Dialogue Nights #28: Dialogue As the Surest Path to Peace

| Mitch Bogen
Paired icebreaker during the Dec 2023 Dialogue Nights

The Ikeda Center’s slate of 30th anniversary events concluded on Friday, December 8th with a Dialogue Nights devoted to a topic that describes the heart of both the Center and the Dialogue Nights series itself: “The Courage to Dialogue: The Surest Path to Peace.” As with every event of this anniversary year, discussion points were drawn from the Center’s founding lecture: Daisaku Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard Address, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization.”

The evening opened with a viewing of a new video—produced by the Ikeda Center in collaboration with Bearwalk Cinema—that features the voices of the university students and young professionals that comprise the Dialogue Nights community. The video opens with a voice-over from the Center’s Lillian Koizumi that recounts the reasoning behind the launch of the series, six years ago now: 

Boston attracts some of the smartest, most capable, brightest youth from all around the world. In our conversations with them, many of them still share how much they struggle with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, pressure. And so, with all this in mind, we decided to launch Dialogue Nights, really with this determination to create a safe and courageous space for young people to come together and talk about things that are meaningful for them.

During the video, Center staff and event participants explored the many ways that Dialogue Nights encourages people to become “more willing to be vulnerable and open up,” in the words of the Center’s Anri Tanabe. One person described how “it helps me expand my life.” Another said that those who might be interested in attending should: “Embrace the scary. Embrace how nervous you are about coming in and talking to a bunch of strangers because I promise that it is so worth it in the long run.”

Staff member Preandra facilitating Dialogue Nights

In her welcoming remarks, the Center’s Preandra Noel said that this notion of dialogue being the “surest path to peace” was one of the most deeply-held convictions of Mr. Ikeda, who passed away peacefully on November 15 at his home in Tokyo. Another, she said, was that, in his view, the reason dialogue is so necessary is that “no matter what laws or policies change, if people’s hearts don’t change, we can never experience true, lasting peace.” She also shared two long quotes from Mr. Ikeda that revealed the force of his vision, including this from his 2005 peace proposal, “Toward a New Era of Dialogue: Humanism Explored”:

As ripples of dialogue multiply and spread, they have the potential to generate the kind of sea change that will redirect the forces of fanaticism and dogmatism. The cumulative effect of such seemingly small efforts is, I believe, sufficient to redirect the current of the times. What is crucial is the hard and patient work of challenging, through the spiritual struggle of intense encounter and dialogue, the assumptions and attachments that bind and drive people.

Noting that “the foundation of dialogue for Mr. Ikeda was having faith in human beings,” Preandra said that we “are extremely grateful that along this journey we get to continually experience and practice Mr. Ikeda’s spirit and ethos of dialogue together with all of you.”

Dialogue in Action

The dialogue session opened with paired discussion on one of three icebreaker-type topics which participants were free to choose from: the house you grew up in; your favorite teacher as a child; or your very first friend. From there, the intensity of paired dialogue increased, with participants tackling the question: What is a conversation you wish you could have or have been avoiding, and why is it difficult? The key to this one, said Preandra, would be “to practice intentional listening.” Thus, each listener would take notes and then share with their partner the essence of what they heard. Praising the “dialogic energy” in the room, Preandra then invited each pair or trio to join with another pair or trio for the main dialogue activity, which would be based on this quote from Ikeda’s 1993 lecture: “The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the guiding principle for open dialogue, the essential condition for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights.” Two questions would then shape their discussion: 

  1. What does this “conquest of your own prejudicial thinking and attachment to difference” look like for you?
  2. How does open and courageous dialogue lead to a more peaceful world? 

During share-back, the first point to arise was that while similarities present “a really great way to understand or build a richer relationship with somebody,” we shouldn’t just glide past our differences, which are “just as important, because you can’t find a middle ground with somebody unless you know where each of you are starting.” A closely related point raised by another group was that it’s essential to practice “listening to understand versus listening to just get the point across.” Regarding the crucial notion of awareness of our own prejudices, this group also discussed the idea that “having an open heart” is one of the best ways to become aware of one’s own “conditioning and biases,” thus enabling “proper dialogue” to happen. The other main idea discussed pertained to the notion that all this talk of “peace and humanism and all of us being able to get along” is “naïve” and even “absurd,” evidence that “you guys are living in a rainbow unicorn world that’s not real life.” But why is peace considered so absurd, they wondered, while “to kill people and not care about human life” is not? The truth is, they said, that the commitment to peace that is labeled absurd is actually “coming from a place of courage.”

For the evening’s final activity, participants engaged with and added to the four “dialogue commitments” that guide all of the Dialogue Nights programming. Inspired by Mr. Ikeda’s dialogic philosophy and ethos, the four commitments are:

  1. Avoid prejudging and categorizing people
  2. Strive to bring about the best in oneself and other
  3. Listen to and learn from each other
  4. Remember that change begins with us

Moderating the activity was Anri Tanabe, who asked everyone to “think of one dialogue commitment that you would personally like to add to our existing list of commitments.” Participants had no trouble thinking up additional commitments that, as Anri phrased it, “exceeded expectations” with their creativity and originality. Here are the ideas offered during share-back.

  • A few expanded on the listening commitment, noting how it enables us to understand others and “see” through the other’s “lens.” It also helps us to become more aware of our own ignorance.
  • Smile!
  • Let go of the expectation of “changing what other people are thinking or the opinions they hold.”
  • Be absurd!
  • Begin with the “end in mind to deepen our connection.”
  • “Say what you want to say” without worrying how it appears to others. Another concurred, saying, don’t be afraid “to share what is in your heart.”
  • Have the courage to be “empathetic.”
  • Be careful not to “project your own life experiences on others.”
  • Be okay with “discomfort and uncertainty.”
  • Strive to be “vulnerable” without requiring the other to “reciprocate.”
  • Have compassion!
Takeaway activity at the Dec 2023 Dialogue Nights

Concluding Remarks: A Sustaining Hope for the Future

Given that this was the concluding event of the anniversary year, said Executive Director Kevin Maher, “we felt it only natural to examine the role of dialogue in fostering peace,” especially since it is so central to Mr. Ikeda’s 1993 lecture and to his peacebuilding philosophy. This centrality, said Kevin, “is because open dialogue, as Mr. Ikeda conceived of it, is centered on fostering deeper mutual understanding; building trust and respect; and finding our common connections,” adding: “In your reflections this evening, you spoke to these qualities poetically.” He then shared a quote from Mr. Ikeda’s 2009 peace proposal, “Toward Humanitarian Competition: A New Current in History,” that illuminated the strength of his belief in dialogue’s capacities:

Even when the challenges confronting us seem overwhelmingly difficult, the first step must be dialogue. Grounded in a faith in our shared humanity, frank discourse can transcend all differences of background, values and perspectives…. Dialogue presents infinite possibilities; it is a challenge that can be taken up by anyone—any time—in order to realize the transformation from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.

Kevin also emphasized Mr. Ikeda’s belief in the ability of young people to create a peaceful world of more widely-experienced fulfillment and well-being. For Ikeda, “young people have the power to create new breakthroughs in any field where they are given the chance to be actively engaged.” And, further: “Young people in particular are blessed with a fresh sensitivity and a passionate seeking for ideals. Their energy can catalyze chain reactions of positive change as they forge bonds of trust among people.” As someone who has observed all of the Dialogue Nights, added Kevin, “I have seen this hope and possibility embodied in real time through courageous and open dialogue.” He has also seen, he continued, how “these exchanges at Dialogue Nights do not end here when our participants leave this space, but rather it is being shared both directly and indirectly in your own contexts and communities.” Thanking “each and every one of you” not only for attending but “for being part of the Ikeda Center community,” he concluded: “Your presence, your ideas, your engagement with the Center and one another are all key elements of what fuels our work and inspires in us a sustaining hope for the future.”