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History of the Soka Gakkai--Part 3

[Part 1]   [Part 2]   [Part 4]

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Soka Gakkai. This issue of the SGI Quarterly features the third of a four-part series examining the history of the Soka Gakkai and its efforts to revitalize Buddhism by creating a global humanistic movement which can contribute to the happiness and empowerment of all people.

Mr. Ikeda with students and faculty at Moscow State University in September 1975 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

On September 8, 1968, Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda issued a proposal that outlined concrete steps toward the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. "The absolute condition for the economic prosperity and political and social stability of Asia is the dismantling of the encirclement of China presently enforced by the United States, and to a lesser degree, by the Soviet Union. It is not an exaggeration to say that the resolution of the China question holds the key to the resolution of the various problems facing Asia."

Ikeda was one of the first major Japanese figures to call for normalization of relations with China. His call met with fierce criticism in Japan, but it also caught the attention of those, both in China and in Japan, who sought an easing of tensions between the two countries, including Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Today, Ikeda's statement is widely recognized as having played a catalytic role in the process that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1972.

In this, he was inspired by his mentor, Josei Toda, who had often voiced his conviction that China was certain to play an essential role in world history and that friendship between China and Japan would be of utmost importance.

In the years after normalization, Ikeda engaged in a form of "citizen diplomacy" among the Cold War rivals, particularly between China and the Soviet Union, which at times seemed on the brink of full-scale conflict. During 1974 and 1975, he repeatedly visited China, the USSR and the US, meeting with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other key figures. Conveying the concerns and aspirations of the leaders of these hostile powers, as well as the yearning for peace he had felt in his encounters with the ordinary citizens of each society, Ikeda worked to defuse tensions and help build the foundations for mutual understanding and dialogue.

A Global Movement

On January 26, 1975, representatives from 51 countries and territories gathered on the island of Guam, where they created an umbrella organization for the growing membership of Nichiren Buddhists around the world. This became the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), with Daisaku Ikeda as its first president. In his address to the assembled representatives, Ikeda encouraged them to dedicate themselves to altruistic action: "Rather than seeking to bring your own lives to bloom, devote yourselves to planting the seeds of peace throughout the world."

First steps in China, May 1974 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

While firmly convinced of the universal validity of Nichiren Buddhism, the Soka Gakkai has never dispatched missionaries to other countries. Just as the spread of the movement within Japan has been "organic"--with individuals sharing their confidence and experiences in faith with friends, families and acquaintances--the movement has developed in countries around the world through the natural interconnections of people. In the course of his travels, Ikeda has always found time to encourage members in the countries he visited. Those locally based practitioners took responsibility for what eventually developed into national SGI organizations. This process is described in depth in Ikeda's ongoing serialized novel The New Human Revolution.

Today, the SGI has a membership of around 12 million in more than 190 countries and territories with 84 constituent organizations. Each local organization develops activities independently in line with the traditions of its own society and cultural context, but they are unified in what the SGI Charter, adopted in 1995, describes as "the fundamental aim and mission of contributing to peace, culture and education based on the philosophy and ideals of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin." The purposes and principles listed in the SGI Charter include safeguarding fundamental human rights, protection of nature and the environment, promotion of grassroots exchanges and dialogue among religions, social engagement and contribution to society as responsible citizens.

A New Beginning

The international development of the Soka Gakkai as a dynamic and socially engaged movement led principally by lay believers presented the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood--with which the Soka Gakkai had been affiliated since its inception--with a choice. It could either remain committed to the institutional practices that had taken form centuries earlier--holding firmly to the ritual authority traditionally wielded by priests over lay believers in Japan--or it could fully embrace the open-ended vision of global peace through self-transformation first propounded by Nichiren.

Mr. Ikeda and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington DC, January 1975 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Over the years following the establishment of the SGI, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood oscillated between these two stances. In the end, under the leadership of Abe Nikken, the 67th high priest of the sect, the priesthood opted for an authoritarian approach, eventually severing its ties with the Soka Gakkai. On November 28, 1991, Nikken unilaterally excommunicated some 12 million believers throughout the world--an act without precedent in the history of Buddhism. Soka Gakkai members now commemorate this event as a momentous turning point in their liberation from religious authoritarianism.

As Professor Jane Hurst of Gallaudet University, Washington DC, has stated, "it should be no surprise that a culturally conservative Japanese priesthood built on ideas of hierarchy, ritual, and traditional custom should conflict with a global lay movement built on ideas of egalitarianism, active faith, and rational adaptation to the modern world."

An SGI discussion meeting in San Francisco, USA [Kingmond Young]

Following its separation from the priesthood, the SGI has been engaged in a process of reevaluating the role of religion in the face of these tensions, seeking a modern, humanistic interpretation of Buddhism with a stress on its identity as a lay organization that is better equipped to communicate Buddhist ideals to a wider world. It has accelerated its activities to engage in cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue, and has promoted wide-ranging public outreach and education on such key global issues as peace, disarmament and sustainable development.

 

Soka Gakkai History Timeline:

1968

Sep. 8 Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda publicly proposes the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China at a Student Division gathering in Tokyo. Relations were normalized on Sep. 29, 1972.

1974

May 30 Ikeda visits China for the first time.

Sep. 8 Ikeda visits the USSR for the first time, meeting with Premier Aleksey Kosygin.

Dec. 5 Ikeda meets with Premier Zhou Enlai in China.

1975

Jan. 13 Ikeda meets with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington DC.

Jan. 26 The Soka Gakkai International is established in Guam; Ikeda is inaugurated as its first president.

1979

Apr. 24 Ikeda is forced to resign as Soka Gakkai president following a dispute with the priesthood of Nichiren Shoshu, becoming honorary president. He continues as SGI president. Hiroshi Hojo is inaugurated as 4th Soka Gakkai president.

1981

Apr. The Soka Gakkai is registered as an NGO with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Jul. 18 Einosuke Akiya is inaugurated as 5th Soka Gakkai president.

Dec. 20 The Soka Gakkai is registered as an NGO of the UN Department of Public Information (UNDPI).

1983

May 12 The SGI is registered as an NGO of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN.

1991

Jan. Ikeda submits a joint emergency appeal to President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait following Iraq's invasion in 1990, together with Soviet writer Chingiz Aitmatov, UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor Zaragoza and others.

Nov. 28 Nichiren Shoshu excommunicates entire SGI membership.

1995

Oct. 16 The SGI Charter is adopted.

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