Convictions & Complexities

This piece, posted in March 2014, addresses questions that might occur to thoughtful readers of our core convictions. As in any process of codification, defining our convictions required that we streamline the ideas most important to us. All along, though, our website and other materials have contained many perspectives and complexities, not included in our original formulation, that actually strengthen our convictions as ethical and intellectual tools for global human progress in a world marked by irresolution, imbalances of power, and a bounty of beliefs. The layers and complexities presented here are a small contribution to the never-ending dialogue practiced by persons of good will.

1. Dialogue & Mutual Understanding Are Inseparable, and Needed Now More Than Ever

Dialogue is among the most powerful tools for nonviolent personal and social change. More than a technique, dialogue is a stance or orientation, evidence of "a humble willingness to learn from others." Further, dialogue represents a commitment to shared understanding at a time in history when large numbers of people—the powerful and the powerless alike—see the process of globalization as so inevitably fraught with violence and misunderstanding that the only reasonable option is to fight and win, be it in the physical world or in the world of ideas. In the aftermath of 9-11, when many looked to armed conflict for solutions, Daisaku Ikeda came to a different conclusion: "It is my firm conviction that efforts to create new systems to prevent and counter global terrorism will be genuinely effective only when the kind of dialogue that addresses and transforms the human spirit is conducted on a global scale."


Many concerned with issues of justice observe that dialogue for mutual understanding implies a relative balance of power among parties, even when this balance is absent. In these cases, “understanding” constitutes de facto acceptance of the dominant party’s agenda. Reflecting on this conviction, Gonzalo Obelleiro of Teachers College, Columbia University, distinguishes between dialogue for “vulnerability” and dialogue for justice. The former humanizes us, tearing down the artificial walls that too often divide us. However, says Obelleiro, “when the humanity of the weak fails to be recognized, the creative potential of dialogue for vulnerability approaches its limit and vulnerability becomes what we normally think of it: a source of weakness.” This is when we need dialogue for justice, in which the dominance of the powerful is not accepted as simply the natural order of things. As Mr. Ikeda observed in his 1993 Harvard address, dialogue is not limited to “placid exchanges” that might be likened to a “spring breeze.” There are times, he said, when we need to “break the grip arrogance has on another” with a “breath of fire.”

2. Humanistic Education Is Vital to Global Progress

There is wide agreement on the centrality of education to any efforts at personal and social progress in the decades to come. The difference of opinion is about the nature of the teaching and learning that is needed. The Ikeda Center advocates Soka, or value creating, education, a pedagogical approach developed by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in the early decades of the 20th century. Soka education resonates strongly with humanistic American pedagogies in the Deweyan tradition, especially in its focus on helping learners discover and develop their unique interests and capacities. In so doing, individuals can maximize the value of their contributions to our world. Further, the emphasis is not on the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge's sake, but rather on the development of wisdom, which orients knowledge for the well being of all.


One question that naturally arises is whether humanistic education neglects hard skills. Soka education stands for the education of the full human being in all his or her capacities, with the ultimate objective being the ability to contribute to global well being. Understood this way, humanistic education does not mean that pedagogical methods must avoid technical training or that intermediate goals must avoid the vocational. At the 2009 Ikeda Forum, Professor Larry Hickman pointed out that John Dewey advocated a constant process of what he called “adjustment” between philosophical and methodological extremes, such as in the tension between individualism and authoritarianism. In keeping with this, teachers might employ at different times both the constructivist educator’s desire to draw forth from students their unique insights and potential and the traditional educator’s emphasis on skill building and the mastery of facts.

3. It's Critical to Maintain Faith in People's Potential for Good

Faced with so much cruel and thoughtless human behavior, it is tempting to succumb to cynicism and despair about the ability of individuals to make a positive difference in our world. From this position, one is left with only the option of top down, coercive solutions—i.e., the kinds that rarely, if ever, stick. As a response to widespread despair, faith in human potential for good should not be confused with unthinking optimism; rather, this faith maintains, based on the evidence of actual positive behavior, that humans have the inherent capacity, individually and collectively, to overcome self-imposed limitations and impact the world in creative as opposed to destructive ways. Our faith in the power of dialogue and humanistic education depends on faith in people's potential for good.


Faith in people’s potential for good is ineffective if it denies our potential for ill, collectively and individually. As we seek to reduce violence and injustice in our world, we must understand our own capacity for harm. In America Will Be! (Dialogue Path Press, 2013), Vincent Harding reminds us that “King and Gandhi and others encouraged us to understand that our perception of the ‘enemy’ is a projection of the struggles occurring in our inner selves. They wanted to convey the insight that the enemy, whom we view as ‘them,’ is connected to us more intimately than we think.” Daisaku Ikeda often discusses this truth in the context of the Buddhist doctrine of “the oneness of good and evil,” and connects it with Jung’s thoughts on the need to become conscious of one’s “shadow self.”

4. Respect for Human Dignity & Reverence for the Sanctity of Life Provide a Baseline Ethical Standard

This fundamental standard has far reaching implications. How much damaging behavior depends on a denial of the inviolable integrity of persons and our planet? To name just two examples, widespread reports of torture and stark evidence of environmental catastrophes indicate that human dignity and the sanctity of life do not figure as strongly in our calculations as they must if we are to advance toward creative, sustainable cultures of peace. To respect this standard would require a major recalibration of our systems of interaction with each other and our world. For example, we might acknowledge the limitations of market-based economies in providing for the well being of all people and our planet. We might also question the use of military actions as a strategy for social change. The Ikeda Center supports behaviors that respect and nurture the "Buddha nature," or inherent positive potential, of all people.


In her 2013 interview with the Ikeda Center, philosopher of education Nel Noddings argued that absolute categories of peace and nonviolence are difficult, perhaps even impossible to attain, but that this reality should not stop us from moving ever closer to our ideals. The key is to be aware of where we stand on the continuum between peace and war, nonviolence and violence. As Noddings observed, even if not in an actual state of war, we can still impose harm through measures such as economic sanctions. By acknowledging that matters of human dignity and the sanctity of life are often not either-or phenomena, we actually empower ourselves to take the concrete actions that move us forward along the continuum. Daisaku Ikeda identifies this process as one of always working to expand cultures of peace through dialogue and other nonviolent means. If pursued with diligence, the result will be a global culture of peace in which human dignity and the sanctity of life are the norm.

5. The Reform of Self Is Essential to the Reform of Society

This concept resides at the heart of the philosophy of value creation that guides the Center's work. First of all, this philosophy maintains that it is mistaken to wait for difficult external forces to improve before we ourselves take positive steps for the betterment of self and society. Admittedly, there are circumstances where an individual's options are limited, sometimes severely so, but the principle of always looking to create value is a powerful ideal. It also provides a strong point of resonance with the ethical core of the American Renaissance, a philosophical tradition that the Center often looks to for meaningful connections with humanistic Buddhism. Says scholar Ronald A. Bosco: “The most valuable lesson that Thoreau delivers to us today is that all cultural transformation begins with the individual, begins from within.” Daisaku Ikeda concurs that "efforts to improve systems or surroundings will be meaningless unless there is an inner change within people themselves."


Historian Vincent Harding contends that this conviction should not be understood as a linear, one-way situation. In a 1996 interview with the Center, he clarified: “I don’t stand with those who feel you first have to change people and then you can change institutions. The two are constantly moving, dialectical activities — as we challenge institutions we discover new resources in ourselves, and as we discover these new resources, we are able to mount more effective challenges.” Beyond this dynamic, we know that our environment actually changes us physically, emotionally, neurologically. For example, people in poverty suffer from pervasive, harmful stress on many levels. Alleviating poverty, then, can create environments in which people have more capacity for personal change.

6. The Poetic Power of the Imagination Calls Forth Our Highest Potential

A key aspect of Daisaku Ikeda's philosophy is his insistence that there is an aesthetic dimension to ethical behavior. This conviction, which resonates with Deweyan thought, runs headlong into the contemporary instinct to seek mechanistic solutions to problems of every kind: Education is best measured by test data; every illness has a chemical solution; environmental problems require an engineering of nature as opposed to a change of behavior. For Ikeda, the problems facing our world, including those relating to what has been called "the clash of civilizations," depend for solutions on "the poetic power of the imagination, that which compels the poet to create portals of hope and discover entranceways for exchange in the massive walls that divide our world." Poetic endeavors, by their very nature, not only express reverence for life and its mysteries but also help us to realize our potential as creative, compassionate, and discerning beings.


Are we saying that we must become poets to make a difference? The Center’s work is inspired by Whitman and other of the great poets, but the key point is to develop one’s imagination in order to help us transcend our seemingly intractable problems. As Sarah Wider explained in her keynote address at the 2006 Ikeda Forum, “Emerson and the Power of the Imagination,” there is “plenty of imagination to go around, and the time to go with it, for as Emerson remarked, ‘The imagination is not a talent of some men but is the health of every man.’” As we know, the best practitioners of the “hard sciences” employ imagination to achieve breakthroughs, so imagination thrives in domains far from the poet’s study, extending even into the realm of “mechanistic solutions.”

7. Awareness of Interdependence Forms the Crux of the 21st Century Worldview

Pressed to name the one concept that, if widely internalized, would have the greatest positive impact on our world, a strong case can be made for the interdependence of all life, also characterized as interconnection. This concept directly challenges today's prevailing assumption that life is essentially a competitive affair, defined by "the survival of the fittest," both biologically and socially. Scientifically, we can observe the marvelous complexity of mutually supporting life forms that develops within ecosystems over time. The healthiest ecosystems are those manifesting the greatest biodiversity; even the smallest insect can play an absolutely vital role in assuring the health of a system. The spiritual or metaphysical corollary of this truth in Buddhism is found in the doctrine of dependent origination, which holds that "no beings or phenomena exist on their own; they exist or occur because of their relationship with other beings and phenomena." Internalizing this truth, we will be less inclined to believe we can succeed at the expense of other people or the planet that sustains us.


It’s fair to wonder if it is possible to avoid building our happiness on the unhappiness of others or succeeding somehow at their expense. Few in the US and other developed countries can claim innocence in this regard, positioned as we are at the top of our global economic and political systems. Rather than giving up on this important ideal, we must instead accept our responsibilities to reduce the negative impact of the systems in which we are embedded and to create better ones. As an example of this work, the Center participated in the drafting of the Earth Charter during the 1990s, a document that sets forth our “universal responsibility.” Speaking at the Center in 1997, Hazel Henderson said, “Let us encourage ourselves by remembering that the very concept of global citizenship is a rather new phenomenon.” Ours is an opportunity to help shape just and sustainable systems for our increasingly interdependent future.



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