Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult?


Cults have certain characteristics. Study of various cults show that the most notable feature of a cult is its “closed doors policy” or isolation from society.

The fact that SGI is actively involved in the social sphere of culture, peace and education – speaks about its openness to the world. Over 300 universities and cultural institutions acknowledged SGI’s contribution to promoting culture and peace. This reality however, upsets opponents of SGI, who try to “downgrade” the value of the acknowledgements SGI receive through members’ engagement and activities. Opponents to SGI effectively accuse the hundreds of professors of the universities - which support SGI goals and efforts - as having no understanding, or as lacking in merit, as well as accusing them of being corrupt and influenced in their decisions of acknowledging SGI.

Impartial observers, however, investigate the reality of SGI humanism and social involvement, starting with history facts, which formed the lay Buddhist organisation and shaped its true identity:


Opposing the Cult of Emperor Worship


The first two founders of the Soka Gakkai were arrested (1943) for refusing to cooperate with the militarist authorities and were charged with being ”Thought Criminals”. During interrogation, the first president of the Soka Gakkai, Mr. Makiguchi had this to say about the cult of worship and blind obedience to the emperor:

“The Emperor is a common mortal…The Emperor himself should not be telling people to be loyal to him. This should be struck from the ‘Imperial Rescript on Education’…To slander the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren is to invite certain punishment”.


Post war period did not weaken the animosity of right-wing cults against the Soka Gakkai. In his discussion about this subject, the founder of SGI, P.Ikeda, explains that the “cult of race” or “cult of nation” is basically a “cult of power (Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra 5 p.105) and it should be opposed, because its nature is basically “evil (p. 139).


Opposing the Cult of High Priest


Most studies about the nature of cults in general agree that cult leader(s) assume a “divine position” over ordinary believers who are led to accept their own inferiority. This observation about cults perfectly fits with the reason why the Priesthood of Nichiren ShoShu temple - with whom SGI was associated – rejected dialogue with “inferior to them” lay believers:

” To talk about the priesthood and laity with a sense of equality are of great conceit. In fact, they correspond to the five cardinal sins…”

Nichiren Shoshu Head Temple's chief administrator, Nichijun Fujimoto, 12 Jan.1991.


Positioning themselves as mediators between lay practitioners and the world of Buddhahood, the Priesthood demanded from ordinary believers “Absolute Obedience” to the authority of the High Priest. Rejecting this spirit of arrogance and control over people’s spiritual life, the organisation was excommunicated (1991) – an event which added to international acknowledgement of SGI as standing up against authoritarianism and domination in the field of spirituality and individuals self-development.


Ordinary Person vs Divine Leader


Various studies on cults mention that cult members accept a belief that their leader(s) have special divine status. This feature of cults, however, merges with the reality of some legitimate religious organisations such as the Catholic Church and Tibetan Buddhism.

Obedience to the Pope originates from the belief in his infallibility, a leader “without error” in judgement as he is believed to deliver the teachings of the Holy Spirit. The complete obedience to the Pope is ritualised in ceremonies which include prostration. Prostration is a ritual of obedience practiced also in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact Traditional Buddhism allows for assigning a “divine character” not only to a current leader but to the whole system of priesthood which is believed to inherits divinity in its linage.


A “Master” or “Lama” in Tibetan Buddhism is always referred to by “His Holiness”  implying an achievement of a “distinguished spirituality” or “holiness” - as compared with other lower stages of spiritual development of ordinary believers. This distinction is accepted in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and notably in Gelug school of the Dalai Lama where the “Holiness” of the leader is also extended to his successor.


Although Nichiren Buddhism rejects the belief in a special “divine status” of a leader or priest, however, the system of Nichiren ShoShu priesthood is based on assigning a special status of the High Priest, which demands from ordinary believers absolute obedience, a central matter of dispute between the Priesthood and SGI.


SGI leadership emerges from ordinary people who dedicate their life for the protection and propagation of Nichiren Buddhism, and who provide a role model of behaviour.

The concept of mentor-disciple in SGI Buddhism is based on
  the “oneness of purpose”

of both: the teacher of Buddhism - and the recipients of the teachings. In this regard, SGI essentially follows Nichiren as its original teacher - and the three mentors (Makiguchi, Toda and Ikeda) who applied Nichiren Buddhism to today’s modern environment.


Appreciation of SGI members for the three founders emerges from the benefits gained through practicing Buddhism as taught by the founders. In particular, SGI president Ikeda, provided the actual proof of the ability to endure hardships and overcome obstacles, becoming a model of success in establishing a world wide organisation - which offers humanistic teachings and provides an environment for members’ self-development.


Transparency vs Secrecy


Some Tibetan religions – such as “Bon” Tradition – depend on secretive rituals in their practice, yet such sects are recognised by the media as legitimate religions. The element of secrecy and selectiveness is evident in all groups which are based on guru authority, superstitious beliefs and closed rituals.


SGI structure and functions are all open to society with no secretive or hidden teachings, and its simple practice - as taught by Nichiren - features flexibility, and rational way of thinking.


Having no “closed circles” in its structure of activities, or “degrees” of spiritual hierarchy, SGI’s focus - as stated in its guidelines - is on  contributing to the welfare of society: To work for the prosperity of society by being good citizens who respect the culture, customs and laws of each country”.


Engagement vs isolation


To dominate over their followers, cults usually discourage social engagement. The segregation of “us” and “them” in cults beliefs is expressed in particular through opposition to inter-faith dialogue.


SGI is one of the most active religious organisations in promoting dialogue with all people and conducting continuous Interfaith Activities . The wide spectrum of contacts and efforts in promoting humanism included not only engagement with people of different faith, but also with the non-religious: I was attacked and criticised both at home and abroad for visiting nations that reject religion. My actions were misunderstood. Determined to go wherever there were people I travelled through the world planting the seeds of peace and friendship, transcending barriers of ideologies and national boundaries.” Ikeda, Newsletter 4158


Engagement in the world of education is also expressed in linking students of different universities and schools around the world, as well as in networking cultural exchange in musical performances from various nations. The Peace Proposals submitted to the United Nations each year, are part of SGI involvement in UN global network of activities: The only way to achieve peace is to reach out to the world in friendship and form alliance with the peoples of all nations. SGI Newsletter 4327


Individual’s freedom vs character suppression


Studies about cults point to cult leaders imposing restrictions on their followers, and in many situation interfering in members’ personal or family relationships. This can lead to weakening followers psychologically by making them dependent on cults’ policy in private matters.

Nichiren Buddhism is based on empowering the individual to courageously stand up to own rights. Experiences of almost all SGI members mention about encouragement they receive for developing confidence and a feeling of self-worth through their activities in daily life. Even if family members oppose SGI practice, members are encouraged to act with gratitude and appreciation to their families. On the importance of the individual, Ikeda says:

All people are equal.There is absolutely no distinction of superior or inferior among human beings. In our organisation there is no one above or below; everyone is equal”.

Faith into Action p194/195 


Ordinary persons vs charismatic leaders


In some organisations, a “charismatic” personality of a leader is considered as a desirable feature. For example, assigning a “character blessing” to their leader is accepted among Dalai Lama’s followers, and among Catholics, proud of the charismatic personality of the Pope.


The three founders of SG can be described as humble, ordinary individuals. The recognition they gained was not because of a charming special personality but because of their selfless dedication to the happiness of people.


Sharing humanity vs self-righteousness


While all religions and cults declare their own beliefs as the only right and correct beliefs - SGI teaches the importance of accepting humanism as a bridging and uniting philosophy, common to the understanding of all people, regardless of their religions. This is the result of the broadminded teachings of Nichiren, who declared that all people - of any belief -  who contribute with good causeswill never fail to prosper”.


It is quiet common to find in Ikeda’s Peace Proposals, books and essays - references to the work or statements of non-Buddhist scholars, urging also to take examples of humanity’s thinkers - regardless of their nationality or religion - as models in dedication and achievements:

“There are many different religions, peoples and cultures in today’s world. The only way for humankind to join together in harmony amid such diversity is to return to the starting point of our shared humanity. This is the teaching of Buddhism and a Buddhist is someone who is dedicated to achieving peace and happiness for all people”.

The New Human Revolution vol.7 Chapter 3


SGI Invitation for dialogue


SGI is recognised by the United Nations as a Non Governmental Organisation NGO, and is regarded by various world leaders and thinkers - some Noble Prize winners - as an organisation working for global peace. The recognition SGI has achieved was the result of members and leaders dedicated efforts and openness to exchange and dialogue. Most criticism of SGI is generated by religious or nationalistic trends, which reflect rigid and discriminatory beliefs. 


Dialogue offers the path for humanistic sharing:


“ Thinking leaders of any nation will surely have nothing but praise for the SGI once they understand its true purpose and nature. SGI aim is always the prosperity of each country and the happiness of people who live there. Our goal is for each member to become a good citizen who contributes to the well-being of society” .

The New Human Revolution Vol.7 Chapter 3.

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