The first time I read BuddhaJones must have been shortly after she put it up. It was like looking at a bad accident. I was horrified, but couldn’t avert my eyes. When my book came out, the SGI-USA blew me off. I wondered how I would let the members know I had written a book on Buddhist healing. A friend suggested that I approach her about an interview to promote my book.
That discussion led to a published interview and an article or two. Lisa asked me if I would consider being a regular columnist. I didn’t agree with all the things on BuddhaJones, but one thing was for sure, it wasn’t lame. I decided to give it a try. Early on, I submitted an article entitled “Good Times – Bad Times.” It was about my opinion on the SGI and some experiences that I had. Lisa thought the article might cause big stir.
As a writer, working with Lisa is a pleasure. Her editorial skills are exceptional. I need a good editor like a German Shepard needs a leash. Lisa was a good handler. Based on recent events, I have decided to reprint that essay. Actually, what you’ll be reading is the original draft I sent her.
As many of you know, Lisa pulled her SokaCult website recently. Rev. Greg and others also dragged her through the mud with me. I have heard rumors that the organization has put pressure on her because of her alleged disclosures. We have never discussed such things. What I do know is that freedom of speech is our vital right. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Figures lie and liars figure.” Even though Lisa’s site is gone, others could take her place – overnight. There are a number of high profile people I know who are ready to pick up where she left off if need be. I’m one of them.
Charles Atkins
It’s Time to Cut Out the Crap


It’s Time to Cut Out the Crap
Someone asked me recently, “What the hell are you doing?” Apparently he didn’t like that I had publicly expressed some of my frustrations with the SGI-USA regarding my book, Modern Buddhist Healing on the hugely popular BuddhaJones website. “You’re destroying all your good fortune!” he said. I continued to listen carefully. “This is going to come to come to head…you’re going to….”
I stopped him in mid-sentence. I don’t like curses, and that was a curse on me. We do that a lot. I’ve done it myself. One of my favorite books is Be Careful What You Pray For, You Just Might Get It, by Dr. Larry Dossey. His book is a historical analysis of how our words and thoughts can act as a curse on ourselves and especially others. When someone says, “you will be punished” or “you will destroy all your good fortune,” they have established themselves as an authority on life and the future – having an esoteric knowledge that you obviously don’t have, and they are in fact issuing a curse on you. They are probably just trying to warn you of going down a perceived bad path and are not really trying to hex you, but the result is the same. Some might also say that believing in curses is ridiculous, but I might direct them to the Lotus Sutra, which clearly says curses are returned to the sender. What to do? Oh yes, chant daimoku and communicate to the Gohonzon that you need protection from well meaning people.
Let me just start with an admonition to everyone who wants to avoid trouble, censure, and being looked down on by the group. Do not criticize the SGI for any reason. I hope that’s not a curse.
For thirty years I have kept my mouth shut, looked the other way, and served the organization like a dutiful son. Make no mistake. I love the SGI. It was there for me when I was just a floundering, spaced out hippie aspiring for enlightenment. NSA (now SGI) taught me a viable religious practice that brought stability to my life. The SGI taught me to see beyond my small vision of the world and made me realize that I was a Buddha. The SGI gave me an opportunity to help other people find meaning in their lives. I could go on and on about what a wonderful Buddhist practice we have and the good things learned. In my heart, I have always felt that our intentions have been good.
Then why have I decided to question the current hierarchy? The reason for my stance is that I vowed to practice and protect the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin throughout my life. It is the Daishonin’s Buddhism, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the universe, and the dharma of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo that I serve. The SGI is the organization that gives a practical framework for the perpetuation and dissemination of Nichiren Buddhism. Although worthy of respect, it is not an object of worship. When any religious organization starts to believe in its own infallibility or that it is beyond criticism, it becomes authoritarian and oppressive. To paraphrase the Nirvana Sutra, “Follow the Law not persons.” For this reason, I have chosen to honor the Buddha and express my restrained personal opinion for a few articles, of which this is the last. I want my readers to know exactly where I’m at and how I got to this point. My prayer is that the Daishonin’s Buddhism as practiced in the SGI becomes the great hope and salvation of mankind. We should all respect the fact that accomplishing this will be an unprecedented task. Our biggest challenge is not priests, heretical religions, but ourselves. Using the threat of hell that is implied in religious doctrine, ours included, is a powerful way to keep people in line for the cause. Religious metaphors can be very controlling things. When we lose the ability to think for ourselves, we can be used until there is nothing left, discarded, then forgotten.
I will not become an angry voice for the divisive that seek to disparage or destroy the movement that gave me wisdom. Reform is what I stand for. However, the Buddhism that is being practiced now is not the same one that attracted me three decades ago. I have seen it slowly erode into a movement that has placed my beloved mentor, president Ikeda, before the Daishonin. Meetings and publications have become about him more so than Nichiren, or Shakyamuni, or the Gosho or Lotus Sutra. I assume that the reason for this is because president Ikeda is the final word and supposed embodiment of the Gosho, sutras, and wisdom of the Buddhas. I have gone to meetings where the word Nichiren or the Gosho were never mentioned once, but president Ikeda’s name was mentioned by every person who spoke. There seems to be some equation for leaders that by invoking president Ikeda’s name and guidance, the more you say it and use his words, the wiser you appear and the more brownie points you get with the universe. This whole matter baffles me. There is no one in this world that I love and admire more than president Ikeda – no one. But he is the mentor not the prime point of Nichiren Buddhism. Or is that the lesson I missed?
And then there are our publications, especially the World Tribune. The coverage and level of adoration expressed for the mentor is so extreme as to make it unfit for anyone with even a shred of objectivity. Perhaps this approach is logical if you are trying to get the members to think of nothing other than president Ikeda. I need to think of other things too. What I do know is that there will be no mass appeal in America for a religious movement that is centered on a living person who we have already deified in print and speech. We have auditoriums and places named for him while still alive – a trend that seems bizarre to me. We have now instructed the members to pray for him in our prayer book. I send president Ikeda daimoku anyway out of love and respect, but why make us do it as a formal part of our practice? It seems inappropriate to formally pray for a living person in this way. How much adulation do we give a living person and not call ourselves a cult or at the least, misdirected? Does president Ikeda want such adulation? Where does the line between profound respect and worship intersect? I am very uncomfortable with what we have become.
I began to grow conflicted a long time ago. Because of my study of the Gosho, I became superstitious anytime a thought or observation ran counter to the thrust of the movement. If I disagreed, I stifled it. If I became angry about something, I was reluctant to bitch about it in fear that I would be committing slander. Those who know me well would point out that I was always outspoken and difficult to get along with, so you can imagine how other, more subdued members felt when activities or guidance seemed absurd.
I would like to get a few things off my chest – observations and frustrations that have accrued over the years that have in one way or another moved me to question the legitimacy of the organization that I loved with all my heart, like my parents. However, I know all parents are not wonderful. I loved my parents and they were raging alcoholics. Some may say that what happened to me or even you is all a matter of interpretation and that if your faith is weak then you will only see the negative, never seeing the real truth or value. I have been warned that questioning or challenging the SGI is a devilish function of the mind. It seems to me that allowing yourself to be convinced that questioning or criticizing a religious movement is tantamount to slander, that is a devilish function. I am not a whiner or complainer. I am a writer with a point-of-view, and here are my final thoughts on what pushed me to an independent status.
My love for Nichiren Buddhism is boundless. I owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before me and brought the Gohonzon into my life. Just prior to joining NSA in 1974, I had a dream of president Ikeda singing to me on a hilltop in my hometown. My dream was an omen that signified I had finally found the right path for my life. Being a new member at that particular time was very exciting. There were parades and culture festivals, the community centers were overflowing with the power of youth, and there was a spiritual energy that permeated our movement. The training was strict and the enthusiasm was infectious. It was common for me to do activities seven days a week and love every second of it.
My seniors were grooming me to become a leader. They’d point out my many faults and tell me to challenge my lazy nature. I studied the Kaimoku Sho for one full month, following up all the references every year now, since 1974. It was not uncommon for my leaders to yell at me in front of the group as an example. I could take it. Sometimes my leaders would ignore me as if my efforts and existence were negligible – probably to test my seeking mind. Their treatment only made me want to do more – to advance in the three ways of practice. I became just like them, only I had no tact, little humility and no substantive experience. I yelled at the members and pretended I knew more about Buddhism than I did. I really didn’t know how to be a leader and people didn’t seem to want to follow me. In truth, I never had all the qualities needed to be a Buddhist leader, but they kept appointing me anyway. Perhaps the only quality that I did have was a willingness to do activities every day without begrudging my life. I didn’t know how to say “no.” I had a superstitious fear that I would be damned if I went against the grain of the SGI because it was the true vehicle of Buddhism for the Latter Day of the Law. I was in constant turmoil inside my life. I never wanted to be accused of having weak faith, so for decades I threw myself into every activity I was asked or told to do. I feared missing gongyo or meetings. What I lacked in leadership skills – which was a lot – I more than made up for with a sense of responsibility and the ability to chant lots of daimoku. No matter how much I did, it was never enough.
I studied the Gosho and president Ikeda’s guidance, no matter how tired I was, even if it was only a single line. This is still my attitude. I chanted hours upon hours of daimoku and challenged all my personal obstacles with the belief that one day I would be happy. Over the years I learned all the mottos and slogans we still throw around. I became fanatically superstitious that if I missed gongyo or didn’t live up to some organizational goal that I would be ineligible for benefit. Through it all, I grew as a person in terms of what I could endure but never felt any happier. My careful study and desire to meet the thundering call for more and more shakubuku caused me to become a self-righteous zealot of the most extreme kind. Even though we are now supposed to ooze with compassionate tolerance, somehow I missed the boat long ago thinking that my role was to swiftly dissect the religious philosophy of anybody who would dare to engage me in spiritual discussion. I know that’s wrong now, but that’s not how we were trained. I have had to seriously re-educate myself from being a doctrinal ninja into a reasonably tolerant person. I was so focused in on our rightness that I would pray for Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons to knock on my door so I would sharpen my claws on them. That’s never the way we were supposed to be – or was it?
My biggest thrill was having the opportunity of spending copious amounts of time around president Ikeda when he came to Chicago in 1980 and 1981. I was assigned to the position of toku betsu (security) chief and vowed to protect president Ikeda with my life if necessary. I would have jumped on a grenade if need be. What an eye opener that was. I never saw people’s personalities change so much as when president Ikeda came to Chicago. We ran around like squirrels trying to cross a busy road. Outwardly I acted like a secret service agent, cool, all business and tireless – even when forced to stay awake for days at a time.
My leaders expected complete obedience from me because sensei’s life would be in my/our hands. They got it. The security group I led was 50 top youth division leaders with that proverbial “fire in the belly.” In 1980, a mansion was rented in the exclusive area of Lake Forest, Illinois. After my leaders inspected the home and property I was summoned from the hotel command center about ten miles away. The onsite leaders explained that the homeowners had a big dog and the entire backyard was full of dog crap. We were ordered to clean it up in case president Ikeda decided to take a stroll. I remember feeling that I couldn’t possibly ask my people to do something that I wouldn’t do, so myself and another reluctant volunteer, in our best suits and shoes, walked the one acre yard with a roll of hand towels and a couple of large garbage bags scooping up about fifty pounds of dog crap in various degrees of freshness. I wondered why the seniors who discovered the problem didn’t take care of it themselves. This was truly a memorable faith activity for me. I kept thinking I was “bodhisattva ankle deep in dog do.”
By the end of that movement, my assistant chief had disappeared to do his own thing – watch TV in his hotel room, I think. Women’s division leaders quietly appropriated all but five or so of my original security people for other duties. My own senior leaders berated me in gruff voices for not having my security shifts filled. I went to my hotel room to chant only to find out that my room had been assigned to some senior leaders. I tried to find another bed, but all the rooms were taken. I went to find my rent-a-car to go back to community center but it was reassigned to someone else. I hadn’t slept in 72 hours. I finally found someone who would let me stay in their room. I sat down to chant and couldn’t stop crying. No one cared. When it was all over, I was proud to have been a part of it and led a safe and successful movement.
In my years with the SGI-USA, I have few regrets but numerous moments of discomfort with how things were said and done. I developed some lifelong friendships and have been able to advance my life tremendously. I’ve tried to ignore a lot of the ugly times because I felt that to see them as negative, there was something wrong with my faith or attitude. There has been lots of that kind of denial in me because I was afraid that by speaking out on organizational errors or injustice, I was slandering the Law. I still don’t know if I was just plain stupid when I carried $140 in World Tribune and Seikyo Times subscriptions for disinterested members when I could hardly pay my own rent or feed my family adequately. When I put my foot down and refused to pay anymore I was told that I had the wrong attitude.
During that period in the 80s, the pressure became explosive all the way to the top levels in Chicago. Sadly, I remember driving 50 miles one-way into Chicago after work, eating fast food in the car and fighting rush hour traffic for a senior leaders meeting. Some members had come all the way from Wisconsin. The Gohonzon room was filled with hundreds of leaders. The central figure, who shall remain anonymous, grabbed the microphone after gongyo and asked in an angry, drill sergeant voice, who was late? About a dozen or so honest members raised their hands and he began shouting like a scene reminiscent from the movie, Bridge Over the River Kwai. He berated them for being tardy and not taking their faith seriously, and then he had them stand against the wall for the duration of the meeting like naughty children, as an example of their lax attitude. The leader then yelled at two people in the front row for not having serious enough expressions on their face, literally screaming that they should “get out!” We were all frozen in place. He then told us that we had to drive into Chicago and report firsthand to him every night what the World Tribune numbers were until we met our chapter goals, even the people from Milwaukee some 100 miles away. I felt like a coward because in my heart I wanted to tell this leader what a jerk (off) he was. I left the building feeling awful – a coward who didn’t stand up for the members. I wondered how my father would have reacted. He had been a solider in the South Pacific during World War II – you get the picture. Having been the recipient of severe language in my youth division training, I thought this display of out of control authority might be a fluke. But that wasn’t the only time such a reprehensible thing happened. Suffice it to say that this person was transferred from Chicago. No one I knew was very upset to see him go.
The strange thing is that I’m all for the SGI. I’ve had some wonderful times and I’ve shut my eyes to some really insipid things, all in the name of kosen-rufu. Being human beings we’re allowed to make mistakes, but we’d better not talk about that openly. My problem has been that I have looked the other way for most of my thirty years of practice assuming that my leaders knew what was best and we were going in the right direction. Was I seeing things all wrong? Being an American without scholarship and marginal experience in faith, if I saw something was not right, like Pac-man shakubuku where we went door-to-door like Jehovah Witnesses, it was my misperception. There was never anything wrong with the SGI. I was wrong. I believed that. My faith was too weak, I thought. When we were told to protect the priests with our lives because they protected the Law and soon thereafter, they were the destroyers of true Buddhism, I accepted that at face value and started remonstrating because I believed we were right. Time has given me perspective. Now I have a different understanding.
I was trained to do shakubuku and refute all other religious teachings, but now we are inclusive. We cooperate but don’t compromise on spiritual matters. Over the past three years I have somehow managed to turn off the switch that made me a narrow-minded fanatic and see the world in a more open way. Life is beautiful again. We talk about engagement with other religions, but it is more of a photo op to make us look inclusive. In my mind there is nothing further from the truth. We are the “chosen ones” predicted in the sutras, and all the other teaching on the planet are heretical and will one day be assimilated – that’s the real vibe I’ve always had. We’re just biding our time until the world sees our superiority – and they will. It has been exceedingly difficult to break that mindset, but I have finally done so and I am a much happier person now than I ever was as a leader.
Perhaps the primary reason I have made this turn about came from reading our own publications and listening carefully at meetings. Let me preface what I am about to say so there is no mistake. President Ikeda is my mentor in life. I love him and his guidance has been a blessing to me. However, someone at some point has turned president Ikeda into the true Buddha. Our publications are all about president Ikeda. If he hasn’t written the article his name and guidance is invoked on nearly every page. At the meetings it’s rarely about the Gosho or Lotus Sutra, it’s about president Ikeda. We’re comparing him to King and Gandhi. What’s next, Jesus? There’s no question in my mind that president Ikeda is one of the greatest people of the 20th century. It’s like a steady diet of lobster for thirty years. Too much lobster or anything else will make you sick. It’s too much. The American public will not embrace the SGI-USA on any substantial level if it doesn’t wake up and start teaching and practicing the Daishonin’s Buddhism. We have made president Ikeda into a living god. He will always be my mentor. It’s his commentators that disturb me.
I have met most of the top leaders in the SGI-USA and like most of them very much, on a personal level. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the organization and would never try to disparage the Daishonin’s Buddhism. In fact, I am deeply committed to promoting the Daishonin’s Buddhism. I believe that the world needs the SGI. People need this wonderful practice. But something is wrong. Where are the youth? We have not been able to create the mass appeal that attracts youth. Without successors of significant number, the movement will wither and fade away. Critically thinking adults may be compelled by the beauty, simplicity and greatness of the practice, but are frequently turned off by the workings of the organization. My opinion on what’s wrong with the SGI-USA is that we have moved away from Nichiren and Shakyamuni as the prime sources of inspiration and doctrine and replaced them with president Ikeda. In my mind it is true that no one of us can compare with president Ikeda. His body of work and brilliance mark him as a Buddhist legend that is on par with any of the great ones in history. With that said, there must be room somewhere for contemporary Daishonin Buddhists to shine. Everything can’t be about president Ikeda. There must be thousands of members of accomplishment that have original things to share. Our publications need to be balanced and we need to showcase our many voices.
When I shared this article with a person of wisdom, I did so because I was unsure of what good it would do. To what end? How would this writing of my personal opinions benefit anyone? In fact, it would probably anger some of those in power and many others who only think what they have been conditioned to believe. The wise person told me that I was still superstitious and didn’t understand the spirit of Nichiren or Shakyamuni. Was Nichiren fearful when he remonstrated with the government and other Buddhist sects? Was Shakyamuni fearful when he took on the Brahmins? Did Martin Luther hesitate when he took on the Catholic Church? Religion will not change for the better without being challenged. Buddhism was born out of this process. Nichiren Buddhism exists because one man had the courage to stand up against the establishment and speak the truth. If our heart is true, we should never be afraid to speak our mind.
I close these observations with a prayer for all those who have been hurt, driven away from Nichiren Buddhism by well meaning but overzealous leaders, and other wise screwed over by priests or the organization. If our organization is truly self-reforming, I am hopeful that we can survive and flourish. We all know that this wretched, dangerous world we live in needs a powerful religious movement aimed at peace and enlightenment, to keep us from blowing ourselves up. I always thought that could be us. I pray for us to become a great religion. The world needs us.