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Religious Battle Taking Shape in Foothills of Mt. Fuji : Japan: The Buddhist order of Nichiren Shoshu has expelled its lay organization, Soka Gakkai. Political fallout is probable.

December 16, 1991|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ikeda made a formal apology to the priests in 1977. Soon afterward, the new head priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nikken Abe, made his own conciliatory gesture by excommunicating 200 priests who continued to be critical of Ikeda.

This time, however, the dispute has gotten so petty and nasty that few see any ways to mend the rift.

The priests complained about Ikeda's decision to have his followers sing "Ode to Joy" in German because it contained allusions to Christ, a point Ikeda says proves that the priests are still living in the Middle Ages.

Each side has sent spies to tape conversations at the other's top-level meetings, then released the tapes to the media pointing out what are viewed as particularly objectionable segments, such as a priest's "dictatorial" tone of voice or Ikeda's anti-clerical comments.

Ikeda encouraged open rebellion against the Buddhist priests. Comparing his fight with the temple to Martin Luther's Reformation movement against the Roman Catholic Church, Ikeda mounted a massive economic boycott of the temple. In one of its recent publications, the Soka Gakkai accused Abe, the chief priest, of beating his priests, eating sumptuous meals and riding everywhere in a Mercedes-Benz automobile. Disciples must bow when Abe passes even if they happen to be swimming in the pool beside the dormitory, the Soka Gakkai charged, adding that priests play golf and frequent bars.

The senior priest Obayashi said Nichiren Shoshu is a loose religion and he sees nothing wrong with the priests playing golf and visiting bars. Where 150,000 Soka Gakkai members used to make the pilgrimage to Taisekiji every month, just before the excommunication that number had dwindled to less than 10,000. The bullet train station built three years ago to handle the masses of faithful is deserted. Gift shops and restaurants alongside the temple have mostly closed. The president of a tourist bus company that went bankrupt because of the dispute recently committed suicide.

One gift shop owner who has kept her place open to catch the occasional tourist said she sides with the priests because "ever since second grade, I didn't like their (Soka Gakkai's) way of putting pressure on people." She said her husband, who is a member of the Soka Gakkai, is criticized for not being able to "control" his wife and make her join. She would not give her name, saying the Soka Gakkai often boycotts stores whose owners are critical of the group.

The Soka Gakkai also has begun a campaign of harassment against the priests. Rumors have been spread that the Taisekiji temple grounds are in disarray, with stray dogs wandering about and robbers lurking in the shadows. Right-wing groups park their sound trucks outside the temple and blast out their criticism of the priests' intransigence.

Temple signs have been splashed with paint. Soka Gakkai's youth group members, in numbers as large as 200, have shown up at temple prayer meetings to badger the priests.

Soka Gakkai members were told to do without priests at funerals, one of the priests' key sources of income, and to use Soka Gakkai officials instead.

The priests said they were not about to give in to the pressure. "It is a question of faith," said Obayashi, the senior priest.

And the priests have their own powerful weapons. Even prior to the excommunication, they were refusing to present to Soka Gakkai members the gohonzon, the sacred scripture that every disciple must have at home to chant before and that only the head priest, Abe, is allowed to write. And many older members have resisted the move toward funerals without priests because, they believe, only a priest can give the deceased his special name for the afterlife, a name that Buddhists believe is necessary for the spirit to rise to Heaven.

But the most vulnerable element of the Soka Gakkai is its political arm. Naito, the writer, recently testified before a committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that the Komeito will probably receive fewer than 6 million votes, perhaps as few as 5 million--a substantial decline from the 7.4 million votes it got six years ago.

Komeito must overcome not only the bad publicity from Soka Gakkai's battle with the head temple, but also a series of recent scandals. In April, the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, an affiliate of the sect, was embroiled in an art scam over the purchase of two Renoir paintings, "Woman Bathing" and "Woman Reading." Tax authorities say prices on the paintings were manipulated to help one or more of the parties save on taxes.

In a desperate effort to attract voters in next July's upper house elections, the Komeito has begun putting up posters of its candidates, far in advance of other parties. The party also has allied itself closely with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on a variety of issues in the hopes of gaining the LDP's backing in the coming battle.

Since early 1989, when the Liberal Democrats lost their majority in the upper house, the Komeito, whose name means Clean Government Party, has had the swing vote.

Akiya is confident that Komeito will come out ahead and said he does not fear excommunication. "Religions gets stronger when they face difficult times like this," he said.

Priest Obayashi said he has time on his side. "We've been here for 700 years. We survived without them before; we can do it again."

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