SGI is a Cult
Authoritarian leadership, deception and destructive mind control are the main ingredients in a cult, and SGI fits the bill. That may strike some as an unkind or unfair assertion, but I plan to back it up with examples and explanation. SGI is a cult.
Am I saying that SGI members are bunch of brainwashed zombies? No, I'm not. If mind control were so cartoonish and obvious, it wouldn't be a problem. Internalized beliefs and phobias aren't usually obvious, yet they nonetheless have an enormous influence on a person's behavior and emotions.
Am I saying that SGI members are horrible, stupid or consciously manipulative people? No, not at all. Some of the most wonderful, smart, sincere people I have ever met are SGI members. It's because of our sincerity and idealism, perhaps,that we uncritically accepted "training" that made us dependent on the SGI, and we faithfully passed this training on to others.
I don't think that most SGI members are deliberately trying to hurt anyone. It's more like we're passing along a virus because we have no clue that we have been "infected."
You'll notice that I'm saying "we." I include myself. I joined SGI almost 14 years ago. I've worked for the SGI as a paid propagandist — first as a staff writer for the World Tribune and more recently as a freelance ghostwriter for SGI-USA's Middleway Press. SGI is on my professional résumé. I've defended the SGI in print. I've tried to explain away charges from friends, family and strangers that SGI is a cult. I've tried to convince myself that SGI might one day change.
But cults like SGI change only in the sense that they become more sophisticated or perhaps more subtle in their workings. They may take Ikeda's photo down from the wall in the Gohonzon room, and stop making members wear white uniforms — they may look less cartoonishly cult-like. But the goal remains the same: to make members believe that they will suffer without the group, and whatever happiness and success they have is attributable to the group, and they owe everything to the group. This is *not* Nichiren Buddhism — this is SGI-ism, and it's precisely what makes SGI a cult.
SGI members proudly state, "I am the SGI," despite the fact that members have no voting rights, no control over the SGI's policies or finances, no grievance procedure for resolving disputes, etc. "I am the SGI" means that SGI members have assumed total personal responsibility for an organization in which they have zero control. So when I criticize the SGI, I know that many SGI members will feel that I am attacking them personally and they will respond with personal attacks on me.
But this isn't about personalities. It's about becoming aware of the methods and content of SGI cult indoctrination.
There are many SGI members who will refuse to read what I have to say. That's fine with me. Many will dismiss my views as "negativity" or "complaining." So it goes. But there are probably a few people who are ready to read this. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could even write it. If what I say resonates with you — if you say, "Yes, exactly! That's true for me!" — then that's cool. If you think I'm full of crap, that's cool too.
For many years I have been a member of a cult. I have contributed my money, time and talent to the perpetuation of a cult. I have been a cult apologist, leading other people into the cult.
Nobody Joins a Cult
"SGI is a cult? No, certainly not,” I would tell my concerned friends and family members. “Do I seem like the kind of person who would be in a cult?”
No, certainly not, they had to concede. I was fairly smart and educated, fairly well off, and from a loving, stable family. I had a job, a mortgage and friends. "I know it may seem like a cult in some ways,” I would tell people. “But it’s not. Trust me.”
No one had kidnapped me and forced me to join SGI. Rather, I was willingly persuaded. I heard the chanting of the Nichiren Buddhist mantra at a meeting in Los Angeles. I loved the sound and was intrigued by the practice. I wanted to know more about the philosophy. SGI members were quick to inform me that the mantra and practice were under their stewardship, and they alone were charged with the duty of telling all humanity about Buddhism to bring peace to the world. I didn’t really care about proselytizing or world peace. I just wanted to chant.
My new friends told me that there was no true Buddhism outside of SGI. I believed them. I didn’t know any better. I knew nothing about Nichiren’s teachings. Besides, the members were completely sincere, friendly and knowledgeable. They spoke a language that I wanted to learn — “doing human revolution” and “shakubuku.”
SGI members seemed convinced that they had a special mission in life. They were also very hard on themselves, talking about how they needed to overcome their arrogance, or saying that they were too stupid to understand some crucial Buddhist lesson, so they had to “substitute faith for wisdom.” They deferred to the wisdom of their “seniors in faith” as they called their leaders. And they all spoke glowingly of “Sensei,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, even though most had never met him.
I liked almost everyone I met in SGI, and still do. I had no reason to doubt what they told me. They were relaying what they had been told by other people who were equally earnest and sincere. I trusted them, just as they had trusted their seniors in faith. So it hurt my feelings when people called SGI a cult, even in jest.
“SGI used to be a cult, maybe, back when members wore uniforms and aggressively recruited people,” I would explain. “But that has all changed. We don’t worship President Ikeda. We learn from him and try to emulate him. Besides, my life has improved since I joined SGI. President Ikeda always talks about freedom and the importance of the individual. I’ve learned a lot from him about standing up and speaking out. You’d never learn that in a cult.”
In SGI, cult allegations are usually dismissed as amusing paranoid fantasies manufactured by people who are jealous of SGI or intolerant of religious plurality, or who “just don’t get it.” I have heard SGI members proudly say that being called a “cultie” by an outsider is a badge of honor, and makes them feel even more committed to the group.
But it really bothered me. My brother and I got into a loud argument about it one time, which really upset me. We deliberately avoided the topic at future family gatherings. Still, I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more supportive of me. My SGI leaders encouraged me to “chant for him.” As if he was the one who needed to get a clue.
In retrospect, I think I was upset because I was afraid. Not just afraid that my brother might be right and I might be wrong, but afraid of something more fundamental and threatening that I could not articulate. I knew that something felt very wrong, but I didn’t know what or why. I felt I was in danger somehow.
SGI members are programmed to believe (whether we are aware of it or not) that we will suffer if we get crosswise of the SGI or part with it voluntarily. Only cowards, weaklings and corrupters leave the SGI voluntarily, we are told. We are convinced that the correctness of our Buddhist practice is dependent on our SGI affiliation, even if that affiliation is loose or sporadic. Being an absentee member for a few months is fine, but leaving SGI will invite the wrath of all the Buddhist gods and our lives will become nothing but misery.
During my years as an SGI member and as the editor of BuddhaJones.com, I have observed the extreme fear and superstition that SGI members feel toward their own organization. Many write to tell me about some crappy thing that happened to them in the SGI, but they beg me not to publish their letter, or to post it under an assumed name — and some ask me not to tell anyone that they were even reading my web site. They are afraid of being in trouble with SGI, of being shunned, of having misfortune rain down upon them because they dared to displease "the org."
One of the reasons why I say SGI is a cult is because it instills in members this irrational fear that harm will come to them unless they remain members in good standing. It’s not as if some leader says: “OK, now we’re going to indoctrinate you with fear and irrational beliefs.”
Instead, we are indoctrinated with what it means to be a noble soldier of Soka:
...You are the SGI. If you are not happy with SGI, you must work harder to make it better. Leaving the SGI is the same as trying to escape your karma, which can’t be done. The people who quit are deluded traitors. Those who betray the SGI are betraying Nichiren. They will experience retribution. Those who leave come crawling back to SGI begging for forgiveness....
There is nothing in Nichiren’s teachings to support the notion that correct practice is dependent upon compliance with or commitment to a particular religious corporation. It’s utter nonsense…unless a group of people you trust tells you repeatedly that it’s absolutely true, and you chant with all your heart to internalize the lesson.
It didn’t start to dawn on me that SGI is a cult until I tried to leave. I felt overwhelming anxiety and uncertainty. I would talk with friends who were also trying to leave (and a few who had already left) and we would talk for hours at a time. We spent months trying to come up with excuses and explanations for why we should stay in SGI, even knowing what we knew about the organization’s finances, fibs and noxious fundamentalism. We weren't interested in quitting our practice or joining any other Nichiren group, we just wanted to stop giving our tacit approval to SGI.
There are many in SGI who scoff at the notion of mind control. They shrug and say that every religion instills some measure of fear in its practitioners. Even Nichiren had his fire-and-brimstone moments. Yeah, to an extent. But I’m talking about indoctrinating people with a fear that serves to benefit the religious corporation rather than the practitioner -- a fear that is not instructive or helpful, but is destructive and manipulative.
By contrast, I had been a confirmed Catholic for more than ten years before I decided to join SGI, but I never gave the Pope a second thought. I just moved on to a religion that I felt was better for me. Leaving the SGI, on the other hand, was difficult and terrifying. It took me years of chanting, months of talking, and a day of reading Steven Hassan’s books to understand why.
In Combatting Cult Mind Control, Hassan cites an anonymous quote that says it all: “Nobody joins a cult. They just postpone the decision to leave.”
The SGI Cult BITEs
Some may take issue with my using the word “cult” to describe SGI because they see it as unnecessarily pejorative. They’re comfortable saying that SGI has “cult-like aspects,” but calling it a cult is going too far. That's sort of like saying, "It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but it is not a duck."
Many of these members are the same ones who express dismay about SGI’s seeming refusal to become less cult-like. They don’t understand why SGI’s leaders and members “deliberately” allow the organization to maintain financial secrecy, adulate Daisaku Ikeda and obsessively demonize the priests of Nichiren Shoshu, to name three common complaints. In my opinion, acknowledging that SGI is a cult helps to explain a lot.
Cults characteristically exert control over members’ behavior and the information members receive about the cult, as well as members’ thoughts and emotions. This is referred to as the “BITE” model of cult influence: Behavior, Information, Thought, Emotion.
Until around 1990, SGI leaders made no secret about telling members who to marry. They used to tell gays to chant to be straight. Men were told to shave their beards and mustaches if they wanted to be good members. Members wore uniforms. In other words, behavior was overtly controlled in SGI. But the organization is no longer so obvious in its influence on member behavior.
Members still receive “personal guidance” from leaders and are taught to behave cheerfully, subscribe to the publications, recruit new members and participate in as many SGI activities as possible to “create good fortune.” And, of course, SGI gets people to sit down and chant twice a day. But if this is behavior control, some may argue that it’s ultimately benign because chanting is unquestionably always a good thing. Plus, what’s wrong with being cheerful?
Instead of making members follow strict rules of behavior, SGI influences members’ thoughts and emotions, which in turn influences behavior. For example, many SGI members are afraid to visit a Nichiren Shoshu or Nichiren Shu temple because they have been told that temples are infested with demons and slanderers. This serves to keep members from shopping for an alternative to SGI or discovering first-hand information about other sects. So with just this one phobia, SGI can control both behavior and information.
In cults, there’s a common phenomenon known as “thought stopping,” a learned response to information and ideas that threaten or contradict the group’s teachings.
In SGI, all criticism is dismissed as negativity. The moment we hear criticism, we label it “negativity” or “anger” and immediately discount it and stop listening. If a member cannot maintain a cheerful, grateful attitude toward SGI, that person is having a “karma attack,” an obstacle to their happiness that they must overcome so they can be positive and cheerful once again. One must be positive and cheerful to “get benefits” from chanting — or so goes the conventional SGI wisdom.
Is our training to “put on a happy face” an example of thought stopping? I guess it’s debatable, but that’s how I’ve seen it used: to get members to squelch their own critical faculties.
Alternatively, when someone has a problem with something in SGI, we say: “Chant about it.” Instead of fully discussing criticism and thinking things through, we are advised to chant. Chanting is a wonderful practice, certainly. But when chanting is employed as a “remedy” for free thought and inquiry — or is used to rationalize the group’s deceptions (or make us forget about them for the time being), chanting becomes nothing more than a thought-stopping technique.
The BITEness in SGI is pretty obvious, I think. This is how it goes: You start to chant and you like it. Members, leaders and publications keep telling you that SGI is the only legitimate venue for your Buddhist practice, the best and only sangha sanctioned by Nichiren.
You are "encouraged" to read the SGI publications, which continue to reinforce the group’s messages. (In SGI, "encouragement" and "guidance" are often ephemisms for peer pressure and reinforcement of cult-approved views.) You are discouraged from seeking out "unauthorized” information or putting credence in anything that you read on the Internet. Uncomplimentary views of Daisaku Ikeda and SGI are explained away in advance by telling members that SGI has many enemies who are all jealous of the organization’s vast wealth, success and millions of members.
Members may have persistent questions about doctrine, organizational policy or how to apply Buddhism in daily life. They may find that their questions are not adequately answered. Even so, many do not search for a more fulfilling sangha because they have been conditioned to make excuses for the SGI’s failings. From the very beginning of our membership, it is impressed upon us that we must protect the SGI, preserve the unity of the members above all, and “be the change we wish to see” in the organization. If there is a problem with the SGI, the fault is with the person who recognizes the fault, or with common human failings, or with the “low life-condition” of the group. The organization itself, at its core, is not to blame and should not be scrutinized or criticized.
Even if we allow ourselves to admit that there are fundamental, systemic problems with the SGI, we most likely believe that these problems are remediable. We honestly believe that the SGI’s stated aims are it’s true aims. We assume that everyone is working in good faith toward the same goal of helping people to practice Nichiren Buddhism. The last thing we think is that SGI is a cult and is therefore not playing by the same rules as an open, progressive organization.
Some members say, “So what if it’s a cult? SGI has helped me, given me structure and a sense of purpose. Besides, I don’t care about organizational stuff. I just care about practicing Buddhism correctly.”
This is the most insidious thing about SGI, in my opinion: the organization distorts Nichiren Buddhism to undermine members’ autonomy and increase their dependence on SGI, and promotes this as “correct practice.”
For example, consider the fact that members do not own the SGI-issued Gohonzon enshrined in their homes — "your" Gohonzon is the property of SGI. For a one-time fee, SGI will loan you a Nichikan Gohonzon, the “banner” of SGI. Leaders and members spread rumors that other Gohonzon are “demon infested” or “don’t work.”
Some members think, “Great! We have more unity in SGI because we all embrace the same ‘edition’ of Gohonzon.” Conformity is often praised as unity in SGI. But what’s more insidious is that SGI inserts itself into the most sacred and central aspect of Nichiren Buddhism: the relationship between the practitioner and the Gohonzon.
If SGI owns your Gohonzon, it’s not such a leap to say that they own your practice. And if they own your practice, it’s not such a leap to say that they own a large share of your mind and heart. After all, the Gohonzon is not just a paper scroll, Nichiren teaches, but the very essence of our life itself.
To be a good SGI member, you must have a Gohonzon that is approved by SGI. Leaders may rationalize this as “protecting the members,” but even Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren himself are not approved by SGI. Perhaps many members are relieved that they do not have to choose from the dozens of Nichiren-inscribed Gohonzon available for free. But my point is that SGI pays lip service to freedom of choice and diversity, yet there is no choice with regard to the most essential and personal aspect of Buddhist practice.
Granted, most SGI members do not believe that the teachings of Nichiren have been manipulated to serve the self-enriching interests of a cult. We have been told for so long that SGI serves all humanity. Serving SGI is wonderful, we are told, because SGI alone is fulfilling the Buddha’s decree. In other words, the group itself perpetuates a belief in the unquestionable greatness of the group.
Most destructive of all, SGI members are indoctrinated to "never give up.” In Buddhism, “never give up” means never give up on your own life and practice, and to be persistent in your quest for liberation for yourself and all living beings. This is a great Buddhist attitude.
But in SGI, “never give up” is often invoked to mean never give up on the organization. No matter if participation in SGI requires you to compromise your personal integrity, never give up. No matter how you have to rationalize and make excuses, never give up. No matter that leaders and members consistently insult or ignore you, never give up. Keep begging, keep pleading for change, keep smiling. Hold on to SGI, no matter how humiliating or intellectually dishonest it may be for you. After all, we are told, Nichiren never gave up.
To me, that’s the poison in SGI’s BITE: convincing members that an abject, cringing dependence on SGI is really something noble, brave and Buddhist. I think Nichiren would be appalled.
SGI is like a cage that members carry inside themselves. To my shame, I spent years helping SGI members build and reinforce this cage. I feel obligated to say unequivocally that this cage may feel safe but it's really no more than a trap.
The good news is that no BITE control is 100 percent effective or 100 percent permanent. There is a way to practice Nichiren Buddhism free from Soka cult programming. The hard part is figuring out for yourself what that means. ...Or, as Buddha might say, work out your own enlightenment
Manipu-Mentoring in SGI
SGI is emotionally manipulative, yet somehow SGI President Ikeda — leader of the organization for more than four decades — is never held accountable. He's painted as the hero.
As members and leaders tell it, Ikeda Sensei is good, right and incorruptible; he wants only for you to be happy. This is pretty funny, because if you look at who benefits from SGI, Ikeda undeniably does, in terms of wealth, adulation, luxury, fame, dozens and dozens of buildings named after him, etcetera. In fact, he and his top lieutenants are the only ones who indisputably, materially benefit from the Soka organization. Yet they are believed, by organizational lore, to be the most selfless and worthy contributors to SGI. Leaders who are corrupt or jerkish just "don't know Sensei's heart."
How does one come to know Sensei's heart? Leaders have advised members privately that one way to know Ikeda's heart is to read his writings and pray daily for his health and happiness. What really helps is to cut out a photo of Ikeda and keep it near your Buddhist altar or hang it up on a wall in your home. You should then have "conversations" with your photo of Ikeda, telling him all your troubles, hopes and dreams. You don't even need a photo, leaders will tell you — just open up a "dialogue" in your mind and heart with Sensei. Sensei is mystically psychic of course, so he will hear everything you say (or pray) to him/his photo, and soon you will come to know his heart.
Obviously the purpose is to get members to project their own fantasy of a perfect, wonderful "spiritual father" onto Ikeda. So I guess it's no wonder why most members have a hard time thinking critically about him. After all, the Ikeda they know is an Ikeda of their own creation/projection, an Ikeda about whom they have heard only wide-eyed fables of praise from trusted leaders.
One of Ikeda's recent speeches provides examples of some of the manipulative messages that are communicated to SGI members. Most of Ikeda's speeches follow the same pattern and say mostly the same thing, time after time. But the speech I refer to here was published in the February 27, 2004, World Tribune "special insert." It's SGI President Ikeda's address at a nationwide executive leaders conference held in Tokyo, November 25, 2003.
The paper says,"In this speech commemorating 12 years of the SGI's spiritual independence, SGI President Ikeda discusses the intense growth and development of our organization in accord with the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin."
Right from the start, we are told, as always, that the SGI and its activities accord with the teachings of Nichiren. And of course "spiritual independence" is a big fat euphemism for excommunication from Nichiren Shoshu.
Ikeda begins: "Who are the worthiest of respect? It is those working for the happiness of others, those firmly dedicated to truth and justice. This describes our noble Soka members, each of whom is a priceless treasure."
So he begins with flattery, an example of what cult critics call "love bombing." According to Sensei, if you are a Soka member, you are dedicated to truth and justice; you are working for the happiness of others. ...All of this just by virtue of your membership in Ikeda's organization! How wonderful!
Ikeda continues: "It is imperative that we change the state of the world in which good-hearted ordinary people are oppressed and forced to suffer. This is an age of democracy, an age where people are sovereign. Those in even the most powerful positions of authority are there solely to serve the people. It must never be the other way around. Our second Soka Gakkai president, Josei Toda, strictly taught us this point."
This is the classic Ikeda mixed message. Yes, democracy is a great thing, but Ikeda fails to mention that there is nothing even remotely approaching democracy in SGI. Leaders are not elected, and leadership appointments are not reviewed by the membership. There are no term limits. The membership is not polled or consulted regarding organizational policies. SGI finances are kept secret. Ikeda pays lip service to democracy and rails against authoritarianism -- yet he himself is not accountable to the membership. Say one thing, do another.
The next section is under the heading "We uphold true friendship." This imparts the familiar SGI message that SGI members are your real friends, your comrades in faith whom you should trust without question. In this section, Ikeda says: "The courageous German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, who vociferously opposed the Nazis, called out to the people, "It's yourselves you'll be deserting / if you rat on [betray] your own sort."
Hmm. Ikeda name drops a famous poet, suggesting a kinship between the two of them, and invokes the Nazis -- emotionally loaded in any context. Then he uses Brecht's words to send a strong message about "betrayal" (interesting editorial insertion by the World Tribune of the word "betray" for "rat on," by the way.) The implication is obvious: those who leave SGI are betrayers and deserters, akin to those who betrayed their neighbors to the Nazis.
Ikeda continues: "As comrades, family, brothers and sisters, fellow human beings, we will fight all our lives for kosen-rufu. This is our mission. This is what unites us. We are a fighting force, a fighting fortress."
What is kosen-rufu exactly? The SGI defines it in different ways, usually having something to do with world peace. Kosen-rufu is a vague goal, as is "world peace," a broad generalization, yet Ikeda declares that "this is our mission." There are no objective measures of progress, no benchmarking. So members are "united" by fighting all their lives for a non-specific goal. And how many peace organizations would brazenly declare themselves a "fighting fortress," I wonder? This rhetoric speaks to the siege mentality inculcated into SGI members: we are surrounded by enemies and we are the only ones who can save the world.
But now Ikeda returns to flattery and a show of humility, saying: "Allow me to deeply commend and thank all of you for your tremendous efforts this year. Our repeated triumphs in 2003, the Year of Glory and Great Victory, have indeed been significant."
He cites no examples of what has been accomplished, but goes on to say, "We have never before received such a flood of praise and congratulations from our friends, supporters and leading figures around the world."
What accomplishments? Which leading figures around the world? Ikeda does not say, but the message is clear: whatever vague things SGI members are doing, they are glorious, significant, global and widely celebrated. This is another example of flattery, with the added boost to member self-esteem of being "special" on the world stage.
Ikeda says: "The only way we can accumulate lasting and eternal benefit is through our Buddhist practice. Striving earnestly and humbly for kosen-rufu, without airs or pretensions, is what matters."
Hear that? Without your Buddhist practice as defined by SGI, you'll never have "lasting benefit." Also, you are profoundly special...but don't get a big ego about it. Meanwhile, Ikeda names buildings after himself and ranks himself alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the traveling SGI-sponsored Gandhi-King-Ikeda exhibit...
The exercise of critiquing one of Ikeda's speeches is exhausting...and there are three more text-crammed pages of this speech to analyze, including a section titled "To betray the SGI is to betray Nichiren Daishonin." Ikeda's long harangue is enough to make me turn off my brain and nod my head in passive agreement. Which may be the whole point...
Ikeda reportedly once said at a meeting that he didn't care if people fell asleep. People cannot close their ears, he said, and even when they are asleep his words will still penetrate their subconscious.
Who's In Your Head?
Hypnosis is little understood by most people, writes Steven Hassan in Combatting Cult Mind Control: "When the term is mentioned, the first image that may come to mind is of a bearded doctor dangling an old pocket watch by its chain in front of a droopy-eyed person. While that image is certainly a stereotype, it does point to the central feature of hypnotism: the trance."
Hypnosis applies to a hot topic du jour in SGI: the re-writing of the silent prayers that members read twice daily during sutra recitation or "gongyo."
Hassan writes: "People who are hypnotized enter a trance-like state which is fundamentally different than normal consciousness. The difference is this: whereas in normal consciousness the attention is focused outwards through the five senses, in a trance one's attention is focused inwards. One is hearing, seeing and feeling internally. Of course, there are various degrees of trance, ranging from the mild and normal trance of daydreaming to deeper states in which one is much less aware of the outside world and extremely susceptible to suggestions which may be put into one's mind."
In Buddhism, the word "samadhi" means a state of absorption attained through intense concentration. It's a type of trance that is beneficial and integral to Buddhist practice. When Nichiren Buddhists recite the sutra and chant daimoku, we enter, more or less, a trance. In this state, we participate in the "ceremony in the air" and commune with the Gohonzon. In my view, there is nothing wrong — and everything right — with entering a trance-like state as part of Buddhist practice.
Hassan continues: "Hypnotism relates to unethical mind control practices of destructive cults in a variety of ways. In many cults which claim to be religious, what is often called 'meditation' is no more than a process by which the cult members enter a trance, during which time they may receive suggestions which make them more receptive to following the cult's doctrine. Non-religious cults use other forms of group or individual induction. In addition, being in a trance is usually a pleasant, relaxing experience, so that people wish to re-enter the trance as often as possible. Most importantly, it has been clinically established by psychological researchers that people's critical faculties are diminished in the trance state. One is less able to evaluate information received in a trance than when in a normal state of consciousness."
You can see where I'm going with this: The silent prayers during gongyo are the best time to indoctrinate members with an unquestioning belief in the greatness and righteousness of SGI and its leaders.
So you can see why many people were alarmed when, without notifying members, SGI-USA suddenly changed the third silent prayer to read:
"I pray that the great desire for kosen-rufu be fulfilled, and that the Soka Gakkai International develop in this endeavor for countless generations to come. I offer appreciation and pray to repay my debt of gratitude for the three founding presidents -- Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda, and Daisaku Ikeda -- as eternal models of selfless dedication to the propagation of the Law."
Some SGI leaders have defended the new prayers, saying that the wording of the prayers is not important — rather, what matters is what's in one's heart. Which begs the question: Then why print up and distribute a canned set of prayers in the first place?
Do I think a nefarious plot is afoot, or that a mind-control strategy is consciously being applied by diabolical leaders in SGI-USA to convince people that they owe a debt to the SGI? Or that the SGI is deliberately distorting the concept of gratitude as taught by Nichiren to manipulate people into enriching the fortunes of a religious corporation?
No, I don't think this is happening consciously on the part of most leaders and members. But lack of conscious intent does not mean that mind-control techniques are not being used.
And who truly stands to benefit from the doctrines now stated in the SGI-USA silent prayers? The corporation itself and its top leaders.
It is not known whether Nichiren prescribed any sort of silent prayers during sutra recitation. All we know is that he urged people to chant and recite portions of the sutra, and he did not specify how often his students should do this. So silent prayers are not necessarily an orthodox element of Nichiren Buddhist practice.
Another interesting wrinkle to prayergate is that the new prayers announced in the official SGI memo were adopted in other English-speaking countries such as Canada. But in the United States, the prayers were changed yet again to underscore the message that SGI members must "repay their debt" to the eternal SGI leaders. SGI-USA leaders have explained away this discrepancy, claiming that the newer new U.S. prayers are a "better translation."
Perhaps the leaders of SGI-USA believe in all sincerity that SGI members should embrace the doctrines expressed in the prayers, for our own good. They only want to help us. Perhaps these leaders are not consciously aware of the power of suggestion during a trance, and these silent prayers just feel "right" to them.
That may well be. No group says: "Hey, we're a cult! We employ techniques to indoctrinate and manipulate your mind! Come on in!"
Cult mind control often relies on lack or suppression of conscious awareness. All the more reason to raise these issues for public discussion.
Plausible Cult Deniability
For years, I told myself that SGI wasn’t a cult, yet the functional reality of SGI was plain to see. For instance, President Ikeda would say that we should all speak our minds freely. But members would censor themselves out of fear of disrupting the group, keeping in mind that President Ikeda also often said that disrupting the unity of SGI was a grave offense against Buddhism. (He is, after all, a master manipu-mentor.) Top and mid-level leaders would frown on dissent, even going so far as to issue a memo saying that only “pertinent” dialogue would be permitted in official SGI meetings and publications.
In other words, SGI is a cult that pays lip service to the value of free speech and dissent – just enough lip service, perhaps, to make people doubt the applicability of the word “cult.” Even so, members who express criticism of the organization are demoted, marginalized, ridiculed, insulted or defamed.
Simply, SGI’s stated goals and values are not its functional goals and values.
If you’re an SGI member, you are probably aware of the dichotomy between stated values and actual values in the organization. You may have learned to rationalize this dichotomy as a conflict between “ocean” and “village” cultures, or a conflict between “American” values and “Japanese” values, or the difference between those who “know Sensei’s heart” and those who don’t.
By rationalizing the dichotomy in this way, members can be persuaded that the “heart” of the organization is in the right place and that somehow, eventually, the organization will become the type of open, supportive sangha that it claims to be. It's easy to believe this when you want to believe it -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- to preserve your sense of having made a free, informed and correct choice in committing to SGI.
Over the past 15 years, things have changed for the better in the SGI, many members tell themselves. This is what I call the Myth of Substantive Change in SGI, the belief that the SGI used to be a cult but is no longer. People point to the fact that inane songs are no longer (routinely) sung at meetings, and SGI members no longer stand on street corners trying to recruit new members. In other words, the SGI leadership has come to realize that these activities scream "cult" to most observers, thus necessitating a change in window dressing.
Many SGI members tout the apparent acceptance of gays and lesbians — and the active recruitment of new members at Gay Pride celebrations — as a jaw-dropping miracle of positive change in SGI. For decades, gay SGI members remonstrated with SGI leaders about organizational hostility toward gays. Did these sincere efforts finally bring about a major change in SGI?
I think not. After all, this “change” benefits the organization by opening up a new constituency of eager recruits, many of whom are idealistic and have felt alienated from traditional religion and are seeking a spiritual “home.” Many have significant disposable income and often fewer family obligations. Plus, gays are a demographic group renowned for loyalty to organizations and advertisers who reach out to them (as many marketers have learned so lucratively over the past decade.)
In my opinion, informed by the fact that I'm a lesbian: “Acceptance” of gays is not a fundamental change in the SGI. Rather, it’s a sign that SGI recognizes a cult-recruitment jackpot when they see one. So don’t hold your breath waiting for the SGI to take a stand against the Federal Marriage Amendment. (SGI claims to be apolitical, despite their history of hiring lobbyists in the U.S.) Besides, discrimination against gays has always been and always will be indefensible in light of Nichiren Buddhist teachings. So with social attitudes toward gays becoming more accepting, SGI had no doctrinal leg to stand on, and was quickly losing it's social excuse for discrimination. Welcome to SGI, homos!
When I worked for SGI-USA in 1998, I requested that they expand their health insurance policy to cover the same-sex domestic partners of their gay and lesbian employees. The proposal was rejected by the SGI-USA Board of Directors. Gays and lesbians can get "married" in SGI, sure. But the SGI doesn't put its money where its mouth is and actually recognize these relationships as equal to heterosexual marriage.
So. Read newspaper reports about Soka Gakkai going back more than forty years. You'll see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since 1963, when Daisaku Ikeda first came to the U.S., Soka Gakkai has been interested in expanding its political power in Japan and throughout the world. Since the very beginning and all the way up to the recent lawsuit and trouble at Soka University of America, Soka Gakkai has proven itself to be an aggressive, deceptive organization concerned with wealth, political power and secular influence.
Who benefits from the SGI? Members have been told time and again that they themselves benefit, and that society benefits. But the members and society do not control the purse strings on SGI’s billions. They do not make the organization’s policies. They are not on the organization’s payroll.
Who controls the money? Who has final say on organizational policies and activities? Who benefits from being able to say that he has profound influence over millions of people across the globe, including more than 300,000 people in America? Who benefits from a billion dollars worth of real estate in the United States? Whose name is on buildings and auditoriums and monuments built with SGI money?
SGI members have been trained to dismiss these questions as destructive innuendo. They’ve been programmed to think that any criticism of Daisaku Ikeda is unfair and motivated by anger or jealousy.
It’s not unreasonable to hold the leader of an organization responsible for its failings. Even the Pope takes heat from Catholics. It’s not unconscionable to suggest that a Chief Executive Officer has a self-interested involvement in his own corporation. In fact, it’s common and customary for shareholders or members to demand accountability from the top dog of an organization. Dictatorships and cults are the exceptions.