By Joel Myerson
In May of 2001 I had the privilege of meeting Daisaku Ikeda. Before that meeting, I read many of his works and found similarities between them and the writings of the two figures I have studied the most: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. When President Ikeda mentions that the main theme of his novel The Human Revolution is that “A great human revolution in one person can cause a change in the destiny of a whole nation and ultimately that of all humankind,” he is writing in a very Emersonian and Thoreauvian tradition.
Emerson is, of course, best known for his essay on “Self-Reliance,” which argues that we should all place our faith in the divinity within us. Thoreau, as he states the case in “Civil Disobedience,” writes that the American government does not have “the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.” Both Emerson and Thoreau firmly believed, as does President Ikeda, that before we can have a change in society we must have a change in people; that is, rather than waiting for legislators to provide us with just and fair laws, which will force humankind to act better, we must ourselves—as individuals—change in order to be better people, for then we will make better laws.
Transcendentalism as a movement also intrigues me for many of the reasons given by President Ikeda in his 1991 speech at Harvard University on “The Age of Soft Power.” There President Ikeda proposes that “self-motivation is what will open the way to the era of soft power,” and that “the success of soft power is based on volition.” Emerson and Thoreau believed that institutions that had changed for the worse could only be reformed by self-motivated, right-thinking people, and not by violence. Thoreau’s concept of passive resistance (or “Civil Disobedience”) reflected a belief that war cannot be stopped with violence, but by peaceful dissent.
Before my visit to Japan, I saw the Soka University of America in California, prior to its opening. I was particularly impressed at SUA by the many methods, both intellectual and physical, employed to ensure that dialogue would take place among the students. Mr. Ikeda’s admonition to the school, as stated in its mission, “to foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life,” is being admirably carried out. The student body is genuinely multicultural; and it is my firm belief that the students will learn more by interacting with people from other cultures and establishing and maintaining a dialogue with them than they would if they merely joined groups of people just like themselves.
When I visited Soka University outside of Tokyo, I was impressed by its guiding principles; as set forth by President Ikeda in 1971, these are:
“For what purpose should one cultivate wisdom?”
“May you always ask yourself this question.”
“Only labor and devotion to one’s mission give life its worth.”
What these three directives share is a belief that the individual continues to develop and that education is something that is ongoing and never ends, because, just as we can always approach but never reach infinity, we should always be able to improve ourselves as human beings and not cease our striving, thinking we have reached perfection. At the same time, these goals urge us, once we have attained a sense of who we are and what we can accomplish, to use these skills to better the world around us and to work for world peace. In many ways, all of this was summed up by the question I was asked by a student at the Soka school: “How may I be a better person?”
All of these fine principles are on display at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, and I feel honored to have been a participant in some of the panels held here. My congratulations to the Ikeda Center on its 20th anniversary, and my best wishes for its continued success.
Joel Myerson, Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Emeritus, at the University of South Carolina, participated with Ronald A. Bosco and Daisaku Ikeda in the dialogue Creating Waldens: An East‑West Conversation on the American Renaissance (2009). He has published over fifty books on American Renaissance authors.