Soka Spirit
A Historical Look at Buddhism

Volume 4, No. 1 (Part 1) –
May 16, 1994

The World Tribune recently invited readers to express their reactions and opinions concerning the current crisis within the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. Many of the essays received are too long to print in our ongoing column, ‘What Do You Think About the Temple Issue?’ on page two of the World Tribune (beginning in the April 18 issue), and so we want to accommodate some in this issue of ‘The SGI-USA Newsletter.’ The three essays here express the observations of their authors and are not necessarily those of the World Tribune or the SGI-USA.


By Curt Young
Los Angeles

MUCH has been written about the schism between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood over the last three or four years. For many of us, a host of emotions has been triggered by what we have read or heard about the issue. There are some who feel they have no day-to-day relationship with priests and question the relevance of the issue to their daily practice. Others, having wrestled with the doctrinal aspects of the issue, have realized that the stance of the SGI is profoundly significant. Many others may still be searching, looking for resolution.

For some, one obstruction to rectifying this issue could be in attempting to understand the connection between priests and laity in a Western context. But when we examine the issue in a historical, sociological and cultural context, we soon see that such a comparison is tantamount to jamminga round peg into a square hole. Priests, in a Japanese context, play an entirely different role than priests in America.

Most of us have grown up in a Western socio-religious world, where the word priest conjures up images of Father Malone or Reverend what’s-his-name at the corner church – an ordinary guy who decided to become a priest rather than an accountant. We expect him to conduct Sunday services, baptize the babies, be there for our weddings and funerals and give spiritual counseling. And since churches tell us that there is no salvation outside their domain, we really wanted them to do their job well.

But, alas, ministers and priests sometimes fail. And because we are all part of a common social experience, and because they are the people who, according to their dogma, hold our destiny in their hands, it is often easier to put their transgressions on the back burner after a few days of outrage and get on with our lives. Jim Bakker went to jail, Jimmy Swaggert cried on television and Jerry Falwell keeps rolling along. Now that there’s some daylight between what they did and today’s headlines, few even remember what led to such outrage in the first place. It’s a Western thing.

Which is perhaps why some of us may expect the same license be afforded the Nichiren Shoshu priests. ‘Why are we bashing the priests?’ has become the lexicon of some Gakkai members since 1990. But when you look at what the word priest means in a Japanese historical context, there are very clear social and cultural reasons as well as compelling implications for our future why it is crucial that we understand this issue and find resolution.

In Buddhism in Ancient Japanese Society

Starting with the development of religion in early Japan, what mattered most were the affairs of the ruling families and not the lives of ordinary people. Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in the sixth century. By the time Prince Shotoku became regent, he already ardently embraced this new religion, because he saw the potential it held to become the common faith of the diverse clans that had thus far been divided politically and religiously. In fact, in 623 he declared by edict that the supervision of priests and nuns was the responsibility of the throne. This started a policy of government control of the clergy and their jurisdiction, policy maintained by subsequent rulers and which played a key role in the development of Buddhism in Japan.

So, from the start, Buddhism was not of the people but of the ruling, privileged class. According to Joseph M. Kitagawa in Religion in Japanese History, ‘The religious situation in Japan during the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries witnessed the gradual emergence of the priestly ‘privileged class,’ in both the Shinto and Buddhist folds, often competing in power and wealth with the greedy court nobility.’1

By the time of the Nara Era, which lasted from 710 to 784, we find among the legal and penal codes of the constitution of ancient Japan one called the ‘Clergy Ordinance.’ It was designed to regulate the behavior of monks and nuns. Lay people were forbidden from becoming priests without government permission, which could only be obtained by undergoing a rigorous screening process, including passing a difficult exam. Once ordained, priests were forbidden to step outside the temple grounds. To help them focus on their studies, the government provided the temples and priests with financial support. The aim of the government in sponsoring Buddhism was not the salvation of the people but the protection of the state. Buddhist and Shinto priests became de facto government officials closely identified with the cause of the throne and the upper strata of society.

During the Nara period a clear line of demarcation was drawn between the upper and lower strata of society. The upper strata were the aristocracy and the clergy. The lower, the people. This characterization of society continued to exist into the Heian period (794-1185). The aristocracy and clergy were the two main bearers of culture. The Heian aristocracy was determined by lineage, court rank, economic power and learning. While there was constant rivalry between them, the aristocracy cooperated with one another to maintain their privileged status. Those with court rank were entitled to various kinds of economic privileges. They received lands, silk, cotton, horses, carriages and servants according to their grade.

The clergy were in fact the only class of men who had as much standing as the aristocrats in terms of court rank, economic power and learning without necessarily having the same high family background. The situation during the Heian period made the priesthood the only means of achieving upward social mobility. Many men entered temples not in search of the truth but in quest of worldly riches and privileges. Religious institutions became even more influential as they acquired status as great landowners.

For the most part, the many schools of Buddhism in Japan in the years before Nichiren Daishonin’s time took for granted the dualism that divided the path of the clergy and that of the laity. The orthodoxy of these traditional sects was not determined by doctrine but rather by the transmission of their priestly office – the same argument Nikken is using now to maintain his office.

Buddhism in Japan had always equated its own sphere with that of the state so that, in principle, outside the community of government officials, there was no meaningful framework for the expression of Buddhism in society.

According to Kitagawa,2 there were monastic communities and there were lay devotees, but there never developed an independent Buddhist community that would nurture the standard principles of Buddhism concerning the social, political and cultural dimensions of human life and society. This meant that Buddhism prospered in Japan as a religion of the Japanese nation, not of the Japanese people.

In his essay, ‘Japanese Religion: Unity or Diversity,’ H. Byron Earhart observes, ‘The overall impression of Buddhism up through the Nara period (eighth century) is that it had become fully entrenched in the hearts of the nobility and the bureaucracy of the state.’3

In Buddhism of the People: The Kamakura Era

Buddhism became popular during the Kamakura Era with the teachings of Honen, Shinran and Nichiren Daishonin. The people found their teachings attractive, but their teachings were too far removed from the conventional thought of the contemporary Buddhist establishment. This is why, as their teachings spread and gained an increased following, they became the object of criticism by Buddhist traditionalists.

In fact, Nichiren Daishonin’s entire life was characterized by his constant battle against criticism from the establishment. This is why it has been said that the Daishonin’s teachings begin and end with the ‘Rissho Ankoku Ron,’ the treatise in which he clearly pointed out how the many disasters and calamities that the Japanese were suffering were directly connected to the nation’s affinity for religions that undermined the dignity of people. He said:

To be sure, Buddha halls stand rooftop to rooftop and sutra storehouses are ranged eave to eave. Priests are as numerous as bamboo plants and rushes, monks as common as rice and hemp seedlings. The temples and priests have been honored from centuries past, and every day respect is paid them anew. But the monks and priests today are fawning and devious, and they confuse the people and lead them astray. The ruler and his ministers lack understanding and fail to distinguish between truth and heresy.

The Ninno Sutra, for example, says: ‘Evil monks, hoping to gain fame and profit, in many cases appear before the ruler, the heir apparent or the other princes and take it upon themselves to preach doctrines that lead to the violation of the Buddhist Law and the destruction of the nation. The rulers, failing to perceive the truth of the situation, listen to and put faith in such doctrines, and proceed to create regulations that are perverse in nature and do not accord with the rules of Buddhist discipline. In this way they bring about the destruction of Buddhism and of the nation.’ (The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 14-15)

In the more popular versions of Buddhism propagated by Nichiren and the others, there may have been a distinction between the clergy and the lay believer, but there was no longer any discrimination. No matter how one interpreted their teachings, it was impossible to deduce a logic that gave special treatment to the clergy. All people, as the Daishonin pointed out over and over, were equal.

These assertions were a revolutionary affront to the doctrines of the established religious groups. The denial of all practices as asserted by the Daishonin and the others was a direct challenge to the clergy of the older sects, who enjoyed exclusive authority over their respective doctrines and whose only means of livelihood was tinkering with more esoteric forms of Buddhism.

Nichiren Daishonin’s character and career were unique in the religious history of Japan. But those who followed him exhibited less conviction. Most of his disciples failed to preserve the new path he had opened and tended to compromise with the older sects, shying away from debate and looking rather for peaceful coexistence. This attitude can be seen in the fact that just three years after the Daishonin’s death, one of the six senior priests not only allowed the landowner to erect a statue of Shakyamuni at Mount Minobu but agreed that it was an appropriate object of worship.

In other words, the priests who followed the Daishonin were quick to recognize the validity of other practices, the very practices that had been so harshly rejected by the Daishonin. Finding it difficult to emulate his conviction, they gradually melded under governmental and societal influences and began to present the Daishonin’s Buddhism in a way more accommodating to the traditionalists, who of course opposed the example of strict and unrelenting remonstration established by the Daishonin while he lived.

The major Buddhist development after the Kamakura Era was the number of interpretations and divisions within the established sects. In the first generation after the Daishonin’s death, there were five different Nichiren administrative bodies. Today there are nine. ‘In fact,’ Earhart writes, ‘the major Buddhist development after Kamakura times was the proliferation of denominations within the established sects. The denominations tended to capture and crystallize the sect founder and his original inspiration, rather than using these resources creatively to breathe new life into Buddhism.’4

During this time, the various Nichiren schools were faced with the difficult choice between maintaining the integrity of their teachings or enhancing their orders. They chose to compromise with the state in order to secure their own prosperity. We see an example in 1467, during the final years of the ninth high priest, Nichiu. The Onin War broke out, ushering in a century of strife. This was a period known as the Age of Warring States, and it lasted from 1467 to 1568. Feudal lords vied with one another to expand their domains and extend their power.

Taiseki-ji, which was located in Suruga province – the strategic corridor used by the eastern Japanese powers to reach the political center, Kyoto – found itself in a state of anarchy. Naturally the priests feared for their personal safety. Thinking they would find protection if the high priest was of the same bloodline as a powerful feudal lord, the priests at Taiseki-ji invited a 9-year-old child to become high priest. He was given the name Nichiin and became the 13th high priest. Nichiin is thought to be the great-grandson of either Imagawa Sadaomi, the lord of Suruga province, or Uesugi Akisada, the governor of the Kanto area. In any case, after serving as high priest, Nichiin went on to transfer the lineage to an 18-year-old boy whose family had served the Uesugi clan for generations. The motive was the same; to protect Taiseki-ji from invasion by the Takeda clan.

It was Sakyo Nikkyo (1428-?) who provided the doctrinal support for this unconventional practice of elevating children to the position of high priest to quell criticism. He propounded the view – for the first time in Taiseki-ji’s history – that a high priest is absolute and infallible because of the heritage of the Law he receives from the Daishonin. He writes: ‘When those who embrace the [Lotus] Sutra have an audience with the current high priest, they meet with the original Buddha’ (Essential Writings of the Fuji School, vol. 2, p. 329) and ‘Each successive high priest who received the transmission of the heritage of the Law is the Gohonzon as Sage Nichiren’ (Essential Writings of the Fuji School, vol. 4, p. 29).

In 1569, one year after the end of the war, Taiseki-ji was burned, according to some sources by invading armies of the neighboring Takeda clan. What’s more, a few years later, in 1581, the two transfer documents given to Nikko Shonin by Nichiren Daishonin were stolen by a member of the Takeda clan.

In Sixteenth-Century
Political Backlash

By the 16th century, the prestige of the clergy had grown so much that it threatened to undermine political authority. Masaharu Anasaki writes in his History of Japanese Religion: ‘The great Buddhist centers became dens of fighting monks and vagabonds, constantly engaged in bloody combats between themselves or against military chieftains. Their power and arrogance went so far, that the military leader Nobunaga, who was extending his power over the whole country, found a serious menace in such Buddhist strongholds.’5

During those years the regent Nobunaga made every attempt to eliminate the influence of Buddhist schools. In 1571, he sent his army to attack Mount Hiei. Three thousand buildings were burned and more than 1,600 priests and nuns were massacred. This episode ended the political power of Mount Hiei, which, for centuries, had enjoyed the privileges of a de facto ecclesiastical state. He also subdued the followers of Honen’s Pure Land sect. Some 40,000 adherents were massacred.

By the close of the 16th century, Taiseki-ji, isolated from the political and cultural center of Kyoto, found itself in serious decline. To attract parishioners, it began the practice of importing high priests candidates from Yoho-ji temple, a branch sect of the Nikko school in Kyoto. This temple held doctrines that varied significantly from the orthodoxy of the Daishonin’s Buddhism. For example, priests and lay people alike were not only told that the correct object of worship was a statue of Shakyamuni but that the correct practice was to recite all 28 chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

During the Tokugawa era, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, a new religious entity joined the fray when the Jesuits brought Christianity. By 1614, the new regent, Ieyasu, was determined to ban Christianity. He required that temples issue certificates proving that residents were Buddhist. By the latter half of the 17th century, the certification system had spread throughout Japan and had been modified to include records of age, religion, marital status and public service for all households. It was the Tokugawa equivalent of Japan’s present-day family registration system. Through it all, the temples were incorporated as local units of the government. All people were required to belong to a temple; the priests became public servants who kept watch over people’s movements.

The temples were legally guaranteed a constant and stable relationship with the people, and their doctrines permeated the entire country. People were manipulated on the bases of authority and power.

In The End of Feudalism

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 is of tremendous importance in understanding Japan and modern Japanese religion. Perhaps the greatest significance of the Meiji Restoration was the ending of Tokugawa feudalism and the founding of the modern Japanese state. For more than 200 years, the Tokugawa rulers had maintained order on a feudal basis, but increasingly they were unable to rule the country effectively. Now imperial government was reestablished.

In conjunction with the political and economic changes of the Meiji Restoration, there were significant changes in the realm of religion according to Earhart. ‘The religious transition from the Tokugawa times to the Meiji era, if oversimplified, can be described as the replacement of state patronage of Buddhism with state patronage of Shinto.’6 Nevertheless, it was the Tokugawa regime that provided the theory and credibility that gave the state the right to control religion – which allowed Shinto to play such a decisive role in church-state relationships. This relationship marked the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras until the end of World War II.

With the Meiji Restoration, Buddhism was faced with an unexpected crisis. Several centuries of patronage by the Tokugawa government resulted in the Buddhist priests and temples taking for granted their superior positions of wealth and leisure. They seemed so firmly entrenched that financial corruption and spiritual haphazardness went unchecked. Then suddenly, the Tokugawa government fell and an important source of the priests’ income vanished.

‘It was bad enough that the Meiji Restoration did not stop short with a mere reform of Buddhism, but instead chose to disestablish Buddhism and to establish Shinto in place. Even worse, perhaps, was the severe criticism and persecution of Buddhism stimulated by the zeal to restore Shinto. It is true that some of the destruction of Buddhist temples during the transitional period can be attributed to the misplaced enthusiasm which accompanies any radical social change. On the other hand, much of the criticism against Buddhism – financial and moral corruption – was justified.’7

In the period from 1868 to the end of World War II, nationalism pervaded every aspect of Japanese life. In the 1880s, ‘political agitation and the discussions on human rights were gradually transformed into frenzy for social reform. Social leaders and educators preached a metamorphosis of the nation, and the people followed their advice, replacing old customs by Western ones. Dancing halls were supported by the government, theatrical performances in English became the order of the day in higher schools, proposals were even made for adopting English as the official language. The idea underlying all this was quite simple, that by imitating Western manners the nation could be ranked as a civilized one and therefore achieve the desired revision of her treaties with foreign powers on a footing of equality.’8

Anasaki further observes:

When the sweeping movement of Europeanization necessarily provoked a reaction, and the resentment broke out furiously on all sides, ‘Keep our national heritage’ and ‘Japan for the Japanese’ became the watchwords of the time…. The Buddhist priests could comprehend neither the socio-political transformation nor the criticism against Buddhism. As a whole, Buddhism tried to maintain in the Meiji period the same role and position it had known during the Tokugawa period: religiously, preoccupation with ancestral rites, and politically, subservience to the state. Buddhist priests were so preoccupied with funerals and masses that they were jokingly referred to as the ‘undertakers of Japan.’ They strove to be at least second to Shinto as the supporters of the state. To a certain extent, Japanese Buddhism today is still wrestling with this problem of spiritual renewal.9

The Meiji Era lasted 45 years, from 1868 until the death of Emperor Meiji and the ascendancy of Taisho to the Imperial throne in 1912. That year saw many significant events. The United States became a world power under Woodrow Wilson. A people’s revolution in China overthrew the Manchu Dynasty. And Japanese military leaders began to play an increasingly active role in state affairs. This burgeoning militarism led the nation, in less than a generation to a point where from the middle of the 1930s, after the death of Taisho and the beginning of the Showa era: ‘[A]ll liberal thinking and expression – whether in religion, philosophy, art or culture – was condemned under suspicion of being a threat to the Japanese way of life. Freedom of the press, thought and assembly, as well as freedom of conscience and belief, were violated. Gradually, a sense of fear developed among people, who no longer dared to speak their minds openly, even to close friends. Newspapers, magazines and radios repeated the same nationalistic slogans. People’s thoughts, values and patterns of behavior, and even the meaning of life, were prescribed and interpreted by militarists and jingoists. To the militarists and ultramilitarists, individuals were nothing more than cogs in the huge machine of the nation.’10

It was during these years that the Nichiren Shoshu priests, at the behest of the government, deleted 14 passages from the Gosho, namely those that were in any way critical of the state. It was also during these years that the priests revised the silent prayers to pay homage to the emperor and to the Shinto deity Amaterasu – the Sun Goddess.

It was during these same years that Tsunesaburo Makiguchi stood firm in the belief that the only hope for the nation’s survival was for the people to embrace the correct teachings of Nichiren Daishonin. He, not the priests, refused to accept the Shinto talisman. He, not the priests, put his life on the line for the sake of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. His courageous efforts marked the beginning of what we now know around the world as the Soka Gakkai International.

In The Schism Between Nichiren Shoshu and the SGI

It is in this historical context that friction has existed between the priesthood and the SGI since the 1930s. From the refusal of presidents Makiguchi and Toda to accept the Shinto talisman, leading to their arrests and ultimately the death of Mr. Makiguchi, to the loss of permission to visit the head temple, to the difficulties with the temple in the late 1970s, the tension has continued. According to Bryan Wilson in the appendix to the book he co-authored, A Time To Chant: ‘Priests seek to preserve orthodoxy and become custodians of sacred objects and places. They mark off their purported piety by distinctive means of training, by tonsure, dress and ritual routines, all of which lead them to distance themselves from ordinary people and everyday affairs which not infrequently they see as mundane, and perhaps even as a source of pollution.’

He continues, ‘Such a growing divergence of orientation (from the spiritual needs of people) is likely to be exacerbated if a priesthood – purporting to offer indispensable service for laymen, and exercising a monopoly of such putative spiritual power – in itself becomes cynical, corrupt, and self-indulgent.’
Professor Wilson concludes:

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the complex and tortuous process of charge and counter-charge which has marked this schism, the underlying issues remain apparent. Soka Gakkai is a mass movement, outgoing, lay in spirit, and dedicated to making Nichiren’s teachings effective and practical in the everyday modern world. The Nichiren priesthood is essentially locked into an ancient ritualistic and quasi-monastic system, concerned to preserve its authority and jealous of its monopoly of certain sacred teachings, places, and objects. It has inherited many attributes of traditional Japanese Buddhism, including the incorporation of aspects of ancestor reverence, giving rise to the emphasis on funeral and memorial objects and ceremonies and readily incorporating these phenomena into its putative indispensable services for laymen.’11

Though this essay hopefully provides a social and cultural context for Buddhism in Japanese history, there are wider implications for those of us in America practicing Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. In many respects they are the problems inherent in the expansion, development and socialization of religions. The Japanese example shows in particular the problems that accrue when a religion becomes so socially embedded and institutionalized that it loses regard for the people. As Ian Reader mentions in his essay, ‘The Institutionalization of Buddhism in Japan,’ ‘Since Buddhism in the west is relatively young it has not yet had time to gather the sorts of social and cultural baggage that it has accumulated and that are weighing it down in Japan.’ ‘Hopefully,’ as he continues in the same essay, ‘we will be able to draw some valuable lessons about the nature and dynamics of Buddhism in general while gaining some clear perspectives on the future courses of Buddhism’s western evolution.’12

In terms of our individual practice and our daily lives, one perspective is that the schism is a watershed event that holds the potential for all of us to participate in the kind of social reform that is at the heart of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. SGI President Ikeda provided the road map in his ‘soft power’ lecture at Harvard University in 1991 when he said:

As religious conviction evolves into religious movements, however, demands for organization emerge. The institutional aspects of religion must constantly adapt to the changing conditions of society and should, in my view, support the personal, individual aspects of belief which should be given primacy.

The unfortunate truth is that few religious movements have been able to avoid the pitfall of organizational ossification. The development of their institutional aspects has ended up shackling and restraining their human followers. The external coercive powers of religious institutions and associated ritual stifle the internal and spontaneous powers of faith, and as a result, the original purity of faith is lost. Because this is such a common tragedy, we forget that this is a complete reversal of the true function of religion.

1. Joseph M. Kitagawa. Religion in Japanese History. Japan: Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 30.
2. ibid.
3. H. Byron Earhart. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Belmont, Calif.: Dickerson Publishing Co., 1974, p. 28.
4. ibid., p. 86.
5. Masaharu Anasaki. History of Japanese Religion. Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963, p. 233.
6. Earhart, ibid., p. 94.
7. ibid., p. 102.
8. Anasaki, ibid., p. 357.
9. Earhart, ibid., p.102.
10. Kitagawa, ibid., p. 198.
11. Bryan Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere. A Time to Chant: The Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, p. 232Œ33.
12. Ian Reader. ‘The Institutionalisation of Buddhism in Japan,’ The Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. 4. Institute of Oriental Philosphy, 1992, p. 104.