Daisaku Ikeda is a Buddhist philosopher, peace-builder, educator, author and poet. He is the third president (now honorary president) of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization and the founding president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

Daisaku Ikeda aged about 19

Daisaku Ikeda aged about 19

Early life

Daisaku Ikeda was born in Tokyo, Japan, on January 2, 1928, the fifth of eight children in a family of seaweed farmers. Ikeda grew up in an age when Japan’s militarist regime was driving the nation inexorably to war. In 1937, the year full-scale hostilities broke out between Japan and China, Ikeda’s eldest brother, Kiichi, was drafted, to be followed by three other brothers as the years passed. Kiichi was killed in the war, but his description of his disgust at the Japanese military’s treatment of the Chinese people left a lasting impression on Ikeda.

Ikeda was a young teenager in the 1940s when Japan entered World War II. His family home was twice destroyed in air raids and he experienced firsthand the devastation of the March 9-10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo in which 100,000 people were killed.

For much of his early life, Ikeda struggled against ill health, nearly succumbing in his teens to the ravages of tuberculosis.

Encounter with Toda

In the chaos of postwar Japan, Ikeda encountered Josei Toda, head of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, who had opposed the policies of the wartime government and had suffered persecutions and a two-year imprisonment as a result. Toda was in the process of rebuilding the Soka Gakkai, which he had founded together with fellow educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in 1930 and which had been all but destroyed by the militarist government during the war.

Ikeda (left) and his mentor, Josei Toda, greeting Soka Gakkai members in March 1958

Ikeda (left) and his mentor, Josei Toda, greeting Soka Gakkai members in March 1958

Toda was deeply convinced that the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, with its focus on the profound potential of the individual human being, would be the key to bringing about a social transformation within Japan.

Ikeda joined the Soka Gakkai in 1947. He devoted himself to supporting Toda and his vision, completing his education under the tutelage of Toda, who became his mentor in life. He assisted Toda following the collapse of his businesses during the war, and then played a central role in helping achieve a monumental increase in the Soka Gakkai’s membership, from just 3,000 households in 1951 to 750,000 by 1957.

A global lay Buddhist organization

In May 1960, two years after Toda’s death, Ikeda, then 32, succeeded him as president of the Soka Gakkai. One of Ikeda’s first initiatives after assuming the presidency was to undertake a trip abroad in order to encourage Soka Gakkai members living overseas. In the USA, and in the numerous other countries he visited in the next few years, Ikeda established an organizational structure to encourage and facilitate more frequent interaction between the members. Within his first four years as president, he had traveled to North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania, starting to lay the foundations for an overseas organization that today has 12 million members in 192 countries and territories.

Peace, culture and education

It was also during these overseas trips that he began planning the foundation of a series of research and other institutions dedicated to academic and cultural exchange and peace research. These include the Institute of Oriental Philosophy (1962), the Min-On Concert Association (1963), the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (1983), the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue (formerly, the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1993) and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research (1996).

Departing for North and South America in October 1962 (Haneda, Japan)

Departing for North and South America in October 1962 (Haneda, Japan)

Both Toda and his mentor, Makiguchi, had been educators working to implement Makiguchi’s theory of value-creating pedagogy, and one of Ikeda’s initiatives was to establish a system of schools that would give physical form to the ideals of his predecessors. Junior and Senior Soka High Schools were founded in Tokyo in 1968, followed by the establishment of Soka University in 1971 and Soka University of America in 2001. The establishment of these schools, which are open to all students and offer no religious instruction, was the first major step in an ongoing endeavor to develop a humanistic educational system, one that Ikeda has described as the culminating undertaking of his life.

The central tenet of Ikeda’s thought, and of Buddhism, is the fundamental sanctity of life, a value that Ikeda sees as the key to lasting peace and human happiness. In his view, global peace relies ultimately on a self-directed transformation within the life of the individual, rather than on societal or structural reforms alone. This idea is expressed most succinctly in a passage in his best-known work, The Human Revolution, which he started writing in 1965 as a novelization of the Soka Gakkai’s history and ideals: “A great inner revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

The Human Revolution opens with a concise, scathing condemnation of war and militarism that offers a clear context for the movement’s objectives: “Nothing is more barbarous than war. Nothing is more cruel… Nothing is more pitiful than a nation being swept along by fools.”

Engaging with children

Engaging with children

Ikeda also began to engage in dialogue with political figures during the 1970s. This was a time of deep tensions between the superpowers, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over humanity. During 1974 and 1975, he visited China, the (then) USSR and the USA, meeting with Zhou Enlai, Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in turn, in an effort to break deadlock and open channels of communication in order to help prevent the outbreak of war.

One of the hallmarks of Ikeda’s peace philosophy is his commitment to dialogue. He has met and exchanged views with representatives of cultural, political, educational and artistic fields from around the world. Many of these meetings have led to the publication of collaborative dialogues seeking common ground on a diverse range of topics – history, economics, peace studies, astronomy and medicine, to name a few.

Among the individuals with whom Ikeda has published dialogues are the British historian Arnold Toynbee, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, theologian Harvey J. Cox, futurist Hazel Henderson, Brazilian champion of human rights Austregésilo de Athayde, Chinese literary giant Jin Yong and Indonesian Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

Ikeda lectures on

Ikeda lectures on “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization” at Harvard University (September 1993)

Ikeda has been awarded 350 academic honors (doctorates and professorships) from universities in 55 countries. He has authored dialogues, essays, university lectures, children’s literature and books. He has composed more than a thousand poems alone, and has received 25 literary awards from around the world. In addition to being the recipient of peace awards from across the world, he has received honorary citizenship of more than 740 cities, states and local governments.