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Soka Gakkai (literally, to "create value") is a lay Buddhist organization founded in 1930 as an educational movement under the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th-century monk. The emphasis eventually narrowed to the need for "human revolution," with the belief that if society members reached their full individual potential, the greater community would prosper. The most direct route to personal enlightenment was by chanting the Lotus Sutra, "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo," which roughly translates to "I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect."
During Japan's postwar development, Soka Gakkai rose to unassailable dominance, becoming the Asian nation's largest religious organization. Ikeda took the helm in 1960, and he started a global network, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), in 1975. Throughout his reign, the business tycoon remained one of Japan's most enigmatic figures—and his interaction with the Western media was nearly nonexistent. In a rare interview he granted to the Los Angeles Times in 1996, journalist Teresa Watanabe wrote that Ikeda "has been condemned and praised as a devil and an angel, a Hitler and a Gandhi, a despot and a democrat." He called himself "the anti-authority" and once told a Japanese reporter, "I am the king of Japan; I am its president; I am the master of its spiritual life; I am the supreme power who entirely directs its intellectual culture."
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Twenty years ago, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood (from which Soka Gakkai originated) excommunicated Ikeda, saying that his movement's teachings deviated from orthodoxy. Members have been accused of aggressive proselytizing, violence against those who try to leave the group and blind reverence of their leader. In his new book on organized crime in Japan, The Last Yakuza: A Lifetime in the Japanese Underworld, investigative reporter Jake Adelstein writes that the group has used the Goto-gumi, a notorious yakuza mafia group, to "keep its party strong and squelch dissent." The organization emphatically rejects all accusations.
Today, SGI claims more than 12 million members in 192 countries, as well as tens of billions in assets. It owns newspapers, television and radio stations, art museums, primary and secondary schools, and a university in Japan. There are 100 SGI centers in the United States for practice and study, including one in Santa Ana and a handful in Los Angeles County. Tina Turner is a famous follower, as are Orlando Bloom, Kate Bosworth, Herbie Hancock and Mariane Pearl (widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl).
David W. Machacek, a Ventura-based human-rights activist and the co-author of Soka Gakkai In America: Accommodation and Conversion, says that while the organization may have a rocky history, it has matured to become a Buddhist sect actively trying to change the world. He calls its message-spreading methods "gentle."
"Any evangelical church in America is more aggressive in proselytizing than Soka, which emphasizes recruitment though friendship and professional networks," Machacek says. "The focus is on the personal practice of Buddhism in your everyday life."
It was under those gentle auspices that the sect's leadership decided to open Soka University of America as a graduate school in Calabasas in 1987. But plans to expand with an undergraduate campus were shut down by environmentalists who wanted to protect the city's open spaces and a Native American ancestral site on property lines. Unfazed, the university migrated south to Aliso Viejo, purchasing 103 acres of rough-graded land from Orange County for $25 million.
The new school—the first private liberal-arts college built in California in 25 years—opened its gates in 2001 to 120 students from 17 states and 19 foreign countries, nearly all of whom learned of Soka from their local SGI centers. Excitement followed, both abroad and around town—Aliso Viejo's then-mayor Carmen Vali believed the fledging suburban city would flourish with a university campus, just as Palo Alto developed around her alma mater, Stanford. "People accuse Orange County of being devoid of culture, and this is something that is definitely going to fly in the face of that concept," she told The New York Times. Soka quickly made an academic splash, with a first-rate library built to house 225,000 volumes, notable hires including best-selling author Joe McGinniss, and a humanistic curriculum focusing on multicultural studies and international relations.
While leading a tour of the campus, Soka spokesperson Wendy Harder recalls the first class. "These were students who were brave enough to take a chance," she says, adding that by the time they graduated, the school had received official accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. "They were really coming in with a great deal of faith."
The school's egalitarian principles are showcased throughout the master-planned educational community, which is just more than half-completed. All offices, from the dean's to the janitor's, are the same size. There are no faculty ranks (everyone who teaches is a professor) and no reserved parking spots for managers or higher-ups. Students address the president of the school—Daniel Habuki—as "Danny." With a current student population of 438, the tiny classes are run like graduate seminars, emphasizing "dialogue-based learning."
While Ikeda, the 83-year-old founder of the university, has never visited his U.S. campus, not even for its dedication, his presence is unavoidable. His books are displayed neatly in glass cases at the entrance of the library; his portrait hovers over students in the cherry-wood reading room. A VIP guest house awaits him, should the aging sensei ever decide to stop by. Yet the school downplays its ties to SGI, saying it's not as spiritually fueled as other campuses affiliated with Christian denominations such as Brigham Young University, Notre Dame or even Pepperdine.