Education & Philosophy

The Role of the Individual in the Education Philosophy of Daisaku Ikeda

Daisaku Ikeda headshot

In 2022, the Center’s Mitch Bogen analyzed the newest collection of Daisaku Ikeda’s education writings, The Light of Learning, to see what he could ascertain about Mr. Ikeda’s core concerns as a philosopher of education. Quickly it became apparent that he is always concerned with nurturing the potential of each individual, while always considering the healthiest, most productive relationship between the individual and society. This essay explores these themes.

Honoring the Child in Front of You

There is no realizing of the profoundest, most value-creating purposes of education without properly understanding the nature and role of the individual in teaching and learning, or, indeed, in the pursuit of happy, flourishing lives in general. This conviction courses through Daisaku Ikeda’s new essay collection, The Light of Learning: Selected Writings on Education. An updating and expansion of Ikeda’s earlier volume, Soka Education (n1), it includes a new foreword from Dr. Jason Goulah and provides an effective and stimulating introduction to the core tenets of the endeavor Ikeda has called the “crowning effort” of his impactful life. (n2) Because of the care and nuance with which Ikeda treats this topic, his thoughts are of particular relevance and importance today, as attention to the blossoming of individual capacities is sometimes overlooked, questioned, or downplayed in the desire to teach about ways that group dynamics play out in society. From the perspective espoused by Ikeda, it’s fair to say that no matter what our goals are, it nevertheless is always wise to begin the act of teaching with respect for “the infinite potential” (26) of what educators often refer to as the child in front of you. This essay explores the dimensions of this sacred endeavor as put forward in The Light of Learning.  

The Sacred Individual and Our Interconnected World

In the field of education, we might say that we keep our “eyes on the prize” by seeing how daily lessons align with or support what we ultimately want for the student beyond the classroom, both spatially and temporally. In “The Teachers of My Childhood” chapter of The Light of Learning, Ikeda demonstrates this by looking at the way his life has unfolded through the lens of what he learned from his favorite childhood teachers. Indeed, I found this to be one of the most enlightening chapters of the book. Given the trajectory of Ikeda’s life, from early struggle to towering achievement, it’s both moving and instructive to observe not only the credit he gives to these treasured teachers of his youth, but also how he still seeks guidance and encouragement from them today. The lessons Ikeda learned proved relevant decades later because they didn’t involve fixed outcomes, but rather principles that enabled Ikeda to create value on his own terms. What they did was help Ikeda to realize as well as he could his own limitless potential. In so doing, they engaged in what he identifies as the most fundamental task of education. Here, I will first explore dimensions of how and why Ikeda treats the development of the individual as “sacred and inviolable” (222) and then how a proper understanding of the relationship between the individual and society enables greater creative coexistence and personal and social flourishing. Finally, I will consider the twin imperatives of human revolution and value creation. (n3)

I. The Infinite Potential of Sacred Individual

In order to help each student develop and realize their infinite potential, educators must internalize and demonstrate a number of core convictions. First, is the conviction that such potential actually exists and that our core task as educators is to help students develop and manifest it. In the “Building a Society That Serves the Essential Needs of Education” chapter, Ikeda discusses how, from a Buddhist perspective, these commitments derive from a proper understanding of life itself. This perspective, said Ikeda, was nicely explained by the Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman when he was asked about the role of education in society. “I think the question should rather be,” said Thurman, “What is the role of society in education. Because in my view, education is the purpose of human life.” (60) From the vantage point of Buddhism, we see that if all of us possess a Buddha nature that can be tapped into at any moment and is realized in our actions helping to relieve the suffering of others, then there truly are no limits, at least in existential terms, on human development. In his foreword, Jason Goulah explains that the realization of this sort of potential is what Ikeda calls “human education.” What this means, he writes, is that “if the purpose of Buddhism is for us to awaken to the preciousness, dignity, true nature, and unlimited potential of one’s own life and that of others, so it must be for education.” (ix)

It’s also important to note that Buddhism is empirically-based, looking to experience to gauge the value of a proposition or practice. Thus, when Ikeda presents achievements from his own life it is not for self-aggrandizement but rather to inspire others to believe in our shared capacities. In a memorable passage in The Light of Learning, he describes the humble circumstances in which the dream of Soka University was born, circumstances that made the dream, which was realized with its founding in 1971, appear to be nothing less than folly. At this time, shortly after the war, Ikeda worked at the publishing business of Josei Toda, who also served as his spiritual and intellectual mentor. The business was struggling and prospects were dim. Many employees were leaving. Yet it was precisely at this low ebb, that Toda put forward his grandest vision, proposing to the young Ikeda that they establish a university, and that if he were to die before this could happen, then he was entrusting young Daisaku with the task. “In that instant,” writes Ikeda, “a bright flame, the dream of Soka University, was kindled in my heart.” (173) He continues:

To others, my mentor and I must have presented a destitute sight. In truth, Toda could not pay my wages, and I could not afford a warm overcoat even though winter was 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. (173)

In my view, there is no more affecting statement in all of Ikeda’s writings than “In our hearts we were kings.” In his various writings, Ikeda is adamant that his achievements, like the achievements of all who attain renown, are not the result of his special abilities but rather the realization of capacities inherent in all of us. Thus, when Ikeda says that all children deserve to limitlessly develop their potential it is neither an abstract claim nor simply some pleasant-sounding rhetoric.

Given this imperative, observes Ikeda, educators are well advised to proceed along several key lines to ensure their students’ full flowering. The first, writes Ikeda, is aptly summed up in Kant’s memorable formulation that “humans must never be used as a means to an end.” (61) This is perhaps trickier than it sounds upon first hearing. This is because so many ends other than the fullest development of the student seem so worthy—and are worthy. That is, so many things we want to include in the education of children—from social and environmental awareness and commitment to various vocational skills and objectives—are undeniably important. But as we maintain and develop our commitments in these realms, we must endeavor to not let their relative importance take priority over helping each student develop their unique capacities, even when they don’t fit all of the prevailing narratives.

At numerous turns in The Light of Learning, Ikeda warns against temptations such as “the intrusions of political power into education” (191) on the one hand or an undo emphasis on materialism and the compartmentalization of knowledge when designing lessons on the other. (127) This, says Ikeda, is because both are timebound and partial. In this regard, Ikeda quotes Dewey on the problem with basing your largest purposes on something other than value-creating principles: “No longer will views generated in special circumstances,” said Dewey, “be frozen into absolute standards and masquerade as eternal truths.” (233) Particular socio-political or vocational goals, though essential in their own right, are frequently neither timeless nor flexible enough to lead a person through the unpredictable twists and turns their lives will take on the road to realizing the potential that is theirs and theirs alone. Instead, Ikeda urges to follow the lead of Victor Hugo, who exhorted “We must make whole men, whole men,” and Walt Whitman, who declared “Produce great Persons, the rest follows.” (171)

The advice of these great figures no doubt is sound, but the most powerful imperative is also the most immediate, insists Ikeda, citing Tsunesaburo Makiguchi’s The System of Value-Creating Pedagogy (n4): “What then is the purpose of national education? Rather than devise complex theoretical interpretations, it is better to start by looking to the lovely child who sits on your knee and ask yourself: What can I do to ensure that this child will be able to live a life of happiness?” (227) In this prioritization, Makiguchi’s thinking ran parallel to that of the pragmatist Dewey, whom Ikeda describes as calling for “a Copernican revolution, by which the child becomes the center around which all educational endeavors must revolve.” (225) By honoring the sheer realness of the actual person in front of us, with their own inherent worth and dignity, we immediately set ourselves up to resist certain modes of abstraction in setting purposes, which, asserts Ikeda, by being unresponsive to the particular experiences of students, can too easily slide over into “ideological indoctrination.” (206)

With the happiness piece, Makiguchi gives us a way to consider Dewey’s pragmatism from a fresh angle, teasing out new dimensions of the practical results we want to achieve with education. As with the commitment to realizing human potential, Ikeda traces his inspiration to sources in Buddhism, here citing the Metta Sutta (sometimes referred to as the Buddha’s discourse on loving-kindness): “The seen and the unseen / Those living near and far away / Those born and those to-be-born— / May all beings be at ease.” (24) Ikeda draws two inferences from this passage: that “the desire for happiness lies at the heart of our interconnection” as living beings and that “for this reason the teachings of Buddhism stress our role as protagonists of positive change.” (24) I’ll discuss Ikeda’s thoughts on interconnection and the relationship of the individual and society below, but the clear message of The Light of Learning is that for educators this positive change starts with the cause of each children’s happiness and the conviction that this cause is inseparable from the cause of developing their capacities to the fullest extent.

Ikeda emphasizes that effective teaching must be based on the understanding that every child is unique, and that children’s talents, paths, and purposes are many and diverse.

Mitch Bogen

Given the importance of developing young people’s capacities, then, two questions arise: how will educators best succeed in this task and how will those capacities be of most benefit to the world? In my reading of Ikeda, I think that most of all he emphasizes that effective teaching must be based on the understanding that every child is unique, and that children’s talents, paths, and purposes are many and diverse. There are few teachings that Ikeda cites more than the one stating that “Buddhism describes the flowering of the personality that emanates from the depths of life with the statement that each person’s individuality is as unique as cherry, plum, peach, or damson blossoms.” (91) (n5) Further, says Ikeda, the child is like the cherry tree: “They each grow and thrive in different environments. That is why there is no manual that can tell us how to grow a cherry tree.” (182) Elsewhere in Light of Learning, Ikeda echoes this image by warning against “education that has been reduced to a mechanism,” focused on pursuing only “a certain type of personality.” (61) Instead, Ikeda’s ultimate vision of education is found in his request voiced in a speech to the students of Soka University on January 1, 2000: “please build magnificent, triumphant treasure towers of human education in your respective spheres of mission.” (176)

II. Proper understanding of the relationship of individual and society is a value-creating, peacebuilding activity

Ikeda is adamant that each person has a mission that goes beyond themselves, that must be realized in society, in relation with others. Yet he is also clear that for our respective missions to succeed in true value-creating manner we must attend to certain key factors, all informed by tenets of Buddhist humanism as he understands it. First, we must build our foundation on the cultivation of wisdom, which in Ikeda’s view means always striving to see the world accurately. If we skip this endeavor, well-intentioned actions will fail to produce optimally effective results. Or, as Ikeda states, “Knowing how to apply the knowledge we have acquired—this is where wisdom comes in.” (210) And even more strongly, he contends that without a guiding philosophy aimed at human happiness, “the most advanced knowledge will not only be useless, it will be dangerous.” (151)

The key aspect of wisdom for Ikeda is located in properly understanding the principles defining relationship in our world. This has a number of dimensions, all of which are premised on the insights that we exist within “a web of relationality in which nothing can be disassociated from anything else.” (213) In Buddhism, this is called dependent origination, which corresponds in Western thought to the concept of interdependence, and which, as Goulah notes in his foreword to the volume, forms the basis in Ikeda’s philosophy for the pursuit of kyosei, or creative coexistence. (xvi) Crucially, the scope of this pursuit is unlimited. Commenting that everything is interrelated in one great “totality,” Ikeda states that:

We cannot overlook the connection between the physical and the spiritual. Modern depth psychology and ecology show that interrelations expand infinitely to connect human beings with one another, with the world of nature, and with the entire universe. Inseparably bound, the microcosm and macrocosm work together in wondrous rhythm. (88)

In terms of curriculum and the components of teaching and learning, Ikeda says we must resist the lure of too much fragmentation in studies. The “departmentalization of learning” has reaped great benefits, he says, but it “must not exist for its own sake.” (89) Ultimately, this notion of interrelation will be a core aspect of each person’s awareness as they go out in world, pursuing their own unique human education.

In addition to its implications for how we perceive and practice education, the fact of interrelationship has profound ethical implications. Fundamentally, says Ikeda, we should strenuously resist the urge to dichotomize our relationship with others and our perception of the world: us and them, good and bad, or any other contrasting pairs that divide us. This only serves to distract us from the ways we are joined together both in our desire for happiness and peace of mind and in how all of us must face the “four sufferings” of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Worst of all, says Ikeda, is when we project our own shadow of unacknowledged fears and shortcomings and the like onto groups of people other than our own. In a striking phrase, Ikeda comments on the phenomenon of projection saying that “the failure to reconcile oneself with the opposing other is the basis of fanatical ideologies,” (34) that is, ideologies of the type that wrought so much destruction during the 20th century. Wise education, then, avoids the blaming impulse and will seek the most effective means of being harmoniously and creatively in relation with one another.

In Buddhism, this pursuit is often described as the Middle Way, which Ikeda invokes in many contexts throughout The Light of Learning. Perhaps the most crucial one for educators concerned with matters of social justice, ethics, and action is the path “devoted neither to individualism dictated by a myopic worldview that ignores the welfare of others nor the fallacious dictates of totalitarianism that divests the individual of his identity.” (239) Current trends in American education frequently lean toward identifying individualism as the source of our woes, and there can be some truth there, if partial. But as we have seen, for Ikeda, the integrity of the individual is the foundation for collective wellbeing. Specifically, he insists that “people should develop their own unique capacities as they work to build a world of cooperation where all people acknowledge both their differences and their fundamental equality.” (206) A related key element of the Middle Way also addressed by Ikeda is that, on the one hand, we should reject the loss of agency that comes from being “swept along … by force of habit” in a too-predictable world or “by the whims of destiny” in a capriciously changing one. (136) Ultimately, the Middle Way is not a matter of always splitting the difference, but being able to hold two truths in one’s mind simultaneously, acknowledging that the value of one’s preferred point on the spectrum does not mean there is no value at other points.

The thing about the Middle Way is that it is unique to each individual. A teacher can help students identify biases or lack of balance within their particular modes of thought, but ultimately, says Ikeda, the best thing for both the individual and society is to focus on instilling a “thirst for knowledge and love of truth” (123) in students. Note that this does involve a dimension of trust in the fundamental character and intentions of people, at least when they are not under the sway of destructive us-and-them ideologies. Ikeda has written extensively on this in the context of both education and democracy, and makes the convincing point that if we abandon trust in our social relations all that is left is “the logic of force.” (n6) Indeed, in the Light of Learning chapter “The University of the Twenty-first Century,” Ikeda unequivocally states that “genuinely democratic society cannot be realized by authority or force applied from without.” (159) This is a pragmatic stance, since its concern is for what will actually work in the long run. Thus, Ikeda asserts with confidence that social “movements with power result from free, untrammeled thought.” (107)

Free and untrammeled here does not mean the absence of guiding principles. In this spirit, Ikeda asserts that “respect for human life must be the foundation of all education.” (206) He explains why in this definitive statement:

The dignity and uniqueness of life is inherent in individual personalities and the entire human race. Humanity depends on the natural world; when we respect humanity, we must revere and learn from nature. Recognizing the dignity of the individual must result in mutual recognition and respect: recognizing the absolute fundamental dignity of human life brings diverse values to flower by encouraging people everywhere to learn from each other on an equal footing. (206-7)

Proceeding according to principle has the advantage of adaptability to circumstance. Ikeda’s statement isn’t prescriptive, but suggests essential priorities and standards as we make our way in the world, individually and collectively. In so doing, we also avoid the kind of authoritarianism that results from the dismissal of uniquely evolving experience.

Ikeda’s most well-rounded expression of guiding principles, in this case framed as elements or characteristics, is found in his 1996 Teachers College lecture, “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship.” These characteristics are:

  • The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life.
  • The courage not to fear or deny difference but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures and to grow from encounters with them.
  • The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places. (6-7)

Framed in this manner, we have a nice encapsulation of Ikeda’s thinking on how the individual can engage with the world to contribute to the creation and expansion of cultures of peace. Each delineates a key aspect of the healthy relationship of the self and other, of the individual and the collective. And, crucially, each calls for the individual to be an initiator. Interconnection exists, but the individual must learn to recognize it and act in that awareness. Difference exists, but the individual must be unafraid to be open to it and changed by it. Suffering exists, but the individual must make the imaginative effort to see beyond the hardships of oneself and one’s intimate community to recognize suffering in ways not always immediately apparent if our focus never deviates from or expands beyond our own “tribe.”

Conclusion: Human Revolution and Value Creation

One way to understand Ikeda’s principles-based approach to education, personal and social growth, and its core goal of human becoming, is in terms of just two essential manifestations: human revolution and value creation (both of which, it should be mentioned, are facilitated by the core practice of open-hearted, open-minded dialogue). Ikeda’s main expression of the former is simple yet rich in its implications: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a “change in the destiny of all humankind.” Here, insists Ikeda, is the antidote to those inevitable feelings of personal insignificance or powerlessness that we all experience from time to time as we consider the vastness of the world and the number and complexity of the challenges we face. No matter what, we know that the one thing that is within our control perhaps more than any other—that is, making the effort to transform our inner and outer lives in the direction of human becoming for all—will always create more happiness and peace in the world.

Further, if we proceed in accordance with the wisdom that Ikeda has described for us, it will set us on the path of true value creation. Value creation is the concept and methodology delineated by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda in the early 20th century, and even today, a century later, it informs all of Ikeda’s educational endeavors. As Ikeda explains in the chapter “John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi,” Makiguchi “modified the neo-Kantian value system of truth, goodness, and beauty … and reordered it as beauty, benefit (also translated as gain or utility), and good.” (232) Specifically, continues Ikeda, “he defined beauty as that which brings fulfillment to the aesthetic sensibility of the individual; benefit as that which advances the life of the individual in a holistic manner; good as that which contributes to the well-being of the larger human society.” (232)

As the chapter title suggests, this schematic of how the individual might best engage with the world shows how the soka, value-creating tradition profoundly resonates with the Deweyan tradition of pragmatism, especially in the category of benefit. Replacing “truth,” it does not mean to suggest that truth does not exist, but rather that too often we have encased it in glass and put it on a shelf. The category of benefit, like the other categories of value, asks us to unceasingly evaluate our beliefs and our actions in light of what we learn from experience. Does the logic, obviousness, or nobleness—the truth as we perceive it—of our plan sometimes obscure the reality of what is actually occurring as the result of what we are doing as teacher, as citizen, as friend, as parent, as human being, as actor in this world? To bring clarity to this crucial point, Ikeda continues his discussion of value creation by clarifying that “the fundamental criterion for value, in Makiguchi’s view, is whether something adds to or detracts from, advances or hinders, the human condition.” (233)

This still leaves us, of course, with the matter of how to judge when and where something is adding or detracting in this regard. As we have discussed here, there is no single or fixed answer to this. But this does not mean there are no answers. Indeed, the entirety of The Light of Learning is Daisaku Ikeda’s attempt to help everyone concerned with growth and education find the right answer, time and again, as we proceed in the flux of life. Moreover, everything that Daisaku Ikeda has done and written and proposed deals with this criterion in one form or the other, and is designed to help us increase the benefit of our actions, consistently and continuously. But I could say the same, I suspect, of anyone reading this essay. The totality of your knowledge and experience working to help young people and society grow in tandem will tell you a lot of what you need to know in a given situation. But it won’t tell you everything you need to know. You still need one more piece, a barometer to make sure you are getting it right and aren’t getting lost in your head: that “lovely child on your knee” that Makiguchi spoke of, and what it would mean for them to live a life of happiness.


All citations are from The Light of Learning: Selected Writings on Education by Daisaku Ikeda, and are indicated with a page number, except where otherwise noted.


1. Soka Education: A Buddhist Vision for Teachers, Students and Parents, by Daisaku Ikeda, was originally published in 2001, with a foreword by Victor Kazanjian. A revised edition was published in 2010 under the title Soka Education: For the Happiness of the Individual. The Light of Learning: Selected Essays on Education, published by Middleway Press in 2021, features 6 new pieces, a revised translation, and a new foreword by Jason Goulah of DePaul University.

2. See America Will Be! Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy by Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2013), p. xviii.

3. It’s important to note that The Light of Learning is largely focused on the ideals and principles of human education in the broadest and most inclusive sense. Thus, while it does consider matters of schooling, it does not directly address pedagogy in the context of disciplines. Nevertheless, we should understand that, for Ikeda, the cause of young people developing their capacities includes both academic and skills-based achievement, intrinsic as these are to the creation of happy, fulfilling lives. 

4. This quote from The System of Value-Creating Pedagogy is translated from Makiguchi Tsunesaburo Zenshu [The Complete Works of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi], vol. 4 (Tokyo: Daisanbunmei-sha, 1981), pp. 397-98

5. In his writings, Nichiren Daishonin uses the metaphor of different flowering trees—cherry, plum, peach and damson plum—as an illustration to explain the principle that all life, in fact every individual, has their own unique characteristics and mission. Specifically, each of these flowering fruit trees endures the harsh cold of winter and then in the spring, blossom in their own, unique way, displaying beautiful flowers.

6. See Living As Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century by Jim Garrison, Larry Hickman, and Daisaku Ikeda (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press, 2014), p. 191.