A Walk Through Soka
I’ve been exploring a lot of the Laguna Coast Wilderness, part of my scheduled therapy to combat the daily Dadaist play that has enveloped us. Recently I rolled deep into Aliso and Wood Canyons Park, that 4,500-acre wildlife sanctuary that serves as our buffer to the encroaching and disheartening urbanization of South Orange County. This long, sinewy patch of open space is also a lifeline to the natural world, with mature California, oak, sycamore, and elderberry groves, and two year-round streams. Right now it is an emerald delight that looks more Hana than OC.
One recent day the trails were closed because of rain, so I walked the flat, paved road. But I craved some vertical, so I veered off the asphalt and up the first unmarked trail I could find. It was laden with fresh, tall green grass, the smell of renewal everywhere.
When I reached the crest I walked along a ledge that afforded me commanding views of the deep cut canyons. Climbing over another ridge I looked north, and for a brief moment I felt I was in the hills of Umbria. There, resting on a promontory, was a cluster of Italianate buildings that were glowing in the late sun. Of course it was Soka University, but I had never seen it from such a uniquely dramatic perspective. It was a spectacular view, and one that had a gravitational pull.
I followed my instincts and found my way out of the park and into the relatively new liberal arts college founded by members of the Soka Gakkai International, a type of Buddhism popular in Japan. It opened in 2001 and sits on 103 acres. According to their website, “the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a community-based Buddhist organization that promotes peace, culture and education centered on respect for the dignity of life.” Sounded like a message worthy of investigation.
I remember when it was first built it seemed such an anomaly in the antiseptic morass of Aliso Viejo. They only had about 100 students. I wondered if it was a real school or a rich religious sect’s folly, or perhaps just a place to park its money? Because really, truly, the campus is magnificent – and expensive, an Italian village perched on a hillside in California, funded by Japanese. Mostly, I wondered if they were true to their convictions for a liberal arts education over one that is a thinly veiled religious indoctrination.
As I continued my unguided tour, night was falling upon their very elaborate Peace Lake and Fountain. With a massive reflecting pool and towering water features, plus a sculpture fountain and marble wall with inscriptions of benefactors, it is a beautiful center of campus life. I have to admit it felt as much Vegas as Perugia. I was half expecting a pirate ship to emerge from its depths. But then I saw the bas-relief that stated Soka’s guiding principles; “Foster Leaders of Culture in the Community; Foster Leaders of Humanism in Society; Foster Leaders of Pacifism in the World; Foster Leaders for the Creative Coexistence of Nature and Humanity.” Definitely not Vegas. Now I wanted to know if they delivered.
Well, in the 16 years since they opened their student enrollment is only up to 450. Their modest growth strategy is to ensure one of the most enviable teacher/student ratios in the nation, eight to one, with and average class size of 12. Students must study a non-native language, and must take a junior year abroad in a country where that language is spoken. In 2016 US News & World Reports ranked Soka No. 1 in faculty resources, study abroad and foreign students (about 40% of the student body), No. 4 in best value, and among the top 50 best national liberal arts colleges. How’s that for walking the walk, quickly?
But the proof is in the students. I got to meet two of them recently. One was participating in Jason Feddy’s Music in Common, a non-profit that puts Muslim, Jewish and Christian kids together to make music. Perhaps the most impressive musician was a black kid named Trey Carlisle. He was from Los Angeles, and representing the Christians in the group. He also happened to be a freshman at Soka. This bright, engaging and compassionate young man has a vision of service in his future, and Soka has been the engine that drives it.
The other student was Prakash Bista, who is now a senior. Prakash grew up in a rural, extremely impoverished village in Nepal. When he was 17 both of his parents died. After completing high school, he set on a course to provide education for everyone in his village, and donated his house to be converted into a school. He then got a full scholarship to Soka, which he chose in part because it offered “the tools to change the world.” He has now built more schools and plans to finish 30 in the next 10 years.
What an inspiring couple of students. Soka is indeed fulfilling its promise and is cultivating future leaders who are passionate about humanism, pacifism, and change. It gives me hope that perhaps in the future I won’t need to wander alone into nature to make sense of the world, because these young leaders will do it for me.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8pm on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]