When I was 19 I was living in an abusive
relationship with a real gem of a guy, working a lousy job at Dunkin' Donuts
, and generally a miserable little git.
I was raised basically religion-free, my parents both having left the Catholic church when I was a year old and they divorced. At the age of 12, I had decided to become an active member of the Church, and was excommunicated two years later because my priest wouldn't absolve me for having had an abortion (I later learned that he could not refuse me that absolution, he broke canon law). This left me floundering around for a faith path that made sense to me.
First I tried the whole born again fundamentalist Christian route, but when my pastor told me I was going to burn in Hell because I had had an abortion, and that my father was burning in Hell already because he had never professed Jesus as Lord and Savior, I decided that I had trouble following a faith which judged others so readily. So I turned away from Christianity in general and started looking east.
By the time that I found the Soka Gakkai (or they found me?), I was ripe for the picking.
Back then, I was doing phone sex for a living, working out of my apartment. One night a really freaky guy kept calling and holding my line hostage, but not actually ordering a call, and I got pissed off and threw the phone at the wall, breaking it. Oops. This resulted in my having to borrow a phone set from the neighbor down the hall, who only loaned it on condition that I attend a "world peace" meeting with her.
The next night I was at a meeting in a house in Cambridge. "You should really join, the Gohonzon can do amazing things for you!" "It healed my cancer!" "Chanting saved my marriage!" and so on and so forth.
I joined. $20 fee to "rent" a Gohonzon for life. $35 for a butsudan (a box to hang the Gohonzon in). $75 for an altar set of candlesticks, incense burner, water cup, small plate, bowl shaped bell and small vase - all plastic. This was in 1985. I was earning about $200 a week at the time, after taxes.
Back then, the organization was called NSA (Nichiren Shoshu of America). The SGI (Soka Gakkai International) was the umbrella organization that NSA lived under.
Being an NSA Buddhist meant doing shakubuku (proselytizing) on a regular and aggressive basis. It meant frequent "special gokaihi" (fundraising) campaigns that could last six months or more, where we were told to set a goal for our donation that was as high as we could possibly afford, and take out a loan if you have to in order to meet your pledge. Attending meetings multiple times weekly, and larger special (costly) convention meetings whenever held.
It meant being called at 5 AM by different levels of leaders to remind us about the meeting that night. It meant having leaders and other members knocking on our door every single day. It meant paying for subscriptions to the different publications (published by a publishing house owned by the SGI President, Daisaku Ikeda) every month. It meant buying very expensive but shoddily constructed books on a regular basis that needed replacing every year or so if you read them very often. It meant purchasing every single volume of President Ikeda's (pretty lousy) poetry.
It meant having President Ikeda's face plastered in the place of honor on the living room wall. It meant not having a life outside of the organization, except in the workplace. It meant massive shakubuku (proseletyzing and conversion) campaigns twice a year, in which if you didn't get a new member or twenty for the organization you found yourself receiving guidance from a senior leader on strengthening your faith enough to gain new recruits.
It meant that mentally ill and even physically ill members, of whom I saw more than a few (including myself) were told that the answer to their problems wasn't medication or therapy, it was chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo more. "Go on a million Daimoku campaign (chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo one million times. It takes an hour a day for a couple of months), that will make it all better!"
SGI/NSA became your friends, it became your family, it became your entertainment and your reason for living.
Among the many teachings I got from NSA was that "Earthly desires equal enlightenment". Strange form of "Buddhism", this was. Another very major teaching was how important unity was between all believers in Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism. Chant for each other. Chant for the priesthood. Make a pilgrimage to Taiseki-ji (the head temple) if at all possible.
I met my first husband in SGI. About a year later, he and I moved to San Francisco, where we continued being good little SGI lemmings.
In late 1990 there was a major schism between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai. When SGI President Daisaku Ikeda was asked to turn over financial documents to the priesthood, he refused. When the temple raised the issue that he had been accused of rape and of political double dealing (Japan's third largest political party is the Komeito, founded by SGI), he then began a campaign in the Seikyo Shimbun (the Japanese SGI newspaper) and the US paper, World Tribune, discrediting the priesthood, and accusing the high priest of all manner of improprieties. My husband and I watched, aghast, as all lay believers who did not leave SGI and swear fealty to the temple were excommunicated. NST (Nichiren Shoshu Temple) and SGI were officially separated.
At this point, I came to my senses. For six years I had sat and listened to preaching about how important unity with the temple was. For six years I had been told that if you feel that somebody is doing things wrong, look at your own self and find out why your karma has led you to this place. For six years I was basically told "Own your own shit", and now both the lay leaders and the spiritual leaders of my religion were doing the exact opposite of these things. They were squabbling like toddlers.
I told my husband that I was finished with the whole thing. He was also sick of it. He continued to chant privately at home, but no more membership. I dumped it completely and tried paganism for a while, then (Heaven help me!) the Jehovah's Witnesses and other faiths before returning to my Catholic roots. All of the "friends" we had made (and my husband had been a member for his entire life, originally coming from San Francisco and we moved back there when he finished college) disappeared. When we ran into them on the street they would ask when we were coming back, and when told that we weren't, they would turn and walk away.
Make no mistake about it, Soka Gakkai is a cult. For that matter, so is NST. Both groups fit the cult criteria outlined at freedomofmind.com.
The only difference is that instead of living in their dormitory and selling flowers, we paid our own bills, paid the organization's bills, and gave up our lives.