My Mentor and I

You may be asking such questions as: “why does Tom refer to his mentor,” “who is this person who encouraged him in this way,” “ why did Tom choose him as a mentor and how was his life influenced by this choice?”

It was about thirty two years ago that I first heard of Daisaku Ikeda. At the time I’d recently begun to practice the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin and I became aware that the global leader of those who do so was known as SGI President Ikeda. I began to read his books and articles, encouraged by the little band of ex Londoners who had introduced me to this Buddhist practice in Cornwall. I began to become aware that here was someone who not only deeply grasped the essence of Buddhist humanism and used it to encourage us but who also seemed to be personally asking me to do my best to do the same for others. My family life and relationships in particular benefited very much in the early years of my practice. But the time that especially stands out in my memory as being the one when I decided that Daisaku Ikeda was going to be my mentor in life was when, in the mid 1990’s the monthly SGI-UK news Bulletin began to publish a supplement containing Ikeda’s recent lectures on the sections of the Lotus Sutra that I’d by that time been using in my daily practice for a number of years. This was at a time of great difficulty and struggle for me in my career.

Since childhood I’d yearned to express myself through visual art. I’d achieved an art degree, had lived for two years in Italy, immersing myself in the inspiring traditions of European art and had learned all I could about those of several other cultures as well. Then, as I’d taken on the responsibilities of parenthood in my mid twenties, financial insecurity had led me to train as a teacher and embark on a career in the classroom. At first I’d determinedly persisted in my studio practice as well, really “burning the candle at both ends” as the saying goes. However, as I’d seen the increasingly claustrophobic nature of what I’d produced as an artist under these conditions and as my classroom effectiveness had suffered from the stress I was putting myself through, it had rapidly become apparent to me that I must not go on in this way. Time spent painting gradually gave way over the next few years to occasional forays with a camera and it was the teaching that came to absorb most of my working time and energy.

It was a couple of years after I’d moved in 1980 to a teaching post in Cornwall that a colleague at work told me about the Daishonin’s Buddhism and being impressed by the warmth and openness of those who introduced me and intrigued by the sound of the chanting, I’d decided to give it a try. Practicing Buddhism, I went on to discover, made me so much happier and seemed to be a good rationale for giving priority in my work life now to what I’d understood to be the altruism of bodhisattva action as a teacher.

It wasn’t an easy choice. By this time the responsibility of running an art department as well trying to be effective in the classroom was giving me plenty of scope for the kind of personal development that I’d learned was referred to in Buddhism as human revolution. The principle of turning poison into elixir through Buddhist practice became familiar to me at that time. For example, personal and repeated experiences of abusive behaviour on the part of students led to my enthusiastic participation in the school’s development of a positive behaviour policy and in it’s effective implementation. Then in the mid 1990’s an official inspection found drastic under-provision in several areas of the school including my own and extensive re-training and re-equipping was need over a period of several years.

It was during these very difficult times that I had the opportunity to study the new series of lectures on the Sutra by Daisaku Ikeda that I mentioned earlier. I’d learned that, as a young man, Ikeda had often studied with his mentor Toda in the early hours before work and I decided to do the same. This study inspired in me the desire to strengthen my practice to the point where I could relish the challenges I faced in my job and was followed in subsequent years by the nourishment I gained from books like Ikeda’s dialogues on the whole of the Lotus Sutra, from parts of his Human Revolution and New Human Revolution series, from his lectures on specific writings by Nichiren Daishonin and from his dialogues known as The World of the Daishonin’s Writings. To spend time with my mentor in my imagination in this way continues to enhance my commitment to my practice and to the activities of our Buddhist organisation that are designed to enable as many people as possible to become happy. This is what it means to me to have Daisaku Ikeda as my mentor and this will always be the case for me.

To return to the challenges of the mid 1990s: It was in response to the inspection that had highlighted a number of growth areas, including my own department, that my school acquired a new head teacher. Younger than most of the management team, quite approachable while being very much a “mover and shaker” in the politics of education, he made us all re-think how we approached our jobs.

Out of my Buddhist practice came the determination to develop a dialogue with this man. What emerged was: acknowledgement, after over twenty years of teaching by that time, of my need to develop my personal creative work as well as a plan to redesign the nature of the art department together with his support of my decision to work towards leaving teaching. Over an intense three year period I cycled six miles to work and back most days in my determination to remain fit and healthy through this transitional time. In the end all three goals were achieved in the best way for all concerned. The department I worked in became more effective than ever and I was able to prepare for the relaunch of my career as an artist in 2000, negotiating early retirement with my employers to coincide with turning fifty at the millenium.

Over the seventeen years since that time I’ve held eight major exhibitions as a painter and continue to develop the way I communicate in this way. My mentor’s inspiration has flowed into everything I do as an artist. “May all people shine. May all life shine” (1) was how he summed up the message of the Lotus Sutra in his dialogues and this is at the heart of what my drawings and paintings aim to express. Seeing actual proof of Buddhism working in this way I think encouraged my partner Gabrielle to use her own practice to help her develop her work as both a counsellor and an artist.

Meanwhile SGI-UK Buddhist activities in our corner of the UK have grown to the point where a Cornwall Headquarters was established in late 2002 aiming to support new members appearing in every part of the county over the coming years. Being self employed has given me the flexibility to more readily support a growing team of leaders in this enterprise.

Cornwall has a maritime landscape and climate and in 2008 I set out to celebrate this fact through an exploration of what I called it’s Ocean Light. “In a sense, the universe is a great ocean of life. This ocean is itself in a constant state of flux; it is continually moving and changing, performing the rhythm of birth and death.”(2) This is how my Buddhist mentor used the image of the ocean which gave me a growing awareness of its influence and significance as I put that collection together. Later, in 2009-’10 it was what I call the Lived-in Landscape of Cornwall that came to fascinate me and I’m aware that it was Buddhist teachings on the inseparability of life and its environment that lay behind the appeal of this theme for me. Then, in 2012 I created collection that I called The Turning Year. Here it was a sense of the rhythm of life, of what Buddhism terms the Mystic Law or Myoho as it’s expressed for example in the constant change we experience through the seasons of the year, that emerged for me as an underlying theme.

So, I hope that you can see from what I’ve written that there is every justification in my mind for referring to Daisaku Ikeda, worldwide leader of millions of Nichiren Buddhists, as emphatically and very personally “my mentor”.

(1)Lectures on the Lotus Sutra Volume three by Daisaku Ikeda published by World Tribune Press.
(2)Lectures on The Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life (newsletter No 7070)