Lately I have written too many tribute posts for individuals who have passed away. Some readers may be finding it monotonous, but here is one more . . . one that I just had to write.
I learned last week that George M. Williams, former General Director of the Soka Gakkai International-USA, died on November 12. He was 83.
I’ve been critical of certain aspects about the Soka Gakkai, yet I have always mentioned there are, or were at one time, many positive sides. Mr. Williams for me epitomized the best values espoused by Buddhism, and as the title of this post indicates, he was a pioneer of American dharma, on the same par as individuals whose names are better known.
I don’t know how to explain Mr. Williams to you. I suspect most of you have had no experience with the Soka Gakkai. The SG’s approach to Buddhism is very different from what you are no doubt familiar with, and to paint a complete portrait of this man and his style of leadership would require a great deal of supplementary information. Rather than a full portrait, I hope I can provide at least a good sketch.
George M. Williams was born as Masayasu Sadanaga in Korea in 1930. He first met the man who would become his mentor in life, Daisaku Ikeda, in Japan in the early 1950’s. Ikeda was the Soka Gakkai’s Youth Division leader at the time, but in actuality, he ran the organization from behind the scenes. It was a kind of rite of passage for up-and-coming young men in the organization to go to Ikeda’s house and give him a massage. Sadanaga was one such youth, and that is how the two men began their relationship.
Sadanaga came to America in 1957 to study at UCLA. Ikeda asked him to visit U.S. members when he had spare time. There were only a handful of SG members, mostly Japanese war brides, scattered across the country. After Sadanaga graduated from the University of Maryland with a M.A. in Political Science, Ikeda implored him to stay in the U.S. and head the fledgling SG branch then called Nichiren Shoshu of America, or simply, NSA. Thus began a great saga, a quest really, of 30 years, during which the future George M. Williams crisscrossed the country tirelessly promoting Buddhism, organizing regional groups, and encouraging members.
In the late 1960’s Sadanaga had legally changed his name. He always claimed that George Washington inspired the first name. Obviously, it was calculated to make him seem more American. One of the major aims of NSA was to try to make Buddhism a part of American society. I imagine much of this direction came from Ikeda, but Mr. Williams brought his own unique creativity to the task. NSA was still rather small at that time. Mr. Williams promoted America and Buddhism by organizing patriotic themed conventions, parades, and musical shows, among other endeavors.
By the 1980’s NSA had grown considerably. In 1985 we sponsored a World Peace Culture Festival in Honolulu, Hawaii. As we prepared for the festival, one night there was a big rally at the NSA auditorium on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Mr. Williams led several thousand of us in singing “Blue Hawaii” and “Pearly Shells.” He said we were the “pearly shells from the ocean”, bodhisattvas rising from the earth. Not everyone’s dream necessarily came true in Blue Hawaii, but it was a grand event I’ll never forget.
We took over the Wakiki Shell, built our own elaborate stage on top of the existing one, and for two nights put on a four-hour musical extravaganza. On the Fourth of July we held a parade down Kalakaua Ave. with 13,000 members carrying American flags, and that was in addition to the marching bands, floats, and of course, the Young Men’s Division Gymnastics Team. We presented the Mayor of Honolulu with a petition containing 250,000 signatures calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Two years later, an NSA member discovered the existence of an exact replica of the Liberty Bell, cast from the very same forge. Somehow NSA latched onto it and Mr. Williams dubbed it “The New Freedom Bell.” He took it all across the country, staging rallies in major cities, the highpoint of which was when Governors, Mayors, and most importantly, everyday people got a chance to ring the bell.
But it wasn’t for these kind of events alone that Mr. Williams deserves to be called a pioneer of American Buddhism. He and the other pioneer leaders and members introduced Buddhism to literally hundreds of thousands of Americans. If only a handful ended up actually practicing Buddhism in the end, it is still an unprecedented achievement.
Discipline was strict under Mr. Williams. Practicing Buddhism in NSA was not a part-time gig. Practice consisted of not only chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra and a twice-daily recitation of two chapters from the sutra, but also participating in ‘faith’ (organizational) activities. We were told that the purpose of the activities was to strengthen our fundamental practice, that what we learned from doing activities would be engraved in our hearts, and we could then apply it to our daily life. Through this action, from this sort of practice, an inner transformation of the individual could take place.
There was also an emphasis on developing people. Helping others to achieve their fullest potential. Taking care of others. In no other group, have I ever seen such focus on and dedication to practicing as a bodhisattva. It wasn’t entirely pure, not altogether selfless. Much of the member-care was driven by a perpetual need to strengthen and promote the organization. That was one of the negatives.
The guidance we used to receive seems filled with platitudes, but when you tried to implement them, they suddenly became profound. In NSA, we were taught that everything is inside us, never to blame or judge others, look for the “diamond” in others. Be sincere, speak to others from the heart. We learned discipline, something many of us, myself included, sorely needed. Setting a goal and struggling to accomplish it was not a matter of strategy, but depended largely on one’s faith, the depth of one’s practice. “The more one struggles, the higher one’s life condition becomes,” Mr. Williams used to say.
Frankly, the discipline wasn’t any more severe that what you would experience in a monastery or on a retreat. I considered it kind of like a modern form of Zen training. We called it “training on the run.” But some people couldn’t handle it. It was relentless, never-ending. There was always some campaign to work on: membership drives, another convention, another parade, home visits . . .
When it came to practice, Mr. Williams led the way. Each morning, when he was in town, he arrived at the headquarters building on Wilshire Boulevard and chanted for an hour and a half. That was about the only time he ever remained stationary. He seemed to be possessed with a form of kinetic energy, always in motion, and he had a boundless sense of optimism.
His favorite song was “The Impossible Dream” from Man from La Mancha. While ‘tilting at windmills’ is usually taken as an analogy for delusion, in this song it’s about dreaming big dreams, fighting unbeatable foes, or as Mr. Williams would tell us “never giving up”:
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause
George M. Williams gave his entire life for the cause of promoting Buddhism in America. He was rewarded for his unsparing effort by having his mentor, his “forever sensei“, Ikeda, use him as a scapegoat for some of the controversies confronting the American organization at the time when Ikeda wanted to force a split from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.
Ikeda came to the U.S. in 1990 to “save us” he claimed. From what? The people who were only carrying out his wishes, the people who got their marching orders directly from him? The contention was that Mr. Williams and the American leaders had strayed, become extreme, drifted too far from President Ikeda’s direction. I have a clear memory of Ikeda walking unannounced into a meeting held in Malibu while Mr. Williams was speaking, interrupting and berating him for being “militaristic.” A charge leveled at Ikeda himself many times only a decade before. It was sad and disgusting, but I remember Mr. Williams taking it like a stalwart soldier, brave, smiling.
Mr. Williams was removed from his position as General Director in the early 1990s when the schism between the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu was at its height. Soon afterward, rumors began to circulate about his alleged transgressions: that he plotted with the priests against Ikeda, that he tried to get rich off NSA, and so on.
Mr. Williams’ greatest asset, and to some degree his greatest fault, was his single-minded dedication to the “cause” and to Ikeda. I never once heard Mr. Williams speak, informally or in front of a group, without talking about “our President Ikeda”, praising him, quoting him, throwing the spotlight back on Ikeda as the central figure of the Soka Gakkai. The idea that Mr. Williams was some sort of “lone wolf” is absurd. From Day One, there were advisors from Japan around to look over his shoulder, and report back to Ikeda. I can’t believe that Mr. Williams took money from the organization for his own purposes. He did not get rich. He lived in a modest house in Santa Monica with his wife. They struggled with their finances like everyone else.
The story of how Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai Buddhism was brought to the United States is one usually left out of books like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake, an otherwise definitive history of Buddhism in America. Over the past 20 years, the Soka Gakkai has been busy rewriting this history to magnify Ikeda’s role and to minimize Mr. Williams’. I can’t help but feel that it was truly despicable the way he was pushed off to the sidelines, discarded like a rag, and forgotten. The valiant efforts and sacrifices made by Mr. Williams and the other NSA pioneers deserve remembrance, and deserved to be honored.
I’ve heard that Mr. Williams had Alzheimer’s. There are a couple of brief videos of him from 2010 on YouTube. He doesn’t seem quite all there, but they are such short snippets, it’s hard to tell. I find myself hoping it was true, as perverse as it sounds. I hope that he wasn’t fully aware of how he was being maligned, and written out of history.
This has been a long tribute. However, you will be hard-pressed to learn about George M. Williams anywhere else, and I thought you should know.
I haven’t meant to make it sound as though he was perfect. He wasn’t, of course. He had his faults like anyone else. His vanities, too. He wore lifts and piled his hair up ala early 60’s Elvis to appear taller than he was. While, he may have been small in statue, he was a giant in spirit.
I will leave it with some words spoken by Mr. Williams in 1989, taken from one of my notebooks:
“No matter what, we should never allow ourselves to be swept away by fame or self-interest, nor abandon our pursuit. Giving up the challenge means the end of our quest to attain happiness in this lifetime. Accomplishment comes from perseverance, and no one will place you on the plateau of achievement, you have to strive to get there by yourself. By the same token, happiness is something you generate yourself, no one can give it to you. You create your own happiness, through your own actions, and then others will naturally support it.”
Goodbye “Regicho”, and thanks for the dreams, thanks for everything.