Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
by David Woodger, UK
David Woodger, 43, lecturer at the Department of Professional and Community Education at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and an SGI-UK men’s leader, is actively engaged in efforts to improve the daily lives and educational opportunities of London’s minority black community. Himself a victim of racial discrimination, growing up as a British Indian in British society, David talks about how his Buddhist practice helped him to transform his deep anger and resentment into a joyful life devoted to battling the true causes of racism.
Every time he was abused and bullied at school and in the neighborhood, David would feel heaviness in his heart. “Why do I have to go through this?...” he would ask himself. David was born of Indian parents but because they could not look after him, when he was three months old he was placed for adoption.
“My English parents, who were white, brought me up with much love and care. When I started going to primary school, however, I began to realize I was different from others. I was looked at and treated differently.”
When he entered secondary school, David was a victim of constant racial prejudice—his classmates continued to harass and verbally abuse him. His anguish intensified.
related article The Starting Point for Action by Tripti Tandon Tripti Tandon, a Bharat Soka Gakkai member in India, is able to communicate with respect for others' views while having conviction in her own beliefs, by emulating SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's compassion toward others and spirit of sincere dialogue. After graduating from university, David began working for a non-governmental organization committed to uprooting racial discrimination. He became absorbed in his work as a social activist in the black community. But no matter how hard he tried he could not see a way to change deeply engrained racial prejudices.
“What else am I supposed to do?” he despaired. Filled with deep antagonism toward society, David meanwhile suffered from humiliation and a sense of powerlessness from his tireless work against the authorities with little change.
It was around then that David met a senior at work who shared with him a different viewpoint on the problem of racism. His view was that although racial minorities have been known to instigate public disturbances in the U.K., and many are unemployed, they aren’t entirely at fault. He also said racism was a sign of social decay and reflected the local officials’ exclusivist attitudes and sentiments towards minorities. He continued, “Whether someone is a minority or an authority, what’s required is an inner transformation and a shift in mindset. That’s what it’ll take to bring about genuine change in society.”
related article Summoning up the Determination to Win by Lyla Cansfield Lyla Camsfield's experience with cancer enabled her to test the power of her practice of Nichiren Buddhism and to develop the courage to pursue the career of her dreams. David was stunned. These were words he least expected to hear from a “white” person. As they continued their discussions, David began to realize that he had been concentrating on trying to change the system and the attitudes of society at large, which were only surface manifestations of a deeper problem.
Several months later David learned that the senior at work was an SGI member practicing Nichiren Buddhism. One day, at his suggestion, David tried chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. “I’ll never forget what happened when I first chanted. All the pent up emotions and feelings that I had been suppressing since childhood came gushing out. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I felt liberated from the anger I had hidden inside me towards my birth parents and the hatred towards society. As I continued to chant I began to want to be the kind of activist who could sincerely empathize with those who have experienced the same suffering I went through.”
In 1994 David made the decision to join SGI. Soon after, he came across an article in an SGI-UK organization publication about SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s meeting with Nelson Mandela, someone David held in high esteem. In their discussion, Mr. Ikeda touched upon Nichiren, who was born into the lowest caste of Japanese society and therefore was also on the side of the “marginalized.” Despite the prestige he could have gained as an educated priest, Nichiren dauntlessly dedicated his life on behalf of the common people to establishing a life philosophy rooted in deep respect for life. David was also deeply moved to learn that during his 27-year imprisonment, Mandela had read a book by Mr. Ikeda. This inspired him to avidly read Mr. Ikeda’s writings and fully embrace the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, including participating in local SGI activities.
David learned to be more tolerant and opted for patient, tenacious dialogue instead of confrontation. This change bore fruit.
It was in June 1994 that David first encountered Mr. Ikeda, who was visiting Taplow Court (the SGI-UK Center in the suburbs of London). David was asked to help staff the activities during his stay. Still new to the SGI, David did not know much about the SGI leader, but from witnessing Mr. Ikeda’s interaction with the local members, he remembers thinking, “This is the kind of person I can trust and the kind of person I can work with.”
As David continued his Buddhist practice, his approach to tackling various issues facing the black community began to change. Whereas before, he would be filled with hatred and hurl his anger at perpetrators of racial discrimination, after he began chanting daily David learned to be more tolerant and opted for patient, tenacious dialogue instead of confrontation. This change bore fruit.
“The same senior officials of local government and organizations that I had been fighting against were now partners with me in working for the betterment of society. We were able to collaborate on projects and gain the government’s support in setting up projects and developments in the black community and most importantly encourage white professionals inside public organizations to reflect on their practice and services to black and racial minority communities.”
In autumn 1997, David participated in an SGI training session in Tokyo, Japan, where he was able to attend a meeting with Mr. Ikeda once again. This time he was able to report on the breakthroughs he had made in his work.
related article Working for a Diverse World by Roger Algase SGI-USA member and immigration lawyer, Roger Algase uses his Buddhist practice to deal with the tensions between immigrants and systematic challenges in a post 9/11 world and strives to maintain a calm and respectful attitude at all times. “Listening to Mr. Ikeda’s speech, I was inspired by how he stressed the importance of engaging in dialogues that reach people’s hearts and education that fosters people who work for the betterment of society. I made a firm resolve to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and reach out to more people and raise awareness toward abolishing racial discrimination in the U.K. I chanted so I could open new avenues in my work in the arena of education.”
A year later, David was asked by the University of London to present a talk on racism. Without reserve, he spoke about his own painful experiences of being discriminated against since childhood and of his work in the black community, addressing the causes of racism in public institutions. The students and teachers gained much from his lecture and the university offered him a job as a lecturer in the Department of Professional and Community Education at Goldsmith College.
“I told them I was deeply honored by their offer but that I had to continue my work in the forefront of society.”
The university’s response was “Of course!” David was hired under exceptional circumstances. His hands-on experience with racial discrimination is reflected in his lectures and research papers, which have gained wide approval. His research papers were carried in several academic journals in the U.K. One titled “Institutional Racism: Holding up a Mirror to Health Practitioners and Managers” was published in the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) EURODIV Papers, which comments on cultural diversity in Europe.
When terrorists bombed central London in July 2005, the local Islamic community became the target of harsh criticism and unreasonable bigotry. David continued visiting friends and acquaintances in the Islamic community and strengthened friendships and trust.
[Adapted from an article in the January 8, 2007, issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan]
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