Some years ago, a friend told me about a Buddhist organization she belonged to, called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). I’d been informally studying Buddhism for a couple of years at that point and had attended a couple of sessions at local temples. Nothing resonated with me. When I went to a local SGI meeting for the first time, I couldn’t make it past the lobby; there was something creepy and disembodied about the chanting I could hear coming from the main room. I almost ran out of the building.
Well, fast-forward a few years; my marriage had crumbled, and I was living in a city far away from friends, family and a conventional support system. I was under-employed and working for a woman who, to say the least, was a miserable human being. I had reached a point of depression and despair when my friend suggested that I start chanting to change my life. Nothing I had tried thus far had improved things and that, along with her promise that if my life didn’t start to turn around very quickly she would stop practicing after more than 30 years with SGI were persuasive. I respected this person, and if someone as skeptical as she was had found something that she believed was effective, it couldnt hurt to try it.
Miraculously, it worked. I chanted for a better job (with a nicer manager) and enough money to cover buying a new set of tires. I chanted for hours, and with all my heart. Within two weeks, I had a job offer working for someone I liked and received enough of a financial windfall that it temporarily bailed me out of the financial problems I was having. I found a local group (SGI is broken out into local Districts, Chapters, Areas and Regions), started attending meetings and, it seemed, life did a complete turnaround. These people were loving and supportive, good friends . . . we chanted together, socialized, went to monthly meetings in the community center. Every small victory was cause for celebration and further encouragement; my setbacks were met with urgings to chant more, study more . . . have more faith that things would work and most importantly make a heart-to-heart with the president of SGI, Daisaku Ikeda. He knew my struggles, and was chanting for me! I wasn’t really clear on how 78-year old man in Japan who didn’t speak a word of English knew what was going on with me, but apparently he did, so hooray!
This was all extremely seductive. There’s nothing like having the feeling that your voice is being respectfully heard to encourage you to feel more loyalty and affection. The idea of finally having control over my life cemented me to the organization; all I had to do was to chant whatever problems I was having would resolve. I was invited to receive my Gohonzon (the magic scroll that would instantly improve my life-condition); I was broke again, but finally saved enough to make my $35.
The Gohonzon itself is a scroll, perhaps. Heavy, good-quality paper, with a black rod at the top and bottom, with a loop to hang it in your own butsudan. There a tasteful decorative border, and in the middle are eleven vertical rows of Japanese calligraphy. They describe various concepts related to Buddhism in general and SGI in particular, with Nam Myoho Renge Kyo down the center and Nichirens signature at the bottom. A butsudan is essentially a box designed to contain and protect the Gohonzon, and it varies from being very simple (mine was a wooden box that had a hook for hanging the scroll) to insanely elaborate about the only thing that is standard to them is that they have two doors that abut down the center front and swing aside when you open it. They vary in size from just large enough to allow the scroll to hang unencumbered to ones that will cover an entire wall; we always jokingly called the larger ones walk-ins.Gohonzons came in four sizes the one already described, a very small one in a plastic case suspended from a chain (Gotta keep practicing, even on the road! Don’t worry that the chain rips out all those tiny little hairs on the inside of your wrist; no one said there wouldn’t be a bit of pain!); there was a larger version available to members who’d been in for 15 years or more, and then the giant ones that were in the Buddhist centers.
The friend who had shaku-buku (recruited) me warned me that sansho-shima (evil forces) might conspire to prevent me from receiving my Gohonzon, so I was happy to arrive safely at the Buddhist Center for the conferral. I’d been to the center a few times before; SGI has a monthly Gongyo at their centers; Gongyo consists of chanting ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ (which translates into Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra), then chanting several chapters of the sutra itself, all of that generally at tongue-twisting lightning speed in 13th century Japanese. There are several silent prayers, and then 15-20 minutes more of vigorously chanting NMRK. We also performed Gongyo twice a day at home, in front of our personal Gohozon. At the monthly meetings, this was always followed by announcements and rousing personal experiences from a couple of members interspersed by oohs, aaahs, and applause from the other members. If we were truly lucky, the Arts and Culture Department would put on a performance. The final official event was being shown a dvd from HQ, with President Ikeda giving a speech, receiving an award of some sort (he has a ton of academic awards from minor colleges and universities around the world – easy enough to come by if you grease a few palms), and a performance by the Ikeda Brass Band or someone like that. At the time, it was all very inspiring and moving; here was the great man himself, in the great center in Japan, more gilt, gigantic apples and oranges piled on the altar than you could shake a stick at, and hundreds of solemn (mostly Japanese members with gaijin guests in seats of honor) in the rapt audience. The men all dressed in white shirts and ties to emulate President Ikeda, and the women all wearing pastel suits to honor Mrs. Ikeda. It struck me as kind of creepy, but I put that down to my feeble understanding of Japanese culture.
The center where I received my Gohonzon wasnt nearly as grand, but it was still pretty impressive. It was a fairly modern building, constructed in the 1980s by member volunteers. The lobby was fairly small: a desk for those brave souls watching over the safety of the members as they practiced, and, like all SGI centers, a small bookstore. SGI has its own printing house (Middle Way Press) that produces the hundreds of books that Ikeda has allegedly written. After passing through the lobby, you entered the main room; in this building, it was constructed in the round; the exterior wall had tall, slotted windows letting light into the room. A couple of hundred chairs were positioned on the red carpet, all facing the altar. On the altar was the butsudan: the cabinet that housed a giant Gohonzon. It really was beautiful, finely crafted from rich woods, with shining gold hinges and lock-plate. Between the chairs and the altar was a lectern from where the MC kept things moving along and members would present their experiences. On the wall opposite the windows was a hallway leading to restrooms, a small library, a kitchen, and a play-room for the kids. SGI had used incense at one time, but complaints from those with delicate respiratory systems put a halt to that in most centers some years ago.
Gohonzon conferrals took place at the end of these meetings, so I had plenty of time for my anticipation to build. Sansho-shima hadn’t had their wicked way with me, so obviously the Shoten-Zenjin (protective forces) were on my side. The Chapter Leader called three of us to the front of the room, and solemnly bestowed our Gohonzons to the cheers, whistles, and applause of the other members. We were now officially Bodhisattvas of the Earth! A bodhisattva, by the way, is someone who has achieved enlightenment but opts to return to the world to help others achieve enlightenment. Part of the Lotus Sutra describes bodhisattvas rising from the earth during the Ceremony in the Air when the Treasure Tower emerged. Or something like that: who cared? I was one of them! I just knew that through the force of my practice and devotion, I could make my life better and, as a result, improve the lives of those around me. That was my personal, self-appointed mission. And, holy cow, I knew it would work! I could just feel with every bone in my body that I had the tools to make that happen.
Confirmation bias – that’s an interesting concept. We start doing something differently, and we perceive every positive event in our lives as being directly attributable to that new action. That’s how cults work; they provide you with a new tool to handle those challenges in life, and your mind automatically associates that new tool with a successful outcome. You will be surrounded by people who will reinforce that idea; you’ll be congratulated and made the center of very positive attention. In my organization, you would be encouraged to share your story at a meeting: there will be others who will take heart from hearing about your experience. They’ll chant more, participate more, donate more and try harder to develop a deeper allegiance to the fearless leader. And there was really so much good fortune to share: green lights all the way to work, not being late for a meeting, finding enough change so that you could buy a soda! Once in a while, it would be something meaningful: a better job, a new love, making it through a difficult challenge – you know, things that never happen for people who dont chan’t.
The meetings kept us busy. There was Kosen Rufu Gongyo (the meetings described above, held the first Sunday of every month Kosen Rufu is the SGI time for their world-peace initiative), and then there was a study and a discussion meeting every month. Of course, we had to have a monthly planning meeting to schedule the latter two meetings that were held in the homes of members. There was some jockeying that went on to have meetings in your home – to do so was an opportunity to gain benefits, which were sort of positive-karma points. And then there were the tosos. A toso is fairly informal: people would gather in your home to chant . . . sometimes for hours. You could have as many of those as desired. Member Care meetings took place once a month: these weren’t mandatory, but of course if you want to keep racking up those karma points, you just can’t miss that opportunity. We went through the membership index cards at those meetings, and you walked away with a list of members who hadn’t been seen or heard from for a while; you were to contact them and try to bring them back. If you were a leader (as I became, on a low level), there were more meetings and, since I was on the Subscription Committee (SGI has two publications that the members are pretty much required to subscribe to: The World Tribune and Living Buddhism) there was an additional meeting every month for me, plus contacting members whose subscriptions were about to expire. Busy, busy, busy. Keeping us busy served the organization well; we not only didn’t have time to associate very much with people outside of the group, those meetings provided additional conditioning opportunities. Theres nothing like 20 minutes of chanting to put you into a trance state and keep you highly susceptible.
Oh, but what if despite your best efforts, it doesn’t work? What if, despite spending hours chanting in front of your sacred scroll, attending meetings or volunteering your time, you still can’t resolve that pesky problem? It’s time to go talk with one of your trusted local leaders; you don’t discuss it with anyone outside the organization: they won’t understand, because what you’re doing is so deep and mystical that only other members can get it. They will be kind, but frank. It’s obviously your fault. You weren’t chanting enough, or with a sincere enough heart. You aren’t participating in enough group activities – didn’t you miss that study meeting a couple of months ago? You don’t donate enough. You aren’t devoted enough to the Greatest Mentor Ever. Or you need to work off all of that terrible karma you’ve accumulated through your many lives. Or maybe (just maybe), you’re doing it so right that you are actually bringing all of that negative karma forward so that you can put it behind you and moving into your bright, shiny new life! It’s kind of hard not to visualize a great, festering karmic boil there.
While there’s quite a bit of sarcasm in this article, it comes from hindsight. While I was in, before I came to my senses, I eagerly swallowed everything this cult organization fed me. The only thing I questioned was the implied divinity of President Ikeda, but I viewed those doubts as a failure on my part. I believed that if I chanted enough, I could overcome anything, achieve any goal. The Mystic Law (the force behind all of this) was on my side, and because of that, I was a special and superior person. It was beyond my comprehension how anybody who was exposed to this wonderful practice didn’t see the absolute common sense of it. Cause and effect – you make a good cause and you reap a positive effect. So simple. Physics!
Being in a cult is like a country dance . . . sometimes you advance, sometimes you retreat. Be assured, though, that there is always someone at the head of the room calling the moves and the tune. Some people are incredibly lucky; they get tired of the dance and start seeing just how senseless and abusive it is. I’m one of those very, very fortunate people; it only took me seven years to start seeing what was going on around me – two of the most intelligent people I know had two and three decades of the SGI Shuffle before hearing the flat notes.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about being in a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!