Buddhism American style

Cloaking itself in super-patriotism, Nicherin Shoshu of America is part of an evangelical Buddhist sect gaining adherents worldwide with a guarantee of happiness through chanting. Sounds pretty harmless, right? Cult-watchers and ex-members don't think so.

Boston Globe Sunday Magazine/October 15, 1989
By Daniel Golden

Florence Hadley, principal of the David A. Ellis School in Roxbury, had never heard of the New Freedom Bell. Nor was she familiar with the organization that was exhibiting the bell in schools across the country. But when her school was offered a chance to host the facsimile of Philadelphia's famed Liberty Bell, she responded the way any patriotic American would.

"I just thought it was a super idea to have the children see a replica of the Liberty Bell," she says. "The Ellis needs all the positive things it can get."

As it happens, the offer came one day this past spring from Tamara McClinton, an Ellis parent who dropped in at the school office to tell Hadley about the bell. Hadley felt a bit bewildered that McClinton kept referring to the group sponsoring the tour by the abbreviation NSA, as if the principal should have known what it stood for. McClinton herself was an NSA member. Hadley finally asked what the letters meant, but the answer was a jumble of words that made no sense to her. Still, she was impressed by the documents McClinton showed her: letters from school administrators and elected officials thanking NSA for bringing its bell to their districts. What better opportunity could there be for children to learn about the Constitution?

So Hadley invited pupils from five other elementary schools and prepared for a star-spangled celebration. All of the schools were provided with copies of a pamphlet that teachers could use in their classrooms or children could bring home. Entitled The New Common Sense, after Thomas Paine's plea for American independence, the pamphlet urged children to buy American products and listed a California phone number and publisher, the World Tribune Press. It did not mention NSA, whatever that was.

The bell arrived at the grounds of the Ellis School at 9 on the misty morning of June 13. It sat on a flatbed truck in a makeshift enclosure decorated with mayoral proclamations, the NSA insignia, the "We the People" logo of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, and red, white, and blue bunting. Accompanying it were dozens of people, blacks and whites, with neat haircuts and glowing smiles. The men were dressed as Minutemen and carried American flags; the women wore frilly Betsy Ross petticoats and caps. Clean-cut and all-American, they looked like a group George Bush could embrace.

Local television stations and newspapers were on hand to cover what was the perfect media event: colorful, punctual, well-organized, and uplifting. State Rep. Gloria Fox made a rousing speech, and 800 children rang the bell, 30 of them at a time tugging the rope. Boston School Superintendent Laval Wilson rang it, too, with a perplexed look. He was later spotted asking several Minutemen what NSA was.

"I really don't know anything about that group. I was just in the bell- ringing ceremony," he says.

Had Wilson pursued his inquiries, he would have uncovered a sobering irony and a lesson in how any group can co-opt American patriotic symbols. He and other guests were helping a controversial Japanese religious organization in its quest to seem familiar to Americans. NSA stands for Nichiren Shoshu of America, the United States affiliate of an evangelical Buddhist sect that is gaining adherents worldwide with a sunny, simplistic guarantee of peace and prosperity through chanting a Japanese phrase. By cloaking itself in Old Glory, NSA may have become the fastest-growing religious group in this country. Yet cult-watchers denounce it, and ex-members distribute newsletters warning that its practices and all-absorbing lifestyle can amount to brainwashing.

The New Freedom Bell is one of many patriotic devices that NSA uses to establish credibility as an American organization and solicit endorsements from politicians and civic leaders. That strategy seems to be succeeding. NSA literature displays congratulatory letters from then-Vice President George Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mayor Raymond Flynn, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, among other potentates, and Sen. John Kerry was a featured speaker at NSA's convention in New York City in 1986.

NSA stole the show at Bush's inauguration in January by displaying on the Washington Mall the world's largest chair -- a 39-foot-high model of the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Continental Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records has twice cited NSA for assembling the most American flags ever in a parade, although in one mention it misidentified the group as "Nissan Shoshu," confusing the religious organization with the automaker.

"NSA is one of the largest destructive cults in the country," says Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church and the author of Combating Cult Mind Control. "They like to talk about peace and democracy, but their beliefs at the core are antithetical to that. Like all other cults, they espouse wonderful ideas and worthy goals. The question is, what are they doing to meet those goals? Are they just espousing them to recruit people, to gain money and power? The difference between a cult like NSA and an aggressive religion is that the religion tells people up front who they are and what they want."

NSA's parent organization is Soka Gakkai ("Value-Creating Society"), a lay religious group dedicated to spreading the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th- century Buddhist monk. One of several groups that filled the void left by the discrediting of the traditional Shinto faith after World War II, Soka Gakkai has an estimated 10 million members in Japan and collects more than $1 billion in donations annually. It also founded Japan's third-largest political party: Komeito, or "Clean Government." Although charges of violating the separation of church and state led Soka Gakkai to cut formal ties with the party, it still remains the power behind Komeito.

The price of Soka Gakkai's political prominence has been recurrent scandal. Its leader, Daisaku Ikeda, stepped down as its president in 1979 after being accused of everything from wire-tapping the home telephone of a Japanese Communist Party official to arranging for his mistress to be nominated by Komeito for a seat in the Diet. He remains president of Soka Gakkai's international wing. Recently, Komeito members have been linked to a bribery scandal plaguing the Liberal Democrats, Japan's ruling party. This past July, workers pried open an old safe in a Yokohama waste dump and discovered $1.2 million in yen notes. The money belonged to Soka Gakkai.

Beleaguered at home, Soka Gakkai has looked abroad, establishing chapters in 110 countries. Wherever it goes, it identifies with local traditions. For example, its wing in England bought a country estate that includes among its attractions a cedar tree planted by Winston Churchill, as well as a statue of King George III -- one man who presumably would have declined to ring the New Freedom Bell. At Taplow Court, members of NSUK (Nichiren Shoshu of United Kingdom) regularly put on Elizabethan plays and traditional country fairs.

NSA was Soka Gakkai's first overseas chapter, and it remains the largest. Established in 1960 by a Japanese immigrant who changed his name to George Williams, NSA at first appealed mainly to Japanese-Americans. Today, Williams remains the head, and most of his top aides are of Japanese descent, but the rank-and-file membership is diverse. According to a 1983 NSA study of its members, 45 percent are white, 24 percent are Asian, and 19 percent are black. Only 16 percent of members who joined in the 1980s were Asian-Americans. (According to the study, 60 percent of members are female.)

Kevin O'Neil, president of the American Buddhist Movement, says NSA has been more successful than any other Buddhist sect in attracting Americans who are not of Asian descent. O'Neil's organization includes all of the 366 Buddhist sects in America except NSA, which refuses to join on the grounds that it alone preaches the true faith. "When people get very involved in NSA, they won't associate with people who are Buddhists but not in their sect," O'Neil says. "Then they talk about world peace and coming together. That, I find, is a little culty."

NSA claims a membership of 500,000, which is almost certainly an exaggeration; O'Neil believes the actual figure is about 150,000. Based in Southern California, NSA has gained a reputation as a Hollywood religion because of celebrity members such as singer Tina Turner, actor Patrick Duffy, and jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. But it boasts an East Coast following as well, including about 4,000 people in New England.

"Obviously, we're growing in terms of numbers," says Gerry Hall, an aide to Williams. "And it's pretty solid. There's a second generation. What's great is to see that it's not just the baby boomers did this thing and faded away and their kids won't follow in their footsteps. It's genuinely a family religion."

The Ellis School parents who belong to NSA include not only McClinton, a news editor at WGBH-TV, but also Roslyn Parks. Parks is executive director of the Black Cultural Exposition, which is scheduled for the Hynes Auditorium later this month. Among other events, it will feature a film, The Contemporary Gladiator, written and produced by a karate expert who belongs to NSA. It is the story of a karate champion who chants for victory.

Parks credits her chanting with curing a heart ailment that she says would otherwise have required open-heart surgery. She sings in an NSA chorus at parades and festivals. "As a black American, I thought I wasn't from this country," she says. "I was from Africa, and they forced me here. It wasn't until I joined NSA that I developed a sense of patriotism. Some of my friends who are into blackness are saying, 'What's with you, girl?' I say, 'This is our country. There are things to be proud of.' "

Howard Hunter, who teaches Asian religion at Tufts University, opens a desk drawer and pulls out a photograph of a young man with his scalp and eyebrows shaven, sitting cross-legged before a hut in Thailand. Not so long ago, Hunter says, that young man was a Tufts student and fraternity brother.

"That's the fear of Americans, that their children will wind up looking like that," Hunter says. "And it's manifestly clear that nobody who joins NSA will end up looking like that. They don't renounce the world."

Not only does NSA outdo the Daughters of the American Revolution in patriotic fervor, but it also bears a message tailored to the American dream. Most Eastern sects seeking a foothold here urge renunciation of earthly pleasures, but NSA preaches that material gain is a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. Whether its materialism derives from Nichiren, which NSA's critics dispute, it sounds conveniently like Horatio Alger. "They're linking into the deepest cultural themes, economic gain and patriotism," says sociologist David Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University. Then, too, many aspects of NSA -- the revivalist fervor, the use of testimony to sway doubters, faith healing, and disdain for other sects -- bear less resemblance to traditional Buddhism than to Protestant fundamentalism.

Recognizing that NSA's future depends on avoiding bad publicity, its officials have learned from the mistakes of the Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and other groups stereotyped in the public mind as cults. For example, NSA recruiting methods are persistent but discreet. Although members occasionally hand out cards in airports or outside restaurants, they mainly proselytize friends, neighbors, and co-workers. And, unlike some groups viewed as cults, NSA does not abduct members from their families, deprive them of food and sleep, seize their possessions, or prevent them from quitting. Nor does it avenge itself on its opponents, like a California group that put a snake in the mailbox of a critic.

"I haven't heard a suggestion of high-pressure tactics that remotely resemble some tactics we've seen in other groups," says James White, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and author of a book about Soka Gakkai. "They are just as entitled to have a place in the American religious spectrum as anything else. If it gets you through the night, and it's not personally or socially pathological, I don't see anything wrong with it."

Yet, to ex-members and anti-cult groups, NSA's flag-waving smacks of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's "God Bless America" tour in 1972. They say NSA achieves the same goals as more notorious groups but with greater subtlety. Rather than kidnap members from relatives, NSA instills a hostile attitude toward nonbelievers, they say, and schedules so many group activities that family ties fade. While it does not coerce contributions from members, it encourages donations with the philosophy that the gift will be repaid tenfold in their own lives. And its fundamental credo -- that chanting brings good luck -- conveys a psychological threat, according to former members: If you stop, bad things will happen to you.

"You don't go to an ashram, you don't wear different clothes, you aren't a vegetarian," says one former NSA member who asked not to be identified. ''It's all an internal mind-set. Once you've got that, you can be anywhere on earth and still be a dedicated believer. That's why I think the telltale signs of mind control should be taught in the schools.

"A lot of people say, 'Well, they joined because they had personal problems.' It's blame the victim. Everyone has personal problems. The key is, they wouldn't get involved if they knew the danger signs. I could kick myself. How come I didn't see it? But I didn't know what to look for."

Few of the hundreds of schools where NSA sought to bring its bell in the past school year knew what to look for, either. And only two -- a public junior high in a New York City suburb and the United Nations School in New York City -- spurned the offer.

"It's very seductive," says Sylvia Fuhrman, the secretary-general's special representative for the UN school. "All these glorious photographs. Their brochures are as polished and beautiful as National Geographic. But the more we checked into it, the less we liked it. Nowhere can you find who is footing the bill. That's what alerted me. I thought of poor souls being enticed into it."

A rhythmic, high-pitched wail emanates one summer evening from a large conference room on the ground floor of an inconspicuous two-story South End building, the NSA center in Boston. Inside, the room is mostly bare of decoration, with white walls and white track lighting. At the front stands a wooden altar encasing a sacred scroll, called a gohonzon. It contains passages and characters from the Lotus Sutra, a holy Buddhist text, in the handwriting of the high priest of Nichiren Shoshu in Japan. Nichiren himself carved the first gohonzon in a block of camphor wood. On the left of the altar is a framed photo of the controversial Ikeda, who remains president of Soka Gakkai International. On the right is an American flag.

Led by Robert Eppsteiner, NSA's only salaried staff member in Boston, about 150 people sit facing the gohonzon, chanting passages from the Lotus Sutra. Many of them follow the passages in booklets, and some wind beads around their fingers. It is a multiracial group, and there is no conformity as to dress: Some members are in T-shirts, while others have come straight from work in their suits and ties. A large proportion are mothers with babies, awaiting a meeting of the young mothers' group later. Such sub-groupings characterize NSA's structure. Not only is it organized into units of increasing size, from districts to headquarters and joint territories, but members are also aligned by age and sex. The men's and women's divisions are for adults over 35, while adults under that age are placed in young men's and young women's divisions.

After they finish reciting the Lotus Sutra chapters, the members chant the phrase that is the bedrock of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism: "Nam myoho renge kyo," or "Devotion to the Lotus Sutra." By repeating this phrase for a minimum of an hour a day, members claim to reach harmony with the universe. Fortune comes their way: a job, good health, a spouse, even a parking space. You can't doubt their sincerity, although a nonbeliever might suggest other explanations for their success: coincidence or new-found self-confidence. Members may become better employees -- and win raises and promotions -- simply because they absorb the Japanese values of punctuality, loyalty, and teamwork.

"Nichiren taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra with monolithic firmness . . . ," according to Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America, by Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin. "This radical simplicity and unity, focusing all down to a single intense point, is the secret of Nichiren: one scripture, one man, one country, one object of worship, one practice, all potentialities realized in one moment which is the present."

The NSA center contains a music room, where members practice for bell- ringings and concerts, and a bookstore, where they buy everything from candlesticks and NSA baseball caps to books by Ikeda. Members venerate Ikeda as a crusader for peace, and their devotion has made him one of the world's best-selling authors.

Eppsteiner ushers a reporter upstairs, past a framed letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy praising a recent NSA peace festival, and into his office. Raised as a Reform Jew, Eppsteiner joined NSA in 1969, when he was a student at Boston University. A Brookline neighbor introduced him to NSA, and he soon found that chanting made him feel good and improved his grades. He has made eight pilgrimages to the Nichiren Shoshu head temple, near Mount Fuji.

"It's rare for someone to start practicing who's seeking Buddhism. They're not. They're seeking a way to improve their lives," he says. "If you set yourself up as different from society, that creates more barriers. Unlike some other groups, we don't hang out our shingle as Buddhists."

Politely, Eppsteiner controls the reporter's access. He picks members to be interviewed and sits in on the conversations. Later, he calls frequently to check on the progress of the article and to request that members' last names not be used.

The members selected by Eppsteiner to be interviewed include a former child psychologist, who now chants three hours a day for guidance because she is in the midst of a career change; a Boston College instructor who teaches a course in Buddhism and says that every year a couple of her students join NSA; and a fourth-year medical student who is an intern at Boston City Hospital.

Katherine, the medical student, glows with enthusiasm as she talks about NSA, which she joined six years ago, after dropping out of medical school. "I was practicing chanting for a year before I went back," she says. "I was told I had a snowball's chance in hell of getting back in. But I chanted and I got in. I was a different type of student. I had been critical. I didn't like the courses, I didn't like the professors, I didn't like my fellow students. When I got back, I applied the Buddhist concept that your environment is a reflection of you. What I learned is that, if they say 99 things that are worthless and one that's important, wouldn't it be a shame if you missed that one thing? Wouldn't it be great if everyone lived by that rule?"

At BCH, Katherine sometimes must work 24-hour or 36-hour shifts in surgery without sleep. After 18 hours, while other interns eat dinner, she slips into a bathroom to chant. "You know the burnout syndrome," she says. "You give and give and give, and you're on empty. Chanting is a way to build up your tank." Asked if she could ever be so exhausted that chanting could not revive her, she says, "I believe it's limitless."

Besides young mothers, a newly formed group of 40 teen-age girls is meeting tonight, and their session is like a pep rally. After singing an NSA ditty, ''The Renaissance of Peace," they applaud and shout, "Hip, hip, hooray!" Then they quiet down to hear testimonials from several of their peers.

A 14-year-old from Quincy says she was depressed by petty jealousies among her schoolmates until she marched in the NSA contingent in the Bunker Hill Day parade this past April. "I was higher than the sky," she says. "I no longer needed my friends' attention as a source of happiness. I relied on President Ikeda's words to challenge the obstacles of friendship."

A high school senior from Dorchester chanted for a close friend who used to deal drugs. "Gradually he's given up selling drugs and now works at an honest job," she says.

Her ambition is to go to college and have a happy family. She concludes, ''I know, if I keep chanting, I can't miss."

Talking over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant, every so often Mary still refers to NSA as "we." And, on request, she can shift into her old recruiting voice: "Do you know the benefits of chanting 'Nam myoho renge kyo?' " But it's been a year now since she quit NSA and underwent four days of deprogramming. Now, she says, she knows that it's just another cult.

At the urging of a friend, Mary attended her first NSA meeting in 1982, when she was studying to be a classical musician. She felt right at home. ''After the first meeting I felt that the people were ones I would have chosen as friends. And there was no racism or social class discrimination. Nobody cared. To this day I'm still impressed by that."

Her commitment strengthened when she chanted for a job to support her violin studies -- and was hired at her first interview. But for Mary the ultimate proof was spiritual rather than financial. The young women's division of NSA to which she belonged was giving a concert, and the division leader asked her to join the chorus. She was reluctant -- "I didn't see what joining an amateur chorus had to do with Beethoven" -- but she agreed.

Rehearsals were grueling, and the singers chanted during breaks to replenish their energy. When the great day arrived, all of the other divisions showed up to help with lighting and to hand out programs. And then, on stage, Mary had what she thought was a religious experience. Now she believes it was the result of fatigue and sensory overload.

"Here I am singing," she says. "I was transformed by the atmosphere. At that moment I thought that was what Buddhism was all about. I had no doubts."

From then on, Mary threw herself into NSA activities and advanced in the organization. She was chosen to attend a youth division meeting with Ikeda in San Diego, and for weeks she awoke at 5 every morning to go to the New York community center and chant to prepare herself for the trip.

Rising in NSA meant more responsibility to contribute money and recruit members. Her initial investment had been meager: $17 for a gohonzon, and subscriptions to two publications of NSA's World Tribune Press: the weekly World Tribune ($4 per month) and the Seikyo Times ($4.50 per month). Soon she was buying candles, incense, and Ikeda's books. Then she was honored with an invitation to join a committee of people who gave a minimum of $15 a month to NSA. By the time she left, she was contributing $50 a month.

NSA dedicates February and August to "shakubuku," or recruiting. In those months Mary scrambled to meet recruiting goals posted on the community-center altar for new members and subscribers. Desperate, she bought extra subscriptions herself and invited complete strangers to meetings in her home.

"It makes you so uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden," she says. "You chant your butt off. If you think you won't make a target, you sweat it out in front of the gohonzon."

Immersed in NSA, Mary neglected the rest of her life. She quit practicing the violin because she had no time for it. She rarely saw her parents and forgot their birthdays. She lost a six-year relationship with a man she loved -- and felt no pain. "For me, it was like a leaf falling off a tree in the fall."

The frantic pace undermined her health, and she began having dizzy spells on the subway early in 1988. Assured that they were trivial by her NSA leader, she redoubled her shakubuku efforts that February. On March 1 she collapsed, with what was later diagnosed as low blood sugar and a depleted adrenal gland. Her parents brought her home and invited former NSA members to talk to her. She is grateful for the counseling, she says, because members who walk out on their own and don't receive any support often remain confused and depressed.

Today she is healthy and studying music in graduate school. "You feel, while you're in NSA, that people on the outside have a boring life," she says. "You have a consuming passion. If you do great chanting, and then go in to work, it's a great feeling. It seemed very heroic.

"But what is the trade-off? You go in at 20, and if you get out at 30 you see what you missed. The hardest part about being out is realizing, 'I could have done this five years ago.'

"NSA gives people hope," Mary says. "For people who have no other hope, that's something. But you have to decide, would you rather have hope or truth? Maybe, if I had a terminal illness and there was nothing to lose, I might chant myself. But it's a false hope."

Like Laval Wilson, James Conway admits knowing little about NSA's beliefs and practices. But the chairman of Charlestown's Bunker Hill Day parade has done more for NSA's public relations than just ringing a bell.

At Conway's invitation, NSA began sending its contingents of brass bands and fife and drum corps to the Bunker Hill Day parade in 1973. In 1975, NSA gave Conway and his wife and two children an all-expenses-paid trip to its convention in Hawaii -- an extravaganza featuring a historical drama about the Revolutionary War and a tribute to George M. Cohan, all on an artificial island built for the occasion. "It was, like, a quid pro quo," Conway says.

Conway has repaid that quid with more quos. When NSA officials needed approval for a bicentennial parade against the traffic from the Prudential Center to City Hall in 1976, Conway introduced them not only to the traffic commissioner, who okayed it, but also to several city councilors. NSA members gave leis and pineapples to the councilors, including Albert (Dapper) O'Neil. O'Neil brought the delegation into Mayor Kevin White's office, where they posed for a photograph with the mayor.

"They may have some kind of a religion there, but that doesn't faze me," O'Neil says. "I think there's some Buddhism there, I think. They're very patriotic people. There's a lot of people in this country, I don't see them honoring the flag, I see them burning the flag."

NSA's relationships with Conway and O'Neil typify its assiduous courting of civic leaders. "It doesn't run front groups like the Moonies," says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, a nonprofit group dedicated to informing the public about cults. "You don't see a concerted effort to interfere in the political process by running candidates. What you see is a tremendous public relations attempt with these parades and the bell, going around to the schools, and getting the keys to the city from the mayor."

This strategy appears to have been handed down from President Ikeda, who rivals the pope for pictures taken with world leaders. Ikeda has met with the late Chou En-lai, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, and Manuel Noriega, who was an honored guest at an NSA convention before his drug connections were widely known. Ikeda also burnished his image by giving $500,000 to the United Nations, which awarded him a peace medal and granted consultative status to Soka Gakkai, NSA's parent organization.

According to NSA's Gerry Hall, the purpose of NSA's pursuit of politicians is twofold: to encourage members by showing them that important people sympathize with their aims, and to induce the politicians themselves to try chanting. NSA is usually too tactful to proselytize dignitaries directly, although a Boston School Committee member at the Ellis bell-ringing was invited to an NSA meeting. But NSA officials hope that their patriotism -- and swelling ranks of voting-age members -- speak for them.

So far, no politicians on the national scene belong to NSA, but some local ones have converted. State Sen. William Owens (D-Roxbury) admits to chanting and owning a gohonzon, although he says he remains a member of New Hope Baptist Church.

NSA officials say that the group stays out of American politics. It does not endorse candidates or hold candidates' nights. Yet it intruded on the electoral process from 1984 to 1986, when it gave a total of $13,700 to the gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley -- in violation of a California statute prohibiting tax-exempt religious groups such as NSA from making political contributions. After the Los Angeles Herald Examiner reported this past spring on one of the contributions, Bradley's campaign committee returned the money at NSA's request.

Bradley and another Californian, US Rep. Mervyn Dymally, have taken junkets financed by NSA and Soka Gakkai. Bradley and his wife attended NSA's 1985 convention in Hawaii. Soka University in Japan, which was founded by Soka Gakkai in 1971, paid for recent trips by Dymally to Tokyo and Seoul. Last year, Dymally read a statement into the Congressional Record praising Ikeda as ''a man whose life has been completely devoted to youth and world peace."

When NSA receives an endorsement, it makes the most of it -- sometimes too much. For example, the Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution sanctioned the New Freedom Bell in 1987 with the understanding that NSA would give the bell to the city of Philadelphia. When it turned out that Philadelphia did not have a site ready for the bell, NSA decided to exhibit it in schools where a teacher, aide, or parent was a member and could arrange an entree. Disturbed by this unexpected use of its logo by a religious group, the commission considered revoking recognition of the bell but found no legal grounds for the action.

"NSA is using that as a shoehorn to get in the schools," a commission official says. "Any project taken into the schools has a captive audience. There's a potential for using schools as a recruiting ground for their movement."

Although Soka Gakkai and NSA don't seek scholarly attention as assiduously as political endorsements, they know how to woo academics. Again, they are following the example of Ikeda, who has published several books of conversations with eminent scholars, such as the late historian Arnold Toynbee, and frequently donates books to European universities. Under Ikeda, Soka Gakkai has also published several antiwar books containing reminiscences of Japanese survivors of World War II.

When Daniel Metraux began researching his doctoral thesis on Soka Gakkai, he agreed to let its officials read the manuscript for factual errors. In return, the organization gave him interviews and access. The thesis portrayed Soka Gakkai as harmless and peace-loving, and when Metraux expanded it into a book, Soka Gakkai found him a Japanese publisher. Now Metraux, who is a professor at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, works as a consultant for Soka Gakkai. "They make you feel very important," he says.

Celebrity entertainers, too, enhance NSA's image. Patrick Duffy, who plays Bobby Ewing on Dallas, was introduced to NSA in 1972, at the age of 22, by his future wife. At the time, he had recently ruptured both vocal cords, and his dream of an acting career seemed unattainable. Chanting as best he could, he regained his voice. Marriage, children, and stardom followed. "As of yet, to this day, I still don't know how it works," marvels Duffy, sitting in the Culver City office of his production company, Montana Power Inc.

Duffy, a midlevel leader in the NSA organization, has chanted all but eight days in the past 17 years. The benefits are guaranteed, he says, and any members who fail to experience them either do not chant enough or don't count their blessings. "I can understand, but not with complete sympathy, someone leaving NSA," he says.

Back in Charlestown, Conway is still smoothing NSA's path. When the group considered buying a former school building in Allston-Brighton recently, he wrote a letter of support to the neighborhood council. He also invited NSA director Williams to be the featured speaker at the Bunker Hill Day exercises this past April, an honor traditionally reserved for Massachusetts politicians.

Williams couldn't come -- his fill-in was state Rep. Richard Voke, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- but NSA sent the New Freedom Bell and 200 flag-waving members to the exercises. The next day, NSA participated in the Bunker Hill Day parade for the first time since 1975. NSA's contingent, which was paid expenses only, included a brass band, a fife and drum corps, 80 dancers dressed as sunflowers, a 40-member drill dance team, and 300 gymnasts, who formed a human pyramid five stories high.

"God, it was impressive," Conway says.

As for NSA's Eppsteiner, he was pleased, too: "There are members who say, 'You know, my first experience of NSA was seeing it in the Bunker Hill Day parade.' "

When District 15 of the Machinists Union decided to put its headquarters in New York City's Union Square on the market last year, it had trouble finding a buyer. The highest bid was $2.5 million -- half what the union believed the building was worth. Then, one day, NSA officials visited district president Hans Wedekin. Not only did they agree immediately to his $5 million price, but they paid for the entire amount by check. Now the attractive five-story brownstone is an NSA community center.

"It was the fastest deal I ever made," Wedekin says.

In the past two years, NSA has pumped tens of millions of dollars into buying properties in more than a dozen American cities ranging in size from New York and Baltimore to Eugene, Oregon, and Colorado Springs, Colorado. By its own count, NSA now has 55 community centers, five cultural centers, six temples, and three training centers. The most expensive purchase this year may have been a $3.2 million property in San Francisco. The school in Allston- Brighton that NSA recently looked into is assessed at more than $2.2 million. Few of NSA's properties are mortgaged: It usually pays the whole sum up front.

Where does the money come from? According to NSA, these purchases are financed by its regular income -- subscriptions, bookstore sales, and the like -- and special campaigns. Although members are not required to contribute to these campaigns, they are encouraged to improve their self-discipline by setting a substantial donation as a target and then meeting it. "It may be suggested to challenge yourself, see if you can give," says Al Albergate, a former Los Angeles Herald Examiner reporter who is NSA's public relations spokesman. "In this practice, you do get back more than you give."

Jean, the former child psychologist in Boston, says she decided to use last year's campaign to raise money for the New York center as a challenge to live within a budget. So she took a second job as a waitress and donated the income from it to the campaign.

Cult-watchers and ex-members argue that NSA exploits Jean and others like her. What makes matters worse, they say, is that members think NSA's expansion depends on their sacrifices, when it is actually subsidized by Soka Gakkai in Japan. Not only does Soka Gakkai collect huge sums from donations and bequests, but it also owns rapidly appreciating Tokyo real estate and an art museum. Its extravagant bids for Western art have helped fuel the spectacular rise in art prices in recent years.

Eager to preserve NSA's all-American image, its officials deny that it is funded from Japan. But they do not dispute that Soka University in Tokyo, an offshoot of Soka Gakkai, has made one expensive investment here that should benefit NSA. In 1986 the university bought a 248-acre estate in Calabasas, California, from the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious cult, for $15.5 million. It far outbid the federal government, which wanted to turn the site into the centerpiece of a national recreation area. The location is intended for a four-year, liberal arts university. So far, Soka University/Los Angeles offers only English classes for visiting Japanese students.

A short walk from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California, this modern four-story office building has the air of a bustling corporate headquarters. Nowhere in the lobby of NSA's national headquarters do you see the word Buddhism; instead, visitors are greeted by a large map of the United States, with yellow lights marking where the New Freedom Bell has visited. Upstairs are offices of the World Tribune, which has a national circulation of 120,000 -- more than the better-known Washington Times, controlled by the Unification Church. An eight-page weekly, the Tribune covers Ikeda's ''history-making" meetings and reprints his speeches. It also contains testimony about the benefits of chanting from NSA members around the United States. To reach new immigrants, the last page is printed in a foreign language, with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish alternating from week to week.

Just down the street is a storefront office that houses NSA's spin-off companies, including Freedom Music. Its musical, This Is America, the New World, was performed on September 6 in the 2,605-seat Boston Opera House.

Sixty miles east of Santa Monica, among vineyards and fields in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, is a more serene place. It is one of the six temples of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in the United States. There are no bells, flags, or photos of Ikeda in the chapel here, just a gohonzon on an altar, surrounded by candles, an incense burner, gold lotus flowers, and a drum to accompany the chanting.

Nor are there any visitors this morning, only the chief priest, Yosei Yamada, and his assistant. Yamada is one of NSA's 11 priests in the United States; next year the number is planned to increase to 13. He officiates at weddings and funerals, and new members come to the temple three times a week to receive their scrolls. But he also has plenty of time alone to study Buddhist doctrine and the English language.

Asked if he marches in NSA parades, Yamada smiles and says, "The priests are on another kind of mission."

The contrast between the busy headquarters and the isolated temple perhaps explains how a legitimate Buddhist sect can be so deeply into patriotism and public relations. Simply put, the lay organizations have as much power as the priests. It is as if the Knights of Columbus determined the policies of the Catholic Church. Although Soka Gakkai and NSA are lay groups, they instruct members and spread the faith. But the priests, the guardians of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, do not proselytize and have little contact with members. Some members never see a priest after they receive their scrolls.

Over coffee in his sitting room, Yamada explains that this unusual situation has its roots in the writings of Nichiren, who believed that all other Buddhist sects were heretical and urged his followers to evangelize nonbelievers. Since the Nichiren priesthood was never numerous enough to propagate the word, it relied for centuries on a lay group, Hokaiko, which acknowledged its subordinate role. But Hokaiko was weak. Today it has perhaps 100,000 members worldwide. Despite practicing the same religion as Soka Gakkai members, they have become second-class citizens in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism.

Soka Gakkai did not start as a religious group. It was founded in 1930 by T. Makiguchi, an educational theorist. Soon Makiguchi's interests shifted to religion, and he offered to associate his group with Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Recognizing that Soka Gakkai was more energetic than Hokaiko, the high priest agreed. When Soka Gakkai's membership skyrocketed in the 1945-52 period, known in Japan as the "Rush Hour of the Gods" because of the proliferation of religions, the priesthood found itself overwhelmed by the size and wealth of its lay organization.

Financially, the arrangement between the priesthood and Soka Gakkai benefits both sides. Every new member must pay a donation for a scroll, and the money goes to the upkeep of the temples. Even so, many priests have been unable to tolerate Soka Gakkai. In the late 1970s, 180 Nichiren Shoshu priests in Japan -- a third of the priesthood there -- as well as the chief priest in New York City protested what they viewed as glorification of Ikeda and a misrepresentation of Nichiren's teachings to emphasize materialism. The priests in Japan were excommunicated, and they sued for reinstatement. According to Yamada, a Japanese appeals court recently ruled against them.

Rev. Kando Tono, the New York priest, was recalled to Japan under pressure from NSA. He says he was not excommunicated because Soka Gakkai did not want to test the issue in United States courts. He now takes care of Hokaiko members in London and New York. "If you start criticizing Soka Gakkai, you jeopardize your situation as a priest," he says. "But they distorted the teachings of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism so it would appeal to nonbelievers."

Yamada and other priests became concerned last year that NSA was recruiting people indiscriminately, without regard to whether they were truly committed to Buddhism. He could tell this was happening, he says, because not only were more people coming to the temple to receive their scrolls, but more were coming to give them back. In a typical week he would give out 300 gohonzons, but 20 would be returned. After consulting with the high priest in Japan, the priests met with NSA leaders, who agreed to be more careful. Now, Yamada says, he distributes only 200 gohonzons a week, and hardly any are returned.

Listening to Yamada, one is struck by the thought that perhaps the interplay between priests and lay leaders may underlie NSA's back-and-forth history. NSA went from frantic flag-waving in the mid-1970s to a period of retreat and study, and now it's back to glitz again. When lay leaders go too far, the priests rein them in; but if recruitment then falters, the laity reassumes control. One might even say that NSA shifts back and forth from religion to cult, depending on who's in charge.

As his visitor leaves, Yamada says that he will soon devote his afternoons to studying Christianity. "Right now, I can't understand the people's mind, especially Western people," he says. "I don't understand the God which is taught in Christianity, the creator."

If Tom Wolfe saw this spectacle of affluent professionals chanting to a Japanese scroll, he might call it Buddhist chic. Shoeless and sweaty on a sticky summer night, 25 people are crammed into a living room on the top floor of a fashionable Cambridge three-decker. The room is decorated with Oriental art and the inevitable Ikeda photo, but furniture is sparse, and most guests sit on the floor. The focus of their worship hangs in a wooden altar in one corner, against a background of pink paper and silk cloth, illuminated by a spotlight.

Like any of the dozens of weekly NSA meetings in the Boston area, this one is not primarily an opportunity for members to practice their religion. They have their own gohonzons at home. Its main purpose is recruitment. Several members have brought friends along, and everything is arranged for their comfort. You can spot the newcomers: the shy woman in the back of the room; the fellow staring intently at the group leaders explaining the evening's agenda; and the man on the couch who lets the woman next to him wind beads around his fingers and trace the words of the chant for him in her prayer book. Reluctantly, he mumbles the words.

When the chanting ends, a member stands up to talk about "The Nine Levels of Consciousness," an aspect of Buddhist doctrine. His lecture soon segues into a plea to the newcomers to try chanting. As a professor for 25 years, he says, he had the "unmitigated arrogance" to reject anything that seemed irrational. But he was wrong. "The only way to understand it is to chant yourself," he says. "After a while, as ludicrous as it seems, you can't deny the power and the influence."

A patriotic song follows his discourse. Members hold up posters on which lyrics are printed so first-timers can follow along. For the baby boomers here, the words carry overtones of President Kennedy's inaugural address. ''What can I do, America, to make you proud you gave me birth?" they sing. ''I'll be the one to say, 'America, what can I do for you?' "

Next come the testimonials. Bill, a computer software manager, tells the group that he wasn't sure whether he could finish an important job on time, so he got up early every day and chanted at the Boston community center. As it turned out, the software was ready on schedule for the first time in the history of his company, and Bill was promoted.

Nancy confesses that chanting helped her through the emotional anxiety of her engagement and the discovery of a malignancy in her mother's colon. "I realized, no matter what happened to my mom, I was still going to be tremendously happy on my wedding day," she says. Everything turned out for the best: The weather was perfect for the wedding, and an operation revealed that her mother's tumor was not spreading.

Now an NSA leader asks if anyone at the meeting is a guest. Since the man on the couch slipped out during Nancy's talk, there are only two left: the shy woman and Mike, who is attending his third meeting. The leader tells them that the real purpose of the meeting is to introduce them to Buddhism. Do they have any questions?

The woman is silent. Mike, a hard-headed type, wants to know how long he must chant before getting results. The leader says it depends on the intensity of Mike's chanting. "Whether you believe in it or not is not critical," he says. "Faith is not initially required."

Mike doesn't seem satisfied, and the leader recounts his own conversion to Buddhism. He hated his boss, but two days of chanting led to a reconciliation. Mike perks up. "So it happens really quick," he says.

Mike has a final question: How does NSA improve chances for world peace? The leader says that NSA members in Argentina and England chanted to end the Falklands War. As more members join, he says, their chanting will be powerful enough to stop any war.

The newcomers are encouraged to receive their scrolls at the Boston community center the following Sunday, and the meeting breaks up. Members surround Mike to ask if he will join NSA.

"I'm still investigating it," he says. "But I've started chanting."

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