Education & Philosophy

2023 Ikeda Forum Explores Literature's Unique Power

| Mitch Bogen
Paired discussion at 2023 Ikeda Forum

Particpants discuss the books that have most inspired them

What better way to celebrate the Ikeda Center’s 30th anniversary than with a dialogue event devoted to the power of literature both to illuminate humanity and human connection in all its complexity and to inspire creative pathways toward a future of expanded human flourishing? Given founder Daisaku Ikeda’s lifelong devotion to literature as a core aspect of his peacebuilding ethos, the focus on literature felt more than apt. Held on September 16, just a little over a week before the Center’s official anniversary date of September 24, the Nineteenth Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue featured eight scholar-panelists sharing their experiences and insights on the topic, “Dialogues of the Heart: The Role of Literature in Fostering Inner Transformation and Peace.” 

The participating scholars were: Anita Patterson, Professor of English at Boston University and moderator of the panel discussions; J. Ashley Foster, Associate Professor of 20th & 21st-Century British Literature with Emphasis in Digital Humanities at California State University, Fresno; Jim Garrison, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Tech; Jason Goulah, Professor of Bilingual-Bicultural Education and Director of the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education at DePaul University; Ikea Johnson, Assistant Professor of English at Salve Regina University; Giulia Pellizzato, Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University specializing in post-war Italian literature; Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and co-director of the Walt Whitman archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Sarah Wider, Emerita Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Colgate University. All of the panelists are contributors to the Center’s forthcoming book Dialogues of the Heart: Daisaku Ikeda, Transnationalism, and American Literature. Dr. Patterson is the lead editor on the project.

The Human Spirit Taking Flight: A Message from Daisaku Ikeda

To open, Executive Director Kevin Maher welcomed the more-than-90 attendees and offered thoughts on the Center’s history and mission. To illustrate the latter, he shared a passage from Mr. Ikeda’s message to the Center’s opening ceremony: “The objectives of the Center go beyond the simple pursuit of knowledge. It was established within the context of a vaster human project; to find out the ideas that can bring hope and happiness to people in the coming century, to seek routes to a world of peace and coexistence.” Commenting on the book project that gave rise to the Forum, Maher said he was looking forward to learning from all the authors gathered today, and expressed appreciation for the “stimulating, hope-filled, and joyful experience planning this forum together closely with Dr. Patterson as well as our panelists over the last few months, with many dialogues of the heart.”

The occasion of the Forum was made even more special by a message sent by Mr. Ikeda, specifically composed to commemorate both the Forum and the 30th anniversary. Read aloud by the Center’s Preandra Noel, the message contained thoughts on the spiritual aspects of today’s crisis-filled world as well as reflections on Mr. Ikeda’s faith in literature as a means to unite and empower people. Of the tortured state of our world, he stated that we must do what “the flagbearers of the American Renaissance” called out to for us to do: “To first turn our gaze inward, into the depths of our own lives, in order to give dynamic expression to the inner transformation of oneself. There is no other recourse but to do so.” There, “within the deepest strata of human life,” he explained, “lies what can be described as the ‘universal self,’ an expansive capacity so sublime, so august, as to be without peer.” And it is literature, above all, which enables this “human spirit to take flight,” freed from the reactive hostilities defining our current environment. 

Mr. Ikeda goes on to share how, as a young man, his mentor Josei Toda inspired a love of literature in him along with faith in literature’s capacity to transcend “the ages [and] nation states, race and religion.” Thus inspired,

In the years that followed, as a protégé embracing Mr. Toda’s vision as my own, I set out on a journey across the world in the hope of bringing countries closer together. In doing so, I also sought to draw lessons from the finest literature of each country and share the deep emotions they evoked. For I firmly believe this evocative capacity of literature intimately resonates with the “dialogues of the heart” that nurture an inner transformation of our lives and the spirit of peace. 

Then, citing his 1993 lecture at Harvard University, Mr. Ikeda shared his “abiding belief” that “‘an open dialogue with an open heart’ is the very wellspring of peace,” adding that “it is my sincere hope that this Forum—given its vital purpose—will enable the creative lives of its participants to flourish ever more vigorously, ushering in a new American Renaissance, a new renaissance for our global civilization.” To close, he addressed the attendees, saying, “I thank you all from my heart once again, for your support has been truly indispensable.”

Anita Patterson: Finding Inspiration in Ikeda’s East-West Literary Encounters

After a brief icebreaker in which attendees paired up to discuss the works of literature that inspired them most, panel moderator Anita Patterson offered introductory thoughts on “how Daisaku Ikeda’s exemplary engagement with literature contributes to his global peacebuilding and human rights agenda, thus providing clear instances of literature’s potential to advance the cause of greater human flourishing.” First, she took care to emphasize how Mr. Ikeda came to his convictions, sharing his recollection:

Growing up in Japan during World War II taught me all I will ever need to know about the suffocating realities of a militarism that will not brook free and open discussion. This experience instilled in me the conviction that dialogue is a bastion protecting human dignity against the assaults of violence, an essential force for the creation and expansion of peace.

In a key passage from his poem “Arise the sun of the century,” cited by Patterson, Ikeda spoke of what he referred to in Creating Waldens as the “irreplaceable nourishment” he gained from the authors of the American Renaissance in the dark days following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “Since my youth, years ago, / Emerson and Whitman have been / My constant companions. / We have talked together—a dialogue of the heart.” 

Dr. Anita Patterson speaking at the 2023 Ikeda Forum
Dr. Anita Patterson

Dr. Patterson also discussed aspects of Mr. Ikeda’s work that she has found especially meaningful, including his “reflections on Buddhist resonances” in Emerson’s seminal book-length essay of 1836, Nature, which, in the words of Ikeda, “expressed the oneness of nature and humanity in poetic terms.” Ultimately, said Ikeda, in that book Emerson confirmed the insight of the Buddhist concept of dependent origination “that all phenomena are connected, and none exist independently,” and that “true human happiness is born from expanding our awareness of this integration.” Dr. Patterson said she also appreciated how, in his dialogue with Vincent Harding on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Ikeda once again invoked dependent origination, this time in the context of King’s commitment to the creation of “beloved community.” Crucial for her, as well, is Ikeda’s linking of the bodhisattva’s embodiment of compassion to the participants of the Movement. 

On a more personal level, Dr. Patterson spoke movingly of how her mother experienced the consolations of literature in a way that recalled Ikeda’s own experiences with literature. As a teenager, Patterson’s mother and her family, being Japanese, in 1943 “boarded a bus and were evacuated to an internment camp in Poston Arizona.” Recently, Patterson discovered an essay on T. S. Elliot that her mother composed just months after her internment. “Like Ikeda’s burgeoning friendship and dialogue of the heart with Emerson,” said Patterson, 

my mother’s reading of Eliot initiated a crucial, formative intercultural dialogue … during a period of war and intense discrimination against Japanese Americans in the US. Thus I was delighted to learn how, in his 1984 lecture on “Humanity in Education,” Ikeda praised Eliot’s view that “culture is living,” and that education must broadly cultivate individuals so that they become “truly international.”

To conclude, Patterson offered appreciation for Ikeda’s dialogue-based approach to literature. “Reading responsively, we are never alone,” she said. Further: “Conversations about literature—our free expression of, admiration for, disagreement with, or elaboration on what someone else has said about a literary work—can spark precious moments of discovery and self-revelation, deepening our awareness of the realities and needs of others.” Expressing her gratitude to Mr. Ikeda, she concluded that “I now know that any dialogue of the heart involves a decision, first and foremost, to act by communicating through the medium of the spoken or written word as crucial first step towards hope and the transformative experience of trustful peacebuilding.”

The Panel Discussions

The event was organized around two panel discussions, both moderated by Dr. Patterson. The first panel featured Ikea Johnson, Ken Price, Sarah Wider, and Jason Goulah. Panel two featured Giulia Pellizzato, Jim Garrison, and Ashley Foster. Each panel was followed by a brief Q & A session. The sessions featured multiple questions addressed to either individuals or combinations of individuals, with much back and forth. The one question answered by everyone was the same as the attendees’ icebreaker: What was the first piece of literature to impact you in a significant way? Here, the various ideas are summarized and organized by scholar. 

2023 Ikeda Forum Panel Group 1
Left to right, Patterson, Johnson, Price, Wider, Goulah

Panel One

Ikea Johnson 
Speaking first in response to the question of first significant literary encounter, Dr. Johnson offered two books, each representing different modes of value. The first was Foucault’s History of Sexuality, which she discovered while exploring the library at the age of 12. Rather than commenting on the content, she said that what was important about this book was that it marked a transition from her mother reading to her and her reading to others to her “reading to myself.” It also represented her first inkling of the library as “a safe and quiet space.” In terms of novels, the first to really impact her was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, with the “human as the medium” for the unfolding of the story. In terms of experiencing literature’s transformative power, it was reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man while engaging in her own Buddhist study and practice that led her to her ongoing endeavor to see how African-Americans have adapted or adopted “Buddhist ideology” to advance understandings of Dharma, or wisdom, something that she sees Ellison as doing exceptionally well. Responding to the topic that had been raised by Dr. Goulah of how literature can “obliterate hierarchies” and facilitate connection, Dr. Johnson elaborated further on what she has found in Ellison and Morrison. Novelists can have political purposes, as those two authors do, but it is “the novel as a medium which can hold the human,” she said, that gives it its special power to do something that practitioners of, say, “psychology and sociology” cannot so easily do: “touch another human being” and “enter a world and be transformed by it.”

Ken Price
Dr. Price also opened with a couple takes on his first impactful works of literature. As a young person, he said, he was especially drawn to the stories of what can be described as “self-made” people. Two of his favorites were Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass. But most of all, he was inspired, and still is today, by reading Huckleberry Finn, which depicted Huck’s struggle between his “heart and his conscience,” that is, what he felt the right thing to do would be as defined by society. Yet, “he listens to his heart” and does what truly is the right thing, which is not giving up Jim to the authorities. On the subject of “dialogues of the heart,” Dr. Price spoke not of literature per se, but the dialogues that Walt Whitman engaged in with the wounded Civil War soldiers he cared for in Washington DC during the war. In some ways, he said, Whitman was more successful with healing than the physicians who worked with infected instruments. Dr. Price returned to Frederick Douglass to further discuss literature’s transformative power. He was immensely moved to learn how Douglass, someone “forcibly discouraged from reading,” through “sheer resourceful genius” learned to read and write, becoming one of the great literary figures of the age. Another panel throughline that Price spoke to was how literature can remain relevant for successive generations and age groups. “I once heard someone say,” he observed, “that literature is news that stays news.” That said, we should also be “careful” about canons, which can be a “chancy” thing. Consider that Melville was almost completely forgotten, to say nothing, for example, of all the African-American authors of the time. Thus, we should be “scrupulous” in assessing what should be passed down to next generations.

Sarah Wider
Without a doubt, said Dr. Wider, it was reading Winnie the Pooh as a child that had the most profound influence on her. Reading it, “I felt safe. I felt like I had friends. And, you know, the wonderful personalities of all those animals continue to thrive in me today.” Also, drawing on a conversation she had the previous day with Ikea Johnson, she mentioned Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which contained the immortal sentiment: “I just wish I could have loved more people.” Regarding the question of how literature can reach more students in our age of competing demands, Dr. Wider returned to Winnie the Pooh. Instead of our tendency to, as she framed it, inflict literature on young people — sometimes even resulting in them becoming “poetry damaged” — we should encourage this notion of companionship with books and their characters. On the closely related matter of “defining” literature, Dr. Wider urged us to resist defining literature in “exclusive terms,” as has too often been done. One good example is the case of “spoken word,” which has “breath behind it” and which is fundamentally “relational.” This latter point gets to the imperative of our need for connection she said, which is why dialogues of the heart are so key, she added. Finally, she looked to Emerson’s approach to reading as one we would do well to encourage in young readers, especially those who have had negative experiences. Reading in the manner of Emerson means “reading for the lustrous.” Look for the sentences and phrases that you connect with; they don’t have to fit a “thesis.” Look for what “illuminates something” and “read what speaks to you or listen for those words that really hold your heart, hold your humanity, hold each other.”

Jason Goulah
“I remember as a little kid in elementary school,” said Dr. Goulah, “really being moved by this book, Super Duper Teddy.” But in terms of a deep literary experience, it was in high school that he encountered Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which “drove me to read everything I could find by him.” Essentially, Kafka created a world in that book “so different” in the way it spoke of “the human being and the human condition,” as well as “the self and the perception of the self.” In terms of dialogues of the heart and literature in times of division, Goulah said that for Daisaku Ikeda “dialogue is the master key for everything” — that is, all forms of dialogue, not just with literature and one another but with art, with nature, with history, and more. Why? For Ikeda, “It is his way to be and become most fully human, which is his grand project.” And, added Goulah “literature is the great expression of that.” Going into Ikeda’s own early experiences with reading, Goulah explained that Ikeda’s mentor, Josei Toda, trained the select group of youth under his tutelage not in Buddhism, but in literature. One outcome of this was that for the young Ikeda, his “conversations” with Whitman and Emerson helped him to “unpack the human condition.” Goulah also remarked on Ikeda’s conception of “the poetic mind.” Essentially, for Ikeda this means leaving more room for “intuition” as opposed to just the “rational.” This “underpins” everything for Ikeda, he said. To conclude, he shared a passage from Ikeda on the nature and potential of this crucial way of being, including these insights: It is “the source of human imagination and creativity.” It promotes “a power no army can vanquish.” Not least, it can “transform inner worlds from utter desolation to richness and creativity.”

Panel One Q & A
The Panel One Q & A had time for three questions. The first concerned what literature can do in the face of today’s proliferating uncertainties, including climate change. Responding to that issue specifically, Dr. Wider urged us to develop “the sense that we articulate the worlds for ourselves, but we have to really listen.” She first encountered this notion in Emerson, who said that to really be in conversation with nature, in particular, you have to listen. She has learned the truth of this through teaching contemporary Native American literature as well from her experiences seeing the environmental damage inflicted on Native American lands in New Mexico, where she hails from. In her own teaching, Dr. Wider has encouraged this practice by creating such assignments as the keeping of tree journals, in which students choose a tree on campus and keep revisiting it to see what they can learn.

Question two asked about Mr. Ikeda’s perspective on orality and the oral cultures which have perhaps been devalued in the Euro-American tradition, where the written word is “privileged.” Dr. Wider responded that she did not know an answer to this specifically, but that Mr. Ikeda’s poems are often presented orally, and then only are transcribed and recorded in print at a later date. Speaking personally, she said that language “is what breathes us and what we breathe.” Dr. Goulah added that in the Buddhist tradition of Mr. Ikeda, a core text is the Orally Transmitted Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin. Beyond that, he can’t imagine Ikeda not embracing spoken modes of literature as value creating and important. 

The third question explored the topic of the possibility and the difficulty of entering into “worlds” of literature different than one’s own, including differences across centuries and even generations, as we see today with youth having many more digitally-mediated experiences than older generations. Dr. Johnson responded first, urging us to pursue “some version of digital humanities” that “harnesses their interaction with social media.” In a sense, the classroom could become a “safe space” for that kind of exploration. Taking the long view, she added that it’s important to not “marginalize” youth because of the “space and place” they inhabit, since too much marginalizing of people due to space and place has happened in the past, with ill effects. Dr. Goulah added a question: Does the digital orientation shape people’s minds in new ways as opposed to the orientation of traditional literature?

Panel Two at 2023 Ikeda Forum
Left to right, Patterson, Pellizzato, Garrison, Foster

Panel Two

Giulia Pellizzato
The first book that was truly meaningful for her, said Dr. Pellizzato, was a children’s book called Swimmy, which featured one black fish living among a school of red fish. The book describes how the black fish “finds belonging” by traveling the sea, eventually finding a new community which he helps “through his ingenuity and difference.” This book has “everything in there,” she said: estrangement and belonging, and difference as a benefit to others. She even re-read it during graduate school for inspiration! On the topic of how literature can foster peace in times of division, she spoke of what she learned reading Ippolito Nievo’s classic, Confessions of an Italian. Not only was she impressed with how he “portrayed characters transformed by experience,” but she herself experienced everything “vicariously” with them, in the process identifying and empathizing with people of different genders and social backgrounds. “This element of experiencing through the eyes or feelings of someone else” is crucial for the making of peaceful communities, she suggested. She also offered two observations on Ikeda and the poetic spirit. First, she noted that tuning into the poetic spirit for Ikeda frequently means illuminating places where “culture and nature meet.” Second, she said that a considerable portion of Ikeda’s work is meant to help readers find pathways for “expressing their own poetic heart or mind.” In response to Dr. Patterson’s question of how we can help young people find more time for literature, Dr. Pellizzato said it can be effective to encourage students to see that there are “so many moments in which we need meaning making,” particularly the kind that literature enables. Finally, on the topic of what makes literature good or bad, she cited Ikeda’s view that successful literature possesses the ability to portray hearts and minds in sensitive strokes.

Jim Garrison
Dr. Garrison offered a unique spin on the question of first inspirational books, saying “I cannot tell you” either “the name of the book, the author, or any of the characters” in the book that affected him immensely when he checked it out as a grade-schooler. Quite simply, the book was about a friendship that “persisted across a lifetime.” This is a book I have “carried with me since third grade.” I share this with you, he said, “in gratitude to a nameless author.” Addressing the role of literature in times of division, he seconded Dr. Pellizzato’s emphasis on the power of “vicarious experience” to promote empathy, especially for those from different walks of life or with different “modes of enculturation.” But he especially wanted to emphasize that the reading of literature constitutes a “three-term relation.” Beyond the author and reader, there is the factor of what “you the reader can do with the text.” That is, the ways you act and think based on your experience with a piece of literature will have consequences beyond your own life. Whitman, he said, went so far as to declare “that you shall be the poem.” If we look at Ikeda’s relationship to Whitman, we find a “creative dialogue of the spirit” that has had profound consequences for peacebuilding. Commenting of the power of literature, Dr. Garrison noted that the potential of books to shape people can “persist” for thousands of years, as in the case of his own favorite, Gilgamesh. Finally, on the question of what is considered “good” literature, he noted that as soon as he got old enough to understand it, he read a lot of Zane Grey and Perry Mason, not known as great literature; he nevertheless experienced great enjoyment, which is not to be discounted as a form of value, he said. 

Ashley Foster
Offering a novel take on the question of first influential literature, Dr. Foster shared how, when she was an infant, her father would hold her to his chest and read William Blake to her. It was “a deep somatic experience” that doubtless impacted her vibrationally, she said. As an adult, it clearly was reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The way the novel exemplified the modernist portrayal of “interiorization” made her “want to become a modernist,” adding that she “fell in love with Woolf at that moment.” In terms of literature and cultures of peace, Foster noted a few key points made by Mr. Ikeda’s dialogue with Sarah Wider in The Art of True Relations, including: When “the poetic spirit is infused with literature” it can attune our imaginations and make us the kinds of people that create peace. “It can open worlds and possibilities”; It can “revive, restore, and make life blaze anew.” Another central point for Foster is the way Ikeda’s view of literature “marries the inner and outer cosmos” and facilitates a dialogue between “the self and the universal.” For Foster, what this means is that “poetry can allow us to dance with each other and with the universe metaphysically.” On helping people have a more positive experience with literature, she said we should “get past the notion that literature ought to look like any one particular thing.” As for value-creating literature, “ethics isn’t necessarily the way to respond” to literature, she said, or put another way, the ethic of literature is that of dialogue. Relatedly, like research, maybe literature succeeds best when it is “posed as a question.” But ultimately, for her, the key value of literature is in facilitating the inner-outer dialogue she spoke of. 

Panel Two Q & A
There was time for only one question after the second panel, but it was a good one that asked panelists to talk about literature that deals more explicitly with peace. As someone who experienced the ways songs and literature had an impact on ending the Vietnam War, the questioner felt this was an important topic. Could they reflect on one of the most famous antiwar works, Lysistrata, he wondered? Speaking first, Dr. Garrison noted that Aristophanes’ fifth century BC play, which is about how the women of Athens go on a “sex strike” until the men halt their war with Sparta, “is a social critique that is not easily avoided.” The key thing about attempting an antiwar message in this manner, he said, is that it is expressive, not propositional, and that gives it power. Perhaps this is one dimension of what Shelley meant when he said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Dr. Foster said that, from her perspective, the most interesting thing about this work is the convergence of feminism and pacifism. She even found echoes in Wolfe’s great pacifist statement, Three Guineas, which opens with a man asking a woman, “How may we prevent war?” For a man to ask a woman her thoughts on an important question in 1938 was quite rare, she explained. It is important to clarify that it isn’t their biology or some “feminine spirit” that enables women to make unique contributions to peace, said Foster. Rather, they have been educated in different modes and have “different orientations to the world” that might help us break our intractable addiction to war. 

Conclusion: Movement, Music, Dialogue, Anticipation

Heiraza performing at the 2023 Ikeda Forum

After the second panel, Giulia Pellizzato led the room in a guided movement activity, which set the stage for a musical performance by Heiraza. She is a performer who emigrated from Turkey to the US in 2010, where she studied at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory in Boston. Her music constitutes a dialogue between all the languages, sounds, cultures, and experiences gathered during her journey. Accompanying her singing with her own prerecorded instrumental and vocal backing tracks, she performed new songs that incorporate unrecorded songs composed by her father, which he gave her before she departed for America. The performance was aesthetically beautiful and presented a creative dialogue of heart in real time.

For the afternoon’s small-group dialogue session, participants discussed two questions: What is resonating with you from the panel discussions? How has reading served to foster inner transformation for you and how can literature contribute to fostering peace in our world? After these high-spirited discussions, the Forum concluded with the panel reconvening onstage to share what they are looking forward to reading next. Here are their selections:

  • Anita Patterson will be reading Dreamer, a novel about the last two years of Martin Luther King’s life, by Charles Johnson, “a black American National Book Award winning novelist who’s a Buddhist.”
  • Jim Garrison plans to read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, whose title was inspired by William Blake’s conviction that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
  • For her selection, Sarah Wider said she will once again be reading The Language of Trees by Katie Holton, a book that inspires readers to want to have “conversations with trees,” she added.
  • Jason Goulah said he asked Ken Price what Whitman to read, so he will be reading Song of Myself. He also wants to re-read War and Peace to get a “Tolstoyan perspective on the current moment.”
  • One book Ken Price has been meaning to read is The Quarry by Charles Chestnut, unpublished in his lifetime, which, he said, raises questions: “Was it not published because it wasn’t good enough? Or was it not published because he was not understood in his own time?” 
  • Ikea Johnson is looking forward to Bolano’s 2666. “I’m teaching a myth and symbol course,” and “it’s an epic narrative historical fiction” addressing those themes, among others. She is also anticipating Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage.
  • For her Virginia Wolfe In Conversation course, Ashley Foster is “reading Toni Morrison’s Sula right now as a companion to Mrs. Dalloway.” She is also looking forward to The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon, a work that is inspired by both Mrs. Dalloway and Sula.
  • What Giulia Pellizzato is now inspired to do is “read with an open heart and without a clock.” High on her list to read in this spirit, as opposed to the “technical” orientation with which she has usually read it, is Ikeda’s poetry collection Journey of Life.

Recording of the 2023 Ikeda Forum