The Heart of the Cuban People
On its 20th anniversary, SGI Cuba makes a powerful new start.
“Look at the trees. You know how long it takes for golden oranges or ruby pomegranates to grow from their thick branches. When we delve into our lives, we can see that everything follows the same process.”
—José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, in a letter to his younger sister
Article by Monica Soto-Ouchi
Photos by Debra Williams
HAVANA, Cuba—From the mouth of the Havana Harbor, the Malecón stretches five miles westward along the coastline and into Vedado, the most modern part of the capital. Here at night, the thoroughfare has an ethereal quality—Habaneros, framed by soft light, mill along the seawall as American classics, all chrome and steel, thunder by. The strains of rumba waft in the thick, damp air, coalescing with the rapid-fire cadence of Cuban Spanish. In the city’s self-styled, open-air theater, the people are not yet immune to pleasures as simple as chatting up a stranger or watching the waves wash onto shore.
Joannet Delgado de la Guardia, the SGI Cuba general director, has traveled this route more times than she can remember. For the past two decades, the SGI Cuba national leaders have rented transportation twice a year to visit the island’s 15 provinces, delivering the Gohonzon, Buddhist study materials from other Spanish-speaking countries and other provisions.
The average Cuban household owns neither a telephone nor car, which makes communication challenging beyond the organization’s group level, where members gather monthly for Buddhist study and discussion meetings. An underdeveloped transportation system adds to the challenge of getting to and from meetings.
Despite such hurdles, SGI Cuba has grown from seven households to more than 1,000 members in the past two decades, with the youth now solidly taking the lead in kosen-rufu activities.
“With a lot of difficulty, we visit the members; there are no easy means,” says Mrs. Delgado de la Guardia. “That’s how we’ve done it all these years.”
“Kosen-rufu was born here when Sensei visited Cuba.”
It’s the morning of June 25, and the humidity presses in as members enter the multi-cine Infanta, a state-owned movie theater in Havana, to attend the SGI Cuba general meeting. Today, they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of SGI President Ikeda’s June 1996 visit, which opened the way for people to practice Buddhism in the country. Here, it’s customary to greet and bid farewell to one another with a kiss on the cheek, and the lobby pulses with such familial affection. The youth pass out handmade spirit sticks fashioned from blue, yellow and red curling ribbon representing the SGI tri-colors, a simple gift that personifies the warmth of the Cuban people.
Cesar Lopez sits on the lobby steps, playing an improvised melody on his saxophone for the members. Mr. Lopez began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo 10 years ago, after accompanying his wife to meetings. At first, he was skeptical of religion, but what he heard in those meetings began to reach his heart. “This is my path,” he decided.
Mr. Lopez was already considered an influential saxophonist in Latin jazz. What his Buddhist practice gave him were emotional stability and a true sense of purpose. Reflecting on the 20th anniversary, Mr. Lopez thanks President Ikeda for opening his heart to the Cuban people. “Kosen-rufu was born here when Sensei visited Cuba,” he says.
“Everything begins with meeting one person.”
President Ikeda traveled to Havana on June 24, 1996, at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, countries separated by a ribbon of water spanning just 90 miles. Although many around him expressed opposition to his visit, he pressed forward based on the resolve that genuine dialogue can break through any barrier obscuring our common humanity. “Everything begins with meeting one person and forming a friendship with that person,” President Ikeda later wrote of his visit. “No matter what political or economic differences people may have, they can understand each other on the levels of culture and education. This has been my consistent belief as a private individual committed to peace.”
“No matter what political or economic differences people may have, they can understand each other on the levels of culture and education.”
The following day, President Ikeda delivered a speech at the University of Havana, relating the thoughts and works of José Martí to Buddhist principles, such as the bodhisattva and the oneness of life and its environment. In recognition of his sustained efforts as a peacebuilder and educator, he became the first Japanese citizen to receive an honorary doctorate of letters from the nearly 300-year-old institution. He was also awarded the Order Félix Varela of the First Grade from the Republic of Cuba.
Later that day, in a ceremony televised throughout the country, President Ikeda met with Cuban President Fidel Castro, who, to the surprise of many, eschewed his usual military attire for a business suit to welcome an advocate of peace. Among the varied topics, they discussed how the future of Cuba and the world depends on education. (A point of pride in Cuba is its 99.9 percent literacy rate and free tuition through the Ph.D. level.)
Myriam Rosa remembers watching this remarkable exchange on state TV. Years later, she would encounter President Ikeda again, but this time through his writings. A normally sunny and energetic person, she found herself inconsolable after her favorite niece, an architecture student, traveled to the U.S. and chose not to return.
Ms. Rosa found in Buddhism an answer to her sadness—the concept of human revolution, of transforming one’s life and destiny from within—through chanting with faith in the Gohonzon. She decided to join the SGI in January 2008 through the encouragement of a cousin in New York. “With faith, practice and study, my attitude totally changed,” she says, “and I became happy.”
Today, the economist-turned-published-poet hosts SGI Lion Heart Group meetings at her home in Central Havana that draw around 20 people, including regular pop-in visits from SGI members throughout the world. Her niece joined the SGI in the U.S. and they speak frequently. “We’re full of joy,” Ms. Rosa says of the meetings. “When we study Nichiren’s writings and have dialogue, people change. They encounter happiness.”
A youthful SGI Cuba.
This year marks a significant turning point for SGI Cuba. In January, the ninth anniversary of its official recognition by the Cuban government, the José Martí Cultural Society bestowed President Ikeda with the Utility of Virtue Award, its highest honor. At the presentation ceremony, held on Jan. 29, SGI Vice President Hiromasa Ikeda accepted the award on President Ikeda’s behalf.
The SGI delegation participated in an international educational conference commemorating the 163rd birthday of Martí attended by some 750 educators and thinkers from 51 countries.
The organization also joined forces with the University of Havana to co-sponsor the SGI exhibition “Everything You Treasure— A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” at Casa de Asia in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But perhaps the most significant changes are imperceptible to the eye. SGI Cuba is now centered on youthful successors, who over ow with passion and determination to advance kosen-rufu in their country. The general meeting—a dignified, ceremonial event—was planned and carried out by youth. A month later, on July 10, SGI Cuba held its first youth festival.
Alejandro Infante Guntín, the national young men’s leader, received the Gohonzon two years ago, seeking answers to a family conflict. The more he chanted and studied Buddhist principles, the more he saw the power he held over his own destiny. He now uses his platform as a rock guitarist to spread the Buddhist ideals of courage and hope.
When he visits other young men, they discuss the works of Nichiren Daishonin, President Ikeda and Martí, whose words and philosophy are known intimately by the average citizen. “When we chant, in that moment, their mentality changes,” says Mr. Infante Guntín. “They start focusing on the future.”
Every week, Mr. Infante Guntín, Margarita Morales Sánchez, the national young women’s leader, and Yenifer Madera Castanera, the vice national young women’s leader, meet at night to study Buddhism. They discuss their hopes and dreams for the future of their country and map out plans to carry kosen-rufu forward.
Recently, they planted two trees in the Martí Forest, replete with the native ora and fauna mentioned in his writings. The first was a tamarind tree they named Nanjo Tokimitsu after Nichiren’s youthful disciple and forerunner to today’s SGI youth division. The second was a mango tree they had planned to name for SGI Cuba. When they pulled it out of its bag, however, it was actually two trees joined at the root. They named it the Daisaku and Kaneko Ikeda tree instead.
Ms. Morales Sánchez says the whole process of planting the trees and chanting for their growth unified them even more. “José Martí said that every person should plant a tree, write a book and have a child. They all live on after us.”
Envisioning a brilliant future.
Last year, the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations. The SGI members of Cuba repeatedly expressed their hopes that the members in the U.S. and Cuba can take the lead in bringing the two countries closer together, based on heart-to-heart exchange. “We’re waiting for so many more people to come,” says Adelmo Díaz Torres, the general director emeritus.
It’s a dream that Joe Perez, an SGI-USA member, has long worked for. He has passed on to his children day-to-day responsibility of his businesses—including a charter airline that services the U.S. to Cuba—so that can focus even more intently on the promise he made President Ikeda 20 years ago: “To chant for the happiness of the Cuban people and take action,” he says.
At the 20-year mark of the Cuban kosen- rufu movement, the organization has indeed entered a new era. “We’re starting a new 20- year cycle,” says General Director Delgado de la Guardia. “This new point of departure is being initiated with a solid foundation that will permit us now to move ahead with rapid growth. We’re envisioning a brilliant future. It’s time for SGI Cuba to take flight.”