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Soka Gakkai((創価学会): “A Buddhist organization that promotes the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, who in the 1200’s, established the chanting of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo as the universal practice for attaining enlightenment.” (Geoffrey Eichhorn)

“The growth of the membership of SGI has been attributed in part to the organization’s tradition of small group, neighborhood and local community discussion meetings.” (Wikipedia)

I was first introduced to Soka Gakkai while I was living in Philadelphia in 2004. I was waiting in line for a burrito at a Mexican fast food restaurant and the Asian man in front of me was trying very hard to place an order but spoke very limited English. I could easily tell by his accent that he was Japanese and we struck up a friendly conversation and ate together. He invited me to a party that weekend and told me there would be lots of Japanese people there. Much to my surprise, everyone at the party was a member of Soka Gakkai International (known as SGI, for short). I really loved the people I met and wound up spending quite a lot of time with them long after the party. The people were very friendly and welcoming; I have many fond memories of the fun times I spent with those SGI members at picnics, lunches, and parties.

It’s been several years since those days of spending time with the SGI folks in Philadelphia. In retrospect, what really stood out to me was that the SGI had a very good understanding of community. They lived together, cried together, supported one another, and spent a lot of time together. I was really impressed by their care for one another, and it helped me to understand why Soka Gakkai is so popular in Japan. As of 2000, there were 8.2 million SGI members in Japan (that’s something like 7% of Japan) and today there are 13 million members worldwide. SGI also has quite a strong influence in politics, even having their own political party.

I definitely think the church of Japan can learn a lot from SGI about building a strong, supportive community. It is obvious that Japanese are longing, even starving for true community, a place to be themselves, to be free, to find support and companionship in a very isolating society. In a Japan Harvest article entitled, “Soka Gakkai Understands Japanese Character,” Toshio Ozawa writes about SGI, “New people were always welcome. The setting allowed everyone to participate freely as they shared with one another. Newcomers felt at ease and realized they could get the help they needed.” Ozawa was a member of Soka Gakkai for many years and offers helpful insights about this group.

In contrast, the church of Japan does not always provide a welcoming, free environment. For missionaries and Japanese Christians alike, the church can sometimes be a highly alienating force, a place of disillusionment, discouragement, and disappointment. The small group/ community concept that SGI utilizes is clearly attractive to the Japanese people, and I hope that the church will also grasp the importance of this aspect of Christian community. On a personal note, in my experience, it has been exceedingly rare to see a Japanese church with a small group ministry. The “Christian experience” of Japanese believers is often limited to the Sunday morning service and little more. How tragic that many Japanese Christians know so little of the beauty of true Christian community. Perhaps if the church had the zealous commitment to community that SGI has clearly demonstrated, the church of Japan might experience true growth and vibrancy instead of stagnancy.

Another thing that I observed during the time I spent with SGI members was their commitment to chanting the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. From the SGI website:
“SGI members often speak about the positive impact that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo has on their lives. This is hard to comprehend and is something that can only be experienced on an individual basis…The 13th-century priest Nichiren established the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He concluded that the Lotus Sutra contains the full truth of Buddhism: that everyone without exception has the potential to attain Buddhahood. The title of the Lotus Sutra in its Japanese translation is Myoho-renge-kyo. By chanting “Nam,” or devotion to the essential message of the Lotus Sutra, we activate the state of Buddhahood in our lives. Rather than being a prayer to an external being, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is an expression of the determination of the human spirit, seeking to come into rhythm with the reality of the universe. Through continuing in this practice of determined intention we bring forth our highest potential from within our lives.”

I have to confess I don’t really understand the reasons behind the chanting. Members claim that chanting can energize and refresh, “making him or her happier, wiser, more compassionate, more productive and more prosperous” (Wikipedia).  I remember that the SGI members in Philadelphia were very devoted to this practice and I once observed them chanting for almost one hour straight (which gave me a little headache, to be honest). At any rate, I hope that in the future I’ll be able to engage more with SGI members and learn more about this rapidly growing organization in Japan. In conclusion, I think it would be good for Christians in Japan to at least have a basic understanding of the beliefs of SGI since it is highly likely you will eventually meet a member.

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