Perspectives on Conviction One: Dialogue & Mutual Understanding

Ikeda Forum dialogue session

In 2013 we helped to celebrate our 20th anniversary by gathering perspectives from diverse scholar-friends on our seven core convictions, which are all drawn from Daisaku Ikeda’s messages of guidance to us. Taken together, the perspectives of our contributors reveal the richness of the principles that guide us.  Here are thoughts on Conviction One: “Dialogue & Mutual Understanding Are Inseparable, and Needed Now More Than Ever.”


From Joseph Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

In the past, I have written about the importance of soft power, the ability to get what one wants through attraction and persuasion than coercion or payment. Soft power is a “two way street.” It depends on what is going on in one’s own mind as well as the minds of others. To be effective with soft power, one must listen and engage in dialogue, not merely give commands. To be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to non-state actors, government efforts to project soft power will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age, and social networks become more important.

To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command. Leaders need to think of themselves as being in a circle rather than atop a mountain. That means that two way communications are more effective than commands. As a young Czech participant at a Salzberg Seminar once observed “this is the best propaganda because it’s not propaganda.” In other words,  dialogue is essential.

Soft power is generated only in part by what the government does through its policies and public diplomacy. The generation of soft power is also affected in positive ways by a host of non-state actors within and outside a country. Those actors affect both the general public and governing elites in other countries, and create an enabling or disabling environment for government policies. In some cases, soft power will enhance the probability of other elites adopting policies that allow us to achieve our preferred outcomes. Even in instances where governments have strained relations, the interactions of civil societies and non-state actors may help to further general milieu goals such as democracy, liberty, and development. Dialogue and mutual understanding are needed now more than ever.


From Gonzalo Obelleiro, Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership, Language and Curriculum, DePaul University

I see two kinds of dialogue as especially important for our time: dialogue for vulnerability and dialogue for justice. In genuine dialogical encounters, we become vulnerable. To genuinely engage someone in dialogue across differences (cultural, religious, socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender, among others) means to allow the normative demands of their condition to enter my moral life. This is a destabilizing, yet potentially empowering experience, in that it enables growth.

Vulnerability is a power when we can count on one another. Its power lies in its ability to humanize others. The many artificial walls we erect to separate ourselves from one another come down as we become vulnerable together in dialogue; we come to recognize humanity in one another, and this recognition of a shared humanity presupposes some degree of equality.

Under conditions of oppression, however, when the humanity of the weak fails to be recognized, the creative potential of dialogue for vulnerability approaches its limit and vulnerability becomes what we normally think of it: a source of weakness (Could it be that this is the common sense view of vulnerability because oppression is so pervasive in our societies?). When dialogue for vulnerability reaches its limit, we need dialogue for justice.

As the expression suggests, dialogue for justice is about power. Such dialogue seeks to challenge abuses of power and empower the weak; it finds expression in political action and political association. We are all too familiar with modes of political life that fall short of the dialogical ideal. Manipulation, intimidation, and deceit seem ever-present in the political toolkit of many leaders, even those who nominally or sincerely pursue justice. But a commitment to the pursuit of justice through dialogue forbids reverting to the logic of “defeating the enemy by any means available.”

Ultimately, both kinds of dialogue are interdependent. We need a minimum guarantee of justice to open ourselves to others in vulnerability, and justice can only be established on the basis of trust and mutual understanding. In his published dialogues and activities for peace, culture, and education, Mr. Ikeda exemplifies the art and patient labor of dialogue for vulnerability and justice. Over the two decades since its founding, the Ikeda Center has unerringly pursued this same path of dialogue.

When I try to picture a vision of the kind of public that Dewey described as sustaining a creative democracy, I imagine a society where the kinds of dialogue for vulnerability and for justice that the Ikeda Center promotes would be the norm, rather than the exception. Such a vision might still appear far away, but a great source of meaning is to be found in the work that lies ahead. 

Monologue leads us nowhere; dialogue takes us everywhere.

Lou Marinoff

From Lou Marinoff, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at The City College of New York, founding president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, and author of the bestseller Plato Not Prozac!

Dialogue is indeed a vital and indispensable modality of human interaction. Dialogue furthers mutual understanding, deepens human relations, and serves many purposes: educational, therapeutic, diplomatic, motivational, and revelatory, among others. Monologue leads us nowhere; dialogue takes us everywhere.


From Ved Nanda was a Distinguished University Professor and formerly Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law at the University of Denver, where he founded the International Legal Studies Program

President Ikeda’s reflections in the aftermath of 9/11 on the power of dialogue above all and his sage advice to listen and learn from those different from us should resonate with all who aspire for global peace. Today’s world, torn by ethnic and religious conflicts, suffers from mistrust and hatred, leading to widespread death and destruction. This has led to humanitarian crises in several countries. Take for instance the Republic of Congo, where 6 million people have died and precious minerals fuel internal conflict. Look at Syria — 125,000 people dead and six million displaced, including two million refugees. We are indeed compelled to find alternatives to the use of force in resolving disputes.

The UN was established for just this purpose — to create a neutral setting where world leaders could enter into dialogue, exchange ideas, and create a climate of mutual understanding, which would eventually lead to stable and lasting peace. We have to live up to these ideals and, along with President Ikeda, believe in the power of dialogue above all.


From Bernice Lerner, senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility and author, All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Can we listen to and learn from those who are no longer with us? In such cases, we cannot hope for mutual understanding, but our spiritual openness can spur inner transformation.

I recently learned about an interesting model of dialogue that involves young people exploring the lives of deceased compatriots. The program, called “Schools of Dialogue,” invites Polish middle and high school students to trace the paths of—and come to know—Jews who had lived in their hometowns. Who were these individuals who walked their streets, owned businesses in their neighborhoods, attended local schools, and worshipped in synagogues that have since been re-purposed?  

Jews lived and flourished in Poland for 1,000 years. During the Nazi Holocaust, 90% of the country’s three million Jews were murdered. Each Polish city, town, and village holds a sacred piece of history. By assigning students to search for evidence of lives that had been destroyed—by having them visit archives, take note of faded signposts, and interview survivors and older residents—“Schools of Dialogue” guides foster meaningful, empathic connection.

I am struck by two characteristics of this worthy initiative: First, the starting point is an established commonality: the persecuted navigated the very same territory (i.e., the same alleys and thoroughfares; the same mountains and rivers and forests), as do today’s inhabitants of a particular area. Second, in taking a leap of the moral imagination as part of a close-to-home assignment, the young researcher can experience the flowering of his or her greater self, a self that will more likely care to break down walls of mistrust, hatred, and division in “the hearts of people everywhere.” 

Dialogue may be helped initially by the realization of a shared experience. It can be extended beyond the original conversation to a compassionate stance that includes all of humanity.


From Ann Diller, Professor Emerita, Philosophy of Education, University of New Hampshire

A couple of years ago, I had an absolutely delightful time participating in the 8th Annual Ikeda Forum on Cultivating the Greater Self. Virginia Benson and I entered into dialogue on the subject of Dialogue and the Greater Self. In my presentation I talked about the importance of listening inwardly as well as outwardly. I suggested we work on listening with compassion to all our inner voices including those that sound like a Lesser Self. On that morning, I spoke many words on this subject. Sometime later, I came across these very few words on the subject — in a poem by Sinkichi Takahashi. I offer his poem as a brief poetic commentary on core convictions one and six:


I don’t take your words
Merely as words.
Far from it.

I listen
To what makes you talk — 
Whatever that is — 
And me listen.

* From Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi, translated from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk with Takashi Ikemoto (Grove Press, 1986).