Monumental Error? How a Statue Honoring a Controversial Japanese Religious Leader Wound Up in a Chicago Park

New City, Chicago/December 6, 2012

Chicago's Peace Garden is not a particularly peaceful place. Located in Uptown next to Lake Shore Drive, just east of the Buena Avenue underpass, its tranquility is undermined by the constant roar of traffic. The park features a rustic stone fountain, currently shut off for repairs, and a white post with inscriptions on each of its four sides: "May peace be in Chicago; May peace be in Illinois; May peace be in the United States; May peace prevail on Earth."

In the center of the garden, almost directly below the expressway, stands the bronze sculpture "Peace and Justice" by local artist Margot McMahon, showing two young boys, one African-American and one Caucasian, holding a ball aloft. On the front of the trapezoidal granite base a plaque reads:

Erected in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Daisaku Ikeda's life long struggle for peace, justice and human rights. Walking through Lincoln Park on October 9, 1960, the young president of the Soka Gakkai, Daisaku Ikeda witnessed a painful act of racial discrimination toward a young child, crystallizing his lasting commitment to rid the world of needless suffering and enabling the human dignity of all to shine.

The other three sides of the base feature quotations from Ikeda about the titular virtues.

When I first read the dedication, stopping on my bicycle en route from the lakefront to a nearby café, I was dumbstruck. After all, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist movement founded in Japan with millions of members worldwide, has often been described as a cult. What was a monument to Ikeda, the organization's enigmatic "spiritual mentor," doing in a public park?

I originally heard about Soka in the late nineties, after a buddy made the mistake of attending a morning chanting session at the group's Chicago headquarters in the South Loop with a hangover. The devotees' loud, droning intonation of the mantra, "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" amplified his headache. This Japanese phrase roughly translates to "I devote myself to the wonderful teachings of the Lotus Sutra," the central text of the Nichiren School of Buddhism. Along with a throbbing skull, my friend left with mixed impressions. "On the upside, they were all real friendly and welcoming and very racially integrated," he recalls. "But I would characterize them as a cult, or at least very cult-y."

If you run a Google search on Soka Gakkai, the fifth entry that pops up is the organization's page on the website for the Rick A. Ross Institute, a cult awareness nonprofit. I reached Ross at his office in Trenton, New Jersey, as he surveyed the damage from Hurricane Sandy. "In my opinion Soka Gakkai is a destructive cult," he says. "I have received serious complaints from former members and from family members. Ikeda essentially rules as a totalitarian dictator."

So what exactly is a destructive cult? Merriam-Webster defines "cult" as "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious." Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, cited on Ross' website, writes that destructive cults have the following characteristics: 1) a charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship; 2) the use of coercion or brainwashing; 3) economic, sexual and other exploitation of members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Looking for background about the sculpture, I checked out Margot McMahon's website. According to the artist's statement, the statue symbolizes "the 50 year passionate effort for Peace and Justice that have been the hallmark of Soka Gakkai International in promoting racial equality." SGI donated the statue to the Chicago Park District and dedicated it in the Peace Garden on October 8, 2010.

As told in the first book of "The New Human Revolution," a novelized history of Ikeda's leadership with dozens of volumes, one of more than 100 books he's credited with writing, in 1960, shortly after becoming president, he traveled to Chicago for a Buddhist conference. On a Sunday morning he took a stroll in Lincoln Park with Japanese colleagues. In an open area they saw a group of white boys, seven- or eight-years-old, kicking a ball between them while an elderly white man sat on a bench laughing and calling out encouragement whenever a boy missed a kick. An African-American boy also watched the game with rapt interest but, unlike white children who passed by, he wasn't invited to play.

When one of the children missed the ball and fell down, the black boy laughed and cheered. Furious, the senior stood up and screamed at him. The child shook with humiliation, fired back an angry retort, and then sprinted out of sight. Ikeda was overcome with indignation. "His hands, unconsciously clenched into fists, trembled," the author narrates, writing about himself in third person. "He felt a helpless sense of anger toward a society where such unjust treatment of a young boy passed unchallenged. This incident happened as the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in America was approaching, and in a park that bore this American president's name… In his heart, he addressed the young boy in the park: ‘I promise you that I will build a society truly worthy of your love and pride.'"

I called McMahon, whose works include a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of activist priest Monsignor John Egan in front of the DePaul University student center, for more info on "Peace and Justice." She says SGI approached her to create the sculpture because "They liked the works I had done before, pieces that captured a lively spirit and yet had a reflective and philosophical tone to them." As a practicing Catholic, she was delighted by the request. "I agree with a lot of the philosophies of Buddhism," she says. "It doesn't seem like there's much difference which spiritual path you're following if you're heading toward a common goal."

The only heads-up the artist received about Soka's controversial aspects came from an American acquaintance who had worked in Japan. "He said the way people follow Ikeda is unusual, with a lot of dedication," she recalls. "He made mention of it being a cult."

McMahon created a resin cast of the statue for temporary installation in the Peace Garden in time for the dedication ceremony, when Soka Gakkai delegations from Japan and other U.S. cities visited Chicago to mark the occasion. Although the man of honor did not attend, she sent Ikeda a desktop-size replica of the monument. Local members installed the bronze version a year later on September 29, 2011, and the resin copy now sits in the group's South Loop center.

The artist feels the placement of the statue in the Peace Garden is appropriate. "I think it's a sculpture that represents an act for justice," she says. "It comes from a religious organization, but a lot of religious organizations have the philosophy of encouraging people to live together."

But when I told Rick Ross about the sculpture, he was incredulous that SGI was allowed to install a monument commemorating its leader's "struggle for peace, justice and human rights" in a public park. "How in the heck did they manage to do that?" he asks. "They'll use that statue as a recruiting tool and as evidence of Ikeda's respectability."

The Cult Education Institute's Soka Gakkai webpage has links to more than fifty articles, mostly from mainstream news sources, about allegations of wrongdoings by the organization, its members and Ikeda himself. In fact, Soka has been embroiled in so many conflicts, scandals and lawsuits that its public relations wing created a website to address them, Soka Gakkai Controversies Explored.

According to a 1999 New York Times article, members have been convicted of using wiretapping, arson and bomb threats against religious and political rivals in Japan. In his 2011 book "The Last Yakuza: A Lifetime in the Japanese Underworld," investigative reporter Jake Adelstein writes that Soka has hired gangsters to intimidate its enemies. Soka's Controversies website details cases where critics blamed the organization for the alleged murders of a female politician and a priest from a competing Buddhist faction. According to the Times piece, President Ikeda has been accused of numerous crimes ranging from financial misdeeds to rape, but he was only formally indicted once, in 1957 of violating election laws, and he was acquitted.

Soka Gakkai authorities have vehemently denied these allegations, often blaming them on rival religious and political groups, or have attributed the crimes to mentally unstable members acting of their own accord. "The tabloid media tend to seize on and publicize any such wrongdoing by anyone who has ever been a member of the organization," says Tokyo-based spokeswoman Joan Anderson. Japanese courts ruled that the murder and rape claims were baseless, and Soka has filed numerous successful libel suits against its accusers, including many journalists.

The movement has been less controversial in the U.S., but Soka University of America, a lavish $300 million facility SGI bankrolls in Orange County, California, has come under fire. Although the school is officially non-sectarian, at least eight former faculty members have accused it of religious discrimination, according to a 2011 article in OC Weekly. In 2002, fine-arts professor Linda Southwell sued the institution for $25 million, claiming she was denied tenure because she wasn't a Soka member. "The curriculum is intended to reflect cult beliefs and perspectives," claimed her filed complaint. While the university denied the allegations, it settled with Southwell for an undisclosed figure. Recently two other ex-professors have filed unsuccessful lawsuits. "Religion is not considered during the hiring process and admission process at SUA—or the tenure process," maintains university spokeswoman Wendy Harder.

Bill Aiken, Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for SGI-USA, the group's United States division, was familiar with Ross' website and wasn't surprised Ross condemned the movement as a destructive cult. "Cult is a very loaded word," Aiken says. "We don't separate people from their families. We don't make people send their money. We don't make people slavishly follow a central leader. Members used to aggressively proselytize but we haven't passed out pamphlets in the street since 1989."

So why is Soka Gakkai such a lightning rod for controversy? "Some Buddhist groups are jealous of our success because we've grown so big," Aiken explains. Today there are about ten million members in Japan, roughly one in twelve citizens. There are nearly two million practitioners elsewhere, including 192 countries and territories, with 104 SGI-USA centers throughout the United States. Soka publishes the Seikyo Shimbun, Japan's third-largest daily newspaper, with a circulation of six million—photos of and articles about the leader appear on every front page. SGI's worth has widely been reported in the tens of billions, and Ikeda, also a business tycoon, is said to be a billionaire himself.

Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi founded Soka Gakkai, meaning "Society for the Creation of Value" in 1930, grounding his philosophy on the principles of Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of the faith based on the teachings of a thirteenth-century Japanese monk. Nichiren dogma teaches that all human beings have the potential to become enlightened in this lifetime, regardless of their current circumstances. Soka's doctrine is centered on the concept of "human revolution," a method of inner transformation through the practice of Buddhism.

Makiguchi died in prison during World War II after opposing the militarist government's imposition of Shintoism as the state religion, but membership soared during the postwar period under his protégé Josei Toda, transforming Soka into Japan's largest religious organization. Ikeda, the fifth son of seaweed farmers, joined in 1947 at age 19 and took over as president in 1960. In 1975 he launched Soka Gakkai International, the movement's global network.

Over the years Soka Gakkai frequently clashed with the leadership of its parent Nichiren Buddhist branch, Nichiren Shoshu. In November 1991, High Priest Nikken Abe excommunicated Ikeda, supposedly for deviating from orthodoxy. "We felt that enlightenment did not require the mediation of the clergy," Aiken explains. "Soka was about ninety-five percent of the Nichiren Shoshu membership, so the Nichiren Shoshu cut off its own body if you will. It's a day we look at today as our spiritual independence day." The two factions remain rivals.

Nowadays Soka Gakkai has significant influence on Japanese politics via New Komeito, a political party Ikeda originally founded in 1964. With a center-right, pacifist agenda, it's now the third largest party in the Japanese parliament and the junior partner in a ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. Officially, the party operates independently of the religious organization, but Soka endorses New Komeito and all of the party's presidents have held executive positions with the Buddhist group, according to religion scholar Hiromi Shimada. Critics complain this violates the country's principals of church-state separation.

In 1979, Ikeda officially stepped down as president of Soka Gakkai's Japanese division, a title now held by Minoru Harada, but at age eighty-four and reportedly in good health, he's still the honorary president, as well as president of Soka Gakkai International. He continues to be a divisive figure, often said to be focused less on spiritualism than self-aggrandizement. A Soka-sponsored traveling exhibit called "Gandhi, King and Ikeda" equates him with the martyred civil rights leaders, although his peacemaking credentials are largely limited to his writings and speeches, plus SGI's status as a registered NGO with the United Nations. He has collected countless peace awards and over 300 honorary diplomas from universities and schools, including Chicago's Francis Parker. Meanwhile the organization has built schools and monuments around the world; critics claim their chief function is to glorify Ikeda and promote the faith.

But according to Brook Ziporyn, a University of Chicago Buddhism expert who has been following Soka Gakkai's activities, the movement is no more—or less—of a cult than the Catholic Church or other centralized Christian, Jewish or Islamic denominations. "It arouses distaste among most Buddhists because it is an extreme instance of one of the very few Buddhist traditions that has an ‘exclusivist' view of Buddhism, the Nichiren School, rather than the more typical ‘live and let live' attitude of the vast majority of Buddhist schools," he emailed.

Soka does have a mixed reputation among other local Buddhist leaders. "They are almost a renegade organization," says Jesse Zavala, lay dharma leader for the Midwest Buddhist Temple in Old Town, which follows the teachings of the Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land School of Buddhism. "Soka Gakkai is really something different, not your typical Buddhism, not that there's anything wrong with that. It's kind of a cult here in America and around the world."

"I think there are some problems with Soka Gakkai," says Reverend Shingi Iwaki, chief priest of Myogyoji Temple, a Nichiren Shoshu congregation in suburban West Chicago. "They are basically copying what we were doing from before the split, and they tend to interfere with our activities." He complains that Soka sends mailings directly to his temple and to members of his congregation every June in conjunction with Myogyoji's anniversary celebration. He feels the Ikeda monument doesn't belong in the Peace Garden. "It's an advertisement for their religion."

But Asayo Horibe, president of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest and a member of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago in Uptown, another Pure Land congregation, had kind words for Soka Gakkai. "The people that I've known in SGI here and in other states, I haven't had any questions about their character or their intentions," she says. Horibe argues that the tribute to Ikeda on public land is appropriate. "He represents someone who is working for peace, fighting racial discrimination and helping those in need," she says, adding that "Peace and Justice" resonates with her because she was born in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. "Why shouldn't Daisaku Ikeda get his statue?"

On the other hand, in 2010 when an anonymous donor offered to pay $180,000 to put up a plaque honoring Ikeda in San Francisco's Pioneer Park, the local parks department supported the proposal but the Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood association successfully blocked the installation. "What if someone wants to give a couple thousand-dollar gift for a plaque to, say, Jesus?" said then-association president Vedica Puri at the time. "What if a neo-Nazi group wants a plaque? Once the door is opened, it creates the potential for a problem."

Soka also offered the Chicago Park District money in conjunction with the Peace Garden installation. In a September 10, 2010, email I obtained from the Park District via a Freedom of Information Act request, local SGI organization manager Kimberly Herrmann tells the park district's Adam Schwerner she has received approval for "the endowment we spoke about for the sculpture's upkeep."

When I wrote Park District spokeswoman Marta Juaniza about the funding she replied, "Though references to an endowment were alluded to in previous emails, the Chicago Park District did not receive an endowment for the sculpture's upkeep. SGI preferred to be involved in the maintenance of the sculpture."

However, when I reached Herrmann last week she emailed, "We remain committed to providing the Park District with funds needed for the upkeep of the statue. That it has not yet happened is due to 1) the delay in the actual installation until late 2011 and 2) some confusion on our part about how the funds were to be provided (We were expecting to be invoiced by the Park District). Any efforts provided by local volunteers to care for the sculpture are meant to be in addition to that commitment."

I also asked Juaniza about the approval process for the statue and whether church-state issues were considered. "Sculptures are brought before the Chicago Park District's Public Enhancements Committee for review," she says. "The committee's policy states that artwork cannot be accepted if it endorses or advocates religion or a specific religious belief. It was the opinion of the project manager that this art did not do so."

"The organization did not represent itself as a religious group, but rather one that sought to celebrate peace and advocate for peaceful relations between races," Juaniza adds. "Thus, the Peace Garden seemed to be an appropriate site."

Helen Shiller, then-alderman of the 46th Ward, which includes the park, also says SGI was presented to her as a peace organization, not a Buddhist movement. She went to the dedication ceremony for the statue. "There was nothing cultish about the event I attended," she says. "I think it's a good message, to rid the world of human suffering. Highlighting the need for peace is a good idea."

But former Soka members I contacted through Rick Ross' message board railed against the sculpture. "It is unacceptable to honor a billionaire cult leader whose group has destroyed countless lives," wrote Dr. Mark Rogow, an Oklahoma-based general practitioner, who was a member for twenty years. "Soka Gakkai is not Buddhism. It is Ikedaism. They will say and do just about anything to win support and followers."

Curious to talk with current Soka Gakkai practitioners in person, I asked Jeri Love, spokeswoman for SGI-USA's central division, to arrange a meeting at the South Loop center. When I arrive on a Friday evening the building is literally humming with activity. As my friend was, I'm impressed by the friendly atmosphere and ethnic diversity. According to an article in Tricycle magazine, more than twenty percent of Soka Gakka's United States leadership is African-American, and it's the only Buddhist organization in the country that holds local and national meetings in Spanish.

Love meets me at the door with a welcoming smile and leads me upstairs to a small room where a handful of members—black, white, Latino and Asian—are chanting while facing a Gohonzon, the scroll that's the object of devotion for Nichiren Buddhists. As they chant "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" in powerful, droning harmony, it sounds like a church choir crossed with a swarm of locusts. The chant leader, Guy McCloskey, sings some passages solo and directs the pace by ringing a prayer bell. After about twenty minutes, the chanting slows down and concludes. Love introduces me to the group and I speak frankly about the allegations I've heard about Soka Gakkai and the sculpture. The members are troubled by these claims but aren't overly defensive.

I ask them to tell me how they got involved with Soka Gakkai. Harry Rivera joined as a young man at DePaul after a fellow student told him about the movement. "She was a Mexican girl, raised Jewish, talking to a Puerto Rican Catholic about Buddhism," he quips. "At the first meeting I went to they talked about the fact you can become absolutely happy and you can overcome any obstacle in your life. And so I decided to try it as an experiment and I've been experimenting for thirty-seven years." Praying for material as well as spiritual gain is common among members, and Rivera claims chanting helped him acquire a new car, which led to a job with AT&T and reconciliation with his estranged father.

Phyllis Goodson, a high-school principal who grew up Lutheran, experienced frequent racism as one of the first African-American students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. When she first attended the campus Lutheran church, no one would sit next to her in the pews. "I asked myself, if they can't overcome their prejudices in this place where am I supposed to be the most safe, what's up with that?" she says. "At that point I was through and I never went back." After she graduated in 1971, a high-school friend introduced her to Soka, which she credits with helping her work through her bitterness and find inner peace. "So when people say [‘Peace and Justice'] is not appropriate for public space, well, I beg to differ. It's based on a scene of children playing and somebody being excluded. I know what that feels like."

Afterward the members take me on a tour of the center. In one corner, dozens of origami cranes hang from the ceiling, a symbol of peace and tribute to Sadako Sasaki, a twelve-year-old victim of the Hiroshima bombing who folded 1,000 cranes for luck before succumbing to leukemia. We stop by a much larger Gohonzon room downstairs where dozens of males, about half of them African-American, are gathered for a young men's meeting, studying the Lotus Sutra and discussing how to apply it to their daily lives. In a society that sends more young black men to prison than college, it's a remarkable sight.

Finally we visit the resin cast of the sculpture, nearly identical to the bronze one, in the building's front atrium. As we gaze at the statue I ask the members how they would feel about a monument in a public park honoring Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith. After all, Mormonism was once considered a destructive cult but today, especially after Mitt Romney's candidacy, it's recognized as a mainstream religion. The devotees don't think it's fair to compare Smith to Ikeda, but I maintain that Mormons also view their leader as one who struggled for peace, justice and human rights.

After they send me off with a warm farewell, I pedal north into the chilly night and weigh my thoughts on Soka Gakkai. There's a strange disconnect between the members I met at the center, whose hearts seem to be in the right place, and the more problematic aspects of their religious movement.

The next week I call Mark Weinberg, a local civil rights lawyer, for his opinion on whether "Peace and Justice" belongs in the Peace Garden. "A cult is simply a religion in its infancy," he argues. "They're not promoting their theology and the sculpture is in no way coercive so, assuming the Park District isn't favoring one religion over another, I think it's constitutionally permissible. I don't see the statue as advertising a religion. I see it as advertising the work of a great man."

"I've got a pretty liberal view of this issue," he concedes. "Some people want to take religion out of the public sphere. But I'm OK with having a Christmas tree, a menorah and a star-and-crescent in Daley Plaza. I figure the more voices in the public square, the better, including religious voices."

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