Feature

Soar Into the Vast Skies of Freedom! Into the New Century!

Living Buddhism spoke with the SGI-USA leadership team from that time regarding the poem’s significance and how to study it for the future.

Sky reflecting in calm lake at sunset


This month, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Soar—Into the Vast Skies of Freedom! Into the New Century!” the last poem that Ikeda Sensei dedicated to the SGI-USA. Living Buddhism spoke with the SGI-USA leadership team from that time regarding the poem’s significance and how to study it for the future.

This roundtable discussion includes: Danny Nagashima, then General Director (now SGI-USA Executive Advisor); Matilda Buck, then SGI-USA women’s leader (now Many Treasures Group vice women’s leader); Tariq Hasan, then SGI-USA men’s leader (now SGI-USA Senior Vice General Director); James Herrmann, then youth leader (now Central Territory leader), and Renu Debozi, then young women’s leader (now SGI-USA vice women’s leader).

Living Buddhism: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us on the 20th anniversary of Ikeda Sensei’s poem “Soar—Into the Vast Skies of Freedom! Into the New Century!” He wrote this poem to the SGI-USA members in July 2000. What do you remember about that time when the poem was written?

Danny Nagashima: Thank you for the opportunity to speak about this crucial time in our history. “Soar—Into the Vast Skies of Freedom” was the last of four poems that Sensei had written to the members of America during critical turning points in the kosen-rufu movement here. This collection of poems is very important for the future.

The first poem, “To My Beloved Young American Friends—Youthful Bodhisattvas of the Earth,” was written in New York in June 1981 in the midst of the first priesthood issue.[1]On April 24, 1979, Daisaku Ikeda stepped down as third Soka Gakkai president to shield the members from the perverse machinations of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which had colluded with corrupt former Soka Gakkai leaders to wrest control of the lay organization. While President Ikeda’s activities in Japan continued to be curtailed by the priesthood, he turned his focus to opening the path of worldwide kosen-rufu. As president of the SGI, he did his utmost to encourage the members with his activities overseas, including those in the United States. True liberation came on Nov. 28, 1991, when the Soka Gakkai and the SGI formally disassociated from Nichiren Shoshu in an event known as our Spiritual Independence. The second poem, “Arise, the Sun of the Century,” was written in February 1987 at the end of Sensei’s monthlong visit to the U.S. It was a time when America had deviated from the path of mentor and disciple, and Sensei was trying to impress upon the members that “faith finds expression in daily life.”[2]Songs for America, p. 54.

“Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land” was written in January 1993 to America soon after our spiritual independence from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.[3]See footnote 1. Finally, “Soar—Into the Vast Skies of Freedom” was written in July 2000, marking another turning point in SGI-USA’s history.

Tariq Hasan: The previous decade was not only about the temple issue, it was about how to practice “faith equals daily life,” as Danny mentioned. During the pioneering era (pre-1990), the emphasis was only on expansion, and sometimes the members’ personal lives and careers got lost in the one-sided definition of what practicing Nichiren Buddhism in the United States meant. With this poem, Sensei was reminding us of the importance of this new era and the SGI-USA’s role in it.

James Herrmann: I remember clearly the night we received the English translation of the poem on August 3, 2000. It was a significant turning point for my life.

The opening lines of this poem signified a fresh start. The previous decade was necessary to realign and unite our organization with Sensei. I recall, that as the youth leader that year, our focus was on joyful shakubuku based on our vow as Bodhisattvas of the Earth. It was the first shakubuku campaign led by a new generation of youth. For the first time in many years, introduction-to-Buddhism meetings were being held across the country.

Renu Debozi: You could feel that Sensei was raising the youth, giving us the opportunity to go beyond our present potential. He was urging us: Stand up together with me!

Tariq: Sensei also expresses his deep love for America in this poem based on second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s declaration that he wanted to repay his debt of gratitude to America for its introduction of freedom of religion in post-war Japan.

Shortly after his inauguration as the third Soka Gakkai president, Sensei first traveled to America based on this spirit to repay his debt of gratitude to his mentor. He has been to America a total of 27 times, and each time he poured his heart and soul into developing the SGI-USA organization.

Matilda Buck: This poem shows how much Sensei expects of us, how much time he has spent with us and how much he is still with us. One thing that struck me was the way in which Sensei wrote this poem. The details of this poem are important. For example, he writes “here in America” rather than “there in America.” He also says, “Our fifty American states” and “This land of freedom in which I live.” Sensei writes as though he were in America and that this is his home. It reminded me of how first Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, although in his 70s, would address the members, saying, “We, youth.”

Danny: In February 1990, Sensei stayed here in America for 17 days and attended eight youth training meetings. He even canceled a meeting with the president of Brazil to be with the members of the United States at this critical juncture. This poem was written almost exactly a decade after Sensei made those painstaking efforts to awaken the youth of America. After a decade’s battle, Sensei is saying: Finally, my youthful disciples have arisen.

Thank you for sharing your profound insights. When considering the poems Sensei wrote to the U.S., what struck you most about this one in particular?

Matilda: When I first read this poem, I couldn’t understand why Sensei used such harsh words and imagery. But as time has gone on, I understand exactly why this poem is an eternal blueprint for SGI-USA members. Sensei writes about individuals “attached to power who walk toward destruction,” people who cling to “old ways of living,” “mutual abuse”—these negatives are a counterpoint because, in any era there will be people with ill-intentions who sow disunity within our movement.

But the existence of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, who engage in a moment-to-moment struggle and fight to make a change in the depths of their lives and in the lives of others, is what defines an era. It is important that America has the inner strength to win over the most intense kind of conflict, both internally and externally.

In “Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” Sensei asked us to break through the hard shell of the lesser self. In this poem, there is a deeper fruition of his wish for us. The disciples are the great protagonists. They are not something that is forming; they are fully realized. There is a certain confident majesty about their flight toward the new century.

At the end of the poem, Ikeda Sensei writes of how he eagerly looks forward to the opening of Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California, which took place in May of the following year. What did SUA symbolize for the members of SGI-USA then?

Renu: I remember that time very well. In April 1999, we experienced the emergence of mass shootings with the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. I remember there being a certain heaviness about entering into a new millennium, but Sensei always gave us something to look forward to. The opening of Soka University of America gave people hope, and SGI members around the world set their sights on SUA’s opening date: May 3, 2001.

Around that time, SGI-USA leaders were invited to a dinner with Sensei during a training course in Japan. Sensei also invited donors who financially contributed to SUA. They were not wealthy individuals by any means, but they had contributed greatly because they believed in his vision for the school. Sensei was showing American leaders how to have a heart of appreciation for the many ordinary people who helped create SUA. We have SUA because of these individuals.

James: As the national leaders, we made it our own personal vow to ensure that SUA opened success-fully, and we determined to eternally protect it.
In the poem, Sensei writes:

For the sake of
these free, young spirits,
I have determined to spend
the culminating years of my life
in this America I love,
together creating infinite memories,
sounding the reverberant trumpet of the dawn.[4]See p. 19 of this issue.

When I read this in Sensei’s poem, I really thought and hoped he would literally move to America and live near the campus. However, from a faith standpoint as a disciple, I always believed it meant that his hope is that the members in America and the students at SUA will always live united with his heart eternally. This can only be accomplished by transmitting his heart for kosen-rufu to the next generation—and to each generation from then on. These are his culminating years, and I confidently feel his heart and spirit are here in America.

How has the organization responded to Sensei’s expectations in this poem since then?

Tariq: The organization has advanced tremendously. First and foremost, there has been the great awareness of the importance of the oneness of mentor and disciple among our membership that did not exist before. Second, there has been the flourishing of the youth division, also based on this principle. It’s amazing to me to see not only how many youth are joining but also how, within a fairly short time period, they are able to grasp this principle of the oneness of mentor and disciple and have no hesitation in calling their mentor “Ikeda Sensei.”

Third, the youth have been taking the lead in every campaign with full support of the men’s and women’s divisions; four-divisional unity based on equality of all divisions has truly emerged. The fourth change has been the emphasis on studying The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin alongside Sensei’s lectures. This has created a firm foundation for the further expansion of kosen-rufu.

What should we keep in mind as we study this poem for the sake of the future?

Danny: Engrave these poems in your lives and use them as you continue to develop the kosen-rufu movement in America. Create a century where you raise a generation that is three times, 10 times, 100 times greater and more capable than your generation, always staying on the noble path of the oneness of mentor and disciple.

Notes   [ + ]

1. On April 24, 1979, Daisaku Ikeda stepped down as third Soka Gakkai president to shield the members from the perverse machinations of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which had colluded with corrupt former Soka Gakkai leaders to wrest control of the lay organization. While President Ikeda’s activities in Japan continued to be curtailed by the priesthood, he turned his focus to opening the path of worldwide kosen-rufu. As president of the SGI, he did his utmost to encourage the members with his activities overseas, including those in the United States. True liberation came on Nov. 28, 1991, when the Soka Gakkai and the SGI formally disassociated from Nichiren Shoshu in an event known as our Spiritual Independence.
2. Songs for America, p. 54.
3. See footnote 1.
4. See p. 19 of this issue.