HUGS, CLAPS, AND KOOL-AID: CULTS CAN BE FUN! PART II

Hey there, welcome back! Read Part I for more on cults, and as well as how I came to join the SGI.

Warning #3: Time is money

I’m happy to report that I was never hounded for money, which did help my cynicism. What I did find unnerving was the relentless pressure to give your time to the organization. Back in the 1970s through the early ‘90s the SGI had a horrible reputation of bullying people. Members were aggressive: knocking on doors, handing out cards on the street, harassing members who left the practice, etc.

Like this, only less adorable.

Like this, only less adorable.

For the most part it seems the SGI has changed their ways; I didn’t experience anything quite like this, but one time a group of four girls dropped by my apartment unannounced. They lied and told me that we had an appointment, which I thought strange for 9:30 on a "school night" (wake up time was 5am). Once in my apartment they admitted they were randomly dropping by members' homes to "spread Buddhism." Man, was I pissed, but like I previously wrote, this is a laymen's organization, and these girls simply used poor judgment. Later on a different group of girls (who I knew were arriving) came by and heavily pressured to enter their Byakuran training program, which required a commitment of 2 years’ service. I didn't last that long ;)

A Byakuran is a female volunteer that greets and helps members to their seats, as well as generally support the events. The men have their own program too, and they are the “Gajokai,” which I guess is Japanese for AV support (eh, you had to be there). Anyway, I was friendly with some girls who were byakurans, and they all seemed pretty positive about the whole thing. My life had improved markedly since joining the practice, so I decided to give it a shot. What did I have to lose?

So a few times a month I would head off to the cultural center, donning a simple white button-down and black pants. I would escort people to their chairs, greet members, that sort of thing. It’s pretty much impossible for me to smile on command or follow exact orders, so I felt and looked miserable, especially since there is a deep emphasis on women’s roles as nurturers, which I wasn’t very good at. But hey, I was promised “breakthroughs,” so I gave it a few more weeks and kept a really open mind. For the record, I didn’t let common sense fly out the window; I kept a mental tally of the stuff that bugged me.

Warning #4: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the path to enlightenment

Just as there are many sects of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, there are also many ways to practice Buddhism. Nichiren Daishonin was a Buddhist monk who was severely punished for his views on enlightenment. He felt anyone, regardless of class or gender, had the fundamental right and capability to achieve enlightenment. He was the Bernie Sanders of the 13th century. How many religious sects chastise you for being gay, or treat you substandard due to your class or gender? I will say, the SGI is very inclusive and has a way of making you feel “normal” as you question and evaluate your place in life; this can be abused. Also, bear in mind the SGI had a history of fierce homophobia regarding staff, though I witnessed none of it. If it does happen, it must happen behind closed doors.

But here’s an issue for me: the SGI believes that enlightenment revolves around the Lotus Sutra, specifically “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” which is Sanskrit for “Devotion to the mystic laws of cause and effect through voice.” This is the main phrase you chant as a group or by yourself. I really dig this phrase, as it allows for you to let go and move with life’s current, as opposed to swimming against it. When we chanted this as a large group, it always sounded cool and extra-culty. However enticing it is to believe in just one phrase, I would be cautious of any religion or philosophy that claims to be a one-stop-shop for life's answers.

Finding a bible in people's bathrooms is usually a tip for me to curb my language.

Finding a bible in people's bathrooms is usually a tip for me to curb my language.

These rituals eventually felt like chores, but I often found it easier to clear my mind while chanting. This gives you an opportunity to focus where you want your energy to flourish, if that makes sense. I believe chanting/prayer to be more helpful than harmful, but the pressure to chant twice a day would often leave me feeling like a failure if I didn’t make that goal. At this point in my life I’m aware that feeling bad was my own interpretation, but that’s a difficult concept to grasp when you’re in the depths of despair, you know? While it's our job to protect ourselves, people in fragile states can have a difficult time coping with perceived failure, and I believe that this can be exploited in the wrong hands.

Warning #5: Bad fortune will fall upon you…

The SGI very much frowns upon slander and libel. They feel gossip and negative talk damages you far more than your intended target, hence the common Buddhist quote: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.” No arguments here. While it can be fun to goof on people or trash-talk (don’t act like you’re above it!), it can be hard to argue against this very wise piece of advice.

"That's Devil talk...girls can't be priests!"

"That's Devil talk...girls can't be priests!"

Here’s where this gets tricky…the SGI also makes it very clear that disparaging the SGI in any way brings bad fortune upon you. This can be an insidious “rule,” since it renders criticizing the SGI as a bad reflection on you, even if your concerns are legitimate. I do not know how the politics work at the top, but I have heard from online sources that people have been outcast and seen as enemies of the SGI for voicing complaints. I began having complaints of my own and eventually chose to part ways with the SGI. Ironically enough, it was a much-hyped peace event that caused me to leave the organization. Stay tuned.

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