What is San Francisco's response when an anonymous family foundation wishes to exchange a hefty sum in return for a monument on city land honoring a man who has been described as the leader of an international cult? Apparently, it's "Where do we sign?"
The city's Recreation and Park Department is attempting to persuade North Beach neighborhood groups to go along with a plan to install a plaque honoring Daisaku Ikeda in Pioneer Park in the shadow of Coit Tower. The donor is promising to pay $180,000 to put up the plaque. In a letter to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Rec and Park's Nicole Avril, director of partnerships and resource development, describes Ikeda as "a Buddhist leader, peace builder, prolific writer, poet, educator" and someone who is not "a controversial figure."
That's one way of putting it. Here's another way: "He has been called a cult leader and is a controversial figure both here and in Japan," says Rick Ross, a cult expert. Ross says that Ikeda's lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), fits the criteria commonly associated with a cult: "It's personality-driven and totalitarian in its structure; there's a process of indoctrination compared to what is commonly called brainwashing; and it does harm."
Numerous former adherents have claimed the organization controls its members and harasses them if they opt to leave. Former SGI higher-up Frank Ross told the BBC in 1995: "I think by anybody's definition of a cult, if someone's life is completely controlled by an individual or an organization, that would certainly fit into the category of a cult."
SGI's worth has been pegged at more than $100 billion, and Ikeda is widely reported to be a billionaire in his own right. Followers of the sect proselytize aggressively, and have erected schools and monuments worldwide to glorify their spiritual mentor — and aid in recruitment.
"I am the king of Japan; I am its president; I am the master of its spiritual life," Ikeda told a Japanese writer in the mid-1960s. "I am the supreme power who entirely directs its intellectual culture."
That may not fly in North Beach. Vedica Puri, president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, says that all 17 of her boardmembers were not ready to approve a plaque to Ikeda. But what put her off the most was when she asked about Rec and Park's policy regarding just who can be honored by privately funded monuments erected on public land – and was told there isn't any.
"What if someone wants to give a couple thousand-dollar gift for a plaque to, say, Jesus?" she asks. "What if a neo-Nazi group wants a plaque? Once the door is opened, it creates the potential for a problem."
Avril tells SF Weekly that no decision will be made regarding the plaque until "relevant community groups around Coit Tower" weigh in. Puri, meanwhile, offers a compromise: Why can't Ikeda's name go on a brick in a nearby stairwell, like the many donors who helped rebuild Pioneer Park?
Interesting suggestion. But Ikeda didn't grow to be fabulously wealthy by spending $180,000 for a brick.