Brief History of Nichiren Buddhism and SGI

Nichiren Daishonin, a Japanese Buddhist priest, founded Nichiren Shoshu, the school of Nichiren back in the 1200’s. Peaceful? Hardly. Nichiren was a firebrand, who felt that other Buddhist sects — Shingon, Zen, Pure Land — were responsible for the famines, plagues, and threats of Mongol invasions that Japan was experiencing. He felt that the whole country needed to practice his Buddhism to experience peace and security. To this end, he criticized and debated with government officials and the priests of other Buddhist sects. He was considered crazy and subversive. He was almost executed, and was exiled twice, and he would not stop. Some of his followers were beheaded. These early followers lived in danger, and often poverty, and survived by sharing what little they had. You wonder what these people would have thought about the luxury and reverence that Ikeda enjoys, or about modern members chanting for cars!

Nichiren’s disciple, Nikko, continued to lead the sect after Nichiren’s death. It was a small and relatively insignificant sect until after World War II. Other followers of Nichiren also branched off, and taught their own interpretation of Nichiren’s teachings. There could be many tiny, almost-unknown Nichiren sects out there who chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo too.

Nichiren Shoshu might also be some tiny, little-known sect today — if not for a principal named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. He converted to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in 1930’s Japan. Then he began trying to infuse Buddhist ideals into the militaristic Japanese educational system. He established the Soka Gakkai for this reason. The Soka Gakkai was originally the lay organization of Nichiren Shoshu. Most of its early members were educators. Humane, Buddhist education? This was not Berkeley of the 1960’s; it was wartime Japan! Like Nichiren Daishonin, Makiguchi was swimming against the current. And like Nichiren, Makiguchi was punished for his nonconformity.

The Japanese military government wanted all the Japanese to practice Shinto, worship of the emperor and sun goddess. Shinto said that the Japanese people were descendants of the Goddess — and as such, had the right to run roughshod over everyone else and rule the world. Buddhism and Christianity taught the value and dignity of all human life — NOT a message that the military government approved of! They wanted their soldiers to KILL other Asians, not consider them brothers in Christ, or precious children of the Buddha. Japanese Buddhists and Christians suffered terrible persecution during World War II. Makiguchi and his friend, a teacher named Josei Toda, were sent to prison. Makiguchi died there; Toda survived and became the second Soka Gakkai president after the war.

President Toda greatly expanded the Soka Gakkai after the war — and trained a younger man named Daisaku Ikeda to be his successor. In the fifties and sixties, the Soka Gakkai began its expansion overseas — Japanese immigrants and war brides were instructed to begin Buddhist groups in their new countries. The Nichiren Shoshu priesthood and the Soka Gakkai leaders, who were laymen, were working together — but with increasing power struggles — until the split in 1991.

Essentially, the priesthood claims that members need the priests’ intercession to attain enlightenment. The Soka Gakkai says, rightly, that this is wrong, and not supported by the teachings of the Buddha, or the writings of Nichiren himself. And then they’ll turn around and tell you that you need to accept President Ikeda as your mentor to attain enlightenment! And they see no contradiction whatsoever in this! As a friend of mine says, it was a power struggle between men in suits and men in robes, pure and simple, and the suits won. Most of the Gakkai members chose Ikeda, rather than Nikken, the high priest in the nineties. They won, and yet, eighteen years later, they’re still whining on and on about how evil the priests are. SGI still cannot seem to move on — and shut up. By contrast, you go to Nichiren Shoshu websites, and there’s no mention of SGI at all.

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2 responses to “Brief History of Nichiren Buddhism and SGI

  1. As an SGI member (who is about to leave SGI and go to Nichiren Shu), I can find only one thing to dispute. That is that no mention of SGI exists on any Nichiren Shoshu website. I found one temple in California with a website. They say former SGI members are welcome to join, but must bring in their SGI gohonzen to be destroyed before they can become members. I’ve been looking into the different types of Nichiren Buddhism since becoming disheartened by some of the statements made by SGI leadership and from the general tenor of the meetings, including their attitude about the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. It has never sat well with me that a Buddhist organization would ask you to pray for the downfall of another, for instance. I am happily considering Nichiren Shu, as it has many of the things that I have always considered to be Buddhist, such as silent meditation (as well as chanting) and reverence of the Lord Buddha – both of which are missing from Nichiren Shoshu and SGI. Thank you for your wonderful articles – I have really enjoyed reading them.

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