Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Celebrities and Soka Gakkai

Have you noticed the reports of celebrities who are taking up Buddhism? Have you noticed that several of them are in some way affiliated with Soka Gakkai? (There are exceptions - Richard Gere is more interested in Tibetan Buddhism.) Have you noticed that the ones that do tend to be in the music industry? If you haven't, it may be because you are not interested in celebrity or you are not interested in Buddhism, but it has caught my attention. Herbie Hancock has been practicing Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai for many years, as has Tina Turner, who even demonstrated what may be a portion of the Gongyo recitation from the Lotus Sutra on Larry King's show a few years ago. I am not a big celebrity fan, but when I hear about some star taking up Buddhism, it peaks my interest. More recently the list has included Orlando Bloom, Courtney Love, and now, Amy Winehouse.

Then again, a lot of Hollywood types have converted to Scientology.

Scientology is controversial in part because it was founded on the writings of a science fiction writer, and critics have suggested its claims and methods are, to be charitable, very questionable. The stereotype of Hollywood celebrities as shallow and vain individuals who want to appear to have depth of intellect and social conscience, which is unflattering to say the least, has cast its shadow over the popularity of Scientology among such a crowd. Warranted or not, this has helped fuel the lampooning of the movement. Similarly, critics of Soka Gakkai have accused it of becoming a cult of personality centered around its current President, Daisaku Ikeda. The celebrity appeal of the Soka Gakkai, though smaller than that of Scientology, can in a perverse way cast a similarly disparaging cynical glow over that organization.

Is that fair? No.

Whatever faults Soka Gakkai may have, the fact that people with celebrity have been introduced to their practice isn't relevant. But it certainly makes for an easy target. Perhaps the next question should be - when will Soka Gakkai be featured on South Park?

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. I'm sure the Hollywood folks are wonderful people. I have great respect for some of their work. It doesn't surprise me that a lot of them are members of evangelistic religious groups like Scientology and Nichiren Buddhism. I don't know much about Sōka Gakkai Buddhism, except that it is an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism and I didn't know that until I Googled Sōka Gakkai. My interest in Buddhism passed quite some time ago and focused mainly on Zen Buddhism.

    Another good post.

  2. I suppose there is an association of certain people and places with fads and trendiness, which doesn't lend much to credibility. One of the interesting things I learned over the years about Soka Gakkai, in addition to the controveries, is that they are hands down the most effective in attracting significant numbers of people who are not white, college-educated, and urban, which is far and away the primary demographic of converts for others Buddhist traditions, schools, and sects operating in North America.

  3. That is interesting. I wonder why that is.

  4. I am not sure. Clark Strand (editor/writer) wrote an article for Tricycle (major English-language Buddhist magazine)
    back in Winter 2004 called "Born in the USA — Racial Diversity in Soka Gakkai International". It's pretty interesting but there is no online link. As well as I can recall one reason he cites for its success in socio-economic and ethnic diversity is that Buddhism as presented by Soka Gakkai focuses on everyday problems and needs as a way of becoming attuned to the larger and somewhat metaphysical issues typically associated with Buddhism. In other words, it talks about practical insights and touches people "where they live" rather than coming off as a kind of escapist therapy or pseudo-intellectual chic. Of course, that is not what other schools are about but it is the image that is often given off, especially in the eyes of those who can't afford to take off for four days to a $2000 retreat at a lodge in the mountains.

  5. That makes sense. If something is practical it is more easily adopted.

  6. I'm a former member of Soka Gakkai and it tends to cater to a variety of intrest groups but maintains a sense of only problem with them is a sense of exclusivism that arises from their break with Nichiren shoshu priesthood...not be confused with Nichiren Shu a different and more tradional/orthodox Buddhist order. SGI
    offers a striiped down version of Buddhism without the cultural trappings but in my opinion they throw out the baby with the bath water.They also misinterpet Nichiren's quote" material desire and nirvana are one in the same" . Their blatant materialism is one of the causes for the break with their parent organization, Nichiren Shoshu. The bottom line is they are very materialistic and regard other Buddhist orgs as deluded.

  7. Thank you for sharing your personal insight Kevin. From what I've heard from others it is a mixed bag, with some really sincere and effective practitioners and some really fundamentalist and materialist. Be well.

  8. Hi. I have met several people from the SGI. I have to say that unlike what Kevin said, the materialism is not what separated SGI from the priesthood.
    The reason why the Soka Gakkai divided with the priesthood is because the priesthood suggested (among other things) that people can achieve enlightenment only through them plus that nobody apart from them (priest) are able to achieve enlightenment (reveal your true self/happiness) in this life time. All that is in reality against the basic principle of buddhism which regards everybody as equal, plus, nobody needs temples to be happy but instead, happiness is something that come from within and peace is only made in society together with other people, not in temples. Hence the reason why Soka Gakkai suggest that many other practices have been misleaded by 'hunger for power an authority' of other buddhist groups - priesthood included-, and not because Soka Gakkai member believe they are better than anyone else. Also Daisaky Ikeda is not a 'leader' as we understand it in society, it works for Soka Gakkai member as an inspirational model -or mentor- to learn from, such as Gandhi or Luther King Jr did.
    I found the SGI in some ways the relative of Lutheran in Christianity who said that we do not need churches nor priests to communicate with god.
    All in all ichiren Daishonin and Soka Gakkai was by far the most coherence buddhist form I found so far.
    Hope it helps :)

    1. Thank you for your comments Pertinax. From the outside the organization may seem that it is focused on material goods, but if you practice and delve into the teachings you can see that the material is really just an outward manifestation of the inner transformation that takes place. The reason they say earthly desires are enlightenment is that unlike prior Buddhist sutras the Lotus Sutra states that one is already a Buddha and is merely recognizing and uncovering that inherent nature. Understanding this it is clear that everything we know as the material world, our bodies, relationships, things of material value, are not separate from the Buddha nature and are therefore equal.

  9. I'm sorry I missed the more recent replies to this post. I must not have seen the notifications. I will check the settings to make sure I'm not missing others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.

  10. I am a member of the SGI, and we are far from being materialistic. We also don't believe that u have to go thru a priesthood to achieve enlightenment. Our organization is the very diverse, and we embrace the unique differences in each individual, rather than pass judgement and exclude. Attend a meeting & see for urself...don't go off of others ur own person, and think for urself.
    - James

    1. Hello James. My conclusion in the post was that it isn't fair to judge the SGI-USA based on stereotypes and rumors about it. Personally I've read The Buddha in Daily Life, The Buddha in Your Mirror, The Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, The Buddha Next Door, and Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, which are all books about Buddhism from the SGI perspective aimed at the general public. Not all at once mind you, but over a 12 year period. I also had a one-time subscription to the World Tribune to see how the SGI was presented directly to its members, and in the past I've visited blogs by members and ex-members who have at times made complaints about how things were handled in their own districts. So I maintain an even-handed approach when it comes to the SGI and the SGI-USA. I do think some North American districts have (or had) issues caused by misunderstanding or mistranslating some Japanese cultural customs into American group dynamics, based on reported first hand accounts, but that doesn't justify painting the whole organization with the same brush. I can't personally say how common such things are. BTW, I recently read a new book on the SGI written by an online acquaintance called Waking the Buddha, which gives some additional context to misunderstood aspects of how the organization developed and functions.

      Be well.

  11. I have been a SGI member for 28 years and I have countless experiences I could share with you of how the practice of chanting:
    Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (link to pronunciation on you tube below). Don't be freaked out the pronunciation was obviously made through a audiotunes program and they have it set for a really deep voice. But, I personally think it sounds nice, It makes it sound majestic.

    Anyhow, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo anytime and as much as I could make time for everyday throughout the years, it has helped me overcome suicidal tendencies completely (my father took his own life) and all of my siblings and my mother deal with depression. So, I have a double whammy of messed up genes. I live my life happily and wake up ready to face the day every morning. I personally truly believe that if I hadn't found out about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo when I did in 1986 I would probably not be alive right now. I can't express in words how powerful this practice is, and how I have been able to achieve goals beyond my wildest dreams.
    If you would like more information you can go to:

    I hope this helps.

    Kory James

    1. Really glad it's working for you, James!

    2. One thing that tends to distinguish the SGI from other Buddhist organizations and schools of practice is the number of members who report direct benefits in their own lives other than lower blood pressure or handling daily stress a little better. Being able to talk about finding the energy and courage to face major life challenges, as well as promoting a positive vision for all regardless of belief, seem to be the primary pathway for propagating the practice. Glad to hear it has helped you.

  12. I had a patient Rosebud R. In 1977 she was diagnosed with colon cancer Dukes Stage C with 5 of 20 extracolonic lymph nodes sampled positive for metastatic disease. She shook it off like a bad cold. Then, 5 years ago, she was diagnosed with inoperable Stage IV bronchogenic carcinoma. She never missed a beat and hardly ever coughs. In december she was having belly pains and an endoscopy revealed cancer of the stomach. Within a week or two, all her symptoms disappeared. She has an appetite like a horse and is more clear of mind then many of my readers. She attributes all her good fortune to the man upstairs.

    Her experience rivals that of any SGI member but that doesn't make her belief in god correct. From a Buddhist standpoint, her good fortune is the result of the good karma she created for herself since the infinite past through her thoughts, words, and deeds. Likewise, we should place the various experiences of Soka Gakkai members in proper perspective. Their belief in the DaiGohonzon, Nichiren as True Buddha, interfaith "based" on the Lotus Sutra, and Ikeda as "eternal mentor" too, are incorrect.

    1. Thank you, Mr. Rogow! It seems that you are the type of person who truly wants to discern fact from fiction.
      From my point of view, Daisaku Ikeda makes a great mentor! In his lifetime, he has overcome severe illness to achieve over 350 honorary degrees and has written more published works than any human in recorded history. I think this qualifies him to be a great mentor for young people like me who need some guidance on how to achieve their dreams.
      I have never been pressured to worship Nichiren Daishonin as the only Buddha, but many members of the Soka Gakkai revere and appreciate him because of his tireless work to enlighten people to their own buddha nature.
      From the Buddhist perspective of life being eternal, I guess that they would both be my "eternal mentors," no?
      In the letter entitled "On The Treasure Tower," Nichiren Daishonin states that "with the Lotus Sutra, even those who would ordinarily find it impossible to do so can attain Buddhahood, not to mention those for whom it is relatively easy" (Writings of Nichiren Daishonin Vol. I, p. 149).
      I think that I would fall into the category of people who would normally find it impossible to attain buddhahood, or enlightenment.
      Rosebud sounds like a uniquely corageous and strong individual!
      I think that the world needs more people who are fighting for the happiness of humanity, overcoming struggles, and forging bonds of friendship.
      That is the life philosophy and mission that I got from the Soka Gakkai International.
      I believe with all of my being that it is an absolutely correct way to live.


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...