Start With a Dream

When the aspirations of the people well up in a mighty surge, the times will change for the better.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the World Tribune featured an excerpt from “Start With a Dream” from America Will Be! Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy, a dialogue between the late historian and civil rights champion Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda (Dialogue Path Press, August 2013).

[Daisaku] Ikeda: Walt Whitman, extolling the ideals of democracy, said:

America should now stand for the world—should bear witness not only to her own success, but human solidarity, universal union, the largest possible circles of comradeship.[1]Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 6, p. 139.

I sense that the grand dream cherished by Whitman and the great dream espoused by Dr. King for the harmonious coexistence of humankind share a profound, timeless affinity.

Speaking of the word dream, the familiar expression “the American dream” reflects new opportunities and the possibility of a better life. It is said that the American historian James Truslow Adams coined this expression, though it has come to mean different things to different people.

What are your thoughts on “the American dream”?

[Vincent] Harding: The nineteenth-and twentieth-century perception of America for many people was of a country of enormous material wealth. The expression “the American dream” tended to elicit a materialistic interpretation.

However, Langston Hughes, who wrote many poems about his dream of America, passionately expressed his belief in the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality. Martin Luther King, who lived the American struggle for black liberation, also emphasized these ideals. King called on us to envision America as a place of human and spiritual wealth, a place where people can manifest their highest potential. This was the heart of his dream, very close to Whitman’s.

Ikeda: Dr. King reminded people of the high ideals on which America was founded. He devoted his entire life to sharing his dream. In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, he made the following appeal:

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.[2]Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” in A Testament of Hope, p. 219.

Dr. King was yearning for the day when America would fulfill the promise of its founding ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Harding: Also, the Preamble to our Constitution contains the idea that we Americans are obligated to carry on the work of creating a “more perfect Union,” a more perfect democracy. King and the movement struggled to give substance to this ideal, this dream.

The magnificent concept of the American dream is a country that is the best that it can be. In this sense, material prosperity is just a small part of the dream. King’s contribution was to transform and deepen our understanding of the American dream.

Photo: Seikyo Press
Photo: Seikyo Press

All the poets who have reflected on this, from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes, have encouraged us to dream about the possibilities for a better world. They did not know how those dreams could become reality or be integrated into everyday life, but we can be sure that nothing is possible unless we dream it first. While we will not stop at the dreaming stage, we cannot start anything without dreaming.

Ikeda: Great dreams nurture extraordinary people, inspire great struggles, and build great lives, leading ultimately to a new, brighter future. My wish for young people, who bear the responsibility for creating the future, is that they pursue their dreams with courage and conviction. This is the message that I have consistently emphasized over the years.

I recall that my mentor would often say:

It’s perfectly all right for youth to cherish dreams that may seem almost too big. What we can achieve in a single lifetime is always but a fraction of what we would like to achieve. So if you start out with expectations that are too low, you’ll end up not accomplishing anything at all.[3]Daisaku Ikeda, Discussions on Youth (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 2010), pp. 21–22.

My dream has been to help bring into being the noble vision of my mentor. After World War II, Mr. Toda undertook a people’s movement for peace based on Buddhism. As his disciple, I took to heart my mentor’s wish and tirelessly traveled the globe for decades to help realize his vision.

Our focus now should be on the youth who will live into the future. We should inspire them and endow them with hope, courage, and a vision enabling them to live out their dreams. The role of education is especially important in this respect.

Democratic Citizenship

Harding: The other day, someone told me about a public school competition that was held in the Midwest in which students wrote letters to President Obama, telling him what they wanted him to do to create a better America. We need to devise more ways to encourage young people to think about what it means to create a better world and to challenge them to imagine what their role might be in developing this world.

During the past approximately twenty years, a question that has always been foremost in my mind has been what kind of education is essential in preparing people for democratic citizenship. Just because we have been born in America does not automatically mean that we understand the possibilities and power that can be manifested by a democratic America.

A baby born of a human mother does not immediately understand the significance of being human. Likewise, a sense of democratic citizenship is something that must be nurtured in people.

Accordingly, a major task that will shape the next period of American history is to develop an effective and inspiring educational process that nurtures democratic citizens. This task must include building the kind of foundation that we see in all the great religious traditions of the world. Most important is to realize that we have the capacity within us to become far more perfected human beings than we are now.

Ikeda: This is a point that you have emphasized consistently—that the solidarity of enlightened citizens who understand and embody the democratic spirit is essential for the development of a healthy democracy.

Whitman called democracy the dream of a new land and asserted that it provided a “training school” and “life’s gymnasium” for producing first-class citizens. He emphasized spiritual values in saying that to fulfill its role, democracy needed to produce copious numbers of such citizens through the “advent of a sane and pervading religiousness.”[4]Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas in Poetry and Prose, pp. 952, 959.

The concept of equality is the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism recognizes a sacred potential—the Buddha nature—in every human being and offers a concrete path for making the worth and dignity of the individual and all life shine their brightest. The only way to build a vital society is to foster this spirit of equality in the heart of each individual. As you have said, the first important step is to tirelessly encourage people to awaken to their extraordinary potential.

Harding: Consider Whitman’s “life’s gymnasium”: Perhaps this is where we can exercise and practice to bring out our best gifts. Here again, I am reminded of the words of Langston Hughes—he wrote a wonderful poem called “Let America Be America Again.”

For many of us—especially women, Native Americans, African Americans, other people of color, and, most of all, poor people—America has never lived up to its ideals, and we are completely justified in making Langston’s claim that “America never was America to me.” But he didn’t stop at that complaint. He continued, “And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”[5]Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” in The Collected Poems, p. 191.

Ikeda: He affirmed a commitment and challenging spirit to realize the highest ideals: “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be.”[6]Ibid., p. 189. The promise of American democracy—this beacon of hope that is the American dream in its purest sense, which has still not been achieved—burned brightly in Langston Hughes’s heart.

In another poem, Hughes wrote, “We have tomorrow / Bright before us / Like a flame.”[7]Langston Hughes, “Youth” in The Collected Poems, p. 39. He raises a noble image of the American people that I find immensely appealing—hardy and powerful as they continue their advance toward a more hopeful tomorrow.

Harding: The task of building a better America—the best possible America—is one that requires the participation of every person. We should not wait for presidents or legislators to lead the way. Rather, each of us must nurture ourselves and one another so that we can work individually and together to fulfill the American dream of a “more perfect Union.”

Transformation in a democratic society does not begin with a strong, charismatic leader. Rather, it begins with the fierce determination of the people to transform their reality. Only when the aspirations of the people well up in a mighty surge will the times begin to change for the better. This was certainly our experience in the southern freedom movement after World War II.

Ikeda: The people are the central actors in an era’s reformation, and the human revolution within each person is the driving force for a new era’s creation.

In my youth, my mentor told me: “That which we resolve to undertake is a bloodless revolution, one which does not victimize even a single person. It is an unduplicated revolution.”[8]Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution, book 2 (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 2004), p. 1236. The Soka Gakkai has championed a revolution of the people, by the people, and for the people, based on the Buddhist philosophy of the sanctity of life. The Soka Gakkai does not have any clergy enjoying special status. Each person is a central player and fulfills a key role in the movement.

How do we bring people together, motivate them, and tap their initiative and self-motivation? This is the mission and significance of the Soka Gakkai International in every region of the world. Learning from our predecessors’ challenges and achievements, and collaborating and cooperating with many other citizens’ movements, we hope to further expand our movement.

America Will Be!

The late historian Vincent Harding (1931–2014), a friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda engaged in a dialogue illuminating the historic events of the American Civil Rights Movement.

America Will Be! Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy (Dialogue Path Press, August 2013) is available at select SGI-USA bookstores and at http://bookstore.sgi-usa.org for $12.95. For more information on the dialogue, visit www.ikedacenter.org.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 6, p. 139.
2. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” in A Testament of Hope, p. 219.
3. Daisaku Ikeda, Discussions on Youth (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 2010), pp. 21–22.
4. Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas in Poetry and Prose, pp. 952, 959.
5. Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” in The Collected Poems, p. 191.
6. Ibid., p. 189.
7. Langston Hughes, “Youth” in The Collected Poems, p. 39.
8. Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution, book 2 (Santa Monica, Calif.: World Tribune Press, 2004), p. 1236.