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by Clark Strand

"MAKIGUCHI IS DEAD." These were the words, spoken by a prison official on January 8, 1945, with which Josei Toda learned of the death of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi two months earlier. Until that moment, the future second President of the Soka Gakkai hadn't realized that his mentor had died.

Stark as they are, I believe these three words mark the real beginning of the spiritual tradition that has come to be known today as the Soka Gakkai International, accounting for how it came to be, how it grew, and what it has become today.

According to Josei Toda, when he heard those words, he "just stood there stunned, unable even to weep."

"I had never experienced such grief as I felt at that moment. Then and there, I resolved: I will show the world. I will prove beyond a doubt the righteousness of my mentor! ... With such resolve, I will achieve something great to repay him."

The true significance of that moment only becomes clear, however, in light of two other events that occurred in Toda's life the year before. The first, in early March of 1944, was his sudden discovery that "the Buddha is life itself," a realization which later formed the basis for his modernist interpretation of the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. The second occurred in mid-November of the same year, on almost the exact same day as President Makiguchi's death, although Toda did not realize it at the time.

That event was a mystical vision in which Toda found himself in the company of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth during the "Ceremony in the Air" depicted in the Lotus Sutra. Like mystics before and since, Toda experienced that transcendent revelation not as a vision, but as a real event, and the experience utterly changed him. Afterwards, the Lotus Sutra, so much of which had until then seemed impenetrable to his mind, was made "an open book."

It is deeply poignant and at the same time a spiritual necessity that these two events--Toda's vision and his mentor's death--took place within a day of one another in November of 1944. In a sense the two are opposites, and therefore could not have been experienced by Toda at the same time. Toda's vision of the Ceremony in the Air was a transcendently joyful and life-affirming occasion, whereas the death of his mentor plunged him headlong into the deepest grief he had ever known. I emphasize the importance of the prison official's words to Toda, not because the revelation of President Makiguchi's death was transformative in its own right, but because it marks the moment when the two great teachings of the Soka Gakkai first came together in a single person, and the resolve to build the organization into what it is today was definitively born.

Without President Toda's revelation that the Buddha is life itself (and his vision of the Ceremony in the Air which verified and completed it), the death of his beloved mentor would almost certainly have crushed his hope for the future. Likewise, without the death of his mentor, those revelations (extraordinary as they were) might have lacked the urgency that drove him to disseminate the Soka Gakkai's teachings throughout Japan and--later, through the tireless efforts of his disciple, Daisaku Ikeda--throughout the world. As President Ikeda himself has written:

"From real life to the Ceremony in the Air and then back to real life--this continuous back-and-forth process is the path of human revolution, the path of transforming our state of life. ... We can change nothing unless our feet are firmly planted on the ground."

The revelation of his mentor's death marks the first pairing of religious idealism with firm, practical resolve that has virtually defined the Soka Gakkai movement ever since. But in that case, what was President Makiguchi's contribution to the process? Does Human Revolution begin with Toda? And if not, how was that teaching communicated to him by his mentor?

From the beginning, one of the most remarkable things about the Soka Gakkai leadership has been the close relationship between mentor and disciple. In itself, however, this is not at all unusual in Buddhism, which has tended to emphasize such relationships throughout its history, defining its various schools and sects according to the lineages through which they have been handed down. What is unique about the mentor-disciple relationships between the three Soka Gakkai presidents is the way they have served as a model for all subsequent relationships throughout the organization. The profound gratitude one feels for his mentor becomes, in turn, his strong motivation for mentoring others, and thus the teaching is passed along.

For this reason perhaps, what could be experienced in terms of a top-down authoritarian structure is instead experienced by the Soka Gakkai membership as a coherent "philosophy of mentorship" in which older, more experienced members of the organization are responsible for offering inspiration, guidance and practical support to newer, less experienced members. This kind of mentorship is something that members of the Soka Gakkai across the globe know they can rely on wherever they go and at any stage of their practice, and it is something they learn to offer to others as well, as they progress further along the path.

And yet, it would be a mistake to say that this philosophy of mentorship is a matter of institutional convention within the organization, or even that it is merely a positive behavior that is modeled from the upper levels of its leadership. Rather, what is communicated is a spirit, and that spirit has been passed down from one member to another beginning with Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. He communicated that spirit to Josei Toda, and Toda, following his release from prison, communicated it on a national level to nearly a million other people in postwar Japan, among them the young Daisaku Ikeda, who would internationalize that spirit, communicating it to millions more around the globe. But that spirit had its beginning in Tsunesaburo Makiguchi's decision to die rather than recant his beliefs. This is what he communicated to Josei Toda on January 8, 1945, nearly two months after his own death. "Makiguchi is dead." With those words came the full force of Makiguchi's resolve to hold firm to the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and, like Nichiren before him, to read the sutra "with his life."

At that moment the full reality of Human Revolution was communicated to Josei Toda by his departed mentor. And his mentor's death merged with the realization that the Buddha is life itself. In my opinion at least, at that moment, like the first green shoot sprouting up from a stump that many had thought dead, the Soka Gakkai was born.

CLARK STRAND is an author and lecturer on contemporary spiritual practice. A former Senior Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, he has been an influential voice in America and abroad on the transmission of Buddhism to the West.


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