The difference between the Soka Gakkai International and Nichiren Shoshu clearly can be seen in at least four key areas:
1) View of Equality
The Lotus Sutra is a teaching of absolute equality - it affirms that all people, regardless of station, gender or background, are potentially Buddhas.
Nichiren Daishonin reaffirms this in many places throughout his writings. To a lay believer named Abutsubo, he writes:
You, yourself, are a true Buddha who possesses the three enlightened properties. You should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with this conviction. (MW-I, 30)
In another letter he writes:
There should be no discrimination among those who propagate the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo in the Latter Day of the Law, be they men or women. (MW-I)
While the SGI bases itself on absolute respect for the individual, and its activities focus on thorough dialogue with people on all levels of society, Nichiren Shoshu staunchly asserts that it is a "sin" to speak of the equality of priests and lay practitioners, as we can see in a letter to the SGI from the temple's chief administrator, Nichijun Fujimoto: To talk about the priesthood and laity with a sense of equality are expressions of great conceit. In fact, they correspond to the five cardinal sins.... (January 12, 1991)
Representative of such beliefs is the following comment from a priest's sermon at a temple in Japan:
A priest who wears this robe is special and different from lay believers. He is always seated with the Gohonzon behind him, but whatever the priest may do on other occasions and no matter how luxuriant his lifestyle, it is totally all right. You lay believers are confused about this point. These matters are of no account. (Seido Oyabu, at Horin-ji, January 1991)
Around this doctrine of absolute clerical superiority, it created an atmosphere in which the actions and intentions of priests can never be questioned; in which lay believers are obliged to serve priests, but priests have no obligation to serve the believers. Even funeral and memorial services are conducted with the expectation of receiving donations, and with undisguised dissatisfaction if those donations fall below par. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of Nichiren Daishonin, which was one of appreciation, respect, service and support of the believers.
2) View of the Gohonzon
Nichiren Daishonin clearly indicates in the Gosho that the Gohonzon is a manifestation of his life as an enlightened human being, and that it is no different from the enlightened potential within all ordinary people.
Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself. The Gohonzon exists only within the mortal flesh of us ordinary people who embrace the Lotus Sutra and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. (MW-1)
In another letter, he writes: "Abutsubo is the Treasure Tower itself, and the Treasure Tower is Abutsubo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful" NW-1, 30). Later in the same letter, the Daishonin equates the "Treasure Tower" to the Gohonzon.
Nichiren Shoshu's position is that these teachings by the Daishonin are to be interpreted by priests only, not by lay believers. Their teaching on the Gohonzon is as follows: The Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not inherent in all phenomena or in the lives of ordinary people. It exists only in the physical object of the Dai-Gohonzon and in the life of the current high priest, who has received it through a secret ceremony conducted with his predecessor. Only the high priest can empower a Gohonzon by personally conducting a special ceremony. Any benefit comes to the believer directly through the auspices and sanction of the office of the high priest. Temple publications state, "The sanctioning of the object of worship by the High
Priest, who is the only person to be bequeathed the Daishonin's Buddhism, is what makes the attainment of Buddhahood possible" (From an NST publication, Refuting the Soka Gakkai's Counterfeit Object of Worship" 100 Questions and Answers, P. 36).
The temple's stance is that believing the Law or the Gohonzon to exist within one's own life will send that person to hell.
Nichiren Shoshu's position on the Gohonzon stands in stark contrast with that of the Daishonin himself. The Soka Gakkai embraces the Daishonin's view that the Gohonzon is the embodiment of the Buddha's wisdom and compassion. The Daishonin inscribed it so that we can awaken the same wisdom and compassion within us. One's power of faith and practice to the Gohonzon enables him or her to tap the power of the Gohonzon within to which the Daishonin so adamantly refers. For the high priest or anyone to claim sole possession of the Law and control over the power of the Gohonzon is the basest form of exploitation of the Daishonin's teachings.
3) View of the "Heritage" of the Law
In his letter "Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life," Nichiren Daishonin clearly describes and defines what it means to receive the "heritage" or "lifeblood" of faith in his Buddhism:
Shakyamuni, who attained enlightenment countless aeons ago, the Lotus Sutra which leads all people to Buddhahood, and we ordinary human beings are in no way different or separate from each other. Therefore, to chant Myoho-renge-kyo with this realization is to inherit the ultimate law of life and death. (MW-1, 22)
In addition, the Daishonin writes:
All disciples and believers of Nichiren should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with one mind, transcending all differences among themselves to become as inseparable as fish and the water in which they swim. This spiritual bond is the basis for the universal transmission of the ultimate law of life and death. (MW- 1, 23)
Be resolved to summon forth the great power of your faith, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the prayer that your faith will be steadfast and correct at the moment of your death. Never seek any other way to inherit the ultimate law and manifest it in your life. (MW-1, 25)
Before 1991, Nikken himself supported the view of the heritage as expressed by the Daishonin in these passages, saying: "This lifeblood of faith is inherited not only by a high priest. It is also inherited by all priests and lay believers who inherit the true teaching. When these priests and lay believers carry out pure faith in the true teaching and practice accordingly, they unlock the pure water of the law within their lives and equally attain enlightenment through believing in and understanding the Law." (Dai-Nichiren, April 1987) The priesthood today repeatedly refers to the exclusive transmission of the heritage of the Law to the high priest through what it calls the "Face to Face Bestowal of the Living Essence of the Law," insisting that the nature of this bestowal is beyond the capacity of ordinary people to comprehend. In a section called "Absolute Faith in and Strict Obedience to the High Priest," we see the following passage:
When the priests and lay believers of the faith of Nichiren Shoshu have the occasion to be in the presence of the High Priest, with palms pressed earnestly together in sincere gratitude, we pay prayer- like reverence to him as the Master who embodies the Living Essence of the Body of the entirety of the Law of all existence.... In short, with perfectly sincere faith and self-imposed, strict obedience, we should hold the High Priest's instruction in deepest reverence and we must realize that it is right there (sic) that the great, direct path of the true relationship of unfiltered, unrestricted faith between Master and disciple, which leads to ultimate enlightenment in this lifetime, is to be found. (Dai-Nichiren, Special Edition: On the Soka Gakkai Problem (11) pp. 13-14)
The SGI firmly rejects this idea of the exclusive possession and bestowal of an intangible "essence" of all Buddhism to a single individual by virtue of his religious position. Not only does Nichiren Daishonin never mention such a rite, he clearly refutes it.
4) Attitude and Behavior
The most essential difference lies in the realm of commitment and action taken toward the accomplishment of kosen-rufu and the people's happiness, toward securing a peaceful world based on the spread of the Daishonin's Buddhism.
SGI members have continuously exerted themselves for decades to spread Buddhism, devoting their evenings and weekends to chant and work for the happiness of their friends. SGI President Ikeda, in particular, has met with one person after another, Buddhists and non-Buddhists of all nations and fields of society, to share his commitment to peace and engender an understanding of Buddhist humanism.
It is evident, however, that priests have played a far more passive role, spending most of their time at the temple attending primarily to ceremonies and services. While many Gakkai members were at activities in the evenings, visiting and encouraging friends or studying Buddhism together, most priests remained at home. It also became clear that many were indulging themselves by joining expensive country clubs or frequenting nightclubs, lavishly and frivolously spending money earned from the members' donations.
Nevertheless, Nichiren Shoshu priests continued to maintain an air of superiority and even condescension toward hardworking Gakkai members. Their aloofness toward the laity is still evident in their relationship with Hokkeko or temple members. For example, at a May 1997 ceremony at a temple in Los Angeles after which the lay temple members held a potluck lunch in the parking lot, the dozen or so priests in attendance quickly exited to a separate room to enjoy their own catered feast. There was no exchange or interaction with the laity, other than with a few appointed representatives.