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To the Fiftieth Person

A Tribute to Daisaku Ikeda

Clark Strand. Photo by Dion Ogust.

Clark Strand is an American author and lecturer on spirituality and religion. A former Zen monk, he was the first senior editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He is the author of a book on the history, practice and significance of the Soka Gakkai, titled Waking the Buddha: How the Most Dynamic and Empowering Buddhist Movement in History Is Changing Our Concept of Religion.

by Clark Strand
Woodstock, N.Y.

When I was asked by the World Tribune to reflect on my experiences with Daisaku Ikeda—what I had learned from him as a scholar, a philosopher and the leader of the world’s largest lay Buddhist movement—I realized that I would not be able to write about these things without writing about myself. The true measure of any spiritual leader lies in the effect they have on the lives of individuals. Over the last 20 years, I have interviewed hundreds of SGI members, including virtually all of the movement’s top leaders in Japan. In each of those encounters, I was told the story of that member’s relationship with Daisaku Ikeda. What follows is mine.

As a journalist specializing in the history of religious movements, I would not have been able to write convincingly about Daisaku Ikeda or the movement he founded if I wrote from within that movement. So I made the decision early on not to identify myself as a member of the Soka Gakkai International. Even though I made two trips to Japan to study the SGI and published a book about its history and its place in world religion. Even though I was granted unprecedented journalistic access to Daisaku Ikeda to interview and correspond with him over the years.

In truth, I was often jealous of my SGI friends who could call Daisaku Ikeda “Sensei” or “mentor.” At various times, I wanted to stop writing about the SGI and simply become a member, just like everybody else. But there was no way to do that and say the things I needed to say about President Ikeda and his extraordinary contributions to the greater body of religious ideas. He must have understood my true feelings, however, even though I never confessed them to him. I know this because of an exchange I had with an SGI-USA leader in the mid-2000s.

Within days of first encountering the SGI in 2003, I knew that I would never be able to understand its culture as an outsider. It was too different from anything I had ever experienced in a religious context. It was impossible to grasp the lived experience of Nichiren Buddhism without learning to recite gongyo and chant daimoku. I would need to attend meetings, get to know other members and study its teachings in depth—not just as a scholar of religious studies but with the aim of using them to transform my life.

Naturally, that would mean receiving the Gohonzon, and that meant becoming an SGI member—at least temporarily. I weighed the decision carefully but decided there was no other way. I was willing to stray outside of my comfort zone as a journalist if that was what it took. None of the other religious movements I had studied had a credible plan for addressing the crises of the 21st century. More often, they were a part of the problem. If the SGI was able to address those crises, wouldn’t it be worth the risk? What choice was there really? The world was in too much trouble to quibble over matters of journalistic purity.

Every SGI member can guess what happened next. Once I received the Gohonzon and attended a few meetings, I was on the radar of my local chapter. In a good way, of course. Nevertheless, it was a little overwhelming. Would I like someone to come by and chant with me? Wouldn’t it be good to attend more meetings? Weren’t SGI activities essential to the practice? Wasn’t kosen-rufu the point?

I did my best not to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for spreading the faith. Besides which, what they were saying was true. But I must have mentioned it to one of the SGI ambassadors who had begun visiting my home in Woodstock, New York, once I began writing articles about the movement in mainstream magazines and newspapers.

A week later, a local leader stopped by the house to say that the SGI and its members were there to answer any questions I might have about the movement and to provide materials, experiences and opportunities for dialogue to aid my research. Nevertheless, I was under no obligation to participate in any activities or to align myself publicly with the SGI.

I felt that President Ikeda understood what I was trying to accomplish, and I had been given the space to proceed with authenticity as a journalist.

It was just the encouragement I needed and, looking back, I wonder if President Ikeda didn’t know exactly what he was doing. I very much doubt that I would have continued writing about the SGI as I did without that mutual understanding.

After that, I recited gongyo and chanted twice daily with such intensity that, for my birthday one year, my young daughter gave me a wooden plaque she had made in art class that bore a small, hand-drawn portrait of me with my mouth open and hands pressed together in prayer. The caption read “Crazy Monk Chanting!” She knew that I had been a Zen priest before her mother and I married, which explains the “monk” part. For the “crazy” part, I blame Daisaku Ikeda. He had set my heart on fire.

I learned many things from Ikeda Sensei over the years. Much of it I discovered in his voluminous writings on the Gosho, the Lotus Sutra and the history of the SGI. Others I was able to understand through my interactions with him. What impressed me most was the practical value of his wisdom. Wisdom that held up under scrutiny and didn’t crumble under pressure. Wisdom that endured for the simple reason that it had been born of struggle in the first place. What could shatter a resolve for the happiness of all humanity that had been forged in the fire of adversity?

At the beginning of my book Waking the Buddha, I compared the creation of a lasting spiritual tradition to the making of a clay pot. There were three stages to the process. First, the clay was slapped down hard on the wheel to give it a solid footing. Next, it was turned by the potter’s hand to give it a useful shape. Finally, the pot was glazed and fired. If all went well, the result would be a thing of beauty and, hopefully, something durable. But it all came down to what happened inside the kiln. I used this analogy to describe the formative years of the Soka Gakkai and the life’s work of its first three presidents.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi had established an unshakable “footing” of faith for the Soka Gakkai by refusing to support state-sponsored Shinto during World War II, while Josei Toda had given the movement its distinctively modern “shape.” To Daisaku Ikeda fell the make-or-break part of the process, as the Soka Gakkai was refined by the “fire” of international dialogue during the most dangerous years of the Cold War.

It was the SGI’s continued commitment to peace, even as the Cold War seemed to be over, that first convinced me to look further into Nichiren Buddhism. But that is not what set it apart from the rest of modern religion in my mind. In Buddhism alone, there were dozens of sects that advocated nonviolent resistance, and some that encouraged protests, boycotts and other forms of social action. But the culture of such groups was nearly always complicit with the violence that is baked into modern society. They had no way to resist endemic forms of violence like racism and inequality because they had no way to oppose it. What stood firm against violence was not the absence of violence… but joy.

The indestructible happiness of individuals, cultivated with faith and vigorous, determined practice—this was the antidote to the “fundamental delusion” that Nichiren spoke of as the ultimate cause of human misery in all its myriad forms. But only if it were passed along, like one candle lit with another, until the whole world was made bright.

In the “Benefits of Responding with Joy” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni describes that process. “One person, having heard [the Lotus Sutra], responds with joy and spreads the teachings, and the teachings in this way continue to be handed along from one to another until they reach a fiftieth person.”[1]

I met hundreds, maybe even thousands, of these “fiftieth persons” during my years of studying the SGI in America and Japan. Too many to doubt the truth of Daisaku Ikeda’s teachings or their place in modern history. As I was writing this tribute, I was told the following story by a longtime member. It speaks more eloquently to Daisaku Ikeda’s influence on the lives of those he touched than anything I could write about his passing, as deeply affected by it as I am.

“The day after we heard of Sensei’s passing, I attended a discussion meeting where an elderly African American member said his reaction to the news was: ‘No. Sensei is alive in my heart.’” This, I understand, has been the overwhelming response from SGI members—that as disciples, they are determined to advance the dream of kosen-rufu in his stead. Rather than mourning the loss of a towering figure like Gandhi, the millions of Gandhis that Sensei has fostered—empowered, awakened ordinary people—embody a sense of mission to carry on and develop the SGI’s peace movement far beyond what they can see, to the fiftieth person.

January 2, 2024, World Tribune, pp. 36–37


  1. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, pp. 286–87. ↩︎

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