Soka Spirit
A Priest Describes Training As An Acolyte

Volume 2, No. 4 March 23, 1992

A Recollection of Life at the Head Temple

On Feb. 2, 1992, seven Nichiren Shoshu priests sent a document titled ‘Letter of Remonstration’ to High Priest Nikken, voicing their concern over the machinations of the head temple and its distortion of Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings. The following day, they announced publicly that they had officially severed ties with the organization of Nichiren Shoshu. They cited the head temple’s deviations from the original teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, and they pledged to continue to work for the reformation of Nichiren Shoshu, based on the Daishonin’s original spirit.

One of those priests is Mr. Kodo Yoshikawa, who is continuing to fulfill his responsibilities as chief priest of Kembutsu-ji temple in Kyoto. Interestingly, Mr. Yoshikawa is the elder brother of Mr. Rendo Yoshikawa, chief priest of Washington, D.C.’s Myosen-ji temple.

In a recent conversation with a representative of the Soka Shimpo (the biweekly youth division newspaper of the Soka Gakkai), Mr. Yoshikawa recalled his own experience as a young acolyte at the head temple. His story helps to shed light upon the origins of some of the attitudes behind the priesthood’s actions against the Soka Gakkai over the last year and several months.

In 1960, Nichiren Shoshu began a yearly program to recruit candidates for the priesthood. Mr. Yoshikawa, a member of the third class in this program, described life in the acolytes’ lodging, where he went to live in April 1962, the same month he began the sixth grade. Out of the 25 young men who became acolytes in 1962, only two came from priests’ families, and the other 23 came from the families of Soka Gakkai members. ‘We were all burning with hope for the future when we began our new lives at the head temple,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said.

Looking back at those days, however, he added that it became increasingly clear that ‘what was actually awaiting us was the incessant effort by senior priests to destroy our pure and innocent faith.’ He went on to explain that one of the first things the young acolytes were taught was that the simple act of becoming a priest proved the depths of their faith. ‘They said to us: ‘Therefore, you don’t have to think about deepening your faith from now on. You also don’t have to introduce others to this practice, nor should you chant much daimoku.”

Mr. Yoshikawa recalled that despite this admonishment by their seniors, most of the acolytes persisted in doing gongyo and chanting daimoku every day. It was only natural, he suggested, since most of them had grown up in families that set such examples. However, the senior priests reacted critically. ‘They commented on our attitude: ‘Priests should not chant so much daimoku. If believers see a priest chanting so diligently, they may wonder what is troubling this priest. Priests should not do things that may cause believers to become suspicious.’ I can now clearly say how ridiculous this logic was, but in those days their guidance easily deceived us because we were so unsuspecting.’ Acolytes, he said, were made to feel that chanting was incorrect and out of rhythm. This, coupled with an innate desire to be part of the group, led almost every acolyte to stop chanting daimoku assiduously within three to six months.

The natural consequence, according to Mr. Yoshikawa, was that an elitist attitude developed among the young acolytes, who came to view those who continued to chant as foolish. In addition, the more Soka Gakkai members revealed their commitment to Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism by doing gongyo, chanting daimoku and introducing others, the more foolish they appeared to the young priests. The irony, he pointed out, is that the priests usually have no firsthand experience with life’s serious problems, yet they criticize believers who strive to use Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings to overcome their problems.

As an example of the subtle pressures on the young acolytes, Mr. Yoshikawa recalled how at first they would wave and call out in greeting each time they saw SGI President Ikeda on the temple grounds. ‘A few months or half a year later, however, we began to call President Ikeda simply ‘Mr. Ikeda.’ And one year later, we began to call him just ‘Ikeda.’ No one specifically directed us to do so, but we unavoidably absorbed the anti-Gakkai atmosphere innate in the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood,’ he said. ‘How strongly you rebuke the Gakkai as an acolyte determines your status in the priesthood. In this sense, the acolytes’ lodging served as a training school to nurture Gakkai critics.’ Acolytes who grew up in such an environment are today the chief priests at temples throughout Japan. ‘It is only natural, therefore, that almost the entire priesthood holds a fundamental grudge against the Soka Gakkai,’ Mr. Yoshikawa explained.

This was true for acolytes from Gakkai families as well as from priests’ families. In fact, Mr. Yoshikawa added that many of the priests who joined the Shoshinkai (a radically anti-Gakkai faction of priests that was eventually expelled from the head temple) a decade ago actually came from Soka Gakkai families. Mr. Yoshikawa theorized that they had to criticize the Soka Gakkai more strongly than others, just to prove their commitment to Nichiren Shoshu.

When asked about how priests present themselves to believers, Mr. Yoshikawa replied that ‘Most priests are merely posturing when they mention faith and kosen-rufu.’ Such lip service, he said, is ‘nothing but a heartless gesture toward believers.’ In one example, he described a chief priest who pounded passionately on a table during his oko lecture and said with gravity, ‘Let’s do our best for kosen-rufu.’ After the meeting, however, as soon as he came back to his room, he began to criticize the Gakkai and then talk about his own interests, including golf. ‘From this duplicitous example set by their seniors,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said, ‘many junior priests learn only how to speak sweetly and superficially in front of lay believers.’

Besides engendering a critical attitude toward the Soka Gakkai, Mr. Yoshikawa explained that the isolated society in the acolytes’ lodging also naturally fostered a caste system of sorts, in which senior acolytes employed increasingly violent measures against their juniors, a reflection of their arrogance and cowardice. ‘As a member of the third class in the acolytes program at the head temple, I had only two senior classes above me; the number of senior acolytes was not great, and physical admonishment of junior acolytes was not yet common.’ However, by the time that every class of acolytes was filledÊsix classes for those in grade school and three each for junior and senior high schoolÊthe situation reeked of a hierarchical consciousness in which the strong ruled over the weak.

Mr. Yoshikawa recalled that, at one time, High Priest Nikken actually prohibited physical punishment at the head temple. In line with this, the high priest forced four acolytes to leave the head temple and the priesthood for using violent tactics against their juniors.

But in reaction to the long months of physical harassment, many acolytes responded by taking advantage of their seniors, knowing that they could not be physically punished. ‘However, prohibition of physical violence did not bring peace to the acolytes’ lodging,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said. ‘Rather, it contributed to antagonism and distorted human relationships between juniors and seniors.’

He added: ‘The fundamental nature of animality within one’s life cannot be changed by creating a precept. Education is not a matter of mere formality or institution. It is an issue of philosophy and belief. Put another way, to develop better human relationships requires creating a profound sense of trust between teachers and pupils. The high priest does not understand this at all.’

He pointed out that such a tragic situation can occur in any society and added: ‘It is not easy to nurture a sense of humanity in the lives of children without excellent educational principles or excellent educators who put them into practice…. The ill tendency that has grown within the lives of children has spread contagiously, corrupting their hearts. This animality that resides at the acolytes’ lodging is difficult to overcome, because it is so deeply rooted in the life of each acolyte.’

What is even more tragic, he went on to explain, is that acolytes, for the most part, consider such attitudes to be the norm, the correct behavior for the priesthood. ‘Many acolytes, thinking that they are special and that they can train their juniors through physical harassment, even take pride at surviving their apprenticeship at the head temple. They think that because they suffered so much while training to become priests, it is permissible to be high-handed toward lay believers. They also believe that, because they have received training that lay people do not, they are entitled to enjoy the fruits of full-fledged priesthood in the form of secular indulgences.’

Mr. Yoshikawa then described the severe discrimination faced by those who choose to become priests as adults. ‘Acolytes…make fools of these adult freshmen, calling them ‘instant priests.’ They feel that these adult priests are far inferior to them,’ he said.

Mr. Yoshikawa suggested that, because the number of local temples is limited, the younger acolytes fear that the older ‘rookie’ priests will compete for the chief priest positions and so are especially harsh toward them.

‘I remember that a ladle placed with the tea kettle in the tea room of the acolytes’ lodging would be broken every day because senior acolytes used it to hit the adult trainees. Senior acolytes would even give a flying kick to the them just for fun,’ he said. As a result, he watched as the characters of even the older freshman priests become warped. ‘Some priests could not tolerate it and had no choice but to quit. Some even became mentally ill,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said, but no one was allowed to stand up against their seniors. ‘One’s rank in the priesthood or one’s tenure as a priest is of primary importance in the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood,’ he explained.

Regarding his own frame of mind, Mr. Yoshikawa admitted that he was initially influenced by the same prejudices as his classmates. ‘I was told that I should not chant daimoku, I should not talk about the Gohonzon’s power in terms of either benefit or punishment, and that I need not worry about such basic matters of faith because we, just by being priests, transcend the laity,’ he said.

After living in the acolytes’ lodging for a year, Mr. Yoshikawa recalled picking up a copy of the Seikyo Shimbun that had been left in the tea room. He was deeply impressed by ‘the amazing drama of a believer’s experience in faith,’ which he read over and over with tears in his eyes. When his fellow acolytes caught him reading it, they ridiculed him until he put it down. Later, he smuggled it into his room, locked the door, and continued to read.

‘Because the article touched my heart so deeply, I started to make it a practice to clip every experience that moved me from the Seikyo Shimbun. I underlined the encouraging parts in each article. I began to read experiences in the Seikyo Shimbun with a seeking mind.’ As he studied the Gosho, Mr. Yoshikawa focused on several passagesÊof which there are more than 200Êin which Nichiren Daishonin emphasizes the value of chanting daimoku.

For instance, the Daishonin writes, ‘If you dedicate yourself to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, you attain Buddhahood as a common mortal’ (Gosho Zenshu, p. 872). He also writes, ‘You should always chant the invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo’ (Gosho Zenshu, p. 12). ‘For the first time I realized that what I had been told at the head temple about chanting daimoku was totally wrong, so I began to chant daimoku assiduously again, this time for one hour every day.’

To chant undisturbed and to escape the suspicious eyes of his classmates, Mr. Yoshikawa would slip in through the back door of the Gohonzon room of the Mutsubo temple on the head temple grounds. When he was occasionally caught on his way to the Gohonzon room, he was quizzed about what he was doing. ‘It’s almost unbelievable that a priest would be asked why he is entering a Gohonzon room.’ he said. In other words, the concept of entering a Gohonzon room to pray to the Gohonzon was almost unheard of at the head temple.

On one occasion, he was stopped by a senior acolyte who was a college graduate. Although he was the most senior of the acolytes and therefore held absolute power over the rest, Mr. Yoshikawa recalled that he was not an unpleasant person. ‘Nevertheless, he looked shocked from the depths of his heart when I told him that I was going to the Gohonzon room to chant. He asked me, ‘What on earth are you praying about?’ He could not believe that a priest would go out of his way to pray to the Gohonzon. This clearly demonstrates the condition of the faith of many young priests,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said.

His colleagues thought him strange, branding him with the nickname ‘Daimoku Yoshikawa.’ Although such a name would be a compliment in the Soka Gakkai, within Nichiren Shoshu, it was intended as a source of shame. ‘When I was a senior high school student, I seriously wondered, ‘Am I strange because I love to chant? Or are all the other priests strange who do not chant daimoku?’

‘Agonized, I prayed to the Gohonzon: ‘Gohonzon, let me walk along a correct path to enlightenment. If I am wrong, Gohonzon, please take my life.’ I had to be this serious in offering my prayers. I can clearly say now that the faith of the priests at the head temple was distorted to the extent that they could not chant daimoku.’

But nothing deterred the young Yoshikawa from chanting to the Gohonzon. He clearly saw changes in himself from one week to the next, from one month to the next. ‘I really felt I developed myself a lot through my daimoku. I felt this was the benefit of faith. I sensed an indescribable upsurge of joy and satisfaction,’ he said.

Mr. Yoshikawa recalled hearing High Priest Nikken say, both publicly and privately, that ‘It is a good thing to chant daimoku.’ The high priest even spoke about the significance of chanting daimoku during a seminar for acolytes in 1981. He said, ‘The original way of the priesthood is to take initiative in chanting daimoku sincerely and encourage believers to do the same.’

But then he seems to have done a turnaround. Three years later, at another seminar for acolytes, the high priest said: ‘You don’t have to chant for hours…. If you really feel you want to chant daimoku for a specific reason, chant daimoku earnestly to the Gohonzon for about 15 minutes…. This amount of daimoku is good enough for the practice of the acolyte.’ He also said: ‘Because lay believers chant more than that, you, too, should sincerely chant daimoku for about 30 minutes a day. However, if you chant much more than that, daimoku may be harmful to you.’ These remarks by the high priest are all printed in past issues of Dai-Nichiren (the head temple’s monthly magazine).

Mr. Yoshikawa theorized that the high priest gave such guidance in reaction to a conversation Mr. Yoshikawa had with a fellow acolyte who was also the son of a chief priest at a local temple. When he told the acolyte about his results from chanting daimoku, the young man started chanting diligently at the temple where he lived with his family, much to the shock and consternation of his parents. They expressed their concern that he was chanting too much daimoku, and word eventually got back to the high priest. According to Mr. Yoshikawa, he thus gave all acolytes this guidance, in effect discouraging them from chanting daimoku.

When High Priest Nikken took office in 1979, the Gakkai was in the midst of a dispute with the priesthood. At first the high priest often urged the priesthood to change its negative view of the Soka Gakkai and evaluate its good points.

However, Mr. Yoshikawa recalled that ‘his assessment of even what he viewed as the positive aspects of the Soka Gakkai were limited.’ He described the high priest’s recognition of the greatness of the Soka Gakkai as merely ‘secular,’ in that ‘he never understood the significance of the existence of the Soka Gakkai in terms of Buddhism itself.’ Mr. Yoshikawa pointed out that through its dedicated efforts the Gakkai has been propagating the Daishonin’s Buddhism on a global scale, yet the high priest understood the Soka Gakkai only superficially.

In addition, Mr. Yoshikawa explained, because the priesthood never has persevered in chanting daimoku or introducing others to Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings, even the high priest has no idea of the difficulties that Gakkai members face in propagating Buddhism, much less of the dedication of the Soka Gakkai. In other words, the high priest does not recognize that the Gakkai has appeared in order to fulfill the mandate of Nichiren Daishonin and to advance kosen-rufu.

At times the high priest himself complimented the Gakkai, ‘yet,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said, ‘there always was an implicit but definite limit beyond which no priest was allowed to go in commending the Gakkai. To be specific, we were not allowed to speak about President Ikeda in a positive light. At the acolytes’ lodging, we could never talk highly about President Ikeda, who is a person of the greatest merit for kosen-rufu and the greatest leader of propagation. Even a brief, haphazard positive statement about President Ikeda caused big trouble. This taboo permeated the head temple. No one can survive at the head temple if they violate this taboo.’

For 10 years, from 1979 through 1989, Mr. Yoshikawa took responsibility as chief of the Student Department at the head temple. At one time during that period, he spoke about President Ikeda to the senior high school acolytes. ‘Based upon my own experience, I spoke about how dedicated he has been to leading the kosen-rufu movement for the sake of the happiness of the people. Many of the acolytes, eyes sparkling, eagerly listened to what I had to say. I thought these children were pure in the depths of their lives.’

However, it turned out that some of the acolytes reported his talk to their parents. A rumor spread at the head temple that the Student Department was disseminating the ‘strange idea’ that President Ikeda is praiseworthy. Mr. Yoshikawa was unanimously criticized by the priesthood authorities and accused of being a ‘Gakkai priest.’ ‘Little did I imagine that a single word of praise regarding President Ikeda at the head temple would have such a strong, negative impact,’ Mr. Yoshikawa said.

In response to a question, Mr. Yoshikawa agreed that in the final analysis, the priesthood is unable to fathom the value of the Soka Gakkai or understand the essence of the organization because the priests, for the most part, lack faith.

He recalled the Shoshinkai incident in the late 1970s, when some 200 priests opposed Nichiren Shoshu and consequently were expelled. When the Shoshinkai incident was escalating in February 1978, the head temple requested that each chief priest submit his opinion. Although Mr. Yoshikawa was not yet a chief priest, he sent a long letter expressing his concern over the condition of Nichiren Shoshu. It reads in part:

In fact, the current priesthood has not been trained to solve their problems in daily life through faith. Therefore, generally speaking, the priesthood is not capable of giving believers proper guidance about their worries and concerns in their daily lives…. The priests are not cognizant of where their own problems lie. In fact, they are not even aware that they have problems. Consequently, they do not know when they are wrong and have no intention whatsoever to reform themselves…. It is urgent that the priesthood change its attitude on a fundamental level. Nothing is so vital as taking a step toward solving the fundamental problem within the priesthood. Today, whenever priests gather, they only speak ill of others behind their backs. Their concern is usually about the amount of offerings they receive. The priesthood has to change its fundamental attitude in faith so that they will naturally begin discussing positive topics, like how many households they have successfully converted to Nichiren Shoshu or who has actually advanced kosen-rufu. Then, the many problems Nichiren Shoshu is now confronting will automatically be resolved.

Mr. Yoshikawa said: ‘I believe what I wrote adequately points out the corruption of the priesthood in those days. Unfortunately, however, the ailment within Nichiren Shoshu remains unchanged today. Herein lies the essential problem, which not only underlies the current dispute but also has been negatively affecting Nichiren Shoshu for ages.

‘The current issue,’ he said, ‘is not between the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu. It is an issue that stems from lack of faith on the part of the priesthood. My sincere wish is that Nichiren Shoshu reflect upon itself as quickly and deeply as possible, regain genuinely pure faith, and develop into a truly harmonious organization that can promote kosen-rufu and be in accord with the intent of the Daishonin.’

By Ted Morino, Managing Editor, and Lisa Kirk, Associate Editor, World Tribune