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Encountering Josei Toda

(An essay from Jinsei no onshi (My Teacher in Life) published in 19691)

If I had not had Josei Toda for my teacher, I would never have amounted to anything at all. It took me a long time to realize this fact. While Toda Sensei was still alive, I was completely wrapped up in the struggle for survival, and during the ten years following his death, I have devoted every ounce of my energy to the task of carrying on and enlarging the work which he began. But now, as I look back upon all that has happened in the past twenty years and consider in a dispassionate manner what has been accomplished so far, I can see that everything has turned out just as Toda Sensei predicted it would on the various occasions when he talked to me and others about our future. When I reflect on my own life, I remember the unyielding figure of my mentor with wonder and awe.

My first meeting with him took place on a hot summer night in 1947, when I was nineteen years old. Tokyo, like the rest of Japan, was under the control of the occupation forces. At that time, the entire area south of the Imperial Palace was little more than a burned-out plain. Only here and there in the desolate night could one see dim lights flickering in the little makeshift shacks erected on the ruins, or in the air raid shelters that served as living quarters for many.

My family lived in the area and made a living by growing and gathering certain edible seaweed known as nori. We somehow managed to keep the business going during the war and in the years following it, though on a much reduced scale. (Of my four older brothers, the eldest had been reported killed in action and the others had not yet been repatriated from overseas.) In the midst of poverty and want, Japanese society was undergoing profound changes. The cry of democracy was heard on every street corner; the old powers and figures of authority one after another faltered and crumbled.

For persons of my generation, who had had nationalism and absolute obedience to the Emperor drummed into them from the time they were old enough to understand anything, it seemed as though everything we had believed had suddenly been reduced to naught. We young people had nothing whatever to trust and believe in. It is hardly surprising that we found our bodies and minds tormented day after day by a sense of fretfulness and apprehension.

It was under such conditions that, almost as a matter of natural impulse, two or three of us got together in a group to exchange books. Starved for something to read, we treasured whatever volumes we could find that had escaped being burned in the air raids, and fell on them hungrily. Novels, works of philosophy, biographies of great men, books on science--we devoured anything and everything that came to hand and then shared our impressions with one another. But although we would have endless debates on the significance of what we had read, when we faced the harsh realities of the times, the spiritual support and confidence we thought we had gained from our reading would suddenly melt away. In addition to this group, I had another friend from elementary school days who from time to time came to visit me. One day she invited me to attend a meeting, to be held at her house, on "The Philosophy of Life." It was then that I first heard the name Josei Toda.

Purely out of motives of curiosity, I decided to go, and took along with me the other members of the reading group.

We found ourselves being addressed by a man in his forties with a somewhat hoarse voice and a relaxed manner. His thick glasses caught the light, and I remember being particularly impressed by his broad, prominent forehead. At first I didn't understand anything he was saying, though I gathered it had to do with Buddhist doctrine. I had no sooner come to that conclusion, however, than I noticed that his discussion was also interspersed with acute observations on the political situation and other matters pertaining to everyday life. But just as I would begin to follow what he was saying, he would suddenly come out with a string of difficult-sounding Buddhist terms. In all, my impression was that of a very strange and unfamiliar philosophy.

Still, his remarks did not sound like the usual sermon of a religious leader, nor, for that matter, like what one would call a conventional lecture on philosophy. They seemed to be very concrete and to the point, without any bandying about of abstract ideas and concepts, and at the same time they appeared to suggest that the plain and simple facts of everyday life were in themselves capable of embodying the highest kinds of truth. The room was filled to overflowing with middle-aged men, housewives, young girls, and sturdy-looking young men. All of them kept their eyes fixed on Toda Sensei and listened with rapt attention. Though all were shabbily dressed, I knew that they were good, law-abiding people. And there seemed to be about these simple people an undefinable aura of life and vitality.

Toda Sensei did not strike me as belonging to any type of personality that I was familiar with. He had a brusque way of speaking, but also conveyed a sense of unlimited warmth. As I stared intently at him, our lines of vision would sometimes meet. At such times, I would drop my eyes in confusion, but when I would look up again after a moment, I felt as though his gaze were still fixed upon me. It sounds like an odd thing to say, but in the course of the talk I somehow began to feel I had known him for a long time.

At the end of the talk, my friend introduced me to him. "Well, well, " he said, his eyes shining behind the thick lenses as he looked for a moment squarely into my face. Then, as though he had understood something, he broke into a warm smile.

"How old are you?" he asked

With that sense of having known him before, I answered without hesitation, "Nineteen."

"Nineteen, you say?" He seemed to have remembered something. "I was nineteen when I came to Tokyo. I came from Hokkaido, a country hick on my first visit to the big city."

I remember that he was chewing on a jintan tablet, a kind of breath sweetener, and smoking a cigarette at the same time. I felt an impulse to take the opportunity to ask him about some of the doubts I had concerning life and society. What is the right kind of life? What does true patriotism mean? What do you think of the emperor system? What is Buddhism really all about?

I did ask him, and his replies were direct and without equivocation. He appeared to be answering without the slightest difficulty, but that in fact, I now know, was simply an indication of how rapidly his mind worked. Without any trace of awkwardness or evasion, he addressed himself directly to the very heart of each question. I came away fully satisfied with his answers, realizing for the first time in my life that truth was after all something very close at hand.

On August 24, just ten days after that evening with Toda Sensei, I became a follower of the Nichiren Shoshu and a member of the Soka Gakkai. Little by little I came to understand the true aptness and worth of Buddhist philosophy, and to appreciate what a rare kind of person Josei Toda was. Meanwhile, I continued to work during the day and to go to school in the evenings. But I had already begun to have doubts about this way of life, and about a year later, following what seemed to be the most natural course of events, I made up my mind to quit my job and go to work for the publishing company that Toda Sensei headed.

That was in January, 1949. It was very hard work. The postwar Japanese economy, just recovering from the effects of defeat, was tossed about like a boat on the surging waves of inflation. A modest enterprise like Toda Sensei's, needless to say, could not escape being buffeted and battered in the harsh economic climate. From the end of 1949 until the summer of 1951 the battle for survival was fought on a daily basis.

One by one the employees of the company left and went elsewhere, until I was the only person remaining to deal with our creditors. The deterioration of my health and my general frustration at life had both reached the danger point, and yet I made no move to leave Toda Sensei. On the contrary, at some point I made up my mind that I would stick with him regardless of what happened, even though it might mean following him to the depths of hell. I believed in him, I believed in the rightness of the Buddhist teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, and I was determined to stick by them and continue the fight just as long as possible.

"I have failed in business, but I have not failed in my life and I have not failed in my Buddhism!" In uttering these words, Toda Sensei showed that he was fully aware of his mission. This was something I sensed very strongly. From that point onward, everything was a matter of rebuilding.

In order to help Toda Sensei to rebuild his business and the Soka Gakkai, it became necessary for me to give up my schooling. Sensei was sorry that, as his only disciple, I had to take this step. "From now on, " he said, "I'll teach you everything!"

From that time on, for the next several years, I received private instruction from Toda Sensei at his home or early in the morning at his office. Law, political science, economics, chemistry, astronomy, classical Chinese--with the utmost care he taught me almost every conceivable subject, except foreign languages. It seemed as though he was determined to pass on to me every bit of learning that he himself possessed.

His own learning he had acquired largely through his own efforts. After finishing elementary school in Hokkaido, he became an apprentice to a tradesman, simultaneously studying on his own until he had qualified himself as an assistant elementary school teacher. He then took a job as a teacher in a coal-mining region in Yubari, and in time became a regular teacher. At the age of nineteen he came to Tokyo, where he happened to become acquainted with Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the man who was to be his leader and teacher for the rest of his life. He attended middle school classes at night and eventually passed the examination certifying that he had completed the equivalent of four years of middle school training. Later he studied at Chuo University.

As you can see, he was to a large degree self-educated. Schools were something which he needed not to acquire learning but to give certification to the learning he had already gained. He was especially versed in the field of mathematics and for a time operated a very successful private school called the Jishu Gakkan. Also, under the name Jogai Toda, he wrote a book entitled Guide to Arithmetic, which was much used by students reviewing for exams and which sold over a million copies, making it one of the best sellers of the time. I expect that many of those who were students in those days remember the book with fondness.

In addition to the various subjects already mentioned, Toda Sensei also gave me instruction, and this with great intensity and enthusiasm, in the life force philosophy of Buddhism. And as he passed on to me detailed explanations of the Buddhist scriptures and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, he drew my attention to the ways in which these teachings relate to various modem systems of thought. I have subsequently come to realize that, in addition to this formal instruction, the efforts which he was putting forward to rebuild the Soka Gakkai, and in fact every aspect of his daily life, were in a sense a form of teaching, earnestly given and of inestimable value.

I in turn responded to this intense and challenging training with the best I could muster in the way of diligence and endurance. I tried to absorb everything he had to give me, though I fell short of his expectations so often that, almost until the day of his death, I was subject to frequent scoldings.

Reflecting on my life leaves me with a sense of wonder and awe at just how much Toda Sensei's existence has meant to me. That a man so mediocre as myself could succeed the late Toda Sensei as head of the Soka Gakkai and assist in the unprecedented undertaking of kosen-rufu, the propagation of the spirit and teachings of true Buddhism, is due solely to the fact that I have never for so much as an instant let the image of this great leader depart from my mind and heart. The greatest happiness of my life is that I was able to meet him and become his disciple and follower, and that the relationship of teacher and student was sustained until the very end of his life.