Skip to main content

Our History

The Rocky Mountains—a Symbol of Infinite Hope

Chronicling Ikeda Sensei’s visit to Denver in June 1996.

Illustration by Selda / Adobe stock.

The towering Rocky Mountains rose into the clear blue skies, a profusion of cherry trees in bloom. For the members of Rocky Mountain Joint Territory, welcoming their mentor to Denver was an impossible dream made possible when Ikeda Sensei was invited by the University of Denver to receive an honorary doctorate of education, his first by a North American university. 

Preparations for Sensei’s visit started in February and daimoku was the force that brought great weather and resulted in an unforgettable visit. Members from the eight states that composed the territory—Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming—and from El Paso, Texas, chanted abundant daimoku together from March 16, Kosen-rufu Day. Their daimoku was reflected in the thousands of paper cherry blossoms that adorned the ceiling of the Denver Culture Center when Sensei arrived.

Rita Risom (Broomfield, Colorado): Rocky Mountain was an eight-state joint territory, and I was the women’s leader. I was really doubting my own ability as a leader, and I was feeling challenged in my workplace. I lacked confidence in myself. My husband and I were also struggling financially, so I had many worries and wondered how I was going to keep things up.

Years before 1996, the members of Denver were chanting that Sensei would visit our city. We had a group called the Daimoku Renaissance Group that would meet every Monday to chant. So, when we heard that Sensei was coming, my first thought was daimoku works! The second thought was that we only had four months to prepare! We were a smaller organization, but we really felt we could do it; we would make it happen. Everyone came together to support. If there was a need for something, somebody was there to do it.  

At the forefront of everything had to be our prayer. It was just daimoku and planning. 

Elaine Angelo (Arvada, Colorado): Every year, the highest risk for tornadoes in Denver is between June 1 and June 10. It’s a very volatile time of year for the weather.

One night as we were preparing for Sensei’s visit, I was asked to form a weather committee. I had no idea what that meant. I thought, I have no control over the weather of all things! I got faith encouragement from a pioneer member who told me that indeed, we could impact the weather with our daimoku.  

We put together a group of 70–80 people who volunteered to chant specifically for good weather during Sensei’s visit.  

I remember during one of the meetings while Sensei was here, the temperature started to rise. It got too hot, and the members were wilting. So, I got on the phone with the daimoku in-charges for each location and asked them to chant to bring the temperature down. And they did. The people in this group were individuals who could not make it to the meeting because of children or health so they were so grateful to be involved.  

Sensei and the visiting leaders all talked about the beautiful weather during their stay. On his second day, Sensei sent the weather group a message. He said: “Thank you for the beautiful weather in Denver. I would like to name your group the Blue Sky Group.”

I saw that when a very united and determined group of people get together, they can make anything happen.

The Blue Sky Group continues to get together to chant for great weather during activities. In 2018, they united to ensure that the youth had blue skies for the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival.

The day after his arrival, Sensei took a walk in Denver’s sprawling City Park. He then visited the home of Dr. Ved Nanda, a world-renowned scholar of international law at the University of Denver. Their first meeting in 1994 at Soka University in Tokyo, resulted in a published dialogue. In Denver, Sensei was greeted by Dr. Nanda, his wife, Katharine, and their daughter, Anjali, at their home. 

Randy Pfannenstiel (Denver): I was a young men’s leader and a father of two: a 5- and 3-year-old. I was going to school at night, working full time as a telecommunications engineer and preparing for Sensei’s movement four nights a week. I was chanting abundant daimoku every day.

As part of Sensei’s support team, I had the responsibility of guiding Sensei wherever he went. I was always three feet in front of him. I joke that he must know the back of my head really well.

I could see through his interactions that he treated everyone with the same respect—whether they were university presidents, staff and leaders of the organization or a 1-year-old boy. I was just in awe that he could have those kinds of interactions every moment of his life.

We were all chanting that Sensei would go to City Park, but until that morning, it was not on the schedule. We were so happy when we heard Sensei wanted to go there.

At the end of our walk at City Park, we came across an ice cream stand. He bought us all ice cream. We all looked at one another, wondering whether we should enjoy it on duty. Although our job was to protect and take care of him, he really was the one taking care of us.

Another example of this was his concern for the young men who were getting wet from the sprinklers.

On June 8, the University of Denver conferred an honorary doctorate of education on Daisaku Ikeda at their commencement ceremony, his first such honor from a North American university. 

The commencement ceremony was held under clear blue skies and attended by some 5,000 people. After Sensei was presented with the honorary doctorate, University President Daniel Ritchie unexpectedly asked him to say a few words to the graduates. He later recalled this moment in an essay, writing:

Since this was unscheduled, naturally I had not prepared a speech. What would I say? … As I stood in front of the microphone, I suddenly found I had some reassuring “friends.”

The sun in the sky, the Rocky Mountains in the distance and the faint outline of the moon above them. Referring to these dear “friends,” I said to the promising youthful graduates:

“The sun shines brightly. The moon also showers you with its radiant light. The sun represents passion, the moon intellect. Against this magnificent natural backdrop, the majestic Rocky Mountains warmly watch over you with steadfast conviction.”

Expressing my appreciation for the honor I had received and congratulations to the graduating students, I concluded my brief remarks by wishing them success and victory in their lives, adding my hope that they would play an active role in the international arena. (November 18, 2017, World Tribune, p. 8)

Jee Moon (Tempe, Arizona): I was 22 and struggling with my self-confidence and lack of belief in myself. I was asked to support as Byakuren for the movement and I said yes, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

I was told I would be “security” together with another young men’s division member for the commencement ceremony. Neither of us knew that Sensei would be receiving an honorary doctorate. I remember seeing him walk down the aisle in his graduation regalia. 

The audience was captivated by his speech, and I felt like he put everyone at ease. People responded to his life condition. From that encounter, I understood the impact one individual can have on others. 

I’m currently a nurse in an impoverished community, and there is no one chanting in this town. I’m determined that this area will have a district by 2030 and, with that spirit, I’m planting many seeds in the community. For me it’s about becoming the kind of person who can build trust with many people. I want to also widen the network of young people who I have a good connection with. Someone believed in me enough to ask me to attend the commencement ceremony and witness Sensei receive his first honorary doctorate in America. I want to support and believe in the young people around me in the same way.

I will continue raising my daughter in the garden of Soka and help her to develop into the kind of person that can remove misery from her environment. 

On June 9, Sensei walked through Washington Park before heading to the Denver Culture Center for the Cherry Blossom General Meeting.

Clete Morton (Denver): I was the Rocky Mountain Joint Territory young men’s leader and supporting Sensei behind the scenes. During the movement, there were many opportunities to have small conversations with him while walking. He asked me about my family and where I grew up. I could sense that he really cared about each individual, including me. 

During our stroll around Washington Park, I whistled at a squirrel and it came down off the tree toward Sensei. Sensei laughed as if impressed that I could communicate with it. Then, he saw a little boy in the park and hurried over to him. Sensei bent down and gave the little boy his sunglasses. It felt like Sensei was reaching out to this young boy with his entire life. Those are now cherished memories for me. 

When I turned 40, I faced many health challenges including prostate and bladder cancer, heart attacks and diabetes. Because of my youth training, I knew how to fight through my illnesses. 

That’s why I feel so passionately about the growth of the youth division members. Faith training allows us to prepare for our future and even prolong our lives. Now I’m in my 60s and however long I have left on planet Earth to do kosen-rufu, as the Rocky Mountain Zone leader, I’m going to run at full speed.

One determination I have toward 2030 is to bring all the members of Rocky Mountain Zone together to open the new Buddhist Center that is now under construction. More importantly, I am determined that our zone has the strongest youth toward 2030 and beyond.

Upon arriving at the Denver Culture Center, Sensei spontaneously entered the small Gohonzon room on the first floor, greeting the members there, before making his way to the main auditorium where the general meeting would be held. He told the members in the first floor Gohonzon room that they were the most fortunate people in the world to live in the Rocky Mountain region. He thanked them again and again for their hard work (June 21, 1996, World Tribune, pp. 1, 5). 

Eddie Mowrer (Parker, Colorado): Not long after Sensei visited Denver, my family found out we were moving to Texas due to my father’s job. I was a shy kid growing up and struggled with self-confidence. The news that we would be moving was difficult for me as I did not want to leave my friends. In that sense, Sensei’s visit was pivotal for me. 

After his visit, my seeking spirit grew. I felt that Sensei believed in me and his confidence and encouragement ultimately enabled me to believe in myself. Around this time, I also read Discussions on Youth and deepened my understanding of the oneness of mentor and disciple relationship. Ultimately, I was able to gain lifelong friends and comrades in Texas, and as I became more active in youth activities, I was able to develop my faith. Looking back, I now understand that everything in life has meaning and is an opportunity for personal development. 

During the general meeting, I was stationed in the smaller Gohonzon room on the first floor. Sensei was supposed to go straight to the second floor but unexpectedly, he came to the room I was in. When he walked in, everybody burst into applause. I never saw that type of joy in our center so it caught me off guard a little bit. He took his time coming down the aisle, then he encouraged all of us before heading upstairs.

One thing I remember was that he was so natural and at ease. When he walked down the aisle to greet the members, he wasn’t in a rush. I could tell he wanted to meet as many people as possible. My friend, who was also supporting behind the scenes, told me, “This is the happiest day of my life.” Neither one of us really understood why, but I remember also feeling really happy. 

I was appointed a chapter men’s leader at the end of last year, and one of my determinations is to expand our youth membership toward 2030. I also want my children to form a strong connection with the SGI and Sensei. I want them to learn that they can use this practice and Sensei’s guidance to overcome any struggles they may encounter in life.

At the start of the meeting, a chorus of men and women sang Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the future division sang a rendition of “I Have a Dream,” as Sensei conducted from his seat onstage. Happy to see the children in the audience, he promised them hamburgers and ice cream, which they enjoyed after the meeting. When Sensei unexpectedly asked if anyone else would like to perform, jazz singer Sherry Roberson raised her hand and spontaneously sang an acapella version of “The Impossible Dream.”

Sensei then spoke about the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He said in part: “When we plant the seed of happiness that is faith and carefully tend its growth, it will produce fruit without fail. We have to bear in mind, however, that we cannot plant a seed today and expect it to bear fruit tomorrow. … If we persevere in the practice of faith equals daily life in accord with reason, then our prayers will definitely be answered” (My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, p. 440). He gave Rocky Mountain Joint Territory five mottoes: 1) Everyone in harmony 2) Everyone cheerful 3) Everyone safe from mishap 4) Everyone healthy 5) Everyone happy. (Read the full speech in My Dear Friends in America, p. 437.)

Brigitte Coulson (Aurora, Colorado): I was in charge of the chorus and future division performance. Many people wanted to join because they knew we were going to sing for Sensei, but we had a limited number of spaces. I united with the women’s leader at that time and chanted for the people who weren’t chosen to still feel their contribution was recognized. In the end, the performance was a great success.

During the general meeting, I was nervous because I wanted everything to go right. When Sensei walked in, I’ll never forget that he just threw his arms up and all the tension dissolved. I felt everything was going to be OK.

After the meeting, he presented the chorus a calligraphy with the name Snow Capped Rocky Mountain Chorus. That calligraphy is now displayed at the SGI-USA Florida Nature and Culture Center. 

Even though one of the mottoes that Sensei gave to us is, “Everyone cheerful,” I don’t think I counted myself as happy for many years. But that was the reason I started practicing this Buddhism. Now, I can confidently say that I have become happy. 

We are now preparing for the opening of a new Buddhist Center in Denver. In The New Human Revolution, Sensei says that what makes our Soka Gakkai buildings grand and magnificent is not the building itself but the human revolution of each individual (see vol. 26, p. 39). 

As Many Treasures Group members, we are chanting to fill that new building with young people. Our goal toward 2030 is to fulfill our vow and raise the next generation for the future. 

Sherry Roberson (Phoenix): I was a district leader in Arizona, and my husband was a three-month member. 

There was a lottery system for members in Arizona to get picked to attend the meeting. Each district had only two spots. Initially I wasn’t chosen, but I was put on a waitlist. I chanted a lot of daimoku, and they told me I was going. My husband and I both went.

Initially, the Phoenix members weren’t going to be in the main Gohonzon room. Then at the last minute, we were told that Sensei wanted us to be in the main Gohonzon room, so we moved upstairs.

He illuminated the whole room when he came in and walked down the aisle, shaking hands with the members. 

After the chorus and future division performances, Sensei got up and asked if anybody else wanted to sing or dance. My hand shot up, and all the Phoenix members pointed at me because they knew my dream was to sing for Sensei—I had been chanting for that for 20 years. 

Even so, when I got up, my own negativity tried to stop me. In my head, I was thinking, What do you think you’re doing? But once I got on that stage, I was in my realm. I sang “The Impossible Dream” a cappella. Sensei stood up and raised his arms with me, and it was awesome. Even now when I talk about it, I can feel my life condition rising.

That experience taught me to never give up! We can make the impossible possible! Before I started practicing Buddhism, I had been married twice to very violent and abusive husbands. I started chanting to become happy and transform my karma. And I did. Oscar, who attended that meeting with me was a wonderful husband. Although his leukemia came back when we got married, he prolonged his life for 20 years with this practice.  

I want to be an example for my three sons, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren and introduce many people to Buddhism toward 2030 so that they can transform their lives with this amazing practice!

Michael Driscoll (Denver): I was 43 at that time and in the process of navigating my career. I was supporting Sensei’s visit behind the scenes and on Sundays, preparation included driving different routes that we thought he would take around the city.

As we got closer to his visit, I was appointed as the motor pool leader. Another young woman and I were partners in coordinating the motor pool. One of the things I remember is being encouraged that if any problems come up, to go to the Gohonzon and chant to figure it out. And usually that was really when the wisdom came forth to resolve whatever issue came up.

During the general meeting, I was stationed downstairs as support staff. At the last minute they needed someone to go upstairs to guide Sensei out of the room.

The meeting was over, and he started to walk down the center aisle toward the back of the room. He was shaking hands with the members, and I was making sure that people weren’t coming up the aisle. I turned around to make sure everything was clear and as I turned back, he crossed the aisle directly toward me and held out his hand. I was so shocked and all I could do was stick out my hand to shake his. I didn’t have any words. It was a very emotional moment.

One of the members later said that I held on to his hand forever. I don’t remember that at all! But it was a powerful experience to meet someone who you look to as your mentor.

Sensei later sent the motor pool a message, calling us the “wheel turning kings.”

What I learned then is to do everything 100%. Sometimes we can get complacent in our day-to-day activities. But the whole point of a daily practice is to reflect and refresh every morning and do our best. I certainly learned that from Buddhism and Sensei.

Jenny Slaughter (Denver): I was the young women’s leader of Rocky Mountain Joint Territory. My husband and I had been married for three years. In February of 1996, my husband tried to take his own life. I found him, and due to the circumstances, the doctor said that he should not have survived. In that same month, we were told that Sensei would be coming to Denver. It was a difficult period in my life.

I felt fear on a daily basis, worrying about whether my husband would try to harm himself again. Not many people knew about our situation so it was a time when I felt I had to deepen my relationship with Sensei as my mentor. I started to write to Sensei daily, pouring my heart out and sharing what was going on. 

When Sensei arrived, I was asked to go to the hotel where I was met in the lobby by some of Sensei’s staff. They presented me with a stamp that I still have framed. I remember the staff telling me Sensei wanted to tell me that he understands everything and he’s here, so everything’s going to be OK. It was so meaningful because I was suffering so much.

After the Cherry Blossom General Meeting, my husband and I were pulled aside and told that Sensei wanted to speak with us. We were taken to one of the rooms in the center, where Sensei and Mrs. Ikeda gave us personal guidance. Sensei shared with strictness and with deep compassion about the value of our lives.

Although my husband struggled with depression for some years after that, he never again thought about taking his life, and he always looked toward the future. He is an amazing father to our two children. I feel Sensei instilled a whole new meaning and purpose to his life. He is now working at a school where many young people confide in and look up to him. He transformed poison into medicine.

I think that experience gave me the confidence and courage to face any challenge. Since then, I feel like Sensei is by my side no matter what. There was a shift as far as how I read Sensei’s guidance and really started living it in my life.

Later, I decided to go back to school for a degree in education. I wanted to bring Soka education to my community because I was inspired by seeing Sensei’s own passion for education.

My determination toward 2030 is to support the West Territory future division and nurture the next generation of our members in the Soka garden.

June 10, the day before his departure, Sensei attended the Rocky Mountain Joint Territory Executive Conference at a local Chinese restaurant. At this gathering, Sensei said, “No one can match a person who earnestly chants daimoku.” He also asked the leaders to put everyone at ease and create a warm and pleasant atmosphere, saying, “Kosen-rufu expands where people feel a true sense of pleasure and enjoyment” (See My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, p. 444 for the full speech).

Rita Risom: During the executive conference I sat at Sensei’s table for dinner. He spoke to us about second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s declaration that the Soka Gakkai organization was more precious than his life. And I remember thinking: Do I feel that way? Can I continue to expand kosen-rufu for a lifetime? I will never forget that moment. I feel like I’ve given it my best shot all these years. 

Later that evening, Mrs. Ikeda said to me, “Always remember that we were together on June 10, Women’s Day.”

At that meeting, Sensei said: “Those who stand up at a crucial moment demonstrate genuine greatness. There are people who leave behind an immortal history. May each of you in the Rocky Mountain Joint Territory lead truly victorious existences. May your lives be as majestic as the soaring Rocky Mountains” (My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, p. 446).

That thought is always with me—having courage at a crucial moment. His guidance gave me real confidence and lifted a heaviness in my heart. 

At work I decided to show up every day as a proud disciple of Ikeda Sensei. Eventually the challenging work situation totally changed. As a result of all of the fortune I accumulated, I retired early. 

Toward 2030, I want to achieve ultimate victory. I want to have a strong life condition, do my human revolution and show actual proof to encourage the younger members.

To the youth of Denver, even if you weren’t there in 1996, you still inherit the legacy. It’s a living legacy that evolves! We can have great pride in the fact that Sensei visited Denver.

Randy Pfannenstiel: I made many mistakes during Sensei’s visit. But Sensei always made sure to encourage me. I learned that it’s OK to make mistakes. We can take responsibility and move on. 

This understanding impacted my work. If I made a mistake, I told my bosses, took responsibility and thought about how we could move forward. Taking ownership in that way accelerated my career.

Before he left, Sensei shook my hand and said, “I’ll never forget you.” I truly believed that.

My biggest determination is to pass the torch of kosen-rufu to our kids and introduce new people to the practice each year. I feel it’s up to me, for the SGI to be solid past 2030 and beyond.

On the day of his departure, youth gathered to see Sensei off at the hotel. Wanting to bring joy to the youth, Sensei showered them with silly string, bringing laughter and joy to all who were present.

For the Rocky Mountain Joint Territory members, Sensei’s visit was a dream come true, marking a fresh beginning for the members to become ever more harmonious, cheerful, safe, healthy, happy and victorious.

From the June 2024 Living Buddhism

The Best Medicine

The Future Is Here!