While the newspapers are filled with daily revelations that are either "petty gossip" or grave power abuses of the Catholic Church, some members of the Buddhist community continue to debate the merits and/or demerits of the controversial Buddhist organization Soka Gakki. Barbara over at her Buddhist blog posted the following about a recent monetary offer to help pay for work on a park in San Francisco:
I defend Soka Gakkai International (SGI) from accusations that it is a cult whenever I see them. I sincerely do not think it is a cult, and SGI members I have met do not seem to me to be brainwashed. But news stories like this don't make defending SGI easier.
SGI has offered to give $180,000 to the city of San Francisco in exchange for naming a gate to Franklin Square Park after SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. The gate would include a plaque to Ikeda's mentors. According to the city's Recreation and Park's Department, $80,000 would be used for construction and landscaping of the gate, and $100,000 would go to the Recreation and Park Department for "general operating support."
Yesterday the offer was on the agenda of a Recreation and Park Commission public meeting , but I don't yet know if the city has decided to accept or reject it. Given the economic crisis in California, that much money would be hard to turn down, I would think.
What little local reaction I have seen has been negative, however. President Ikeda has no connection to the park, which makes the proposed dedication of the gate an act of transparent vanity.
This post is followed by nearly 30 comments that delve into cults, Ikeda's leadership, and other power issues. It's a different version of the discussion about the Catholic Church in my opinion.
I don't feel like I know enough about SGI to make any conclusive statements on their organization's power structure. However, it's well known as the most racially and class diverse Buddhist group (in North America at least). And their members seem actively engaged in social justice work around the world, which in my book is a big positive.
It's interesting to me that spiritual groups with charismatic leaders tend to be lightning rods no matter what they do. Maybe SGI is littered with corruption; I don't really know. But would they're be so much criticism of them if Ikeda was just a dull figurehead, and they were just another large religious organization with a lot of money coming in the doors? Clearly, there are plenty of mega evangelical Christian churches here in the U.S. - bringing in millions of dollars behind breathy preachers who exude confidence in their message. However, it's only the Rick Warrens and Ted Haggards of the world (and their churches) that get thrust into the spotlight.
Does anyone really think the smaller (but still sizable) evangelical communities out there are free of scandal? Or us smaller zen communities? Or any smaller spiritual group out there?
How much of this angst towards the Catholic Church, or Soka Gakki, is simply finding an easy target for the struggles with power that occur all over, and which we seem, as humans, to have no easy answers for?
*photo of my friend Colin hiding behind a fence the day before the 2008 Republican National Convention