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The Power of Friendship

Learning from the passion of the SGI-USA youth.

Photo by Tanes Ngamsom / Getty Images.

As we look toward the March Youth Peace Festivals, the World Tribune sat down with SGI-USA youth leaders to understand the spirit behind these gatherings, which represent a concentrated effort to build authentic friendships and community.

Amelia Gonzalez Tesch (SGI-USA young women’s leader): Since their announcement, we have been focusing on visiting and meeting with young people in person. Of course, we want to make these upcoming festivals worth everyone’s time, but in the past, that became the primary focus. We believe these festivals will be meaningful if we build meaningful relationships toward them.

Shota Okajima (SGI-USA young men’s leader): Yes, and these efforts are taking place in our communities. Sure, not all of our friends that attend will start practicing Buddhism. That’s fine. What’s more important is that we are getting to know the people in our community and creating spaces of genuine connection and hope. To me, it’s a shift in how we’re teaching youth about Buddhism and the mentor and disciple relationship.

Josef Gaudiesus (Central Territory young men’s leader): That’s right. It’s about deepening friendships, making new friends, reconnecting with old ones and, in my case as a young men’s leader, bringing the guys together. I think the real victory lies in how many more young people can jump into this orbit of meeting with and supporting others. But the challenge is that we cannot rely on just planning meetings and giving directives from on high. It has to come from ourselves—going out to meet with each person and offering mutual encouragement.

Mao Izumi Ross (SoCal-Pacific Territory young women’s leader): To add to that, sometimes in my mind I have this divide of, here are my SGI friends and here are my other friends. Or, I’ve befriended someone just to introduce them to Buddhism. Of course, it’s always my determination to share Buddhism with others, but this initiative is so much more—it’s about redefining how we view relationships as a whole. And if our relationships are strong, people will take an interest in Buddhism through us.

Apoorvee Sawhney (West Territory young women’s leader): We’ve reduced the number of meetings to prioritize meeting young people with our women’s division members. Building bonds between generations is amazing in itself, and it’s more sustainable and joyful when we work together.

There was an area in New Mexico without many youth. Together with the women’s division members, we gathered to chant and visit whomever we could—daughters of members, or young women who hadn’t come out recently. We invited each of them for breakfast the next day, and, to our surprise, they all showed up! There, they opened up about various struggles, including loneliness and even losing friends to suicide. To transform their sufferings, they each decided to take responsibility for their chapters toward the festivals. Their spirit to stand up was a tremendous victory for the entire community.

Grady Tesch (East Territory young men’s leader): In the past, I would invite dozens of people to meetings and hope that some of them show up. But this is not a one-and-done effort.

Recently, a young man I was supporting totally dropped off with communication. I stopped by his place, but instead of meeting me, I was turned away. 

If I had a short-term view of friendship and saw it through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” I think I would’ve given up on him. But because I’d been chanting to deepen my relationship with him, I wasn’t discouraged. In fact, I actually confronted him about turning me away, which got a response from him. After that, I invited him to come cook food together, and we’ve hung out. It wasn’t about “you against me,” this guy is my homie.

Shota: I think it ultimately comes down to having the courage to just reach out to one person and engage in dialogue. We don’t have to be experts; we just have to sincerely do our best to connect. If we feel we missed the mark, it’s OK—just go back out and try again.

At the same time, I think as youth leaders we’re learning the importance of Buddhist study. Friendship and dialogue aren’t simply about grabbing a bite and enjoying time together. Since the pandemic, I feel the baseline of friendship in society has been destroyed, and we have to rebuild it based on a transformation in the very way that we view relationships and our role in them.

Apoorvee: I agree. All too often, people feel that relationships are a burden and that isolating is more convenient. But the Buddhist view is that when we support another life, we can break through limitations in our own.

Just like Shota said, I think giving our very best is key. It’s not really about what we say; people can sense what is in our hearts. Most times, they just want to be seen and heard. If we can be 100% present with them, they will feel that—and that’s Sensei’s example. 

Ultimately, I want us to be happy together, to win together. That’s it. It’s not about our differences. When we have someone in our lives who genuinely cares, we can overcome anything. That’s why we can’t minimize the power of friendship.

Mao: We all see how the world is so divided. I get so upset scrolling through social media because it’s filled with people bashing one another. Even if it’s coming from a desire to change the world for the better, I really don’t think that’s the way to create lasting change.

It comes back to: What are we actually doing? If we can’t even talk to our neighbors, how can we build peace? What’s closest to us is often the most difficult to face. Maybe the idea of friendship comes off as some “happy, happy” effort, but it’s not empty optimism—it’s real and it’s a battle. It all starts with having the courage to open my heart and engage those around me.

Grady: It is a battle. I see this as our struggle to spread our Soka movement in our communities. It was easy to say, “Come to this gathering; it’ll be epic.” But quite frankly, these meetings aren’t epic—there are no fireworks, no massive crowds. I feel the “epic-ness” comes from pushing against something deep in our society—the indifference and isolation—and building community. This takes passion, and it’s an inner struggle to bring forth the wisdom to connect and the courage to break down our own barriers.

Josef: People often spoke about the difficulties of meeting new people or how they felt they weren’t outgoing enough. I’ve struggled with that, too, but I keep in mind that friendship is up to us; not the other person.

I always go back to Sensei’s book Embracing Compassion. In one of his essays, Sensei quotes Chuko K’ung-ming (also known as Zhuge Liang) from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms: “It is difficult to long sustain opportunistic relationships. The acquaintance of true friends does not add flowers in warm times or change its leaves in cold times; it never fades throughout the four seasons, only growing stronger as it weathers good times and bad.”[1]

Friendship comes down to us—our own behavior as individuals and for what purpose we live our lives.

Amelia: Everyone truly has a mission. So we can’t give up on anyone. Whether it’s advancing with 10 friends, raising youth or strengthening our local SGI communities—it all comes down to meeting each person and seeing what’s amazing about them. It might come down to meeting one person over and over. This kind of effort can be daunting, but that effort to continue to believe in them is what Sensei has demonstrated through his own efforts.

At the same time, this is an opportunity for each of us to transform our own karma. Without problems, we can’t truly empathize and encourage others. It’s because we have struggles that we can advance kosen-rufu. I have to overcome the things that I avoid chanting about. I have to fight and make causes. It’s all for my happiness, too.

We don’t want this effort to be an end point. We’re determined not just to stand on an organization that’s been built but rather to build on that foundation even further through one-to-one care. This is our effort to pave a new path forward for the SGI-USA—for the world—on Sensei’s behalf.

March 1, 2024, World Tribune, pp. 6–7


  1. Embracing Compassion, vol. 1, p. 75. ↩︎

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