The Internet is an important space to give voices to religious and spiritual minorities and for the development of new religious movements. However, if on the one hand it is a tool used to promote certain values, on the other hand it can articulate voices against those same values. For many religious movements, the on-line presence can attract new believers but also give space to angry ex-members and their relatives’ moving accusations of brainwashing. The Soka Gakkai, a Japanese new religious movement, is an example of how the web can be ambivalent in articulating contrasting and competitive religious discourses.
“Nichiren Buddhism is a teaching of hope that enables us to forge a state of unsurpassed and indestructible happiness and to lead a life of supreme value, while also helping others do the same.” These words, written on the Soka Gakkai International website, are part of Soka Gakkai current leader Daisaku Ikeda’s corpus of speeches and writings. The Soka Gakkai presents itself internationally as a type of engaged Buddhism whose aims are to help the whole humankind to reach happiness, fighting poverty, promoting education and art. “I strongly believe that politics and religion should commit themselves to a common concern: nothing less than the well-being of humanity,” wrote Daisaku Ikeda in his book, A New Humanism, a collection of his speeches (p.87). However, the Soka Gakkai is not homogeneously perceived as a movement of peace promoting harmony. Sometimes labeled as a “cult,” the religion was involved in many controversies with the Japanese Nichiren Buddhist clergy and other Buddhist sects. It has been criticized for an aggressive form of proselytism called “shakubuku” and for its involvement in politics with the Japanese party Kōmeitō.
The Internet has been an important tool of proselytism and diffusion worldwide for the Soka Gakkai. The Soka Gakkai (創価学会), literally “Value-Creation Society”, is a religious movement founded in 1930 in Japan. Based on the Mahayana Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra promoted by the monk Nichiren, the Soka Gakkai praises the concept of ichinen sanzen (一念三千), the holistic idea that cosmic life is in all phenomena, and everything is interconnected. The three fundamental elements of the movement are the daimoku (題目), the title of the Lotus Sutra Namu myōhō renge kyō, which people have to chant; the gohonzon (御本尊), the object of worship, generally a paper in an altar with the daimoku written on; and the kaidan (戒壇), the ordination platform, which delimits the sacred space and is linked to an idea of an eschatological sanctuary to be built in the future. Nowadays the Soka Gakkai has 12 million lay members estimated in Japan and worldwide; the movement separated from the clergy and does not include monks. It was able to adapt to different cultures in Asia and in the West thanks to the relative simplicity of the teachings and the ability of presenting them in various contexts, offering a message of this-worldly salvation. In its diffusion around the world, the Soka Gakkai made an extensive use of the Internet. Many people came to know the movement and the local groups through the web and use the Internet to obtain information about Daisaku Ikeda’s speeches and thoughts.
The website of the Soka Gakkai international presents an accurate description of the religion with accounts of the activities, pictures, videos, and writings of the leader Ikeda. The religion also has national websites in a variety of languages. On the Internet there are many testimonies of members whose lives changed thanks to the Soka Gakkai. A member from the UK, for example, shared on the Soka Gakkai International website the words “I want to make even more of a difference with my life from this moment onwards.” Facebook is another space where people describe their spiritual journeys with other members. The Soka Gakkai International Facebook page has more than 70,000 likes and people comment the news shared in various languages showing appreciation for the movement. Similarly, the religion is active on Twitter in sharing information with the members.
However, the conversations in the social media are not always portraying this religious movement in a positive light. Following the @SokaGakkai discussions on Twitter it is possible to find not only believers who praise the movement but also discourses quite contrasting with the idea of a religion promoting peace and harmony. One Twitter user, for example, defines Soka Gakkai as “the world of non-profit Buddhist money making machine.” He links an article on the blog “Think Atheist” where the Soka Gakkai is labeled as a “a cult that uses this religion as a cover and a justification for accumulating wealth, political power and more members.” On the Internet, many websites warn against the Soka Gakkai and its members. For example, the Indian blog Bharat Soka Gakkai expresses concerns about “The Dark Sides and Hidden Perils of Soka Gakkai Cult.” Similarly, the “Victims of the Soka Gakkai Association” website exposes the problems of this movement in various sections. It collects testimonies of rapes, stories about the conflict with the Buddhist clergy and other problematic linked to the Soka Gakkai. Certainly the anti-Soka Gakkai websites are not as many as the religion’s official sites, and they are less organized and graphically accurate. However, they are an important testimony of how voices about this movement are far from being homogeneous and how personal stories can account for very different perspectives.
Websites about the Soka Gakkai exemplify how the Internet can sometimes be a controversial Third Space. In this case, it does not matter what is the truth about the Soka Gakkai and its members. What is interesting to analyze, is how people can find spaces to articulate very different values and meanings. The web becomes a space for members of a minority group to promote their ideals, form online and offline communities and find new believers. At the same time, ex-members and people who strongly dislike this religion can use the same Internet space to fight against the Soka Gakkai. People on the web, especially in social networks, have agency and relative freedom to start discourses that can be perceived as very provocative or against mainstream values. From speeches about love and harmony to testimonies of brainwashing and rape, social networks and websites give voices to a multitude of different perspectives and ideas.