Education & Philosophy

Education and the Greater Self

In this essay from 2011, the Center’s Mitch Bogen looks to the writings of Daisaku Ikeda to define and explore what might be called “educating for the greater self,” that is, education focused on bringing forth from each student their greatest potential, holistically understood. Throughout, thinkers whose ideas complement Ikeda’s are also considered, creating a dialogue on the key concepts.


“Daisaku, let’s establish a university, Soka University. I hope this can be achieved in my lifetime, but that may not be possible. Should that be the case, Daisaku, I’m counting on you to do it.” In that instant, a bright flame, the dream of Soka University, was kindled in my heart.

– Daisaku Ikeda, recalling the words of his mentor Josei Toda

We must send the sparks flying!
From the hearts of youth!
Using the flame within!
To educate is to kindle the soul’s flame!

– Daisaku Ikeda, “The Dawn of a Century of Humanistic Education”

Those of us interested in education hear a lot these days about “how the brain learns.” Might it also be beneficial to discuss “how the heart learns”? I think it would, since education of the most ambitious sort will not be achieved by relying on knowledge or intelligence alone. What I mean by ambitious is a learning process that is ongoing and inclusive in scope and noble and compassionate in character. In other words, education whose objective is the cultivation of what Mahayana Buddhists call “the greater self.”

In his 1993 lecture at Harvard University, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization,” Center founder Daisaku Ikeda says that “the ‘greater self’ of Mahayana Buddhism 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.” (1)

When we think about how to actually go about educating in support of this ideal, it can be helpful to consider another, closely related, core principle of Mahayana Buddhism. In the same lecture, in a section called “Interrelationship of All Things,” Ikeda describes a vision at the heart of the Lotus Sutra: “[E]ach living thing manifests the enlightenment of which it is capable; each contributes to the harmony of the grand concert of symbiosis.” (2)

From an educational, as opposed to strictly Buddhist, or spiritual, point of view, this vision is recognized in the teacher or mentor’s ongoing dedication to helping young people discover their interests and to encouraging them to believe in their capacity not only to excel in their studies but also to make uniquely valuable contributions to our world.

In this essay, I will explore what it means to educate for the greater self by bringing Daisaku Ikeda’s contemporary expression of Soka, or value creating, education into conversation with various philosophers and educators (including the Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey), who, while not specifically invoking the greater self of Buddhism, also advocate a vision of learning that begins with the individual and expands outward to include all of life in its sphere of concern.

After considering some of the philosophical foundations of this expansive vision, the essay will look at ways that the love of subject matter and learning itself can lead an individual to transcend provincial concerns while enriching oneself and society as a whole. The latter sections of the essay will look at the crucial ethical dimensions of educating for the greater self, examining how educators can help students develop a love of humanity and our world that transcends narrow self interest in the cause of alleviating suffering and contributing to the happiness and well being of all.

What Is Deep Is Holy

It might seem counterintuitive, but from the perspective of the humanistic educator it is precisely the focus on individual interest, insight, and passion that enables a learner not only to become happy but also to make a valuable social contribution. In this view, a concern for individual growth is no obstacle to the common good. No one has ever made a more compelling case for this faith than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his seminal essay of 1841, “Self-Reliance.”

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. … In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. (3)

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. (4)

Unless our contributions to both our own happiness and social well being emanate from our inner self, we will be less able to add to, expand, or improve upon the status quo. The inner self for Emerson is the self that is discovered through deep introspection and careful attention to one’s inner life. Skeptics in Emerson’s time said that such introspection, if not guided by the precedents and strictures of established religion, would open the self to the temptations of demons and devils. Emerson demurred: “I will so trust that what is deep is holy.” (5)

We each have the equal right to have our unique potential educated.Emerson’s ideas, fairly abstract and non linear in expression, nevertheless laid the foundation for a distinctly American educational philosophy and pedagogy, developed first, in the late 19th century, by figures such as William James, and later, in the early to mid 20th century, by the great philosopher and public intellectual John Dewey. Dewey is particularly well known for his thoughts on democracy and democratic education. Jim Garrison of Virginia Tech University says of Dewey’s perspective: “[He] explicitly says that we need to understand that we are not physically or intellectually equal, … but we are morally equal. We each have the equal right to have our unique potential educated, [so] that we can each make our unique contribution to society.” (6)

In the context of Soka education, we would say that the passive imitator or follower would be poorly positioned to add value either within his or her own life or within the wider community. This is why Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who originated the concept of Soka education in early 20th century Japan, insisted that the best education cares little for “the piecemeal merchandising of information.” Instead, it “would rather place people on their own path of discovery and invention.” (7)

Ikeda fluently melds Buddhist, Emersonian, and Deweyian perspectives in a message to the Center honoring the September 2009 publication of Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance:

If we dig deep enough within the great earth of each person’s life, we find flowing there the same underground channels of empathy and compassion. This source gives rise to an immense range of human diversity, in which each of us is endowed equally with a unique role and purpose in this symphony of life. Our struggle to return to this source is thus central to bringing about a genuine renaissance for all people. (8)

If a person’s process of education and development is based on deep self-awareness and a genuine love of a given subject, discipline, or endeavor—as opposed to self-interest or personal ambition alone—the self that emerges can be understood as the greater self. However, if our learning is motivated only by the need to do well on a test or by a specific vocational objective, our commitment to learning might end with the achievement of that goal. If we are motivated by love for a particular subject or discipline, we can still achieve our academic and vocational goals, but we also can advance to places unimagined by our initial attempts at envisioning a future.

Each of us can cultivate this creative, adventurous, and expansive way of being. Recall that for Emerson, great figures such as Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe, all of whom are exemplars of achievement, are unique only insofar as they have developed to a greater extent the inner qualities available to all humans. Thus, Emerson identified them in the title of his book of 1850 as “representative men.” In his essay “The Poet,” published in 1844, Emerson explained the dynamic this way: “… the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.” (9)

This is why we can say, for example, that the greatest jazz artists did not even play jazz. Duke Ellington is arguably the greatest of all the jazz artists, and certainly, if an aspiring musician wanted to discover the essence of jazz, you could do worse than sending them to Ellington’s voluminous recordings. Nevertheless, the venerable jazz writer Nat Hentoff recalls that in their many conversations, “Duke Ellington told me not to listen to music by categories.” Instead, he urged: “Hear the individual!” Hentoff tells us that the same held true for the great Charles Mingus, “who said of his compositions and performances that they were—and still are—’Mingus music. I’m trying to play the truth of what I am.’” (10)

Paradoxically, by being true to the beauty of the music they felt in their hearts and heard in their minds, as opposed to conforming to a pre-set vision of what jazz is supposed to be, Ellington and Mingus came to exemplify the art form as a whole. (11) Bear in mind, however, that our achievements need not be so public or trail blazing as those of these musical innovators. I can think of no greater success than to have lived one’s life with passion, curiosity, originality, honesty, and integrity and to have it be said in remembrance: “There was a human being.”

The Spark of Interest

A favorite memory from my years of teaching world religions at a small Boston college occurred one morning just before class during our Buddhism unit. As my student set her backpack down beside her desk, she said the words humanistic educators like me most want to hear. “Mr. Bogen,” she said, “After class on Monday, I went straight to the library to find everything I could about Zen!”

My conviction is that the spark of interest that motivated her in this manner was more important than any fact, or even any nugget of wisdom or understanding, that I might have imparted during our class sessions. Knowledge and understanding gained are important, to be sure, but it is the spark of interest and curiosity that can grow into a flame of love capable of guiding and lifting us, individually and collectively, to places and achievements beyond even our most optimistic expectations. It is the spark of interest that provides the motivation to be a lifelong learner.

Not everyone shares my conviction. In popular discourse this type of education, which owes a great debt to Deweyian pedagogy, is known as child- or student-centered education. A great many people take this to mean that kids simply “do their own thing,” with no supervision. Jim Garrison explains the problem with this perception. “One of the common misunderstandings of Dewey,” he says, “is that student centeredness just lets the student ‘run amok.’” In fact, explains Garrison, “there is a discipline here, but it’s an internal discipline.” If you’ve ever watched a student “engage in something that genuinely interests them,” he adds, you can see that their interests “propel their inquiry.” Student-centered teaching, he continues, means that the teacher knows the student well enough to recognize these displays of interest and to encourage growth by connecting the student to subject matter of interest to them. (12)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist best known for his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience, concurs, and expands on Garrison’s thought.

Education should not be an obligation, but rather a privilege you earn by showing that you are curious about some part of the world. You get your education through that curiosity. The role of the teacher would then be to find the material that would allow the student to explore his or her curiosity. Because no matter what you are curious about, if you are really curious, you will have to learn everything else. Whether the topic is bugs or stars or singing, there are connections. There is mathematics behind the music and chemistry behind the animals. Once students are hooked on their interest, the teacher should be the gatekeeper to the enormous richness of information in the world. (13)

A popular slogan in contemporary education is that “knowledge is power.” This idea is too superficial. The value of knowledge depends on the value of the purposes that guide its acquisition. Daisaku Ikeda argues that “information learned from a digest for nothing but the purpose of passing an examination is certainly but knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” He uses the example of literary study to illustrate larger purposes. Reading great books, he says, “is an opportunity to make connections with the spirits of the outstanding writers and in this way to improve and broaden one’s self toward further development.” (14) This is exactly how the study of a particular discipline can foster the development of the greater self.

Student-centered learning done poorly actually does amount to students “running amok.” But done well, with proper structure and guidance, pedagogy that helps us expand outward from the foundation of interest and curiosity can contribute greatly to the happiness and well being not only of individuals but also society as a whole. Following our interests, we are able to transcend our restrictive assumptions and ascend to greater levels of achievement, thus increasing the value we contribute to the world.

Diagnosing the Problem

All education that emphasizes the sparking of interest and the building of connections in an effort to transcend barriers of any kind—be they in math class, on the playing field, or in one’s home life—can be considered spiritual education. When we dedicate ourselves to the lighting and nurturing of the inner spark in others, we engage in a process that is inherently spiritual, as opposed to “religious” in any formal sense.

We are talking about an inner change of heart and perception that intensifies our sense of connection with and commitment to the world.That said, as noted in the introduction, there needs to be an explicitly ethical dimension to any educational process that seeks to cultivate an expanded, greater self. The purpose of teaching and learning for the greater self certainly does include, as we have just discussed, the facilitation of individual fulfillment and the unique social contributions made possible by that process of fulfillment. But the ultimate purpose is to nurture in ourselves and others a sense of allegiance to the well being of all humanity and the planet that sustains us. In a sense we are talking about global citizenship. But we are also talking about something more subtle and vital here—an inner change of heart and perception that intensifies our sense of connection with and commitment to the world.

In the specific context of Buddhism and Soka education, the cultivation of the greater self begins and ends with this universal allegiance. “The pedagogy of value-creation,” says Daisaku Ikeda, “was born from the spiritual light of compassion and love for humanity.” (15)

Ikeda also delineates a critical outcome for Soka and Soka-inspired education. When learners are immersed in an atmosphere of inclusion and connection, says Ikeda, “they go beyond petty egoistic thinking to become total human beings who, while considering the whole of wisdom, relate their own lives to the fate of all humankind. I am firmly convinced that cultivating excellent human beings of this caliber is the true purpose of education.” (16) For Ikeda, this kind of thinking will help us offset the negative effects of the kind of “compartmentalized learning” that, unfortunately, dominates educational systems today in the developed world. (17)

To achieve an expanded sense of self, specific obstacles must be addressed and certain ideals promoted. Put simply, our greatest challenge is to overcome what we might call “us and them” thinking. In his 1996 talk at Teachers College, Columbia University, Ikeda’s thoughts on this matter were unequivocal.

“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. (18)

In the 1993 Harvard lecture, Ikeda explained how the Buddha modeled for us a way out of the impasse presented by our self-imposed isolation and close-minded biases.

The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the guiding principle for open dialogue, the essential condition for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights. It was his own complete release from prejudice that enabled Shakyamuni [Buddha] to expound the Law with such freedom, adapting his style of teaching to the character and capacity of his interlocutor. (19)

Ikeda is adamant that this “pathology of divisiveness” is “not limited to individuals, but constitutes the deep psychology of collective egoism, which takes its most destructive form in the virulent strains of ethnocentrism and nationalism.” (20)

In the next sections I will look at several core factors in the “conquest of our prejudicial thinking.” These include addressing our shadow self, practicing self-reflection, developing the humility to understand and learn from others not like ourselves, and the nurturing of a reverence for life that encourages both compassion for the suffering of others and joy in their happiness.

Addressing the Shadow Self

It is axiomatic for both Mahayana Buddhists such as Daisaku Ikeda and American philosophers in the Emersonian tradition that authentic, long-lasting change in our world proceeds from the inside out. Internal health and awareness, or as Thoreau phrased it, the cultivation of “self-culture,” is the foundation for broader human flourishing. Here is Emerson, from “Self-Reliance”:

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views. (21)

Here is Ikeda from the Teachers College lecture:

It is my view, however, that, the root of all of these problems is our collective failure to make the human being, human happiness, the consistent focus and goal in all fields of endeavor. The human being is the point to which we must return and from which we must depart anew. What is required is a human transformation—a human revolution. (22)

In that lecture, Ikeda goes on to observe that “the struggle to rise above … 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.” (23)

In addition to this Buddhist framing, Ikeda invokes Jungian thought to help us understand the core challenge in cultivating the greater self. “The failure to acknowledge and reconcile oneself with the existence of an opposing ‘other,’ says Ikeda, “is the basic flaw in an apathetic, cynical approach to life, in which only the isolated self exists.” (24) This ‘opposing other’ is also known as the shadow self, which represents unacknowledged aspects of ourselves that we then can project onto people or groups of people whom we blame for various ills.

We habitually erect a barrier called blame that habitually keeps us from communicating genuinely with others.

Pema Chodren

The Mahayana Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodren has written extensively on this topic. “We habitually erect a barrier called blame that habitually keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us, and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things we don’t like about our associates or our society.” (25) She adds: “Blame is a way in which we solidify ourselves.” (26) The self defined and solidified in this manner is the lesser self. We can recognize this self not only in the tendency to blame but also in a reflex reversion to fear and suspicion in the face of the unknown. (27)

This restricted orientation can have severe consequences. “The ‘self’ lacking identification with the ‘other,’” writes Ikeda in his book Soka Education, “is insensitive to the pain, anguish, and suffering of the ‘other.’” Lacking such compassion, he continues, this restricted self “tends to confine itself to its own world, either sensing threat in the slightest provocation and triggering violent behavior, or non-responsively turning away in detachment.” (28)

The individual life lived in this manner is at best impoverished, and at worst, fraught with needless, never ending conflict. The same can be said for entire cultures—national, religious, and otherwise. Whatever one might think of the wisdom or justice of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is fair to say that only a nation whose self-image often depends on the denial of its own shadow could launch a deadly military campaign based on the principle of “shock and awe”—and then turn around and claim that said invasion was intended to reduce terrorism. The United States, of course, is not alone among the nations of the world in pursuing policies and putting forth rationales that can be perceived as less-than-enlightened.

The Way Forward

Practicing Self-Acceptance, Modeling Self-Reflection
The path to expansive compassion begins with self-acceptance and self-reflection. The way forward, says Pema Chodren, “starts with being willing to feel what we are going through. It starts with being willing to have a compassionate relationship with the parts of ourselves that we feel are not worthy of existing on the planet.” (29)

For Nichiren Buddhists, compassionate self acceptance does not entail seeking to deny or negate the lesser self and its “inordinate” attachments and desires that can contribute to suffering and a sense of unworthiness. Rather, through the motivating power of the greater self, says Daisaku Ikeda, “the desires and attachments common to all human beings” can be redirected toward personal and social well being and “the advancement of civilization.” (30)

The work of self acceptance is inner work, often highly personal in nature. For reasons of privacy and sensitivity, much of this task is best carried out within the parameters of one’s intimate relationships, one’s faith community, or some other circumstance that allows for emotional vulnerability and direct counseling.

In school or other more public settings, a teacher or mentor can help people along the path of compassion through the modeling of desired attitudes and behaviors. If students can see that their teacher is serious about global well being without being self-important, that can mean a lot. If they see that their teacher is genuinely curious about the world and his or her own ongoing learning, that can mean a lot, too.

Of all the qualities a teacher can model—and teach—self-reflection is among the most important. In an article called “Many Ways of Educating and Understanding Spirit,” education professor Aostre Johnson of Saint Michael’s College describes what self-reflection can mean in classrooms. Self-reflection, she says

is the ability to look deep into ourselves, to understand our own motives and emotions, to reflect on our lives, and to set and monitor our life goals. … This self-reflective quality can be developed in students as they make significant choices about their own learning, reflect on its purpose and direction, and assess it critically and thoughtfully. A self-reflective capacity is supported by an intellectually challenging environment that allows for solitude, silence, and intensive but relaxed concentration. (31)

Teachers can reflect on their classroom choices and even on choices they have made in their own lives. It’s important to demonstrate that it’s not a sign of weakness or confusion to admit mistakes or express that another direction might have been more fruitful than the one chosen, either in the curriculum or in private and public life. The shadow self thrives when ideas or conversations such as these are considered off limits.

Offering the Gift of Listening
Learning to listen is equally vital to the process of developing one’s greater self and the greater selves of others. When a teacher listens intently to students’ ideas and responds with interest and respect, that teacher gives them a great gift. This respectful attention encourages students to trust the worth of their own insights while also encouraging them to extend this gift of respect to others. The potential social impact of this generosity can hardly be overstated, suggests Ikeda, who places “the dialogue of spiritual openness” at the heart of our efforts in pursuit of peace and global well being. “The key to such dialogue,” he says

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. (32)

In the US, a significant philosophical obstacle to this “humble willingness” is found in an interpretation of “American exceptionalism” which holds that America and Americans are unique to such a degree that to even suggest that we in the US might learn something from another culture is considered unpatriotic. In this worldview patriotism is synonymous with tribalism. (33)

According to cultural anthropologist Nur Yalman, this close-mindedness is not the result of the absence of education but the prevalence of education that glorifies a particular form of the lesser self.

It’s very easy to use educational systems for creating tribal mentalities. We have seen a lot of that in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which people essentially, through education, glorified their own particular, narrow histories and identities. [This is] a very dangerous process, which sets people against one another. (34)

Professor Yalman’s remedy tracks closely with Ikeda’s emphasis on humble listening. All our endeavors, says Yalman, should hinge on the cultivation of empathy, which he defines as “being able to think into the mentality of other people.” Indeed, citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he insists that empathy is nothing less than “what makes us human.” (35) If Yalman’s take on empathy is more focused on the intellect than perhaps we are used to hearing, we should understand that it takes not just an open mind but also an open heart to even desire in the first place to understand the experiences and motivations of others.

Cultivating Reverence for Life

Open hearts and open minds are joined most intimately when we cultivate a deep sense of reverence for life. Aostre Johnson explains what the spirituality of reverence might look like from the teacher’s point of view. A teacher can communicate “a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, and love for our universe and all creatures in it. [This sense] infuses … teaching with an excitement for learning, for exploring, for sharing, and for encouraging these emotions in … students.” A teacher can also perceive and nurture the potential for great compassion inherent in all of us. “Imagine the effect of seeing each student as a potential Buddha or Mother Theresa,” she says. (36)

Daisaku Ikeda says that reverence for life itself is central among the values that can “truly unite humanity” and “link ordinary citizens in genuine solidarity.” Pointing to the shared wisdom of indigenous worldviews, Ikeda urges us to “awaken people to a sense of connection with all forms of life with which we currently share this Earth, as well as sense of oneness with future generations.” (37) Ikeda often remarks that we should never build our happiness on the unhappiness of others. Not only is it cruel or insensitive to proceed with our lives in this manner, but, in the end, happiness obtained this way will prove to be an unsustainable illusion.

Whitman valued our intrinsic interconnection so much that he chose to open his masterpiece Leaves of Grass with words in praise of that truth: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (38)

Our fates are bound up with one another. Ecologists and other scientists speak of the biological interconnection of all life. Economists and scholars of all kinds study the intensifying interconnection of economic, social, and political systems that characterizes the process of globalization. And because of innovations in technology and communications, we are better able now than at any point in human history to perceive and understand the effects of our choices and actions on others—anywhere on our planet. There is no excuse for not knowing now. It follows that there is no excuse for not considering the ethical dimensions of globalization in any academic course of study. (39)

From a religious or spiritual perspective, reverence for life is manifested in the best aspects of all our religious traditions. It is in Buddhism’s concept of “dependent origination,” however, that we encounter the closest analog to the scientific and social understanding of interconnection. “In Buddhist terminology,” writes Daisaku Ikeda,

‘dependent origination’ (Jpn. engi) describes [life’s symbiotic] relationships. Nothing and nobody exists in isolation. Each individual being functions to create the environment that sustains all other existences. All things are mutually supportive and interrelated, forming a living cosmos, what modern philosophy might term a semantic whole. (40)

It is this understanding that provides the foundation for the two core aspects of Buddhist compassion contained in Daisaku Ikeda’s definition of the greater self cited in the introduction to this essay: The compassionate greater self, says Ikeda, always seeks not only to alleviate the pain of others, but also to augment the happiness of others, “here, amid the realities of everyday life.”

Sharing In the Happiness of Others
Religious and social organizations often are at their best when offering relief and assistance to those in need. Of course, as Jane Addams showed and insisted, aid to the downtrodden should never proceed from a feeling of condescension, but rather from a feeling of common cause. (41) For Ikeda, such fellow feeling arises most effectively when we understand that we all want the same thing. “What is key here,” he writes in Soka Education, “is the understanding that the desire for happiness lies at the heart of our interconnection.” (42)

It can seem to many of us, myself included, that this focus on happiness is too simplistic. But on closer inspection, I can see that I am able to treat happiness as a mundane matter because, as a “middle-class” citizen of the US (and for other reasons as well), I am among the most privileged persons on the planet. I can take my happiness for granted because so many of the things that can conspire against happiness—such as disease, poverty, and threats to personal safety—are to a certain extent non-issues in my life. To the extent that such challenges do confront me, I have support systems in place to help manage them.

More fundamentally, I experience happiness because, in almost every circumstance in which I find myself, I am able and free to be myself. How many are denied this respect? How often do long-established patterns of prejudice, apathy, or oppression convince us that the freedoms we insist on for ourselves are somehow less vital for those who are “not like us”?

When we act out of our greater self, we will not take our own happiness for granted, nor will we minimize how elusive simple happiness can be for those who suffer. When those who have been despised or mistreated are able and free to be happy, none of us are diminished, and we all achieve something great.

Just the other day I noticed that the Wellesley Centers for Women, with whom the Ikeda Center has collaborated in the past, features this slogan: A world that is good for women is good for everyone. (43) I think that is true; and we could extend the list without much trouble at all. We will never regret increasing the amount of happiness and well being in this world, and it is worth including this goal in the core objectives of education.

In Our Hearts We Were Kings

In the episode related at the top of this essay, in which Ikeda tells of his mentor Josei Toda’s dream of Soka University, it is the heart in which the flame or spark of yet-to-be-realized potential is kindled. In Daisaku Ikeda’s telling, that flame had the power to guide and inspire them to heights that might have seemed unrealistic to the rational observer.

To others my mentor and I must have presented a destitute sight. In truth, Mr. Toda could not pay my wages, and I could not afford a warm overcoat even though winter was quickly closing in. Had we spoken to others of starting a university, they would surely have ridiculed us and dismissed the idea out of hand. But in our hearts, my mentor and I were kings. Mr. Toda declared, ‘Let’s make it the best university in the world! (44)

In our hearts we were kings! This regal metaphor is not suggestive of excessive self-regard but rather of the inherent nobility of attempting great things for the benefit of our world. With ambition born in the heart and nurtured with compassion and conviction, Ikeda did succeed in creating a university—Soka University—thriving in Tokyo today with more than 50,000 students having graduated since its founding in 1971. (45)

In his statement of the founding ideals for Soka University, Ikeda said: “Education is the foundation of culture and the vital soil that nurtures each new generation. The university, a place where wisdom and character are forged, bears a particularly vital responsibility contributing to the flourishing and prosperity of human society, to the development of peace in the world.” (46)

The greater self can flourish when we actively encourage its emergence in our own hearts, and in the hearts of others.What is lost if we refrain from expressing our educational objectives in such exalted terms? Strictly utilitarian or vocational education may or may not contribute to a less-than-desirable focus on what we have called here “the lesser self.” But we can be certain that the greater self described by Ikeda in his Harvard lecture of 1993—open and expansive, always seeking to alleviate the pain and augment the happiness of others—will have its best chance to flourish when we actively encourage its emergence in our own hearts, and in the hearts of others.

It’s a goal worth seeking. “Only the solidarity brought about by such natural human nobility,” contends Ikeda in that same Harvard lecture, “will break down the isolation of the modern self and lead to the dawning of new hope for civilization.” (47)

I look forward to the day when all education is seen as synonymous with education for the greater self. When that day arrives, we will recognize educated persons as those in whom knowledge and wisdom are fused; in whom understanding and compassion are one and the same. Not least, we will recognize educated persons as those whose hearts soar when contributing to the happiness and good fortune of others, regardless of however different or strange these others might appear to be on the surface.

What would a society or nation of such educated persons look like? It’s hard to say, exactly, but we can be sure that facile distinctions of “winners” and “losers” would have no place within it. Nor would such a nation conceive of its global mission in terms of victory and defeat. A nation where the greater self is embraced would be “big enough” to admit that there is no wisdom or solace to be found in succeeding at the expense of others.


1. Daisaku Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization” in A New Humanism: The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda (London and New York: I. B. Taurus, 2010), p. 175.
2. Ibid., p. 173.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 259.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 273.
6. Karla Dawn Meier, “Soka Education Explored” in the World Tribune: The SGI-USA Weekly Newspaper, April 8, 2011, p. 8.
7. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Education for Creative Living: Ideas and Proposals of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, trans. Alfred Birnbaum, ed. Dayle M. Bethel (Ames: Iowa University Press, 1989), p. 168.
8. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Flowering of the Greater Self,” 2009 message commemorating the publication of Creating Waldens
9. Emerson, “The Poet” in Essays and Lectures, p. 448.
10. Nat Hentoff, “What About Mingus?” in Jazz Times magazine, December 2008, p. 114; and “Luis Bonilla’s Waves of Jazz Exhilaration” in Jazz Times magazine, March 2011, p. 72.
11. While Ellington and Mingus are notable for their distinctive and innovative musical conceptions, both expressed appreciation for and were indebted to great jazz figures that preceded them. For example, Ellington was influenced by the “stride” pianists of the early 20th century, and Mingus acknowledged his debt to Ellington with his composition “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.”
12. Jim Garrison, “The Role of Interest in Learning,” October 2010 Ikeda Center YouTube video
13. Marge Scherer, “Do Students Care About Learning?: A Conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Educational Leadership, September 2002, Volume 60, Number 1, pp. 12–17.
14. Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Education: For the Happiness of the Individual (Santa Monica: Middleway Press, 2010), p. 167.
15. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Dawn of a Century of Humanistic Education,” Daisaku Ikeda website essay,
16. Ikeda, Soka Education, p. 168.
17. Ibid., p. 167.
18. Ikeda, “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship” in A New Humanism, p. 57.
19. Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization” in A New Humanism, p. 169.
20. Ikeda, “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship” in A New Humanism, p. 57.
21. Emerson, “Self-Reliance” in Essays and Lectures, p. 275.
22. Ikeda, “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship” in A New Humanism, p. 54.
23. Ibid., p. 57. Note: In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a being who has vowed to achieve enlightenment, but not out of a desire for personal salvation. “Mahayana sets forth the ideal of the bodhisattva who seeks enlightenment both for self and others, even postponing one’s entry into nirvana in order to lead others to that goal. The predominant characteristic therefore of a bodhisattva is compassion.” (The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, 2002)
24. Ikeda, Soka Education, p. 55.
25. Pema Chodren, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), p. 100.
26. Ibid., p. 101.
27. To say that we want to avoid blame is not to say that we shouldn’t use discernment to identify and challenge sources of injustice, ignorance, and delusion. The difference is that when we blame we tend to dehumanize those we see as solely or exclusively responsible for our problems. When we act out of our greater (or compassionate) self, we don’t deny our shared humanity with those holding prejudicial views or acting in destructive ways. We do best to resist lapsing into “us and them” thinking, even when our cause is just. For more on this topic see Vincent Harding, “Love and the Struggle for Social Transformation,” 2010 Ikeda Center video
28. Ikeda, Soka Education, p. 55.
29. Chodren, When Things Fall Apart, p. 104.
30. Ikeda, “The Enduring Self” in A New Humanism, pp. 139-140.
31. Aostre N. Johnson, “Many Ways of Understanding and Educating Spirit,” Classroom Leadership, December 1998/January 1999, Volume 2, Number 4.
32. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Flowering of the Greater Self.”
33. For more on this topic see Larry Hickman, “Good and Bad American Exceptionalism,” 2010 Ikeda Center video.
34. Mitch Bogen, “Empathy Is What Makes Us Human: A Conversation with Nur Yalman”.
35. Ibid.
36. Johnson, “Many Ways of Understanding and Educating Spirit.”
37. Ikeda, Soka Education, p. 44.
38. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass in Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: The Library of America, 1982), p. 27.
39. In the U.S. of the early twenty-first century, business and political leaders frequently insist that public education should, above all, prepare students for global economic competition. However, when we acknowledge the truth of interconnection, it seems counterproductive to continue seeing globalization, first and foremost, as a form of competition.
40. Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization” in A New Humanism, p. 173.
41. For more on this topic see Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
42. Ikeda, Soka Education, p. 45.
43. For more information about the Wellesley Centers for Women see
44. Ikeda, “The Dawn of a Century of Humanistic Education.”
45. In addition to the founding of Soka University in Tokyo in 1971, Ikeda founded Soka University of America in California in 1987.
46. Learn more about the mission of Soka University at their website.
47. Ikeda, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization” in A New Humanism, p. 175.