Volume 30: Chapter 3, Launching Out 1–10

Launching Out 1

Beijing was bathed in bright sunshine. The tranquil rural landscape surrounding the airport spoke of springtime in the capital.

At 2:30 p.m. on April 21, 1980, Shin’ichi Yamamoto and the rest of the Fifth Soka Gakkai Delegation to China arrived at Beijing airport.

This was Shin’ichi’s first overseas trip since stepping down as Soka Gakkai president. He was determined to solidify the golden bridge of friendship between China and Japan that had been built through grassroots exchange and to continue expanding the great path of lasting peace toward the 21st century.

China-Japan Friendship Association Vice President Sun Pinghua, who met the delegation at the airport, remarked to Shin’ichi: “For the last two or three days, Beijing has been covered in clouds of yellow dust. You couldn’t see an inch in front of you. The winds finally stopped yesterday evening. Today, the weather is springlike and the skies are blue. Nature is celebrating your arrival.”

The formal invitation from the China-Japan Friendship Association had expressed the hope of welcoming the Soka Gakkai delegation “in the warmth of spring when the flowers are in bloom,” and the weather on this day perfectly matched that description.

For a moment, Shin’ichi thought of the situation affecting the Soka Gakkai in Japan. The extreme and unrelenting attacks by the young priests of Nichiren Shoshu, he mused, were like swirling clouds of yellow dust, but they could not continue forever. Shin’ichi was confident that once the Soka Gakkai rode through this storm, a new hopeful future for kosen-rufu would arrive, as bright and clear as today’s blue skies.

A large embroidered tapestry of a waterfall was hanging on the wall of the airport VIP room to which they were escorted. It depicted the great waterfall that lies upstream from the Dragon Gate rapids or falls in the Yellow River. According to legend, carp that succeed in climbing these are transformed into dragons. This is the origin of the Japanese expression tō-ryūmon—literally, “climbing the Dragon Gate”—meaning “the gateway to success in life.”

The Daishonin employed the story of the Dragon Gate in a number of his writings as a metaphor for our Buddhist practice and the difficulty of attaining Buddhahood.

The delegation members gazed intently at the tapestry, thinking of the Soka Gakkai’s history of surmounting countless raging rapids.

Launching Out 2

On the morning of April 22, Shin’ichi and the other delegation members viewed an exhibition on the life and achievements of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at the National Museum of Chinese History. After that, at the invitation of Deng Yingchao, the premier’s widow and vice chairperson of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Shin’ichi, his wife Mineko, and several other leaders visited Madame Deng at her residence, Xihuating (Western Flower Hall), in the Zhongnanhai area of Beijing.

She showed them around her garden, where beautiful crab apples and lilacs were in bloom. Afterward, in the living room where Premier Zhou had welcomed important foreign guests, Shin’ichi conversed with Madame Deng for 90 minutes, engaging in an animated exchange that included sharing their memories of the late premier. It was their first meeting in a year, their last having taken place at Japan’s State Guesthouse in April 1979.

In the afternoon, during a welcome banquet at the Great Hall of the People, they again discussed Premier Zhou’s life, and Madame Deng related the moving story of having scattered her late husband’s ashes from an airplane.

“When we were young,” she said, “Comrade Enlai and I pledged to devote our lives to serving the people. In our later years, to stay true to that pledge even in death, we agreed that we would not have our ashes stored somewhere.”

Storing their ashes would have entailed building a tomb or burial monument, which would have required both land and labor. That would not be serving the people, they felt. But if their ashes were scattered over the land, they would become nutrients for plants and thus be of use to the people. This idea, however, ran completely against Chinese customs and traditions, and carrying it out was a truly revolutionary act.

“When Comrade Enlai grew very ill and could only stand with the support of two nurses, he said to me: ‘You must carry out our pledge.’ After he died, my only request to the Central Committee was that they not preserve his ashes but rather scatter them around the nation. Chairman Mao Zedong and the Central Committee agreed to my request, and I was able to keep my promise to Comrade Enlai.”

The story symbolized Premier Zhou’s thoroughgoing service to the people.

A wish or intention becomes real when put into action, and becomes a genuine commitment when carried through to the end.

Launching Out 3

On the afternoon of April 22, Shin’ichi and the Soka Gakkai delegation visited Peking University, where they were welcomed by Vice President Ji Xianlin and others. An academic exchange agreement between Peking University and Soka University was signed in the Lin Hu Xuan Reception Hall on campus. On that occasion, the Chinese university announced its decision to confer the title of honorary professor on Shin’ichi.

After expressing his appreciation for this honor, Shin’ichi delivered a special lecture in which he shared his observations on China and his vision for a new perspective on the people.

Shin’ichi noted that Kojiro Yoshikawa, a respected scholar of Chinese literature, had described China as a civilization without gods, and that it seemed to be one of the earliest countries in the world to divest itself of mythology.

He then went on to recount an episode from the life of the great Chinese historian Sima Qian (Ssu’ma Ch’ien, c. 145–c. 87 BCE). Sima Qian incurred the wrath of Emperor Wu and was punished with castration for speaking in defense of Li Ling, a general who had been captured by enemy forces. This, Shin’ichi said, made the historian question the validity of the so-called Way of Heaven, which was meant to reward good and punish evil. Shin’ichi argued that this is an example of the tendency underlying Chinese civilization to view the universal in terms of the particular, since Sima Qian questioned the supposed universal Way of Heaven based on his personal tragedy.

In contrast, Shin’ichi suggested, until the end of the 19th century, Western civilization tended to view the particular in terms of the universal, never questioning the concept of an absolute, universal deity exercising divine providence. In other words, it contemplated the human and natural worlds through the prism of the concept of God. Trying to directly apply that viewpoint to peoples of completely different histories and traditions had led to coercion and, ultimately, contributed to aggressive and discriminatory colonialism in the name of God.

Shin’ichi then stressed the importance of seeing reality for what it is and striving to discover the universal principles underlying it. China, he said, had a tradition of following this approach. He added that the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee had spoken of the universalist attitude that the Chinese people had developed in the course of their long history. Shin’ichi also voiced his hope for the emergence of people with a new awareness who would play the leading role in developing a new universalism.

Shin’ichi believed in China’s tremendous energy and potential. That is why he visited it repeatedly out of a wish to promote friendship between China and Japan, as well as stability in Asia.

Launching Out 4

After the lecture at Peking University, a presentation of books was made to Sichuan University. Initially, Shin’ichi had planned to visit Sichuan University in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, but his tight schedule had not made it possible, and the ceremony was held at Peking University instead.

Shin’ichi handed Sichuan University Vice President Du Wenke a small selection of books along with a complete catalogue of the 1,000 titles being presented, and applause rang out. It marked the start of a fresh collaboration in promoting educational and cultural exchange.

On the morning of April 23, at the Beijing Hotel where he was staying, Shin’ichi met and spoke with Chang Shuhong, director of the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute (later the Dunhuang Academy), and his wife, Li Chengxian.

Seventy-six years old, Chang Shuhong was an eminent international authority on the art of Dunhuang and research on the Silk Road, as well as a member of the Fifth National People’s Congress. He had just returned to China from West Germany the day before, but he didn’t appear the least bit fatigued.

Shin’ichi opened their conversation by asking Director Chang what had set him on the path to becoming a researcher of Dunhuang. His answer was quite interesting.

In 1927, when he was 23 years old, he went to France to study painting. While in Paris, he came across a book of photographs of Dunhuang and was astounded by the beauty of its art. Before then, he had known nothing about Dunhuang, even though it was located in his own country. That a place of such wonderful art and culture was so little known seemed wrong to him. In 1936, he set everything aside and returned to China to devote himself to preserving and studying the art of Dunhuang and introducing it to the world.

In 1943, he finally realized his cherished dream of going to Dunhuang, doing so as a member of the advance party tasked with establishing a research center there. And now he had spent the last 37 years living in Dunhuang, dedicating himself to preserving and restoring its cultural relics.

“The great art of Dunhuang was created over the course of a millennium. But its finest treasures were taken out of the country by foreign explorers.”

As he said this, Director Chang’s face showed his deep regret. He had managed to transform that sorrow into a passion and commitment to study and preserve the site.

Unflagging commitment is the driving force for great achievement.

Launching Out 5

When Chang Shuhong began living near the Mogao caves in Dunhuang, it was an extremely remote and isolated area surrounded by desert. Buying living essentials meant traveling to a town 25 kilometers (15 miles) away—and, of course, he had no car of his own.

For a bed, he laid a thin woven mat on a platform of handmade clay bricks, which he topped with a makeshift mattress of straw covered with cloth. There wasn’t even a satisfactory source of drinking water. In the winter, the temperature often dropped to below minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit).

There were no medical facilities nearby. Tragically, when his younger daughter fell ill, she died five days later.

A painter, who had been doing research in Dunhuang since before Chang’s arrival, wryly observed when he left that living there was like serving a life sentence. But Chang Shuhong described his sentiments at the time: “I felt that if I could receive a life sentence in this vast expanse of ancient Buddhist culture, I would gladly accept it.”

Those who have made a firm commitment are strong. Having decided to press ahead through all kinds of hardships and challenges, they are able to accomplish what they set out to do and be victorious in life. That is also the Buddhist way of life, which is why Nichiren Daishonin tells us: “[Do not] expect good times, but take the bad times for granted” (WND-1, 998).

Forgotten, buried in sand, and exposed to erosion by wind and sand for centuries, the Mogao caves were in danger of collapsing. It was under these conditions that work was being done to preserve and restore the wall paintings and sculptures inside the caves.

The first step was to plant trees to block the wind and sand. It was an arduous and seemingly endless task. But, eventually, Chang Shuhong’s efforts paid off, and the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute won international acclaim for its endeavors.

That day in Beijing, Shin’ichi and Director Chang enjoyed a lively conversation, finding themselves in deep accord. They would go on to meet and speak a total of seven times, their last encounter in 1992. A book based on their discussions, titled The Brilliance of Dunhuang, was compiled and published in Japanese in 1990.

Their ongoing dialogue was inspired by their impassioned wish to open a new “Silk Road” of friendship and spiritual culture leading into the future.

Launching Out 6

In November 1990, an exhibition of paintings by Chang Shuhong opened at the Fuji Art Museum in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture.

One painting in particular stood out—a giant canvas more than three meters tall and five meters wide (10ft x 16ft) titled “Chomolungma Peak” “Chomolungma,” meaning “Goddess Mother of the Land,” is the Tibetan name for Mount Everest.

The painting depicts the magnificent, snow-blanketed peak of Everest towering to the heavens, with people climbing toward its lofty summit.

It was an immortal masterpiece, which Chang Shuhong had painted with his wife and fellow artist, Li Chengxian. They created it immediately following the Cultural Revolution, when conditions were at their harshest and it was almost impossible to acquire painting supplies. And they had done so with a vow to endure those difficulties and aim together for the summit of the world of art.

Shin’ichi spoke with the couple, who had come to Japan for the exhibition. During this, his sixth meeting with Chang Shuhong, the latter said he wished to present this great masterpiece, the crystallization of enormous efforts, to Shin’ichi. It was a very precious painting, into which the couple poured their heart and soul. Shin’ichi protested that he couldn’t possibly accept it, saying the thought was more than enough.

But Chang insisted that there was no more fitting recipient for the painting than Shin’ichi, adding: “During the Cultural Revolution, we were subjected to unspeakable indignities. Our lives were shut in darkness, without a single ray of light. But by creating this painting, we were able to spread wings of hope that could not be bound by authority, and soar high into the sky. After its completion, we were filled with a fresh sense of hope.

“You have given hope to countless individuals. That’s why I think presenting this painting to you is completely appropriate.”

While feeling that Chang praised him too highly, Shin’ichi also thought he should respond to this sincere gesture by the director and his wife. He, therefore, humbly accepted the painting as a representative of all Soka Gakkai members, who were engaged in a struggle to illuminate humanity with the light of hope.

Launching Out 7

With regard to this gift, Chang Shuhong and his wife, Li Chengxian, expressed their desire to create a new version of the painting. The materials they had used in producing the original in the immediate post–Cultural Revolution period, they explained, were of poor quality, and they wanted to ensure that they presented Shin’ichi with a work that would last into the future.

Shin’ichi was humbled by their sincerity.

On its completion, they presented Shin’ichi with the new painting, which was the same size as the first. A special unveiling ceremony was held in April 1992. Later, it would be named an important treasure of the Soka Gakkai and adorn the first-floor lobby of the Tokyo Makiguchi Memorial Hall in Hachioji, welcoming members from around the world who were striving earnestly to impart the light of hope to all humanity.

The friendly exchange between Shin’ichi and Dunhuang, initiated through meeting Chang Shuhong, continued to grow and flourish. In October 1985, the “Treasures from Dunhuang, China” exhibition opened at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. After that, it traveled to four other cities, introducing the art of Dunhuang to a wide audience throughout Japan. In a gesture of appreciation for Shin’ichi’s support, the Dunhuang Academy included his portrait among a display of distinguished contributors at the entrance to the Mogao Caves.

In 1992, the Dunhuang Academy named Shin’ichi an honorary research fellow; and in 1994, it presented him with a bronze medal in recognition of his profound understanding and ongoing support for its work to protect and preserve the ancient cultural relics of Dunhuang.

During his 1980 visit to China, Shin’ichi and the other delegation members met with Communist Party chairman and premier Hua Guofeng on the evening of April 24.

In the Great Hall of the People, Shin’ichi and Premier Hua conversed for some 90 minutes, discussing China’s new Ten-Year Plan, the Cultural Revolution, the problem of bureaucratization, education for a new generation, and many other topics.

Premier Hua said to Shin’ichi with a smile: “I believe that this is your fifth visit to China. I have heard your name mentioned before as an old friend of China.

“Like me, there are many people who, though they’ve never met you, know about you and the Soka Gakkai. I have also seen a Soka Gakkai film about your organization’s activities.”

Premier Hua was aware of the Soka Gakkai’s grassroots movement based on human revolution. The key to building a sound society is the inner transformation or reformation of people themselves.

Launching Out 8

In his conversation with Shin’ichi, Premier Hua Guofeng spoke of the challenge of meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing for China’s more than one billion people. Given the particularly serious problem of ensuring sufficient food production, he said, China’s goal was to establish agriculture as the foundation of the national economy. The improvement of the livelihood of farmers, he added, would increase their purchasing power, and this in turn would also contribute to industrial development.

Premier Hua’s words gave Shin’ichi a fresh appreciation of the challenges the Chinese leaders were facing as they searched for a way to protect the livelihoods of the country’s huge population.

Government means dealing with realities. People’s lives depend on it. Idealistic theories unrelated to reality are nothing but empty abstractions. When policymakers set the way for steady, practical reform and improvements, they will also win the support and approval of the people.

Shin’ichi inquired about the premier’s thoughts on the tendency for bureaucratism to set in once a revolution has been achieved, creating a gap between the people and their government.

Premier Hua replied that rectifying bureaucratism was an important challenge in carrying out the Four Modernizations,1 and spoke of the need to educate officials, reform institutions, and promote public oversight.

Any organization will descend into rigid bureaucratism if its leaders forget their purpose of serving the people and begin to act out of self-interest. Leaders of the people, especially, need to always take their place at the front lines of the organization, live their lives with the people, and strive and work together with them. They must engage in human revolution, constantly returning to their original purpose and developing their own lives, while reflecting on themselves and exercising self-discipline.

Premier Hua was scheduled to visit Japan at the end of May. During their conversation in Beijing, Shin’ichi and the Chinese leader confirmed the importance of solidifying the golden bridge of friendship connecting China and Japan.

While visiting Beijing, Shin’ichi also met and spoke with a young Chinese woman who had studied at Soka University as an international student and returned home to China that spring.

The present moment never comes again. Determined not to let a second slip by, Shin’ichi met with as many people as possible. He put his whole heart into talking with them and encouraging them, forging and deepening friendships.

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) wrote: “It is important, first and foremost, to live in the present moment, in one’s present circumstances, in the best possible way.”2

Launching Out 9

On April 25, Shin’ichi and the rest of his delegation left Beijing, flying to Guilin via Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province.

The next day, they headed by car to Yangdi, where they then walked through the misty rain to the pier on the Li River. When they emerged from a bamboo grove, several children by the riverside approached them. Among them were two young girls selling medicines and carrying their wares on shoulder poles.

They were calling out to passersby: “We have every kind of medicine. Please choose anything you’d like.”

Simply dressed, they wore their hair in braids without any ornaments. Their bright eyes made a delightful impression.

Smiling, Shin’ichi pointed to his head and said jokingly: “Do you have any medicine that will make us smarter?”

One of the girls replied without any sign of hesitation: “We’ve just run out of it, I’m afraid.” She broke into a wide grin.

It was a witty comeback, and everyone burst into laughter.

With a shrug, Shin’ichi said: “Well, that’s very unfortunate for our poor brains!”

Shin’ichi and his wife, Mineko, bought some ointments from the girls to give as souvenirs when they got back to Japan.

The girl must have honed her wit through the many encounters she had with people while selling her wares.

Children are the precious treasures of society; they are a mirror reflecting the future. Seeing them growing strongly and vigorously, like trees putting down solid roots into the earth, gave Shin’ichi hope for the 21st century. He renewed his pledge to promote educational and cultural exchange for the sake of these children.

Accompanied by Guilin’s deputy mayor and others, the delegation took a boat ride down the Li River from Yangdi to Yangshuo, a journey of about two and a half hours, enjoying a lively conversation along the way.

The beautiful scenery of Guilin inspired the great Tang poet Han Yu to sing: “The river is a blue silk ribbon; the mountains, like jade hairpins.”

Fantastically shaped cliffs rose along both sides of the river as the boat sailed through an enchanted realm veiled in white mist.

Launching Out 10

The Li River was at its most beautiful in the misty rain, explained China-Japan Friendship Association Vice President Sun Pinghua, who was accompanying Shin’ichi and his party. Yet even as the group savored the poetic beauty of Guilin, the conversation turned to current international events.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December the previous year (1979) sparked intense criticism in China. Some Chinese officials took a dim view of Shin’ichi’s visits to the Soviet Union to promote friendship and engage in dialogues with its leaders.

During the riverboat conversation, one official said: “You have worked to build a ‘golden bridge of friendship’ between China and Japan, but you’ll undermine relations between our two countries if you visit the Soviet Union. We’d prefer that you not go.”

Shin’ichi was grateful for that frank opinion, but he could not agree with it.

“I understand your feelings, but the times are changing dramatically. As we approach the 21st century, we must steer the world in the direction of peace for all humanity. This is no time for great powers to be antagonistic toward each other. We need a humanistic approach—a willingness to foster harmony while drawing forth one another’s good points and to work together in a spirit of mutual support and cooperation to create a new age.”

Though he did his best, he could not persuade all of the Chinese officials to his way of thinking, and the conversation kept returning to the question of which was more important, China or the Soviet Union.

The Li River flows on through the constantly changing scenery, until at last it reaches the sea, Shin’ichi thought. The times, too, he was sure, were moving toward the great ocean of peace for all humanity.

“I love China. China is important. At the same time, I love human beings. Humanity as a whole is important. Soviet leaders have told me that they would never attack China, and I have conveyed that message to your country’s leaders. I want China and the Soviet Union to get along. I’m sure you’ll see what I mean one day.”

That was his honest opinion and belief.

Persistent effort makes the impossible possible.

  • *1The Four Modernizations was a policy program aimed at strengthening and modernizing China’s agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology sectors.
  • *2Translated from Russian. Leo Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete Works), (Moscow: Terra, 1992), vol. 69, p. 144.