Jim Garrison

What Makes Soka Humanism Unique?

Daisaku Ikeda often characterizes Soka education as humanist education. Almost as often what he means by “humanism” is entirely misunderstood. In large part this is due to the “anti-humanist” critiques of Western metaphysics first developed in the late nineteenth century by Friedrich Nietzsche among others, which maintain that the ideas of anything or anyone having a fixed and final essence or substance, an unchanging foundation, or some ultimate purpose or telos was profoundly mistaken.

In the twentieth century, anti-humanism has been refined and extended by such thinkers as Sigmund Freud, structuralists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, as well as post-structuralists and post-modernists such as Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Other prominent anti-humanists include Martin Heidegger and Louis Althusser, who coined the term “anti-humanism.”

The historically most influential candidate for a human essence has been “rationality.” In education, this idea implies that “rationality” is the foundation and aim of all education.

Practitioners of soka philosophy and education are regularly rebuffed by the charge of “humanism” and simply dismissed from contemporary intellectual conversations as hopelessly backwards and reactionary. This is extremely ironical since Nichiren Buddhism, or any other form of Buddhism for that matter, shares very little with the Western metaphysics decried by the anti-humanists. The fundamental Buddhist principles of dependent co-origination (pratityasamutpada), emptiness or nonsubstantiality (sunyata), and the impermanence of all things (anicca) dispel any ideas of a fixed and final essence, fundamental foundation, or ultimate telos.

What Ikeda retains from traditional humanism is the ideal of intrinsic human worth and the value of human agency. He adds the ideal that the exercise of human agency should make the world better for all beings and not just human beings, since, after all, we are all interdependent. This successfully addresses the other main charge against humanists, which is that they are merely anthropocentric. Those that undergo what Ikeda calls a human revolution—which is a mode of inner transformation in which individuals actualize their unique Buddha nature by aligning the desires of the “lesser self” with the “greater self” of the universe—manifest a "humanism" almost unimaginable to the Western mind, especially the secular humanist.

Soka Gakkai literally means value-creating society. In such a society, every individual human being seeks to continuously create new value that brings benefit to one’s self while imparting good to the larger community, including not only human beings, but also all sentient beings and, indeed, the universe itself. In the process, individuals co-create themselves in the company of many others. Our “humanity” is created not found. In accordance with the principles of dependent co-origination, emptiness, and impermanence, value creation is not only an endless task, but also an endless joy.

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Jim Garrison is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia where he also holds appointments in the department of philosophy, as well as the science, technology, and society program and the alliance for social, political, ethical, and cultural thought. He is a Chancellors Visiting Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden for 2014-2018. His work concentrates on philosophical pragmatism, especially that of John Dewey.


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