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Our History

A Declaration of Human Rights at Lincoln Park

Transcending All Differences

Fifty-thousand youth from around the nation gather in nine U.S. cities for the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival to usher in an era of hope and respect for the dignity of life, Sept. 23, 2018. Photo by Dave Goodman.

Nichiren Buddhism teaches that beyond all distinctions, human beings are inherently equal. The great life state of Buddhahood pulses within all people and is manifested through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with faith in the Gohonzon.

The core philosophy of the Soka Gakkai—human revolution—is the notion that a person’s inner-directed change can transform the larger web of life that connects us all. This dynamic process of inner transformation is fundamental to rejuvenating society from the ground up.

On the morning of Oct. 9, 1960, Ikeda Sensei was walking in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, a lush, seven-mile expanse that frames the shores of Lake Michigan, when he watched several young boys kicking a ball, all the while inviting others to join in. When a young African American boy came along, the group roundly ignored him—that is, until he laughed after one of the young boys fell to the ground.

Sensei meets with the mother of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, on the former Soka University campus in Calabasas, Calif., Jan. 30, 1993. Photo by Seikyo Press.

An elderly Caucasian man rose from a park bench and screamed at the boy, who quickly fled in painful humiliation—too quickly for Ikeda Sensei to catch him. “What feelings did the boy take with him as he ran off?” Sensei wondered at the time. “If such treatment occurred every day, then the boy’s heart must have been cruelly assaulted time and again, leaving a gaping wound that bled with anger and sadness.”[1]

As he thought of this young boy’s future, he vowed in his heart, “I promise you that I will build a society truly worthy of your love and pride.”[2]

If this episode represented Sensei’s eternal declaration for human rights, he has spent the decades since tirelessly writing, speaking and engaging in dialogue to bridge the gap between people and countries, and advance the causes of nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, environmental protection and other pressing issues that humanity faces.

Toward that end, Sensei has remained a steadfast proponent of the U.N. as a “parliament of humanity.” To aid its mandate, since 1983, he has written a peace proposal every year on Jan. 26, the day the Soka Gakkai International was founded in 1975.

In these detailed proposals, which are read by U.N. officials and leading peace builders, Sensei highlights solutions to global issues, repeatedly stressing the themes of inner transformation, dialogue and global citizenship.

In 1983, the SGI became a U.N.–listed nongovernmental organization. Today, the SGI Office for U.N. Affairs in New York and Geneva seeks to educate the public in the areas of peace and disarmament, sustainable development, human rights education, and gender equality and women’s empowerment, envisioning a world where the U.N. lives up to its ideals and where a culture of peace is fostered by all.

For his sustained engagement, Sensei received the U.N. Peace Medal and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Humanitarian Award.

Today, the SGI has some 12 million members in 192 countries and territories—a testament in itself that human beings can transcend their differences and create bonds of friendship and humanity, just as they are.

In 2010, a statue was unveiled at Lincoln Park in Chicago depicting two boys, one Caucasian and the other African American, this time tossing a ball to each other.

From Ikeda Sensei’s Treasured Friends

Sensei with Jim Garrison of the John Dewey Society in Nagano, Japan, August 2008. Photo by Seikyo Press.

Jim Garrison
Virginia Tech University professor, and past president of both the John Dewey Society and the Philosophy of Education Society

President Ikeda, you have not only the ability to recognize the best in a nation, but by joining in friendship and dialogue with those who reside in these various countries, you actually help cultivate and spread the best each nation has to offer.

Our friendship is among the treasures of my life; it has helped me better understand my place in the world.

Sensei and Mrs. Ikeda greet Colgate University Professor Sarah Wider in Tokyo, July 2006. Photo by Seikyo Press.

Sarah Wider
Colgate University professor, and co-founder and former president of the Emerson Society

We met on July 3, 2006. Sixty-one years earlier Mr. Toda had been released from prison on that very day. You affirmed the work I did as work for peace. It was a profound moment for me. Rarely had my work in the classroom been recognized in that way. Often, my commitment to dialogue—to compassionate and social justice-based listening and inquiry—had been seen as less rigorous or beside the point. In that first visit to Japan, I could again see a distinct path ahead of me. Truly I was not alone in the work. Truly I could face “the perennial challenge,” “unknotting the tangled threads” of injustice with never-ending determination.

Sensei greets jazz giants Wayne Shorter (far right) and Herbie Hancock in Tokyo, 20 00.

Wayne Shorter
Saxophone virtuoso and visionary composer who has received 13 Grammy Awards, the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the Polar Music Prize and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

When I reached the age of 40, I was arrogant to the extent that I thought there was no necessity to seek a profound philosophy, until I heard about someone named Daisaku Ikeda. Upon seeing him for the first time at the University of California, Los Angeles, I knew he was a person ahead of our time, because he interacted with all nationalities, languages and ethnicities. He was to me, at that time, “too good to be true,” but when we met at a great Buddhist meeting in Tokyo, my perception of Daisaku Ikeda was altered to the point where I began to see him as “the new person” of dignity and nobleness in the corrupt, chaotic world in which humanity was and is held captive.

A Teaching of Respect for the Dignity of Life

Panel Discussion

World Tribune: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us as pioneering African American members of the SGI-USA as we mark the 60th anniversary of Ikeda Sensei’s first steps in America. Can you share about your first encounter with the SGI and your impressions back then?

Lee Malone, Riverside, Calif.: I grew up in Long Island, New York, where I went to an all-Black Pentecostal church. I read Martin Luther King, Jr. say the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 on a Sunday morning. When I went to my first Buddhist meeting in 1976 with my wife and daughter, I was impressed. The meeting was held on the U.S. Air Force base in Japan where I was stationed. I saw Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old. We were at a base that sends people to war, but we were talking about peace. I felt at home.

Etta Sue Henderson, Chicago, Ill.: I joined the SGI in 1982 after years of Black activism. I had spent the 1960s fighting segregation in the South with my parents and the 1970s fighting injustice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Simultaneously, I was always exploring spiritual avenues. When I learned about Nichiren Buddhism, the philosophy was so deep and realistic in its focus on the equality of all life that I immediately embraced it. But I was concerned, because I had never imagined myself practicing a religion that was not connected to African tradition. What saved me was that I was introduced in Chicago, and because Chicago is such a segregated city, many of the members were Black, so it was great for me! But I immediately moved to Cleveland, and that was where I had to demonstrate to myself that I truly believed all people were equal and that everyone had the Buddha nature.

WT: What were some of the issues you faced initially feeling at home in the organization?

Doris Edwards, Philadelphia, Penn.: When I started my practice in 1974, the organization was very different than it is today. The leaders were extremely strict and often unapproachable. I remember having an issue with a particular leader who gave me and others a hard time, on a regular basis. I considered leaving the organization. I was swayed. Fortunately, someone encouraged me to get guidance, and I did.

A senior in faith told me never to let anybody stop me from practicing. I was told, “Rely on the Law and not upon persons.”[3] I learned never ever to let anyone come between me and my practice or me and my mentor.

This guidance continues to impact me, even today. I am happy that I never gave up. As a leader, my determination is to be warm and embracing to all members, which Ikeda Sensei encourages us to do.

WT: Can you share your turning point in faith?

Michael Ewing, Chicago, Ill.: I grew up in the projects on the West Side of Chicago. In 1972, I was in my first year of Buddhist practice when I attended a Soka Gakkai training course in Japan. I was asked to represent the eastern U.S. on a baseball team that would compete against a Japanese team. When we arrived in Japan, I was replaced by a white guy at second base, and I felt a racial preference there. I was asked to be the first base coach and, while I said OK, I was hurt by the incident.

When Sensei arrived, he jumped out of the car and extended his hands to me. I gave him a soul brother shake, and he proceeded to encourage others. After a player was injured, I eventually got to play second base. After I was hit by a pitch, I saw Sensei in the dugout. We looked at each other, and he bowed deeply to me.

Years later, when I read about his determination to the boy at Lincoln Park, who he witnessed flee in painful humiliation after a racist incident,[4] I realized that I was that boy, because I wanted to run away in the moment. Sensei’s encouragement told me to stay, and I have remained here since. He taught me to never give up.

John Wells, Chicago, Ill.: My turning point came in 1978, when my little sister, Katherine, was the victim of a homicide. She was just 26 years old, and I called her “Pumpkin.” A senior in faith called me the morning she was killed and encouraged me when I was in a moment of intense anger.

The leader asked if my sister had children. She had two sons. He told me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to become a rock, because her family needed me. He asked, “Can you talk to your nephews about this Buddhism with blood on your hands?” Some friends had asked me what I wanted to do, and I knew what they meant. Before I answered, I thought of the guidance I had received, and I said, “I just want justice.” As I chanted for her every day, I solidified my Buddhist practice and became the rock in my family.

WT: As an activist in your youth, what are your thoughts about the recent racial justice movement?

Etta Sue Henderson: It is very clear to me that the reason we are still battling racism is because we are not focusing enough on the root causes. Racism in America is systemic. Human behavior is so programmed by its culture and historical experience. Our views of people and life events are tainted by how we were raised, how we are taught to think, or in Buddhist terms, in accord with our karma. Sensei talks about this all the time when he says that human revolution is about changing your perspective of how you view a problem, a situation, another person or your own life.

What is beautiful today is that more people than ever, especially all types of youth, are determined to be more inclusive, empathetic and supportive of others who have completely different experiences from them. Despite everything, I am very hopeful and believe that our SGI Buddhist practice gives us the power to transform anything and everything.

Lee Malone: My first protest was in 1962. All the Black students marched out of school because we weren’t counseled on college options at the time, as if we couldn’t get in. What’s important is that it was a peaceful protest. We had a long dialogue with the administration and with local community leaders, and change was made. As a longtime Buddhist, I feel racial discrimination of any kind cannot be tolerated. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Josei Toda, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Sensei were all put in prison fighting for the justice of human beings. What I like about these giants is that all of them were nonviolent.

While there’s still a lot more that has to be done, this organization is on the right track. The SGI believes in safeguarding fundamental human rights and eliminating discrimination. For that reason, we have to protect our SGI community. No other body, religious or otherwise, is fighting for this as much as the SGI and Sensei. We must protect this organization and our mentor.

WT: How have you used your Buddhist practice to effect change in your community?

Dianne Jackson McLean, Oakland, Calif.: I have been an attorney for over 31 years addressing affordable housing. I have also worked for the past decade to help more African American judges get appointed to the bench.

I am the chairperson of the diversity committee of the California Lawyers Association, Real Property Law Section, Executive Committee. We are working to ensure that real property attorneys are focused on diversity and inclusion. If people don’t make the effort or get an opportunity to interact with others who are different from them, they won’t understand one another.

While aspects of change like these are important, and people should be involved in a way that resonates with them, for these efforts to be sustainable, you have to have a strong life condition. You have to not give up, and continue to call forth hope and courage, and that is where Buddhism comes in. For me, I am chanting to stand up, not be afraid and not back down so that we can become a country that values humanity.

From the perspective of faith, we have to determine we can have an impact, just like Sensei, who has shown us how much one person can impact the world.

Lee Malone: I love working with youth inside and outside the SGI. Before my retirement, I was the program director for 12 group homes in Southern California, where we counseled and worked with youth in the juvenile system and young women who’ve dealt with abuse. We counseled them to make changes in their lives, finish school, get jobs and reintegrate back into society.

Some of the young girls—you can imagine the things they went through. So, really from the bottom of my heart, I would encourage them. One staff member said she liked the way I talked to these kids. To be professional, I didn’t mention religion. I politely told her that I learned about counseling in the military. She said, “No, there’s something different about you.” Then I said that I am Buddhist. We dialogued, and she actually received the Gohonzon. Nichiren Daishonin says, “The voice carries out the work of the Buddha.”[5] Although these were youth with many problems, my practice taught me how to have compassion, dignity and respect for them and how to encourage them to change their lives.

WT: As a longtime Buddhist, when viewing the racial strife in our country, do you still feel that the SGI’s movement is the way to transform society?

Doris Edwards: I feel strongly that the SGI movement will transform society. Our movement is about changing society by changing our own hearts. For me, it’s about doing my human revolution. This is the time to show the power of genuine faith.

Sensei states: “Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism is neither a religion that exists for the sake of power and authority nor a religion for religion’s sake alone. Neither is it a religion for only one race or nation. It is truly a religion that champions the cause of humanity and human rights. The type of humanism that is based on the Daishonin’s Buddhism will serve as an important guideline for finding fundamental solutions to the more intractable problems facing the world today, including racial prejudice and ethnic unrest. It is only to be expected, therefore, that kosen-rufu be a struggle for human rights, aimed at securing human dignity, freedom and equality. Herein, too, lies the Soka Gakkai’s mission in society.”[6]

Michael Ewing: When Sensei came to Chicago, he encouraged us to understand who we really are: Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Through my relationship with him, I became aware of my true self as a Bodhisattva of the Earth, who made a vow in the remote past to lead others to enlightenment. I realized that if I followed his example, I could make change.

In the Afterword to The New Human Revolution, Sensei explains the principle of “voluntarily assuming the appropriate karma,” saying, “we have chosen, in accord with our vow as bodhisattvas, to be born into the evil age of the Latter Day of the Law with all sorts of destinies, or karma—illness, financial hardship, family discord, loneliness, low self-esteem and the list goes on—to help guide others to enlightenment.”[7]

I’m doing everything I can here in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago to plant the seeds of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in young people and all people. I know these efforts will affect the community and create a society that we can be proud of. I’m so appreciative that Daisaku Ikeda is my mentor. My shared vow for kosen-rufu with Sensei has made me the happiest individual that I can be! So much is at stake now, and the youth have a lofty responsibility. I hope more and more youth can awaken to their true identities and expand the influence of our organization and its teaching of respect for the dignity of life.

Etta Sue Henderson: Sensei gave us a blueprint for battling division and separation in his poem “Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” which he penned after the 1992 L.A. Riots. He writes:

The waves of egoism / eat away at the shores of / contemporary society. / The tragedy of division / wraps the world in a thick fog. (see p. 27)

Sensei continues:

My friends! / Please realize that you already possess / the solution to this quandary. / First you must break the / hard shell of the lesser self. / This you must absolutely do. (Ibid.)

I never understood the word hope until I encountered my mentor. Now I know my prayer has the power to transform America. Just as Sensei said, in his heart, to the little Black boy in Lincoln Park who was a victim of racism, I want to say to the youth who will succeed us: “I promise you that I will build a society truly worthy of your love and pride.”

WT: Youth today may feel that change isn’t happening fast enough for them, and they often give in to disillusionment with everything going on.

Lee Malone: These are challenging times, but Buddhism is not a theory contest. It’s about actual proof and how we can transform our behavior as human beings. Sensei has often talked about how problems in society cannot be solved through political or institutional change alone. The SGI will not tell you who to vote for or whether or not to protest. We have to do the transformation in ourselves to see change in society.

Sensei says it’s about what’s in people’s hearts. The organizational structure doesn’t change character. It’s the mentor-disciple relationship that does. Watching Sensei’s example and what type of human being he is—that’s what helped me decide that he’s my mentor in life, so that I could become a better human being. That is the core of our organization and movement: the oneness of mentor and disciple.

Doris Edwards: We are living in unprecedented times, and it’s very easy to become disillusioned. This is the time to boldly take another step forward.

Youth all over the world are standing up for the respect and dignity of life, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fifty-thousand youth from around the nation gather in nine U.S. cities for the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival to usher in an era of hope and respect for the dignity of life, Sept. 23, 2018. Photo by Dave Goodman.

In 2018, the SGI-USA youth had the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival. They gathered 50,000 youth from all over the U.S. and stood up for the respect and dignity of every single life. My generation marched on Washington, but this generation of youth are pulling up systemic racism and racial injustices from the root.

Sensei encourages the youth: “I call on you, my young friends, to make the global society of the 21st century into an indestructible treasure land of peace, happiness and harmonious coexistence. As torchbearers of justice who share my spirit, make a glorious rainbow of victory shine in the sky of the century of life and human revolution![8]

WT: How does your relationship with Sensei affect your outlook for the future of racial justice in this country?

Dianne Jackson McLean: When I read The New Human Revolution, it reminds me that the key to change is to encourage the person right in front of you. Sensei went to all these countries to encourage people and give them hope, no matter the situation. That example is something I treasure. It also makes me think of how I can continue to do my own human revolution and show actual proof in my own life. Sensei’s guidance in the World Tribune and Living Buddhism gives me hope not to be defeated amid my challenges and to change poison into medicine.

WT: What would you like to share with the youth?

Lee Malone: We’re all learning together. Dialogue is not easy. These are trying times. It’s even more difficult when you let emotions drive you. In his poem “Soar Into the Vast Skies of Freedom! Into the New Century!,” Sensei says:

There is no paradise; / it does not exist. / Therefore walk forward / into this world of suffering! / And there you will see / the reality of the dream, / of this eternally bright, / eternally joyful and serene, / this eternally noble dream.[9]

Change is difficult, but we have the right tools. When I fly, I want the best plane and the best pilot. In the SGI, I have the best plane, and in Sensei, I have the best pilot. But it takes all of us.

John Wells: The racial justice movement ties back to Sensei talking about how the current decade from 2020 to 2030 will decide the future of our world.[10] I believe we made a significant cause in 2018 during the 50K campaign. This is the time to introduce many young people to Buddhism. What was apparent when I was a youth is apparent again in this decade: The beginning of a decade will determine the rest of the decade.

This is the time for positive change. Now, I think many more people are open to hearing about Buddhism. It’s easy to do shakubuku now. They know provisional teachings aren’t working because of the chaos they have led us to. I was 25 years old then. Now I’m 75, and I can see that people are ready for kosen-rufu.


  1. The New Human Revolution, vol. 1, p. 142. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., p. 145. ↩︎
  3. “A Sage and an Unenlightened Man,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 102. ↩︎
  4. The New Human Revolution, vol. 1, p. 155. ↩︎
  5. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 4. ↩︎
  6. The Human Revolution, p. 1712. ↩︎
  7. See p. 33 in this issue. ↩︎
  8. September 4, 2020, World Tribune, p. 3. ↩︎
  9. July 2020 Living Buddhism, p. 19. ↩︎
  10. See “Paving the Way to Changing the Destiny of Humankind Through Our Own Human Revolution,” Sept. 18, 2020, World Tribune, pp. 2–3. ↩︎

1990s: Establishing the Principles of a New Humanism

SGI-USA, Present and Future: Our Joint Determination