Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a sect of Nichiren Buddhism formed in 1930. Despite having been in existence for less than 100 years, SGI has more than 12 million members in 192 countries and is the most diverse Buddhist community in the United States, according to the SGI-USA website. In 2013, SGI built a religious center in Laguna Hills, CA to serve the roughly 1,000 members that live in south Orange County.
I visited the South Orange County SGI Buddhist Center six times over a month-long period between October 7 and November 10, 2018. I attended three different chanting services (the primary activity of SGI Buddhists is chanting the words Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which translate in English to ‘devotion to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra’) and conducted three hour-long interviews at the center.
In addition to writing detailed observation notes and interview transcripts, I performed a data analysis exercise focused on the use of testimonials and how they play a significant role in building the organization’s culture and mythology, and I created the following contextual inquiry diagrams.
There were so many similarities among the practitioners I spoke with regarding their experiences with SGI Buddhism, so I thought it would be really interesting to do a cultural model from the perspective of one individual that was also reflective of the group.
Almost everyone was introduced to Buddhism through someone they knew (a friend, sibling, parent) and everyone spoke about the benefits of being part of this global community (staying with a member while they looked for an apartment, having a member offer them a job, etc.). I wanted to illustrate the importance of community: how individuals benefit, who is and isn’t a member, and the desire to bring more people in.
Time was also a recurring theme: everyone talked about who they were before they started practicing Buddhism, how their lives have changed since, and how they want to work toward a brighter future by spreading Buddhism around the world.
Since there is such a strong emphasis on sharing personal stories and testimonials, I had an abundance of data on what people thought of themselves: how they saw their former selves, how they see themselves now, what they have overcome and still struggle with, and their goals and desires.
When going back through my notes, the following quote really jumped out at me as a strong anchor for an identity model: “I want to become like the sun, which illuminates all the world.” I thought that was really compelling and visually engaging, so I built an identity model from that member’s perspective.
Handing out materials was a huge aspect of what I experienced at the site. In addition to the latest issue of the organization’s monthly magazine, an intro to Buddhism booklet, a link to the SGI-USA app, and a CD, everyone I met gave me a wallet-size Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo card. And what was particularly fascinating was that everyone seemed to carry these with them at all times.
Overall, SGI Buddhists are employing very effective methods for member recruitment and visitor engagement. Sharing personal stories and testimonials that build connections and trust, tapping into the universal desire for world peace, and generously handing out materials are all excellent ways of enticing interest and creating relationships. Each method also serves as an exceptional vehicle for building and maintaining organizational buy-in, both among visitors and existing members.
The SGI organization should consider expanding their methods, however. While creating one-on-one relationships and personal engagement is important, there are other ways of sharing the SGI practice that may be more effective for certain individuals. Allowing visitors to discover materials and do an initial exploration of the practice on their own is one strategic recommendation. This can be through making physical materials more readily available at the center or by promoting various digital resources, including the SGI website, YouTube channel, and app.
Another recommendation is emphasizing the benefits of joining a local, intimate group of peers and the friendships that form as a result. While the lofty goal of world peace is attractive, and taps into people’s desire for transformative change, it can seem like a distant or intangible goal. The primary selling point should be the opportunity to connect and engage with one’s community.
Clearly SGI Buddhists are thrilled with the benefits they’ve experienced as a result of their practice and have a natural and genuine desire to share that happiness with others. As one interviewee said, “It’s similar to if you found this really awesome restaurant that you loved. You’d want to tell your friends about it. You’d say, ‘We’ve got to go there, it’s so good!’”