Religious battle taking shape in foothills of Mt. Fuji

The Buddhist order of Nichiren Shoshu has expelled its lay organization, Soka Gakkai. Political fallout is probable.

Los Angeles Times/December 16, 1991
By Leslie Helm and Amy Pyle

Tokyo -- In the foothills of Mt. Fuji, just lightly dusted with snow this time of year, are the sprawling grounds of Taisekiji, the ancient temple headquarters of the Buddhist order of Nichiren Shoshu.

These odd temple grounds are the backdrop to a sometimes ludicrous, yet historic religious battle taking shape in Japan. The Soka Gakkai, the lay organization that built the melon-shaped behemoth and made it the center of a powerful worldwide organization, has declared war on its own priests.

The high priests of Nichiren Shoshu are fighting back with every weapon available to them. In their latest, and most telling blow, the priests announced recently that they had excommunicated the Soka Gakkai, breaking the group's affiliation with Nichiren Shoshu and its 600 temples.

The battle could hasten the decline of the Soka Gakkai and the Komeito, the Soka Gakkai's political arm and a key party in the Japanese Parliament. The Komeito recently began to forge an alliance with the ruling party in an effort to cling to its waning power, a decision that has had major implications for national policy.

The battle also has hurt the reputation of the Soka Gakkai and could weaken its affiliate, Soka University, in its continuing fight with environmentalists for the right to build a large university in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California.

The Soka Gakkai began as a small study-group affiliated with the Nichiren Shoshu order. But beginning in the early 1960's, under the leadership of the charismatic and dictatorial Daisaku Ikeda, the group brought in millions of converts by using high-pressure tactics. Many Japanese have told of having been pushed into a car, carried into a Soka Gakkai meeting hall and subjected to hours of intense indoctrination.

While the Soka Gakkai contributed billions of dollars to the religious establishment, building 350 temples throughout Japan for the priests, it maintained strict control over its own converts. Soka-Gakkai officers gathered contributions and passed on a small proportion to the priests. Soka Gakkai guided its flock with sermons at its own meeting halls and through its 5.4 million circulation newspaper.

"It's like they created a North Korea inside Japan." said Kunio Naito, who has written several critical books about the Soka Gakkai. Naito quit his job as a journalist 20 years ago to investigate the sect because he feared the growing political power it was exercising through its party, the Komeito, at all levels of government.

It was no idle fear. In 1965, Soka Gakkai leader Ikeda predicted that he would convert all of Japan to the sect by 1990 and guide the emperor on a ceremonial tour through the temple grounds.

And for a while the Soka Gakkai didn't do badly. It now counts 10 million members, and the Komeito, which is nominally independent but depends on the Soka Gakkai for policy direction and votes, effectively has the swing vote in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament. It claims 1.26 million overseas followers in more than 100 countries.

But today, the Soka Gakkai is fighting for its religious and political life. The high priests of Nichiren Shoshu, who for decades were content to enjoy their Mt. Fuji views while the Soka Gakkai brought in new devotees and contributions, say Ikeda has drifted too far from orthodox teachings, and they are attempting to reassert control of the religion.

Last year the priests unseated Ikeda from his position as head of Nichiren Shoshu's lay organizations. The priests followed in mid-November with a note to the leaders' of the Soka Gakkai advising them to disband. The excommunication of the Soka Gakkai will cut the organization from its religious underpinning as a lay group of the Nichiren Shoshu faith.

The Soka Gakkai responded quickly to the excommunication, terming it "groundless" and "invalid" and saying it was reminiscent of "the Dark Ages in the medieval period."

"We spoiled the priests a little, said Einosuke Akiya, president of the Soka Gakkai and Ikeda's No. 2 man, speaking in the group's tightly guarded headquarters, garishly decorated with rows of oil paints and alabaster Greek statues.

The priests say Ikeda simply refused to follow the principles of Nichiren Shoshu and was developing his own brand of religion. Ikeda got into trouble with the priests earlier when he urged followers to read a book about his spiritual transformation as if it were "a modern bible" and he were a "spiritual king," said Kotoku Obayashi, a senior Nichiren Shoshu priest who greets guests in the modern brick and concrete office complex off to the side of the temple compound.

Ikeda made a formal apology to the priests in 1977. Soon afterward, the new head priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nikken Abe, made his own conciliatory gesture by excommunicating 200 priests (Note: The Shoshinkai priests) who continued to be critical of Ikeda.

This time, however, the dispute has gotten so petty and nasty that few see any ways to mend the rift.

The priests complained about Ikeda's decision to have his followers sing "Ode to Joy" in German because it contained allusions to Christ, a point Ikeda says proves that the priests are still living in the Middle Ages.

Each side has sent spies to tape conversations at the other's top-level meetings, then released the tapes to the media pointing out what are viewed as particularly objectionable segments, such as a priest's "dictatorial" tone of voice or Ikeda's anti-clerical comments.

Ikeda encouraged open rebellion against the Buddhist priests. Comparing his fight with the temple to Martin Luther's Reformation movement against the Roman Catholic Church, Ikeda mounted a massive economic boycott of the temple.

In one of its recent publications, the Soka Gakkai accused Abe, the chief priest, of beating his priests, eating sumptuous meals and riding everywhere in a Mercedes Benz automobile. Disciples must bow when Abe passes even if they happen to be swimming in the pool beside the dormitory, the Soka Gakkai charged, adding that priests play golf and frequent bars.

The senior priest Obayashi said Nichiren Shoshu is a loose religion and he sees nothing wrong with the priests playing golf and visiting bars.

Where 150,000 Soka Gakkai members used to make the pilgrimage to Taisekiji every month, just before the excommunication that number had dwindled to less than 10,000. The bullet train station built three years ago to handle the masses of faithful is deserted. Gift shops and restaurants along-side the temple, have mostly closed. The president of a tourist bus company that went bankrupt because of the dispute recently committed suicide.

One gift shop owner who has kept her place open to catch the occasional tourist said she sides with the priests because "ever since second grade, I didn't like their [Soka Gakkai's] way of putting pressure on people." She said her husband, who is a member of the Soka Gakkai, is criticized for not being able to "control" his wife and make her join. She would not give her name, saying the Soka Gakkai often boycotts stores whose owners are critical of the group.

The Soka Gakkai also has begun a campaign of harassment against the priests. Rumors have been spread that the Taisekiji Temple grounds are in disarray, with stray dogs wandering about and robbers lurking in the shadows. Right-wing groups park their sound trucks outside the temple and blast out their criticism of the priests intransigence.

Temple signs have been splashed with paint. Soka Gakkai's youth group members, in numbers as large as 200, have shown up at temple prayer meetings to badger the priests.

Soka Gakkai members were told to do without priests at funerals, one of the priests' key sources of income, and to use Soka Gakkai officials instead.

The priests said they were not about to give in to the pressure. "It is a question of faith," said Obayashi, the senior priest.

And the priests have their own powerful weapons. Even prior to the excommunication, they were refusing to present to Soka Gakkai members the gohonzon, the sacred scripture that every disciple must have at home to chant before and that only the head priest, Abe, is allowed to write. And many older members have resisted the move toward funerals without priests because, they believe, only a priest can give the deceased his special name for the afterlife, a name that Buddhists believe is necessary for the spirit to rise to Heaven.

But the most vulnerable element of the Soka Gakkai is its political arm. Naito, the writer, recently testified before a committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that the Komeito will probably receive fewer than 6 million votes -- perhaps as few as 5 million -- a substantial decline from the 7.4 million votes it got six years ago.

Komeito must overcome not only the bad publicity from Soka Gakkai's battle with the head temple, but also a series of recent scandals. In April, the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, an affiliate of the sect, was embroiled in an art scam over the purchase of two Renoir paintings, "Woman Bathing" and "Woman Reading." Tax authorities say prices on the paintings were manipulated to help one or more of the parties save on taxes.

In a desperate effort to attract voters in next July's Upper house elections, the Komeito has begun putting up posters of its candidates, far in advance of other parties. The party also has allied itself closely with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on a variety of issues in the hopes of gaining the LDP's backing in the coming battle.

Since early 1989, when the Liberal Democrats lost their majority in the upper house, the Komeito, whose name means Clean Government party, has had the swing vote.

Akiya is confident that Komeito will come out ahead and said he does not fear excommunication. "Religions gets stronger when they face difficult times like this," he said.

Priest Obayashi said he has time on his side. "We've been here for 700 years. We survived without them before; we can do it again."

Santa Monica-based wing changes its name. Another group weighs legal action.

The conflict between Japan's largest Buddhist sect and its powerful lay organization has reverberated through the Southern California-based U.S. wing of the Soka Gakkai, according to former and current members of the group.

Earlier this year, when the split became evident, the U.S. organization, which is based on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, distanced itself from the priests of the Nichiren Shoshu sect by changing its name from Nichiren Shoshu of America to SGI-USA (short for Soka Gakkai International-USA ).

With the split have come wide spread rumors within the Soka Gakkai, including reports that members are not being welcomed at the Nichiren Shoshu temples and that, in order to enter, visitors must renounce their Soka Gakkai allegiance.

But Mike Robbins, manager of the Myohoji Temple in Rancho Cucamonga, said anyone who is practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism continues to be welcome here at the temple."

In the wake of Soka Gakkai's excommunication by Nichiren Shoshu, a group of disgruntled Soka Gakkai members in Northern California are contemplating taking legal action against the organization for allegedly taking their money fraudulently. They maintain that they were never informed of the frictions between the religion and its lay organization. They had donated tens of thousands of dollars for a new religious cultural center and parking garage in the belief that the two would remain linked.

Some former members of the Soka Gakkai have heard that the lay organization is giving out used gohonzon, or prayer scrolls, to new members instead of returning them to the head temple in Japan for destruction or storage. That report has been denied by the SGI-USA.

The gohonzons, considered an integral part of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, are supposed to be bestowed on new members by Nichiren Shoshu priests at an initiation ceremony. The scrolls are normally returned to the priests when people die, marry or leave the sect.

SGI-USA spokesman Al Albergate -- former spokesman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office -- said last week that he had been told by Soka Gakkai members that only those who denounce their Soka members (sic "membership") were being issued new gohonzon. "We've been preparing people to practice without the gohonzon for at least awhile," he said.

The dispute in Japan also caused members and former members of the Soka Gakkai in this country to more openly question the motives of the organization's various offshoots in their past attempts to disassociate themselves from the main group. Disaffected members say, and documents indicate, that the offshoots have long been clearly connected to each other and to the Soka Gakkai.

Representatives of Soka University of America, a nonprofit organization that wants to build a 4,500-student, four-year college in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas, have repeatedly insisted during interviews and public hearings that the school is independent from the Soka Gakkai and its U.S. wing. The school's expansion proposal has drawn criticism from nearby residents and state and federal parks officials.

Similar claims of independence have been made by other Soka Gakkai-related groups, including the American branch of the group, Soka Gakkai International- USA, and the Nichiren Shoshu Sokagakkai of Canada. Yet tax and land transaction documents filed in the United States and Canada, plus interviews and information supplied by the groups themselves, indicate that all are closely related.

George Williams, general director of Soka Gakkai International-USA -- known as the Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) until a few months ago -- is named prominently in documents filed by other groups. Williams was listed as founding director of the Nichiren Shoshu Sokagakkai of Canada (NSC) and the first chief administrative officer of Soka University of America in tax-related documents.

Williams and NSA also are listed in Los Angeles County deeds as coordinators of the purchase of the original 248 acres of Soka University of America property. The Calabasas school now holds classes for about 100 students from Soka University in Japan, most of whom are Soka Gakkai members.

Enclosed in tax returns filed this year was a new list of 11 Soka University officers, directors and trustees, which the school's representatives point to as evidence of their independence.

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