"The new $740 million Soka university in Aliso Viejo California claims to be a liberal arts institution that happens to be backed by a Buddhist organization. Opponents say it is a front for a $100 billion religio-fascistic corporation called Soka Gakkai that seeks to rule the world. Former Soka members describe it as just another doomed attempt by Soka leader Daisaku Ikeda to gain US respectability that has always eluded him. Neighbors of two-year-old Soka University in master-planned Aliso Viejo, Calif., were welcoming of its presence on 103 hilly acres. It promised added open space and open-mindedness as well: A peace-loving spiritual sect infusing undergraduates of all backgrounds with its global horizons and intellectual ambitions. Soka Gakkai International, an extension of a Japanese-based religious sect, had come to growth-oriented Orange County after years of frustration trying to expand a 42-acre graduate campus near Calabasas, 75CK miles north. There, in the Santa Monica Mountains, locals and green activists said Soka bustle would disturb the rustic scene. But the issues with Soka Gakkai turn out to go beyond NIMBY concerns with traffic or other usual town-and-gown headaches. They entail allegations of intimidation and blackmail; one strand even led to a probe of former Attorney General Janet Reno. As the California suburb around Soka's new academic jewel only later began to find out, this is one curious bunch, at least back home. And a wealthy one. Soka Gakkai (literally, "value-creating society") is said to have as much as $100 billion in worldwide assets, including castles in France and the UK and scores of other properties in the U.S. A claimed international membership of 12 million in 187 nations, including 300,000 in the U.S., every year give perhaps $3 billion in cash. Soka Gakkai also sells them funeral plots (for $10,000 or more a pop), assorted religious paraphernalia and a newspaper with 5.5 million subscribers. It also publishes various tracts spreading the words of its longtime leader, 76-year-old Daisaku Ikeda. These activities are given special tax status as a religious organization in most countries where it operates, including the U.S. Here, its holdings include training centers in Hawaii and Florida, a $5.7 million "culture center" near New YorkŐs Union SquareCK, an office high rise and auditorium across Wilshire Boulevard from each other near Santa MonicaŐs beach and, near Calabasas the "King Gillette Ranch" that served as Tara in the film "Gone with the Wind.". Soka also operates a trading house called PCE whose labor force works largely on a volunteer basis. According to its website among the many products in handles are wireless electronic reception equipment, ham radio, medical equipment and "computer related." It has a link to a company called iShining.com that sells, among other things, "underwear for protection against bad human gas (malodorous flatus)." Soka companies also do a thriving business selling religious paraphernalia to US believers. The impressive portfolio aside, the real mystery is what motivates Soka Gakkai. It is accepted in the West as a low-profile offshoot of traditional Buddhism, not so different from a host of other popular examples of Eastern or alternative religion. It claims to be a proponent of a school of Buddhism that uses chanting as a road to enlightenment. Emissaries of the sect regularly appear at the U.N. and other official venues touting international harmony and goodwill. Followers mount a traveling show trying to equate Ikeda with Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, and have sought to get him considered for a Nobel peace prize. This might seem like benign grandiosity, but Ikeda has at times in his 44-year reign spoken starkly of seeking dominion. Here is what he told a Japanese writer in 1965: "I am the King of Japan, I am its president, I am the master of its spiritual life, I am the supreme power who entirely directs its intellectual culture." The organization is run in a totalitarian manner with top-down control. Believers are encouraged to be "many in body, one in mind." This means "You have make senseis [teachers] heart your own. You have to fulfill his [Ikeda's] dreams instead of your own," explains Lisa Jones, a former senior California- based follower who claims to have ghost written a book for Ikeda. His dream is Kosen Rufu, a state where the majority of the people in the world follow his creed. Soka University in Japan, among other things, trains the sect's believers in techniques for passing government exams. Over the years it has sent a steady stream of graduates into the police, the judiciary, the foreign ministry and other instruments of Japanese power. Today, Soka Gakkai exercises real political power in Japan and also South Korea. In last OctoberŐs Japanese parliamentary election, Ikeda took a leap towards realizing aims first set when he established the New Komeito (or Clean Government) party in 1964. Since 1999, New Komeito has been part of a ruling coalition with the countryŐs long-dominant but weakened Liberal Democratic Party. Within its own ranks, however, it marches to only one drummer. "He [Ikeda] is the shadow emperor, he manipulates [Komeito] from the shadows," says Toshimitsu Ryu, 81tk, a long time member of the Soka Gakkai inner circle. Results of JapanŐs October vote, when New Komeito, showed that at least 25% of LDP deputies would have lost the election without the support of SG followers, enough to give the opposition Democratic Party a plurality in the Diet. Komeito also got the LDP to agree to stand aside in certain districts where in ran, giving it enough seats to force the LDP to rely on a coalition with Komeito to keep power. "It is like becoming addicted to amphetamines," says Katsuei Hirasawa, an LDP member of parliament of his partyŐs link with Komeito. Such apprehension is understandable given statements Ikeda has made in the past about his goal of total power. Nor are its activities limited to Japan. A French Parliamentary report in 1983 refers to Soka Gakkai as a cult trying to infiltrate French cultural, scientific and economic organizations. A further French Parliamentary report in 1999 notes SGI had invested over $40 million in France and bought many prestigious locations including the former home of the writer Victor Hugo. In Italy meanwhile believers have begun asking why a religion that promotes peace and democracy is run in such a non-democratic manner. SokaŐs political influence already has spread beyond Japan. In his successful bid to be President of South Korea in 1998CK, Kim Dae Jung had a secret meeting with representatives of the Komeito party and made a deal to get the crucial votes of the 500,000 Korean Soka Gakkai believers, according to Gekkan Chosen, a Korean news magazine. Soka spokespersons admit such a request was made but claim their organization was both unable and unwilling to deliver such votes. In 2002 a group of Korean Soka Gakkai members sued the organization, saying about $200 million they donated to the sect has been misappropriated for the private enrichment of its leaders. Meantime, Soka Gakkai members in Japan have been charged with illegal wiretapping and breaking into private data bases to gather evidence against opponents. In February senior Soka Gakkai members were arrested for stealing data on 4.6 million subscribers to SoftbankŐs Yahoo BB broadband internet service. Seiji Takaoka, one of the Soka followers arrested in this case was previously caught illegally wiretapping the offices of the Japan communist party. No Japanese mayor newspapers reported the Soka Gakkai link to the case. Not so in the U.S. say Soka GakkaiŐs adherents. "The Japanese organization responds to the Japanese context, we respond to a liberal democratic context here," says William Aiken, US spokesman for the sect. "SGI in Tokyo announces annual goals, we adopt them as our own but a local committee helps decide how to go ahead. We publish ikedaŐs speeches, articles and dialogues," says Guy McCloskey, a senior US member based in California. "Our most fundamental activity is the neighborhood discussion meeting. The spreading of the word is based in individual relationships," he continues. Soka members are discouraged from involvement in U.S. politics, he says. However, there was talk of starting a US Komeito party in the 1960Ős and 70Ős when Soka was expanding rapidly in the US; claiming over 500,000 members at the time, says David Wigginton, a former member who himself considered running as a US Komeito candidate. SGI was being followed by the CIA and FBI at the time, he says. After a blizzard of negative publicity in the 70Ős, political plans were deemed hopeless and dropped, he says. SGI has also gone to great pains to make themselves visible at political gatherings. At George Bush SeniorŐs inauguration, they attracted attention by building the worldŐs largest chair, a 39 foot tall copy of one George Washington sat on. SGI has also managed to get itself into the Guiness Book of World Records by displaying the most American flags ever in a parade. They have gathered letters of praise from US political leaders like Senator Edward Kennedy and George Bush Senior who perhaps were not fully aware of who it was putting on the patriotic display. To curry favor in academia, meanwhile, Soka Gakkai has set up a front organization called the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century in a giant Georgian building next to Harvard University. There, Harvard Luminaries like John Kenneth Galbraith are invited for chats with Ikeda. Ikeda has over the years managed to meet famous people like the historian Arnold Toynbee, double Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and countless others. The ensuing conversations are then widely published asbooks sold to the millions of Soka believers to show what a great global thinker he is. "They want to have him confirmed at a great global leader. Every year there is intense lobbying to get a Nobel prize," says Christopher Roman, who was a member from 1968 to 1983 and rose to a senior position in the organization. "Their plan is to totally remake global society based on buddhism...but it is really their own fascistic theocracy," says Lisa Jones, the former Soka writer. Recent episodes at Soka University in Aliso Viejo underscore those worries. It is a gorgeous campus with facilities on a par with anywhere in the world and a security camera network rivaling that of any casino. The buildings, surrounded by a regional park, have been made with the same stone as was used to build the Colosseum in Rome. Ikeda insisted on using it because he intends his university to last 2000 years, a Soka University spokesman explains. The university also features a mansion overlooking the park. It is set aside for VIPs, such as, in the words of one university official, "the President of Venezuela or Daisaku Ikeda." The sumptuous residence features gorgeous antique French style furniture, portraits of Ikeda and many art works, all covered in white cloth to keep them clean until the VIPs visit. Many of the 2,000 Soka Gakkai centers around the world feature sumptuous quarters set aside in this manner. These facilities are set aside in case Ikeda visits and feature such amenities as gold fixtures in the bathrooms, says Roman. Earnest university officials, blessed with a $540 million endowment that is as large per student as nearly any in America, are at pains to show this is a non-sectarian liberal arts college even though 85% of the students and many of the professors are Soka Gakkai members. It must be non-sectarian in order to be able to offer state or federal grants to their students. By openly calling itself a religious university, as many U.S. colleges do, it would not be eligible for many funds. The university was sued for $25 million by Linda Southwell, a liberal arts professor who alleged fraud, saying she had been hired on the premise she would be working for a non-sectarian college when in fact it was not. Her complaint disputed that "educational objectives are fostered at the university through the commitment to rigorous academic endeavor, free and open dialogue, and an appreciation for human diversity" when "in reality the curriculum is intended to reflect cult beliefs and perspectives" and speech and the people mix are also circumscribed. She also claimed Soka believers in the faculty got fatter pay checks. Soka University settled the pain-and-suffering lawsuit in a "satisfactory" manner that included a gag order on Southwell, her lawyer Brian Glicker says. Another professor who quit, Anne Houtman, described her time at the university as "very frightening." Asked why, she declined to elaborate, saying, "I am a single mother, I want to get all that behind me." Brian Glicker, SouthwellŐs lawyer, says heŐs heard from eight or ten other non-SGI staff members. John Sherridan, the former head librarian, thought he was putting together a library (called the Ikeda Library) for a liberal arts college, his lawyer, Stephen F. Rohde, says. But at one point, Sherridan claims, he was told by the former Soka Dean, Alfred Balitzer, that Ikeda was the "head head librarian." In yet another incident in February Ken Saragosa, a Soka University Professor and top SGI youth division leader was beaten up so badly by unknown assailants that he required multiple surgeries. University officials claim the attack had nothing to do with either Soka Gakkai or the university. Soka University’s student handbook says that "as leaders and decision makers," the schoolŐs graduates "will be guided by the ideal of a contributive life, a humanistic approach drawn from Buddhist thought." But Soka Gakkai newspapers and other publications, including hundreds of books in the Soka University library--open to the public, as the school had promised the community--all feature IkedaŐs interpretations of Buddhism: i.e. achieve world peace and democracy by becoming one with Ikeda and chanting a lot. The graduate campus, meanwhile, has been largely dedicated to training senior Japanese Soka University Graduates in English and then sending them around the world to spread the word. Like several of the students approached at Aliso Viejo, however, Fabiana Sanchez, 21, a junior from Venezuela and a Soka Gakkai believer, says she wants to do something for society or peace. She plans to return to her home country upon graduation and get involved in some sort of work "linking education and politics." Like all of the students talked to, she professed a strong attachment to Ikeda. This is a danger sign, say some in Japan. "One day you will look around and see everyone has the same vacuous smile on their faces, like in the sci-fi movies where aliens take over," warns Hiroshi Furuya, who defected recently after an 18-year stint as a senior Soka Gakkai headquarters employee. Soka Gakkai was originally founded in the 1930s to promote Nichiren Buddhism. Ikeda took over in 1960 as its third leader. After the 600-year old the Nichiren Buddhist sect disowned Ikeda and Soka Gakkai in the early 1990's Nichiren temples were vandalized and firebombed, and often surrounded by extreme rightist-type sound trucks linked to crime syndicates. Monks were attacked and Soka Gakkai youth groups intimidated worshipers. Photographs of Nichiren senior monks were manipulated to make it appear they were cavorting with women and published in SokaŐs mass newspaper. In the US mass meetings have been held to chant and pray for the death of a senior Nichiren priest. There was also an armory at SGI headquarters in the US in those days as well as a group of armed young men who wore black shirts and black cowboys hats and acted as guards for Ikeda, says Wiggington who says he participated in such duty. At the least, Soka Gakkai, which employs professional lobbyists, practices legal and public-relations jujitsu on adversaries. Which brings us to Janet Reno. Or rather, to her Florida lawyer friend Rebekah Poston, who allegedly used her connection to get RenoŐs Justice Department to open up files on an opponent of Soka Gakkai. Poston is a sect member. A House of Representatives committee investigation concluded in July 2000 that Poston used influence within Justice to get at decades-old and legally confidential arrest records in Seattle of a Soka Gakkai critic who the sect sought to compromise and discredit. Among those cited in the panelŐs 28-page report: Jack Palladino, a private investigator who figured in some of the Bill Clinton-era scandals. Palladino was found to have been hired by Soka GakkaŐs main U.S. lawyer to push the search for old arrest records that later would inspire PostonŐs FOIA request. Soka officials point out Poston was never charged with any crimes. A spokesman for Reno at that time dismissed the findings as part of witch-hunt of the Clinton administration by the House panelŐs chairman, Rep. Daniel Burton (R-Ind.) Incidents of this sort, as well as allegations of brainwashing by former SGI members, have meant SGI has become increasingly shunned over the years in the US. Soka Gakkai thought by now they would have hundreds of millions of members around the world and become the the great religion of the 21st century, Wigginton says. Instead membership has been stagnant or declining for the past three decades and the figure of 12 million believers is almost certainly inflated, he and other former members claim. Soka University is an attempt by Ikeda to gain respectability, create the appearance the sect is still expanding and leave his name to posterity as one of the great men of history, they believe. For the next generation his son Hiromasa who has been active in US sect affairs, is widely expected to take over control of the empire. Ikeda originally wanted him to become U.S. president, according to Yamada, Yamazaki and other former senior cult members. However, when Ikeda's designated heir, son Taku, died suddenly, Hiromasa was pulled back to Japan, they say. For his part, Hiromasa, like this father, speaks only to the very faithful. Many Soka observers in Japan predict Soka will splinter after Ikeda's death because Hiromasa lacks his father's charisma. Younger son Takumasa and many other factions are jockeying for succession, they say. If that happens, lawyers should thrive amid lawsuits to divvy up the $100 billion Ikeda legacy"