I have recently gone through quite a dry spell in my blogging. In Italian we call it "blocco dello scrittore", or writer's block.
Then the other day an anonymous made the following comment:
I'm interested in how the Lilac role that the women plays differs from the Soka role that the men play. I'd love to hear more about this if you'd consider writing something.
I'd like to start with how happy this comment made me due to its simple existence. When I started the blog, my vision was to create a space to carry out a little slice of Kosen Rufu, and create dialogues and connections with the people reading it. And, well, maybe to be useful. Just a little bit :)
After the initial excitement for the comment faded, I realised that I didn't have the foggiest clue on how to answer.
A bit of context might help.
As I mentioned before, I did my first (and second, and third) Byakuren training in Italy, where I did Byakuren regularly since I received my membership until I left the country. In Italy the "protection team" is mixed, and often referred to as "Team Sokahan/Byakuren". We always had inspiration meetings and planning together, and there was (and as far as I understand still isn't) no real difference in roles. The only two things I remember going on in Italy were the preference to always have at least one Sokahan in evening shifts and the fact that only members of the Men's division could sleep in the centres to protect them. That was always explained to me in terms of common sense. If a team ends a shift at 9 or 10pm, you might prefer to make your way to the station at night with a guy in the group. End of.
I remember hearing in an experience that only Young Men could do Keibi (Italian version of Keibi) at Trets Cultural centre and being shocked about it.
In the UK, it's a different story. Sokas and Lilacs are two different teams. As are Dedicated Soka and Lilac groups. For me, practically, this meant that every time I had inspiration meetings, training or study, it would only be with young women (and whoever knows me just a little bit knows I'd be the last person to complain about it!). I noticed the difference in passing but it never really bothered me enough to ask questions. That comment sparked my curiosity, so on Saturday when I did my first Dedicated Lilac activity I observed the Sokas very closely.
And on Sunday as we were all running everywhere to take pictures for the Seikyo Shimbun I interviewed a Soka who had the misfortune of standing next to me on the train.
What I gathered is the following.
The spirit of the activity is exactly the same. Both Lilacs and Sokas are there to protect the members, to protect the Gohonzon and to make sure everything runs smoothly so that everyone has the best possible experience.
If we want to get down to the mundane side of the thing, the easiest way to put it is that Sokas tend to be outside the Butsuma while Lilacs tend to be inside.
Let's get down to some everyday examples.
You would normally find a Lilac sitting at the front, chanting to protect the Gohonzon and making sure the speaker/leader has water to drink. This might seem a small matter, but if someone is giving a lecture they are usually 1) nervous and 2) timed to the millisecond. They can't stop midsentence to ask for some water. Same if you're leading daimoku or gongyo. My mother used to say that the person leading takes responsibility for everyone else's victory while leading. It's a powerful thing. They can't just stand up in the middle of it to help themselves to some water.
Another thing the lilac(s) at the front do is to light the candles a few minutes before Gongyo and put them off after.
You would also have another one at the back of the room, keeping an eye on everyone to be ready if anyone needs help. This one would also usually have the unpleasant task to make sure noone is bringing in drinks or food (almost in every centre bottled water is the only drink allowed in the Butsumas).
During a big meeting including refreshments, lilacs will set the refreshments up and man the stations, serving teas and coffees and usually doing any required washing up.
They would also tidy up after a meeting, although most centres would have a dedicated team (usually from the women's division) to do the cleaning.
As for Sokas, they would normally open doors and greet members as they arrive, and, as my friend put it, "make sure there's nothing the members can trip on" i.e. cables and such.
More often than not any furniture movement or rearrangement would be carried out by the Sokas. Same for anything related to microphones and videos (unless there's a separate dedicated team for that).
If for any reason there's the need for someone to be standing outside (for example to guide members arriving by car), that would be a Soka. When I went to the Summer course there were Sokas dotted around along the whole way from the station to the venue (and that was a good ten minutes' walk).
I have to admit that it feels pretty reassuring to see those khaki trousers and burgundy ties as you get off the train, especially when your sense of direction is so rubbish you are perfectly able to get on the wrong train entirely and you spent the whole journey chanting to be on the right bloody train.
The Soka uniform includes a very nice blue waterproof jacket with the SGI logo, especially because they more or less end up standing in the cold and rain for most of the activities.
I remember one of my most cherished "yay me!" moments was when I was Lilac-ing at a Guidance video in a school in Acton. It was raining, it was cold, it was windy. The poor Soka was standing under the rain with a skimpy umbrella to greet members. I felt so sorry for him I convinced the school caretaker to make me a cup of hot tea and I went outside to bring it to him. The expression of sheer gratitude on his face still warms my heart. It's incredible how exponentially useful you feel when you do Soka or Lilac, and how profoundly life-changing you could find such little thing as pouring a cup of tea.
Having said all that, flexibility is a bit of a key word for the people who work behind the scenes. Just because you're a Lilac it doesn't mean you would not move furniture if it's needed, and in the same way a Soka might find themselves chanting to protect the Gohonzon.
One of my favourite shifts ever, there were only four people running the centre. A wonderful man at reception acting as Keibi, Faith leader and Centre Manager (or as he put it, holding the fort), two Lilacs including myself and one Soka (bless his heart). We got on famously. We discovered highly effective ways to assign tasks - i.e. rock-paper-scissors - alternated with each other and ended up absolutely exhausted and incredibly happy.
Working behind the scenes is so amazing!