Feature

“Choose Life”

Excerpts from the Toynbee-Ikeda dialogue on the interconnectedness of life.


SGI President Ikeda met with the eminent historian Arnold J. Toynbee in 1972 and 1973–their wide-ranging dialogue totaling more than 40 hours across 10 days. Dr. Toynbee had authored the 12-volume work, A Study of History, an analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations that has been called one of the most significant achievements of modern scholarship.

The two men discussed vital issues confronting the world, including the role of religion, dwindling natural resources, conflict and war, and population growth. Their hope-filled conclusion: If human beings gave rise to these complex challenges, it cannot be beyond the power of human wisdom to transform them.

SGI President Ikeda and Arnold J. Toynbee begin their dialogue, London, May 1972. Photo: Seikyo Press.
SGI President Ikeda and Arnold J. Toynbee begin their dialogue, London, May 1972. Photo: Seikyo Press.

The content of their dialogue was published in 1975 under the title Choose Life.

Dr. Toynbee expressed his hope that President Ikeda would continue to engage the world’s leading thinkers in similar dialogues, a promise he has more than kept, engaging in discussions and exchanges with more than 1,600 of the world’s leading thinkers and leaders.

The following are highlights from Choose Life.

The Basic Human Being

Daisaku Ikeda: Both the materialists and the spiritualists seem to pursue only one aspect of the issue and to fail to grasp the relationship between spirit and body.

Arnold J. Toynbee: Yes, I agree that neither materialism nor spiritualism is a satisfying explanation of reality if either is taken as being the exclusive explanation. Matter cannot be comprehended in terms of spirit, nor, conversely, can spirit be comprehended in terms of matter. Each is comprehensible only in terms of a unity that embraces both. (pp. 12–13)

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Toynbee: I also believe that the ultimate layer of the subconscious abyss of the human psyche is identical with the ultimate reality that underlies the whole universe.

Ikeda: I suspect that your ultimate reality behind the universe corresponds to what Buddhist thought calls the universal life force, which is the source of all phenomena in the universe. (p. 16)

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Toynbee: The enormous subsequent advance of science has been superfluous for the purpose of survival, and it may actually end in the self-destruction of [humankind].

Ikeda: In the present stage of human history, religion and science are, as you say, necessities of life. Because both are required, the two must not oppose each other. In fact, science must be based on religion, and religion must include scientific rationality. (p. 24)

The Environment

Ikeda: It is estimated that changes in [atmospheric] pressure, by affecting the movements of the atmosphere, have accelerated the earth’s rotational speed very slightly, although this speed-up may be only temporary. In the face of these unusual conditions, I cannot help wondering to what extent man’s tampering has upset the natural order.

Toynbee: Till within living memory, man has been almost as completely at the mercy of nature as the pre-human forms of life. The reversal in the power relation between man and non-human nature is still so recent that it is difficult for us to recognize the fact, and it is still more difficult for us to feel and think and act in accordance with this revolutionary new situation. (p. 31)

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Toynbee: Human nature is greedy because greed is one of the characteristics of life. Mankind shares this greed with other species of living beings, but unlike non-human species, man, thanks to being conscious, can be aware of his greed. He can know that greed, served by power, is destructive and therefore evil, and he can make the difficult moral effort to practice self-restraint.

Ikeda: The only way to put a stop to disaster of the kind we are discussing is to bring about a kind of revolution on the part of each individual human being. Politicians, industrial leaders and scientists must face the human responsibility in the creation of these disasters. (p. 33)

The life force of a single person is more important
than all the material wealth of the world.

Ikeda: The kind of religion that is needed must make each individual human being deeply aware of two important things: the truth that the life force of a single person is more important than all the material wealth of the world and the equally important principle that both life and the dignity that is inherent in it can be supported only in harmony with nature.

Toynbee: Yes, the present threat to mankind’s survival can be removed only by a revolutionary change of heart in individual human beings. This change of heart must be inspired by religion in order to generate the willpower needed for putting arduous new ideals into practice. (p. 50)

The Intellect

Ikeda: The scientific way of thinking regards life lightly and causes us to lose sight of the true nature of living human beings. These undesirable aspects of scientific thinking come to the forefront because modern man forgets that the aspects of science that tend to reduce men to ciphers and to abandon individuality are no more than means to the attainment of partial ends.

Toynbee: A human being can be manipulated insofar as he can be dehumanized. Probably this was first discovered in the practice of war. It was found that a human being must be hypnotized by drill to convince him to risk his own life in trying to kill other human beings with whom he has no quarrel. (p. 76)

World-Embracing Patriotism

Ikeda: As civilization has advanced, the life basis of modern man has expanded to worldwide limits; that is to say, the land in which one lives today is the entire world. Consequently, the feeling that the earth is one’s homeland and a love of all mankind must take the place of the narrow patriotism of the past. When world-embracing patriotism gains precedence, national patriotism will sink to the level of loyalty to a locality.

Toynbee: Now that the whole of [humankind’s] habitat has been unified at the technological level, we need to unify it at the emotional level. (p. 179)

Arms and War

During a break in their dialogue, President Ikeda and Dr. Toynbee enjoy refreshments with their spouses.
During a break in their dialogue, President Ikeda and Dr. Toynbee enjoy refreshments with their spouses.

Ikeda: War now threatens our civilization and our continued existence on this globe. We must do something to alter the basic nature of economics so that it no longer stimulates warfare.

Toynbee: War is only the most costly of a number of alternative possible economic stimuli; being the most costly, it is surely the least desirable. (p. 181)

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Ikeda: Of all the problems connected with atomic power, the most difficult is how to prevent the result of studies primarily aimed at peaceful use from being abused for warlike purposes.

Toynbee: Unless and until the people of the world agree to renounce the use of atomic power for war and unless and until we have established a world authority with effective power to ensure that this renunciation is scrupulously honored in practice, it will not be safe for us to go ahead with the use of atomic power for peaceful purposes. (pp. 182–83)

Roles Religion Plays

Toynbee: I think the law of life is karma. Actions produce consequences, and these consequences are inescapable. They are not, however, unalterable; they can be altered, for better or for worse, by further action. Every living being runs up a karma-account; and, if I understand the doctrine of the Lotus school of Northern Buddhism rightly, a karma-account is never closed because the series of rebirths is endless. (p. 281)

Toynbee: What is necessary is to distinguish the “essence” of the higher religions from the “non-essential accretions,” or extraneous trappings that have accrued over time, that can and ought to be discarded. The unchanging, essential elements of religion transcending the age and societal restrictions must be retained. All other superfluous matter must be separated. Unless this is done . . . religion will have no future and a shadow will be cast on humankind’s spiritual advance. (July 1994 Living Buddhism, formerly called Seikyo Times, p. 16)

Toynbee: When I look for Christian equivalents of Northern Buddhist conceptions and ideals, I see an affinity between the bodhisattva, who voluntarily postpones his exit into Nirvana, and the second member of the Christian trinity, who emptied himself temporarily of his divinity in order to redeem his fellow human beings (the bodhisattvas redeem non-human sentient beings, too) . . . his compelling motive was the same as a bodhisattva’s compassion.

Ikeda: I consider Christ, in his role as a savior, to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva state. In both instances, the aim is altruistic. In Southern Buddhism, such altruism is limited to a post-enlightenment state when the body and the intellect have been extinguished. It is, therefore, unrelated to the processes of practical activity . . . In contrast, the Buddhist Law includes and is at the base of all phenomena in humanity, society and the world. Consequently, the Buddha state is not removed from this world but resides always in individual human lives and in the universal life. (pp. 277–78)

(pp. 18–21)