Education & Philosophy, Hope

Seeing and Cultivating: The Way of Hope and Joy

This essay by the Center’s Mitch Bogen presents the most essential ideas and themes that emerged from his analysis of Hope and Joy in Education: Engaging Daisaku Ikeda Across Curriculum and Context, edited by Isabel Nunez and Jason Goulah and published by Teachers College Press in 2021.

As someone who had the privilege of contributing to the development of Hope and Joy in Education: Engaging Daisaku Ikeda Across Curriculum and Context, I can say that for me, and I think for all of us involved, one of the most gratifying aspects of our new book was the enthusiastic response from chapter authors to our invitation. We were deeply impressed by the sheer number of accomplished education scholars who were eager to contribute by placing their own pedagogy and practice into dialogue with Ikeda’s vision and legacy of human education. In addition to contributions by the editors Isabel Nuñez and Jason Goulah, the book features an astounding 21 authors representing key, diverse disciplines within the education field, from curriculum theory to social-emotional learning to critical race feminism to studies in value-creating education and more.

To have so many voices gathered into one volume is a real gift, one that promises to enhance our understanding of how best to promote hope and joy in our schools and learning environments, both during this time of unprecedented challenges and in the years to come. With that in mind, I recently undertook a review of the entire book with an eye toward identifying cross-cutting themes on the nurturing of hope and joy that emerge from the unique constellation of perspectives that constitute this volume.

Of the many insights I encountered during my review, two above all asserted themselves: (1) that the fostering of hope and joy in the classroom requires a certain perspective of us, the ability—indeed, the choice—to see the world as full of possibility; and, (2) the promotion of hope and joy in classrooms requires careful attention to creating and cultivating the conditions in which these might arise. As with all categories and classifications the boundaries between these themes are porous and their animating principles are interconnected. But by using this analytical lens we can begin to grasp the rich potential of seeing and cultivating in fostering hope and joy in education.

New and Necessary Ways of Seeing

Nowhere is the necessary act of seeing more vivid than in Isabel Nuñez’s opening chapter, which features as its centerpiece the Lotus Sutra parable of the “too long chopsticks.” In this parable, writes Nuñez:

Hell is described as a place where everyone has a sumptuous feast before them, but no one can eat because the chopsticks are longer than their arms. Buddhahood, on the other hand, manifests when everyone faces the same circumstances, but now with everyone taking turns feeding one another.

What we discover here, says Nuñez, is a scenario in which individuals can simultaneously perceive possibility and claim their agency in making it happen. In her own supervision of the education faculty at her university, she always asks, when discussing their projects, whether it will bring them happiness or joy. If not, she helps them to see how it can and to rethink or restructure their project so it will.

At the heart of this vision of hope and joy in education is vigilance in challenging what is known as the deficit mindset. This mindset can take many forms, including what Inukai and Okamura describe in their chapter as seeing students as problems to be managed instead of as individuals with whom the teacher is engaged in mutual learning. Inukai illustrates with a vignette in which a “difficult” student in her elementary grades calligraphy class was always making a mess with the ink, and simply wouldn’t stop. When she finally sat down with him, it turned out that he just really enjoyed getting messy. The solution? She put the boy in charge of clean-up, and he quickly became a happy, contributing member of the class.

Today, challenges to the deficit mindset frequently are expressed most forcefully by educators working in dis/abilities contexts. In his contribution, Chris Hall, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a K-12 special education teacher engaged with students on the autism spectrum, works from the assumption that “every struggle in the classroom is a result of the learning environment, not the learner.” He goes on to say that “by first assuming an individual is competent and capable of learning we begin to see them through a positive light” and thus become able to, in Daisaku Ikeda’s words, “discover in each [student] a unique, irreplaceable humanity.” There is no greater source of hope and joy than this, he says. Sandra Vanderbilt also challenges the deficit model head on in her portrait of her high school student, Kyle, who suffered from spina bifida, and who died young. Without ever glossing over Kyle’s suffering, Vanderbilt reveals how Kyle’s courage and compassion for others filled her and others with hope and joy of the deepest sort. Jason Goulah’s volume-ending chapter deals directly with death, the most universal challenge to the deficit mindset. He does this specifically in the context of ningen kyōiku, or “human education”—for Goulah, one of the most central of Ikeda’s Buddhist-derived teachings. For Ikeda, says Goulah, as we learn how to become fully human, we will learn to embrace death with the same joy and vitality we bring to life, since the two are ultimately inseparable.

At the heart of this vision of hope and joy in education is vigilance in challenging what is known as the deficit mindset.

Mitch Bogen

The deficit mindset can also be challenged in the ways that course content is engaged with. A number of the authors, including Kunimoto, Zakharia, Krueger-Henney, and Chowdhury, explore notions relating to what histories we teach and how we teach them. The core idea is that we can’t have genuine hope for the future nor real joy in our achievements if we aren’t honest about how we have arrived at our current situation—socially, culturally, economically. This means a couple key things. First, while we have an obligation to teach about past or present injustice, we must always teach successful movements of social change, so that students aren’t left feeling unempowered, which is as bad as being hopeless. However, there is also intrinsic value in teaching that our histories have always been contested. This fact in itself is critical, even more so than trying to determine a “correct” narrative. To know that things are always in flux is a key source of hope. If the past is still unwritten, the future is too.

The last main theme I identified in this category has to do with teachers and students alike developing an enriching view of life itself, especially by learning to perceive our interconnectedness and our interdependence. Ritsuko Rita explores this concept by analyzing and celebrating Daisaku Ikeda’s concept of the poetic mind or spirit. Here is a passage she cites from Ikeda illuminating the concept for us.

The poetic mind is the source of human imagination and creativity. It imparts hope to our life[,] … gives us dreams, and infuses us with courage; it makes possible harmony and unity and gives us the power … to transform our inner world from utter desolation to richness and creativity.

The world is a wondrous place if we can only see it. And what we need to see, first of all, is the interconnection of all life. Interconnection is a fact, but it is the poetic orientation to life that helps us perceive it. This is not mere aesthetics; it is both a source of joy and the foundation of the compassion and concern for all of life that undergirds all our peace building efforts, a truth Rita illustrates with her depiction of a peace education field trip she led in Hiroshima.

John Lupinacci explores the related concept of interdependence in his chapter. Specifically, he does so in the context of what ecocritical theorists call hierarchical dualisms. What this means is that most of us unconsciously support or enact a set of characteristics that tend either toward a dominance attitude toward life or, less overtly, dismiss qualities that dominance-oriented societies tend to undervalue, e.g., female vs. male, body vs. mind, etc. Lupinacci shares how, ironically, in his own high school teaching as a self-identified “peace educator” he unconsciously favored the loud and extroverted, thus excluding introverted students and creating an unbalanced classroom culture. To conclude, Lupinacci stresses that ecocritical educators should, above all, liberate dependency from its position as always subordinate to independence. Recognizing our mutual dependence will spark the deepest joy of all, one flowing from awareness that all life is a form of community. And in this there is hope, knowing we are on the path of true sustainability and value creation.

Cultivating the Conditions

The other main factor in creating classrooms of hope and joy is to carefully cultivate the conditions for these qualities to flourish. Of course, helping students to see possibilities and creative potential is itself an act of cultivation, but there are many other instances appearing throughout the book that deserve independent consideration.

In her moving foreword to the volume, Cynthia Dillard centers her discussion on Ikeda’s insistence on the cultivation of a “teacher and taught” approach to life in which every person is on some occasions a teacher and on others the one being taught. There is strong resonance here with Inukai and Okamura’s call for educators to stop seeing students as problems to be managed but rather partners in learning. Dillard goes on to say that living this perspective has “breathed a new hope and joy into the work of teaching and learning for me.”

Huckaby also argues that finding ways to place ourselves on equal footing with others is prerequisite for hope and joy. She does so by examining Ikeda’s understanding of the concept of kōsei. “This Japanese term,” writes Huckaby, “expresses … a spirit of fairness, equality, impartiality, and justice.” She clarifies, however, “kōsei is not preexisting, a priori. Thus Ikeda’s advocacy for kōsei is attentiveness to its cultivation and a handing down through history.” To illustrate, she cited Ikeda’s address to the University of the Philippines in 1991, in which he offered his “profound apologies” for the “atrocities committed by the Imperial Army and Navy” upon the Filipino people, though he was only a small child when they happened, and in no way responsible. All of us as educators and people would do well to emulate Ikeda’s example of being proactive in creating the conditions in which we no longer accept “progress” that has been “attained through harm.”

For Ikeda, the practice of dialogue is the peacebuilding activity par excellence, and a deep source of hope and joy. This is a conviction shared not only by value-creating educators but also educators of all kinds who know how dialogue can both build subject matter comprehension as well as cultures of peace. They also know that dialogue is a practice that requires certain conditions to succeed. In her chapter, Melissa Bradford explains how she creates “value-creating dialogue” in educational leadership courses. Her core practice is to carefully scaffold dialogue, first in terms of building from easier to more difficult topics, and second, by expanding outward from dialogue within oneself to dialogue with another to, finally, organization-wide dialogue. Such careful planning is actually how joyous dialogue happens.

Other authors also address the factors that go into the facilitation of successful dialogue. For Deborah Donahue-Keegan, there are two essential practices that make difficult classroom dialogues more likely to succeed, especially those focused on issues related to race and justice. The first is conscious work done from the start of a semester on building a trusting and supportive classroom community. She writes: “Building relational trust is foundational to establishing psychological safety, which is an essential prerequisite for authentic sharing, learning, and development within groups.” A key practice in this regard is to lead the class early in the semester in “an iterative process of establishing community learning agreements.” Her other core practice is to lead the class in mindfulness meditation in the form of what she calls Time for Pause, 3–5 minutes of silence that opens every class period. This helps students be less reactive and to have the “social-emotional stamina” to stay present during the most difficult of conversations. Without such preparation, dialogues around various hot button topics are much more likely to fail.

A third approach to creating the conditions for hope and joy is outlined in my chapter on how the Ikeda Center promotes what Ikeda calls the “greater self” across all its programs. For Ikeda, the greater self is inherent in each of us, without exception. This means many things, but I will highlight two in particular. The first is that on levels both deeper and greater than our surface identities we have the ability to truly connect with others. The other is that acting from the place of the greater self reveals that “if we dig deep enough within the great earth of each person’s life, we find flowing there the same underground channels of empathy and compassion.” Guided by these assumptions, all Ikeda Center events and activities immediately seek to establish a tone of interpersonal openness and warmth, so that the participants will be able to meet on these most meaningful of levels. True hope and joy inevitably emerge from the meeting of open hearts and minds.

Anita Patterson highlights another way of fostering the joyful meeting of hearts and minds with her chapter on how engagement with literature facilitates intercultural dialogue. Literature is especially valuable in this regard because of the thoughtfulness and complexity that accomplished authors are able to express in their prose. She illustrates by revealing shared themes in the works of figures as disparate as Daisaku Ikeda, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose The Souls of Black Folks was written, said DuBois, explicitly so that “the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.” Chowdhury also details how regular engagement with literature can help students develop authentic hope when struggling with large challenges such as endeavors to respect and expand human rights. Works such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, says Chowdhury, enable us to grasp the dignity and complexity of the lives of those who too easily become abstractions when discussed only in terms of policy or philosophy. Further, any writer manifesting the poetic spirit, she quotes Ikeda as saying, will enable us to see “one step deeper, one step higher,” thus enabling us to grasp both our individuality and our unity as human beings.

Conclusion: Human Education

Before moving to concluding thoughts, I would like to acknowledge the chapter contributors not included in my brief survey. Naturally, all of them did deal with matters of vision and cultivation, but perhaps in ways that didn’t fit so neatly into the schematic as I devised it. I think of Berry’s invocation of the West African symbol of the Sankofa bird, showing us how to look back and carry forward simultaneously. I think of Gershon’s meditation on how poetry can help us express hope even as we sit with ambiguity and despair. I think of how McQueen Baker learned from her readings of Ikeda to embrace a sense of incompleteness as she grappled with her privilege amidst her quest to find a place in education. I think of Mattheis explaining how she helps her students see themselves as part of the wider Los Angeles community. And I think, too, of how Ohlinger urges attention to inner “becoming” as we resist the growing de-personalization of schooling.

All of these can be seen as dimensions of ningen kyōiku, a term which Jason Goulah spotlights both in his chapter on death and in his introduction to the volume as capturing the essence of Ikeda’s philosophy of truly human education. At the heart of Ikeda’s vision is the conviction that the inner development of the individual (as Ohlinger also suggested) is essential to education and also that, ultimately, this development is not subject to external forces—which is not to say that there may not be external forces that are severely challenging. For Ikeda, the resolve of the individual is what sets everything in motion. In fact, writes Ikeda, “the moment we make a powerful resolve, every nerve and fiber in our being will immediately orient toward our success.” Further:

Hope is a flame that we nurture within our hearts. It may be sparked by someone else—by the encouraging words of a friend, relative, or mentor—but it must be fanned and kept burning through our own determination. Most crucial is our determination to continue to believe in the limitless dignity and possibilities of both ourselves and others.

Here we get to the heart of the task of educators concerned with hope and joy: to do everything in our power to help students to internalize hope and joy, to claim them as their own. Certainly, all of the instances of seeing and nurturing we have explored here can have personally transforming effects for students, as our authors have attested. On a fundamental level, however, the most effective way teachers can reach the inner life of the student is through their own modeling of their core values and commitments, including hope and joy. As Nuñez states in her conclusion, “it will not come as a surprise to any experienced teacher that the part they play in their students’ lives is not limited to imparting academic knowledge and skills.” So much of what sticks with students emanates naturally from the person of the teacher.

The key is the word naturally. As we know, it doesn’t do any good to force good cheer. And it is this point that Nuñez grapples with in her conclusion to the volume, which was written toward the end of the tumultuous and in many ways discouraging year of 2020, though the project had started and the chapters mostly written in 2019, before George Floyd, before COVID-19, before the cataclysmic election. How, she wondered, could she maintain the hope and joy that had always been the bedrock of her work? First of all, by not denying the despair. Here, she cites Cornel West’s “blues” version of hope, in which, writes West, “some despair … is a sign of how deeply we care.” It is the special magic of the blues to be able to transform pain and despair into joyous celebrations of shared community and resilience.

Maybe, suggests Nuñez, the Buddhist version of the blues is the teaching of “turning poison into medicine,” the theme she works with to conclude the book. She quotes two passages from Ikeda that provide the core reasoning of the concept. First, “there is really no clear-cut dividing line between poison and medicine. The same substance can act as either a poison or a medicine, depending on the dosage and the life force of the individual who takes it.” Crucially, says Nuñez, for Ikeda the same holds true for life itself. “There is no clear difference,” writes Ikeda, “between what will function as poison or medicine when it comes to victory and defeat in life.” The more we live this conviction, the more we choose to enact this alchemy, the more we can model it for students. If we follow the way described by Ikeda and expressed by all the authors of the volume, writes Nuñez, we “can illuminate a hopeful path toward joy not just in spite of present circumstances, but because of the opportunities for growth and change these crises enable.”