Is SGI a cult? Does it matter?

The word “cult” has an alarmist ring to it. Most people think that cults must be obviously dark and sinister. We don’t expect cults to be friendly and normal seeming. We think cult recruiters must use force or diabolical spells to win recruits. We don’t expect to be won over, little by little, through apparent care, concern and appeals to our idealism — appeals to “dream big dreams” rather than think critically about the group. Being open-minded people, we have no reason to doubt what the group says about itself, and we’re usually willing to suspend our skepticism out of politeness if for no other reason. What SGI members say about their group, however, is not always consistent with the functional reality of the group. SGI claims to be a peace organization that opposes authoritarianism, welcomes all people and teaches people how to practice Buddhism so they can become happy. They are unlikely to mention that SGI is a multi-billion-dollar religious corporation that refuses to disclose its financial dealings even to members and donors who ask for information. Members have no voting rights, no grievance procedure, and no say in the policies of their own organization.

SGI does teach a version of Nichiren Buddhism, but it is an interpretation that reinforces the belief that SGI members are somehow “chosen” to save the world, and that their belief system is the one, true, correct religion for all time. SGI promotes and perpetuate itself through recruitment, fund raising and public relations activities. Members call this “working for kosen-rufu” or “world peace.” The group’s agenda includes going into U.S. grade schools and universities to promote SGI President Daisaku Ikeda as a “peace activist” on par with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — despite the fact that Ikeda lives a life of luxury (spending millions of dollars on classic art, for example) and has never once so much as engaged in a protest demonstration. Indeed, Ikeda is the de facto leader of a ruling-coalition Japanese political party called New Komeito. The New York Times and many others have reported that this is a militant political party that aims to establish theocratic rule in Japan. But many people in the U.S. who join SGI thinking that they are joining a friendly group of Buddhists have no idea that they are in fact supporting and legitimizing one of the most powerful and controversial political movements in Japan.

As for the SGI welcoming all people, new and potential recruits should know that SGI has publicly condemned and maligned SGI members who have voiced constructive criticism of SGI and sponsored public discussion of SGI’s policies and activities. In fact, the “Independent Reassessment Group” was threatened with legal action if they continued to identify themselves (correctly) as SGI members in good standing. SGI has proven itself capable of and willing to crush dissent and dissenters among its ranks. And non-members or former members who criticize SGI are branded as enemies.

Nichiren Buddhism is a religion, and there are dozens of different temples and organizations in which people learn, teach and practice this religion. Soka Gakkai, on the other hand, is a cult that uses this religion as a cover and a justification for accumulating wealth, political power and more members. Members receive nothing in return except a distorted view of Nichiren Buddhism, peer pressure, emotional manipulation, phobia indoctrination, a misguided belief that SGI membership gives them a special mission in life, and a knack for demonizing all perceived “enemies of Buddhism.”

Cult Warning Signs in SGI

1. Authority without accountability. Soka Gakkai claims to have absolute authority withregard to Nichiren Buddhism; Nichiren Buddhism can only be correctly practiced if one is a member of SGI. Daisaku Ikeda is promoted by SGI to be the foremost authority on Nichiren Buddhism for the modern age. But SGI provides no accountability — members have no control over their leaders and have no mechanism by which to affect the policies and procedures of their organization.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. There are no opportunities to publicly question or critique the teachings of SGI in organizational publications. Critiquing SGI at small discussion meetings may be tolerated to a degree, but this behavior is called “negativity” and is discouraged.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure and no independently audited financial statement. Media reports and property tax records confirm that Soka Gakkai is a multi-billion dollar religious corporation. SGI refuses to disclose its finances even to members and donors who request this information. SGI has publicly maligned members who have pressed for financial disclosure.

4. Unreasonable fear about evil conspiracies and persecutions. Ikeda and his followers have denounced as “evil” a rival group called Nichiren Shoshu, and urged SGI members to fight this so-called devilish influence. SGI has sponsored prayer vigils focused on the destruction of Nichiren Shoshu and the demise of its leader, Nikken. SGI has also assigned at least one paid staff member to follow and spy on Nichiren Shoshu priests. Why? SGI claims that Nichiren Shoshu is out to destroy SGI.

5. The belief that former members are always wrong in leaving SGI. Former members often relate similar stories of being pressured to embrace certain beliefs, to say only positive things about SGI and to participate in fund raising, recruitment and public relations campaigns. Former members have a similar grievances regarding SGI: too much emphasis on the “evil” of Nichiren Shoshu, too much adulation of Daisaku Ikeda and too little emphasis on the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism. SGI leaders tell members that former members are deluded, cannot be trusted and should be avoided.

6. Dependence upon SGI guidance and activities for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. When SGI members are confronted with a problem, they are urged to seek “guidance” from local SGI leaders or to read guidance from Ikeda. Members are urged to recruit more members and participate in more SGI activities in order to have a “breakthrough” and solve their problems. If the problem is resolved, leaders are quick to claim that participation in SGI activities provides mystical benefits. If the problem is not resolved the member is often advised to make a greater commitment to SGI and “connect” with Ikeda’s heart.

7. Anything that SGI does can be justified, no matter how questionable or harmful. SGI members are good at making excuses for the shortcomings of their organization. “We’re still in our infancy — we’ve only been in America for a little over 30 years — mistakes are to be expected,” they say. “We are only human. Of course we make mistakes.” “We are fulfilling an important mission, so even if people are hurt by our activities, it will all work out for the best in the end.” “If people are hurt by our organization it is due to their karma, not ours.” “People are afraid of SGI not because we are deceptive and manipulative, but because we represent a real challenge to the status quo. People can’t handle the truth and justice we represent.” The list of excuses for bad behavior goes on and on.

8. SGI members are afraid. SGI members have been indoctrinated with a litany of fears: fear of visiting temples or investigating other forms of Buddhism, fear of not chanting enough or skipping gongyo, fear of contradicting the SGI, fear of listening to or entertaining criticism of the SGI, fear of chanting to the “wrong” Gohonzon, fear of leaving the SGI. SGI members fear that these things will invite severe “mystical” punishment such as financial hardship, illness, family strife, loss of a romantic relationship, getting fired from a job or a horrible, agonizing death.

So what if SGI is a cult?

In her book Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton shows how anyone can fall under the spell of a cult. Layton was a high-level member of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. She tried to warn a skeptical public about impending disaster at Jonestown, Guyana. At Jonestown on November 18, 1978, hundreds of cult members perished in a mass murder/suicide. In the epilogue to her book, Layton writes: “Looking back, there are a few things I have come to learn. People do not knowingly join “cults” that will ultimately destroy and kill them. People join self-help groups, churches, political movements, college campus dinner socials, and the like, in an effort to be a part of something larger than themselves. It is mostly the innocent and naive who find themselves entrapped. In their open-hearted endeavor to find meaning in their lives, they walk blindly into the promise of ultimate answers and a higher purpose. It is usually only gradually that a group turns into or reveals itself as a cult, becomes malignant, but by then it is often too late. I hope my book will give my daughter some answers about how I got caught and how the Jonestown tragedy happened. I hope it will provide clues about the workings of a cult and shed light on the darkness of deceit. There are essential warning signs early on. Our alarm signals ought to go off as soon as someone tells us their way is the only right way.

When our own thoughts are forbidden, when our questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts and friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused for an end that never justifies its means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment, and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult.

If there is any lesson to be learned it is that an ideal can never be brought about by fear, abuse, and the threat of retribution. When family and friends are used as weapons in order to force us to stay in an organization, something has gone terribly wrong. If I, as a young woman, had had someone explain to me what cults are and how indoctrination works, my story might not have been the same.

It’s never “harmless” when people are deceived or manipulated under the guise of religion.

1. A legitimate sangha or teacher will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

2. A legitimate sangha or teacher will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses.

3. A legitimate sangha or teacher shares decision-making and encourages accountability and oversight.

4. A legitimate sangha or teacher may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

5. A legitimate sangha or teacher will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative news reports, magazine articles and statements about them.

6. A legitimate sangha or teacher will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

7. A legitimate sangha or teacher will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

8. A legitimate sangha or teacher will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

9. A legitimate sangha or teacher will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but will foster real dialogue, debate and the free exchange of ideas.

Accept no substitutes.



26 responses to “Is SGI a cult? Does it matter?

  1. Thanks, well written! We need someone to write a book about Nichiren. Are you in INdia? I saw that he was there when I was last in INdia, in 2006. It was terrifying, and I have been hearing strange stories from Indian members. Feel free to write to me in Canada at the email below. Namaste. The only problem with your arguments is that SGI and its affiliates discredit the “sangha” I am a monk again in the Tibetan tradition and years ago, when I first took vows, old NSA friends were merciless, I stopped speaking to at least three of my best “friends” because of their pure hatred and anger, which they felt so compelled to direct toward me, as though I had murdered an entire village! It was really bizarre.

  2. Agree.
    For SGI Buddhist:

    I think I might be able to help add some here. Shakyamuni refuted the Lotus Sutra. In the Nirvana Sutra he refutes these two things see wikipedia…non-existence and non-self and he goes into talking about True self. Nichiren says that the Nirvana Sutra was already predicted but that is a lie too. Seeing that Nichiren also thought that the Lotus Sutra was the Foremost Sutra. Nichiren in On Attaining Buddahood in this life time Gosho, says that the world is said to existence and not existence this is a direct connect to the teaching Shakyamuni originally practiced which is Hinduism. The fact about Shakyamuni is he did not gain enlightenment under a tree…he studied Hinduism with several other Priest of he’s day. It’s like this Jesus got he’s knowledge from Moses. Shakyamuni before writing he’s Sutra’s practiced Hinduism of Maya and Braham. Maya and Braham Hinduism talks about the world being an illusion and about illusion. Which is why Nichiren Buddhism is talking about illusion and detachment from “earthly desires”. I don’t want to be a history teacher but that is want it would take in details. So I will try to sum it up by saying esoteric teachings are highly involved in high level ideologies and rituals. I would stop practicing.

    For Others:

    The SGI talks about Human Revolution and Self Reflection but they are asking people to self reflect upon their lives with a piece of paper of devotion to the Mystic Law not with their minds and with a hot bubble bath. Question them.

    The SGI talks about Daisaku Ikeda as if he is a Martin Luther King of today…but they are unaware of the reported stories from Japan by former believers of how interesting this practice is with its members. There is a heavy reason of why this organization is being called a brainwashing cult in Japan.

    If you watch the movie Anger Management, there is a part in it where a monk says do not talk about my God, referring to the Buddha. This is very important to all Buddhist, why would a person need to have the twelve powers of the thus come one. The twelve powers of the Thus Come One sounds like Superpowers. Hummm.


  3. This is not my experience of SGI. In the 25 years I have been practicing I have questioned and argued and been constantly watching for the anything that the above writer seems to have found. I practice in England but I do think that Japan and America appear to be rather ” born again” in their attitude. but I have never heard anyone saying this is the only religion. Though it was likened on one occasion as a concorde rather than a jet.You make it sound as though the SGI has the worst excesses of The Roman Catholic Church.

    • Joanna, I think you are right about SGI being different in England. I go to meetings, but I do not have a Gohonzon or any desire to get one. I find the meetings really useful for self-growth as there are people with an open mind and desire to better their lives. No one has ever pressured me to chant, to attend anything I didn’t want to attend or to pledge myself to the practice/religion. I am *very* cautious and will never give any money to it. Nor will I ever revere anyone in the organisation.

      However, I do think it’s slightly shadier in Japan and the US, and possibly in the higher rankings of SGI in England. In the low level group meetings I attend, the people I meet help me reflect on my life and find paths to make my life easier and happier. No one has ever encouraged me to do anything to segregate myself from the rest of the world, to “recruit” anyone. I have never heard that this is the only way of life. Overall, this practice takes about 3 hours out of my life a month. If there is any point in time that I will feel pressure to do anything more, I will stop going to meetings. I doubt the friend of introduced me to SGI will stop being my friend if I do. She’s a much stronger and open-minded person than that.

      • It sounds like SGI members are the open minded and respectful people in the world. In fact, they are closed into believing that the Soka Gakkai is the only true Buddhist group, while it’s the exact contrary. Soka Gakkai is not Buddhism because it teaches that through the “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” you can obtain anything. You could chant “hocus pocus” and get the same result.

        Soka Gakkai is just like TV astrologers.


  4. thanku it was really useful

  5. I used to be a Christian and now qq faith. Fourth, sgi respects human decisions, even if they choose to leave sgi. Fifth, we are never thought to connect our thoughts with Daisaku Ikeda when we face problems. It is a very wrong view for us. We respect him very much however, we only see him as an example. We are only constantly reminded of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, and that faith is not just mere blind faith. Truth is always backed up with evidences. Also, SGI teaches and applies fairness in every aspect… Even if their are issues within the organization. A cult, whatever face it may wear, causes destruction. SGI is present to help people realize their inner potential and builds up good moral character. We can always say things, be with it or against it but what will matter most is how your faith is shaping you as a person because I think that is the most important matter after all.

    • Soka Gakkai tells you to chant the “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” to be successful in anything you do, you’ll be rich, you’ll find the love.

      The exact opposite of true Buddhism, which teaches to refuse material desires in order to find peace.

  6. This article is a bunch of one sided bull crap. Do some more research.

  7. I have a loved one who is under SGI influence. I would like to speak to ex-members in India to find ways in which I can help my loved one find the truth.
    Are there any ex-members who can help me out? Please do let me know by posting a comment.

    Thanks in Advance!

  8. @ani: your comment is typical of “blind” people. You don’t accept anything outside your small box. Buddhism, in its true form, teaches respect. That’s why Soka Gakkai has nothing to do with Buddhism, and you’re a proof of it.

  9. I am a practicing member from India, and this has not been my experience. We are encouraged to chant every day, not just when we have problems. This faith teaches us patience, understanding and commitment to a greater good, which is world peace.

    I would also like to know what is so bad about having big dreams? It’s the same thing all parents ask their children to do. SGI tell us to also put in the effort (or action) to make our dreams come true.

    Yes, we are encouraged to donate some money, but we are also encouraged to donate by the Hindu temples, and the various churches also, I assume. I apologise if churches don’t ask for donations.

    I have no knowledge about the financial disclosures, so I will not comment on that.

  10. For a while I’ve been a member of SGI. I still am. I’ve never seen a huge interest in this Ikedaism. I am scared though and have been for a while. I’ve been pressured to give money when I have none and while I have improved my life condition through meditation and chanting… I don’t think it has a whole lot to be tied into SGI. I’m scared and confused and I’m not sure what to do from here. I love my practice and many fellow SGI members, but… I don’t know.

  11. Thanks for the post. I am interested in learning more about the following paragraph. Can you provide some links to articles regarding this?

    “As for the SGI welcoming all people, new and potential recruits should know that SGI has publicly condemned and maligned SGI members who have voiced constructive criticism of SGI and sponsored public discussion of SGI’s policies and activities. In fact, the “Independent Reassessment Group” was threatened with legal action if they continued to identify themselves (correctly) as SGI members in good standing.”

  12. So much pure bs here man. Who are you guys. There is no wrong teaching of the buddha. Only partially correct. To understand the term you have to understand expedient means. The lotus sutra was preached in the last 8 years of the buddhas life where he said that whatever he taught before was the partial truth and this sutra that hes gonna teach now is the complete truth and the only truth. Hearing this a lot of people in the assembly left. But the ones who remained were the ones who were the true followers of buddhahood, not just the buddha. And most of them gained complete enlightenment or received prophecies of complete enlightenment from the buddha.

    • WHAT BS ? The article described the facets of a CULT and SGI, in particular, quite ACCURATELY, IMO and experience…. AND FYI, the SGI promotes itself AND has ALWAYS promoted itself as TRUE Buddhism, THE ONLY CORRECT practice because of Nichiren’s teachings on THE LOTUS SUTRA. Since Nichiren’s proclamation that chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is THE correct practice (for reasons you stated) he spent a lifetime of persecution.

    • @ Anirban Shaw: WHAT BS? The article is about aspects of a CULT, SGI in particular & quite ACCURATE IMO & experience. SGI promotes itself & has ALWAYS promoted itself as TRUE Buddhism, the ONLY correct & superior practice of Buddhism. Yes, & declared by Nichiren for the reason’s you stated.

  13. Here is how I see this “cult” as.

    I rather just go to the meetings just for self-help, but not be a member. Is this the best case?

  14. Hating something is very simple because it doesn’t match with what you want. Try loving? Going against it won’t make it stop. You’re wasting your time.

  15. Hello,

    Is this group still active. I have some questions regarding SGI.

    Please let me know if anyone can clarify them for me

  16. Came here by accident. Nichiren Buddhism is NOT a cult. Daisaku Ikeda is your mentor, only if you want him to be. We have faith in the Gohonzon – it is within us, and yes we can achieve anything in life by chanting. There are no boundaries in SGI – anyone can come or go it is up to them. Keep life simple. We apply our Buddhist learning in daily life and show actual proof to show the validity of this practice.

  17. Soka gakkai is a very dangerous cult . I have been with my Japanese girlfriend for almost 25 years then I moved to Canada .
    I meet her when she was 25 now she is 51 years old . When I meet her , she told me she is from SGG and I didn’t bother , we were Ok, until last year she started to talk to me about SGG , she was pushing me almost every day and I don’t want to Join .
    She is visiting me every year in Canada until last year , she said she is going to see a friend in Taiwan , I said Ok , no problem . I visited her this summer in SHimmatsudo , Matsudo city and she was pressing me all the summer . She supposed also to spend Christmas together with friends , she say she is sick and so tired at work . May be she may not come this time . All her parents are SGG members except her sister .
    I need a help , should I leave her ?

  18. I was a member of sgi for many many years.I have gone to hundreds of meetings. I have read their newspaper for many many years and worked to apply it to my life.I am telling you this so that when I tell you my opinion of the sgi I want you to understand that I am speaking from very first hand long time experience and I want you to know that I not just speaking off the top of my head without really understandi g the organization.In a nutshell I want to inform anyone who reads this that the sgi organization is not something I would recommend to get too involved with and I wish that I didnt stay with it so long.It really sfunted my growth and brainwashed me.This organization is not healthy although from the outside seems so.I would even say it is very harmful.Its like thinking younare eating a healthy carrot but inside the carrot have been put many bad thi gs that you cant really see.They are purposely hidden from your.eyes.I.can write for hours about why I have this opinion but I dont want to waste my time and every time and it is also too painful for me to see how my precious life was contaminated by believing that I was just eating a carrot.I wish that I never ever came in contact with the sgi.I am so glad that I can see now and that I am wise enough to have nothing with the sgi ever again or the arrognt brainwashed people who at one time believed were my friends.Any one going to meetings please dont be as gullible as me.I learned the.painful.hardway and lost years of my life.I am not writing this to be mean or send hate.I am writing this out of the goodness of my heart in order so save people from falling in the trap that I did and if I can save even one person from the mistake that I made of staying with the organization for so long then it would be worth the small.effort it has taken me to write this.

  19. I have been an SGI member for last 7 years. I am of Indian origin and was a Hindu before joining SGI. I found SGI in Texas, USA and it is here where i received my Gohonzon (object of devotion). I have experienced nothing but benefits and growth through chanting Nam myoho renge kyo. I have many personal expereinces where i have been able to turn my life around through faith and guidance from my mentor Daisaku Ikeda and his numerous books. It is very easy to discredit and slander anyone and proclaim that SGI is fake or a cult. How long did anyone of you practice with SGI and chant Nam myoho renge kyo. i have traveled to Canada, India and US and have practise with SGI members in these countries. America is a melting pot and i have met members from Brazil, UK, China, Korea, Mexico and many other countries and i have heard and witnessed them change poison into medicine. Please explore and learn about this organization more before calling it a cult. You have no idea of how selfless and value creating this practice and organization is. Each year Daisaku Ikeda writes to UN and sends peace proposals. If he is fake or this is a cult why does he believe in abolishing nuclear weapons. Why has he spend his lifetime in promoting peace. He turned 90 years this month. He has Tuberculosis and was told by the doctors he wont live past his 20’s but through this practice he lived 90 years i this is not making the impossible possible then what is? He is not even college educated but has over 200 honorary degrees from around the world. How can the world recognize a leader when he is a cult leader? Please get your facts write. And stop maligning SGI and its true case for the peace of the land.

    • I’ve been a member for 24 years in SGI India (Bharat Soka Gakkai) and I am still a loyal member, not out of anyone else forcing me, but because of my own free will, because this practice is the anchor of my life. I am Hindu by birth and remain perfectly free to pursue Hinduism if I so choose. No one tells me how to live my life, no one pressures me to do anything I don’t want to, no one is disrespectful or irrational, absolutely NO ONE is self-serving. SGI is an incredibly wonderful, humane and modern-thinking community. Every time I have asked a hard question or voiced a doubt, I have always been answered fully, logically and been encouraged to ask as many penetrating questions as possible. This is the opposite of ‘blind faith’. The article cherry-picks selected terms out of context to create a very false image and generates fear-mongering. BSG is absolutely NOT a cult “religion”, instead it is an additional philosophy of life. It has been the best support system my entire life, it has helped me overcome many, many hardships, helped me achieve my goals, helped me to become a stronger, more capable, more compassionate human being. I have been able to transform my life, spiritually, personally, tangibly and materially thanks to it.

      Contrary to the phobia–inducing tone of this misguided article filled with unfounded accusations, SGI in fact actively encourages critical thinking, debates and discussions. It is centered on the free exchange of thoughts and ideas, its foundational basis lies in unity and the encouragement of all other people. It teaches us NOT to be judgemental of others, it is the OPPOSITE of dogmatic thought. It is based on self-reflection, compassion and courage. Not once have I experienced the kind of irrational brainwashing or pressure this article is describing.

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