I am a member of SGI-USA. Most, if not all of you know about this organization. Most of you first learned of Nichiren Buddhism at a SGI district meeting. The district meeting is the front lines for SGI. The problem is, the district leader is usually someone with little experience and has only been practicing for a few years — or months. On these relatively new members we heap all the heavy lifting – plan and run meetings, keep track of all the members, train and support new members, introduce new members, communicate with members and leaders. And in addition to that, the membership is aging so those leaders ( at least in my part of the organization) have to pander to older members who just want to reminisce about the past and never really discuss Buddhism. This is not a good model for the future. If you get any good at this job, or if you stick around long enough that a chapter position opens up, then you are promoted and you pass the district to another newer member who isn’t burned out yet. All the responsibility for the furthering of SGI falls on the districts and the leaders of those districts. My position is one level above district. I don’t really do anything. We have so many Japanese elders in our chapter that the districts are in suspended animation. Any time we have a new member, the member moves away. It happens over and over. The district leader teaches gongyo, gets her/him practicing and then, BAM, their first big break through is to get out of here. This is especially true for men. There are so few men that they are promoted out of the district quickly to fill higher level positions.
The demographics for SGI-USA are not a good sign for the future. We are getting older, we have very few young members ( by “young” I mean teenagers and twenty-somethings), 90% of our districts do not have all four division leaders (men’s, women’s, young men’s, young women’s divisions), and we are not adding members, in fact our numbers are declining. I have my own ideas for this, but they are all based on where I have practiced and I understand that I am a part of that.
I routinely get pestered about my daughters not participating in SGI activities. I have been very clear about this, my daughters think SGI is lame. Some of that probably comes for me, but the local youth division gets most of the blame or responsibility for that. These young people go to college and are promoted to very high positions in SGI and expected to perform while they balance school and work and a minimal personal life. I suspect many of these people were just practicing for their parents before they came here and were given this opportunity. This is a life changing experience – whether good or bad, I don’t know. Through their own research, SGI has found that most members would not take a friend to their district meeting. That’s scary. But our meetings are filled with people who have been together for 20, 30 40 years. No wonder we have problems. Everyone is comfortable, their lives are comfortable, they just want to get together and chat. That is not Buddhism!
For about a year, the top leaders in SGI-USA have been trying to figure out how to grow the organization. They talked to each successive leadership position down to chapter. Funny how they stopped short of talking to the front line leaders at the district level. But in the end, I think they have come up with a good short term solution. They are going to combine the two levels above district, chapter and area, which will free up over a thousand leaders to become district leaders again. I just can’t wait for this. I’m all for change and no one believes this will fix everything, but it is a start. It puts the emphasis on the districts, it will put more leaders into the districts and it will let more districts have men and young leaders in them. Also, each area has been tasked to figure out how they want to incorporate the changes. I have to hand it to SGI — good for us. Thank you, SGI-USA leadership for working to make this a more American organization. Now, if we could just get our members to want to understand Buddhism…