Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Soka Gakkai in Cambodia

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Soka Gakkai in Cambodia

Article excerpt

Drawing from the author's firsthand experiences in Cambodia in May 2006, this scholarly note offers an up-to-date look at the influence of a thriving international chapter of the Soka Gakkai, a Japanese new religion based on the tenets of Nichiren Buddhism.

The Soka Gakkai & Cambodia's Recent History

Since the 1960s, the Japan-based Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization proselytizing its version of Nichiren Buddhism, has evolved into a worldwide movement with more than twelve million members in 190 countries and territories. (1) Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the international wing of the Soka Gakkai, has made significant gains in reaching out to the native populations in each of the jurisdictions it has penetrated. Its greatest successes have been in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, parts of Southeast Asia, and even North and South America.

The subject of this brief piece is the rapidly growing SGI chapter in Cambodia. The Soka Gakkai existed as a small movement consisting primarily of foreigners in Cambodia before the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, after which it completely disappeared. Today, SGI has returned to Cambodia. It has grown from a small handful of followers in the late 1990s to over one thousand in early 2007. Cambodia remains a deeply Buddhist country with its native practices and temples fully intact, so I was compelled to find out who is joining in Cambodia and, moreover, to ask why a Japanese-based new religion has established a viable foothold there.

I interviewed many Cambodians from all age groups while traveling throughout the country in May 2006. One factor emerging from these discussions is the need for hope for a better future. Many Cambodians admitted a sense of hopelessness in their lives. Everybody I met had lost close family members. Family life had been destroyed; their homes and villages, obliterated. They felt betrayed by their own government and abandoned by the outside world. Virtually everybody in Cambodia today is quite poor.

True, there is little real starvation; most young Cambodians look healthy, and children are working hard in primary and secondary schools across the country--but there are very few prospects for high school and college graduates. Many educated Cambodians have no real hope for a productive professional life. They are caught in a quagmire of depression.

The Return of Soka Gakkai to Cambodia

No Soka Gakkai activities took place in Cambodia during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79) and Vietnamese occupation (1979-1990); but, with the reopening of Cambodia after 1988, many Cambodians who had been living abroad during this difficult period returned, and a growing number of foreigners--many of them involved in relief work--traveled to Cambodia. Several of these returnees and an active relief worker were SGI members who successfully began converting small numbers of Cambodians to their practice. By mid-1998, there were approximately fifty actively practicing members, virtually all of them native Cambodians. At that time, there was no organized Cambodian SGI chapter and no discernable assistance from the SGI headquarters in Tokyo other than some occasional study materials and a Gohonzon2 brought from Bangkok.

Rapid growth in membership started around 2000, so much so that, in 2002, SGI built a cultural center in Phnom Penh and received a charter from the Cambodian government recognizing it as a legitimate religious organization. I was told in May 2006 that there were 1,006 members in Cambodia, some based in the capital but many others spread out in rural villages forming an arc around Phnom Penh. I observed very few elderly members; most seemed to be in their late twenties to mid-forties. I also saw many very young members, in many cases the children of older members. Some scattered communities with Soka Gakkai members apparently exist in the interior of Cambodia as well, but I interviewed only members from greater Phnom Penh. …

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