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A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Choose Life in Holland Park


Like many of us, I didn’t know much about the eminent historian Dr Arnold Toynbee, beyond his book of dialogues with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, Choose Life, but I was very keen to be involved with the 40th anniversary celebration of these profound conversations.

 

The meeting between the two men in 1972 resulted in their best-selling and influential book, which has now been published in twenty-eight languages and is seen as a manual for living a creative and peaceful life by the millions who continue to study it around the world.

 

 

During their meeting Dr Toynbee gave Dr Ikeda introductions to many world leaders and influential thinkers whom he knew personally. Dr Ikeda has since taken part in over 1,600 dialogues with influential figures such as President Gorbachev, Johan Galtung, Linus Pauling and Zhou Enlai, and has received more than 300 academic awards from prestigious institutions around the world, plus a United Nations peace award.


However, it was his conversations with Dr Toynbee that were among the most significant and were the springboard for all those that followed.


Being involved would, I hoped, bring me closer to Sensei’s heart and help me understand his vision for a vibrant, peaceful world, outlined in Choose Life.


I was keen to get stuck in, as sharing Buddhism with a wider public brings everyone such joy and refreshes one’s faith.


A group of us met every Saturday at my flat for a year to chant about the anniversary activity, which we decided to hold in Holland Park, near Dr Toynbee’s flat and where the two men walked in between their conversations.

 

Instead of planting a tree in the park which we’d hoped to do, we were given the opportunity to install a bench, inscribed ‘Arnold Toynbee – Daisaku Ikeda Choose Life Dialogue’.


The chanting stood us in good stead as we were able to put the event together in about two months, which was incredible as there was so much to do. We had to liaise with the park authorities about the bench, order the bench, have it inscribed, invite the Mayor, order drinks, food and a marquee — and a hundred and one other things, plus pray that it wasn't pouring with rain on the day!


But the months of chanting paid off and we all worked together in great harmony. I can’t remember when I enjoyed an activity more. During the first planning meeting SGI-UK general director Robert Samuels shared guidance and outlined a vision of this event as possibly being the first of others commemorating the spirit of Choose Life in the future. I left feeling reinvigorated, thinking `This is why I practice Buddhism.’


I volunteered to do the PR for the event as I wanted as many people as possible to share the spirit of what we were doing.


I contacted the local papers with an article about what we were doing and, to my surprise, The Kensington Times ran it, while several journalists were interested and asked where they could buy copies of Choose Life. This triggered some good fortune in my professional life when The Guardian commissioned me to write an article about the London elections.


Keen to make it a zero-waste event I borrowed 60 champagne glasses from my local off licence, while my late mother’s linen and lace tablecloths (a wedding present from 1960 and barely used since then) came out of mothballs and decorated the tables.


May 5th dawned, grey and drizzling, yet spirits were high. Fifty guests and helpers toasted The Bench with a glass of cava and ate an amazing homemade cake made by chef Massimo, decorated with an edible picture of Sensei and Dr Toynbee and cherry blossoms made from spun sugar.

 

                                                                                 

 

 

Once the Mayor had arrived, resplendent in her mayoral chain of office, flutes were quickly charged with cava and handed round in time to toast the unveiling of the bench.


Robert explained the significance of this date and gave a copy of Choose Life to the mayor, who said she was really looking forward to reading it, adding that if she had to choose a religion she would choose to be a Buddhist. She spent the rest of the occasion sitting on the bench chatting to members, even joining in an enthusiastic Sansho (chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo three times) of her own volition — no arm twisting involved!


I can’t put it into words the effervescence of the afternoon, the unity, friendship and joy of fulfilling our roles as bodhisattvas of the earth and engaging in society.


This is the first time Sensei’s name, Daisaku Ikeda, has been imprinted in some way in England.

Imagine if you are walking through the park and feeling completely fed up, perhaps even wanting to take your own life, and you read the words `Choose Life’, what a powerful message that is.


A bench ceremony for 50 people may seem small fry, but news of it spread far and wide, not just in a local London paper but on the front page of the Seiko Shimbun too.


Doing the activity brought me so much joy and deepened my faith.

 

Years ago a member said to me that doing a Buddhist activity was a great benefit in itself so I felt I’d already gained so much. Then unexpectedly the week before the event I discovered that my late grandfather had taken out an insurance policy in my name 40 years ago — a coincidence on this 40 year anniversary.


On the morning of our activity, May 5, a substantial cheque arrived in the post. No one had ever mentioned this policy before. I had just set up a charitable trust in my late mother’s name to benefit various animal charities that she and I supported, so this was very timely.


It was a lovely 'message' from my late grandfather, who was the same age as Dr Toynbee and quite similar in disposition.


I feel some awkwardness in sharing details of material benefits. We are brought up to believe that it is not very spiritual to talk about money! However Sensei writes:


`When we receive benefit we gain heartfelt conviction in the greatness of the Gohonzon and the power of chanting daimoku. We’re filled with joy and our confidence in faith deepens.


`It is also important that we tell others about our experiences of receiving benefit and share each other’s joy and conviction. As we accumulate various experiences of receiving benefits, our conviction deepens, and when we know the joys of this Buddhist faith and practice we naturally want to talk about it with others. Through that practice, our joy is further increased.’


 

Robert Samuels, Mahendra and Tamaki Patel unveil the bench.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trent Vora from Chelsea also helped plan the day. He explains how the activity changed his life:

 

Planning this activity was an amazing experience. Not only have I had many conspicuous benefits but I’ve deepened my faith, strengthened my connection to President Ikeda and developed friendships with the members involved.

 

I am a website developer and was pursuing a contract with an upcoming fashion designer for several months before the activity. This contract was particularly significant for my career because it would lead me to further develop websites for other creatives in London's fashion world. Several meetings ended in deadlock and I encountered many challenges but I did not give up my determination. Immediately after the activity, I received a call from the fashion designer whom I agreed to meet and we had a breakthrough in our discussion and finally I was awarded the contract.

 

For several months I had been earnestly praying to introduce just one person to our practice who I can support whole-heartedly. Until then, I had never managed to introduce anyone. I experienced a major shift in my life as I left the London Ikeda Peace Centre after helping out with the Choose Life exhibition. A friend was having a pint at the pub on the corner and I stopped by to say hello. He then introduced me to a friend of his, and she and I exchanged numbers. Since then, we have become good friends and I am supporting her unstintingly. She’s now chanting every day and will soon start attending local meetings.

 

My deepest experience was embracing President Ikeda's initiative of conducting heart to heart dialogues worldwide. I have always been shy and found it really difficult to talk from my heart to people. This meant I did not make as many new friends as I would have loved to. Since the activity, and inspired by President Ikeda, I’ve been socialising more than ever. I stepped up my efforts to engage with people, having great dialogues and confidently sharing my heart.


As a result I’m making countless new friends and am sharing Buddhism with more people.

 

This activity has been such a significant training ground for me. I see it as a springboard that has helped me leap into the rest of my life and beyond, eternally.

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