Soka Gakkai International defines itself as “a community-based Buddhist organization that promotes peace, culture and education centered on respect for the dignity of life”.  It is a nongovernmental organization with branches in communities across the world. SGI as a worldwide organization advocates for nuclear disarmament, human rights education, sustainable development and humanitarian relief. SGI centers its philosophies and practices on Nichiren Buddhism. Soka Gakkai means “Value-Creating Society.”
SGI was founded in Japan in 1930. The forerunner of Soka Gakkai, known as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, was created by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi along with his disciple Josei Toda. Makiguchi as the society’s first president focused on education reform and championed a “more humanistic, student-centered approach” to learning. However, antebellum Japan was a dangerous place to be advocating for such ideas, especially as they tied into Buddhism, and as a result Makiguchi and Toda were arrested for thought crimes and imprisoned. Makiguchi died in prison, and when Toda was released in 1945, he took up the leadership of Soka Kyoiku Gakkai. In 1947, Toda met Daisaku Ikeda and took him as a disciple. In 1960, Ikeda became the third and current president. Under his leadership, Soka Kyoiku Gakkai began to foster a growing membership and community internationally. The entity Soka Gakkai International (SGI) was officially formed in 1975 with Ikeda as its president, linking independent SGI organizations around the world that embrace Buddhism while respecting local cultures and traditions.
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944) was the first leader of SGI. He was known to his students and disciples as a warm and considerate teacher, and fought against the repressive government and their corrupt education policies. He was dedicated to reforming Japan’s educational system, which he felt stifled students’ creativity by discouraging independent thinking and emphasising rote memorization and obedience. Makiguchi believed education should serve the needs of the students, instead of preparing the students to serve the needs of the government. He created the theory of value-creation (soka) which became a major facet of SGI. Makiguchi encountered Nichiren Buddhism in 1928 and discovered that it matched his personal values closely. Makiuguchi, along with his disciple Toda, found that “Nichiren’s philosophy, with its emphasis on the transformation of society through the individual’s transformation, was the means to achieving the fundamental social reform that they had been trying to accomplish through their educational efforts.” However, the nationalistic and war-focused Japanese government at this time implemented a policy of state Shintoism to inspire nationalist sentiment and encourage emperor worship. Makiguchi and his Buddhist teachings and practices were considered a threat to the national ideology, and he was arrested.
Daisaku Ikeda is the third and current president of SGI. He is described as a peacebuilder, Buddhist philosopher, educator, author and poet. His difficult early life as a child during World War II, including the loss of his older brother in the war, lead him to seek a way to minimize human suffering and bring about peace. Ikeda became Toda’s disciple when he was only 19 years old, and both were firm in their religious and moral convictions in the face of state Shintoism. Ikeda believed, like Toda and Makiguchi, that Nichiren Buddhism’s “limitless potential of the individual human being could help revive society in the devastation of post-war Japan.” Ikeda took the reins of Soka Gakkai in 1960, expanding it beyond Japan and creating an international network of Buddhist communities. As his biography describes, “The central tenet of Ikeda’s thought, grounded in Buddhist humanism, is the fundamental dignity of life, a value he sees as the key to lasting peace and human happiness. In his view, global peace relies ultimately on a self-directed transformation within the life of the individual, rather than on societal or structural reforms alone.”
Purpose and Principles:
SGI aims to contribute to peace, culture and education through the ideals and philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism is a humanistic philosophy that emphasizes respect for the sanctity of life and compassion, and it enables individuals to nurture their creativity and cultivate their inherent wisdom. The SGI Charter, as expressed on their website, is as follows:
- SGI shall contribute to peace, culture and education for the happiness and welfare of all humanity based on Buddhist respect for the sanctity of life.
- SGI, based on the ideal of world citizenship, shall safeguard fundamental human rights and not discriminate against any individual on any grounds.
- SGI shall respect and protect the freedom of religion and religious expression.
- SGI shall promote an understanding of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism through grassroots exchange, thereby contributing to individual happiness.
- SGI shall, through its constituent organizations, encourage its members to contribute toward the prosperity of their respective societies as good citizens.
- SGI shall respect the independence and autonomy of its constituent organizations in accordance with the conditions prevailing in each country.
- SGI shall, based on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, respect other religions, engage in dialogue and work together with them toward the resolution of fundamental issues concerning humanity.
- SGI shall respect cultural diversity and promote cultural exchange, thereby creating an international society of mutual understanding and harmony.
- SGI shall promote, based on the Buddhist ideal of symbiosis, the protection of nature and the environment.
- SGI shall contribute to the promotion of education, in pursuit of truth as well as the development of scholarship, to enable all people to cultivate their individual character and enjoy fulfilling and happy lives.
Soka Gakkai International USA:
Soka Gakkai International’s headquarters in the United States is located in Santa Monica, California, but it has more than 500 chapters and some 100 centers throughout the country, making it the most diverse Buddhist community in America. SGI describes itself as not having priests and temples, but rather lay leaders and community centers; instead of meeting at a temple, daily practice and discussion meetings are held at members’ homes. Much like other convert Buddhist societies in the United States, SGI has replaced the monk/lay divide with a community of laypeople, in contrast to many immigrant Buddhist communities.
As a Nichiren Buddhist group, SGI members also participate in the chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” to focus the mind and spirit. “Myoho-renge-kyo” is the Japanese term for the Lotus Sutra, and “Nam” comes from the Sanskrit namas, which means “to devote oneself to.” Therefore, by chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” practitioners are expressing their dedication to manifesting each individual’s inherent Buddha nature.
Nichiren Buddhism is a movement in the Mahayana tradition with origins in Japan. Instead of focusing on rebirth and enlightenment in the future, Nichiren Buddhism instead focuses on one’s actions in this world and emphasizes self-betterment. Practitioners are expected to take responsibility for improving themselves to contribute to a more peaceful world. Nichiren Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is available to everyone, regardless of origin or upbringing. Nichiren Buddhism has its roots in the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), who was a Japanese monk who attempted to reform Buddhism in Japan in the 13th century. Nichiren Daishonin believed he was living in mappo, or end times, where the teachings of the Buddha were being misinterpreted. Nichiren Daishonin based his practice on the Lotus Sutra and taught that all people could achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” as well as studying and reciting sections of the Lotus Sutra, are central to the daily practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Areas of Focus:
SGI focuses on several humanitarian issues, some of which include the innate dignity of human life; the interconnectedness of all life; peace and disarmament, as well as the cessation of manufacture and use of nuclear weapons; sustainable development; human rights education; empowerment of women; and education for global citizenship. SGI also has several affiliated groups that it works together with in pursuit of its goals. It works with the Institute of Oriental Philosophy to preserve Buddhist texts and examine social issues from a Buddhist perspective. The Soka Education System also operates schools mostly in Japan and Asia, to “foster global citizens who will contribute to society and help strengthen the foundations of peace.”
1. Unless otherwise noted, all information and photographs come from SGI’s homepage at https://www.sgi.org/ and their US homepage at https://www.sgi-usa.org/about-us/.