From Nichiren to Ikeda: the socially engaged Buddhism of Soka Gakkai

- through Francois Leclercq

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Soka Gakkai Headquarters Complex Seikyo World Center. From

Many Buddhist schools have formed since the tradition was introduced from China to Japan in 552 CE. Some of these are essentially local Japanese schools, while others may trace their lineage directly from Chinese traditions that might not even have survived institutionally in China until their reimportation from Japan to China. modern era (e.g. Shingon Buddhism).

The two main branches of Japanese Buddhism are Jodo Shin-shu and Nichiren-shu. Nichiren (1222-1282), one of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism, founded the Nichiren school of Buddhism. A deep thinker, Nichiren spent much time reflecting on the schools of Buddhism that populated the Japanese spiritual market of his day, before deciding that the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra or Sutra on the White Lotus of True Dharma) was the most profound and reliable writing.

Le Lotus Sutrawhich is considered one of the most important and revered Mahayana. sutras, would have been composed at the beginning of the common era. This is the fundamental scripture of the Tendai/Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. It also had an influence on other East Asian Buddhist schools, such as Zen/Chan.

Statue of Nichiren at Myoren-ji, Kamigyo. At

A figure often compared to the future Martin Luther of the European Reformation, Nichiren criticized the political and religious order of his time, which supported a wealthy elite without concern for the difficulties of ordinary people or the pain of the deprived. Nichiren taught that anyone, including women and people without formal education or religious training, can become a Buddha in this life by reciting the gohonzon: " Namu-myoho-renge-kyo» with unwavering commitment and conviction. Of this unique commitment and theology, the Soka Gakkai organization says:

Nichiren Daishonin embodied his enlightenment – ​​the fusion of reality and wisdom – in the form of the Gohonzon (mandala), the object of worship. The Gohonzon itself is the fusion entity of reality and wisdom. . . . With faith in the Gohonzon, one can realize the Buddha nature inherent in one's life. So faith is equal to wisdom. Again, our Buddha nature is reality and wisdom takes place in our own lives. This is why Nichiren Daishonin says in his Goshō, “Never look for this Gohonzon outside yourself. The Gohonzon only exists in the mortal flesh of us ordinary people who embrace the Lotus Sutra and sing Namu-myoho-renge-kyo.

(Daniel A. Métraux 1996, 368)

After Nichiren's death, his disciples attempted to compile the teachings he had left behind, leading to a division within the school of Buddhism he had founded. Through this method, several distinct Nichiren Buddhist schools developed, such as Nichiren Shushu and the modern secular institution of Soka Gakkai.

Soka Gakkai is a secular organization with approximately 12 million members. Soka Gakkai began as a branch of Nichiren Sho-shu, which was one of the first sub-schools of the greater Nichiren family. In the late 1991th century, Nichiren Sho-shu and the Soka Gakkai had major disagreements over leadership and faith, culminating in a schism and Nichiren Sho-shu's excommunication of the Soka Gakkai in XNUMX.

But what is the Soka Gakkai version?

The Soka Gakkai

Soka Gakkai was formed in the crucible of the growing militaristic imperialism of Meiji-era Japan. In 1930, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944), a Japanese educator motivated by Nichiren's teachings, founded what was then called the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value Creation Society), which he considered a secular Buddhist educational movement advocating the dignity and rights of children. to an education that benefited them as people, not just as instruments of the state. During World War II, Makiguchi was arrested for protesting against the Japanese army and died in prison from malnutrition and torture.

UN gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren shortly before his death in 1280. From

Toda Josei (1900-1988), a student of Makiguchi who served as the second president of the Soka Gakkai from 1951 to 1958, had a major conversion experience after reading the Lotus Sutra while also being imprisoned. As a result, Toda modified the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism to better meet the needs of modern society. Under his leadership, Soka Gakkai grew dramatically after World War II and quickly became Japan's largest secular Buddhist movement. Famous members of Soka Gakkai included the late music star Tina Turner (1939-2023), while veteran jazz musician, bandleader and composer Herbie Hancock remains a member.

Le Soka Gakkai International

Daisaku Ikeda (1928–2023) succeeded Toda as president of the Soka Gakkai after Toda's death in 1958. Ikeda resigned as president in 1978, although until his death on November 15, he remained the president of Soka Gakkai. de facto leader of the organization as honorary president of Soka Gakkai and president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

In 1975, Ikeda founded SGI as the umbrella organization of the Soka Gakkai in homage to his mentor Toda's dying wish that the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism be spread throughout the world. Since then, the movement has relied on its secular orientation, allowing it to easily spread outside of Japan.

Soka Gakkai is a strong advocate for banning nuclear weapons. In 1975, he collected more than 10 million signatures from young people for a petition against these weapons and presented them to the United Nations.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Toda Josei and Daisaku Ikeda. Taken from

The Soka Gakkai believes that Nichiren's teachings should be transmitted in the spirit of promoting peace. As Ikeda said:

The heart of the message of (Nichiren's) Rissho-ankoku-ron is this: whether nationally, internationally or globally, the only way to achieve lasting peace is to establish the rule of true Buddhist law. . . . War takes away nobility and respect from humanity and, through its evil actions, covers the man of faith. It is only natural that Buddhism, whose aim is to guide all people to the highest and purest realms, should be obliged to directly oppose war. In the same way, the Buddhist believer who wishes to practice his faith in the truest way considers that his mission is to devote his whole soul to the construction of peace.

(Jacqueline I. Stone 2003: 68-69)

Since 1983, SGI has annually published a peace plan, including methods for solving global problems based on Buddhist philosophy. Makiguchi and Toda founded the movement in hopes of improving Japanese education. It is therefore not surprising that the Soka Gakkai created its own educational system. Its number of practitioners is relatively modest compared to the total number of its members. It has a small number of kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools and high schools. There is also Soka Women’s Junior College and Soka University in Tokyo. Soka University has campuses in California and Paris. Soka University of America states on its website:

We believe that education is the path not only to a career, but also to happiness, fulfillment and a better, more peaceful and more sustainable world.

(Soka University)

SGI also promotes environmental activities through educational events such as exhibitions, seminars and conferences, as well as more direct actions such as tree planting campaigns. Among other environmental actions, SGI recently participated in the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was held in Dubai from November 30 to December 12. He advocates for the active participation of global youth in political processes regarding the climate crisis.

Daisaku Ikeda in 2022. From SGI Facebook

Since November 18, 2021, the SGI Goals and Guiding Principles have been updated with the aim of raising the level of global citizenship, the spirit of active tolerance and respect for human dignity. They are:

The Soka Gakkai will contribute to peace, culture and education based on the Buddhist teaching of respect for the dignity of all life.

The Soka Gakkai will promote understanding of Nichiren Buddhism through dialogue and popular exchanges, thereby contributing to the realization of human happiness and well-being.

The Soka Gakkai will respect and promote freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Soka Gakkai, founded on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, will respect other religious and philosophical traditions, engaging in dialogue and working with them to resolve the fundamental challenges facing humanity.

Soka Gakkai will respect local cultures and customs as well as the autonomy of each organization. Each organization will develop its activities in accordance with the laws and conditions in force in that country or territory and encourage its members to contribute to society as responsible citizens.

Soka Gakkai will work for peace and a world without nuclear weapons and promote just and sustainable development.

Soka Gakkai will safeguard and promote human rights. It will not discriminate against any individual and will oppose any form of discrimination. It will contribute to the achievement of gender equality and promote the empowerment of women.

The Soka Gakkai will respect cultural diversity and promote intercultural exchange, thereby contributing to mutual understanding and cooperation among the people of the world.

Soka Gakkai is committed to building a sustainable world for future generations, fighting the climate crisis and protecting and caring for Earth's ecosystems.

The Soka Gakkai will promote education, learning and scholarship, to enable everyone to cultivate their individual character and lead a contributing, fulfilling and happy life.


Since Ikeda's recent passing, this massive global Buddhist organization will likely enter a period of change and restructuring as it adapts to a new leader and revisits its goals and direction. Factors such as internal dynamics and leadership challenges, as well as external factors such as Japanese politics, the global economy and geopolitical tensions, will fundamentally shape the group's agenda.

His highest figures will inevitably draw inspiration from the one who started it all: Nichiren spent time in the mountains in his later years, where he wrote some of his best-known treatises and letters. Many letters, which include some of his most profound teachings, were sent in gratitude to rural people and farmers in exchange for food or clothing. Nichiren's approach to Buddhism is notable for his concern for the well-being of ordinary people and his belief in their inherent capacity to become Buddha. The Soka Gakkai, which has a pronounced outward orientation in practice, will likely continue to embody this social aspect of Nichiren Buddhism in the future.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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