Soka Gakkai Opens University in California

Soka Gakkai International inaugurates a brand new liberal arts college with a Buddhist bent--open to anyone.

August 16, 2001 Aliso Viejo, Calif. (AP)--Ahmir Nezhad was bound for the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles when he heard about the brand new liberal artscollege with a big dream.

There, he was told, he could participate in a Buddhist-inspiredexperiment--attending a private university where learning to make moneywas less important than promoting world peace, students must travelabroad and everyone from the president to the janitor has the same sizeoffice.

Nezhad thought it over and enrolled as part of the first freshman classat Soka University of America. The school opens this month. ``A lot of people think I'm taking a risk, sacrificing something,'' saidNezhad, an 18-year-old from Diamond Bar. ``I think I'm actually part ofsomething.''

The $220 million campus has inviting architecture, lush landscaping andsweeping views from a hill overlooking this Orange County community 70miles south of Los Angeles. Administrators hope the school one day willbecome a standard of higher education.

``The spectacle of a liberal arts college in a private sector with itsfinancial future assured is nothing less than astounding,'' saidChristopher J. Lucas, author of ``American Higher Education: AHistory.'' ``It's a one-time, one-of-a-kind college.'' The university is financed by Soka Gakkai International, a controversialJapanese sect that is one of the world's largest lay Buddhistorganizations.


Founded more than 70 years ago by philosopher and educator TsunesaburoMakiguchi, the sect created the Komeito reform political party in the1960s. Some compared the religion to a cult because of its aggressiverecruiting efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.

Members forced their way into followers' homes to make sure they wereadhering to the beliefs, and the sect banned mixing of religions, saidNobutaka Inoue, a religion professor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. It's a characterization Soka Gakkai has long dismissed, attributing theaggressive tactics in its early days to a few zealous followers.

The newly incorporated city of Aliso Viejo isn't troubled by those whocriticize Soka Gakkai, embracing the university as one of the city'scultural staples. Its large theater and art gallery, for example, willbe open to the public.

With millions of members in Japan and abroad, the sect has accumulatedbillions of dollars in assets. Much of the money comes from the group'sweekly magazines, newspapers and donations.

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