The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
I recall some experiences I have had with ex-members of SGI and while the stories I heard did not identify SGI as insidious as implied by some (crazy comments about world domination and such), I do think that the organization itself (not necessarily people that are involved with SGI) does raise some red flags…
- A “Political Wing”. SGI’s political wing in Japanese politics is the New Komeito Party. While I don’t know anything about Japanese politics, I do believe that any religious organization that takes a heavy hand in politics is dangerous. Just look at what the Evangelical Christians have succeeded in American education.
- Proselytizing – SGI makes a push towards converting others to their viewpoint. I have little respect for doorknockers or those that insist that their version is the right version
- Cult of Personality – It seems that Ikeda comes first and the BuddhaDharma comes second.
- Lay Organized – I love grass-roots Buddhism but SGI is in no way grass-roots. It is a mega-church of Buddhism.
- Us vs. Them – SGI is a splinter group of Nichiren Shu and defines themselves as the “true” way versus all other practicing Buddhists.
So, to keep it short, I think SGI falls into some points of the cult checklist above but, at the same time, so do many organizations that are harmless in nature. From conversations w/former members, SGI was not violent in any way but the group members were rather heavy-handed w/members that questioned the group and organization (ie. inviting themselves over to a former member’s house for something that resembled an “intervention”).
I would love to hear from some actual members about their experiences.
[Just as an aside- I have no issue with Nichiren Shu as a Buddhist practice, nor centering one’s practice around the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren’s writings or the chanting of “Myo ho renge kyo”. What I do have issue with is Buddhism as big business, cults of personality and proselytizing. As such, SGI is not a cult in my book or by my definition but placed into the lofty rack of “annoying religious sect” alongside the Mormons, Evangelical Christians, the Jehovah’s Whitnesses and the New Kampada Tradition. That coupled with a hand in politics makes me uneasy. I suppose that my take home message is “Do you really want to be affiliated with a group like this when you could simply practice on your own?” Thanks for the comments and the emails!]