(Sun Eve 6-5-2010)
SGI USA stands for Soka Gakkai International, USA Country-Division. Soka Gakkai itself means Value Creation Society. Hands down, they have the easiest entry point into their practice. Chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
There. You're a member now!
Really. For those of you winding up this site in order, it will seem WAY too simple! In a sense, that's the point. Buddhism can get as tricky as any philosophical-religious system. What the SGI founders caught on to was the need to let fresh new members feel like they belonged the minute they joined. All that study stuff can be settled later.
This isn't so bad from the perspective of a movement that insists anyone can begin the path. Literally anyone not afflicted with a life-threatening illness can manage six syllables. The point, explained in fancier terms, is that emotional belonging is as important as anything to start the unfolding of one's capacties. By dispensing with any "entrance exam" the SGI implies that anyone can find their place.
As an organization, I can only speak for their USA country division, though I presume matters are similar in other countries. It is one of the largest and best organized Buddhist Sanghas in the US. Branches are generally no more than 100 miles from each other, and usually under 50 miles apart. In other words, there is a fine chance that you can find a local branch near you.
As you attend more meetings, some further features stand out. The chant of Nam MYoho Renge Kyo is "the beginning, the middle, and the end of practice". In other words, from the rank newcomer who chants for the first time to the 30 year veteran, all the meetings contain some chanting. According to SGI leaders, this is a further feature to assist newcomers to feel useful during part of any meeting.
An important early mistake to avoid is tripping up on the ancient chinese dialect used in the chanting. This is out of respect for historical tradtion as much as anything else, because the chief developer of the system practice used was the Japanese master Nichiren Daishonin circa 1255 AD. However, modern leaders are keen to tap a side effect, which is that for an international organization, it serves as a universal linguistic pivot-point. Everyone in time learns to "think in the language" like the process of learning any foreign language, but the effect is that an assembly from all the member countries would instantly be able to conduct the ceremony together.
The Sangha describes its pillars as "Faith, Practice, and Study". The Faith part takes a little getting used to, for it is not the same brand of faith found in western religions. Rather, it is faith in oneself to "bootstrap" oneself into a better person, one solved problem at a time. Put facetiously, the practice consists of chanting the rough equivalent of "I alone am responsible for my actions".