History of the Soka Gakkai
The Soka Gakkai—literally, “Society for the Creation of Value”— began in Japan in 1930 as a study group of reformist educators. Its founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an author and teacher inspired by Nichiren Buddhism, was passionately dedicated to the reform of the Japanese educational system. His theory of value-creating education was centred on a belief in the unlimited potential of every individual and regarded education as the lifelong pursuit of self-awareness, wisdom and development. During the Second World War, the Japanese militarist government cracked down on all forms of dissidence and imposed the State Shinto ideology on the population as a means of glorifying its war of aggression. Makiguchi and his closest associate, Josei Toda (1900-58), refused to compromise their beliefs and lend support to the regime. They were arrested and imprisoned in 1943 as “thought criminals.” Makiguchi held fast to his convictions and died in prison in 1944. Josei Toda survived the ordeal and was released from prison a few weeks before the war ended.
Amidst the confusion of post-war Japan, Josei Toda set out to rebuild the Soka Gakkai, expanding its mission from the field of education to the betterment of society as a whole. He promoted an active, socially engaged form of Buddhism as a means of self-empowerment – a way to overcome obstacles in life and tap inner hope, confidence, courage and wisdom. This message especially resonated among the disenfranchised of Japanese society. Before Toda’s death in 1958, the Soka Gakkai numbered approximately one million members.
Toda’s successor, Daisaku Ikeda (1928- ), had also experienced the horrors of war as a youth and was determined to dedicate his life to building peace. He was 32 when he became president of the Soka Gakkai in 1960. Under Ikeda’s leadership, the organisation has continued to grow and broaden its focus.
SGI – Soka Gakkai International
In 1975, in response to the needs of an increasingly international membership, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) was founded. Today it is a worldwide network with 82 registered constituent organisations and members in more than 190 countries and territories, sharing a common vision of a better world. SGI’s Buddhist philosophy underpins a movement promoting peace, culture and education.
From its origins as a movement for educational reform in pre-World War II Japan to its current status as possibly the world’s largest socially engaged lay Buddhist association, the core of the Soka Gakkai has always been a conviction in the unbounded potential of each individual and the right of all people to lead happy, fulfilled lives.
Buddhism traces its heritage back 2500 years to Northern India where Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, became enlightened to the fundamental causes of human suffering and the way to relieve that suffering. Shakyamuni preached his enlightenment for 40 years, and his followers collected his teachings into sutras that have been carried around the world and gave rise to a number of distinct schools of Buddhism, generally characterized by an emphasis on peace and compassion.
Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282) was born in a small fishing village in Japan in a time rife with social unrest and natural disasters. Acutely aware of the great suffering of the common people, Nichiren questioned why the Buddhist teachings had lost their power to enable people to lead happy, empowered lives. After intensive study, he realised that this was because the predominant understanding of Buddhism in Japan was based on provisional teachings, not on the compassionate mind of the Buddha.
Nichiren understood that the Buddha’s highest teaching, the Lotus Sutra, contained the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment and held the key to transforming people’s suffering. The Lotus Sutra affirms that all people, regardless of gender, capacity or social standing, inherently possess the qualities of a Buddha and are, therefore, equally worthy of the utmost respect. Based on his study of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Daishonin established the invocation, or chanting, of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a universal practice to enable people to manifest the Buddhahood inherent in their lives and gain the strength and wisdom to challenge and overcome any adverse circumstances.
Nichiren’s teachings provide a way for anybody to readily draw out the enlightened wisdom and energy of Buddhahood from within their lives, regardless of their individual circumstances. Each person has the power to overcome all of life’s challenges, to live a life of value and become a positive influence in their community, society and the world.
Daisaku Ikeda is a Buddhist philosopher, an educator and a prolific writer and poet. As president of the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist movement, he has devoted himself to wide-ranging efforts for peace and individual empowerment and has founded cultural, educational and peace research institutions around the world. Born in Tokyo in 1928, Ikeda experienced firsthand the tragic reality of war and militarism. In the chaos of post-war Japan, he came to embrace Buddhism through an encounter with the educator and pacifist Josei Toda, who had been imprisoned for his beliefs during World War II. These experiences shaped his commitment to peace.
Central to Daisaku Ikeda’s thinking is the idea that a self-directed transformation within the life of each individual, rather than societal or structural reforms alone, holds the key to lasting peace and human happiness. This is expressed most succinctly in a passage in his best-known work, The Human Revolution: “A great inner revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of humankind.” Ikeda’s books, offering perspectives grounded in Buddhist humanism on the challenges facing both individuals in their daily lives and humanity as a whole, have been published in more than 30 languages.