I was born a nervous child. Nearly everything scared me: talking to strangers, the first day of school (every year), playing games on teams (in which one could be hurt or laughed at), learning to ride a bike, the crickets in our basement, and the sound of my own voice in a group. Each new experience would make me tremble and feel small, as if my success held the world together and my mistakes could make it come crashing down. Courage, I decided by 14, is something I was simply born without.
And so I got through school by finding myself in books. Usually, they were coming-of-age stories in which a heroine discovered strength she didn’t know she had through an effort to care for others, like Dicey Tillerman from Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman Cycle or Jessie Alden from Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children series.
These characters grew up to lead lives larger than they’d ever imagined for themselves, and this is something I’ve always longed for. It’s the reason I began practicing Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Nichiren Buddhism with my family, who, beginning with my mother, left their Sikh and Hindu roots before I was born to pursue a fresh path to enlightenment. And it’s the reason I am a disciple of Daisaku Ikeda, the SGI leader, a prolific writer, peace activist, and my mentor.
The mentor-disciple relationship in Buddhism is nearly as old as Buddhism itself. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha’s compassionate commitment to teach people how to free themselves from suffering, coupled with the spirit of his disciples to learn, apply, and spread these teachings, led to the foundation of the tradition as we know it today.
In SGI Nichiren Buddhism, the purpose of the mentor-disciple relationship is to achieve a life-state of unshakable happiness, a unity of spirit that allows both parties to manifest their inherent power. In the “Expedient Means” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha Shakyamuni says to his disciple Shariputra: “At the start I took a vow, hoping to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us, and what I long ago hoped for has now been fulfilled.”
Of this passage, Ikeda writes: “The Buddha vows to elevate all people to the same state of life as his own. This is the spirit to raise capable people, to enable people to develop to their fullest potential. This is also the spirit underlying the mentor-disciple relationship.”
Growing up in suburbia in the early 2000s did not make me inclined to follow anyone, though that’s what I inadvertently ended up doing. My one attempt at the school stage landed me a role as one of Captain Hook’s assistant pirates in Peter Pan. After that, I joined a backstage makeup crew, assisting other makeup artists even though there was no hierarchy. Eventually, I found freedom in walking a path away from people, usually just far enough that I could see the fun without having to participate in it. As you might expect, this led to a growth in both my curiosity about people’s behavior and my loneliness. By the time I was 16, I needed a new strategy in life.
At first, practicing Buddhism was my way to avoid the mainstream path in a fairly homogeneous community. But when I started chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”—the title of the Lotus Sutra—something happened. Nichiren Buddhists believe this chant, known as daimoku, is a means of activating our inherent courage, wisdom, and compassion. I didn’t begin thinking it made any sense, but I was curious enough to try it because the warmth of the SGI members I knew inspired me, and I had nothing to lose. To my surprise, I found it to be true. After chanting for a few minutes a day before school, I felt a surge of energy and calm at the same time, as if a long-dormant voice woke up inside of me, diminishing my anxieties and igniting creativity. I started carrying a notebook everywhere I went, and I spent my math and science classes (which I hated) writing stories and poems. I started forming a thesis on life. But most importantly, I wanted to talk to people. I wasn’t afraid of them or judgmental, as I had been, and I started making true, treasured friends, which is a big deal for a loner in high school. This led to a courage I’d never experienced before. It took many forms: more comfort in my own skin, which was hairier than that of most girls around me and something I had been bullied for; a more open heart with my own family; and to my surprise, a new passion, performing poetry aloud among those same peers from whom I’d once cowered. Without my thinking about it, my life just grew.
As I turned 21, then 25, and then 30, I learned to use my voice more effectively. I chanted my way through graduate school (with the occasional pep talk to myself in a bathroom mirror before an interview), became a bona fide journalist, and told stories I was proud of. Turns out, all those years of observation were useful to people, and with the courage problem solved, I could make a career of it.In SGI Nichiren Buddhism, the purpose of the mentor-disciple relationship is to achieve a life-state of unshakable happiness.
But courage was not the only thing I gained. In addition to chanting and participating in my neighborhood SGI community, I started reading Ikeda. And through his words, I started gaining an understanding of the purpose of my life.
In a book titled Discussions on Youth, he writes, “Even if you think you’re hopeless and incapable, I know you’re not. I have not the slightest doubt that each of you has a mission. Though others may disparage you, please know that I respect you. I believe in you. No matter what circumstances you now face, I have absolute confidence that a wonderful future awaits you.”
The first time I read these words was while sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house at the age of 21. I had just graduated from college, ended a relationship, and been rejected from every job I’d applied to. I felt small Jihii reemerge, the one who longed for a bigger, better life but was stuck beginning this one.
But in that moment, reading Ikeda’s words reminded me that one could create the life one wanted, because we are made of buddhahood. This is when I decided I wanted Ikeda to be my mentor—in other words, I wanted to be his disciple, and not just a member of a Buddhist organization that he leads. I now call this my prime point in Buddhist faith—a point to which I can always return to remember why I am doing what I am doing.
In SGI, there is no “process” of taking on a mentor. Simply put, because we study the writings of Ikeda so thoroughly, we appreciate him as a mentor. Whether or not we consider ourselves disciples is an individual decision. I do, because I want to see how far Buddhism can take me in this lifetime.
In SGI, we call Ikeda “sensei” which means “teacher” or “mentor.” But Ikeda calls himself a disciple.
At 19, he was lost like me, seeking to make sense of life’s purpose and navigate the misery of Japan after World War II. Ikeda attended his first Buddhist discussion meeting in 1947, and he decided then that Josei Toda, the second president of SGI, would be his mentor.
For the two of them, the next 11 years were a joint struggle to spread Nichiren Buddhism in a Japanese society racked by poverty and illness—against the tyranny of authority, human frailty and sickness, social ridicule, financial hardship, and plotted schemes to thwart their efforts to awaken the people of Japan to their power by those who were afraid of losing their own power.
What I respect most about him is that he has never claimed to be greater than anyone else; in fact, he has perhaps been hardest on himself, striving for constant self-improvement to diligently put into practice everything his teacher taught him. This allowed him to cultivate his own “greater self,” an internal potential for courage, compassion and wisdom that Nichiren Buddhists believe all people have and can tap into through Bodhisattva practice in the harsh realities of the secular world.
Ikeda writes, “The path of mentor and disciple is strict and demanding; it is itself the great path of human revolution and attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime . . . I also dedicated myself wholeheartedly to Mr. Toda, protected him, and fulfilled my mission as his disciple. I actualized all of the goals he set.”
Before Toda died in 1958, Ikeda had led an enormous grassroots effort to raise thousands of successors committed to the goal of global peace based on living and propagating the Lotus Sutra. In 1960, because it had been Toda’s unrealized dream, he took this effort across the ocean, to the United States, and from there throughout the world.
And in 1983, my mother, a young woman in India seeking a deeper purpose to life, began chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” Six years later, I was born.
There are a few things that happen when you take on a mentor. In the beginning, you feel small and in awe, soaking in every bit of wisdom your teacher has to offer. If you are a serious disciple, you aspire to join their ranks and so you practice what they show you. Eventually, through some combination of your age and skill advancing, you do join their ranks. And in many cases, especially if both you and your mentor are not ruled by ego, you surpass them. Ikeda describes his experience as follows in an episode that he recounts in the New Human Revolution:
I also strove to make President Toda’s spirit my own and to be in rhythm with him. In doing so, I gradually began to find the confidence to tackle problems that had at first seemed daunting and even impossible. No matter how painful or difficult the situation, I felt courage and strength. And day by day, I was able to break through my own inner barriers. This was possible because I tapped into the great life force of President Toda. … Those who walk the path of mentor and disciple of kosen-rufu [world peace based on the propagation of Buddhism] will never find themselves at an impasse. Through experience, I have concluded that when you are completely united in spirit with your mentor, unlimited strength wells forth.
For Ikeda, this strength manifested itself in overcoming personal hardship, such as a diagnosis of tuberculosis that was expected to end his life early, and hardships in the effort to spread Buddhism, such as ridicule, criticism, and false accusations. Josei Toda had similarly been imprisoned alongside his own mentor, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (the founder and first president of the Soka Gakkai) for fighting for his beliefs as a religious reformer.
In essence, Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda, who are seen as the three eternal mentors of the SGI, successively developed their respective mentor’s vision of enabling all human beings to attain enlightenment through Buddhist practice, and they worked hard to both modernize and spread this teaching. (Today, there are over 12 million members of the lay organization throughout the world.) The solid foundation they laid—and Ikeda Sensei’s thorough documentation of how they did it in the Human Revolution and New Human Revolution book series— has empowered me to contribute to this ongoing Buddhist movement as a young woman in the 21st century, while also striving to build a life based on my best self.Each time I reach an impasse in life, I can chant, seek my mentor through his writings, and tap into a life force that allows me to break through.
If I apply my practice to overcome my self-doubt, meet my goals, and enjoy each moment of my life, then I can teach other people to do the same, thereby achieving Ikeda’s goal. This is where the oneness of mentor-disciple comes in. Over time there ceases to be a difference between my goal and Ikeda’s, because they are one. Each time I reach an impasse in life—be it an obstacle to my dreams or the inevitable challenges life throws at just about everyone, like illness, pain in relationships, financial hardship—I can chant, seek my mentor through his writings, and tap into a life force that allows me to break through.
This strength of growing, of never feeling stuck, brings me joy, while at the same time I’m helping other people find happiness through daily dialogue, study, and chanting together. Because of this reciprocity, the movement for individual enlightenment through collective effort has grown and continues to grow while maintaining the conviction that its members are equal. And at scale, a force of individuals who are able to consistently tap into this life force and take courageous, compassionate action is able to overturn societal suffering and injustice in crucial moments. This is kosen-rufu, as I see it.
In this way, the oneness of mentor and disciple allows each individual to transcend what they would not have been capable of alone in a single lifetime.
When people ask me why I have chosen to live my life together with the Soka Gakkai, I say that when I die, I would rather look back knowing I have lived my life to its very limits by advancing what those who came before me began, in my own unique way. The alternative would be to start from scratch, pondering how to live and dabbling in a little of this and a little of that. At best, I might achieve some big personal goals without knowing whether my life has contributed in any way to the happiness of others, and at worst, I could end up nowhere in particular, or perpetuate systems based on what Buddhism describes as the three poisons—greed, anger, and foolishness—which I think we’ve seen enough of.
Through Ikeda’s example, I have learned that it is only a succession of united disciples inheriting the baton from their mentor who can make this great potential of the Lotus Sutra a reality, by opening hundreds and thousands of people to the greatness of their own life. This is possible through the simple, steady process of chanting, studying the behavior and the writings of those who have kept it alive, and teaching others to do the same, beginning with the person in front of us.
Another passage from Nichiren reads, “Blue dye comes from indigo, but when something is repeatedly dyed in it, the color is better than that of the indigo plant. The Lotus Sutra remains the same, but if you repeatedly strengthen your resolve, your color will be better than that of others, and you will receive more blessings than they do.”
The question now is where this spirit of oneness will take me. What will I accomplish in my lifetime, by living with the same heart as my mentor? How many other disciples will I practice with in his lifetime?
Ikeda once wrote, “‘Just as Mr. Toda called out 55 years ago, I call out to all the youth who are my true successors: ‘My young friends, how will you accomplish kosen-rufu? What are the challenges that lie before you? Where and how will you fight and win?’”
I intend to win over my own self-doubt each day and challenge myself to care for the people around me to the best of my ability, both the successors of the Soka Gakkai and in society, which needs hopeful, courageous people more than ever.
And in doing so I will report to my mentor each day: “I have courage, I am happy, and I have won. No longer do I only read my way through life, but I write, too. Today, I have written another two pages—one of my story, in which the heroine discovers a strength larger than she had ever known; and one of ours, in which a mentor and disciple have together helped one more person begin to believe in the power of human life.” Just as he reports to his.