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Who Is a Great Mentor in Buddhism?

A look at the three main qualities of a “correct and good teacher.”

Ikeda Sensei once wrote that he would never forget the third anniversary of his Buddhist practice. It was the evening of Aug. 24, 1950, when he learned that Josei Toda would be stepping down as Soka Gakkai general director. Mr. Toda’s businesses were facing a mounting crisis, and he sought to protect the fledgling Soka Gakkai from any fallout.

Sensei, then 22, asked Mr. Toda in earnest whether the new general director would become his mentor. Mr. Toda replied decisively: “No, not at all. I may cause you nothing but hardship, but I’ll always be your mentor.”[1]

In this heartfelt scene, we see a relationship that transcends any position or title—that of mentor and disciple. In Buddhism, this relationship is the main thread connecting Shakyamuni, Nichiren Daishonin, the three Soka Gakkai presidents and us today. SGI members around the world have stood up with the same vow to accomplish kosen-rufu as the mentors of Soka, and they are advancing toward that end while passing on this spirit to successive generations.

Sensei writes of this connective thread: 

My two predecessors and I have laid the Soka path of mentor and disciple. The mentor-disciple spirit of the first three presidents is the foundation. As long as the Soka Gakkai carries on this spirit, it will continue to develop and thrive forever and succeed in realizing worldwide kosen-rufu.[2]

But, from the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, what makes someone a great mentor? Sensei discusses this in his commentary on Nichiren Dai-shonin’s writing “Reply to Sairen-bo.”

One should understand that, at present, when it comes to teachers, there is a difference between correct teachers and erroneous teachers, between good teachers and bad teachers. One should shun those who are erroneous or evil, and associate with those who are correct and good.

—“Reply to Sairen-bo,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 310.

Nichiren Daishonin composed this letter on April 13, 1272, while exiled on Sado Island, to Sairen-bo. The learned priest had also been banished there for reasons unknown and had converted to Nichiren’s teachings two months before the letter was written.

In this letter, the Daishonin clarifies that he and Sairen-bo share the eternal bond of mentor and disciple from countless kalpas[3] in the past. At the same time, he states that one should discard evil teachers and follow good ones. Based on this passage, Sensei explains:

Who, then, are the “correct and good teachers”? What are their essential qualities? Nichiren Daishonin’s criteria are perfectly clear: They are teachers who battle the three powerful enemies, and who chant and propagate the Mystic Law without begrudging their lives. Correct teachers are those who will stand up to evil and injustice to protect the people.[4]

Sensei then goes on to define the three main qualities that characterize “correct and good teachers” in Buddhism.[5]

The first criterion is: a person of wisdom, who sees through the fundamental evil inherent in life and who reveals the Mystic Law that is the fundamental good. 

Sensei explains:

In “Reply to Sairen-bo,” Nichiren clarifies that the decisive criterion distinguishing good teachers from bad is ultimately their ability to defeat the devil king of the sixth heaven.[6] True Buddhist teachers set an example of personally battling and triumphing over devilish functions. Those who not only overcome devilish functions in their own lives but also strive to teach and show all people how they can surmount such obstacles are true teachers in Buddhism.[7]

The second criterion is: a person of courage, whose life is dedicated to the correct teaching of Buddhism and who continues fighting against evil without being led astray by its devilish nature. 

Sensei writes:

By contrast, individuals who easily give in to devilish functions, no matter how wise or virtuous they might appear, will end up slandering the Law, showing hostility toward the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra and destroying Buddhism. Nichiren unequivocally declares that teachers who try to pass themselves off as having a profound understanding of Buddhism, while never having battled hardships and obstacles themselves, are all erroneous teachers; whereas he himself, having encountered repeated attacks and repression, is a genuine teacher of the Law.[8]

The third criterion is: a person of compassion, who is always concerned with relieving people’s suffering and imparting joy, and actively works to realize happiness for oneself and others. 

Sensei elaborates:

Conquering obstacles and devils and embodying the Law are key qualifications for “correct and good teachers” who can connect people directly to the Law through the example of their own behavior. Such teachers may be described as “correct” in terms of the truth of the Law they uphold, and “good” in terms of their compassion to transmit the Law to others and to impart benefit in the form of “removing suffering and bringing joy.” [9] [10]

Who Are the “Correct and Good Teachers”?

Sensei posits the following questions: “Who has directly inherited the spirit of Nichiren Daishonin and opened the way for worldwide kosen-rufu in this corrupt Latter Day of the Law? And who, in doing so, has encountered slander and abuse, hatred and jealousy even more intense than during the Buddha’s lifetime, as the Lotus Sutra predicts (see The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, 232)?” 

He then offers a clear answer, “It is none but the first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai, linked by the bonds of mentor and disciple.”[11]

He continues: 

Founding Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was put in prison for his efforts to protect the lifeblood of the correct teachings and doctrines of Nichiren Daishonin, and he died there, a martyr to his beliefs. Second president Josei Toda was also imprisoned. He survived two years of intense interrogation and harrowing conditions behind bars, an ordeal that ultimately shortened his life. And as third president, I, too, was jailed on false charges. I have been showered with unending slander and abuse—most of it fueled by treacherous former Soka Gakkai members whose blatant lies were seized on and spread by a sensationalist tabloid press. 

All of the obstacles Mr. Makiguchi, Mr. Toda and I have encountered are in perfect accord with the Lotus Sutra and the Daishonin’s writings. Only we, the first three presidents, have borne the full brunt of persecution and attack. Only we have fought against the three obstacles and four devils and the three powerful enemies, without the slightest deviation from the Daishonin’s teachings. This is something all of you know better than anyone.[12]

Sensei has taught us through his words and actions that the mentors and disciples of Soka share the same mission to transform the destiny of humankind based on the principles of Nichiren Buddhism. And that as long as this fundamental spirit never changes, our Soka family will continue to develop without end.

January 12, 2024, World Tribune, pp. 6–7


  1. The New Human Revolution, vol. 23, p. 307. ↩︎
  2. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 3, revised edition, p. 233. ↩︎
  3. Kalpa: In ancient Indian cosmology, an extremely long period of time. ↩︎
  4. Learning from the Writings: The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 46. ↩︎
  5. See ibid., p. 48. ↩︎
  6. Devil king of the sixth heaven: Dwells in the highest or the sixth heaven of the world of desire. He is also named Freely Enjoying Things Conjured by Others, the king who makes free use of the fruits of others’ efforts for his own pleasure. He obstructs Buddhist practice and delights in sapping the life force of other beings. ↩︎
  7. The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 46. ↩︎
  8. Ibid. ↩︎
  9. See The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 173. ↩︎
  10. The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 46. ↩︎
  11. The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 3, revised edition, p. 231. ↩︎
  12. Ibid., pp. 231–32. ↩︎

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