Feature

Commemorating 30 Years of Spiritual Independence

Unity—SGI-USA members rejoice at the November Kosen-rufu Gongyo Meeting at the Baltimore Buddhist Center, Baltimore, Nov. 7, 2021. Photo by Rob Hendry.


The World Tribune spoke with the SGI-USA leadership team about Nov. 28 and what we can learn from our spiritual independence.

World Tribune: This Nov. 28 marks 30 years since the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood excommunicated the Soka Gakkai. For SGI members around the world, this day is celebrated as a Day of Spiritual Independence and is considered a decisive turning point that liberated the SGI community from the narrow, parochial control of the authoritarian priesthood.

Many of the youth today were not practicing at that time. What was it like to practice together with the priesthood? Can you explain a bit of background on our relationship with them?

Adin Strauss: Before 1991, when the issue broke out, we were taught the importance of the unity of priesthood and laity. This made sense at the time, given the emphasis in Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings to maintain the unity of “many in body, one in mind.” So many of us exerted ourselves to the max to support the temple: doing security, supporting memorial services, translating and interpreting, etc.

When we were with the priesthood, we had to follow various ceremonies and formalities not found in the Daishonin’s teachings. For example, SGI-USA members invited priests to conduct funeral services and officiate weddings. The priesthood also promoted rituals such as bestowing posthumous Buddhist names and Buddhist tablets for the deceased. Most of the traditions were established in 17th-century Japan and were unrelated to Nichiren Buddhism. All of these rituals required monetary donations.

Furthermore, the Soka Gakkai had concerns about the priesthood’s lack of cultural awareness and dogmatic, parochial attitude toward the members. One prime example was when, in December 1990, the Nichiren Shoshu general administrator issued a document claiming that the singing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at a Soka Gakkai meeting was slander, tantamount to praising non-Buddhist teachings. The Soka Gakkai responded by requesting a dialogue to iron out differences, but Nichiren Shoshu refused to discuss the issue and then withdrew the document.

Kevin Moncrief: Immediately following that, on Dec. 27, 1990, Ikeda Sensei was dismissed as the head of the laity—a decision made by the Special Council of Nichiren Shoshu with no lay leaders present in the discussion. This was the beginning of a series of events that culminated in our separation from the priesthood. It had been a long time coming. While the SGI worked hard to practice in unity with the priesthood, the priesthood had been perverting Nichiren Buddhism for centuries, driven by its belief in the superiority of priests over lay believers.

WT: What were other signs that the priesthood had veered from the Daishonin’s teachings?

Naoko Leslie: Well, let’s look at what happened during World War II. Founding Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda were imprisoned because of their commitment to protecting Nichiren Buddhism. They refused to accept the Shinto talisman as an object of worship. (The militarist government demanded its citizens accept the religious object as a means to unite the country around State Shinto in support of the war effort.) Following their refusal, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, who had already accepted and enshrined a Shinto object of worship, barred Mr. Makiguchi and Mr. Toda from the temple and then reported them to the authorities, leading to their imprisonment.

Ryo Kuroki: Additionally, the priests deleted numerous passages from Nichiren Daishonin’s writings in September 1941—passages they thought might be construed by the authorities as disrespectful of absolute state authority. They have a history of changing doctrines to suit their needs or curry favor with the authorities.

Maya Gunaseharan: It doesn’t end there. They also led monthly prayer services for victory in the war at the head temple and donated copper from their temples, expressing their intent that the government “make as many bullets as possible to be used on the front lines of the war.”

Olivia Saito: Were it not for Mr. Makiguchi and Mr. Toda, no trace of correct Buddhist practice would have remained after the war. The priesthood was utterly disconnected from Nichiren’s commitment to peace as expressed in “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land.”

WT: Still the Soka Gakkai continued to work together with the priesthood?

Kevin: Yes, after the war, when the priesthood faced severe economic problems, the Soka Gakkai sincerely supported and protected it, building and donating more than 350 temples. Mr. Toda resolved to support the priesthood and help it reawaken to the spirit to protect the Daishonin’s teachings and the members.

Still, while they excommunicated us in 1991, it was really the priesthood excommunicating itself from the growing kosen-rufu movement spearheaded by Sensei and the SGI members.

WT: What was the atmosphere like after the SGI was excommunicated from the priesthood?

Adin: I remember there was tremendous confusion in our organization. Some members were troubled by having to choose a side, wondering why we couldn’t all just get along. However, it is clearly laid out in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. When it comes to matters regarding correct Buddhist practice and the attainment of enlightenment, he instructs: “When truth and error stand shoulder to shoulder … one must set aside all other affairs and devote one’s attention to rebuking slander of the correct teaching” (“Conversation between a Sage and an Unenlightened Man,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 126). This wasn’t easy to do in the beginning.

Naoko: Yes, but we must always choose the correct path of faith based on the teachings and writings of Nichiren himself. The three founding presidents have continuously led us back to the source—Nichiren’s teachings. That is why the three founding presidents are the correct teachers.

Kevin: Our practice 30 years later is very different from how it used to be. Through seeking to practice correctly and uniting with our mentor in faith, we freed ourselves from the fetters of the priesthood and were able to reveal our true identity as a universal religion for all people. We have so much to be grateful for.

Ryo: This reminds me of one passage from Sensei’s dialogue with historian Arnold J. Toynbee. During their dialogue, Toynbee said: “What is necessary is to distinguish the ‘essence’ of the higher religions from the ‘nonessential accretions,’ or extraneous trappings that have accrued over time, that can and ought to be discarded. The unchanging, essential elements of religion transcending the age and societal restrictions must be retained. All other superfluous matters must be separated. Unless this is done … religion will have no future and a shadow will be cast on humankind’s spiritual advance” (May 2017 Living Buddhism, p. 21).

Based on Toynbee’s insight, the split was inevitable. When we separated the essential from the nonessential in terms of correct Buddhist practice, the Soka Gakkai truly advanced its people’s movement.

Maya: A major difference between the priesthood and the SGI was the priesthood’s emphasis on the superiority of priests over lay believers. Nichiren clearly states in “The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life,” “Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment countless kalpas ago, the Lotus Sutra that leads all people to Buddhahood, and we ordinary human beings are in no way different or separate from one another” (WND-1, 216).

The priesthood stressed the inferiority of lay believers and the infallibility of the high priest. They identified themselves as the Bodhisattvas of the Earth—those entrusted by Shakyamuni Buddha to spread the Lotus Sutra in the evil age after the Buddha’s passing. On the other hand, the lay believers, all of us who practiced with the SGI, were mere followers of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. This contradicts what Nichiren said in his writings: “If you are of the same mind as Nichiren, you must be a Bodhisattvas of the Earth. … Were they not Bodhisattvas of the Earth, they could not chant the daimoku” (“The True Aspect of All Phenomena,” WND-1, 385).

WT: How did they veer so far off course from Nichiren’s teachings?

Naoko: There were many factors, but simply put, they forgot the original spirit of the founder. Instead of sincere faith and practice, they valued power, position and status. They started using the sincere members for their own self-serving ends. There were many instances in which earnest lay believers were disrespected by the priests.

Adin: It all boils down to how we behave as human beings. Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai exist for the sake of the peoples’ happiness; people do not exist for the sake of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood or Nikken’s happiness or the Soka Gakkai’s happiness for that matter. This should be true for all religions. Many religions have forgotten this point, particularly Nichiren Shoshu. And we ordinary practitioners must be forever vigilant that it never happens in the Soka Gakkai too. If the priesthood issue teaches us one thing, it is: Be wary of the rise of authoritarianism in oneself and in the treasure that is the Buddhist community, the SGI organization.

Kevin: The humanism of the Lotus Sutra comes down to the tenet of treasuring the individual. This is the Buddha’s spirit. Sensei explains: “Who are the most respectworthy of all? It is those who are working for the happiness of others; those who are firmly dedicated to truth and justice. … It is essential that we treasure and value each individual. This is the starting point of kosen-rufu. Let us strive to encourage everyone and warmly embrace and support them. Let us listen to their problems and work together with them for their victory” (November 2021 Living Buddhism, p. 14).

Naoko: The most remarkable example of this spirit is Sensei. I have witnessed many beautiful encounters with Sensei and members from around the world as an SGI interpreter. You can feel his prayer for their happiness. Through his behavior, he teaches us what it means to embrace each person as a Buddha. Because of his daimoku, he can bring out their joy and hope no matter how discouraged a member may be. I was always amazed by how an individual’s life condition transforms!

There was one time when I witnessed this. After Sensei’s heartfelt encouragement, this couple looked 30 years younger than before, brimming with hope for their lives! He is able to activate the Buddha nature in everyone he meets.

Adin: This is exactly what I experienced when Sensei came to New York in 1996. He treated everyone he encountered with utmost respect and courtesy—whether it was the wait staff at a restaurant, children he met while walking in the park or members he encountered at SGI meetings.

WT: The SGI teaches that the oneness of mentor and disciple is the hallmark of Buddhism. How is it different from the priesthood’s idea of mentor and disciple?

Maya: The spirit of the oneness of mentor and disciple is crucial to our movement’s future. In our Buddhist practice, the mentor-disciple relationship is not a hierarchical one, but of two equals—one teaching, one learning—striving together toward a common goal. Our founding presidents have faithfully followed the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin and share in his commitment for worldwide kosen-rufu. They have diligently taught us how to awaken to our own mission and share the same commitment for kosen-rufu.

WT: How can we be sure to follow the correct teacher or mentor?

Ryo: Sensei once said this about seeking the correct teacher:

It is the person who chants and spreads the Mystic Law with selfless dedication while battling the “three powerful enemies” of Buddhism. Correct teachers of the Law can be identified by whether they have encountered hardships and opposition just like those described in the Lotus Sutra. This is the Daishonin’s focus. Thus he criticizes teachers of various schools who spuriously claim that they more than anyone understand and practice the Lotus Sutra. In particular, he points out that not a single one of them has undergone the kind of harsh persecutions that he has. …

Who has succeeded Nichiren Daishonin and opened the way for worldwide kosen-rufu in this corrupt age of the Latter Day of the Law? And who, in doing so, has encountered slander and abuse, hatred and jealousy even more intense than during the Buddha’s lifetime, as the Lotus Sutra predicts? It is none other than the first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai, linked by the bonds of mentor and disciple. (The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 3, p. 192)

Adin: Yes, the mentor-disciple relationship rests heavily on the awareness of the disciple. I chose Sensei as my mentor because I felt he embodies Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings of compassion through his behavior, speech and writings, and is showing actual proof in the world. Sensei established Nichiren Buddhism as a world religion integrating such universal values as “human rights” and “freedom” via a modern, universal language. Also, by explaining the “attainment of Buddhahood” in terms of “human revolution” as one example, Sensei has made 13th-century Japanese Buddhist concepts accessible to people around the world in the 21st century.

WT: What are the fundamental lessons that we learned from our spiritual independence? What is the most important thing to keep in mind for the sake of the future?

Naoko: The Soka Gakkai’s struggle for spiritual independence taught us that it was and will continue to be a struggle between the Buddha’s spirit to respect all human beings and the devilish nature to look down on them. That is why we need to live based on the oneness of mentor and disciple. Sensei says:

The purpose of religion is to help each person become happy. But even a teaching whose original intent was to promote human happiness may start to restrict people. Even the Lotus Sutra could be used incorrectly to justify discrimination.

What is necessary to prevent the danger of such distortion from occurring? It is the mentor-disciple relationship. It is the disciple’s inheritance of the resolute spirit and faith of the mentor to lead people to happiness. (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 6, pp. 258–59)

Adin: When faced with the choice between Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai we should use the Law—in our case the writings of Nichiren Daishonin—as our standard. The person whose words and behavior match those of Nichiren Daishonin is the right choice. From this perspective, it became quickly evident that Nikken’s teaching of superiority and infallibility (and many others) did not agree with what we read in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. On the other hand, Sensei always referred back to the Daishonin’s writings throughout the issue—and still does so today in every speech he gives or article he writes. From the standpoint of Nichiren’s writings, it is evident that Nikken and Nichiren Shoshu have become the enemies of Nichiren Daishonin, the “worms born of the lion’s body” (“Letter from Sado,” WND-1, 302).

Kevin: Moreover, it has become equally apparent that Sensei and the Soka Gakkai are the true disciples of Nichiren, practicing and protecting the heart and soul of Nichiren’s teachings—we have actualized the principle of many in body, one in mind with the Daishonin by establishing his teaching as our cornerstone and eternal standard. Since 1991, Sensei has focused on clarifying this point for the sake of future generations. If people claiming to be disciples of Nichiren deviate to the point of becoming enemies of his teachings and spirit, then the same thing can happen to future generations of well-intentioned Soka Gakkai members as well.

Olivia: Future generations, starting with the youth members today, should strive to make Nichiren Daishonin’s writings their foundation; and Sensei’s guidance their essential standard to measure all things. In particular, The New Human Revolution should be the standard of behavior for true practitioners. Sensei details a formula for kosen-rufu and our inner transformation in The Human Revolution and The New Human Revolution based on the correct understanding of Nichiren’s writings.