by taking part in such events (Ibid.).

Claim 4: Nichiren Shoshu claimed that the lay organization was seeking independence from them for adding silent prayers2 of gratitude to the first two Soka Gakkai presidents and holding spring memorial services at Soka Gakkai centers.

Rebuttal: “Until that time, the Soka Gakkai Headquarters had frequently received questions from members asking where among the silent prayers they could offer such prayers. In response, the Soka Gakkai leaders conferred with the priesthood and arrived at the decision to include them in the liturgy book.

“In addition, on March 19, the first Soka Gakkai spring memorial service was held at the headquarters and at other Soka Gakkai centers around Japan. This, too, was in response to a strong demand from the membership. Members throughout the country expressed the wish to offer prayers in memory of the deceased at Soka Gakkai centers, particularly for those who had passed away after dedicating their lives to kosen-rufu as Soka Gakkai members” (Ibid.).

Claim 5: The Soka Gakkai denied the authority of the successive high priests of Nichiren Shoshu.

Rebuttal: “Shin’ichi had never rejected the existence or role of the high priest. In his lecture, he discussed the transmission of the heritage of the Law through faith from the perspective of Buddhist practice” (Ibid., p. 42).

President Ikeda’s Endless Efforts to Dialogue With the Priests Amid a Barrage of Media Attacks

During this time of increasing tension between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, President Ikeda made innumerable efforts to set the record straight with priests who spread unfounded rumors and false claims. Amid his travels, he often heard of members who had been discouraged by the behavior of local priests. President Ikeda made a point to have dialogue with those priests and asked them to treat the Soka Gakkai members with respect. Some priests refused to meet him, as though they were above all Soka Gakkai lay members, including its president.

Attacks from the priesthood intensified in the mid to late 1970s. At the end of 1977, a number of tabloid magazines began to cover the friction between Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai, printing the false claims of the priesthood, for instance, maliciously reporting that the lay organization was trying to take financial control of the priesthood. President Ikeda writes about this time:

Based on those tabloid articles, some of the chief priests of Nichiren Shoshu temples who were antagonistic to the Soka Gakkai used the time set aside for their monthly lectures to denounce the lay organization. One priest told the audience: “Everything written in this magazine is true! You are being deceived by the Soka Gakkai! The Soka Gakkai is slandering the Law!” (Ibid.)

Behind the media attacks was the Soka Gakkai’s legal counsel Masatomo Yamazaki. Since 1971, he had been the Soka Gakkai’s lead attorney and had noticed, over time, the rising tension between the two groups. Sensing an opportunity to profit, he manipulated both sides, spreading false rumors to Nichiren Shoshu and to the Soka Gakkai to fan the flames of opposition, while he acted as the go-between. He even sold rumors to tabloid magazines, using the media as another platform to support his schemes. He became so closely associated with high priest Nittatsu that by the late 1970s, Nittatsu deeply distrusted President Ikeda, poisoned by Yamazaki’s remarks.

In Part 3, we will learn more about Masatomo Yamazaki and the base motivation behind his disturbing actions.

Devilish Functions Appear Without Fail When Kosen-rufu Advances

Amid these challenges, President Ikeda led the Soka Gakkai toward the significant date of May 3, 1979, which would mark the completion of the first set of Seven Bells,3 which began in 1930, when the Soka Gakkai was established. Since then, the organization had grown to more than 8 million members world- wide, establishing a global peace movement. As Nichiren Daishonin had warned, the storms of persecution raining down on the Soka Gakkai had come from within.

In December 1977, President Ikeda engaged in an honest discussion with high priest Nittatsu, in which they came to an agreement to not allow these issues to harm their unity, ending the dialogue on a positive note. About this, President Ikeda wrote:

Things should now begin to settle down. But the path to kosen-rufu entails a constant battle against devilish functions. They will continue to appear in various forms and attack us as we work to propagate the correct teaching of Buddhism. (May 2016 Living Buddhism, p. 47)

As he predicted, the resolution did not last long, as Nittatsu continued to believe the lies of Masatomo Yamazaki, ending his life as a harsh critic of the Soka Gakkai.

Instead of spending his time trading attacks with the Nichiren Shoshu priests, President Ikeda put even more energy into propagating Nichiren Buddhism and encouraging the members by writing songs and poems, offering personal encouragement and providing guidance at Soka Gakkai meetings. He remained undeterred.

• • •

The practice of Buddhism in the Latter Day of the Law and the true bodhisattva path are to seek one’s way and struggle arduously amidst the daunting challenges of the real world in the face of storms of criticism and abuse, persevering in dialogue, demonstrating actual proof of this Buddhist practice and propagating the Law.

A religion that loses sight of its origins and the spirit of practice in its early period becomes formalized, fossilized, ceremonial, bureaucratic and authoritarian. It begins to look down on the people and to perpetuate itself for its own sake rather than to help people. This is the corruption of religion and the death of the human spirit.

We can never allow this to happen to Nichiren Buddhism. “Let’s return to the original spirit of the Daishonin!”—Raising the great banner of study to vigilantly safeguard Buddhism, Shin’ichi was opening the way to a new era.

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