Johnny Lupinacci on Creative Coexistence
One of the core purposes of the Ikeda Center is to invite contemporary scholars into dialogue with the philosophy of our founder, Daisaku Ikeda, offering fresh perspectives on the principles that animate his work, and ours. In that spirit, on May 12, the Center hosted its second Indigo Talks lecture, featuring Dr. Johnny Lupinacci, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education at Washington State University.
In a talk called “Envisioning A Better World Together Through Value Creation, Interdependence, and Creative Coexistence,” he urged us to look at the deepest dynamics at play in a world that is unbalanced in so many ways. The virtual event was attended by 134 people from 13 countries.
In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I described the inspiration behind the naming of this new lecture series. Inspired by the Buddhist allegory of how items repeatedly dyed with indigo turn bluer than the indigo itself, she said, the Talks aim to reveal the impact learning has on deepening one’s wisdom, courage, and compassion. Introducing Dr. Lupinacci, she shared some of his achievements as an eco-critical scholar, including his recognition by the Washington Education Research Association with their Research Award in 2018 and his role as a contributing author to the Center’s latest publication, Hope and Joy in Education: Engaging Daisaku Ikeda Across Curriculum and Context. Lillian also shared some thoughts on the pre-event dialogue that Dr. Lupinacci engaged in with members of the Center’s youth network earlier in the week, which provided just one more demonstration, she said, of his “passion, warmth, wisdom, love for youth, and his heart to treasure and embrace each person he encounters.”
By way of closing, she shared Dr. Lupinacci’s response when asked during the dialogue by one of the youth how can we empower people in a world where in Kendrick Lamar’s words, “hurt people hurt more people.” “It might be messy and complicated,” he said, “but if we can go through it together and learn to love one another through it and co-learn together, I hold hope. When we do that… we move from having to change people to having to grow together. The more we do that the more we will see shifts.” With that, she turned the stage over to Dr. Lupinacci for his talk.
Beyond the Domination Model
Before the beginning of Dr. Lupinacci’s talk, participants engaged in a quick activity on Mentimeter to get a sense for everyone’s state of mind and heart during these turbulent days. The first question was: What brought you here today? Responses ranged from “to learn and be inspired” to “always want to refresh my peacebuilding efforts” and from “refresh my heart and spirit” to “foster my capacity as a global citizen.” The next question was: In one word, how would you describe how you are feeling about the world today? The responses captured the tensions at play today: with qualities such as concerned and frustrated and overwhelmed countered with those such as hopeful and determined and motivated. With that, Lupinacci thanked everyone for attending, noting that while events like these “tend to be “cerebral,” these responses show the need “to connect with our emotions,” even if that can be “hard to do through zoom.”
Lupinacci continued, saying that “in these unprecedented times to be able to connect with you all through the Ikeda Center and to participate in the Indigo Talks is truly an honor.” By way of introduction he explained that his lecture would draw on ideas from Daisaku Ikeda’s 2022 peace proposal to explore the importance of creating value for the world by embracing the interdependence and diversity not only of humans but all of life. He located all of his thoughts in the context of our urgent, ongoing social and global struggles with multiple, persistent forces of oppression, including racism, sexism, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and, perhaps most fundamental and far-reaching of all, a reflexive “species-ism” that places humans outside and above the rest of natural world and all non-human expressions of life. Here, we will share a few highlights from his rich talk (view full video here) that show how he blended an appreciation for Ikeda’s thought with insights drawn from his own experience and research to suggest key principles of thought and action for a more just and flourishing world.
The Vimalakirti Sutra and the Nature of Shared Suffering
In this sutra, the Buddha’s disciple Vimalakirti, who Ikeda describes as “deeply respected for the way he interacted with people in various conditions of life with no sense of difference or distance,” has fallen ill, with no discernable cause. When asked about his mysterious ailment, Vimalakirti replied, “because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick.” This statement, said Lupinacci, shows that because of the “tremendous amount of unjust harm being done to one another” and, further, because so many “diverse species are suffering to the point of extinction,” there is true “wisdom” in the empathetic sharing of that pain. Here, Lupinacci added a perspective not in the peace proposal, that showed that in an interdependent world influence flows both ways, or in all directions. What if the “converse” were also true, he asked? Could it be because “I am sick, therefore all living beings are sick?” “In other words,” he added, extending the dynamic beyond the individual level, “the crisis of the world’s suffering right now is in major part because of a political majority of cultural assumptions imposed on the world.” More than just sharing in pain, then, we each must do what we can to alleviate the world’s sickness. As encouragement, he noted that there are “diverse allies and accomplices across cultures” taking up this work. It behooves us as well, “that we express our gratitude for those who leverage their lives and freedoms to take direct action and dissent against the cruelty” of disease, war, climate change, police brutality and all the other unjust aspects of our colonial and racist legacy.
Detroit Roots and the Power of Diversity
What does taking action against such injustice look like? During his talk, Lupinacci took us back to his formative years as an activist in Detroit to show how creative engagement with our diversity is so important to healing our society. A self-described “artist and activist kid in Detroit who grew up loving math,” he became a math and science high school teacher who took pride in “preparing my students for a myriad of career tracks.” He also participated in the creation of “learning gardens and urban farms” whose purpose was “community empowerment” and a “healthier local economy.” From there he entered a “visionary and transdisciplinary” PhD program that brought “all hands on deck,” from teacher to community organizers to artists, to holistically find solutions for the ailments afflicting the “rust belt” communities of the upper Midwest. His experience taught him the power of diversity, how to “really get from talking to walking the walk.” The key is to “put down our habits of knowing what’s best” and instead ask questions “generatively” and together in communities. In so doing we can find “wisdom in unconventional, but often obvious places.” This won’t happen if we “spend too much time deep in our silos of thought,” or if teachers only work with teachers, nurses with other medical professionals, social workers with other social workers, etc. That’s “simply not how our communities work, or how things work in a forest or a wetland.” He concluded that “it’s the diversity of ideas and skills that bring strength not only to our living systems, but a rich boon of bio-regionally responsive organizing.” He emphasized that “while we have needs and skillsets specific to our professions, “we must also be able to see the bigger picture” and embrace “the importance of cultural and biological diversity, not only in our learning spaces, but in our research projects and all of our endeavors.” In this way we increase the “thriving” of our “ecosystems and communities.”
Moving Beyond the Domination Model and the Disembedded Self to Creative Coexistence
There are two core principles, both derived from eco-feminism, that inform every aspect of systemic oppression or widespread lack of harmony and health, said Lupinacci. The first is the domination orientation, which adheres to a hierarchical view of life that provides justification on an ecological level for humans benefiting at the expense of the natural world. We can see this echoed socially, said Lupinacci, in “a particular kind of hyper-individualistic, patriarchal, human-centered worldview.” The second is what Val Plumwood calls the “illusion of disembeddedness.” In this model, we understand “ourselves as disconnected from one another and the ecological world and diverse species our health and existence are dependent on.” Socially, it fails to understand the truth of interdependence, emphasized earlier, “that our suffering is inextricable from those suffering around us.” A good way to conceive of healthy alternatives to these illusions, said Lupinacci, is found in Ikeda’s concept of kyosei, which can be translated as “creative coexistence.” Here, Lupinacci quoted Ikeda: “Each individual existence functions to bring into being the environment which in turn sustains all other existences. All things, mutually supportive and related, form a living cosmos, what modem philosophy might term a semantic whole.” Understood this way, creative coexistence gives us a way to understand interdependence and counteract the fallacies of dominance and disembeddedness, suggested Lupinacci. Ultimately, he concluded, “the more we as learners leading learners, or as teachers, engage in diverse efforts towards more just and sustainable futures, the more models we will have that encourage the recognition of and resistance to all forms of domination.”
Four Suggestions for Action
To conclude his lecture, Lupinacci shared “some preliminary suggestions for what we may begin to do, in solidarity with the peace proposal, in our lives and in our efforts to community-build around envisioning a better world together and taking actions toward those futures. Each of his suggestions was accompanied by guiding questions or observations, several of which are included here.
- Engage in community building that explores diverse projects to rethink dominant assumptions influencing how we as humans, construct meaning and thus how we learn to relate to each other in the more-than-human world. This means to ask questions like: What does it mean to refer to natural gas and oil reserves as natural resources? What are we ignoring when we commodify the environment this way?
- Engage in critical and ethical examinations of community, unapologetically and embracing utopian impulse. Who and what might we be ignoring when we think about decisions in our neighborhoods and communities? Are we practicing reciprocity with our diverse human and more-than-human neighbors?
- Engage in examining our communities in terms of interdependency and the diverse ways in which our living relationships can be recognized, respected, and represented through listening and learning from and among all members. How can we learn and teach from the Black Lives Matter at School resources? What might we learn in the forests or waterways of our local communities?
- Engage in supporting the diverse approaches to taking up resistance and healing from Western industrial culture and, in solidarity, show respect for cultural knowledges that differ from the current dominant discourses of Western industrial culture, above all. Commit to the daily effort of building a conscious capacity for, and practice of, value creation through the imaginative process of unapologetically imagining what creative coexistence might look like in our communities.
The event concluded with a Q & A session followed by some final thoughts from Ikeda Center Executive Director Kevin Maher. Responding to questions submitted via the zoom Q & A function, Dr. Lupinacci addressed topics including: how we might heal the sickness in our world; how to change “poison into medicine,” as the Buddhist teaching recommends; how best to understand the practice of “inclusive education”; how to achieve a world in which all people experience happiness; and how to “push through resistance” when “paving a new path.” In response to this last question, Lupinacci stressed that we must always seek to “value create together,” understanding that each of us has “the capacity and agency” to create a better world and that “we’re never doing it alone.” Furthermore, it means “being kind to ourselves and really showing grace and gratitude and taking intentional time and space to care for ourselves and each other together.” Finally, instead of seeing resistance to positive change as “a massive wall” that “we just keep running into,” might we be able to “think together, how might we remove this wall entirely?” Personally, he has “great hope for the human capacity” to do things differently.
Kevin Maher opened his remarks with a “good evening, good afternoon, and good morning” to all the people gathered from so many different time zones around the world. He then thanked Dr. Lupinacci for his thoughtful lecture as well as his participation in the planning sessions leading up to the event. Throughout these sessions, said Maher, “my hope has been rekindled again and again as we explored through open dialogue what it means to envision a new world together. I feel gratitude for these dialogue sessions and for all that I have learned in the process.” He continued, observing how tonight’s lecture showed that “to envision a better world, it requires passion, inclusion, and a commitment to living a life of creative coexistence and value creation… . Each of us is essential in this task and our combined visions and action to make it so is what will create a shift from a culture of violence and war to one of coexistence and peace.”
Then, to close, he shared some quotes on the nature of hope from Daisaku Ikeda’s chapter in David Krieger’s book Hope in a Dark Time, ending with this encouraging insight:
The limitless power of the individual is unleashed when we work together. This is the power of connection, the power of human solidarity. Our dreams grow and flourish when we speak them out loud, when we share them with others. To do this requires courage. We must overcome the fear that we will be misunderstood, looked down on or laughed at for putting into words the content of our hearts. The solidarity of the world’s so-called ordinary citizens holds the key to peace.