Fostering “21st Century Thoreaus”
How I created a space to nurture young writers who can take their place on the modern literary stage.
by Philip Scharper
I recently read these words by SGI President Ikeda: “Dedicating oneself to kosen-rufu means ‘sowing good seeds in a field of fortune’ ” (May 2017 Living Buddhism, p. 28). After 31 years of practice, I know this to be true beyond any doubt.
I was first introduced to the SGI in 1986, when I had returned from Europe to be with family in New York after my dad died unexpectedly. Soon after, I signed a contract to dance with Ballet Mississippi, where one of the dancers invited me to a discussion meeting. I was attracted by the diversity of the members and their high life conditions in a place that was still under the pall of a troubled racial history.
I kept attending meetings and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and received the Gohonzon in 1986, immediately after returning to New York. The fortune I accumulated practicing with others enabled me to make dynamic career changes smoothly from performing to publishing, teaching, writing and educational leadership.
I began teaching at an adult night school, where I met my future wife, Fazeela, a fellow teacher. With her encouragement, I entered a master’s program in creative writing, using the Gohonzon to radically change my career path from that of a wandering artist to a settled civilian. We were married in 1996. Receiving the Gohonzon and marrying Fazeela were the two best decisions of my life.
Still, I could not get Mississippi out of my mind. Not only was it where I was introduced to the Gohonzon, but where my love of writing and dance converged. Inspired by President Ikeda’s poetic spirit and body of work, especially his deep resonance with nature, I dreamed of founding an arts organization out in the country to foster people’s creativity in writing and the arts, and bring individuals together transcending boundaries of age, background and experience.
I nurtured and fostered this vision while continuing to chant about it.
After a two-year search and lots of determined prayer, Fazeela and I purchased the perfect property for a retreat, 49 acres near New Hebron, Mississippi. The owners were selling off the family farm, where their ancestors had first settled in the 1830s. They thought our plans and ideals would be the perfect succession for the land they cherished. We named the retreat “New Walden” after Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, which chronicled his two-year experiment of living in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1840s. There, he built a simple cabin, wrote and reflected about his experiment to see just how simply one could live close to nature, undistracted by an increasingly mechanized, material age.
The publication of Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance—President Ikeda’s dialogue with Thoreau scholars—deepened my sense of mission to revive the spirit of harmony, coexistence and respect for nature and all life embodied in the lives and work of the 19th-century transcendentalist thinkers. In a poem, Sensei writes of them: “The crisp clarity of their call / aroused long-stagnant minds / urging a complacent society / toward vibrant transformation” (p. xv). Finding, nurturing and widely disseminating such voices would be New Walden’s work and mission.
Over the next 10 years, during school breaks, my wife and I traveled South each February and August to Mississippi. We chanted, established a network of friends and a loyal board of directors from the community. Over time, they became like family. Together, we wrote grants, hosted and taught writing workshops, featured Mississippi writers’ readings and classes, sponsored a teenwriting contest and served “catfish suppers.”
The New Walden Writers Retreat and Environmental Center, which we opened in 1998, is a place where simplicity, nature, creativity, harmony and advancement invite countless guests—writers, schoolchildren and community members—to find inspiration and create great value for themselves and others.
We had little money to invest and no steady revenue stream, but fortune flowed, due to our Buddhist practice. Two elderly sisters donated the house they had grown up in to be our Welcome Center. In 2004, we moved the three-bedroom Langston home 18 miles north to the property. Meanwhile, we continued to chant, work with the community and take baby steps forward, while accepting additional responsibilities at work as educators in New York.
During this time, I saw great conspicuous benefits. I was promoted from teacher to assistant principal. Then I was offered the same position at a better school. Despite harsh, potentially career-ending obstacles along the way, I made Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, the Gohonzon and the SGI my bulwark and “iron staff,” vowing to “prove justice” with Sensei. As a result, I have thrived at work and currently absolutely love my job. Most important have been the treasures of the heart cultivated by never retreating. I no longer seek to avoid controversy or conflict. I recognize that a person who upholds the banner of Soka justice and the shared vow of the three presidents and Nichiren Daishonin will invariably face and—through faith—defeat all manner of obstacles.
Today, I am committed to raising youth in my role as an assistant principal in a high-poverty elementary school. I am also fighting to support our organization’s most remarkable youth. I have visited and encouraged many young men, who have very real struggles, doubts and uncertainties in these turbulent times. I am determined to win by supporting them toward the 2018 gathering of 50,000 “Lions of Justice.”
I am now close to retirement. It amazes me that I will leave with a pension, full health benefits, Social Security and more fortune than I ever dreamed.
Many challenges lie ahead for me with New Walden. Yet, I am determined to use my practice to discover, nurture and present to the world capable young writers and thinkers to take their place on the modern literary stage.
President Ikeda said in Creating Waldens, “I hope that, inspired by the great lessons of his life, large numbers of 21st-century Thoreaus will emerge to smash stereotypes and live their lives freely in their own ways” (p. 41).
It is my pride to support President Ikeda’s vision for a more whole, healthy and happy world through New Walden. I will walk the path of the oneness of mentor and disciple, never give up on my dreams, continue to do my human revolution and through New Walden, offer space to creative minds far into the future so that they may contribute to a new American Renaissance.