Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Soka Gakki, the Catholic Church, and Human Power Abuse

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


MuSsang Jaeger said...

Ironically, over the past two days, there's a faceless person on Twitter going around accusing myself, my teacher, and the whole Jogye Order of being a cult.

There are times I wish I was a cult leader. They always seem to have money. Running a financially struggling Zen Center with all those lovely cult resources would be much easier.

Richard Harrold said...

I chant several times a month with an SGI group, and we frequently have discussions about various aspects of Buddhist teachings. And I have attended larger SGI activities in the past as well. While I am not in deep with SGI, it's NOT a cult.

Members are not asked to give unyielding obeisance to the leader. Members are not asked to handover all their wealth and assets. Members are not told to stay away from other religious groups. Members freely discuss their beliefs in public without fear. The organizations has no "compounds" that are off-limits to non-members. And the people are really, honestly and openly engaged in the community. And they welcome everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or social status.

Does it have a charismatic leader? Yes. Does it have a highly structured hierarchy of leadership? Yes. Is its practice rather regimented? Yes. Does it have a highly structured membership division with groups identified by age (youth groups, children's groups) and sex (women's groups, men's groups)? Yes. Does it have an in-house publication service that focuses on its interpretation of the Lotus Sutra to the exclusion of others? Yes. Do some of the member get a little to excited about what chanting has done for them? Yes. Does it at times feel like a 12-step program? Yes.

Does any of that bother me? Not really. While I have been invited to other SGI activities, when I've declined, it's OK. When I talk about how I am also involved with a Theravada temple in Chicago, it's OK. And when it was suggested to me that I'd been chanting with them long enough that maybe I'd like to go through the process to get my own gohonzon, when I said no, not now, not interested, it was OK.

I enjoy the engagement I now have with SGI. I enjoy the chanting. I really like the people. And I can say, it's not a cult, not like Clare Prophet's organization, not like the Moonies, not like Branch Davidian. Regimented and sometimes weird? Yes, I can say that, but not a cult.

Sorry for how long this is.

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan,

I have re-read those last couple paragraphs a couple of times but I am still confused. It seems like you are making a direct analogy between whatever scandals of that Buddhist group (I have never even heard of it so I know nothing about it) and what has been going on in the Catholic Church. Without knowing this Buddhist group it is hard to say but I really wonder if their scandals are comparable in any way to the horrifying activities and cover up with the Church. That scandal, in all its ugliness, goes straight to the heart of the institution and is eating away its marrow. I don't see a comparison at all between that and sponsoring a gate to stroke someone's vanity.

In this instance, I am not so sure you can say "well, we all have scandals so don't judge." But maybe that isn't what you are saying..?

Can you clarify? Thanks!

Mumon K said...

Like the DL SG is too heavily politically involved (in its incarnation in Japan), so that its fidelity to represent the Dharma is compromised.

Moreover, its outlook seems radically at variance with the rest of Buddhism. Even I think the Panchen Lama (the one the Chinese chose) would not deny that the Dalai Lama is indeed a Buddhist, but SG, like its ancestral sect Nichiren Buddhism, claims exclusivity. Now its followers are generally not doctrinaire on this point, to be sure, e.g. there is a history of communication between Hakuin and a Nichiren Buddhist nun.

One might have quibbles over their exclusive positioning of the Lotus Sutra (which if you read it is sort of ironic and OK in the larger sense to a Zen guy like me).

But cult?

Nah. Ken Wilber is culty, perhaps. But they've got enough issues without the cult label.

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn,

I am very much saying we all have scandals. However, I am not attaching the idea that we cannot judge, or condemn such behavior.

One point of the post is that we have to recognize that power-based scandals are common, present in all religious/spiritual groups, and by seeing this, we might develop some compassion for those involved in the Catholic Church scandal for example.

The second point, though, is that it's really easy to spray outrage at these loud, hyper-reported, and extreme examples - such as the Church abuse scandal - but it's a skewed outrage in my view. Child sexual abuse happens all over the place, by all kinds of people who are in trusted positions.

And yet, I've never seen the kind of sustained outrage about this issue as has been the case with the Catholic Church. Sometimes, a victimizing teacher might gain the wrath of a certain segment of the city they teach in, but that's nothing like what we're seeing now.

Thinking about it now, I guess I'm reacting to the narrow focus of "Catholic Church is bad," instead of there being more calls to use the Church situation as an example of what happens when power goes unchecked around sexuality, and to work towards more intelligent approaches to the issues of sexuality and power in society in general.


Nathan said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with SGI Richard. I've found it fascinating how many different takes there seems to be about this organization.

Robyn said...

Thank so much for clarifying Nathan - I appreciate your giving more time to this.

When I look at why the Church scandal sends my blood boiling like few other things, I see that hits every sensitive spot I have - anger at self-righteous men who control women's bodies, religious hypocrisy, deeply damaging vulnerable children, using and abusing sex as power, being a mother of vulnerable children, observing how Church teachings have hindered the lives of people I love and on and on. It is very, very hard to find places to start a rational dialogue and it is hard to even want to do that, such is my anger.

But! Your reply has helped calm the waters a little. Thank you so much for that.

I hope that little crack of light can break through in the hearts of others...

Nathan said...


The Catholic Church scandal has made my blood boil for awhile now. Having a fair number of extended family members that are Catholic, plus co-workers, has caused me to pause a bit, even as I feel much of what you said has applied to the Catholic Church for centuries. Sexism and power abuse have been hallmarks of the Catholic Church for far too long. But I also figure that if I can't develop some compassion, then all the anger at injustice doesn't make much difference.