revised July 1, 2001
mail: c/o Independent Reassessment Group
7891 Garner Street
Long Beach, CA 90808
The Independent Reassessment Group ("IRG") is a group of SGI-USA members interested in fostering meaningful dialogue and debate aimed at advancing the stated goals of our organization. We are not an officially sanctioned SGI-USA group. Any positions stated are solely those of our membership, and do not necessarily reflect official SGI-USA positions. The members of the IRG have all participated very closely with the organization in the past in many activities and in various leadership capacities, and some of us still do. Following is a brief history describing how the IRG came into existence and what’s occurred since it was founded. As a preface to this history, it should be noted that we are well aware of efforts made by other SGI-USA members in prior years which were similar to ours; we are not the originators of calls for meaningful and positive reform.
In November of 1997, Andy Hanlen began corresponding with the SGI-USA national leadership over various matters of interest to him. Of particular interest to Andy was the SGI-USA's handling of the temple issue. He became concerned because he was on his local study committee, which was asked to help prepare members for the Entrance Examinations. He saw the material on the temple and was concerned. Specifically, the organization had issued a pamphlet entitled Questions and Answers on the Temple Issue, portions of which were cited as "study material" for the Examinations. It was, in Andy's opinion, poorly researched, propagandistic, and in some places untrue. He felt that the valid points in it were so immersed in unacceptable material that it was inappropriate. He refused to "teach" it to the new members, and, with the assistance of his wife, Dana, wrote a six-page critique, which eventually made its way, on April 10 of 1998, to Greg Martin, then in the Study Department. He corresponded with Mr. Martin, who acknowledged the piece, saying that perhaps Andy would be interested in working on Volume 2 of the Q & A on the Temple Issue, which they were then talking about preparing. Andy was encouraged to continue his efforts by Mr. Martin. [Since that time a second "temple issue" handbook has been issued, although Andy was not invited to participate.]
Andy had been in contact with one of his oldest friends, John Nicks, who lives in Phoenix. They naturally discussed these issues and John suggested that they push ahead with a more formal preparation of all of their issues of concern, and attempt to get this material to the people at the SGI-USA national leadership level whom they thought might be open to these ideas. Initially they targeted Mr. Martin, Al Albergate and Guy McCloskey, John and Andy having close connections with the latter two over the years. On June 3, 1998 they submitted a ten page document entitled Building an American Buddhist Organization - Establishing an organization dedicated to the practice and propagation of Nichiren Daishonin's teachings in an American cultural context, which was a general summation of the problems they saw, but offered only general proposals for solutions. On July 31 of that year they submitted a draft of a national survey they proposed for the SGI-USA to conduct. In between and after was a series of e-mail communications, mostly with Mr. Martin, which resulted in a meeting between John and Andy and Mr. Martin and Mr. Albergate in Santa Monica on August 7. The meeting was cordial, although it was made clear that some of the basic tenets presented by John and Andy might be troubling to the national leadership. Encouraged by Mr. Martin and Mr. Albergate, John and Andy left with an informal agreement to prepare and submit specific proposals about what they thought should happen.
In the meantime Andy had been talking with others about the developing project, and some of them were interested. Jay Williams, an Area leader in Long Beach, California, was very intrigued, since he had made efforts toward reform, and encountered problems, previously during the Geographic Reorganization period, and thought that what John and Andy were up to had possibilities. Interestingly (coincidence?) Jay, who lives in the Long Beach area, happened to be in Santa Monica on the same day John and Andy met with Mr. Albergate and Mr. Martin. Jay had not been aware of the meeting, but they saw him at the convenience store on the corner in Santa Monica near the World Culture Center as they were leaving and they sat and chatted for a bit. This is as close as exists to the first meeting of the fledgling IRG, although they did not exactly see it as such, at the time. Anyway, they agreed to stay in touch and make plans, which they did.
The first "official" IRG meeting occurred on Sunday, August 16, 1998. In attendance were Gale Fue, Andy Hanlen, Dana Hanlen, Linda Myring, John Nicks, and Jay Williams. After an all day session, a four-page document called Reassessment Group Consensus Points, which detailed what all had agreed should be part of the IRG agenda, was produced. "Reassessment Group" was used provisionally at that time, having been borrowed from the "SGI-UK Reassessment Group" with whom Andy had been in contact. [They were ahead of us in some ways over there, but have subsequently been shut down by the SGI leadership.] Out of the Consensus Points came the "Mission Statement and Declaration of Intent," which was submitted formally to Fred Zaitsu as General Director on September 20, 1998 and copied to Martin, Albergate and McCloskey.
The First Year
Since that time the IRG produced thefirst position paper, and it was submitted on November 18, 1998. It is called Democratization - A discussion of the current organizational structure of the SGI-USA and the need to develop a more American-style organization based on democratic principles. Much time was spent doing research and footnoting the quotes, so that it would hold up as a serious piece. The IRG also expanded the "cc" list of recipients at the national level to include Danny Nagashima, George Kataoka and Ian McIllraith of the Organization Department, Margie Hall, who was to be the new managing editor of the WT, and Ted Morino. [Mr. Martin has subsequently been placed in charge of SGI-USA Publications.] In early January we received a confirmation from Mr. Zaitsu that the paper's issues would be taken up by the Central Executive Committee at the CEC meeting in March. Mr. Zaitsu was very warm in his acknowledgement and stated that copies of the IRG material would be circulated to all 48 CEC members for their consideration prior to the March meeting, and saying that "I understand you have been in communication with several Vice General Directors: Guy McCloskey, Greg Martin and Al Albergate, among other people. I sincerely hope you will continue to utilize these channels of dialogue."
In the meantime, two of our charter members, Gale and Linda, dropped off of the central committee at their own request due to other commitments. We added Mark Bodine, a long-time member from the San Fernando Valley, who exerted a lot of effort in the early '90's "Town Hall" meetings toward reform in the organization, and Laurie Chandler, also from the Valley, a former leader who is not currently active with the organization.
Beginning around the first week of December, 1998, our material started reaching persons involved in various on-line discussion forums, and the responses we began to receive were enthusiastic, and very encouraging. It had been our plan all along that, should we fail to get a timely and reasonable response from the WCC, the next step would be to assemble a broad based grass roots movement of concerned members from all over the SGI-USA and ask them to address the national leadership with written, serious support for valid and reasonable reform. Since our material had begun to be disseminated on the internet, this group began to grow on its own. From the folks we corresponded with, the level of concern and commitment was wonderful, and most of these people have written with comments like "it's about time!" and "what can I do to help?"
The IRG central committee met again (only the second "face-to-face") on January 17, 1999. At that time procedural and administrative issues were discussed, such as filing of correspondence, communications procedures, archiving, and so forth. Also discussed was the nature and content of the IRG web site. Regarding future actions, the following was decided at that meeting:
1. Circulate a request for interested persons to add their names to a petition in support of open public discussion, printed in the World Tribune or Living Buddhism, of our Democratization paper. This was done, and submitted to the CEC by March of that year. [Nothing has been published, however, in any SGI-USA official publications.]
The IRG central committee added Don Ross in February of 1999. Don was a long-time member, a former leader in Northern California and, at that time, a group leader in the San Diego area who had an ongoing interest in developing peaceful relations between the various Nichiren sects.
2. Begin the process of compiling the comments, pro and con, that we had received as a result of our initial submittals. We hoped to finish this and submit it to the CEC before the March, 1999 meeting, along with the support petition, but only the support petition was actually submitted.
3. Continue working on our second position paper on Appearance and hope to have it ready to submit prior to the March CEC meeting. (For more information about these issues, please see the IRG Mission Statement.
4. Our third paper on the Temple Issue was also in process, but would not be ready until later. [As it turned out, this paper was finished first. See below.]
5. We would write answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ's), which we would post on our web site as soon as possible. This was accomplished, and the FAQs can be viewed at our site.
6. We also requested that interested persons feel free to show, discuss or distribute our documents to anyone interested in reading them. We welcomed new additions to our mailing list, with the idea that more people with input to this process will insure a better result.
7. We decided to add a discussion board to the web site where interested persons could post comments that could be viewed by all who access it. Our idea was that it would be an open, public posting of comments with no censorship (though we would ask that the comments be kept civil). [In the event, this board was implemented, and we found that a stricter control than we had envisaged was going to be necessary, as individuals from other sects, and our own, with negative and sometimes slanderous intentions took advantage of our lack of censorship. We have subsequently revamped the discussion board and we now have rules about the range of topics to be discussed and the level of civility required, and we have removed persons who violated these rules.]
On April 24, 1999, we received an official response from the Central Executive Committee to our paper on Democratization. It was lengthy and well thought out and showed us that the CEC had given our issues a lot of time and consideration. (This Response can be viewed on our web site in its entirety.) While we did not agree with all of the comments in it, we were tremendously encouraged by the general tone of it, especially its conclusion, which said:
"We are determined to continue to build upon this success. It is an exciting yet arduous task that can’t be taken lightly or accomplished quickly. We appreciate your participation in the process and ask for your continued efforts and support in this regard."
We had also by that time, due mainly to input from interested members on our discussion board, modified one of our original Mission Statement positions, that being our stance on the Divisional system, and found ourselves to be in substantive agreement with the CEC comments in that regard.
Over the next few months we composed and submitted a response to the CEC Response in September of 1999. [As of this revision date we have received no further official communication from the CEC on this paper or its responses.]
Mark Bodine became inactive with the IRG central committee due to the demands of his family business. We added two new members, Chris Holte, who is a long-time member currently in the Washington, D.C. area, and Mulcogi Seng, a district leader in Tucson, Arizona. Andy and Dana relocated temporarily to Valencia, Spain, due to Andy’s work situation, and will return to the Long Beach, California area in 2001. They have remained active IRG participants via the Internet. Don Ross formally resigned from his membership in the SGI-USA in November of 1999 due to personal convictions, and concurrently resigned from the IRG central committee, but remains a close friend and a valued advisor.
The Second Year
On January 16, 2000, we finished and submitted our second position paper, titled: The ‘Temple Issue’ - A position paper discussing the temple issue and the SGI-USA's approach to the separation of the SGI from Nichiren Shoshu to General Director Danny Nagashima and the CEC. On January 29 we received a response from Greg Martin acknowledging the paper and saying: "If you receive no response from anyone else in the organizational leadership in the next few weeks please let me know for I promise to reply." On February 7 we received an acknowledgement from Danny Nagashima, and his assurance that he "...will be sincerely discussing it with the Soka Spirit Committee (formerly known as the Temple Issue Committee) and our study department."
Despite these assurances, and although we have since submitted numerous queries, to date we have received no further official communication or response to this paper.
The IRG central committee continued to correspond and build on its successes and learn from its failures. We received tremendous responses from members all over the country, letting us know how encouraged they are by our existence and our efforts. We have letters from many members who have re-inserted themselves into the SGI-USA in hopes that a "new day is dawning," and from others who are hoping that they can do so in the near future.
Individual IRG central committee members continued to participate in various on-line forums, usually acting on their own but continuing to represent the IRG agenda items. We also began to receive negative feedback from members who feel very strongly that our efforts and our agenda are in some way harmful to the SGI-USA. We continue to take these criticisms into account as we proceed, as it is our intent to contribute in a positive way to our organization’s growth, and such sincere voices in opposition are an important gauge.
During the summer a group of ten members from across the country who "met" on the IRG discussion board, including three of the IRG central committee members, started a newsletter called Reflections. They very quickly decided by consensus to make the"“e-journal," as they term it, more than an IRG instrument, but rather a publication that, as their mission statement says: "…seeks to publish opinions and perspectives from many sources, and strives to provide a forum where a variety of views and information on issues affecting the SGI-USA organization may be fairly presented, deliberated and evaluated." We are tremendously encouraged by this "spin off" and hope that many more members will be inspired to create other avenues to improve our organization. As of this date Reflections has already grown to a readership of over 560 subscribers.
On December 16, 2000, the "Justice Chronicle," an on-line SGI-USA newsletter ostensibly dealing with temple issue matters, published a derogatory article about the IRG and identifying us as "enemies of the SGI." This article was written by an SGI-USA member, and contained errors, distortions, and falsehoods about the IRG. The Justice Chronicle declined to publish a rebuttal by Andy Hanlen, which listed sources and references and demonstrated the errors and falsehoods, and instead published only a brief justification of its actions. It also carries no disclaimer, then or now, stating that the opinions contained in it are not necessarily those of the SGI-USA.
The Third Year
We grow more determined as the opposition becomes more vocal, most especially because, at the same time these responses are manifesting, we are getting more and more support from the general membership. We are also seeing similar efforts from other members. In particular, the Victorious America group has started a web site which echoes some of our themes while going in other directions as well. All of this is encouraging, as it seems to indicate that the members of our organization are waking up to their own potential.
In January of this year one of the three original IRG members, Jay Williams, chose to withdraw from participation for reasons concerning his business and local affairs. He remains a friend and a supporter of our activities. In March, Dana Hanlen returned from Spain to California in advance of Andy, who will be returning later in the year.
On April 30, 2001, the SGI-USA issued Memo PLN-030. By this action the national leadership for the first time took an official stance, in writing, distancing themselves from the IRG members. The memo contains untruths and misrepresentations and does not address, or even acknowledge, our primary agenda. The authors are not identified. We received dozens of letters, many from folks who are not even IRG subscribers or supporters (although some have since joined us), expressing their dismay and disapproval of the memo's content. Some actually oppose much of our agenda, but were nonetheless displeased at such an arbitrary and incorrect action. Three of the letters, which were copied to the IRG, contained statements by members withdrawing from participation in the SGI-USA because of the memo. These letters were all sent to SGI Plaza.
As of this revision date, the organization has not responded to our letters or, as far as we know, to any of the other letters of protest they've received.
In addition to the increased awareness of the IRG generated by the memo, and the great support we have received as a result of it, we have gained a new central committee member. Bill Anker is, with his wife, Jean, a long time SGI-USA member and a district leader in the San Fernando Valley area of California. Bill had just found our web site and he was stunned when he read the Memo. He did not know of us previously. He contacted us and has since become reinvigorated in his desire to help our organization grow and advance. Bill joined the IRG central committee in June of 2001.
On Sunday, June 17, the IRG central committee members met at the home of Andy and Dana Hanlen in Long Beach, California (Andy participated via conference call from Spain). After Daimoku and morning Gongyo the meeting began, with the primary focus being what is in the future for the IRG.
Regarding Memo PLN-030. After some debate we agreed on the following:
Since the IRG's purpose is to engage our organization in real dialogue regarding the issues that the IRG has raised, we want to do what is going to be most effective toward that end. While none of us likes being attacked and portrayed as slanderers, we do not believe that further demands for a retraction at this time is the best way to pursue our goals.
We agreed that we are not primarily concerned about our own reputations within the organization, nor are we particularly concerned with protecting the IRG; our goal is reform of the SGI-USA, and we will all be happy to see the IRG disappear if our goals are achieved.
Therefore, instead of demanding a retraction, we are determined to turn "poison into medicine," and view the memo as benefit. The memo has provided several of us an opportunity to renew one to one dialogue with National and Zone leaders, and we have had encouraging discussions. Some of the leaders with whom we have spoken were positively surprised to learn what our goals really are. Instead of maintaining indignation that a memo such as this could have gone out as a directive from SGI Plaza, without a real understanding of what was being addressed; we chose to be optimistic that this memo has provided us an opportunity to discuss what our real goals are, and to move the dialogue forward in a positive way.
We then decided to attempt to refocus our efforts on dialogue about the issues we have raised. We are going to do that in three ways.
1. We are going to continue our ongoing efforts to make the tone of the posts on the IRG discussion board more constructive and less negative. Many members have been able to express their frustrations on our discussion board, and we believe that this has allowed them a safe venue to honestly express their feelings. However, we will at this time ask the discussion board participants to concentrate on experiences regarding what actions they have taken in their own districts and chapters to bring about positive change, as well as present and ask for ideas about how this can be accomplished at the local level. We will continue to attempt to steer conversations in a positive, solution-oriented direction.
Since we don't want to unnecessarily restrict anyone, other topics and themes will continue to appear, but we will continue to ask for positive means of expression and a lessening of negativity.
2. We are going to support the editors of the e-mail journal Reflections in their efforts to encourage a positive and constructive tone. We are extremely happy with this independent "spin-off" from the IRG group, as it is a sign that more and more members are being reached and engaging themselves proactively. We hope to see Reflections continue as it has begun, and become a publication of encouragement that focuses upon personal experiences in faith, diverse sources for materials, study articles by members, and open dialogue between those members with differing viewpoints on how the organization needs to evolve.
3. We are hoping that we can reinstate dialogue between ourselves and members of the national leadership. We had pretty much given up on that, as the national leadership had for sometime been unwilling to participate in dialogue with us, either collectively or as individuals. There were some exceptions, but generally we felt that we had been cut off from that avenue. Recent private discussions with key national level leaders have gone a long way toward convincing us that this may be possible again, and is a worthwhile pursuit.
In addition, we will continue work on our third and final position paper on "Appearance". We do not feel an urgency to finish this right away, and are taking all of the time we need to craft an intelligent and reasoned document. We have not set a deadline for its completion.
Our discussion board continues to grow, currently it is has over 120 participants. We remain optimistic, albeit a bit sobered by appearance of the Justice Chronicle article, followed by Memo PLN-030. We have adopted a singe word, "persistence," as our motto.