Diversity and a Buddhist Sect

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) -- one of the first Buddhists ever elected to Congress -- seems to have slipped in through a side door while all eyes were focused on the first Muslim ever elected.

Johnson, 52, may prefer the spotlight to remain on his Muslim colleague, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). A spokeswoman said Johnson "considers it a private matter. He will not give interviews on his faith." (Rep. Mazie D. Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, the other Buddhist elected last fall, has said she was raised Buddhist but does not actively practice the religion.)

Still, Johnson's election last fall was a history-making moment, both for Congress and for Soka Gakkai International-USA, the lay Buddhist sect that Johnson has belonged to for 30 years.

Soka Gakkai now claims 100,000 U.S. members, most of whom are American converts, according to spokesman Bill Aiken. Fifteen percent are, like Johnson, African American, a rare display of diversity among U.S. Buddhist groups. According to scholars' best estimates, there are about 2.5 million to 3 million Buddhists in the United States; approximately 800,000 are American converts.

Though more powerful in its native Japan, where it boasts an estimated 8 million members and its own political party, Soka Gakkai has 90 large regional centers in the United States, as well as an affiliated research center in Boston and university in California. Aiken said the group adds as many as 6,000 members each year.

"Everyone knows that Soka Gakkai is the only form of convert Buddhism that has any kind of diversity," said Richard Hughes Seager, professor of religion at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and author of a book, "Encountering the Dharma," on Soka Gakkai. "Now everyone wants to know: What are they doing right?"

Initially, fellow Buddhists viewed Soka Gakkai skeptically when it took root in America in the 1960s and 1970s. The early Japanese evangelists seemed to be peddling a kind of "prosperity dharma" -- not unlike the prosperity gospel popular in some U.S. churches -- in which chanting a phrase was presumed to lead to material benefits. The group's aggressive proselytism and gaudy patriotic displays didn't help.

But as its membership rolls filled with U.S. citizens, Soka Gakkai adjusted its approach. Now its diversity, organizational strength and growing numbers are the envy of other U.S. Buddhist groups.

While some in Soka Gakkai still chant for material things, many longtime members -- including Johnson's friends and fellow practitioners -- say their spirituality has matured. World peace is a higher priority than, say, a Cadillac.

"In the beginning, I was chanting to somehow get me a car," said Sam Harris, 57, a friend of Johnson's from Stone Mountain, Ga. "Today, the things I chant for are other members' growth and development. And for some kind of solution for the war in Iraq."

Soka Gakkai -- the name is Japanese for "Value Creation Society" -- was born in Japan during the 1930s. Like many East Asian schools of Buddhism, it has a humanistic and pragmatic bent, with social engagement preferred over isolated contemplation.

The group reached American shores with Japanese women who had married U.S. soldiers serving in the Korean War. From its earliest days here, the group set about proselytizing to Americans of all backgrounds.

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