The Heart of Dialogue

45 years since the Toynbee–Ikeda dialogue.

This month marks 45 years since SGI President Ikeda began his dialogue with world-renowned British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. Not only was this President Ikeda’s first official dialogue with a Western academic, but also through their meeting he embarked on a worldwide journey of dialogue with more than 1,600 influential figures in the realms of academia, politics, business, activism and art. Not all of President Ikeda’s dialogue partners have shared corresponding views of life and peace. In fact, he has met with figures whose ideas sharply differ from his own. Yet, regardless of the person’s background or belief system, President Ikeda, through his unceasing efforts to emphasize people’s common humanity, has underscored that dialogue has the power to create a more peaceful world.


Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee was born in London on April 14, 1889. He served humanity as a journalist and historian, whose primary concern was how to raise the conscience of humanity to a level where war would never again occur. He traveled extensively to many countries to make friends with people of different backgrounds and gain a deep understanding of various cultures.

Dr. Toynbee was especially fascinated with Japanese culture, leading him to take three trips to Japan. During his third visit in 1967, he learned about the Soka Gakkai through discussions with religious scholars. Two years later, President Ikeda received a letter from Dr. Toynbee, inviting the Soka Gakkai president to his home in London. The two met from May 5–9, 1972, and then again from May 15–19, 1973, spending more than 40 hours in discussion.

The dialogue spanned many topics concerning the future of humanity, including the nature of human beings, the natural environment, health, education, politics, religion, literature and issues of war and peace. In reading the dialogue, we observe that President Ikeda and Dr. Toynbee didn’t agree on certain issues, however, in each instance, they came to a common understanding based on their mutual desire for peace and human happiness.

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. (See excerpts of the dialogue on pp. 18–21 of the May 2017 Living Buddhism.)

As their dialogue drew to a close, President Ikeda asked Dr. Toynbee, “As your student, what grade would you give me?” Dr. Toynbee responded that he would give him an A, and went on to explain the origin of the letter A, which is the head of an ox, its horns turned upside down. The letter expresses strength of will and determination. President Ikeda responded with a determination of his own: “To me, the horns of the ox symbolize the fighting spirit to courageously challenge any evil or injustice. Having received an A from you, Dr. Toynbee, I am further determined to struggle against all negative forces that seek to bring suffering to humanity” (The New Human Revolution, vol. 16, p. 169).

After parting ways, Dr. Toynbee handed a list of potential dialogue partners to a staff member supporting President Ikeda in the hopes that he would meet with them. This friendship with Dr. Toynbee opened the gates of dialogue that President Ikeda has continued to pursue with influential figures from all over the world, paving a direct path to peace for all humanity.


Today, courageous dialogue has the power to melt the icy walls of hatred and mistrust that divide people along superficial lines. President Ikeda has described the Buddhist perspective of dialogue, saying: “Dialogue involves learning from others. It requires SGI-USA members respect for others” (March 18, 2011, World Tribune, p. 5). Dialogue is not simply a conversation or verbal exchange. Rather, dialogue comes from the shared wish of two people to respect one another, learn from one another and mutually grow as a result of their interaction.

It’s easy for people to associate with others who think like them, or find amusement in berating the ideas of those who are different. This attitude, however, is antithetical to the Buddhist spirit of dialogue. In a sense, regardless of how noble one’s beliefs, they only take shape when a person is willing to engage in dialogue with someone with whom they disagree on certain issues.

The German literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe responded to a friend who confided that he had nothing to do with those beyond his inner circle, saying: “It is in conflict with nature opposed to his own that a man must collect his strength to fight his way through; and thus all our different sides are brought out and developed, so that we soon feel ourselves a match for every foe. You should do the same; you have more capacity for it than you imagine; indeed, you must at all events plunge into the great world, whether you like it or not” (December 2013 Living Buddhism, p. 32). Nichiren Daishonin, likewise, discusses how this sort of dialogue can enrich our lives, when he declares: “In this age as well, it is not one’s allies but one’s powerful enemies who assist one’s progress” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 770).

We learn here, that coming into contact with those who think differently from us is in fact an exhilarating opportunity to further develop our capabilities to work for the happiness and peace of humanity.

In his 2017 New Year’s message, President Ikeda called on SGI members around the world to “work even harder to reach out in dialogue based on respect for others, transcending all differences” (January 1, 2017, World Tribune, p. 3). This call is in complete accord with Nichiren Daishonin’s philosophy of humanism. Through studying this feature on President Ikeda’s approach to dialogue, let’s reaffirm our conviction that courageous and compassionate dialogue with all people is the direct path to kosen-rufu.


(pp. 12–13)