Perspectives on Conviction Six: Power of the Imagination

Walt Whitman portrait

Walt Whitman believed that life itself is the greatest poem

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 Six: “The Poetic Power of the Imagination Calls Forth Our Highest Potential” 


From Jim Garrison, Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education program at Virginia Tech 

For me, there are many memorable moments in my dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda and Larry Hickman (published as Living As Learning, Dialogue Path Press, 2014). One of the most memorable was when Ikeda and I shared our fondness for the poetry of Walt Whitman whom John Dewey called the “seer” of democracy. Ikeda called attention to the way that Whitman praised the wonder of the interconnectedness of all things referring to these lines from Leaves of Grass: “The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.” Lines like this might well have inspired Dewey’s notion that every individual has unique potential that we must educate that they may make their unique contribution to the democratic community.

Whitman and Dewey understood that reality is comprised of the actual and the possible and that the arts and imagination released ideal possibilities hidden in the actual in the sense of poiesis; that is, making, creating, or calling into existence. The individual that awakens to their greater self by grasping their interconnectedness to the larger whole actualizes their best possibilities, finds their correct place, and makes their distinctive contribution.

For Whitman, life itself is the greatest poem and we each have important lines that only we can contribute. It is a profoundly democratic idea, although one perhaps more compatible with Asian than Western thought. Dewey declares: “Democracy in this sense denotes, one may say, aristocracy carried to its limit. It is a claim that every human being as an individual may be the best for some particular purpose and hence be the most fitted to rule, to lead, in that specific respect.” This is why Ikeda is so right to say, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

For Whitman, life itself is the greatest poem.

Jim Garrison

The poetic power of imagination to call forth our highest potential is of immense importance in many ways, not the least of which is that it allows us to conceive of democracy as internalized, social, organic, concrete, moral, aesthetic, and cultural in ways that emphasize social responsibility. This stands in contrast to the dominant Western paradigm that emphasizes externalized, atomistically individual, mechanical, formal, legalistic, and political ideals of democracy that mostly manifest as rights without responsibilities.

Our goal is creative democracy, the poetry of the people.    


From Mary Lee Morrison, President Emeritus of Pax Educare, Inc., the Connecticut Center for Peace Education, and co-author with Ian Harris of Peace Education

Poetry makes us human. Without poetry and other art forms, the survival of global, planetary consciousness and, indeed, our very existence as a species is called into question. Poetry, through words, reduces our experiences to their essence and, at the same time, uplifts our souls to their highest. The poet and peace activist Denise Levertov (1923-1997) wrote that poets, more than any others, “recognize language as a form of life and a common resource to be cherished and served as we should serve and cherish earth and its waters, animal and vegetable life, and each other.” Levertov believed that the poet’s task is to hold in trust that knowledge that language is considered power (my italics). Quoting Ibsen, Levertov noted that the task of the poet is to “make clear to himself [sic], and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and community to which he belongs.” 

Poets must give us their (and ours to claim) imagination, the images of peace, to replace those of disaster and war, in order to foster hope for a better world. Daisaku Ikeda writes that the poet creates “portals of hope and entranceways for exchange in the massive walls that divide us.” Good peace pedagogy must do the same, with the power to evoke our imagination toward the deepest possibilities for human existence. All too often we can despair at the hope for change if we see only our present world and the structural violence in which we are embedded.

Elise Boulding began in the 1980s, with Warren Ziegler, to create imaging workshops in which participants, through a series of imaginary steps both backwards and forwards in their own personal sense of time, communally designed the world they wished to see and, at the end of the workshop each participant created action steps to move into the world he/she wished to see. Boulding’s ideas were based, in part, on the work of the Dutch futurist, Fred Polak, who believed that educators and activists cannot work for a world they cannot imagine. So it is with the artists, who, by their trade, are closer than many of us to the imaginings of both inner truths and outer good. It is important to give credence to where we have been as much as where we hope to go. Good poetry captures the essence of this hope and, in Ikeda’s words, creates a sense of “spiritual openness” to new possibilities. Thus we can see that both poets and peace educators can contribute to the deepening of this spiritual essence within each of us so that we can create possibilities for new ways of thinking and acting.

Excerpted from Poetry and Peace: Explorations of Language and “Unlanguage” as Transformative Pedagogy 


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 the topic, 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).