Reflections from Jaime Haynes GS '16

Jamie Haynes
EDU 501
Dr. Fen English
Zana Briski; Soka Leader

The dignity of human life, a life that is both contributive and happy and recognition of the interconnectedness of all matter sentient and insentient are the foundations of Soka education.  Individuality and happiness for oneself and for others is the way to bring about a peaceful society based on this model of education (Ikeda, 2006).   The principles of Soka University of America embody these tenets emphasizing: culture in the community, humanism in society, pacifism in the world and the creative coexistence of nature and humanity (Ikeda, 2005).    Culture in the community corresponds to a life that is contributive based on the idea that happiness is not found in some far off place but can be found in our everyday life and experiences.  Culture is defined by our attitudes, beliefs and shared experiences with those in our immediate environment.  The dignity and individuality of each person in a community can be extended; collectively it is manifested as humanism in society rather than a society based on ideology or economic ends.  Once this type of society is realized it will spread, leading to pacifism in the world.  This is not some idyllic expression of a utopian society what Makiguchi termed as, “vacuous, utopian globalism” but rather an earnest struggle to battle the tendencies in life to degrade ourselves and other human beings (Ikeda, 2010 p. 5).  The idea of creative coexistence of nature and humanity can be seen as the goal built of the first three principles.  Unless the character of an individual is developed to confront the basest tendencies in their own lives they will not fulfill the purpose of Soka education.  Soka education is a shift in the model of education away from the transmission of knowledge toward the pursuit of knowledge, learning to learn, with teacher and student as absolute equals (Ikeda, 2010).

In 1956 Daisaku Ikeda gave four guidelines of leadership in Osaka Japan; “Be a leader who: is filled with conviction, who brings people peace and joy while sweeping away their pain and suffering, who can build the unity of many in body one in mind  and who enables victory through joyful struggle” (Ikeda, 2012 p. 7).  Conviction is an essential component for Soka leadership.  Without absolute conviction a leader will not be able to stand up to the trials that often accompany the leadership journey, and the individual will invariably falter.  For instance, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi’s deep conviction in the correctness of his beliefs allowed him to remain steadfast in the face of the military authority’s persecution.  Conviction is a vital source of courage to continue amidst the harsh waves of reality.  Another key component of leadership is the ability to bring peace of mind and joy to one’s followers.

Leadership often means forging a new path or treading against a popular current.  This kind of challenge leads to growth, and growth cannot be achieved without some discomfort.  By its very nature growth causes pain therefore a leader’s ability to transform or ease that pain and suffering can maintain and increase the momentum of the group.  Another facet of leadership is the ability to create unity.  In particular Soka leaders create unity rooted in the idea of individuality.  Based on a perspective of equality, individuality is seen as an asset where each individual displays their full potential uniquely complimenting and compensating for one another.  Rather than a homogenous grouping based on physical appearance or abilities, unity is created in the pursuit of a common goal without forcing the follower to become something they are not or conform to a preconceived notion of who or what a follower should be.  Finally, a Soka leader works alongside followers in a joyful struggle to achieve victory.  A key component is that the group experiences joy in spite of obstacles along the way.  The interconnectedness of these aims is apparent; without conviction and a sense of shared struggle individuals would have a hard time experiencing joy along the way.  This idea of absolute happiness will inevitably lead to victory.  Often short-term outcomes or persecutions and obstacles, which are inevitable, overwhelm movements.  True victory can be seen as final victory, and leading people in the direction of happiness, joyfully, will ensure arrival at that final destination.

The film Born into Brothels documents the efforts of Zana Briski to raise awareness about the conditions in Calcutta India’s “red light district”.  In 1995 Zana visited India and took pictures for a story she did on infanticide (Wiki, 2014).  Joseph Campbell’s idea of the leadership experience as a journey is a useful lens to describe Briski’s behavior and attitudes against the backdrop of Soka education.  Encountering the abject poverty and cultural prejudice against the financial responsibilities of female offspring that would push an individual to engage in infanticide, must certainly have provided a strong call for Briski during her first visit.  Conjecture on my part imagines she found an ally and mentor in Ross Kauffman.  Together they traveled to India to document in film what they experienced.  The crossing must have been exceptionally intense.  Studying in Cambridge and New York would be a much different experience then what awaited them in India.  In addition Briski crossed from the culturally different India into an even deeper subset.  Prostitution is an even further ostracized and purposefully ignored population in Calcutta.  The trials she must have faced surely seemed insurmountable.  There would be harsh resistance to her picture taking and filming due to the secrecy, illegality and stigmatization of both the workers and those in their environment.  The only way for Briski to be able to work would be if she lived with the women in the brothels.  This situation led to the creation of her work with the children living there.

The children in the film exuded the joy and vigor you would expect among a more traditional cohort neighborhood children.  Surely this sparked the imagination of Briski shifting her work in the direction of capturing the essence of Calcutta’s red light district from her own self-directed approach to instead a cooperatively constructed version of daily life seen through the eyes of children.  This shift was essential in both deepening the scope of her work and also cementing her role as a leader committed to working for the welfare of others.  Through her encouragement of the children she earned their trust and that of the communities in and out of the brothels.  Embodying the Soka principle of education existing outside of the classroom she used the earned trust and encouragement as the foundation of her work (Ikeda, 2014).  Throughout the numerous trials of Biski’s journey she remained grounded in her role as a facilitator.  Confronting the totality of the situation when she began to try to get the students enrolled in boarding schools.  Briski found an obstacle around every corner. In the brothels she came face to face with abject humiliation in the form of physical and verbal violence directed at the children and often the women in a misogynistic culture.  The trials existed in the community in the form of bureaucratic red tape and corruption, as well as prejudice toward this population of children.  Atonement and ultimately her Apotheosis came when she was able to get the children enrolled in school and when Avijit was able to attend the conference in Amsterdam.  The return journey must have proved nearly as difficult in the areas of editing, finding distribution and being able to accurately convey the emotions they experienced in India.  Additionally, finding out that some of the children were taken out of the school or excluded due to their family circumstances must have felt defeating.  Through the film, Briski was able to share the lessons she learned with audiences worldwide.  An aspect of Soka education is overcoming self-serving arguments and narrow-minded views and instead confronting the real problems of society head on (Ikeda, 2014).  By calling attention to this very real global issue Briski not only raises awareness but evokes compassion for not just the children but the mothers, grandmothers and others tangled in the web of prostitution, drug abuse and poverty.

The universal application of Soka education can be seen in Briski’s attitudes and interactions with the children even though, presumably she had no formal exposure to Tsunesaburo Makiguchi’s educational framework.  Zana Briski chose to live in the brothel with the children and their parents.  This shows an immersion in the community.  Rather than being an outsider, she made the conscious choice to join the community and built on the framework for education that the families and schools were already providing.  One of the key aspects of Soka education is giving students the opportunity to acquire knowledge in a real-life setting, not an institutional experience (Ikeda, 2010).  Briski used cameras as the means to allow for the students to have more self-directed interactions with their environments.  She then created a space for them to reflect on what they saw in the images.  During the interactions between Briski and her students she was seated on the floor with them.  Neither sitting in a chair, nor lording above them, she took on a posture of equality.  Additionally, Briski would teach technical photography vocabulary in a neutral way, building the vocabulary for the students to think with without assigning her own values.  Repeatedly she would ask the children what they liked about their photos.  Asking the students to tell about their picture allowed an opportunity for the children to craft their own narrative.  Briski’s praise of the children seemed sincere, and although the kids laugh, she tries to speak their language.  Seeking to see their world through their eyes, she would allow them to decide what was good or bad and then try to bring their individual reasoning into the light.  Seeing children as experts of their communities and seeking to build on that expertise develops their ability to have conscious social participation, which is a central tenet of Soka Education that Briski exhibited.  Little girls shared their fears of becoming like their mothers in between describing which aspects of photography they liked best.  Some enjoyed shooting, while others enjoyed the editing; one is happy to have a record or memento.  The experience of interacting with their environments through a camera lens seemed the most worthwhile.  

In the film, each of the children’s unique characteristics begin to take shape.  Some are bold in the face of scorn and abuse, while others are restricted to staying inside thereby capturing a more personal side of life in the brothel.  Building on the experience of photographing their immediate community Briski takes the students out into society so they can shoot at the zoo and at the beach.  Building on the familiar while growing the learner’s breadth of experience is another key component of Soka education.  Here Briski distinguishes herself as a Soka leader in her ability to bring joy to the children and sweep away their suffering.  Acknowledging that she is neither a social worker nor a teacher Briski exhibits aspects of both as she works to get the children enrolled in school.  She shows frustration with endless bureaucracy and ignorance in the case of health concerns like HIV status.  However the pending doom of life inside the brothels compels Briski to continue acting on their behalf, and she is able to exhibit the conviction of a Soka leader by seeing the task through to fruition.  

Eventually the Children’s work is exhibited on Oxford Street and sold to raise money for their school tuition.  The event is covered by local media and the children beam with pride when asked about their work.  Instilling this sense of self-worth is the biggest take away from Briski’s work.  We learn at the end of the film that even though the efforts to get all of the children placed in boarding schools was successful, not everyone could attend.  In addition, those that were initially placed in school left for a variety of reasons, only a few were able to stay through graduation.  Two scenes in the movie impacted me the most.  First was when Briski expressed her frustration over one of the boy’s reluctance to participate.  Following the murder of his mother by her pimp, Avijit stops coming to class and acts nonchalantly about going to Amsterdam to represent his country at a global workshop.  Briski shows her limits have been reached when she says that there is nothing more she can do, nothing more she wants to do.  However, she keeps working on his behalf.  Expressing her frustration with the situation and Avijit’s lack of engagement to me show the very real side of compassion.  However, the dissonance she encounters is in direct opposition to the idea that a Soka leader creates a joyful struggle.

Often our assignment of value does not correspond with other’s perspectives.  Makiguchi’s refinement of neo-Kantian idea of truth, to one of value, elucidates the dissonance felt by Briski with regard to Avijit (Ikeda, 2010).  Because Briski has no formal training in Soka education, she assigned her idea of what should be “true” to the situation following the murder of his mom and his trip to Amsterdam as a “way out”.  His natural talent and Briski’s own experience with photography shaped her view of his behavior.  Through imposing her own subjective values objectively Briski experienced frustration.  Makiguchi explains that: “Value arises from the relationship between the evaluating subject and the object of evaluation. If either changes relative to the other, it is only obvious that the perceived value will change. The differences and shifts in ethical codes throughout history provide but one of the more outstanding proofs of the mutability of value ” (Ikeda, 2010 p. 16). If Briski had formal training in the Soka model of education she may have been able to change her mindset, however I was deeply impressed in her decision to not edit out this very real human reaction, fighting the temptation to portray herself as a saint.  I believe even this seeming contradiction is evidence of her being a Soka leader.  In the end she kept working, Avijit did go to Amsterdam and was able to study film at NYU proving that final victory is true victory.

The second point of the film that touched me was when one of the girls was talking about her mom.  She said she understood why her mom was mean to her but that those actions and words did not change the fact that she was her mom and would one day pass away.  The ability of a child to so succinctly demonstrate the correct attitude toward one’s parent in what I would consider such an abhorrent situation struck me to the core.  I am sure some would criticize Briski for imposing her own notion moral turpitude toward the families of the children, especially those that withdrew their children.  However, I would assert that by giving the children the experience of her class they grew in their ability to have a broader understanding of themselves and likewise the larger world.  This sense of empowerment is the final component of Soka education that Briski displayed.  In the best way she knew how, Briski helped her students become more active, critical and purposeful in the interactions with their community, and as participants we can observe universal principles like the bond between parent and child at work.

Another short coming of Briski is exposed with regard to her ability to build unity.  It is only natural for a parent to miss their child and vice versa, even amidst the direst of circumstances.  The short term family goals of making ends meet took precedence over the individual’s long term and more subtle goals of formal education.  Withholding judgment is our challenge as outsiders merely offered a glimpse into the trials of life in a brothel, but by failing to build a unity of purpose between the families and the children they were susceptible to succumbing to economic and cultural pressures.  The myriad of dynamic factors surrounding this issue, however, must be taken into account and we should not denigrate the achievements of Briski.  Through her film, and subsequent foundations, many lives have undoubtedly been impacted.  Briski is still active in the field of art, her primary discipline.  Through her individual journey though, she has displayed the humanistic basis of both Soka education and leadership in the way most natural to her.  It is yet to be seen what will eventually become of her students and foundations, but there is one thing for certain; Zana Briski created value in the middle of the most dire of circumstances.  Through taking on other’s sufferings as her own she harnessed the power of education and the resilience of the human spirit to give voice to people beyond the furthest fringes of society, and in so doing, she created a film that raised awareness of the human right’s violations that exist in Calcutta.  More importantly, she showed the potential of the human spirit, in the face of any hardship or discrimination to, overcome despair with hope and confront the beastly nature of humanity with the dignity of education. 


Ikeda, D. (2005). For the Leaders of the 21st Century: Founder’s Memorable Remarks. Aliso Viejo, CA: Soka Student Government Association. 
Ikeda, D. (2006). The New Human Revolution, vol. 12. Santa Monica, CA: World Tribune Press p. 341.
Ikeda, D. (2010). Soka Education: for the Happiness of the Individual. Santa Monica, CA: Middleway Press. P. 5, 13, 18.
Ikeda, D. (2012, November 9).  Be a Leader Who Is Filled With Conviction. The World Tribune, p.7.
Ikeda, D. (2014, August 15).  The Song of Human Victory: The Great Path of Soka Education. The World Tribune, p. 4-5.

Zana Briski. (n.d.) Retrieved August 18, 2014, from Wikipedia: