Keith Robinson’s Experience with Buddhism

Keith Robinson’s Experience with Daisaku Ikeda and Buddhism

Keith and Yoshiko Robinson in a wine cellarThis is my strange story of the unlikely encounter of a lonely sickly boy and the greatest philosopher of our time, in the world’s most beautiful city.

My practice of Buddhism began at the age of thirteen in Los Angeles. My oldest brother introduced me. Those were the pioneering days of our movement in North America. Most of the members were young but none as young as me.

I do not remember exactly how Peter started. But he came home one night with some others and they enshrined his Gohonzon. [1] He began to tell me about chanting and about the philosophy of peace of Daisaku Ikeda. [For more on Ikeda, see a bio at the conclusion of the article] Pete told me that Ikeda had an idea that world peace could be achieved through individuals transforming their lives.

I was interested in peace, possibly because I did not know peace. My family was not happy. My parents fought constantly. It was not a home of love or trust or nurturing. In fact our friends told us that some of the worst times of their lives were when they visited us. I longed for a place of happiness but had no idea what that looked like; nor any idea how to create it.

My family moved a lot, always because of my father’s career. We followed him wherever his jobs took him. I went to five different grade schools, four junior and senior high schools.

I had no peace internally. I was sick constantly. My body was at war with itself. At the time I did not know the name but I have Crohn’s disease. My body is allergic to my digestive tract and tries to expel the intestine.

Peter and his new Buddhist friends taught me about Ikeda’s ideas. And so I began my own practice. Unlike today none of the activities were geared for children. So I went to the regular meetings, often hitch-hiking for hours across Los Angeles, even at night. My parents, of course, were vaguely concerned, but too preoccupied by their own troubles to pay much attention.

In those days many members who could afford to, went to Japan on a pilgrimage to see the Dai-Gohonzon.[2] When they came back they mostly talked about Ikeda and his ideas on peace. I wanted to go with them to Japan and meet Ikeda, but they said I was too young or they said I was too sick. Also, of course, it cost a huge amount of money and I had none.

Now the strange part of the story begins. I heard that Ikeda was coming to America. I was overjoyed. Finally I would meet him. Then my father told me he was going on sabbatical. My parents were going to the Middle East and Europe for a year and I was to go with them. My joy was immediately crushed. I thought I must be the most unfortunate boy alive. Ikeda was coming to Los Angeles and I would have to leave. Of course, most young people would be very happy at the idea of travelling around the world for one year. Today, for me, that would be a dream come true. But at that time, it was my worst nightmare.

I phoned a guy I knew who worked at the organization’s headquarters. He said “Keith, you cannot live on your own in L.A. You have to go with your parents. Next April, go to Paris.” He gave me an address, 64 rue du Lycee, Sceaux, France.

I received my own Gohonzon and I graduated from high school early and I flew to meet my parents in Israel. In a tiny shop in Jerusalem, once a Crusader’s horse stall, Arabs sewed a container to hold the Gohonzon. I travelled all over North Africa and Europe with my quarrelling parents.

Then in April 1972 I left my parents in Geneva and got on a train to Paris. I spoke no French, did not know anyone and only had my Gohonzon and a few American dollars. And I had the address my friend gave me. It was the office of Soka Gakkai in France. I found the office and a man met me. I told him, “I have come from America to meet Ikeda-Sensei.”[3] The man said, “Sensei is not coming.”

I said, “That is OK, I will wait for him.”

So I found a tiny room to stay. Most every day I went to this place in Sceaux. I had very little money and the room took most of what I had.  So I survived on one loaf of baguette a day. I was hungry, lonely and sickly. When I wasn’t at Sceaux I either chanted or slept or wandered the streets of Paris. I saw many beautiful things. I loved the museums, parks, monuments, libraries, streets, everything. Although I was physically weak and had an odd personality I had a passion inside. Something burned in me.

I met another man at the place in Sceaux. He was a doctor and the leader of the French organization. He spoke English very well and asked me why I was there. I told him I wanted to meet Ikeda-Sensei. Unlike the first man, the doctor said, “Wonderful! Please help us!” I liked the doctor better. And so, in my own stumbling, clumsy way, I tried to help the French members prepare for a visit from Ikeda. Likely I caused more problems than help.

Finally Ikeda and his wife, Kaneko, were coming. The French put me in a room where I could chant. Ikeda would attend a meeting in a big room upstairs. They put me in a small room downstairs where he was not scheduled to go. As it turned out, he and his wife did come into the small room where I was. He walked up to me and shook my hand. He was so happy. I’d never seen anyone so in the moment, happy to be where he was. The two moved with incredible grace and beauty, like a beautiful dance.

Now I will tell you why he was there. Ikeda has conducted dialogues with the greatest thinkers of our time. Together with dozens of great scholars and philosophers he has written many books. The dialogues are all about how to create a peaceful world. Through these dialogues Ikeda and those great thinkers have identified the necessary steps out of the crises our planet faces. Over 1,600 dialogues have created a kind of philosophical and practical structure for transforming humanity’s destiny.  They have written the manual for creativity and peace.

The first of those dialogues was with the great British historian Arnold Toynbee. All the subsequent dialogues, collaborations and public work for peace that the SGI engages in today grew out of that first dialogue with Toynbee. Their discussions have been translated into 28 languages. Ikeda first met Arnold Toynbee in May of 1972 in London, England. Before going to London to meet Toynbee, Daisaku and Kaneko came to Paris for one week to prepare, to celebrate May 3 and to celebrate their anniversary. It was his first May 3rd outside Japan.

At the time I knew none of this. All I knew was he and I were together in this amazing city of light. I spent a week with Ikeda and his wife. We did morning and evening prayers together every day. In my own stumbling, clumsy way I fought with all my might for that week to help him. His secretary assigned me various tasks. People came from all over Europe and Africa to meet him. He and Kaneko tirelessly encouraged members and non-members, children and VIPs. She put on a simple, beautiful kimono and they visited the Louvre. One morning Ikeda patiently taught two hundred people how to perform the Japanese tea ceremony. And all the while he quietly prepared for Toynbee.

During that week I made a pledge. I decided that whatever else I did with my life I would try to help him in his work and protect him from his enemies. I was seventeen years old.

After that experience I returned to Los Angeles. I thought my life would soar, but actually my life declined in every respect. My health deteriorated severely. Finally I had surgery; they removed a huge portion of my intestine. I was in the hospital for over six months. I lost my job and dropped out of university. I lost my girlfriend. I lost my car. I started stealing things to sell. I was thrown in jail twice.

I thought I was so smart, seen so much, done so much. But actually I knew nothing. I was a mess.

Eventually I came to Calgary and met my one true love. Life is long with twists and turns, ups and downs. I have done stupid things and met wonderful, interesting people and had amazing experiences. I have seen great beauty and witnessed tremendous ugliness. But not for one day, no matter how low or how high I’ve been, not for one day have I forgotten the pledge I made that spring in Paris. And in my own stumbling, clumsy way I have tried to be true to that decision.

And very slowly, slower perhaps than necessary, slower certainly than most, I have learned to apply the tools for peace. I have found peace inside and have developed relationships of harmony. Home once was a place of conflict and pain, now my home offers joy and sustenance. Together with the love of my life, my dearest Yoshiko, we have built a family and a home where people can come and be refreshed, be encouraged and find hope.
Today we have a beautiful guest-house to welcome travellers from all over the world. After their stay they leave notes in the guest book. Some draw pictures or write poems. Many write that their happiest days were in our home. One guest, a genetics doctor from Brazil wrote, “I came here to learn more about science but with you I’ve learned more than that. By watching you I learned how to construct a happy and fulfilled life with my husband. I’ve seen so many broken homes but you restored my hope.”

Keith Robinson has studied, practised and written about Buddhism for over forty-five years. By trade a Certified Sommelier, Keith is a wine and beverage educator. Keith and his partner Yoshiko also host short-term guests to their Calgary properties through Airbnb. As mentioned Keith has Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune disorder that has no cure. Despite the disease and nine resulting surgeries, Keith leads a full and ridiculously happy life. Keith and Yoshiko are members of SGI Canada and are the excessively proud grandparents of two charming boys.

Daisaku Ikeda began practicing Buddhism in 1947 at age 19. He learned what he needed to develop his faith from his mentor, Josei Toda, the second president of the Soka Gakkai, a Nichiren Buddhist lay organization. He also learned how to help others do the same. Ikeda succeeded Toda in 1960 to become the Soka Gakkai’s, third president, a position he held until 1979. In 1975 he founded and became leader of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) which now has over 12 million members in 192 countries and territories. Ikeda has over 300 honorary degrees from universities around the world. He has met and conducted dialogues with countless eminent scholars, world leaders and others to discuss means to make the world a more peaceful and humanistic place. He has published more than 50 books, including 26 of the dialogues noted above. He is an accomplished poet, an educator and a proponent of cultural exchange among nations. For 26 years he has submitted a proposal to the United Nations for actions to be taken toward peace. Most importantly, he has continually shared with the world the humanistic philosophy of Buddhism in terms understandable by the general public.

[1]The Gohonzon is an object of devotion, which in the Buddhist faith embodies the fundamental law of the universe and the Buddha nature of Nichiren Daishonin. In the practice of Nichiren Buddhism believers chant to this object with the belief that their lives, the life of Nichiren and the universal law are one and the same—enabling them to activate the nature of a Buddha innate within them. The Gohonzon is based on the Dai-Gohonzon–see below.

[2] The object of veneration inscribed for believers in 1279 by Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of the Buddhism practiced by Ikeda and millions of others today.

[3]Sensei means teacher or mentor. SGI members often add the term to Ikeda’s name or substitute it for his name in recognition of the respect in which they hold Ikeda for his efforts at encouraging them in faith and in their own determination to follow his lead in spreading the Buddhist philosophy to others.

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