Actor Orlando Bloom recently visited Ukraine as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. During a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky, he decided to read Zelensky something written by Ikeda Daisaku, leader of a Japanese religious movement called Soka Gakkai International (SGI).
That’s certainly one way to spend a very limited amount of time with a world leader.
Let’s examine what Bloom thought was so important about Ikeda’s words—then learn about the authoritarian religious movement that Ikeda controls.
Situation Report: Orlando Bloom shills Soka Gakkai at world leader
Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a pseudo-Buddhist authoritarian cult based in Japan. SGI President Ikeda Daisaku teaches his followers to regularly recite a magic chant called “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” that was popularized by a 13th-century monk named Nichiren.
SGI sells copies of this magic scroll to its followers, along with accessories and other publications. Its leaders promise that followers of the teachings will become wealthy, successful, and long-lived.
Orlando Bloom is to SGI what Tom Cruise is to Scientology, with three major differences that we’ll get into shortly.
The letter Orlando Bloom read contained Ikeda’s thoughts—but Ikeda didn’t write them for this occasion
Reading the thoughts of a Japanese cult leader to President Zelensky might seem like an odd choice, considering Bloom went to Ukraine on behalf of UNICEF and not SGI.
According to the Daily Mail, the reading wasn’t even written for Zelensky, but something that Ikeda had written to young adults in the United Kingdom in 1994. Even if his group’s (arguably) most famous member was making a historic visit, Ikeda couldn’t be arsed to write Zelensky a bespoke message. So Bloom had to make do.
A Reddit group apparently devoted to Ikeda offers us a transcript of the letter. (In fact, this is the one and only post on that entire subreddit, which is a year old. It appears to have been completely empty until Bloom’s visit to Ukraine.)
The times are changing from an age where power is justice to an age where justice is power. In this new age the supreme guiding principle will be the benefit of all humanity rather than the interests of one particular nation or ethnic group. We will see the transformation of history from the revolution of the external environment to that of the inner self – the inner human revolution. It will be an age in which the actions of leaders will naturally be based on the guidelines of making mothers all happy. A great future lies ahead of you. You must fix your eyes on that future, never losing sight of your goal, even for even for one single moment. Centuries – tens of centuries have waited for you to arrive and have been preparing for you. You are the ones who have appeared now so mystically. Your victory will be the victory of humanism.
Your defeat will be the defeat of hope. Hence, you must win in everything. You must fight with an indomitable spirit. Once fortune was against a knight who was captured in battle by his enemies and had his castle confiscated. “Where is your castle now?” they asked, scornfully. “You have lost everything,” they implied. The knight answered resolutely, holding his head high: “My castle is in my heart.”Reddit post, 4/3/2023
Again, he wrote this to young adults in the UK in 1994.
The connection between Orlando Bloom and Ikeda
The Daily Mail article refers to Ikeda as a “Japanese philosopher” and Bloom’s “mentor”—a significant demotion from a Yahoo News description of Ikeda in 2016:
[. . .] a famed 88-year-old Buddhist philosopher, anti-nuclear activist, who served as a leader of the Soka Gakkai religious movement.Yahoo News, 9/27/2016
Perhaps Ikeda wants to keep a lower profile now. Officially, he’s only the president of SGI. Unofficially, though, Ikeda is the eternal god-emperor of a strange little quasi-Buddhist cult of personality. And for years now, Orlando Bloom has been one of his dwindling number of devoted, obedient followers.
This isn’t even the first time Bloom has shared Ikeda’s words with others. In 2016, he shared quite an interesting theory Ikeda had about how political power will develop in the near future. (Spoiler alert: It’s the same thing he read to Zelensky in Ukraine.)
It just seems very strange to me that Ikeda’s SGI connection—and Orlando Bloom’s very public membership in the group—have attracted so little attention in this story.
SGI in a nutshell
SGI is a globe-spanning offshoot under the umbrella of Soka Gakkai. In turn, Soka Gakkai is a Japanese Buddhist sect that began as a lay association of Nichiren Shoshu. As of 1991, Soka Gakkai parted ways with (or, according to some SGI ex-members, got kicked out of) Nichiren Shoshu.
Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist priest, and his importance can’t be overstated in his end of Buddhism. He set forward three indispensable teachings for his followers:
- Revering a holy object, which Japanese Buddhists call a gohonzon. This typically takes the form of a fancy scroll that his followers hang somewhere in their house. In SGI, the scroll contains a mystic invocation Nichiren popularized: Nam-myohorenge-kyo. (Very roughly, the words mean “Glory to the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.” It’s the title of the Lotus Sutra itself, which is a hugely influential Buddhist work. Sometimes, Soka Gakkai followers just call it the daimoku, or “Title.”)
- Chanting the daimoku for hours a day. SGI people consider the chant to be “the ultimate law of the universe,” and the gohonzon to be its physical expression. Like their Soka Gakkai brethren, SGI members consider this chant to have far-reaching magic powers.
- Studying Nichiren’s own writings. This remains important to SGI members.
Soka Gakkai wasn’t generally found outside of Japan until after World War II, when military servicemen married Japanese women and took them home. Ikeda started as a Soka Gakkai leader. In 1960, he became the president of the regular Soka Gakkai chapter in Japan, and he quickly began traveling to other countries to spread the good word.
Then, in 1975, a worldwide consortium of Soka Gakkai people invited Ikeda to be the founding president of SGI. That consortium wanted wanted their new group to focus on world peace, so it likely made perfect sense to appoint a globe-trotting Soka Gakkai leader to their top position.
SGI chapters now exist in almost 200 countries—especially in the US—and claim to have 12 million members. They seem progressive in many ways, supporting equal marriage, opposing the death penalty, and performing community service and natural disaster relief.
And SGI proved to be an irresistible lure for Orlando Bloom
I can easily understand just what drew Bloom to SGI. Imagine being an incredibly young and inexperienced British adult. Almost at the beginning of your career, you find yourself turned into a megastar in Hollywood. Yeah, his entire world must have felt like it’d been completely up-ended. And it had been.
Then, suddenly, a very structured, rigid, authoritarian group materialized in front of him. Its recruiters promised him, as they promise everyone, that their group grants its followers peace and serenity—and a better world for humanity as a whole—in exchange for some very minimal outlays of resources and effort. What’s not to like?
For a kid raised in the good ole CofE and now plunged into the chaotic, shallow, often very dark world of show business, that offer had to seem as seductive as the sight of a lighthouse’s beam to lost sailors at night.
What Orlando Bloom likely hopes to gain through SGI membership
World Tribune, an SGI site and publication, details the supposed benefits that SGI practice offers recruits:
- Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo grants “an indestructible state of happiness and the ultimate purpose of Buddhism.” Elsewhere, another SGI member adds that members should also “recit[e] two short chapters from the Lotus Sutra.”
- Participating in SGI’s efforts to “wipe out evil” and “bring about good” will help followers “attain Buddhahood.” One of the main ways that SGI does the aforementioned is through trying to recruit others
- Recruitment efforts also help “people unlock their inner source of wisdom, joy, good fortune and compassion.” I think the “people” here are those targeted for recruitment.
- Recruitment efforts, which SGI calls kosen-rufu, also lead to the recruiters themselves “developing even more appreciation,” which leads to a marked increase in “one’s own blessings.”
The page summarizes:
Staying engaged in our Buddhist practice and continuing to spread the ideals of Buddhism are vital for enjoying sustained fortune and joy, and establishing lasting peace and prosperity in society. Such noble efforts, carried out with courage and wisdom despite any adversity, are the source of limitless benefit.“Why do we always emphasize the benefits we gain through Buddhist practice?”, World Tribune
“Ikeda Sensei” also weighs in:
There is no satisfaction or joy—no sense of pride—that can compare to having made your best effort for kosen-rufu. And the benefit attained as a result is immeasurable. … The benefit we gain through striving for the Soka Gakkai and for kosen-rufu transforms our life into one filled with good fortune and happiness.“Why do we always emphasize the benefits we gain through Buddhist practice?”, World Tribune
There’s a definite Underpants Gnome logic to the entire scheme. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t cooperate much with SGI’s big promises. Ikeda himself puts a lot of pressure on his followers to be or at least look incredibly successful in life—as a way of enticing new recruits into the fold.
Sound familiar? And it doesn’t work for evangelicals either, because all too many people can tell these would-be evangelists are just faking it all.
The view from behind the curtain: “Chant until you agree with me”
But earlier, you saw me describe SGI as a cult, so you already know that I think something’s not quite right about SGI’s self-drawn rosy picture. Indeed, it wouldn’t even half surprise me if Sophie Ellis-Bextor had SGI in mind when she released “Come With Us.”
Just as the singer’s cult leader character behaves, the recruiters of groups like SGI have a sales pitch that appeals to vulnerable people who either lack critical thinking skills or are unwilling to apply them to pie-in-the-sky promises.
There’s no need to be lonely
I know where you belong. . .
If you give us all your money
We’ll give you your dreams . . .
In a hazy frame of mind you believe this stuff“Come With Us,” Sophie Ellis-Bextor
It’s all soft focus
You’ll never want to turn away
Under electric stars
You’ll be living your fantasy
The first problem SGI has is that its leaders aren’t particularly kind or generous people. Ikeda himself sounds like a very unpleasant person, and SGI groups sound profoundly authoritarian in nature.
In fact, when Orlando Bloom first met Ikeda, the SGI leader slapped him and accused him of plagiarism. But that’s not hard for a completely enmeshed cult follower to rationalize and square away—and that’s exactly what Bloom did in a video:
As above, so below—as the saying goes. People who’ve left Soka Gakkai and SGI tend to have terrible stories to tell about their groups’ local leaders. Here’s one from one of our community members, BlancheFromage, talking about the time she bought non-SGI-produced gohonzon scrolls to display as art in her home:
My SGI leaders pitched a MAJOR fit about my even having them, though – one implied that, if I had such things in my home, it would “change the atmosphere” into something dark and scary – she didn’t realize I already had them; I just hadn’t hung them yet. A top SGI leader actually end-gamed with “You should chant until you agree with me”! See, I, too, have studied a lot and I asked her WHY one Nichiren sect’s gohonzons should be A-OK but all the other Nichiren sects’ gohonzons are evilhorribleavoidavoidavoid, when it’s all based on the same Nichiren. She couldn’t answer and simply tried to pull rank. [. . .] They ended up gossiping about me to the rest of the organization, canceling the regular meetings I’d been holding at my house – for years, and all sorts of other nastiness.BlancheFromage and the Gohonzon of Fate
Incidentally, she’s responding to an OP who relayed a creepy and unnerving tale of presumption and overreach at a whole other SGI location. Elsewhere, she offers up a bunch of quotes from SGI’s own training materials and Ikeda’s writings that indicate their hostility toward any other religions—and especially any other style of Buddhism but their own, and most particularly Nichiren Shoshu. If you want to learn how SGI leaders treat their volunteers, that subreddit gives us some potent hints there, too. Or about how scary SGI is to people in Japan.
In a 2012 paper, Levi McLaughlin refers to Soka Gakkai as the most-hated Japanese “new religion” and “foremost domestic religious menace,” but it lost that title in 1995 when Aum Shinrikyo committed mass murder. The Japanese still largely seem to despise and fear the group. McLaughlin also makes frequent reference to SGI/Soka Gakkai members’ reverence for Ikeda as a divine figure.
Like evangelicals, SGI apparently plays games with its lackluster membership figures. Like evangelicals, they’re having a lot of trouble with retention as well as recruitment. And again like evangelicals, despite those falling numbers SGI remains an incredibly wealthy and powerful religious group with no desire to engage in transparency with its donors and members. As for Ikeda himself, he turns up regularly on most-powerful and most-wealthy lists, and has for decades now.
And Orlando Bloom is the biggest celebrity SGI has right now
Earlier, I mentioned the major differences between Orlando Bloom’s SGI connection and Tom Cruise’s Scientology one. Here they are:
First, Bloom joined SGI at a completely different point in his career than when Cruise joined Scientology. In a video posted on SGI-USA’s YouTube channel, Bloom claims to have joined SGI at 16 (so around 1993 or 1994). If so, it was on a purely informal basis and he never discussed the matter in interviews. Evidence suggests, rather, that he really joined SGI around 2004.
The truth is that Orlando Bloom joined SGI at the very height of what must have seemed like absolutely dizzying, meteoric success. By contrast, Cruise joined Scientology right as his own film career took off. His then-girlfriend and later first wife, Mimi Rogers, introduced him to the cult in 1986.
Second, Bloom’s career hasn’t gone nearly as well since joining SGI. Cruise has certainly had his share of controversies—many caused by his affiliation with Scientology. Even so, he’s still a completely bankable triple-A star with huge blockbusters in his recent past. Meanwhile, Bloom’s career has fared far less well, with far more modest projects in his recent credits list. (In 2014, an entertainment blog asked “what the hell happened” to him.)
Of course, I’ve no doubt SGI would have loved to have scored a Tom Cruise.
For a while, though, they sorta had Tina Turner.
Years ago, Turner had close emotional ties to SGI. She mentions both the cult and Ikeda in glowing terms in her 2020 book Happiness Becomes You. However, it seems that she never became an actual SGI member. Today she describes herself as “a Buddhist-Baptist.” In 2011, she was interviewed about her religious beliefs and didn’t mention SGI or Ikeda at all. Sounds like the lady just happens to enjoy chanting.
(Similarly, Orlando Bloom doesn’t mention SGI in a 2017 interview. Interestingly, ex-SGI members say that they always referred to their chanting time as “meditation,” a term Bloom uses in the interview.)
SGI’s other big celebrities include jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The former passed away earlier this year. The other is getting quite long in the tooth, and his 50 years’ fervent membership in SGI didn’t protect him from developing a devastating crack addiction.
So right now, Orlando Bloom is pretty much it for SGI. Unfortunately for Bloom, the third major difference between him and Tom Cruise is that Scientology clearly did a lot more for Cruise’s career than SGI is willing to do for Bloom’s.
At least President Zelensky is a good sport
After Orlando Bloom earnestly read his cult leader’s 1994 message to UK youth, Zelensky replied with the universal soft dismissal:
“Cool,” Zelensky replies nodding his head.
“You have a heart!” Bloom tells the president, tapping Zelensky’s chest, to laughs from the Ukrainian leader and other staff in the room.
As Bloom is seen leaving the room, he is seen turning back to tell Zelensky about a video he has on his phone: “My mother sang the Ukrainian national anthem. She says, ‘If you see Zelensky, you tell him to win!'” he says while pumping his fists in the air.Daily Mail
There are not enough vertebrae in the world to handle the amount of cringe I felt upon reading that exchange. As I mentioned earlier, the story Ikeda wrote is about a knight who has lost everything but is trying to put a good spin on his losses. It’s completely flabbergasting that Bloom thought this was even slightly appropriate to read to someone dealing with an invasion from a vastly-larger world power.
Nonetheless, what Bloom did was something I could easily see myself doing when I was Pentecostal in the 1980s and 90s. We all lived for those rare opportunities to slide “the Gospel” in front of someone important like that. And bagging such a prominent, popular, well-known world leader would certainly be a rare feather in SGI’s cap.
But that “cool” and that head nod tells me it will never, ever happen.