Soka Gakkai Opens University in California

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

BY: Chelsea J. Carter


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

There, he was told, he could participate in a Buddhist-inspired experiment--attending a private university where learning to make money was less important than promoting world peace, students must travel abroad and everyone from the president to the janitor has the same size office.

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

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

``The spectacle of a liberal arts college in a private sector with its financial future assured is nothing less than astounding,'' said Christopher J. Lucas, author of ``American Higher Education: A History.'' ``It's a one-time, one-of-a-kind college.'' The university is financed by Soka Gakkai International, a controversial Japanese sect that is one of the world's largest lay Buddhist organizations.

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

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

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