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My Mentor in Life

march_16_ikeda_toda.jpg Mr. Ikeda (left) and Mr. Toda (right)

Sometimes a single meeting can change the course of one's life. For me, my encounter with Josei Toda, in August 1947, was such a meeting.

It was a hot and muggy evening. Tokyo still bore the fresh scars of war. Like a vast burned-out plain, the desolate landscape was scattered with hastily built shacks and old air-raid shelters.

It was a time of dire economic deprivation and confusing change.

Our schoolteachers who had so passionately spoken of the greatness of the emperor all of a sudden began to praise the greatness of democracy. There seemed to be nothing left worth believing in.

In such an environment, it was essential to find something to hold onto. Some 20 young people in my neighborhood got together and formed a reading circle, desperately searching for answers in literature and philosophy. I joined them, and together we tried to find some kind of meaning or direction for our lives.

Each bringing whatever books had survived the flames, we would feed our hunger for the written word. We would share our impressions, discussing and debating without end. Having been so viciously betrayed by Japan's militarist leaders, we felt that there was nothing, no one, who could be trusted. If anyone could be trusted, it would only be someone who had opposed the war, even going to prison for that cause.

One day, I was invited by an old friend to attend a meeting on "the philosophy of life" being held at a nearby home. My curiosity sparked, I set out for this gathering.

There I saw a man in his 40s. His voice was rather hoarse, but he gave the impression of being completely at ease. The thick lenses of his eyeglasses caught the light. At first, I couldn't grasp what he was talking about, something to do with Buddhism. But then he also made penetrating comments on different topics, from the burning questions of daily life to contemporary politics.

This was clearly not a traditional religious sermon, nor was it a lecture on philosophy. His words were concrete, and he was using commonplace events and examples to explain profound truths. The room was filled with people in shabby clothes, but there was energy and excitement in the air.

Mr. Toda was unlike anyone I had ever met. He spoke in simple, almost rough language, yet radiated warmth. I felt that I somehow knew him, that he was an old friend.

When he had finished speaking, the friend who had brought me introduced us. He looked intently at me, his eyes sparkling from behind the lenses of his glasses. He broke into a warm and welcoming smile as he asked:

"Well, how old are you now?"

"Nineteen,"I responded, prompted by a strange sense of familiarity. He said nostalgically that that was how old he had been when he first came to Tokyo.

I found myself asking him questions about the nature of life and society that had been bothering me.

His responses were completely frank and straightforward, suggesting the working of a very sharp mind. For the first time in my life I felt that the truth was very close at hand. He radiated conviction. When I learned that he had spent two years in jail for opposing Japan's war of aggression, remaining true to his beliefs through everything, I knew that this was someone in whom I could put complete trust.

My chance encounter with Mr. Toda turned out to be a decisive moment in my life. Ten days later I became a member of the Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist organization devoted to bringing a practical message of hope and self-empowerment to ordinary people which Mr. Toda led. The organization had been nearly crushed by wartime oppression.

Starting in January 1949, I also began working at the publishing company that Mr. Toda ran. The work was hard and the hours were long. Japan's economy, shattered by war and defeat, was marked by fierce waves of inflation. For a small company, the effect was devastating.

"I may have been defeated in business, but I haven't lost in life," he said, as many of his former colleagues deserted him. I will never forget the sound of his voice at that time--it seemed to issue from the depths of his life.

He calmly continued to put all his effort into encouraging men and women struggling to rebuild their lives with the help of Buddhism. I know there are tens of thousands of people who were personally encouraged by him, and who found the strength to face whatever difficulties seemed to block their way.

Although my health and my personal financial situation were on the verge of collapse, I never left my mentor's side. I had decided that I would accompany him into the depths of hell if need be.

Since I couldn't continue my formal studies, Mr. Toda offered to teach me everything he knew. He was my personal tutor; our one-to-one study sessions continued for the next 10 years.

He patiently tutored me in law, politics, economics, physics and chemistry, astronomy and the Chinese classics, and was constantly grilling me about what I had read. He encouraged me to become an inspiration to those who are not able to attend school.

Needless to say, I have largely forgotten the specifics of what I learned. But the core elements--daily habits of thought, how to view things and make judgments--these have remained with me, burned into the back of my brain. He never simply offered knowledge, but always emphasized process, developing my understanding of how something came to be the way it is.

Only a truly and naturally gifted teacher is capable of the kind of education that develops the character of an individual. I was fortunate enough to encounter such a rare and gifted teacher in Josei Toda.

They were harsh times, and the path to creating a people's movement for peace was strewn with difficulties. But the strength and insights that I gained from working side by side with this great man have supported me in everything I have done since.

I carry Mr. Toda's photograph with me at all times, and I like to feel that he is always in my heart, like a strict but loving father, watching everything I do. With each passing year, my sense of appreciation and gratitude toward him only deepens.

--SGI President Daisaku Ikeda

An essay published in the SGI Quarterly, January 2010 issue.

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