Education & Philosophy

Steven Rockeller on Buddhist Humanism and Spiritual Democracy

These remarks served as the opening lecture at the 6th Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. Held November 14, 2009, the forum was called “John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism.” Dr. Rockefeller is Professor Emeritus, Department of Religion, Middlebury College, and author of John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (1991). During the 1990s he coordinated the drafting of the Earth Charter.

Steven Rockefeller Lecture

This morning we are entering an East-West dialogue between the American philosopher of the democratic way of life, John Dewey, and Japan’s Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda. Both thinkers have endeavored to develop a philosophical vision that addresses the fundamental challenges presented by life in the modern world. At the deepest level these challenges are spiritual and ethical in nature, and the best way to bring Dewey and Ikeda into conversation is to explore their thinking on religion, spirituality, and the ethical ideal.

To get the dialogue started, I would like to outline some of the major themes in the religious and ethical thought of Dewey and Ikeda, define some terms, and note some striking similarities and important differences. The title that the Ikeda Center has given our dialogue recognizes that “the quest for a new humanism” is fundamental to the thought of both Dewey and Ikeda. It is instructive, therefore, to begin by clarifying what they mean by humanism.

1. Defining Humanism

There is agreement between Dewey and Ikeda on the general meaning of the term humanism as they use it. First of all, their humanism is founded on a deep respect for the dignity and equal worth of each and every woman and man, girl and boy. Second, in their view a humanist is someone who is first and foremost concerned with the problems of people and with human development both individual and social. Third, their brand of humanism involves a basic faith in the possibilities of human nature and the capacity of human beings to deal with the challenges of life.

As a humanist, Dewey conceptualizes the big general problem for philosophy as the relation between the ideal and the real. He regards meaningful ideals as real possibilities, and he is primarily interested in practical, not theoretical, solutions to the problem of unifying the ideal and the real. As a Buddhist, Ikeda emphasizes identifying the root causes of human suffering and helping people find the pathway to happiness understood as the sense of well-being and fulfillment that comes with realization of the human potential.

It is important to be clear that humanism does not mean for Dewey and Ikeda a narrow anthropocentrism. They both recognize that humanity is an interdependent member of the greater community of life and the larger universe, and they both support the principle of respect for nature.

In this regard, Dewey describes his mature philosophy as a form of naturalism, and he identifies himself as a naturalistic humanist. As a philosophical naturalist, he relies on experience and the scientific method as the sole authority in matters of knowledge. Even though Ikeda does not identify himself as a philosophical naturalist, he fully respects the scientific method of knowledge and there is much in his Buddhist worldview that is in accord with Dewey’s naturalistic worldview. For example, they appear to agree on the following. There is one world, the natural universe. Change, process, is a basic characteristic of everything in the universe and of the universe as a whole. We live in an evolving universe. Every being possesses unique individuality, but its existence, development and well-being are dependent upon its interrelationship with other beings.

As a naturalist, Dewey rejects supernaturalism. Neither he nor Ikeda can find convincing evidence for belief in a creator God who transcends the universe and who periodically intervenes in nature and history. They both, therefore, reject Biblical theism and deism. At the same time, they both reject the mechanistic materialism that is often associated with science. In this regard, Ikeda asserts that the entire universe and everything in it is alive. “The universe is life itself,” he states. (1) “Buddhism,” he explains, “interprets all of nature — in fact, all of the universe — as one great life force.” (2) While Dewey does not put it this way, he would find more truth in Ikeda’s view than explanations of the universe that reduce it to dead matter in motion.

Ikeda and Dewey both appear to agree that in some real sense the changing universe is unfinished, the struggle between good and evil is real, and human freedom, intelligence, ethical vision and cooperative action can make a critical difference in the course of events.

2. Humanism and Religion

Even though Dewey and Ikeda reject theism and the supernaturalism associated with it, they do not embrace a secular humanism that involves a despairing or defiant atheism. They seek a middle way between these poles, identifying themselves as religious humanists.

Dewey arrived at his religious humanism in and through a radical, liberal, reconstruction of the meaning of Christianity. He was raised in the Congregational Church. At the beginning of his career as a philosopher in the 1880s, he was much concerned to reconcile Christianity with science and modern culture. His reflections led him to the conclusion that the core of the Christian tradition is to be found in its ethical humanism and that union with the divine is found in and through right relationship. More specifically, he identifies Christian ethical humanism in modern America with democracy, which he understands as most fundamentally a great ethical ideal that promotes individual freedom and community. In other words, Dewey views democracy first and foremost as a personal way of individual life and a form of moral and spiritual association. (3) At age thirty-five Dewey left the Christian Church in the belief that the true sacred community is the larger, inclusive democratic community. He lost interest in organized religion, but he remained keenly interested in the religious dimension of experience.

Unlike Dewey, Ikeda chose to remain involved in the world of organized religion. In 1960 he became the president of the Soka Gakkai, a new religious organization with roots in the Nichiren tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese monk, based his teachings primarily on the Lotus Sutra. However, just as Dewey identified the true essence of Christianity with an ethical and spiritual democratic humanism, so Ikeda describes the Lotus Sutra, which Nichiren revered as the supreme teaching of the Buddha, as a declaration of “Buddhist Humanism.” (4) Buddhism is concerned with the revitalization and welfare of humanity explains Ikeda in his 1993 Harvard University lecture. (5) Among the values that he associates with contemporary Buddhist humanism are respect for human rights, education, independence of mind, self-mastery, compassion, non-violence, dialogue, human solidarity, and global citizenship. Reflecting his own democratic values, Ikeda writes: “Religion must be for the people. People do not exist for the sake of religion.” (6)

They reject all forms of religious authoritarianism, dogmatism, and exclusivism without lapsing into a self-centered individualism and a subjective moral relativism.

Steven Rockefeller

As religious humanists who chart a middle way between theism and a materialistic secularism, Dewey and Ikeda agree that what is of vital importance is realizing the ideal possibilities of human existence, not religion, as an end in itself. They reject all forms of religious authoritarianism, dogmatism, and exclusivism without lapsing into a self-centered individualism and a subjective moral relativism. They are concerned to break down the dualism of the sacred and the secular, the religious life and every day life. They both endeavor to awaken people to the inherent meaning and value and the opportunities for spiritual growth to be found in the normal flow of life itself.

3. Religious Experience and the Ethical Ideal

At this juncture it is useful to further clarify the philosophy of religious experience that one finds in the writings of Dewey and Ikeda. There are three interrelated dimensions to the process of human growth and self-realization as Dewey understands it. First, it involves unification of self, integration of personality. Second, it involves finding our proper niche in the social matrix of which we are a part and achieving a well-developed social adjustment. Third, it involves coming to terms with the conditions of existence that all human beings face, including injustice, tragedy and death. Dewey asserts that with unification of self and of self and universe a person often finds that a deep, enduring adjustment in life possesses and transforms the self, bringing with it a sense of wholeness, belonging to the universe, and inner peace and a sense of the meaning and value of life that can carry a person through times of adversity and loss. (7)

In his Ethics (1932), Dewey calls such a deep, enduring adjustment “the final happiness.” (8) In A Common Faith (1934) he refers to “the religious quality of experience.” (9) It is his argument that even though participation in an institutional religion may help some people achieve a deep adjustment of self and world, there is no necessary connection between the religious quality of experience and institutional religion. It is an entirely natural phenomenon. However, he is careful to note that it comes as a gift — natural grace, if you will — and it cannot be realized by aiming at it. The religious quality of experience is a spontaneous by-product of losing oneself in a life of caring, participating, relating, creating, giving, sharing, and loving — each person in his or her own unique and distinctive way. The emphasis here is on being more, not having more. Dewey’s point is that people from all walks of life who are deeply engaged in their work and world — ordinary citizens, teachers, artists, scientists, philanthropists and many others — have experienced what he describes as “a fulfillment that reaches to the depth of our being — one that is an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence.” (10)

Dewey emphasizes the role that a wholehearted moral faith in an inclusive, unified vision of the ideal can play in this regard. The vision of the democratic ideal took hold of Dewey in a profound way, and his faith in the democratic ideal was the primary source of unification of self and of self and world in his own life experience. It is also noteworthy that his democratic faith puts special emphasis on progressive education, intellectual autonomy, free and open communication, wide sympathy, tolerance, non-violent conflict resolution, and intelligence guided by experimental inquiry. In addition, he found that philosophical reflection, certain passages of poetry, aesthetic experience, piety toward nature, and mystical intuitions all deepened his own enduring sense of wholeness, belonging to the universe and inner peace. A guiding moral faith that possesses a person’s heart, engaging his or her whole self and generating a religious quality of experience, can be called a religious faith asserts Dewey. (11)

Dewey’s thought takes another critical step in A Common Faith. He asserts that at the core of all the great religious traditions is faith in a vision of the ethical ideals that a community holds sacred. Historically societies have projected their ethical ideals onto a god or supernatural realm for safekeeping and sanction. However, Dewey finds that the ethical ideals celebrated in the world’s religions are in actuality idealizations of values characteristic of natural human relations. From the perspective of this naturalistic and humanistic interpretation of religion, a faith in the ethical ideal is the common faith of humankind. Visions of the ethical ideal have varied, of course, and these visions evolve. Dewey urges all religions and peoples to recognize humanity’s common faith and to cooperate in developing a global common faith through dialogue. (12) The goal is a shared, unified, inclusive vision of the ethical ideal that will promote cooperation and development of a just, democratic, and peaceful global community that respects nature.

In his 1993 Harvard lecture, Ikeda expresses his appreciation of Dewey’s conception of the religious quality of experience, but when explaining his own understanding of the religious dimension of experience he uses a Buddhist conceptual framework. Every person is a Buddha declares Ikeda. However, blinded by ignorance and the desires of the ego human beings are unaware of this truth about their own nature. As a consequence life and death are experienced as suffering, and all the efforts of the ego to escape suffering are doomed to fail. Nevertheless, an awakening to their Buddha nature can liberate people from suffering and lead to the building of a better world. Awakening involves the experiential insight and wisdom that flow from a transformation of a person’s whole being and a realization of what Ikeda calls “the greater, cosmic self.” (13)

What more specifically does Ikeda mean when he refers to our Buddha nature? Sharing an insight from his teacher, Josei Toda, he explains that “the Buddha is life itself.” (14) We are part of a universe that is alive. The universe is “one great life force.” The universal life force is present in all things. To assert that every person is a Buddha, then, is to declare that “we are all embodiments of this sublime entity” which is cosmic life, states Ikeda. Each person is an individualized expression of the universal life force. Through faith and spiritual practice it is possible for human beings to become fully conscious of their Buddha nature, which Ikeda variously describes as the greater self, the cosmic self, or the universal self. Enlightenment awakens a person to the truth that he or she “is an integral part of the universal self.” (15)

Ikeda further explains that we inhabit a sacred universe. The universal life force is sacred. Religious experience involves awakening to the sacredness of life in oneself and in the surrounding world. In the Nichiren Buddhist tradition the universal life force is identified as the Mystic Law, the ultimate law of life and the universe. Ikeda states that the Mystic Law “is too vast to be grasped fully by the human mind.” (16) However, the Mystic Law becomes manifest in human beings with the development of reverence for life, compassion for the suffering of all beings, and self-giving love. From the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism, ultimate reality is not a transcendent God; it is the universal life force, the Mystic Law, immanent in all things. When the teachings of the Buddha generate faith in the Mystic Law and human beings awaken to their cosmic self and are grasped by the sacredness of all life, they unlock the compassion and love in their own hearts. The Law of reverence for life is not something externally imposed on people. It is the Law of their true nature. (17)

Ikeda states that it is the task of religion to help people master the desires of their lesser self, awaken to the life force deep within themselves, and fuse their own life with the universal life force. Enlightenment and self-mastery are not something that can be accomplished once and for all. They require continuous self-renewal through self-reflection and a willingness to respond to the challenges of life with one’s whole being. “The greater self of Mahayana Buddhism,” he explains, “is another way of expressing the openness and expansiveness of character that embraces the sufferings of all people as one’s own. This self always seeks ways of alleviating the pain and augmenting the happiness of others, here, amid the realities of every day life.” (18) From Ikeda’s perspective, here lies the path to what Dewey calls a deep enduring adjustment that brings with it abiding joy and inner peace.

In addition, Ikeda argues that “individual enlightenment is the indispensable means of social reform.” (19) If the wars, revolutions and tragedies of the 20th century have taught us anything, he argues, “it is the folly of believing that reform of external factors, such as social systems, is the lynchpin to achieving happiness.” Ikeda stresses the urgent need to foster “inwardly-directed change.” (20) Dewey emphasizes reconstructing institutions and the social environment in which people live and work, beginning with the schools. Ikeda also recognizes the importance of changing the social environment and he has been a leader in such initiatives, and Dewey knew that in the final analysis a healthy democratic society depends on the ethical faith and quality of character of its individual citizens. Finally, Ikeda argues like Dewey that religion in the 21st century should rise above tribalism and nationalism, respect cultural diversity, and promote “a global faith” that affirms universal spiritual values and shared ethical values. (21) With these concerns in mind he has been a strong supporter of the United Nations, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, global ethics, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Earth Charter.

A Conclusion and Three Questions

In concluding these reflections on Dewey and Ikeda I would like to note one significant difference and raise a few questions. In his mature philosophical works, Dewey wrote very little about death and toward the end of his career he stated that he did not believe in immortality. Ikeda, on the other hand, highlights the importance of death as a spiritual challenge and affirms his faith in the eternity of life. He declares that the universal life force is eternal, and he embraces the Buddhist view that “death is not so much the cessation of an existence as the beginning of a new one.” (22)

Three questions: How closely related is Dewey’s understanding of the democratic self and Ikeda’s concept of the greater, cosmic self? Does the deep sense of cosmic trust and of the meaning and value of life that pervade Dewey’s thought point to the presence of an eternal dimension of reality along the lines of Ikeda’s Mahayana Buddhism? Do the philosophies of the religious life developed by Dewey and Ikeda reflect the emergence of a promising new religious consciousness that can provide urgently needed spiritual and ethical guidance in the 21st Century?


  1. Daisaku Ikeda, Katsuji Saito, Takanori Endo, and Haruo Suda, The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra: A Discussion (Santa Monica, CA: World Tribune Press, 2000), Vol. I, p. 29.
  2. Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, Choose Life: A Dialogue, edited by Richard L. Gage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 366.
  3. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy – the Task Before Us,” in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, (LW) edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 14:226.
  4. Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, I, p. 10.
  5. A New Humanism; The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda, (New York: Weatherhill, 1996), pp. 157,159.
  6. Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, I, p.10.
  7. John Dewey, A Common Faith in LW 9:12-14; See also Steven Rockefeller, John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 467-476, 491-512.
  8. John Dewey, Ethics in LW 7:302.
  9. A Common Faith in LW 9: 3-14.
  10. John Dewey, Art as Experience in LW 10:23.
  11. A Common Faith in LW 9:15-23. Toward the end of his career in A Common Faith, Dewey created both confusion and controversy by asserting that he would not object if a person chose to identify the vision of the ideal and all the forces in nature and society that support realization of this vision as God or the divine. However, he is very clear that the divine so conceived is an entirely natural reality and is not in any sense a being. Rockefeller, John Dewey, pp. 476-480, 491-512.
  12. A Common Faith in LW 9:28-29,47-49,57-58; Rockefeller, John Dewey, pp. 480-482.
  13. A New Humanism, p. 161.
  14. Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, I, pp. 22, 27-28.
  15. Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, I, 28-30,34. Choose Life, pp. 338-340.
  16. Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, II, p. 58.
  17. Choose Life, pp. 339,360,365-366.
  18. A New Humanism, p 161.
  19. Choose Life, p.338.
  20. A New Humanism, p 153.
  21. Ibid, p.155.
  22. Daisaku Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death (Santa Monica, CA: Middleway Press, 2003), p. 79