The Ikeda Center’s yearlong investigation into the meaning and value of the Buddhist concept of “the greater self” culminated on Saturday, October 22, 2011, with the 8th Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. Called “Cultivating the Greater Self,” the day-long event featured four speakers—Virginia Benson of the Ikeda Center, Ann Diller of the University of New Hampshire, Bernice Lerner of Hebrew College, and Lou Marinoff of The City College of New York—discussing cross-cultural visions of the greater self and the best ways to actualize it in our everyday lives.
“The greater self of Mahayana Buddhism,” writes Center founder Daisaku Ikeda, “is another way of expressing the openness and expansiveness of character that embraces the sufferings of all people as one’s own. This self always seeks ways of alleviating the pain, and augmenting the happiness, of others, here, amid the realities of everyday life.” This quote, drawn from Mr. Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard University lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization,” served as the seminar’s core definition of the greater self.
Part of the speakers’ charge was to explore and expand on Ikeda’s understanding of this enlightened life condition. Their core challenge, though, was to address the question of what it means to cultivate the greater self individually and collectively in the world as it is today. The morning presenters, Benson and Diller, explored dialogue as a means of cultivating the greater self, with Benson considering the importance of dialogue between oneself and others and Diller examining the challenge of dialogue within oneself. For the afternoon talks, Lerner looked at how one’s choice of attitude promotes or impedes the emergence of the greater self, and Marinoff expounded on how developing an accurate view of life is essential to this emergence. Ikeda Center events manager Kevin Maher moderated the daylong forum.
The Greater Self and Dialogue with Others
Opening speaker Virginia Benson, who is Senior Research Fellow at the Ikeda Center, dedicated the first portion of her talk to introducing the main components of Mr. Ikeda’s vision of the greater self. Above all, she said, his vision is “based on the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, meaning Buddha-being, who vows to save all beings from suffering.” In non-Buddhist terms, she continued, Ikeda describes the greater self as representing “natural human nobility,” characterized by “a kind of compassion that is empathetic but also action-oriented.”
Benson also addressed common misperceptions about the greater self. On the one hand, there is the notion that “individual identity is obscured” when the greater self expands to embrace the sufferings of others as one’s own. Conversely, there is the idea that the greater self merely glorifies the lesser, egoistic self. The greater self, Ikeda explains, is neither a negated self nor “the lesser self caught up in the snares of egoism.”
To truly understand the nature of the greater self, Benson said, one must consider Shakyamuni Buddha’s “famous last guidance to his followers” at the time of his death: “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the Law as a lamp.” Benson said that for Ikeda, the self invoked here is the greater self, which is “fused with the life of the universe through which cause and effect intertwine over the infinite reaches of space and time.” Benson explained that in the 1993 Harvard lecture, Ikeda attempts to “domesticate” this concept for his American listeners by noting similarities in the Western canon, including in the work of Emerson, Dewey, Jung, and Whitman. Regarding the latter, Benson said that Mr. Ikeda appreciated those sections of Leaves of Grass where “the poet refers to ‘O soul, thou actual me,’ the intimate ‘Thou’ that ‘mates’ with time, ‘smiles’ at death, and fills ‘the vastness of space.’”
Benson also delved into the relationship between the greater and lesser selves, citing a lecture that Mr. Ikeda delivered at UCLA in 1974 (“The Enduring Self”). In that talk, Ikeda clarified that “To live for the greater self does not mean abandoning the lesser self, for the lesser self is able to act only because of the existence of the greater self. The effect of that relationship is to motivate the desires and attachments common to all human beings to stimulate the advancement of civilization.”
Introducing Ikeda’s conception of dialogue, Benson referred to passages from his published dialogue with historian Arnold Toynbee (Choose Life, 1976). In it, the two men connected Buddhist compassion “to the idea of universal love found in the major religions of the world and in Chinese philosophy.” However, Ikeda warned that such love easily could be “overpowered by hatred” if allowed to remain an abstract concept. Open-hearted, open-minded dialogue, said Ikeda, makes joyously tangible the practice of love and compassion. Moreover, said Benson, Ikeda insisted that dialogue, with its faith in the infinite potential of all humans to possess and embody universal truth, is uniquely able, as she phrased it, “to bring out the greater self in each of us.”
What Are You Saying: The Greater and Lesser Self in Dialogue
Next to speak, Ann Diller redirected attention from external conversations to internal ones. Just as the question in her talk’s title can take on different meanings depending on how it’s spoken, she said, our sense of self can exhibit different layers and qualities depending on the spirit in which we approach it. Knowing our various selves is critical to enabling our greater self to emerge. Diller, who is Professor of Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at the University of New Hampshire, structured her talk around three fundamental questions: Why pursue this inner conversation and exploration in the first place? What gets in the way of successful exploration? What can we do to succeed in this quest?
The first reason for this pursuit is simply to begin to know the lesser self. Closely related is the benefit of beginning to understand our attachments, which cause much suffering. Here she quoted Daisaku Ikeda from his address “Flight of Creativity,” delivered at the University of Bologna in 1994.
The Lotus Sutra, the highest teaching of Buddhism, speaks of the need “to guide living beings and cause them to renounce their attachments.” The most profound commentary on this scripture instructs, “The word ‘renounce’ should be read ‘perceive’.” It is not enough simply to liberate oneself from attachments; we must also regard them clearly and carefully to see them for what they really are.
The third reason is to tap into and free up the energies associated with the lesser self. Diller quotes Ikeda again: “Desire and all it implies constitutes a generative, driving force. Nevertheless, desire (and the lesser self which it affects) must be correctly oriented.”
The primary obstacle to the inner exploration that facilitates the emergence of the greater self, said Diller, is the voice of our superego, a Freudian concept that shares many qualities with the Buddhist lesser self. It’s important to be able to distinguish the voice of the superego from the voice of the greater self, said Diller. The voice of the greater self, she said, is compassionate and inspires us to do better when we have fallen short of our ideals. The voice of the superego, on the other hand, is “condemning” and “mean-spirited” and encourages us to doubt ourselves. When faced with such doubt or discomfort, she added, we too often exhibit an “inability to pause and stay in a place of not knowing.” Instead we get defensive, vacillating between reactive negativity and grandiose, egoistic expressions of self-worth.
Next, Diller identified one route past the pitfalls of the lesser self: We should be open-hearted and open-minded not only in our dialogues with others, she said, but also in our dialogues with our inner selves. She cited Eugene Gendlin, the author of Focusing, who said that “most people are pretty unfriendly towards themselves most of the time. If you are like most, you have treated yourself less like a friend than like a roommate you don’t like. You grumble at yourself, insult yourself, get impatient with yourself.”
To conclude, Diller said that it is vital to resist identifying with the lesser self, an act that leaves us “feeling little and separate.” Instead we must continually “remind ourselves that we are always one with the greater self.” She chose two concluding quotes to emphasize her point. “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,” she said, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.” Next she shared a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that echoed Emerson’s intuition. “The greater self is coexistent with the living essence of the universe. Only by relying on and merging with the eternal can we fully activate all our capabilities. Thus, we need help, but our human potential does not come from outside; it is, and always has been, of us and within us.” (Watch a video of Ann Diller’s talk.)
Realizing Harmony and Peace: A Disposition of Choice
The afternoon began with flutist Alyssa Griggs and guitarist Devin Ulibarri sensitively performing a set of duets from Mountain Songs by Robert Beaser. The first afternoon speaker was Bernice Lerner, Director of Adult Learning, Hebrew College, and Senior Scholar, Center for Character and Social Responsibility at the Boston University School of Education.
Her remarks were grounded in the life and work of psychiatrist Victor Frankl, the Holocaust concentration camp survivor who gained renown in the years following the Second World War as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Having faced trials of the severest and most horrific kind, Frankl was still able to insist after the war: “… everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” Building on Frankl’s insights, Lerner discussed how our choice of attitude is the key factor as we seek meaning in life and endeavor to shape our destiny.
Lerner identified three ways in which meaning is made or found. First are the creative values we discover in the act of “doing and making and building.” The second mode of meaning making is to realize experiential values. In this mode we receive “that which is good, true, and beautiful.” Third, we make meaning when we manifest what Lerner described as “attitudinal values.” These are especially important “when you are suffering,” and therefore “can’t concentrate or enjoy what normally gave you pleasure.” To illustrate, Lerner shared the story of a young mother facing an aggressive form of breast cancer. * Women being treated for breast cancer often are given Adriamycin, a “bright red liquid delivered intravenously.” Because of the horrible side effects, patients call it the “red devil.” In the case of this young woman, she renamed it “red sunshine.” Through this simple yet profound attitudinal choice, she came to see the drug “as my ally, not my enemy.”
Next, Lerner discussed three forms of destiny. First is the external environment into which we are born and then live. This constitutes our sociological destiny. Next, is our physical endowment, including our talents and temperament. This can be called our biological fate. The third form of destiny flows from our attitudes. This, said Lerner, is actually “the key determinant of our destiny,” impacting and shaping what we do or don’t do with the first two forms of fate.
Ultimately our attitudinal choices, suggested Lerner, can be interpreted as the amount of responsibility we are willing to exercise on behalf of our own well being and that of the world at-large. In fact, she said, Victor Frankl once suggested that the west coast of the United States should feature a “Statue of Responsibility” to balance the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
In addition to the Frankl quote already cited, Lerner concluded with two quotes that framed the centrality of choice in finding meaning and shaping our lives and communities. The first was from F. Washington Jarvis, who observed how an awareness of mortality can inspire us to a greater vision of responsibility. The other was from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin who said that if “time is our medium, we can be its artists. Its texture and its quality are in our hands. We can shape it and mold it with our deeds, fashion it even as it fashions us. At any given moment, we can fight or forgive, be generous or stingy, grateful or disgruntled, noble or nattering. And the artwork that we make with time becomes the masterpiece of our lives.” (Watch a video of Bernice Lerner’s talk.)
Transforming Poison Into Medicine: A Hallmark of the Greater Self
According to Lou Marinoff, who is Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, The City College of New York, and Founding President, the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, “Cultivating the greater self was a pre-occupation of many sages, schools, and traditions of antiquity. The three most important and successful in this regard were the Stoics, the Taoists, and of course the Buddhists.” In Marinoff’s view, many modern Western traditions “have failed, rather spectacularly, at this cultivation.”
The Stoic Zeno of Citium, said Marinoff, “realized that suffering arises from erroneous judgments about our selves, others, and the world.” Developing a proper view of life’s challenges, one free of “negative emotions and destructive passions,” he continued, is an art, which “like all arts, requires practice.” The Stoic Epictetus, Marinoff said, observed that “Everything has two handles: One by which it can be born; the other, by which it cannot.” Marinoff commented on this quote, saying:
The lesser self is the one who cannot bear things without great difficulty. For example, the lesser self cannot bear “adversity, or enmity, or calumny,” and so reacts with anger, greed, envy, and so forth. Whereas the greater self can bear adversity, or enmity, or calumny, or whatever circumstances present themselves. In Stoic terms, the greater self is the handle by which all things can be born.
Next, Marinoff considered the paradoxical side of the greater self by quoting the Taoist sage Lao Tzu: “Is it not because he is not self-interested that his self-interest is established?” Marinoff likened this phenomenon to the performer who is “in the zone” but whose performance stumbles as soon as self consciousness arises. “As soon as one allows the lesser self to think ‘I am performing well,’ that puts a swift end to wellness” and “derails greatness,” said Marinoff, adding that the same dynamic applies to mundane situations in our everyday life.
“Buddhism,” he continued, “has explored the greater self to even greater extents than Stoicism and Taoism—to such a great extent, in fact, that the greater self turns out to be a non-self.” Speaking generally of Buddhism, and not in reference to a particular school or tradition, Marinoff turned his focus to the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, which identifies the cause of suffering as craving, thirst, or attachment. He highlighted two aspects of this Truth, —”mind-shaking ideas,” he called them—both of which point to the illusion of the finite, fixed self. First, is the truth of dependent origination, which means “the interconnection of all beings and processes.” Secondly, said Marinoff, “no entity in this universe—from planets to persons, from quasars to quarks—has any permanent underlying essence.”
The misguided lesser self clings to permanence, and therefore suffers. The greater self does not cling to permanence and therefore neither suffers nor causes suffering, freeing it to alleviate the suffering of others. Marinoff insists that modern Westerners “reify and inflate” the lesser self: “The rampant unhappiness of contemporary America—including epidemics of depression, obesity, ADHD, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, to name but a few—all stem from over-cultivating the lesser self.” A primary cause of the economic collapse of 2008, he reminded, was not a “psychiatric illness” but rather “avarice,” a pure expression of the deluded and clinging lesser self.
Marinoff’s view is that the “ego cannot be made healthy. But it can be made quiescent, which enables the greater self to emerge.” We recognize the greater self, he said, by its ability to bear gracefully Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Ultimately, said Marinoff, the greater self evokes “Najarjuna’s ** observation about the Lotus Sutra: “It is a physician that can transform poison into medicine.” This great teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, Marinoff observed, “is tantamount, if not equivalent, to cultivating the greater self.” (Watch a video of Lou Marinoff’s talk.)
The Forum featured three question and answer sessions: the first concluded the morning session, the second followed the two afternoon presenters, and the third concluded the event with all four speakers engaging in dialogue with one another and the attendees. As always with the Ikeda Forum, compelling subthemes ran through the whole-group discussions. In the morning session, for example, one questioner wondered if the process in music whereby dissonance resolves into consonance over the course of a composition could be likened to the process through which each of us can be elevated through the process of dialogue. Serendipitously, the afternoon musical performance featured many such resolutions.
The central overarching theme hinged on the question of how the greater self can be cultivated in a world fraught with so many obstacles to its emergence. These obstacles include:
The delusion of the finite self
One of the first questions during the morning session concerned our collective ignorance in the U.S. of “the greater continuity of life and death.” The lesser self, the questioner continued, sees itself as bounded by life and death, whereas the greater self understands itself as “a reflection of the infinite.” Virginia Benson replied that in Buddhism there are three kinds of “treasures.” The first are the treasures of the storehouse, which signifies our material wealth and prosperity. The second are the treasures of the body, which includes our health. These two sets of treasures are limited by their material nature. Third are the treasures of the heart, accumulated through altruistic action. These treasures are most important, Benson said, and unlike the first two are not in any respects finite.
The blindness that elevates various forms of the lesser self
Also in the morning session, another questioner wondered how the greater self can “survive” in cultures apparently dominated by the lesser self. Diller responded by building on the “treasures of the heart” theme, saying that the way to touch or bring forward the greater self in others, and by extension our society, is to meet them heart to heart. This idea put her in mind of the dictum promoted by George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers): “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” In the concluding afternoon question and answer session Lou Marinoff said that a good way to encourage the greater self despite whatever prevailing social norms might be is to “discover your excellence.” Once discovered, he stressed, it is your “duty” to develop it.
A related concern was raised in the first afternoon Q & A, when a woman wondered how to cultivate the greater self when racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like persist as personal and social poisons. Bernice Lerner responded that we can always begin with our own inner transformations for the better. Next we can make changes within our milieu that discourage prejudice and call forth the greater self.
The boundary of fear
An afternoon questioner wondered what Marinoff and Lerner could say about existentialist philosophy (especially as expressed by Viktor Frankl) in the context of distressing contemporary problems such as terrorism and joblessness. Marinoff said he would discuss existentialism in general, as opposed to Frankl’s particular vision. Addressing the matter of terrorism, Marinoff suggested that from an existentialist point of view the greater self is the “self that would be willing to die for what it believes to be right, but would never kill for that.” Terrorism, he said, enlists the lesser self to kill others in order “to draw attention to one’s own plight.” This method, of course, “is only going to make one’s own plight worse in certain key respects.”
Lerner observed that Frankl “had a policy of adhering to his principles and being honest and [accepting] what fate might deliver.” This “personal decision” of his, she said, was not necessarily shared by his fellow prisoners or survivors of the concentration camps. Of today’s terrorist threat, Lerner offered her own view that it would be a mistake to let fear of a terrorist attack “dictate our choices and what we’re going to do.” We have to take reasonable precautions and be aware of possible threats, “but we can’t operate and live our lives” only in reaction to our fears. She added that we should “aspire to the greater self in all our actions and deeds but realize that we can’t control every event around us.”
The event’s final questioner asked the speakers to share stories of how the greater self emerged in their own lives. Though the stories varied in levels of gravity or intensity, there was a common thread: In each instance, a limited and unconsciously adopted sense of identity needed to be brought to light for growth to occur. In his concluding remarks, Center president Richard Yoshimachi clarified that the emergence of the greater self is crucial for the well being of our world but won’t happen without our firm commitment. “The greater self is something we choose and something we must always fight for,” he said.
* See Jane E. Brody, “For a Doctor, Survival and Transformation,” The New York Times, October 10, 2011.
** Nagarjuna was a Mahayana Buddhist scholar from Southern India who is thought to have lived between the years 150 and 250 CE. He organized the theoretical foundation of Mahayana thought. (The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, 2002)
Photos by Marilyn Humphries