Title

When "bodhisattvas of the earth" become global citizens: Soka Gakkai in comparative perspective

Date of Award

2009

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Religion

Advisor(s)

Joanne Punzo Waghorne

Keywords

Buddhism in America, Soka Gakkai, Globalization, Religious pluralism, Religion in Singapore, New religious movements

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion

Abstract

The contemporary lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai promotes an image of itself as a group of religiously tolerant "global citizens" at the same time that it uses this public image in the pursuit of converts. Through its many efforts to communicate its message and values to the public, Soka Gakkai offers a model of transnational religious expansion based neither on religious fundamentalism nor on soft New Age-ism. This study is based on fieldwork in Singapore and Washington, D.C., two global capital cities in secular democracies with very different policies on religious freedom and religious harmony. I argue that members in these cities are able to hold sectarian religious beliefs deeply while still getting along with others, in part by redefining "dialogue" and placing themselves at the center of what it means to be global. Because the Singaporean government discourages proselytizing in order to maintain social harmony, members of Soka Gakkai have adjusted how they make incursions into the public so their activities do not seem coercive. Similarly, in the United States, because of its past associations with "cult-like" behavior, Soka Gakkai has publicly distanced itself from activities that appear aimed at proselytizing. The softening of the group's public image through its skillful use of media has contributed to its rapid growth in these two global cities, where potential converts are attracted to the group's (noncoercive) "universal values," including religious pluralism. Respect for these values becomes evidence not only of the group's success at accommodating itself to local contexts, but also of the religion's universal applicability, offering potential converts greater reason to join. Central to this study are questions about the freedom to disseminate one's religion in the global era, an urgent concern for minority religious groups like Soka Gakkai that strive to effectively communicate their religious messages and gain converts in increasingly crowded public spaces.

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