Recently someone brought me a flyer that had been posted on a public bulletin board at the University of Virginia. It was advertising a meeting of those interested in learning about Soka Gakkai. The flyer promoted an “Engaged Buddhism for a Changing World” and “The Key to Unshakable Happiness.” This meeting was to be the kick off for a Soka Gakkai club, and attendees were invited to “join other bodhisattvas on our shared journey toward enlightenment.”
Okay, I can hear you now… Huh? Let me explain.
Soka Gakkai is a group that originated in Japan in the 1930’s. It is one expression of a school of Japanese Buddhism known as Nichiren Shoshu. The Nichiren sects of Buddhism follow the teachings of a 13th century Japanese monk named Nichiren Daishonen. Nichiren taught that he had discovered the true, pure form of Buddhism. This was revealed in the Lotus Sutra, a writing attributed to the Buddha himself, but actually much written much later. Nichiren wrote extensively, and his works are accorded authoritative status by his followers. The Nichiren school of Buddhism experienced a powerful revival in the 20th century when two adherents, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo and Toda Josei, founded Soka Gakkai. Soka Gakkai not only popularized the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism but also became very influential in Japanese politics. Through Soka Gakkai the Nichiren form of Buddhism has attracted tens of millions of followers worldwide.
The essence of Nichiren belief and practice consists in devotion to the Lotus Sutra itself. As with other forms of Buddhism, it is believed that all the suffering and evil of the world are due to the illusion of our individual existence apart from the ultimate reality. This false belief results in each person experiencing a succession of lifetimes through the process of reincarnation. Salvation consists of becoming enlightened, i.e., achieving a state of heightened knowledge and spiritual experience where you realize your own union with ultimate reality. This state is called Nirvana, and consists of an extinguishment of the myth of your individual, personal existence. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all individuals are manifestations of true Buddha nature, and that any individual can achieve full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, at any time.
For the follower of Nichiren Shoshu, enlightenment is achieved only through meditation on the Lotus Sutra. The devotees of this sect will chant the sacred words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, roughly meaning “I commit myself to the Law of the Lotus Sutra.” This chant is so powerful that it not only can bring individual enlightenment, but it is believed it has the power to change the world, ultimately bringing world peace. This chant is offered before a black box, known as the Gohozon, which contains the sacred scroll of the words of the monk Nichiren Daishonen. At the same time, a rosary of prayer beads is used by the devout believer.
Nichiren Shoshu is one form of Mahayana, or northern Buddhism. However, its focus on the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of Nichiren distinguish it from other Mahayana schools of belief. Also, while Buddhism traditionally promotes separation from the world and a focus on meditation, followers of Nichiren Shoshu actively seek involvement in the world. As noted above, Soka Gakkai actually formed a political party in Japan. Also, adherents of Nichiren Shoshu often assert that devotion to the Lotus Sutra will not only produce personal enlightenment, but will also enable them achieve prosperity, success and all of their personal goals in life. This emphasis on achieving both spiritual enlightenment and material success makes Nichiren Shoshu especially attractive to Westerners seeking Eastern mystical paths.
Summary of Beliefs
God: Ultimately there is no personal deity. However, both the Buddha and the monk Nichiren are revered as divine beings.
Jesus: Essentially ignored.
Salvation: Based on chanting, devotion to the Lotus Sutra, and good works.
Human nature: Man is ignorantly unaware of his true unity with ultimate reality.
Sin: Sin is basically ignorance of man’s true state.
Afterlife: There is a belief in reincarnation. However, the ultimate goal is nirvana, and absorption into the supreme reality.
Scripture: The Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonen.
Truth: Relative to the individual person.