American Renaissance, Education & Philosophy

Ikeda On Buddhism and the American Renaissance

2004 Ikeda Forum Ginny Benson introduces the event

Virginia Benson introduces the 2004 Ikeda Forum

Daisaku Ikeda wrote this message to launch and commemorate the 1st Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, held October 1, 2004. Ikeda not only outlines many of the connections and resonances between Nichiren Buddhism and the ideas of the American Renaissance; he also lays out a vision of what we can do to contribute to global peace and harmony in the years to come.

Daisaku Ikeda Message

The Boston Research Center for the 21st Century [renamed the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in 2009] has now entered its eleventh year. Marking the start of a new decade of activities and with the generous cooperation of Thoreau Society scholars, the Center has initiated new series of forums for intercultural dialogue. For this inaugural forum, “Re-Awakening East-West Connections: Walden and Beyond” has been selected as the theme, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau’s great classic, Walden: A Life in the Woods.

Boston is, of course, only a short distance from Concord where Henry David Thoreau lived for most of his life and the Boston area is justly proud to be the birthplace of the American Renaissance. It is an immensely significant fact that scholars and activists with profound knowledge and understanding of various cultures and civilizations should gather here to build new bridges and forge new links between East and West, North and South, and bring about a Renaissance for humanity in the new century.

Our world today faces a multitude of grave challenges; the contours of our future are extremely difficult to discern. In the three years since September 11, 2001, chain reactions of violence and terror around the world actually seem to have increased in frequency and ferocity. Hatred and fear have been amplified and the energy of division and exclusion are tearing the human family apart.

How can we break out of and transform this vicious circle? How can we halt the spiraling violence that is the outgrowth of misunderstanding and prejudice, hatred and confrontation? How can we forge connections between people and realize a civilization of creative coexistence that will embrace the whole of humankind? While there are many ways in which this can and must be approached, I wish to stress the importance of dialogue across differences of culture, ethnicity, and religion. For what is common to the ills that afflict us is the rejection of dialogue, and I firmly believe that the more severe the challenges we face the more crucial it is that we persist in dialogue because dialogue has the power to break down the walls of mistrust, hatred, and division in the hearts of people everywhere.

We must recognize the long-term nature of the effort required and we must maintain faith in the potential for good that resides in all people. Rooted in this faith, we must address this potential and make it manifest through the quiet yet essential spiritual endeavor of inter-civilizational dialogue carried across the full spectrum of perspectives and on a multiplicity of levels.

It is my firm conviction that efforts to create new systems to prevent and counter global terrorism will be genuinely effective only when the kind of dialogue that addresses and transforms the human spirit is conducted on a global scale.

It has been my privilege over the years to conduct discussions with people throughout the world and representing a wide range of fields, specialties, and perspectives. This effort received great impetus from my encounter and exchanges with the renowned British historian Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee some thirty years ago.

We first met in May of 1972, when the flowers in England were in bloom. Dr. Toynbee was already 83 at the time; I was 44. One reason I had been drawn to Dr. Toynbee’s ideas was that he seemed to have succeeded in moving beyond the traditional Eurocentric view of history and had profound insight into and understanding of Eastern civilization.

As is well known, Dr. Toynbee sought to grasp human history in its entirety, studying the patterns by which whole civilizations rise and fall. The scope and span of his vision was in this sense truly millennial. When we met, tensions between the China and the Soviet Union were high and seemed ready to explode into full-scale war at the least provocation. As a Buddhist, I was determined to search for resolution to the fundamental issues confronting humanity.

Needless to say, I was intensely interested in the degree to which my Buddhist-based thinking would be welcomed and supported by Dr. Toynbee. Given our very different cultural and religious backgrounds, I wondered to what extent our thoughts would find mutual resonance.

Hoping to engage in free and wide-ranging debate on the challenges facing humankind with this great man who—both as a historian and as an individual—was deeply committed to the quest for peaceful coexistence and human happiness, I visited London, fragrant with the flowers of May.

I brought three central questions to my discussion with Dr. Toynbee. These were: What does it mean to be human? How can peace be realized in our world? And, finally, what are the fundamental sources of life itself? Our discussion took in a truly broad spectrum of issues: philosophy and religion, the nature of life and human being, the future prospects for global civilization, responding the environmental challenges, war and international issues, health and welfare…

Over the course of our exchanges, we discovered that we shared certain key perspectives. Specifically, we found that we agreed that the root evil threatening human existence originates in the greed, violence, and aggression of human beings themselves. Ultimately, we agreed, such tendencies stem from self-centeredness; humanity’s survival will hinge on our collective success in overcoming such self-centeredness. As our exchange proceeded, we found further agreement on the idea that the conquest of human self-centeredness requires an expansion of the self by fusion and merger with the eternal, the religious. Only the efforts of individuals to achieve an inner, spiritual reformation can be truly effective to change and elevate society.

In the thirty-odd years since my discussions with Dr. Toynbee, I have worked to build bridges of mutual understanding and respect among the world’s different cultures and civilizations. As a citizen of our planet, I have traveled the world and done as much as my limited capacities would permit to contribute to a dialogue among civilizations. Through these efforts, I have been able to meet with representatives of diverse intellectual, cultural, and religious traditions including: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism; as well as secular scientific rationalism and dialectical materialism.

In the course of conducting these exchanges, I have gained a strong confidence in the rich reserves of goodness that are equally the possession of all people, regardless of the civilization into which they were born, or the cultural milieu in which they were formed. I remain convinced that if we base ourselves on the kind of dialogue that awakens and brings forth that inherent goodness, mutual understanding is possible and a path toward a resolution of the most challenging issues can be found.

I have twice had the opportunity to speak at Harvard University, and on one of these I quoted the words of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha whose life was dedicated to the practice of open dialogue without prejudice or precondition. The passage I quoted is this: “I perceived a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.” This arrow, I believe, is symbolic of an excessive attachment to difference.

It is only when we conquer our own discriminatory attitudes toward others, the destructive attachment to difference, that we can stand on the common ground of our shared humanity. The gaze that is deeply focused on the universal dimension of humanity generates a natural, expansive empathy for the dynamic diversity of life itself.

It is precisely because others are different from us that they stimulate and enrich us. When we conduct open dialogue with an open heart, people find that their diversity is respected and dialogue among civilizations bears ever richer fruit.

Looking back over the history of dialogue between civilizations, we take cognizance of the fact that it was Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the other thinkers of the American Renaissance who, in the first half of the 19th century, brought the wisdom of the East to the new American nation. They were the gifted pioneers in an effort to cast golden bridges of dialogue between the civilizations of East and West.

In the days of my youth, my mentor, Josei Toda, strongly urged me to give Emerson an in-depth and careful reading. Emerson’s essays found an honored place on my bookshelf as I read and reread his words. My acquaintance with Thoreau also dates from those days.

The 19th-century America in which Emerson and Thoreau lived was a country brimming with youthful confidence. Democracy was extending its embrace, the Industrial Revolution was marching forward, the hammers of construction could be heard echoing powerfully across the vast continent. And yet, together with the material prosperity that it brought, the Industrial Revolution also provoked a crisis of the spirit, a sense of powerlessness. Theirs was perhaps the first generation to confront the full gravity of the spiritual crisis that is the shadow side of the material prosperity wrought by industrial progress.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists were able to discern the first emerging signs of the key issues that face humanity today—individual conscience versus the state, disharmony between nature and civilization, disorientation brought on by the accelerating spread of information, inner desolation generated by exclusive devotion to economic interests… They responded to and strove to resolve these challenges on the most fundamental plane.

The essence of their struggle was to establish a frame of reference by which individuals, splintered and divided from each other by modern scientific civilization, might rediscover harmonious union and connection. On the deepest level, they sought to break the spiritual deadlock brought on by modern rationalist philosophy.

Emerson and Thoreau focused on the great power that exists within the depths of the lives of human beings.

Daisaku Ikeda

In their search, Emerson and Thoreau focused on the great power that exists within the depths of the lives of human beings. Emerson referred to this as the Over-Soul or the One, a concept that represents the unifying energy of individual souls. For Thoreau this was the “conscious effort of the mind.”

That Emerson, Thoreau, and the other thinkers of the American Renaissance studied and were inspired by Eastern thought is something that merits our most earnest attention. Emerson was a member of the Transcendentalist Club, founded in 1836. In the Dial, the Club’s official publication, he co-wrote, with Thoreau, articles introducing sacred texts of the East from Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the Laws of Manu, describing these as “the sacred texts of all peoples.”

Likewise, the January 1844 issue of the Dial carried a translation of the “Parable of the Medicinal Herbs” Chapter of the Lotus Sutra as “The Preaching of the Buddha.” In their Eastern spiritual quest for an antithesis to the materialism and economic determinism of Western rationalism, Emerson and Thoreau focused on “the eternal” and the coexistence-centered way of life that they found in the philosophy of the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita in India, as well as on Confucian thought in China.

The axis for restoring a sense of harmonious connection between spiritually fractured individuals was, for them, to be found in the eternal and universal, in the religious. It is said that one of the possible etymologies for “religion” is to “tie or bind together.” Religion in its original sense has the function of connecting the individual to the transcendent and eternal, while forging bonds among individuals.

As Emerson wrote in Representative Men, “In all nations, there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity.” For him, religion meant to experience the eternal and universal within one’s own life. He was, I believe, striving to wrest control of our own and the world’s destiny from an external, transcendent Absolute, and to restore it to us as individual human beings. Motivated by this quest, Emerson found in the philosophy of the Upanishads, expressed as the oneness of atman and Brahman, the same infinite One that he identified as the Over-Soul.

Emerson, who believed that we can, through intuition, attain unity with the Over-Soul, saw universality in the individual and constructed upon that basis his philosophy of self-reliance. For him, self-reliance indicates a profound trust in the self that possesses such infinite possibilities that it can, indeed, become one with the Over-Soul. This self transcends individual desire and possesses an absolute divinity. Here Emerson offers us a clear basis for human dignity.

In the Buddhist canon we find this statement: “You are your own master. Could anyone else be your master? When you have gained control over your self, you have found a master of rare value.”

The “self” referred to here is not a small, egoistical self—what Buddhism calls the “lesser self” (Jpn shoga). Rather, it is the Self that exists in the depths of our being—what Buddhism calls the “Greater Self” (Jpn taiga).

The Greater Self is another name for the kind of fully open and developed character that feels the sufferings of all people, all living beings, as its own. The way of life that Buddhism prescribes as being consonant with the Greater Self is one in which, challenging our self-centeredness through committed altruistic action for the sake of others, we continuously reach out to people struggling amidst the realities of society with actions that embody compassion and caring.

The Buddhist concept of the Greater Self shares a deep commonality with Emerson’s Over-Soul, which he described as “the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.” It is upon this self that we are—by his lights as well as Buddhism’s—to rely.

It was Thoreau who deepened and developed Emerson’s idea of self-reliance, putting it into practice. The simple life that Thoreau lived during his two years in the woods was an awakened life, deeply appreciating and savoring the Eternal, the One. Such a way of life is the path of the wise tread by the philosophers of ancient times. For Thoreau, to be a philosopher was “to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” And through such a life, Thoreau sought to realize, in the new land of freedom, a way of life that manifested a Self that has achieved union with the Over-Soul.

In Walden, we encounter Confucius and many other philosophers of antiquity. Thoreau himself lived the “life of the wise” as he put it, on summarizing his life in the words: “I learned this, at least, by my experience; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary…”

Throughout his life, Thoreau continued to pursue and develop the path of self-culture based on the spirit of self-reliance that he had explored on the shores of Walden Pond. As an awakened person, a person of wisdom, he continued to pioneer new paths, awakening his neighbors with his morning call, which he likened to the crowing of a rooster.

Eventually, Thoreau’s ideas would find reception in and influence Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for Indian independence, anti-Nazi resistance in Europe, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement to protect the natural environment pioneered by Rachel Carson, as well as the anti-Apartheid struggle. In many different forms, Thoreau’s ideas have been put into practice around the world.

I am currently engaged in a trialogue with Dr. Ronald A. Bosco, past president of the Thoreau Society, and Dr. Joel Myerson, its past secretary-general, which is being published in a monthly journal in Japan.

Over the course of our exchange, we have discovered many points of commonality between the Transcendentalist ideas of Emerson and Thoreau and those of Nichiren Buddhism. Both Dr. Bosco and Dr. Myerson have generously expressed appreciation for the ideals and endeavors of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), suggesting that these share key aspects with the more sublime elements of the American Renaissance.

Life in all its manifestations is unique, irreplaceable, and worthy of respect.

Daisaku Ikeda

Here I would like to focus on four points that I believe express core areas of confluence between these two philosophical traditions:

The first is a respect for human dignity, a reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life. Both discover limitless possibility and the ultimate value in life itself. Both express belief that all life is endowed with an inherent dignity, that life in all its manifestations is unique, irreplaceable, and worthy of respect.

Based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra, which I believe represents the very quintessence of Eastern philosophy, the SGI today is engaged in endeavors in the fields of peace, culture, education, and human rights. The Lotus Sutra teaches that the all people possess an unsurpassed and inviolable dignity, which it terms “Buddha nature.” According to the sutra, expression and manifestation of one’s Buddha nature is life’s most fundamental goal.

Active in 13th-century Japan, Nichiren clarified the core message of the Lotus Sutra and offered a concrete means by which people could bring forth and make manifest their inherent inner dignity.

In their time, Emerson and Thoreau saw indwelling within humanity the divine and declared this to be the basis of human dignity. The “self” of Emerson’s self-reliance is a spirituality that is fully unified and harmonized with the Over-Soul, the One. As such it is fully imbued with divinity. Likewise, Thoreau’s experiment in putting into practice the spirit of self-reliance at Walden Pond, where he lived a philosopher’s life, was based on a sense of the divinity inherent in all things. Thoreau discovered and disclosed religious experience within and through his experience of nature.

A second point of commonality between Transcendentalism and Nichiren Buddhism is the idea that all things coexist within a context of mutually supportive interdependence. The chapter from the Lotus Sutra whose English translation Thoreau published in the Dial, was the “Parable of the Medicinal Herbs.” Significantly, this chapter describes “the three grasses and two types of trees” as it proudly proclaims a spirit of impartial compassion nurturing all living things in their manifold diversity. To quote a recent translation of the sutra: “Though all these plants and trees grow in the same earth and are moistened by the same rain, each has its differences and particulars.”

In the context of this sutra, the earth and rain indicate the impartial teachings and dharma of Shakyamuni; the plants and trees are like people of unique and varying capacities. This passage can also be read as portraying a world of creative coexistence, where all life-forms, fostered by the compassionate and creative power of the cosmos, receive life and exhibit their unique and particular qualities within a web of interconnection.

This vision of coexistence corresponds beautifully with Thoreau’s intuitive grasp of the harmonious mutuality with which all living things support each other and thrive.

It is likewise possible to interpret the plants and trees portrayed in the Lotus Sutra as symbolic of diverse cultures, which are supported by and draw energy from rain and earth representing the eternal principle of the universe. This is a vision of a “culture of peace”—to use a contemporary phrase—in which various cultures coexist peacefully on Earth, each demonstrating its special qualities and making its unique contribution to our greater richness.

The third point of convergence is what might be called a commitment to human-focused education—education of, by, and for human beings. When I first spoke at Harvard University, I made reference to the ideas of Emerson and expressed my sense that nothing is more needed in our world today than an inner-motivated spirit of autonomy and self-mastery. This expresses itself in the world as “soft power” issuing from the vast creative energy residing in the depths of human life.

Experience has shown us that unless ordinary citizens develop their wisdom, they too easily fall prey to the machinations of those who would abuse their power. It is from this that the need for humanistic education arises, the kind of education that enables people to transform themselves and, through that transformation, to change their societies.

In our discourse, Dr. Myerson has noted that the transcendentalists believed that institutions that had changed for the worse could only be reformed by self-motivated, right-thinking people, and not by violence.

Since its founding by the educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and later under the leadership of the second president, Josei Toda, the Soka Gakkai has maintained a consistent focus on humanistic education. At the deepest level, this expresses the desire to enable all members of society to manifest their inherent Buddha nature, to develop and unleash the powers of self-motivation.

As heir to a dream of humanistic education open to all people based on the ideals of value-creating education formulated by founding president Makiguchi, I have worked to make such education a reality by establishing an international educational system from the kindergarten to the university levels.

Dr. Myerson also comments that the transcendentalists recognized the need for people to educate themselves; for citizens to engage in self-education guided not by external goals and motives, but by inner ones. He also notes the extent to which the transcendentalists were involved in various educational projects, from nursery and elementary schools to colleges and universities. They likewise saw public speaking and lectures as a necessary and effective means of educating people. They were aware of the importance of publishing in order to reach the widest possible readership.

The Soka Gakkai International has been motivated by a similar awareness. Numerous books and periodicals are published by SGI organizations worldwide in many different languages. This reflects appreciation of the essential need to involve a wide-ranging spectrum of people and to assure that popular movements are thoroughly permeated by philosophy and energy.

The stress placed by many transcendentalists on humanistic education, rooted in the eternal, that unleashes the untapped inner capacities of people finds, I believe, parallels, both at the level of ideas and of practice, in contemporary efforts of the SGI to promote humanistic education.

Finally, the fourth key area of convergence between the ideas of the American Renaissance and Nichiren Buddhism is to be found in the understanding of the connection between reform of the self and reform of society.

When he visited Soka University in Japan, Dr. Ronald A. Bosco shared this thought: “The most valuable lesson that Thoreau delivers to us today is that all cultural transformation begins with the individual, begins from within.”

For Emerson and Thoreau, any thought of reforming society is based in a philosophy of self-transformation. Emerson stressed that reform must begin from humans themselves, from the inner realm of the human heart. Efforts to improve systems or surroundings will be meaningless unless there is an inner change within people themselves.

In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau states, “There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority is derive, and treats him accordingly.”

Thoreau’s belief that no government can be justified in threatening human dignity finds an echo in Nichiren’s experience in 13th century Japan. In the midst of life-threatening persecutions by national authorities, he wrote: “Even if it seems that, because I was born in the ruler’s domain, I follow him in my actions, I will never follow him in my heart.”

I would note in passing that this statement was included in the UNESCO publication The Birthright of Man, published in 1969 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax in Concord as an act of resistance against slavery, he did not retreat in fear. Rather, the flames of the spirit of resistance rose brighter and higher. As he stated with courage and clarity: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

In the same way, Nichiren was thoroughly committed to nonviolence, challenging the political authorities of his day solely through the spiritual power of language and words. He was completely unswayed by persecutions leveled at him by unjust and violent authorities. As he stated, “Regard meeting obstacles as true peace and comfort.”

The founding and second presidents of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, as heirs to the spirit of Nichiren, were likewise unbending in their resolve when they were imprisoned during World War II by Japanese authorities who sought to crush and destroy freedom of conscience.

The way of life pursued by Emerson and Thoreau—of realizing societal change through an inner reformation—find parallels in the ideas and actions of Nichiren, and in the movement by which the SGI has sought to implement social change. And this parallelism is to be found on both the spiritual dimension as well as in the concrete direction of engaged Buddhism.

In this way, the philosophies of the Transcendentalists and that of Nichiren resonate in multiple dimensions, in particular their focus on the inner depths of humanity and on our intimacy with the living cosmos.

For humanity in the 21st century, our greatest challenge is to transform the energy of division and hatred that now erupts as armed conflict and terrorism—as well as in environmental destruction—into the energy of union and harmony.

Here we can look to the inspiring example of Emerson and Thoreau, who absorbed the finest essence of Eastern thought, incarnating it as they gave rise to the American Renaissance. In this same way, I am confident that this forum will have a truly historic significance as a milestone in the effort to re-awaken East-West connections. And it is my heartfelt hope that this will contribute to a new global civilization and renaissance of life.