Date

2018

Department or Program

Religion

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

James Kodera

Abstract

My religion honors thesis examines the roots of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan, founded by Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282) in the 13th century. I explain how this branch of Mahayana Buddhism has managed not only to survive over hundreds of years but grow, branching out overseas from Japan and amassing millions of followers from Brazil to Boston. Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren was born in 1222 in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan and lived during the Kamakura period of 1185-1333. He is known for his emphasis on the study of the Buddhist sacred text, the Lotus Sutra, as the sole method for attaining enlightenment. Based on his teachings, Nichiren Buddhism was formed as a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. In modern-day Japan, Nichiren Buddhism encompasses traditional schools and modern lay movements like Soka Gakkai. Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist religious movement and the largest of the Nichiren Buddhist groups, has grown to a membership of more than 12 million in 192 countries worldwide since its inception in 1930. Part of my thesis examines Nichiren and critique his interpretations of the Lotus Sutra as the most crucial component of achieving enlightenment. I critically analyze the evolution of Nichiren Buddhism and its development as a branch of Mahayana Buddhism through the vehicle of Soka Gakkai International as the largest Nichiren Buddhist group.

While the bulk of the literature exploring Nichiren Buddhism and Soka Gakkai has been written about the early 20th century and focuses on the early beginnings of Soka Gakkai’s success solely in Japan, my thesis will also include analysis on the modern-day movement around the world. From the creation of Soka University in Malibu, California to Soka Gakkai International branches located in the United Kingdom, Soka Gakkai has made a tremendous effort to appeal to a vast number of the global population, particularly young, college-aged groups, in order to sustain the movement long-term. My thesis examines Soka Gakkai’s foundations in Japan as well as how the organization expanded globally by looking at their branches in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy, Singapore, and Boston and by answering the following pertinent questions: how has Soka Gakkai International been successful in recruiting and adapting to a modern audience spanning over 100 countries? Does Soka Gakkai’s enormous power and influence in the political, economic, and social spheres globally hinder the true message of Nichiren Buddhism as a Mahayana tradition focused on worldly renunciation? If so, is this the kind of compromise the movement has had to make in order to survive and thrive in a 21st century world? What other compromises has the organization made in the quest for more followers? In my thesis, I analyze how this religious organization developed and molded itself for a dynamic audience in order to survive. What changes or compromises, if any, did this religious institution have to make in order to thrive in this world? What can we learn from the way this institution developed in order to fit people’s contemporary lives? What messages are lost (or gained) in this modern translation of religious sacred texts like the Lotus Sutra?

In order to formulate a strong thesis, I analyzed statistical data on the demographics of Soka Gakkai’s membership over time. I also conducted fieldwork at Soka Gakkai International New England Chapter, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Additionally, I participated in the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue seminars on nuclear abolition in order to assess whether the modern-day practices and educational institutions align with the 13th century Nichiren teachings. With a balance of recent sources, such as the aforementioned qualitative statistical data on member demographics, fieldwork, personal accounts of Soka Gakkai practices, and scholarly texts, such as academic literature and Nichiren works, I present the strategies Soka Gakkai International utilized in order to amass a following for Nichiren.

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