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The Potter's Hand: The First Three Presidents and the Creation of Soka Gakkai International
by Clark Strand

Clark Strand is a former Senior Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the author of articles and books on contemporary religious practice.

(c) Dion Ogust  

NO ONE KNOWS WHY, but for some reason the founders of religious movements tend to come in threes. Shakyamuni, Kashyapa, and Ananda come to mind when we think of ancient Buddhism. While Nichiren, Nikko, and Nichimoku are representative when we think of the Japanese tradition. Today, we might consider the three founding presidents of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda, and Daisaku Ikeda, as representative of the three kinds of individuals necessary to establish a lasting tradition. For there seems to be a natural progression in the creation, development, and stabilization of a new religion, and those three phases each require the talents of individuals with very different temperaments, so that the person who begins the movement is very different from the person whose role it is to give it shape and form, while the person whose work is to refine and extend its teaching is different still. Probably that is why there must always be three founders. Even at its beginning, religion is a communal effort. We cannot create something of collective value on our own.

The initial founder of a religious movement generally takes great risks. That is the reason why he or she is often persecuted and sometime even martyred. Jesus is one example, and if we extend the model to include philosophical movements as well, Socrates would be another. And Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the first President of the Soka Gakkai, would be yet another.

I often use the metaphor of making a clay pot to explain how a successful religious movement is created. In the beginning, that process of creation can be quite violent. The clay is usually cut several times--either with a knife or with a wire. Then it must be slapped down hard upon the wheel. When we think of what this means for the founder of a religious movement, we can see that it takes a special kind of individual to allow himself to be treated in such a way for the sake of what, in its early stages at least, is mostly just an ideal. There may be a loose organization in the beginning, a group of committed followers, a meeting schedule, or even a curriculum of sorts; however, once the trouble begins--as it always does--this nearly always falls apart.

On the night that he was taken into custody, Jesus' disciples all deserted him, and when Nichiren Daishonin incurred the wrath of powerful forces in the Kamakura government, only the bravest of his new converts dared stand at his side. How easy it would have been for either man to recant his teachings at this point, letting his disciples off easy and sparing himself injury or even death. For that very reason, there always comes a moment of truth in the creation of any new religious tradition--a moment when its founder chooses (not for the sake of what already is, but for the sake of what might be) to hold firm in the face of persecution, enduring what he might easily avoid were he merely to shut his mouth.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was repeatedly offered his freedom when he was imprisoned for "thought crimes" against the government during World War II. Each time he said no. Like all true founders, President Makiguchi had experienced a deep religious conversion. In the Lotus Sutra such a conversion is sometimes called "reaching the stage of non-retrogression," the point in one's spiritual development where it becomes impossible to turn back and return to the world we knew before. In Buddhism that old world is sometimes defined as the world of "upside-down views."

According to the logic of that old, deluded world, freedom means being at liberty to come and go as we please. Such a definition of freedom is very useful to an oppressive regime, because freedom, if so defined, becomes something that can then be taken away from us if we oppose that regime. President Makiguchi said no when offered his freedom because the offer itself was deluded. His captors, who thought they were free, but in reality were the "thought prisoners" of an oppressive government, therefore had nothing to offer him. He was free already. Like Nichiren before him, his willingness to die for the sake of the Lotus Sutra offered a freedom that was unassailable by any worldly power or authority. Like Jesus before him (and a few decades later Nelson Mandela, and then, as the worldwide Civil Rights movement spread, so many, many others), Tsunesaburo Makiguchi found in prison something that, at the time, could not be gained outside of its walls--true freedom, and with it the power to change the world.

The first founder of any religious movement must find that freedom and that power, and this always means that he must be willing to confront the forces of delusion in society. That means seeing the world right-side up and declaring that truth to anyone who will listen. The second founder receives that right-side up view from his mentor and builds an organization on its principles, declaring and spreading that same freedom and power to a society that, although it may still resist being told the truth, has on some very deep level already been predisposed to it by having witnessed the actions of a Jesus or a Nichiren, a Mandela or a Makiguchi. The work is still arduous and requires great energy, but it is not lonely.

President Toda's energy in propagating Nichiren Buddhism is by now, of course, almost legendary, and when we consider his character--the fierceness of his resolve to transform postwar Japanese society through faith in the Gohonzon and the creativity and daring he brought to the task of modernizing Nichiren Buddhism--it is easy to see the hand of a master potter at work. Like a potter, Josei Toda gave the Soka Gakkai the basic shape it has today, a shape that has proven so useful to modern people that it has long since transcended the nationalistic concerns of postwar Japanese people and spread to countless other countries around the globe. There, people have welcomed it, not just as a distinctly modern form of Buddhism, but as modern religion itself.

We see in the Soka Gakkai, as conceived by Josei Toda, a dynamic and practical philosophy of life that, for the first time in human history, privileges life over religion, rather than religion over life. Toda made his religion answerable to the lives of ordinary people, and his religion rose to that occasion. It worked; therefore it spread quickly and continues to spread almost half a century after his death.

But this is not the end of the process, as any potter knows. Even a pot with a very useful shape will not last until it has been glazed by the potter and then subjected to the prolonged heat of the firing process. Only in this way will the pot become beautiful. Only in this way will it become durable enough to survive the constant handling it is likely to encounter in the midst of everyday life.

To the third Soka Gakkai President, Daisaku Ikeda, has fallen the task of making the Soka Gakkai a thing of lasting beauty. That phase of creation, like those overseen by his predecessors, has not been without its challenges. A man of great energy and seemingly endless goodwill, Daisaku Ikeda has accomplished many things over the course of his career, first as the Soka Gakkai President, and then as the President of Soka Gakkai International, but among his many accomplishments, I believe that two lie at the heart of his mission. And, again, these have to do with making a glaze that is not only beautiful, but very, very hard.

The process of beautification he has accomplished by Ikeda in the only way possible for a religious leader standing at the cusp of a global age: He has reached out to people around the globe with a message of peace, culture, and education that transcends differences of race, religion, and nationality. In this way he has celebrated the basic human values which unite us all and helped to ready the world for the challenges that lie ahead of it in the next millennium--challenges like global warming, global nuclear proliferation, global population explosion, global poverty, and global economic expansionism. These are challenges for which the religious models which have existed up until now, with their traditionally tribalistic concerns, do not prepare us. Only a process of "Human Revolution" makes it possible to imagine addressing issues that must be met, not by any one people, nation, or religion, but by humanity as a whole. Such concerns have made the Soka Gakkai a "beautiful" religion to people entering an age of global concerns and has redefined worldwide kosen-rufu as a goal that can be freely adopted by anyone anywhere. It cannot have been easy to transform a nationalistic religious doctrine into an internationalist humanitarian vision, but Ikeda has now largely accomplished this, and the work goes on.

The final task has, in my opinion, been the riskier, as the process of firing always is. It is always possible that, no matter how functionally perfect the form of a pot is, or how beautifully glazed its surface, it will nevertheless crack during the long process of firing. During that process, the heat must be kept at a constant temperature. Likewise, once that process is over, the cooling must occur naturally. Otherwise, the pot will shatter. During this process the pot is mostly invisible. It is hidden within the kiln, and thus the potter must proceed with faith and confidence that his efforts will be a success. More than anything, the potter has to believe in the whole process. And this is difficult, given the kinds of pressures that the pot is exposed to within the kiln. It would be easy to retreat into anxiety or fear.

If we look at the process of formation undergone, first by the Soka Gakkai, and then by the Soka Gakkai International, it is easy to see that this process of firing has largely been conducted with words. If President Ikeda has been tireless in his travels and his efforts to reach out to people of different cultures and nationalities around the world, he has been absolutely fearless in the battle to define the teachings of the Soka Gakkai so that it is clear where they come from, what they stand for, and (the importance of this cannot possibly be overstated) what they are.

Through his many books, addresses, proposals, and dialogues, Daisaku Ikeda has fired the glaze on the pot of the Soka Gakkai continuously all these many years in the belief that its teachings must reach their durable form during his lifetime. Moreover, it seems clear to me that he does not intend to leave the process half done, and therefore the pot unprotected, at his departure. But now the firing is almost complete and the process of creation will soon be over. Once glazed and tempered, the pot need not be fired again. Indeed, it cannot be fired again. The work that remains for others is to share it freely with the world.