The Spiritual Foundation of Global Citizenship Education

Daisaku Ikeda portrait

The goal of education for global citizenship is steadily on the rise. This is a welcome development, one that inspires hope for the fate of our world. Universities have been taking the lead in this effort for a number of years now. For example, Northeastern University (with whom we partner in their student Cooperative Education program), decribes itself as "a leader in global experiential education," with most of its students spending a semester overseas working for an NGO. K-12 schools also emphasize increasing global awareness, often through environmental- or civic-related projects that encourage students to "think globally and act locally."

Twenty years ago this month, in June 1996, Center founder Daisaku Ikeda positioned himself near the forefront of this movement with a talk delivered at Teachers College, Columbia University, called "Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship." Many of our Ikeda Center resources cite Mr. Ikeda's three "essential elements" of global citizenship:

  • The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living
  • The courage not to fear or deny difference; but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them.
  • The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one's immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary, we'll dig a little deeper and consider how Mr. Ikeda grounds these elements in Buddhist philosophy.

First, he shares the vision of the "jeweled net of Indra," which provides "a beautiful visual metaphor for the interdependence and interpenetration of all phenomena."

"Suspended above the palace of Indra, the Buddhist god who symbolizes the natural forces that protect and nurture life, is an enormous net. A brilliant jewel is attached to each of the knots of the net. Each jewel contains and reflects the image of all the other jewels in the net, which sparkles in the magnificence of its totality.

"When we learn to recognize what Thoreau refers to as "the infinite extent of our relations," we can trace the strands of mutually supportive life, and discover there the glittering jewels of our global neighbors. Buddhism seeks to cultivate wisdom grounded in this kind of empathetic resonance with all forms of life."

Developing models of global citizenship, then, is less an idealistic quest than a practical response to the actual conditions of life, properly -- and deeply -- understood.

Ikeda also grounds his concept of global citizenship in the practice of the bodhisattva, i.e., a "person who embodies these qualities of wisdom, courage and compassion [and] who strives without cease for the happiness of others." Mr. Ikeda adds that "the practice of the bodhissatva is supported by a profound faith in the inherent goodness of people." This is not to deny that there are forms of what might be called "evil" in the world, but rather that we must consciously build our capacities for good. Failure to do so paves the way for global conflict.

"'Goodness' can be defined as that which moves us in the direction of harmonious coexistence, empathy and solidarity with others. The nature of evil, on the other hand, is to divide: people from people, humanity from the rest of nature.

"The pathology of divisiveness drives people to an unreasoning attachment to difference and blinds us to human commonalities. This is not limited to individuals, but constitutes the deep psychology of collective egoism, which takes its most destructive form in virulent strains of ethnocentrism and nationalism."

Combatting these pathologies while promoting global wellbeing and unity, says Ikeda, is a core educational task, and defines the realm where education and spirituality overlap and are one.

"The struggle to rise above such egoism, and live in larger and more contributive realms of selfhood, constitutes the core of the bodhisattva's practice. Education is, or should be, based on the same altruistic spirit as the bodhisattva.

"The proud mission of those who have been able to receive education must be to serve, in seen and unseen ways, the lives of those who have not had this opportunity. At times, education may become a matter of titles and degrees, and the status and authority these confer. I am convinced, however, that education should be a vehicle to develop in one's character the noble spirit to embrace and augment the lives of others.

"Education should provide in this way the momentum to win over one's own weaknesses, to thrive in the midst of society's sometimes stringent realities, and to generate new victories for the human future."

[Posted by Mitch Bogen, 6-8-16]

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