Most world religions originate from the founder’s desire to relieve people of suffering and to offer a path to a happy and fulfilling life. Because this desire and the actions and teachings aimed at realizing happiness for all people usually challenge long-held beliefs and long-established authority, they most often incur intense opposition. Throughout history, religion has always undergone ebb and flow. The founder sets the example, then teaches an ideal and how to strive toward this ideal. As time passes, however, leaders of the religious clergy tend to build a system and dogma that bolster their authority, and in so doing moves that religion away from the founder’s ideal. In response, religious reformations then emerge out of a wish to overturn that trend and return to the religion’s original teaching and the founder’s spirit centered on the people.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s starting point was his desire to revolutionize the existing religious dogma of ancient India. Hence, Buddhism, like many world religions, originated from the spirit of religious reformation. Shakyamuni’s greatest wish was to lead all people to happiness and to awaken in each person the potential for enlightenment inherent in their lives. The teaching that expounds this is found in the Lotus Sutra.
Similar to Shakyamuni, Nichiren Daishonin began his search for a teaching to help people out of their suffering, questioning whether existing interpretations of Buddhism were capable of doing so. After studying many Buddhist sutras, he realized that what was leading his society toward deeper suffering was people’s attachment to erroneous teachings that denied the idea that all people can attain Buddhahood. He spoke out unhesitatingly against those teachings that rejected and disparaged the Lotus Sutra, the one teaching that guarantees that all people can become absolutely empowered and happy by revealing their unlimited potential—a potential that resides equally in all people. Nichiren, too, led a religious revolution to return to the original teaching and spirit of Shakyamuni expressed in the Lotus Sutra.
The Soka Gakkai’s founding in 1930 by President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and his disciple, Josei Toda, marked the beginning of a new religious revolution. Though the Nichiren school of Buddhism had existed for more than 700 years, it had by then lost its ability to correctly uphold Nichiren’s teaching, having become absorbed in formalities and their own authority.
Rather than devote themselves to widely spreading Nichiren Buddhism, the priesthood relied on families that had for generations supported them. And they emphasized that any priest was inherently superior to any lay practitioner. They relied on a tradition common among Japanese Buddhist schools in which lay believers pay priests to recite the sutra on their behalf. This very passive form of Buddhist practice was focused on rites and rituals for which parishioners depended completely on priests.
In contrast, the Soka Gakkai has always encouraged its members to take full responsibility for their daily practice and study of Nichiren Buddhism, teaching the importance of each person chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and reciting gongyo, showing proof of the effectiveness of Buddhist practice in their daily lives and helping others learn about Buddhism.
More recently, after being liberated from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood on Nov. 28, 1991, the Soka Gakkai solidified the foundation of its religious revolution.
The eternal struggle of SGI members will be to continually strengthen and spread our people-centered religious reformation.
For example, it dispensed with long-held customs related to Japanese “funeral Buddhism.” For centuries, a main function of Buddhist priests was to preside over funerals, with families of the deceased paying to have priests recite the sutra and perform funeral rites. It was believed that without the prayer of priests, the deceased would be unable to attain Buddhahood after death.
The Soka Gakkai, however, reformed this tradition based on the teaching in Nichiren Buddhism that the prayers of lay believers and the prayers of priests are equally effective in contributing to the peaceful repose and enlightenment of the deceased. The Soka Gakkai introduced the idea of holding funerals organized and conducted solely by the family and friends of the deceased. Now, throughout the world, in the quarter century since its liberation from the priesthood, this has become a proud tradition of the SGI and a prime example of how the Soka Gakkai has been at the forefront of religious reformation.
In essence, once a religion departs from serving the people, it can easily become entrenched in formality, dogma and authoritarianism. And whether a religion can bring happiness to multitudes of people becomes apparent through the everyday actions and behavior of its practitioners. As Nichiren writes, “The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being” (“The Three Kinds of Treasure,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 852).
The eternal struggle of SGI members will be to continually strengthen and spread our people-centered religious reformation, the heritage that began with Shakyamuni Buddha, is embodied in the teachings and practice of Nichiren Daishonin and exemplified today by the SGI’s three eternal mentors—Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda and Daisaku Ikeda.