Dialogue and True Words of the Heart

In late 2020, the Center’s Mitch Bogen analyzed the dialogue books of Daisaku Ikeda to see if he could ascertain the essential themes on the practice of dialogue as put forth by Ikeda and his dialogue partners. This essay presents a systematized overview of his findings, with special attention to the activation of one’s inner capacities.


“Of all human phenomena, the one for which no set pattern in fact exists is the field of encounter and contact between one personality and another. It is from such encounter and contact that truly new creativity arises.”
– Arnold Toynbee*

During presidential election years, like the one that is ever-so-slowly and -painfully winding down as I write this in late November 2020, it becomes especially tempting to blame the polarized state we find ourselves in on politics. After all, political campaigning, by its very nature, makes it easy to be cynical about our ability to connect with each other and with the truth. The reality, however, is that superficial or divisive communication is not just the mode of politicians, campaigners, and partisans; we all play a role in our plight.

In his 2013 book The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, Daisaku Ikeda explains our situation: “In society today, truthful words are few. Words of self-interest and calculation deluge us, as do frivolous words and words intended to cause injury. These days, we simply don’t hear words of truth that issue from the depths of one person’s heart and penetrate the heart of another.” (1) He continues, saying that the way to elicit “truthful and gentle words” and “words spoken in good faith,” is to engage in “dignified dialogue, never losing our inner latitude, poise and humor.” (2)

It was this relationship between dialogue and the summoning of true words—and actions—of the heart that most captured my attention during my recent analytical engagement with the ideas on the purposes of dialogue that appear in Daisaku Ikeda’s published dialogues—with special focus on, but not limited to, the ten published through the Ikeda Center’s Dialogue Path Press (DPP) between 2009 and 2018. I also drew upon Daisaku Ikeda’s 1991 “Soft Power” address at Harvard University in which he championed the “inner resources and processes of the individual” (3) that ensure that any wellbeing that prevails in society will be the kind that lasts. In contemplating these sources, I came to see the “heart” as an all-encompassing term for the myriad modes of “inner transformations” that provide, as Olivier Urbain argues, the foundation of peacebuilding activities that expand through dialogical means from personal to global peace. (4)

Here, I will share some findings on what Ikeda and his dialogue partners have had to say about why it is essential for peace and wellbeing to engage the heart and why dialogue is supremely well suited to helping us get beneath the surface of things in fruitful ways. The bulk of the discussion is divided into two inevitably overlapping categories: 1) knowing oneself and 2) being known and knowing others. Some aspects of knowing oneself that can be activated in dialogue include: a) coming to recognize your innate value and dignity; b) nurturing the “treasures of the heart”; c) activating crucial personal qualities such as courage and healing; d) recognizing our fundamental interdependence. Aspects of being known and knowing others discussed here include: a) connecting on levels deeper than surface identities; b) facilitating mutual understanding; c) telling personal stories that nurture empathy and compassion; d) making inclusive communities and peaceable diversity possible. Finally, I will briefly consider Ikeda’s conception of friendship as the embodiment of relationships that validate the worth of the other and give expression to true words of the heart.

Knowing Ourselves

The best place to begin is with the most fundamental reason for valuing dialogue as the preeminent mode of peace culture discourse. Namely, dialogue honors and reminds us of our inherent worth and dignity. In Buddhist terms, we prefer a dialogical mode of discourse because it reflects the Buddha nature** and bodhisattva capacities of every individual. It is for this reason that Ikeda frequently invokes in his dialogues the example of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, who, in Ikeda’s telling in The Inner Philosopher, “greets everyone he meets by bowing reverently and saying: ‘I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and will then be able to attain Buddhahood.’” (5) Interestingly, he tells others that they are on a righteous path even if they themselves might not yet recognize it. In Urbain’s view, all of Ikeda’s peace and dialogue practices are aimed at bringing out the best in oneself and in others. (6) In Ikeda’s published dialogues with DPP, the participants most often bring out the best in one another through exchanges that are characterized by warmth and curiosity. However, Ikeda also acknowledges that sometimes dialogue to bring out the best in another can function in the realm of what we know colloquially as “tough love,” helping to free them from delusions such as the “grip of arrogance” (7) that he identifies as an especially potent hindrance in his 1993 address at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The key here is that, from a Buddhist perspective, even dialogue that confronts must always be grounded in a deep respect for the core dignity of the other.

Closely related is a teaching of Nichiren that appears frequently in the dialogues. “More valuable than treasures in a storehouse,” writes Nichiren, “are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all.” (8) More than debate, dialogue has the capacity to engage the heart, and it is in the heart that we find and develop that which means most to us in life. The treasures of the heart actually help us to believe in life when a consideration of facts and arguments might leave us feeling the opposite. This doesn’t mean dialogue deals in denial. Rather, more so than debate, dialogue has the capacity to reveal wisdom, which is necessary for any kind of meaningful advancement. Indeed, in his dialogue with Majid Tehranian, Reflections on the Global Civilization, Ikeda echoes the sentiments of his “Soft Power” speech by declaring that one of the most essential aspects of value creation is “to awaken the wisdom innate to every human being and unite us in mighty community.” (9) It’s one thing to become convinced that someone has made a better argument than you on a given issue and another entirely to engage in mutual investigations with others to realize the deepest truths about life and how best to be in relation with one another.

Other key capacities that dialogue fosters include healing and courage, to mention just two. It is in the back and forth of dialogue that such capacities find their emergence, because most of us actually need to overcome initial self-doubt about our abilities to heal, or to meet severe challenges, or to manifest any number of other capacities. Because of our default doubt response, simply reading or hearing advice might fall on deaf ears. In The Inner Philosopher, Lou Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda observe that the key is the ability of dialogue to reinforce feelings of “mutual trust,” (10) which they identify as the starting point for all effective dialogue, especially in the context of healing. Crucial to this process is steady appeal to what Marinoff calls our “most salutary inner qualities.” (11) Ikeda responds: “Dialogue, by creating the reflective space you describe, is an opportunity for drawing out a person’s positive mental functions.” (12) (emphasis mine). In dialogue, if a person is at first unable to recognize their strengths, the conversation can keep coming around to the point from different angles and in a spirit of encouragement until manifestation occurs. In so doing, dialogue partners can help one another develop what Tehranian referred to as “inner fortitude” (13) in Reflections, and which resonates with Ikeda’s call for “inwardly directed spirituality to strengthen self-control and restraint” (14) in the “Soft Power” speech.

This is a good place to acknowledge that the dialogue that takes place in real time between or among people, which has advantages of the type we just discussed, isn’t the only way our salutary qualities can be summoned. Ikeda consistently talks about how, during his youth, his heart and spirit were awakened through encounters with great literature. In her contribution to Peacebuilding Through Dialogue, Bernice Lerner observes how great figures in our own US history gained perspective and courage by engaging with writings from the past. (15) The key distinction to make here is that not all writing is capable of creating dialogue across place and time. Great writing appeals to the heart and not just the intellect. It is written in a way so as not to browbeat but to inspire, sometimes even to provoke. Of the authors Ikeda often cites, Emerson and Thoreau are perfect cases in point, as one can’t help but actively respond to their writing: It is as if they are speaking to you directly and you instinctively want to mentally converse with them. Lerner observes a chain of dialogue unfolding over time, lending both gravity and inspiration along the way, as King’s “I Have A Dream” speech quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which itself was based on the form of Pericles Funeral Oration. In each case the speakers gave new meaning to the older words and forms by placing them in new contexts.

And isn’t this just what dialogue does: place another’s insight in a new context, expanding both previous and present meaning in the process? In other words, we see that true dialogue is essentially a manifestation of interdependence. Few Buddhist concepts are as central as this one, also known as the principle of dependent origination. Nothing, including our inner selves, exists without the existence of something else, no action impacts only oneself or only other people, everything is changed through unceasing interaction with the environment. It just makes sense then that one’s relationship with the world, if one is indeed self-respecting, should be based on a fundamental attitude of respect, reverence, and joy, all of which, we have seen, are effectively cultivated through dialogue, with its inherent orientation toward all parties being known in their fullness. Ikeda frequently cites in his dialogues another of Nichiren’s observations in this regard: “When one faces a mirror and makes a bow of obeisance the image in the mirror makes a bow of obeisance to oneself.” (16) And this, too, from Nichiren: “If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.” (17) In dialogue, if we help the other find beauty, gain, and good***, we shall do the same for ourselves. Is it then just a matter of enlightened self-interest to engage in dialogue? Well, only if one desires a world that is defined by reverence and joy and the wellbeing of others!

“If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way."


Being Known and Knowing Others

Where is it that we are connected? Sometimes at the level of our surface identities, but that mode of connection is, by definition, limited. This is the level where it seems like we might never connect across differences, indeed, that, as framed in current discourse, it might be presumptuous or even immoral to try. It does matter where we hail from, or what our race or religion or gender is: there are inevitably challenges, interests, and injustices particular to given identity groups. Nevertheless, if we keep our attention on this surface level, we will find it harder to find true connection and make common cause, which any serious social undertaking requires if it is to succeed. Ikeda has referred to this tendency to focus on the surface as “an unreasoning attachment to difference,” (18) which, in his view, constitutes the arrow that the Buddha spoke of that pierces the hearts of all people and which he, Ikeda, identifies as a source of evil in the world.

An a priori commitment to dialogue signals a willingness to go past these surface levels, and the practice of dialogue reveals the extent that assumptions about surface identities are either incomplete or misleading. In his foreword to Peacebuilding Through Dialogue, Ikeda identified both the starting and end point of dialogue as a commitment to overcoming “the divisions within our own hearts that make us unconsciously categorize people and rank their value on that basis” (19) and “categorizing people into such simplistic binaries as good and bad, us and them, and friend and foe.” (20) Note, again, that the inner state of our own hearts is the cause of the divisions and binaries, not a reaction to them.

We know that connection based on mutual understanding, while sometimes easy to achieve, is frequently elusive. How often have we found that we thought we knew someone, but didn’t? It’s hard even to know ourselves! Yes, understanding of life’s deep truths does occasionally come in a flash of insight—satori, an epiphany—but you can’t really count on that. What you can count on is dialogue’s capacity to help us reveal the diverse richness of one another’s experiences and make connections that honor the complexity that is the possession, indeed the essence, of us all. Part of this is the ongoing nature of dialogue; in a sense dialogue is never-ending: it can’t end, because it’s not intended to arrive at one answer or to prove a point, even though important and indispensable answers and points will emerge along the way. There is always more to know and more to share about one another and our experiences of life. Another factor in connecting is the way dialogue needs listening. Time and again in the Ikeda dialogues, the authors point to listening as key. Without listening, what we end up with, said Jim Garrison in Living as Learning, is competing “soliloqu[ies]” (21) — the very image of colliding objects.

Dialogue calls us to be porous, insisting that the more open we are the more we will grasp our unity—and our power. In his 2009 message to the Center commemorating the release of Creating Waldens, Ikeda was clear on this point:  

Our objective must be the realization of peace for all people and to support the harmony and progress of global civil society. The way to achieve this, I believe, is, again, through the dialogue of spiritual openness. The key to such dialogue is devoting our very lives to listening and learning from those different from us. This humble willingness to learn is profoundly meaningful, invariably fostering deep, empathetic connections. Not only does this resonance enable us to understand others on a deeper level, it acts as a mighty impetus for our true self—our greater self—to flower within us. (22)

There is a risk in opening ourselves in dialogue. We risk being judged for what we share, but we also risk being understood, which means we then will have to take responsibility for living in this world as an authentic person. But the experience of dialogue frequently does reveal that the risk is worth it. In fact, the risk is necessary, because what we are really talking about, as Marinoff and Ikeda indicated, is trust. In Living as Learning, Ikeda identified the stakes: “Abandoning dialogue is tantamount to abandoning our trust in humanity,” he said. “All that remains then is the logic of force. Violence and force breed hatred and retaliation, from which arises more violence, permanently preventing peacebuilding.” (23)

The late Vincent Harding—activist, historian of social change, dialogue partner of Mr. Ikeda, friend of the Ikeda Center—insisted that our deep, compassionate, empathetic commitments are best stimulated through the dialogical sharing of our personal stories, and that these connections are essential to our future social and political wellbeing. “I maintain that for every country in the world to develop a healthy democracy,” he said in America Will Be!, “we must share our stories as well as listen carefully to the stories of others.” (24) Ikeda underscored his point, saying that it is vital for democracy that we all come to see that “as we have our own precious stories, other people likewise have their own valuable stories.” (25) For Ikeda the path is clear: “To develop a close, understanding community, we need opportunities for intimate, mutually inspiring dialogue that enables each person to share the story of his or her life.” (26)

In this telling of stories we can do a number of vital things: We can discover and find compassion for our shared experiences with what Buddhists call the four sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death; we can encourage one another in the face of these challenges; and, above all, we can share the joys we have experienced in life, in ways expected and unexpected, familiar and unfamiliar. I think this is why, as Ikeda and he discussed the relationship between dialogue and compassion, Harding referenced Hannah Arendt’s insight “that it is in dialogue that we are most human.”

At a time in our history when hard conversations are called for, it would a be mistake to pass over this endeavor of dialogical story sharing among individuals and among groups. Such dialogue enables us to move from remediation and temporary, band-aid solutions to the positive, proactive process of building what Harding calls “an inclusive community” (27) and, further, to the joy of realizing “that our human differences are meant to draw us together in fascinating discovery.” (28) Fascinating discovery! Might this be the best definition of dialogue of all?

In thinking of these notions of inclusion and fascination I am reminded of Elise Boulding’s understanding of peace cultures, which she describes as rich and multi-faceted, beyond being devoid, or nearly so, of violence and crime. In her dialogue with Ikeda, Into Full Flower, she frames things in proactive terms, saying a peace culture isn’t just concerned with resolving conflicts, but “promotes peaceable diversity, dealing creatively with the conflicts and differences that appear in every society, because no two humans are alike. It includes lifeways, patterns of belief, values, and behavior.” (29) The institutions of a true peace culture, she continues, will reflect and promote mutuality of wellbeing and the equitable sharing of resources—conditions that, it seems to me, are the natural consequence, or should be the consequence, of the dignity that is revealed through creative, dialogical processes. As Ikeda remarked to Boulding: “civilizations grow and develop through ceaseless exchange, mutual stimulation, and unending dialogue.” (30)


Finally, I am struck by the ways that Boulding’s beliefs flowed from her identity as a Quaker, the Christian sect whose members refer to themselves as the Society of Friends. Their reasoning goes back to the baseline truth that opened this essay’s treatment of why our work for the world is compelled by a dialogical imperative, which is that there is something sacred within each of us—for Quakers it is the Inner Light, for Buddhists, Buddha Nature, for Hindus, the sacred Atman, and on and on in every spiritual tradition known to humanity. This innermost essence deserves respect and the implicit reverence that enlivens our relations with our friends.  

Near the opening of Into Full Flower, Ikeda amplifies the centrality of friendship by sharing this episode from the life of the Buddha.

Once Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciple the venerable Ananda asked him, “Having good friends and practicing among them would be halfway to the mastery of the Buddha Way, would it not?” Shakyamuni replied: “Having good friends does not constitute the midpoint to the Buddha Way. It constitutes all of the Buddha Way.” He saw himself as a good friend to all. (31)

This emphasis is not a fleeting thing for Ikeda. He even closes his Harvard “Soft Power” talk with lines from Emerson’s poem devoted to the topic, “Friendship”: “Oh friend, my bosom said / Through thee alone the sky is arched / Through thee the rose is red, / All things through thee take a nobler form”. (32)

Who is it, then, that we call a friend? For me, a friend is someone whom we wish, as the Metta Sutta instructs, to be happy-minded. Someone we give the benefit of the doubt to. Someone we want the best for, and whose back we will have when the chips are down. Someone whose company we enjoy and gain sustenance from. A friend is someone whose inner life interests us and matters to us. Maybe most of all, someone we will always encourage and remind of their agency, that is, their ability to change things and make a difference. In dialogue we give life to all these relational qualities, which in turn animate the language of the heart and the modes of inner transformation that Ikeda insists are essential not just for personal but for social and global peace and wellbeing.


* The Toynbee quote is translated from the Japanese version of a lecture called “Uniqueness and Recurrence in Human History” that he delivered in Japan in 1956. See Olivier Urbain, A Forum for Peace: Daisaku Ikeda’s Proposals to the UN (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), p. 73.

** In Mahayana Buddhism, the baseline assumption is that all people without exception possess the potential for attaining Buddhahood, and that in fact the Buddha nature is already innate in each of us, obscured only by forms of illusion.

*** Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, the founder of the Soka Gakkai religious tradition, framed his conception of value creation in terms of beauty, gain, and good, presenting a variation on the formulation of the three Transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness that emerged from Classical Greek philosophy.


1. Daisaku Ikeda, The Heart of the Lotus Sutra: Lectures on the “Expedient Means” and “Life Span” Chapters (Santa Monica, CA: World Tribune Press, 2013), p. 92.

2. Ibid.

3. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Age of ‘Soft Power’” in A New Humanism: The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 190.

4. Olivier Urbain, “Bringing Out the Best in Oneself and Others: The Role of Dialogue in Daisaku Ikeda’s Peacebuilding Practice” in Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 2018), pp. 105–120.

5. Lou Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda, The Inner Philosopher: Conversations on Philosopher’s Transformative Power (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2012), p. 100.

6. Urbain, pp. 105–120.

7. Daisaku Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilisation” in A New Humanism: The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 169.

8. Ved Nanda and Daisaku Ikeda, Our World to Make: Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Rise of Global Civil Society (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2015), pp. 35–36.

9. Majid Tehranian and Daisaku Ikeda, Reflections on the Global Civilization: A Dialogue (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016), p. 7.

10. Marinoff and Ikeda, The Inner Philosopher, p. 99.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 103.

13. Tehranian and Ikeda, Reflections, p. 7.

14. Ikeda, “The Age of ‘Soft Power’,” p. 197.

15. Bernice Lerner, “Compassion in Dialogue” in Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 2018), pp. 89–103.

16. Nanda and Ikeda, Our World to Make, p. 29.

17. Ibid., p. 89.

18. Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilisation,” p. 168.

19. Daisaku Ikeda, Foreword to Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 2018), p. ix.

20. Ibid.

21. Jim Garrison, Larry Hickman, and Daisaku Ikeda, Living as Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2014), p. 190.

22. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Flowering of the Greater Self: A Message on the Occasion of the Publication of Creating Waldens”.

23. Garrison, Hickman, and Ikeda, Living as Learning, p. 191.

24. Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda, America Will Be!: Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2013), p. 28.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., p. 29

27. Ibid., p. 175

28. Ibid., p. 176

29. Elise Boulding and Daisaku Ikeda, Into Full Flower: Making Peace Cultures Happen (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2010), p. 95.

30. Ibid., p. 106.

31. Ibid., p. 12.

32. Ikeda, “The Age of Soft Power,” p. 197.