Honoring SUA Founder Daisaku Ikeda: An Extraordinary Life Dedicated to Actualizing the Vows of One’s Youth

November 30, 2023
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SUA student chorus signs the Light of Hope in front of drawing of Daisaku Ikeda

SUA founder Daisaku Ikeda conveyed his hopes and expectations for SUA in an original song he wrote in 2011 titled “The Light of Hope” to celebrate the 10th anniversary of SUA’s founding in Aliso Viejo.

As the SUA community gathered in the Performing Arts Center on Nov. 27 to honor the extraordinary life and contributions of the university founder, a student chorus sang a powerful rendition of the song that visibly moved members of the audience, with the following verse assuming newfound meaning in light of Ikeda’s passing: “My young friends, I entrust my dreams to you. I am counting on you to spread the Light of Hope.” Ikeda passed away from natural causes at his residence in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Nov. 15 at the age of 95.

The speakers and musical tributes brimmed with the resolve to carry on the founding spirit Ikeda bequeathed to the students, staff, and faculty of SUA. In his opening remarks, Soka Student Union President Aashish Sunar ’24 expressed deep appreciation to Ikeda for founding SUA and providing opportunities for students from around the world to receive a Soka education.

“Without his tremendous vision and sincere efforts to establish SUA,” Sunar said, “we would not be here.”

Sunar shared a personal story about writing to Ikeda after being elected to serve as the Executive Council president to express his appreciation and determination to work hard to serve his fellow students. He also reported about his mother’s victorious battle against a serious illness. Ikeda replied to Sunar in writing, encouraging him to give his utmost as the EC president. He also addressed Sunar’s mother directly, writing, “I pray that you take good care of your health.”

Moved by Ikeda’s response, Sunar said he was determined to give his utmost in all aspects of his life, leadership, and education. “I believe living up to the high hopes and dreams he had for each one of us is one of the best ways to express our gratitude to him,” concluded Sunar.

Many students who attended the memorial felt similarly. Michika Nishikawa ’25 likened Ikeda’s role in her life to a pole star that has always been steadfast, indicating a direction forward whenever she has lost her way. Ikeda’s courage and perseverance to champion and uplift ordinary citizens has inspired her to become someone “who champions the dignity of each individual and never stops working for the happiness of humankind.”

Executive Vice President for University Community Katherine King, who has been a member of the Soka University community since 1991, recalled Ikeda’s warm care for students and focus on the happiness and empowerment of everyday people.

After observing a variety of Ikeda’s encounters while visiting the Calabasas campus of SUA, King witnessed his ability to cherish the person in front of him, showing each person the same respect, warmth, and kindness whether they were a dignitary, a student, or an employee. “I want to live my life in that way,” said King. “He has shown us through his life that one person can make a tremendous difference in the world.”

King and other speakers praised Ikeda’s ability to build bridges between people and cultures, and so it was fitting that the evening’s musical tributes drew from Eastern and Western traditions. Professor of Composition and Theory Michael Golden, one of SUA’s founding faculty, performed two songs on the piano: “Kojyo-no Tsuki,” composed by Rentaro Taki; and “Johnny-O,” composed by Earl Robinson.

Speaking about “Kojyo-no Tsuki,” Professor Golden said, “I feel the meaning of this song is that we should never lose sight of Mr. Ikeda’s vision that we— students, faculty, and staff—become a foundation and a source of hope and light for the world no matter how dark or chaotic it becomes and strive to implement it every day.”

In his closing remarks, SUA President Edward Feasel shared a story about the first time he met Ikeda 40 years ago after traveling with a friend to attend the World Peace Youth Culture Festival in Hokkaido, Japan. Also in attendance were representatives from the United Nations, who had come to Japan to present Ikeda with the United Nations Peace Medal.

During the event, Feasel noticed Ikeda was sitting at a table eating with some of his guests, including the U.N. representatives. Eager to meet Ikeda in person, Feasel and his friend approached the table and were taken aback when he looked toward them and began waving. They stopped and looked over their shoulders, wondering if he was waving at someone else. When he pointed at them, smiled, and waved again, Feasel understood they were the focus of Ikeda’s attention.

“I realized how much Ikeda loves young people and how he treasures every person that is in front of him,” Feasel said, “because even though he was surrounded by dignitaries, he did not hesitate to encourage two high school students eager to meet him.”

Two decades later, Feasel had another memorable moment with Ikeda when they were walking outside with a small group of people as the sun was setting. “Our life should be like this sun setting,” Ikeda told the group, “illuminating the horizon at the moment of our passing.”

Feasel said he was certain Ikeda had led such a life, as millions of people around the world are determined to carry on his work and spirit.

Walking the Path of Mentor and Disciple on the World Stage

Watercolor art of Daisaku Ikeda on the left and Josei Toda on the right

While presenting Ikeda with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the University of Minnesota’s 2022 commencement ceremony—one of 408 honorary degrees and academic awards Ikeda received—Humphrey School Dean Nisha Botchwey noted it would be “difficult to adequately describe a person of such extraordinary caliber and immense accomplishments.”

Ikeda spearheaded the development of the Soka Gakkai as a community-based Buddhist organization of over 12 million members worldwide and founded numerous institutions, including the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, the Min-On Concert Association, the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, the Soka Education System (kindergarten through university level, including SUA), the Toda Peace Institute, the Soka Institute for Environmental Studies and Research of the Amazon in Brazil, and the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge, Mass.

Ikeda authored numerous works, ranging from book-length explorations of Buddhist philosophy and humanism to biographical essays and children’s literature. He was named poet laureate by the World Academy of Arts and Culture (1981) and World People’s Poet by the World Poetry Society Intercontinental (2007), which conferred its World Poet Laureate Award upon Ikeda in 1995. Ikeda engaged in dialogue with more than a thousand leading figures in politics, education, academia, science, peace activism, business, and the arts, including British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, the distinguished Chinese novelist Jin Yong, U.S.-based futurist and economist Hazel Henderson, Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientists and peace activists Linus Pauling and Joseph Rotblat, and American jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

How, then, did Ikeda describe the source of his wide-ranging accomplishments? Reflecting on the origins of his long held commitment to peace, Ikeda said in a dialogue with former co-president of the Club of Rome Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, “It is no exaggeration to say that my youth during the war and my encounter with Mr. Toda when I was seeking the path to peace were the two decisive factors shaping my life.”

Born on January 2, 1928, in Tokyo, Japan, Daisaku Ikeda was the fifth son in a large family of seaweed farmers. He was very sick in his youth, struggling so severely with chronic tuberculosis that many people around him did not expect he would live to the age of 30.

Beyond his own battle with illness, Ikeda was also shaped by the historical forces of escalating nationalistic militarism in Japan during his boyhood and adolescence. He came of age in an education system militantly focused on producing obedient citizens devoted to the state’s interests. Japan entered World War II when he was 13 years old, and all of his older brothers were conscripted and sent to fight in the Japanese military. The Ikeda family would wait two agonizing years before learning his eldest brother, Kiichi Ikeda, had died on the battlefield in Burma. “I can still see the image of my mother,” Ikeda recalled, “her back turned to me and her shoulders trembling as she wept, clutching the telegram in her hand.”

Witnessing his mother’s anguish after learning of Kiichi’s death remained central to his lifelong commitment to ending the tragedy of war and abolishing nuclear weapons.

At the age of 19, Ikeda met Josei Toda (1900-1958), who became his lifelong mentor. Toda was a polymath humanistic educator who began practicing Nichiren Buddhism together with his mentor Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a renowned Japanese educator and geographer. Toda and Makiguchi together formulated the pedagogy of value creation—now known as Soka education—to promote education that focuses on fostering students’ capacity to become happy, lifelong learners.

Remaining true to their ideals to the end, both were arrested as “thought criminals” by the Japanese military authorities for their opposition to the war and defense of religious freedom. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944, yet his dream for peace and educational reform was carried on by Toda.

Inspired by Toda’s humane and compassionate character, extraordinary insight into human nature and social phenomena, and profound determination to bring about a positive transformation of society, Ikeda spent 11 years in his youth working alongside Toda in the aftermath of World War II. “Ninety-eight percent of what I am today,” Ikeda remarked, “I learned from my mentor.”

During the chaos of postwar Japan, Toda’s business reached a critical crossroads. Ikeda was only 22 when Toda first entrusted him with the vision of establishing Soka University. “It was in the midst of these truly dire circumstances that I firmly pledged to build a center of higher education that would enable the principles of value-creating education to contribute to the peace and happiness of humankind,” Ikeda writes. “Soka University of America represents the culmination of the effort to make value-creating education a reality.”

In a message to the SUA community following the news of Ikeda’s passing, Pres. Feasel reconfirmed that SUA was Ikeda’s gift to the world to build a more hopeful future for humanity.

“SUA students were his greatest treasure and he had deep conviction that they would be champions of peace in their communities, moving the arc of history from one of war to peaceful coexistence,” said Feasel. “Let us reaffirm our determination to live up to this founding spirit of Mr. Ikeda.”

Watercolor art of Daisaku Ikeda in front of Peace Lake and Founders Hall with a group of students at his side

Members of the Soka community share their thoughts and reflections about how Daisaku Ikeda impacted their lives.

“Mr. Ikeda’s remarkable efforts to realize world peace vividly live in my heart. With the realization of the interconnectedness of this world, Mr. Ikeda continuously encouraged SUA students to live a life that can contribute to the happiness of each single individual. His life, just the life of a single person, has continuously conveyed the meaning of living a contributive life to an unlimited number of people now and will continue to do so even in the future.” Haruka Nakata ’26

“I want to appreciate Mr. Ikeda for founding SUA and providing opportunities for hundreds of students from all around the world to receive Soka education. I also hope Mr. Ikeda’s family, friends, and supporters find solace during this difficult time. This year, I have treasured Mr. Ikeda’s guidance in my heart while serving as the EC president. Now, I am determined to give my utmost, as Mr. Ikeda said, in every endeavor in my life. I know as a SUA community, it’s a painful time for us, but it’s crucial for us to unite in this difficult time and actualize the mission of Mr. Ikeda in our lives, SUA, and the world.” Aashish Sunar ’24

View additional thoughts, reflections, and photos on this page.