A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher
In this inspiring, soul-stirring memoir, Lawrence E. Carter Sr., founding dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, shares his remarkable quest to experience King’s “beloved community” and his surprising discovery in mid-life that King’s dream was being realized by the Japanese Buddhist philosopher and tireless peace worker Daisaku Ikeda.
Coming of age on the cusp of the American Civil Rights Movement, Carter was personally mentored by Martin Luther King Jr. and followed in his footsteps, first to get an advanced degree in theology at Boston University and then to teach and train a new generation of activists and ministers at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Over the years, however, Carter was disheartened to watch the radical cosmic vision at the heart of King’s message gradually diluted and marginalized. He found himself in near despair—until his remarkable encounter with the lay Buddhist association Soka Gakkai International and a life-changing meeting with Ikeda, its president.
Carter knew that King had been inspired by Gandhi, a Hindu, and now Ikeda, a Buddhist, was showing him how King’s message of justice, equality, and the fundamental dignity of life could be carried to millions of people around the world. What ensued was not a conversion but a conversation—about the essential role of interfaith dialogue, the primacy of education, and the value of a living faith to create a human revolution and realize at last Martin Luther King’s truest dream of a global world house.
In these dark and frustrating times, the powerful dialogue between Carter and Ikeda gives hope and guidance to a new generation of reformers, activists, and visionaries.
Lawrence Edward Carter Sr. is the founding dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse, the world’s largest religious memorial to the legacy of the great civil rights leader, whose mission is to teach, encourage, and inspire ambassadors of King’s beloved world community. Carter has spent his career working to realize King’s vision for peace and justice through education and action, including lectures at universities and seminaries around the world. Dedicated interfaith dialogue, Carter has spoken to Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist communions, as well as to more than eighteen Christian denominations. He is also a professor of religion at Morehouse, a Baptist minister, and author of Walking Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays as Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
“A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher is a fascinating and provocative memoir, an honest, courageous, and moving account of a gentle and sensitive soul in a black male body in a black world, coming of age in one of the most fraught eras of U.S. social-political unrest, especially racial conflicts. It shows readers what may be made of the persistent quest for more complex questioning and thinking, including efforts to press the religious life into service as fulcrum for healthy and courageous openness to and engagement and translation of different religious orientations for the sake of self-illumination and global social-political transformation. Carter’s story should inspire and disturb all of us as it challenges our cherished and comforting assumptions, our tightly held claims and possessions, our glib tropes, including those about about home, race, religion, self.”
—Vincent L. Wimbush, Director, Institute for Signifying Scriptures
“This beautifully written memoir is a testament to the power of the inward journey toward existential discovery, a pursuit too often impeded by social barriers. Universal and immanent, truth beckons to us beyond the boundaries of geography, nomenclature, or faith tradition. It will draw us nearer, Carter teaches, if only we muster the intellectual courage to let it light our path.”
—Larry O. Rivers, Associate Professor of History, University of West Georgia
“A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher allows readers to enter into the rich and dynamic world of Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr.’s spiritual and intellectual life. With keen insight, a rare passion, and ethical and philosophical sophistication, Carter tells the story of his interfaith pilgrimage with Daisaku Ikeda, and explains in gripping detail how Ikeda’s challenge has led him to a new self-understanding, renewed hope, and a revitalized faith. This is the kind of book that can literally change a person’s life.”
—Lewis V. Baldwin, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, Vanderbilt University
“Lawrence E. Carter, Sr., has given us a most fascinating quasi-autobiography of a disciple. He claims to be a disciple of Jesus, Gandhi, M. L. King, Jr., and Daisaku Ikeda. For him, to be a disciple is not to be a follower but rather one who picks up the work of a mentor and expands on it in new circumstance. Carter’s mission is to forge peace through non-violence and to promote cosmopolitan respect for human beings everywhere as a way of engaging ultimate reality. Carter began as just a Baptist, and his stories of his childhood and youth are both moving and fetching. He met King when he was a highschooler and King tried to recruit him for Morehouse College. By the time he was in graduate school at Boston University, Carter had bought in both to King’s American civil rights movement and also to his global peace movement. King’s work (and BU) introduced Carter to Gandhi and the larger vision of non-violence: Gandhi was no Baptist! Later Carter became involved with Daisaku Ikeda, current head of the Japanese Nichirin Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai and became his disciple too, taking a leadership position in Soka American University. Ikeda is no Baptist either. Today Carter is a truly cosmopolitan global preacher and thinker. From his American, South Asian, and East Asian religious identity, he is a true disciple of Jesus, the most distant of all his mentors, carrying on Jesus’ work in extraordinarily creative ways. Read this book!”
—Robert Cummings Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, and Dean emeritus of the School of Theology and Marsh Chapel, Boston University”
Getting the Call
In the waning years of the twentieth century, I found myself in a state of deep disappointment. It was more than millennial malaise; it was inconsolable despair. Day after day, I worked tirelessly at my desk in a small, book-lined office as the founding dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta. For the thirty or so years since King’s death, I had been striving to realize his vision for equality, justice, and peace—both at his alma mater and in the wider world.
I had designed and implemented a range of courses, workshops, conferences, and exchanges trying to instill a progressive Christian consciousness within my students, many of them pastors, theologians, ethicists, Biblical scholars, engineers, philosophers-in-training preparing to go out into the world to preach the Gospel. Out of all my endeavors, all my toils, the students of Morehouse College have been my most valued and lasting contribution.
Still, I felt grief at all that I had yet to accomplish. Attendance at Sunday morning and evening King Chapel services remained meager in the Crown Nave. When I had accepted the deanship of the brand new King Chapel, Morehouse president emeritus Benjamin E. Mays had said to me, “If you can consistently fill the Sunday morning chapel service with five hundred people, you will have triumphed.” After three decades in the chapel, I had not triumphed.
A powerful choir had failed to consistently develop into an inimitable vocal force. A substantial and highly skilled staff to manage the chapel had yet to be assembled. So many of my sermons had fallen short of the thunderous, inspirational preaching that I dreamed might shake the halls of Christendom and government. And when my sermon preparation exceeded my expectations on some Sundays, few students were in the congregation and no faculty members were there to hear my effort or to participate in the sermon talk-backs after the services. All this even though Hugh M. Gloster, who hired me, thought that I was exceptional and never missed an opportunity to affirm my work. He even wanted me to succeed him as president of Morehouse College. But when Thomas Kilgore Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, asked me if I wanted to be president in 1987, I thought about it briefly and said no.
So many projects remained unfunded. So many books were still unwritten and unpublished. Portraits of seminal figures remained unpainted for the chapel’s International Hall of Honor for civil and human rights leaders.
The world house that my mentor Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of was still unconstructed. Toward the end of his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community, published in 1967, King wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu, Buddhist and Bedouin—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Throughout the last year of his life, King consistently spoke of this world house, saying how small the world had become, how the jet plane and television had shrunk the planet. And what was true in 1968 would only become more true—with cell phones, the internet, and the migration of people around the globe. Even then, King cautioned against the separation and segregation of people within nation-state boundaries. Certainly, current world issues like the “war on terror,” the global economic crisis, the refugee crisis, immigrant rights, nuclear weapons, and global warming have only made his observations more acute and necessary today.
By speaking about the world house, King had begun to speak of civil and human rights from a global, even cos-mic, perspective, connecting the American nonviolent Civil Rights Movement to a critique of colonialism and war and our treatment of Earth and outer space. Many responded by saying that he should confine the scope of his work to ending the segregation of the American South, and among these critics were people who considered themselves to be his followers. But he would not do it. He could not. He was a visionary who championed the struggle to realize a sustainable world where people ought to live free of violence and injustice.
As an African American man whose only arsenal was a briefcase of speeches about ethics, justice, nonviolence, sustainability, cosmopolitan discourse, and cosmic companionship, I often felt that my commitment to peace was not taken seriously enough by my academic and Christian colleagues, many of whom seemed more interested in ceremonial and token acknowledgments of King as opposed to building creative and effective activism for justice and social policy changes. Indeed, I sensed that many of them thought that, with his talk of peace, Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr. was just another useless Pollyanna.
In the decades since my mentor’s assassination, I watched as America and the world stumbled blindly, seemingly mindlessly, into ever-increasing cultures of conflict and confusion. From the violence that permeates our entertainment, to domestic violence in our homes, to assault-weapon wielding sociopaths and street gangs, to disrespect and intransigence in the halls of our government, to protracted armed animosities between nations, to genocidal wars around the world, to the threat of nuclear confrontation and the very destruction of our species and our planet—we behave as if violence is the primary purpose of humankind on Earth.
What was I doing to make a difference? As men in late middle age tend to do, I weighed myself on Daniel’s proverbial and unforgiving scales and found myself wanting: as a Christian minister trying to practice the religion of Jesus, as a teacher, as the curator of an institution that stood at the epicenter of American Civil Rights and world human rights, and, most significantly, as a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., a man I had known and embraced as my mentor.
The year was 1999. I remember it was a beautiful day, warm, like summer. It was quiet around the chapel. The students were gone. The phone rang and it was a member of the Morehouse alumni clergy and a very dear friend of mine, Amos C. Brown, the pastor of the nation’s oldest African American church west of the Mississippi River, San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church.
“Are you watching the news?” he asked urgently, as soon as I picked up.
“Yes . . .”
“Are you aware of what has happened in Colorado? At Columbine High School?”
“Yes.” I sighed. The news of the mass shooting by adolescent boys killing their classmates and teachers weighed heavy on me.
But before I could express my thoughts, Amos interrupted me: “What are you going to do about it?”
The question startled me. I had not thought about my personal responsibility in this instance. Long after the call was over I sat in my office, haunted by this question. What was I going to do about all the violence in the world? What was I personally going to do about Columbine?
It was really a question for Martin Luther King Jr. himself. What would he have wanted me to do? I thought of his mentor Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose life, work, and writing I have studied with great intensity, making him my mentor for peace too. The words of King kept playing over and over in my head and in my heart: “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
I was responsible. What was I going to do?
I could hear Gandhi and King telling me that sustained, nonviolent resolution to conflict can be achieved. I saw before me the blueprint and the tools they had left behind to make peaceful coexistence real on the planet, but something felt like it was missing. No matter how desperately I held to my mentors’ vision, I still felt I had made little or no progress in creating real momentum around peace as a living, breathing way of being in the world, a real and living possibility in the minds of my students and my small, ever-changing Sunday congregation at the chapel, my Morehouse colleagues and fellow clergy. In truth, I felt I had done nothing toward creating a sustainable culture of peace.
Yet I had great confidence in that blueprint for living nonviolently. If only I could get that blueprint in front of ordinary people everywhere—be they migrant workers, custodians or teachers, corporate executives, political leaders, diplomats, or heads of nations. I wanted to present Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as role models for peace and highlight the ideas and practices that make a life of nonviolence and peaceful coexistence possible. I wanted to plant those practices in people’s daily lives and keep them alive and active by studying, practicing, and promoting them. At the time, Gandhi and King were my sole focus. I had not yet realized that I might have another mentor, whose authentic practice of nonviolence would approach the spiritual caliber of Gandhi and King. I had not thought of looking beyond Hinduism and Christianity, even though Gandhi had said that the roots of nonviolence could be found not only in Hinduism and Christianity but in Buddhism and Islam as well.
Sitting alone in my office, I made the decision to have what I called a Millennium Sunday. I wanted to claim Gandhian principles of nonviolence, and I wanted to claim King’s philosophical nonviolence but merge them in an entirely new way, as I was under the impression that no one had done this significantly in this country. As the dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at King’s alma mater, I knew we were the most prominent religious memorial to him and that I was the one to do this, not just for Morehouse or even Atlanta but for the nation and the world.
I began by looking at what a Millennium Sunday would be and who would be involved. I chose April 2, 2000, and I talked with people in our communications office about it. They wrote a press release for the newspaper explaining Millennium Sunday and the founding of the Gandhi Institute for Reconciliation at King Chapel. But when the phone rang a few days later, I had no idea that this had been done.
I was completely surprised when the woman on the other end of the telephone said: “Hi, I’m Ann Fields Ford. I’m a professor of social work across the street at Clark Atlanta University. Have you seen the newspaper?”
When I told her I had not, she said, “There is an article indicating you are going to do peace work.”
I had not thought of it exactly in those terms, but as I sat in silence thinking, I realized that she was right. “Yes, I guess I am,” I answered.
“Do you know who Daisaku Ikeda is?” she asked.
I did not.
I have always believed you have to get out of your comfort zone, beyond the Mason-Dixon Line in your mind. If a nonviolent consciousness and peace activism are to take hold in the United States and around the world, we first need to open our hearts and minds to new influences and to truth, irrespective of its origins. This is something I believe King learned from his own mentor, Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, whose master’s thesis at the University of Chicago was on how Christianity drew from various pagan practices. Mays said anyone who disputed this simply had not done their homework.
As a follower of Jesus, I have sought to study the beliefs, philosophies, and practices of myriad religions and spiritual leaders. Indeed, I have opened the pulpit of King Chapel to leaders of every religious faith from Catholicism to Islam, Sikhs to Protestants, Judaism to Hinduism. I have hosted speakers as diverse as the liberal theologian Matthew Fox and the noted rabbi Michael Lerner. I have welcomed the ideas of imams, innovators, pagans, scientists, and spiritual seekers of all kinds. As a black ordained American Baptist minister, I pride myself on broad-mindedness and an eagerness to explore religious scriptures and practices quite different from my own. I have read the writings of everyone from black liberationist theologian James Cone to philosophical theologians Robert Cummings Neville and Paul Tillich to French Jesuit mystical paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Polish American Jewish philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to New Thought Ancient Wisdom mystics Ernest Holmes, Eckhart Tolle, and Wayne Dyer to native South Korean cosmopolitan theologian Namsoon Kang to Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh to British Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti to Greek-born evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris and American theoretical quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf. But I had never heard of this man Daisaku Ikeda. He was completely unknown to me until that morning.
In less than fifteen minutes, Ann Fields Ford was in the chapel library. I heard this woman say: “Wow! This is the biggest secret in the Atlanta University Center Consortium.” She was completely surprised and arrested to discover the large collection of enlarged historic framed and unframed photographs that cover nearly every square inch of the walls from the floor to the ceiling in the large chapel library, photo-graphs that document the widely held belief that Morehouse College is the school that started the American nonviolent Civil and Human Rights Movement.
I stuck my head out of my office door and there she was—a confident, middle-aged, African American PhD in social work, a fellow academic across the street at Clark Atlanta University whom I somehow had never met. She introduced herself as a member of the Soka Gakkai International-USA, a lay Nichiren Buddhist organization with a chapter here in Atlanta.
We sat down at the conference table in the library, and Ann explained to me that the Soka Gakkai International’s president, Daisaku Ikeda, was her mentor in faith. Since 1960, he had led an international peace movement born largely out of the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The SGI had since grown to a membership of twelve million practitioners in 192 countries and territories. She told me that this Buddhist spiritual teacher was active in other realms as well: he was an educator who had founded two world-class universities and an international school system from kindergarten through high school, and he was a peace activist who had long been involved at the international level advocating peace, nuclear disarmament, and human rights education. To say the least, I was embarrassed. As a trained clinical theologian and professor of religion, I felt I should have known about Daisaku Ikeda, the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, and the Soka Gakkai International.
Ann brought me a hardback copy of Choose Life: A Dialogue by Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda. After she had gone, I picked it up, intending only to skim it. But I was immediately drawn in by Ikeda’s eloquence and the clear and informative way he articulated his thoughts with eruditeness about political and economic issues from a perspective of spirituality. I was truly inspired by his message that the key to social change was a profound inner spiritual reformation—an inner revolution and integrity of character. I was ready to learn more about him and his international organization. But I was surprised and wonderfully impressed when I discovered Ikeda’s interdisciplinary grasp of the connection between economic growth and war. This sophisticated understanding of social issues from the perspective of Ikeda’s Buddhist faith put him, for me, in the tradition of Gandhi and King’s prophetic socialized spirituality. Ikeda said to Toynbee, professor emeritus of history at the University of London:
The nature of war has been described as an armed version of politics and diplomacy, but while politics today remains a partial cause, economic factors seem to play a larger role in warfare and military preparations. The problem of abolishing warfare requires study from many angles; there are many causative elements behind the necessity for nations to expend vast parts of their budgets on war. But under current conditions, the most important problem is devising a way to secure economic prosperity while avoiding confrontations that might lead to warfare. . . .
War is undeniably an evil and a danger to the dignity of life. Equally undeniable, however, is the stimulation war has given to economic and technological development. In the modern world, war and preparation for it seem to be deeply related to economic needs. At any rate, war is a way of disposing of surpluses in the immense industrial productive power of our society. In a state of emergency, all resources of a country are mobilized; war takes precedence over everything. Activities of society are controlled and systematized for the purposes of war and reorganized in their most rational and effective forms for the final goal of victory. At such times, strength unimaginable under ordinary conditions is added to the general effort.
Under the impetus of the two world wars, aircraft, rockets, and atomic power were rapidly researched and developed. After the wars ended, peaceful uses brought blessings to mankind. By increasing demand and the need for labor, war and war preparations play an important role in stabilizing economic development, but a kind of repetitive cycle is established in which vast economies bring about wars and wars stimulate further economic growth. . . .
War now threatens our civilization and our continued existence on this globe. We ought to do something to alter the basic nature of economics so that it no longer stimulates warfare. There are a number of factors aside from war that can promote economic growth. For instance, expanding and improving our social security and educational systems, providing better housing for our people, and giving massive foreign aid to underdeveloped countries would demand sums sufficiently vast to support the economies of most nations.
Less than a week later, Ann assembled a group of SGI members at my office, with Morehouse students among them. I had not even known the SGI was represented in our student body. A local lawyer, Richard Brown, who later became a judge, presided over the meeting and brought me many more books by Ikeda. Everyone introduced themselves: Richard Brown, Quan Sullivan, Brad Yeates, Anne Fields Ford, Donna Fabian, and others. Richard was making a few statements about the SGI, when I stopped everything.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, time out,” I said, a little surprised. “What’s the motive here? What do you really want?” I could tell that they were negotiating for something.
“We want you to establish an SGI club or society at Morehouse or the Atlanta University Center.”
“You’ve got it,” I said. After all, the Catholics have Newman House, the Episcopalians have Canterbury House, and the Jews have Hillel House in the academy. “We’d love to welcome the Buddhists.”
Everyone seemed pleased and started telling me more about Ikeda. I learned that when he became president of the group, it existed only in Japan and that he had internationalized it. He only spoke one language, but still he traveled around the world and had dialogues with different leaders. He did not let language or race or disciplinary boundaries or national borders or religion deter him. He sallied forth.
One of the young people mentioned kosen-rufu, and I stopped him. “What does that mean?”
“Global peace. Daisaku Ikeda’s goal is a commonwealth of global citizens.”
“You mean a beloved world community that transcends internationalism?” I said, paraphrasing King.
The young man smiled. That rang true.
I realized in that instant that Ikeda’s vision was in the very process of realization and was no different from Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the world house. I could offer them a campus organization. But perhaps the Soka Gakkai could offer me something as well: that missing piece of King and Gandhi’s blueprint for a world without violence.
“I’m sensing a great deal of connectedness between Ikeda, King, and Gandhi,” I said, “and the more I read, I am beginning to see they were all about the same thing. All three ultimately talked about the world community, a cosmopolitan utopia of equity for all and how we achieve that. Martin Luther King denounced injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere. As he wrote: “I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. . . . I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.” This is King’s most succinct definition of himself as a moral cosmopolitan.
I had been called first by my prophetic friend Amos Brown asking me what I was going to do about Columbine and now again by the SGI.
Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized that we are all involved in a “network of mutuality,” a “single garment of destiny,” and Ikeda talks about the interconnectedness of everything, “codependent origination,” the inseparability of life. It echoes in South Africa’s ubuntu: “I am because we are.” The whole Nichiren chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which literally means “devotion to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law,” is connected to this human interwovenness and the inherent dignity of every human being—what Martin Luther King refers to as the sacredness of all human personality. This transcends nationalism and is cosmopolitan in every respect. It transcends all boundaries and it takes precedent over militarily enforced sovereign government policies. So when people are hurting we are obligated to be of assistance to them any- and every-where in the world.
The internet has now become the nervous system of the planet. Distant wars are fought in our living room. Hence, we cannot know and not know what is happening around the planet. If we are going to practice virtue ethics, we are going to have to be guided by principles that help us evaluate, obligate, universalize, affirm, cooperate, and sustain. Without all this, there can be no justice. We sit before the merciless glare of television every evening to hear the news on all the networks. And it’s all about human need and what ought to be on our prayer list. What’s happening to people? What are we going to do?
Paraphrasing the German theologian Martin Niemoller, Angela Davis said that if they come for me in the morning and nobody says anything, and they come for your neighbors at noon and nobody says anything, when they come for you in the evening, there may not be anybody left to speak up.
Jet travel, cell phones, and all other forms of transport and communication make our planet much smaller, and for us to ignore what is happening to neighbors, locally or globally, is for us to ignore the teachings of Jesus, of Gandhi, of King, and now I realized, also of Daisaku Ikeda. The whole moral cosmopolitan idea is about identifying with global humanity, the cosmos, and never taking the attitude that the suffering of others is not relevant to me. Your address is much larger than you think. You are a cosmic citizen! The universe is your home! It’s the whole Christian message. Now I was seeing that it was also the teaching of the SGI and Nichiren Buddhism.
Thus I embarked on a journey to understand the Soka Gakkai International, its president Daisaku Ikeda, and the kosen-rufu movement for peace through the spread of Nichiren Buddhist philosophy and practice of chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I realized that in the King Chapel International Hall of Honor oil portrait gallery, where I had hung the likenesses of civil and human rights leaders, and nonviolent practitioners of all faiths and nationalities, I had overlooked the work of a United Nations–recognized and honored peace activist.
I found Daisaku Ikeda’s books and published peace proposals to the United Nations to be an insightful evolution of the nonviolent philosophies of both Gandhi and King.
For example, his 1982 classic, Life: An Enigma, a Precious Jewel, provides a more detailed, subtle, and pro-found analysis of the flow of cosmic life’s eternal reality, its evolutionary emergence, and its connection to religious sentiment than any explanation known to me.
“Religion is, in effect, a more essential aspect of human life than intelligence, morality, or conscience,” writes Ikeda. “Neither intelligence nor conscience can unlock the great door of life. The key to human existence is the inborn religious impulse that springs from and aspires to return to essential universal life. . . . The life force is omnipresent.”
I have often said that the heart of my theology is eternal omnipresence. Why? Because all Christian preachers preach on Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being.” If that’s true, then we are in God, not under God, as some American patriots say. And if we are in God—living, moving, and having our being—and God is eternal omnipresence, doesn’t that also mean that every substance that God is—every virtue, every bit of wholeness, health, wealth, and harmony that God is—is right where we are, and we can tap into it. It is closer than our breath and our heartbeat because we are living and moving and having our being in God.
That’s like saying, we are not born, and we do not die; we come from life, and we return to life. We appear, and we disappear. According to Ikeda, this omnipresent life force (which we Christians call God) underlies the so-called birth and death of all living phenomena. “Universal life was operating throughout the three-billion-year process required for the evolution of living creatures,” Ikeda writes. I take this as his interpretation of the six days of creation found in Genesis—a “day” being, in reality, billions and billions of years and therefore almost infinite. And where there is universal life on such a vast unfolding scale, according to Ikeda, there must also be religious sentiment and a continuing evolution—and the possibility for human revolution. We have always been here, and we always will be here, because as all of science tells us, energy cannot be destroyed. It only changes forms.
This and other insights that seemed to interpret core spiritual truths on a truly cosmic scale was what I found so impressive about Ikeda’s writings as a modern philosopher. But the more I came to know about Ikeda, the more I was inspired by his accomplishments as a religious leader as well—as a cosmic citizen-scholar, a peace activist, and a pioneering educator engaged throughout the world in dialogical friendships. In studying his life and good works, I began feeling more confident of my own path as a follower of Jesus than ever before. My theological and liturgical vocabulary expanded, and my comfort level in the interfaith community grew exponentially.
It also became clear to me that there is great symmetry between the nontheistic philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism and the very theistic New Thought Ancient Wisdom tradition, best exemplified in the teachings of the United Church of Religious Science, Unity, and those other denominations most influenced by spiritual philosopher Ernest Holmes’s 1926 mistitled book, The Science of Mind. Michael Bernard Beckwith of Los Angeles is currently the most internationally recognized independent teacher in this communion of cosmopolitan theology. My faith in the social teachings of Jesus and my knowledge of the mystical writings of Howard Thurman combined with the teachings of Beckwith and Holmes led me to Ikeda—just as King said Jesus led him to Mohandus K. Gandhi. Eventually I met Ikeda face to face and found him to be a profoundly authentic and humble person, spiritual genius that he obviously was.
It was on that very first day in 1999 when I was introduced to the SGI that I realized Daisaku Ikeda and I shared the same moral cosmopolitan cause—and I experienced my despair evaporating like the dew in a bright sun and felt, as Psalm 30 puts it, the joy that “cometh in the morning” with the start of a bright, new day.
SGI-USA New York Culture Center
7 East 15th Street
New York, NY 10003
December 6, 2018, 7:00pm
Lecture and Book Signing
SGI-USA Chicago Culture Center
1455 South Wabash Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605
January 26, 2019, 7:00pm
Lecture and Book Signing
SGI-USA World Peace Ikeda Auditorium
525 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Date and time to be announced
Lecture and Book Signing
SGI-USA Washington, D.C., Culture Center
3417 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
Date and time to be announced