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40 Years Since Stormy April 24, 1979—Part 1

Vigilantly Safeguarding Buddhism

Photo by Myles Cecil / Unsplash.

The following article is the first in a five-part series describing the events leading up to April 24, 1979, when Daisaku Ikeda stepped down as third Soka Gakkai president to protect the members from the perverse machinations of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which sought to wrest control of the lay organization. This incident came to be known as the first priesthood issue (the second priesthood issue occurred on November 28, 1991, when the Soka Gakkai was formally excommunicated by Nichiren Shoshu).


Since the founding of the Soka Gakkai, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood often deviated from the principles of Buddhism outlined by the school’s founder, Nichiren Daishonin. For example, in 1943, they accepted the Shinto talisman from the Japanese military authorities in order to avoid persecution. They even went so far as to disclose to the authorities that founding Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and his disciple, Josei Toda, would not accept the idol. Mr. Makiguchi and Mr. Toda were imprisoned for refusing to compromise their beliefs, the former dying in prison as a martyr on November 18, 1944.

Even following the Soka Gakkai’s re-establishment after World War II, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda made efforts to unite with the priesthood. At times the relationship was fruitful, allowing access to the Gohonzon and copies of Nichiren’s writings, and at other times challenging, with priests treating Soka Gakkai members with extreme disrespect. Having a deep understanding of the true nature of the priesthood, President Toda said the following to Daisaku Ikeda just four days before his passing:

When the priesthood has secured its financial base and gained a degree of wealth, it will surely try to sever its ties with the Gakkai. Nor is it inconceivable that the priesthood might again take the lead in undermining the Law and become the abode of the devil king of the sixth heaven, just as it did during the war. But, we must never allow the true teachings of Nichiren Daishonin to be destroyed. For that reason, you must fight adamantly against any evil that takes root within the priesthood. Do you hear me? You must never retreat a single step. Never slacken in your struggle against such evil. (The Human Revolution, p. 1911)

In the mid-to-late 1970s, incidents with priests using clerical authority to disparage Soka Gakkai members were increasing. They criticized the Soka Gakkai while making not an ounce of effort to propagate Nichiren’s teachings, simply feeling entitled to gain more allegiance due to their position as clergy. It was around this time that President Ikeda could sense a need to strengthen the members’ basic understanding of Nichiren Buddhism, so that if something were to happen, they would be able to clearly delineate right from wrong.

President Ikeda designated 1977 as the Year of Study, kicking off the New Year with a lecture on Nichiren’s writing “The True Aspect of All Phenomena.” Two weeks later, he gave a speech on the true meaning of the clergy and temples, and the essential spirit of Nichiren’s disciples. President Ikeda’s lucid words and explanations about the reality of what it truly means to practice Nichiren Buddhism incensed the priesthood.

The following are excerpts from these two speeches adapted from The New Human Revolution, vol. 24, pp. 143–65. Daisaku Ikeda is referred to by his pen name, Shin’ichi Yamamoto.

Excerpts From January 1, 1977 Lecture on “The True Aspect of All Phenomena”

Shin’ichi Yamamoto thought long and hard about which of the Daishonin’s writings would be best for everyone to learn about in order to promote the study movement that would help build a new era in the Year of Study. He decided to start with lectures on “The True Aspect of All Phenomena.” In his “Postscript” to that treatise, Nichiren Daishonin writes, “Those [doctrines] I have revealed to you in this particular letter are very important” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 386–87). This was an indication of the significance of this particular writing, which describes in great depth the essence of Nichiren Buddhism.

“The True Aspect of All Phenomena” was written to Sairen-bo Nichijo in May 1273, when the Daishonin was 52 and in exile on Sado Island in a place called Ichinosawa.

Starting with the true aspect of all phenomena, the ten factors of life—regarded as the key to the enlightenment of Shakyamuni’s contemporaries in the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra—the writing explores the essence of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and concludes that Myoho-rengekyo, the entity of the sutra, is manifested as the Gohonzon. In other words, the treatise reveals the object of devotion in terms of the Law.

It also indicates that Bodhisattva Superior Practices, leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, has the duty to propagate the Lotus Sutra, and states that this is the practice that the Daishonin himself has carried out in his life. The Daishonin is, on one level, in terms of outward behavior, the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Superior Practices. On another level, in terms of his inner enlightenment, he represents the Buddha of time without beginning who establishes the great teaching to save all living beings in the Latter Day of the Law.

This one treatise, then, is the consummation of “The Opening of the Eyes,” which reveals the object of devotion in terms of the Person, and “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” which reveals the object of devotion in terms of the Law.

The Key to Realizing Kosen-rufu, the Happiness of Humanity

In the second part of the treatise, the Daishonin states that kosen-rufu will be realized in the future, and he concludes by elucidating that the way of faith, practice and study is key to carrying out Buddhist practice during the Latter Day of the Law. The essence of Nichiren Buddhism is clearly articulated in this treatise.

For that reason, Shin’ichi planned to use his lectures on this writing to shed light on genuine Buddhist faith, the practice of Nichiren’s disciples, and the significance and mission of the Soka Gakkai’s appearance in the world.

• • •

Shin’ichi explained that all phenomena in society and the entire universe are expressions of the Mystic Law, and that the Gohonzon represents a microcosm of the universe and the source of everything. He also stressed that the Buddha is not some illusory, abstract being, and both Shakyamuni and Many Treasures Buddha are concrete expressions of the power of the Mystic Law. He emphasized that the Daishonin’s teachings that ordinary mortals can be regarded as true Buddhas and all living beings are entities of the Mystic Law stand out as great principles of humanism that completely overturned Buddhist thought of his day.

Shin’ichi said that in the Lotus Sutra, only the Buddha’s disciples from time without beginning were entrusted with the mission of propagating the Mystic Law in the Latter Day, which is to say, those propagating the Law in the present age are just such disciples and Bodhisattvas of the Earth. For disciples of the Daishonin, genuine faith and practice are found within the courageous struggle to further kosen-rufu in the Latter Day of the Law. As the Lotus Sutra states: “He or she is the envoy of the Thus Come One. He has been dispatched by the Thus Come One and carries out the Thus Come One’s work” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 200).

Who Are Bodhisattvas of the Earth?

The Bodhisattvas of the Earth do not act because someone tells them to. Because their lives are dedicated to the Mystic Law inherent in the universe, they spontaneously chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and contribute to world peace and the welfare of society, as naturally as plants and trees grow from the earth.

During his wartime imprisonment, Mr. Toda awakened to his identity as a Bodhisattva of the Earth. He declared that he was the great leader of propagation, and that the Soka Gakkai was the one and only organization in the entire world propagating the correct teachings of Buddhism in the Latter Day of the Law. The Kosen-rufu Gohonzon at the Soka Gakkai Headquarters is inscribed with the words: “For the Fulfillment of the Great Desire for Kosen-rufu Through the Compassionate Propagation of the Great Law.”

President Toda always said: “The Soka Gakkai is a gathering of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth entrusted by Nichiren Daishonin to propagate the Mystic Law in the present age, the Latter Day of the Law. It is an organization functioning in complete accord with the Buddha’s intent and decree.”

Speech From January 15, 1977 at the Kansai Toda Memorial Auditorium

Buddhism began originally as a teaching that aimed to revitalize the people. Making no distinction between clergy and laity, and without regard to worldly position or status, Shakyamuni taught that everyone could become a Buddha just like himself.

In the age after Shakyamuni died, however, people gradually lost sight of this truth of his teaching. In response to this problem, a movement arose to restore awareness of Shakyamuni and convey his true intent, which was expressed in the Lotus Sutra. Believers in the Lotus Sutra advocated a return to Shakyamuni Buddha and his teachings and called for people to awaken to their true selves through Buddhist practice. They taught as a lofty objective the dignity and nobility of the human being and endeavored to lead people toward a happiness that nothing could destroy. They took this wish of the Buddha as their own vow and, unbowed by any difficulty or persecution, persevered in putting their convictions into practice.

The leaders of this movement are referred to in the Lotus Sutra as “teachers of the Law,” and among them no distinction was made between clergy and laity, men and women.

This great Buddhist revival spread from India to China and from China to Japan. =

By clarifying the reasons why Shakyamuni’s Buddhism changed and declined, Shin’ichi wanted to sound a warning that it was very important for Nichiren Buddhism not to make the same mistake.

The Meaning of Clergy in Buddhist History

The original word for monk, priest or clergy in Buddhism is shramana, or shukke in Japanese. It literally means “one who has renounced secular life,” referring to leaving behind concerns for fame and profit, and distancing oneself from obstructions and defilements standing in the way of the pursuit of enlightenment. Monks and nuns traditionally shaved their heads when they joined the Buddhist order as an expression of the determination not to return home until having achieved the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

According to the Mahayana Manjushri-vikridita Sutra, a bodhisattva is a being who practices for the salvation of all living beings. He does not simply become a monk by shaving his head. What is it that makes him a monk? He is a monk when he renounces the secular world to wholeheartedly dedicate himself to relieving the sufferings of all living beings. This is what it means for a bodhisattva to renounce the world. It goes on to say that merely donning clerical robes does not make one a monk, either. One becomes a monk by giving one’s all to eradicating the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness that defile the minds of living beings.

In other words, the true path of a monk lies in Buddhist practice. It is not a matter of ceremonies or formalities, but rather is found in diving into the midst of the people and taking on their sufferings as one’s own. The qualification of a true Buddhist practitioner depends on what they have done and will do to help others. Though we Soka Gakkai members are lay practitioners, in spirit we shoulder the mission to transcend the secular world, and proudly and selflessly dedicate ourselves to propagating Buddhism.

One returns to the starting point of Buddhism by stripping away all formality and authority to clearly reveal the essential underlying principles. The participants listened to Shin’ichi’s words as if basking in the warm light of the sun.

The Origin and Purpose of Temples in Buddhism

[Shin’ichi] next touched on the example of Vimilakirti, a lay believer depicted in Buddhist scripture who received offerings. He explained the real meaning of offerings in Buddhism as well as the origin and significance of temples.

Shakyamuni’s method of propagating was to travel across India on foot and preach Buddhism to people throughout the land.

India, however, has a rainy season, and for about three months each year, travel becomes very difficult. During that period, Shakyamuni’s followers would gather in one spot and engage in practice. There are many well-known examples of these gathering places such as the Jetavana Monastery in Shravasti and the Bamboo Grove Monastery in Rajagriha. The English word monastery in these cases is actually a translation of the Sanskrit word vihara (Jpn shoja), or “place for practice,” which is what they were—places for the monks to work at perfecting themselves through various Buddhist practices during the rainy season. This is the origin of Buddhist monasteries and, later, temples.

After the rainy season ended, the monks, having deepened their practice, left these monasteries and went out among the people again. In other words, the vihara were not like many of today’s temples, where the clergy lived full time and conducted religious rituals. They were centers for religious practice.

• • •

Having explained the origin of temples and monasteries in Buddhism, Shin’ichi said with conviction: “The Soka Gakkai’s headquarters, community and culture centers, as well as its training centers, are places where Buddhist practitioners dedicated to advancing kosenrufu go to practice, propagate and study the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin. They are also places of practice where our members come to be rejuvenated and then go back out to their local communities to revitalize society and others around them. In other words, based on an understanding of the original meaning of Buddhist monasteries and temples, Soka Gakkai facilities are serving a role as contemporary temples and monasteries.”

• • •

The practice of Buddhism in the Latter Day of the Law and the true bodhisattva path are to seek one’s way and struggle arduously amidst the daunting challenges of the real world in the face of storms of criticism and abuse, persevering in dialogue, demonstrating actual proof of this Buddhist practice and propagating the Law.

A religion that loses sight of its origins and the spirit of practice in its early period becomes formalized, fossilized, ceremonial, bureaucratic and authoritarian. It begins to look down on the people and to perpetuate itself for its own sake rather than to help people. This is the corruption of religion and the death of the human spirit.

We can never allow this to happen to Nichiren Buddhism. “Let’s return to the original spirit of the Daishonin!”—Raising the great banner of study to vigilantly safeguard Buddhism, Shin’ichi was opening the way to a new era.

Daisaku Ikeda’s First Step as a Disciple of Josei Toda

Hojo Yagenta