Good Vibrations — the American Buddhist Liberty Bells

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 3, 1987: The parade approaches Independence Hall, the birthplace of American liberty, the building on the back of the hundred dollar bill.

Two-hundred spunky young roller skating gymnasts in short shorts, knee pads and striped knee-high athletic socks slow their roll. With expert precision and youthful abandon, they climb on top of each other, forming a human pyramid five stories high. Neil Diamond music blares from mobile speakers.

Far,
We’ve been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star

The next float arrives, decked stem to stern in nickel-sized red, white and blue metallic sequins that reflect the summer sun so strongly the float appears lit from within. On the left, a young African American Betsy Ross waves to an adoring crowd, on the right, an Asian American Betsy Ross does the same. At center is the star of the show, the New Freedom Bell, an exact replica of the Liberty Bell, cast in the same pit, at the same London foundry that made the original, which sits silently just a few blocks away.

Free,
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

This New Freedom Bell is not cracked and it’s not silent.  It rings out loud and proud for the cheering throng. Grand Marshall Partick Duffy, Bobby Ewing on TV’s Dallas, knows how to share the stage with big personalities, and today is no different.

On the boats and on the planes
They’re coming to America
Never looking back again,
They’re coming to America

This entire fist-pumpingly awesome display of patriotism; the New Freedom Bell, the roller skating gymnasts, Betsy Ross one, Betsy Ross two, and even Patrick Duffy have all come to Philadelphia courtesy of an unlikely host, the Nichiren Shōshū Soka Gakkai of America — NSA for short.

The NSA is the unabashedly American version of a new form of Buddhism based in Japan. While Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism dates back to the teachings of a 13th-century priest, the Soka Gakkai branch is one of several so-called “Shinko Shukyo” or “Newly Created Religions” to gain prominence when Shinto was disestablished as the state religion after the Second World War.

The story of how the Liberty Bell came to promote Buddhism, American style starts with two men on the other side of the world.

Daisaku Ikeda was born into a family of Tokyo seaweed farmers in 1928. His lifelong pursuit of pacifist started when his eldest brother was killed in action in the Second World War. At 19 he joined Soka Gakkai Japan, rising through the ranks to be named the organization’s third president in 1960. In 1975, as the faith started to spread beyond Japan, he became the first president of Soka Gakkai International, the organization’s global network, which claimed 12 million members in 190 countries.

Masayasu Sadanaga was born in Korea in 1930. He met Ikeda, the man who would become his Sensei, in Japan when they were both in their early twenties. When Sadanaga enrolled in UCLA, Ikeda asked him to visit Soka Gakkai members in the United States, at the time mostly Japanese war brides. Sadanaga continued his studies in America, earning his master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Maryland.

Sadanaga intended to return to Japan after completing his studies, but Ikeda had other plans for him. The Sensai asked the student to stay and head up the small U.S. branch, then called Nichiren Shōshū of America. Sadanaga accepted the call and dove headlong into his new vocation.

In 1972, Masayasu Sadanaga changed his name to George M. Williams, his first name an homage to the father of his new country, his last name a benign American-sounding surname. The “M,” he kept the for Masayasu.

Embed from Getty Images
Sadanaga at the opening of the NSA’s Denver location, July 4, 1970 

Fast forward to this hazy, hot and humid day in the summer of ’87. George M. Williams stands before the New Freedom Bell with Philadelphia’s Mayor Wilson Goode. Williams is impeccably dressed in a white suit, red tie and a blue and white ball cap atop his trademark Elvis-style pompadour.

Tomorrow, he’ll present the bell as a gift to Goode and the rest of the city, along with a bronze plaque commemorating the NSA’s gift, to be displayed at the bell’s permanent location.

At least that’s the plan.

While most religious congregations in America tend to be even more divided along racial and socioeconomic lines than the general populace, the NSA is just the opposite. In two decades Williams has built a model of inclusiveness that would still be rare by today’s standard. By their own 1982 account, the NSA’s half-million U.S. members were 45% white, 24% black, 18% Asian-American, and 60% female.

Religious expansion always works better when you incorporate the local culture, and Soka Gakkai did this masterfully and without subtlety. Under Williams’ leadership, the NSA grew rapidly by embracing American ideals of building wealth, self-determination, inclusion and patriotism — lots and lots of patriotism. Soka Gakkai similarly appropriated the local culture elsewhere. In England, they regularly staged Elizabethan plays and purchased as their UK HQ, the stately and historic Taplow Court, featuring a tree planted by Winston Churchill.

In America, the NSA operated much like a satellite business, enjoying both local autonomy and financial support from the home office in Japan. The group quickly amassed an impressive real estate portfolio. In New York, they paid $5 million in cash for a five-story brownstone in Union Square — more than twice the next-highest offer.

In California, the NSA purchased a seven-story glass office building on Wilshire Boulevard to serve as their national headquarters. The group would go on to own 30 properties around the country, paying cash for most of them.

Followers were taught not that life is suffering, but that anything in life is possible through chanting. Congregants chanted Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō twice daily and whenever in doubt, distress or need. The phrase directly translates in English to Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra. 

Followers bought books, newsletters, and a Gohonzon, a paper scroll of varying degrees of fanciness, unique to Nichiren Shushu and used in home ceremonies.

Wisely, the NSA timed their national conventions to coincide with parades in their host city so they could provide thousands of marchers.

The NSA’s campaign to spread good vibrations gathered momentum throughout the 1980s. In 1982 they staged the Aloha, We Love America parade in Washington DC, marching 10,000 American flags down Constitution Avenue.

They topped themselves three years later in Honolulu, staging the two-day World Peace Culture Festival. The event culminated with a massive Independence Day parade, this time with a Guinness-world-record-setting 13,000 flag-carrying marchers, a floating (and erupting) volcano stage, a 200-person roller skating human pyramid, cowboys, Indians, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, fast food restaurant workers marching in uniform, the Liberty Bell, and (of course) Patrick Duffy.

While Duffy was their most active celebrity spokesperson, the NSA also claimed musicians Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter as members.

At the conclusion of the parade, the NSA presented the Liberty Bell, dubbed the Aloha Bell as a gift to the city of Honolulu. It was placed on display in front of the Honolulu Hale Annex building on King Street, just 1,500 feet from the Hawaiian Liberty Bell at the state Capitol.

The Aloha Bell, Honolulu, 2018

By 2002 the yoke was so rotted that the bell was in danger of crashing to the ground if someone attempted to ring it. It was propped up with two-by-fours until it could be repaired. The bell is now in great shape, though a plywood disc surrounding the clapper prevents the bell from being rung.

A plywood disc surrounding the clapper prevents the bell from being rung

The Honolulu parade perfected the NSA’s outreach formula; bring the numbers, bring the patriotism, break a record, and entertain the hell out of everyone. Looking to repeat their success elsewhere, the NSA commissioning another Liberty Bell replica from the Whitechapel foundry in London, just in time to celebrate the Bicentennial of the Constitution.

Taking a page out of the U.S. Treasury’s 1950 Savings bond drive, the New Freedom Bell, as it was called, headed out on a 28-city tour. Starting in April 1987 in Concord Massachusetts, the NSA brought the bell to town squares and city halls, encouraging folks to ring out what freedom means to them. Along the way, they sought to gather 200,000 signatures on a pledge “to work for the principles of freedom embodied in the Constitution.” The campaign would culminate with the NSA presenting the bell to the city of Philadelphia after a massive Independence Day parade.

Williams saw the bell as the centerpiece of their campaign, “The significance of the New Freedom Bell is to reawaken every American to the spirit of the Founding Fathers, who pursued and accomplished the establishment of liberty of all.”

When Independence Day 1987 came and went before the city of Philadelphia found a permanent home for the bell, the NSA called an audible and took the bell back out on tour. This time visiting public schools.

Curiously, they were not the only touring Liberty Bell act to bring America’s schoolchildren a helping heaping of patriotism with a side of religion. Between 1975 and 1985, the Liberty Bell Minister, Reverend Joseph B. Head brought his show to over a million children.

Not unlike Head, the NSA lead with entertainment, history and patriotism, downplaying religion to gain entry. Local congregants used their personal influence along with letters of endorsement from Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Ted Kennedy to book school appearances. In interviews with local newspaper reporters — who they invited — members described the NSA as the world’s largest Buddhist lay organization and characterized their appearances as celebrating America, not selling Buddhism.

At a middle school in the Philadelphia suburb of Springfield, former Phillies relief pitcher, current sportscaster and future Hall-of-Famer Tug McGraw appeared with the New Freedom Bell. He reflected on the significance of their visit, “These youngsters might not think about the bell a week from now, but much later they will remember their experience and it will add to their experience of America.”

NSA representative Jon Wilson struck more of a “kids just don’t understand” tone, declaring, “We bring the bell to schools because these kids grow up with Nintendo as a birthright and they have no appreciation of American freedoms.”

The NSA claimed half a million Americans heard the peal of the New Freedom Bell in its two years of touring.

The NSA’s rise to prominence was the classic American success story; an overnight sensation 25 years in the making; a handsome, charismatic, pompadoured hero turning nothing into something beautiful. But as the 1980s waned, cracks started to show and it became increasingly clear there was only room for one Nichiren Shōshū Soka Gakkai rock star.

By 1990, both Sensai and student had gained significant power within the organization, Williams as president of the successful and semi-autonomous American branch and Ikeda as worldwide president and mentor. Unlike other religions, where clerics also serve in leadership and management roles, in Buddhism, monastics renounce the worldly life to seek enlightenment while lay people, like Williams and Ikeda, manage the organization. So, while the NSA was the sole organizational and evangelical Nichiren Shōshū Soka Gakkai presence in America, it was technically correct in describing itself as a Buddhist lay organization.

As early as the 1970s, Nichiren Shōshū priests in Japan questioned Ikeda’s leadership and accused the Soka Gakkai of deviating from their doctrine. One grievance listed by the priests was “the participation by Gakkai members in the festivals of other faiths.” As a result, in 1979, Ikeda resigned as president of Soka Gakkai in Japan and was unable to speak publicly in his own country. However, he retained his role as president of Soka Gakkai International and the following year embarked on a world tour, starting in the United States. Well-publicized meetings with Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and others served to raise his international profile.

Ikeda’s increased celebrity status only widened the gap between him and the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood. By 1991 the gap triggered a schism. On November 28, the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood excommunicated Ikeda and all 11 million Soka Gakkai members worldwide, claiming the lay organization had deviated too far from doctrine.

While the victors get the spoils, the businesspeople get the business. Retaining the organization’s worldwide wealth and membership, Ikeda and his followers easily pivoted, dropping any connection to Nichiren Shōshū and carrying on under the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) name, rebranding as the world’s first Protestant Buddhist sect. NSA offices nationwide hung up an SGI shingle and carried on business as usual.

At 90, Ikeda remains the organization’s heavily-revered president and mentor to 12 million SGI members worldwide.

George M. Williams’ fate would be much different. While all of the NSA properties and most of the U.S. congregation transitioned to SGI, Williams was inexorably tied to the NSA identity and he was removed from his position as General Director around the time of the schism. While many former NSA members still hold Williams in high regard, his spotlight faded quickly and he was written out of the official history of the NSA/SGI. Questions about him and the Liberty Bell replicas were not returned by SGI public relations staff. Even a shallow dive into forums and comments on related articles suggest the wounds have not healed much in 30 years.

Those in the pro-Ikeda camp accused Williams of using the NSA for his personal gain and plotting with the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood to overthrow Ikeda. Those in the pro-Willams camp see his removal as a hatchet job — a jealousy-driven power grab.

Willams, for his part, seemed not to harbor the ill will still held by many of his fans. Despite the heartbreaking schism with his Sensei, George M. Williams could reflect on his American life with pride. He hung onto his dream, built a remarkably diverse community, brought his word to the masses, hung out with celebrities and had a hell of a good time along the way.

He died on November 12, 2012, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, not long after recording a final message.

The cult question

It’s all fun and games until someone accuses you of running a cult, and the NSA did not escape such chatter. The sect rose to prominence during the golden age of cults in America; they were just popular enough, and just different enough that the C-word inevitably became part of the NSA conversation.

In the waning of the 80s, American ideals of protecting the innocent and respecting religious freedom went head-to-head as noble concerns to prevent the next Jonestown met ignoble fears of the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Daniel Golden’s extensive 1989 Boston Globe piece comes as close to answering the cult question as any other efforts. Interviewing disgruntled former members and cult experts — some who accuse the sect of using chanting to exert mind control on congregants — Golden paints a picture of a group so far removed from Buddhism as to be unrecognizable.

Cynthia Kisser from the Cult Awareness Network explains, “They claim to be a Buddhist sect, but they actually use very little Buddhism. They (followers) don’t really know what they’re getting into. They haven’t got the foggiest notion that this isn’t Buddhism.”

While the NSA could be considered more Budd-ist than Buddhist — a pure pop Buddhism perfectly designed for America in the 1980s — it lacked some important characteristics of dangerous cults. Members could leave on their own (many did), were not deprived of food, sleep or family, and their financial contributions were closer to the standard 10% tithe than a culty swindle.

Golden would later conclude, “the NSA shifts back and forth from religion to cult, depending on who’s in charge.”

The cult chatter did not keep the NSA out of American schools. Most welcomed their Liberty Bell show with open arms and few questions; only two turned them down, the United Nations school and a public junior high school, both in New York.

Sylvia Fuhrman, from the UN school, expressed her reservations to Golden, “… the more we checked into it, the less we liked it. Nowhere can you find who is footing the bill. That’s what alerted me. I thought of poor souls being enticed into it.”

While the NSA may not have met all the criteria to be widely considered a cult, both Williams and Ikeda attained such star power by the late 1980s to create a cult of personality.

As to the cult question, history is the best judge. The NSA ended not with an apocalyptic blaze of glory, but with a corporate rebrand, the way your bank suddenly becomes another bank, but not much else changes. If the NSA was a cult, they were not a very good one.

With the ouster of George M. Williams, so too went the parade appearances, the world-record-breaking, the celebrity endorsements and the New Freedom Bell. After the 1989 school tour, the city of Philadelphia still had not found a location for the bell, so the NSA took their bell and went home. What became of the New Freedom Bell is a mystery to me, and the SGI isn’t talking.

Philadelphia would finally get a Liberty Bell replica in 2001. Cast at the same foundry and the same pit that produced the Liberty Bell and the New Freedom Bell, this replica can be seen and rung at the National Liberty Museum as part of a $7 admission fee.


The inscription on the Aloha Bell plaque:

Presented to the people of Honolulu with the following Declaration for Peace

We the people of aloha, the members of Nichiren Shōshū Soka Gakkai of America, assembled on the occasion of the 5th World Peace Youth Culture Festival, the 100th anniversary of the Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the United Nations International Youth Year.

Do hereby proclaim our common desire for peace and our prayer for the eternal rest of those who died here in their quest for peace.

This Liberty Bell of Aloha is presented to the people of Honolulu as a symbol of our wish for peace … that there be no more Pearl Harbor, no more Hiroshima and no more war.

We, further pray that the sound of this bell will be heard throughout the land as a call for liberty, equality and respect for the dignity of human life and that, so long as this bell shall ring, Hawaii will be at peace, our nation will be at peace and the world will be at peace.

We hereby affirm on behalf of all human beings and forever, the belief of our forefathers, that these truths are self-evident, and that all people have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

George W. Williams

President and General Director

And the members of NSA

July 4, 1985

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