As the Ikeda Center’s 30th anniversary year wound down in late 2023, Mitch Bogen took the opportunity to reflect on his own 30-year journey in education and peacebuilding to see how the principles that guided him from the start found resonance in the Buddhist philosophy of Daisaku Ikeda and the Ikeda Center’s programs in support of peace, learning, and dialogue.
My Four Pillars
For more than 16 years now I have been privileged to be able to contribute to the work of the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue and to participate in its wide-ranging community of like-minded people. In other words, I have found a home — professionally, yes, but also philosophically. When I began this piece in the fall of 2023, the Center was celebrating its 30th anniversary as a peace and dialogue institute. In reflecting on the Center’s history I was reminded that my own career in peacebuilding also commenced 30 years ago. In 1993, I was beginning the final year of my graduate studies, which resulted in dual masters degrees, in theology and education. This combination of specialties is not common, so I spent a number of years at organizations where I wasn’t a perfect fit, where I couldn’t bring my full expertise and passion to bear. Finally, and happily, I arrived at the Center, whose Buddhist-grounded work is predicated on the same core assumption that has motivated me, namely, that education and spirituality are close siblings, twins even, with each complementing the other in pursuit of the peaceful, creative, and holistic development of individuals and the societies in which they find themselves. More than that, I found that the Ikeda Center, following the lead of founder Daisaku Ikeda, shared a commitment to the same principles that have guided me for the last 30 years. I call these the four pillars of my peacebuilding ethos. They are: pluralism, pragmatism, the congruence of ends and means, and the sanctity and potential of the individual. I offer brief reflections on these overlapping, interconnected principles here, reflections that I hope do justice to the profound legacy of Daisaku Ikeda, who died shortly before I finalized this essay.
I love ideas and concepts that are simple yet have great explanatory power. One such schema of great importance is one I encountered early in my graduate work in theology and religion — specifically a three-part structure for understanding each religion’s attitude toward the others. First is the exclusivist orientation of traditional or conservative religion in which that religion is said to be the one true religion. In Christian terms this might mean that only believers are saved and nonbelievers are condemned. Next is the inclusivist orientation. In Christian terms, this would mean that even nonbelievers are saved by Christ, without their knowledge. It’s perhaps less polarizing, but, for me, still inadequate compared to the pluralist orientation, which holds that all religions have something to teach us about the truth of life, both cosmically and ethically. This is what we know as the Many Paths, One Mountain approach. I won’t get into a discussion of the relative merits of each here, or grapple with questions such as how the exclusivist and pluralist can creatively coexist, but just say that as someone raised in an exclusivist religion, which I found restrictive and irrational, the pluralist point of view personally held great appeal for me as I set out to forge my own path in the world. To me, anything less than a pluralist orientation sets up unnecessary personal, social, and even existential barriers between people. In short, it can promote the us-versus-them mentality that is at the root of most of our problems.
I should clarify that while I have used the religious model here to illustrate my point, pluralism is an orientation or ethos that pertains to every manifestation of human belief, philosophy, and conviction in personal expression and social organization. That said, it was with particular delight that my first project at the Ikeda Center, all the way back in 2007, was to help market and distribute the 10th anniversary edition of Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. This book is an exemplar of the pluralist ethos in book form, creating a dialogue of perspectives, showing the unique contributions of each religion to this vital cause as well as revealing commonalities. This approach both advances the cause of peace and creates more unity in the world. Once on board at the Center, I soon discovered that book-form dialogues are essential to Mr. Ikeda’s peace endeavors. These are structured dialogues, in which Ikeda has engaged with leaders of thought and ethics about the ideas that guide them and the lessons they have learned from their experiences trying to make a positive difference in this world. Taken as a whole, the dialogues create a pluralistic symphony of voices, with recurring motifs and countermelodies, even with artfully-considered dissonances.
Though Ikeda speaks often of dialogue and rarely of pluralism, the two are inseparable; each depends on the other for both its rationale and its practice. I find it suggestive that the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century was founded in 1993, a year closely connected to the rise of pluralism as a force in religious studies. That year was the centennial of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, which set the stage for the rise of global dialogue among religions that truly flowered in the second half of the 20th century. This was when the Pluralism Project, founded by Diana Eck at Harvard in 1991, was taking off. And this was when I was completing my own studies at Harvard Divinity School, encountering many of the ideals that would provide enough inspiration for my sometimes-difficult, oft-glorious three decade journey to the present. Why has an ideal such as pluralism served so well for the long haul? Because it is far more fun and exciting to learn from others and believe in the worth of their perspectives than it is to focus on or police the negatives that attach to any personal or social phenomenon. And because qualities like curiosity keep you young. And, most of all, there is the knowledge that the proliferation of a more pluralistic approach to life will be good for our world, and the time spent promoting it is time well spent.
If it is dogma and doctrine that too often keep religions from accepting and appreciating one another, it also is these factors which too often keep a religion from promoting the wellbeing of its adherents — here and now, as opposed to in an afterlife or some other realm. Again, speaking from experience, the emphasis on adherence to specific doctrine, including that of divine judgment and punishment, encouraged in me a sense of unease and guilt growing up that took some time to get past. Significantly, and fortunately, I found that as I entered adulthood I did not leave everything I experienced in the church behind. If the particular dogma had been off-putting for me, I had nevertheless been imbued with a sense of life’s cosmic meaning and the importance of individual integrity in the grand scheme of things. Thus, I eagerly investigated what might be called alternative spirituality. In the 80s, I was especially drawn to the PBS series The Power of Myth featuring Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, with its exploration of the deep meanings and patterns of life in terms completely unimpacted by institutional concerns or motivations. Buddhism also greatly appealed to me, as it presented a spiritual approach to life that depended not on doctrine or creed but on an intense focus on “what works” — an attitude that is the essence of philosophical pragmatism. That is, the goal is the alleviation of the suffering caused by attachment not through adherence to doctrine but through the employment of perspectives and actions most effective in achieving this state. Crucially, the animating attitude is “come and see for yourself.” This means that there is no deity compelling your participation by threat of eternal punishment but that if one experiments with practices such as meditation and the adjustment of perspective one might experience benefits that elevate one’s life state.
Given my background, it is little wonder that I was thrilled and intrigued when, early in my association with the Center, I encountered Mr. Ikeda’s elegant, unambiguous formulation that religion must exist to serve the people rather than people serving the religion. In his Harvard lecture of 1993 he enumerates the meaning of this: “Does it make people stronger, or weaker? Does it encourage what is good or what is evil in them? Are they made better and wiser by religion?” Here, in these simple questions, is the essence of the philosophy of pragmatism. William James, one of the originators of the philosophy, used a pithy and very American metaphor when he suggested that we gauge the truth of proposition by it’s “cash value” in experiential terms. This is why pragmatism has also been referred to as “consequentialism.” Of course, traditional “believers” would say that the consequence they are concerned with is the next world in which one might face eternal punishment. Fair enough. But for the pragmatist, it is never wise to sacrifice the quality of life as it is actually lived — and felt — in the service of an abstract ideal.
It was during graduate school that I first encountered James, so to again experience continuity in the work of the Ikeda Center, as I did with the ethic of pluralism, has been most gratifying. It has affirmed the value of my study and showed how key aspects of one’s individual ethos can play out meaningfully over many decades. In other words, it imparts a sense of rightness, as opposed to the perception of randomness that invites powerlessness or neuroticism. Here at the Ikeda Center, the connection between Buddhism and pragmatism was considered in-depth in Mr. Ikeda’s book length dialogue with Dewey scholars Jim Garrison and Larry Hickman, Living As Learning — a book I was privileged to co-edit. One of the major themes of this book is the way pragmatism functions as an effective mode of anti-authoritarianism, a dynamic they illustrated with a discussion of “Procrustes’ bed, a Greek myth much loved by both James and Dewey. In it, explains Ikeda, “Procrustes had a bed on which he forced all the travelers he encountered to lay. If they were too tall to fit it, he lopped off their legs. If they were too short, he stretched them.” Thus, the individual personally experiences pain — spiritual, emotional, intellectual — when forced to conform to a systems that are unchanging in response to concrete experience. Not only that, but “crippled” individuals are also less able to stand up against dehumanizing systems such as the totalitarian communist regimes of the 20th century on the one hand or the conformity-inducing systems of mass consumerism and communication that we so often encounter today. I’ll conclude by saying I am happy indeed to contribute to work that is anti-authoritarian in the best ways possible.
Dialogue is an activity in which means and ends are perfectly fused.
The Congruence of Ends and Means
In the 80s, I was also immensely moved and influenced by the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, the 14-hour PBS series that told the story of the Civil Rights movement with a compelling mix of documentary fact and noble sentiment. Two things struck me most: the utter perniciousness of the racism that has stained American society and the remarkable vision, courage, and wisdom of those who participated in the movement to help America, as King phrased it, “live out the true meaning of its creed” that “all men are created equal.” It was not until grad school a few years later that I really dug into King’s philosophy, reading a great many of his speeches and sermons, as well as all three of his published books. In so doing, I came to truly understand how central nonviolence was to the movement, at least in the version that King represented and exemplified. This is to say, it’s not that nonviolence was important, but that there was no movement without it; that without the congruence of ends and means inherent to nonviolence there would have been no success either in concrete terms of policy or in spiritual terms of the realization of greater dignity and humanity for all people, black or white or other. This rejection of violence truly was a game changer, revealing the degenerate nature of the power structures that were dependent solely on domination as the source of their authority.
I mentioned above that I like simple, clear framing concepts that have great import and explanatory power. The congruence of ends and means is another such concept for me, and it provides a critical lens or animating ideal for nearly everything I engage with in my own peacebuilding work. Which is perfect since nonviolence and the congruence of ends and means are central to Buddhism, the grounding philosophy of the Ikeda Center. Fundamentally, the understanding of Buddhism is that all actions will result in consequences of like nature, maybe not immediately but in a karmic sense. Thus, in Nichiren Buddhism one speaks of “causes.” In my 2009 interview with the cultural anthropologist Nur Yalman, he spoke of how Gandhi framed this principle for the modern age: “It is the nature of the means used which determine the character of the ends that are achieved,” he told me. “I think this is a very wise statement. If you use violence, you get violence. And we’ve seen that everywhere: Violence has begotten violence.” Ikeda confirmed this idea in his preface to America Will Be!, co-authored with Vincent Harding, when he quoted King’s own conviction that “we must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.” And he further underscored this idea in his dialogue with Elise Boulding, Into Full Flower, saying: “Some people argue that sacrificing others and taking lives are permissible to a greater end. We must disabuse everyone of this notion. Because it undervalues life, the culture of war must be fundamentally questioned.”
For me, this last part of his statement is especially interesting. My own hunch is that too many people see warfare as just another tool in the toolkit of international relations, and a big part of our work is to do what we can to make war itself unthinkable. I also suspect we have a long way to go before we get to this place. This why we at the Ikeda Center place so much emphasis on learning and dialogue, which exist way upstream of violent conflict, which only occurs after so many opportunities for peaceful solutions have been missed. Or, as Ikeda has said, it might seem like the “long way around” but dialogue represents “the surest path to peace.” The beauty of dialogue is that it is a practice in which means and ends are perfectly fused. In this sense, it is an exemplar for all activities that seek to be value creating in the deepest sense. This is certainly true of education when done properly, and is why I have devoted myself to education as the best mode of bettering personal and social wellbeing. For me, the ends of education all pertain to the maximum realization of each student’s — or, indeed, each person’s — potential in as many dimensions as possible, intellectually, personally, vocationally, spiritually. You name it. Now, no one teacher or mentor is responsible for all these things, but one should bear in mind when teaching or mentoring that, in addition to the teaching the particulars of your discipline, it is the student’s best interest in the fullest sense that is your goal. The student should never be the means to an end as the teacher or mentor has defined it. Instead, we can trust that what Ikeda has said of dialogue also is true of education: that to have “faith” in it is “to believe in the promise of humanity.”
The Sanctity and Potential of the Individual
At some point along the way I read Emerson. Maybe it was that copy of a 1954 edition of his essays I picked up at a used book store on Colfax Avenue in Denver sometime after I first arrived there in the early 80s. Like so many, I’ve thought about “Self-Reliance” frequently from the time of my first reading of it, with my understanding deepening when I taught it in the mid-90s. And, as with so many aspects of my ethos, I was thrilled to discover that in Ikeda’s worldview, Emerson is a central figure. The main point I always make first about Emerson is that what self-reliance really means for him is self-trust. It doesn’t mean we are atomized individuals that don’t need other people; it means we need to trust our inner sense of what the right thing to do is, or what an interesting idea is, what is worthy of our attention and affection and respect, what we believe we can accomplish, and on and on. It means our inner world is not to be feared. Emerson consciously sought to express a view of the world not limited by Christian dogma, and this matter of self-trust was a key part of this. At the time many modes of Christianity taught (and today many still do teach) that one should distrust the inner life, because one might encounter the Devil there. Emerson identified what was at stake with the short declaration: “I will so trust that what is deep is holy.” This faith in the individual is the foundation for Mr. Ikeda’s faith in humanity and the reason for his primary emphasis on “human revolution,” or the inner transformation of each individual in the direction of expansive self-awareness, compassion, and creativity.
Thus, for Ikeda, human revolution is the prerequisite for participation in larger group or social endeavors. There is wisdom in this. Through our processes of inner transformation and actualization we each can become aware of our own particular orientation to life, the one through which we can thrive, thus maximizing the unique contributions we can make to the world. We never want a monoculture, even if said culture is considered exalted by adherents. To try to conform yourself to someone else’s vision of what you should be doing is a prescription for both unhappiness and ineffectiveness – I know because I’ve tried it. Worse, it invites the betrayal of conscience and the willingness to sacrifice the individuality of others, since one has willingly sacrificed one’s own in the name of a cause. Or, as Ikeda framed it in his Preface to his dialogue with Stuart Rees, Peace, Justice, and the Poetic Mind, “countless human lives were sacrificed in the twentieth century in the name of ideological and nationalistic cause,” so today we must reject any path that “capitalizes on human lives.” Or, as he so succinctly phrased it in his recent, 30th anniversary message to the Center: “The existence of a single individual is never to be trifled with.” Respecting the unique sanctity of each individual provides a defense against such abuses. Crucially, it also provides us with the proactive means to achieve our social ideals. For Ikeda this means that “unwavering faith in the limitless potential and dignity of all people … offers a path toward peace and harmonious coexistence, embracing all forms of ideological, religious, philosophical difference.” Together, says Ikeda, these form a glorious “symphony of life.”
But, one might reasonably ask, is our potential really limitless? I’ve wondered this myself, and have come up with a way of thinking about it that makes sense for me. What it doesn’t mean is that a person with no mathematic or scientific aptitude, such as myself, is going to become a software developer or genetic researcher, but rather that within the general parameters of what is existentially possible for each of us, our chances for change, growth, and achievement far exceed what our doubtful mind tells us could happen. A big piece of my own journey is that at the point in my life where I decided to pursue graduate school, I had not been in school for something like a dozen years, had had little to no contact with anyone who did or was doing graduate work, and really had no idea what graduate work would entail. I actually was working as an engineering draftsperson at the time I applied. Then, when I arrived at grad school, I found I didn’t even know how to write a brief bio paragraph introducing myself, much less an essay! I even remember asking a classmate, who was an editor, what editors did. I had no idea! Yet, all these years later I make a living as a writer and editor and utilize the subject matter content I gained then on a daily basis. I do indeed live a life that, at a certain point in my 20s and even 30s, I could not even have envisioned.
To conclude, I ask: If such change is possible for an individual such as myself, then how much greater are the possibilities for humanity as a whole? Much greater, I believe, since we are able to draw on and pool the capacities of all of us, in all our multivalent, stupendous potential. And, should we proceed with this endeavor, it is my conviction that our chances of success will be greatest if we include as part of our foundation the four pillars of peacebuilding I have outlined here.