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Global Perspective

Moral Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993. Photo by Boris Spremo / Contributor / Getty Images.

Ikeda Sensei has had dialogues with leading figures throughout the world to strengthen and advance peace. To date, more than 80 of his dialogues have been published in book form. This series highlights one dialogue a month.

The following excerpts are from Moral Lessons of the Twentieth Century (pp. 18–20), a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the last president of the Soviet Union.

The Tragedy of War and the Philosophy of Peace

Ikeda Sensei meets for the first time with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, July 1990. Photo by Seikyo Press.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Extremism is as tenacious as the seduction of easy solutions. In the 20th century, countless people suffered because of the naïve belief in miraculous one-stroke solutions to all difficulties. In each new generation there are always radicals calling for a complete break with the past, a profound upheaval. Such people believe that the greater the destruction of the past, the greater the hope that the future will flourish.

That is all nonsense and deception. Deep roots in the past make the new durable. Only gradual, evolutional reforms ensure the irreversibility of change. The 19th and 20th century conviction that the most radical, the most revolutionary acts guarantee the endurance of change and progress was false. We can now say that evolutionary development and gradual reform consonant with the nature of humanity and social life are more effective than the revolutionary quest.

Although we learned important things from the 20th century, we have not found the whole truth. In many instances, the wisdom of the future must be founded on the wisdom of the past.

Daisaku Ikeda: My belief and long-standing convictions are in moderation and the principles of gradual change. … Though to some they seem fossil, in fact the principles of the gradual and moderate embody profound human wisdom.

Of course, mere slowness does not represent the principle of gradualness. Physical speed is not the issue. The essential thing is for development to be both gradual and, first and foremost, in the best interests of humanity. Reforms, progress and development must be made for the sake, not at the cost, of human happiness. Developers must not limit their sights to their own aims or strive blindly to achieve given results without taking human well-being into consideration. We must remember that everything must be done for humanity. This is my understanding of the principle of gradualness.

The principle of gradualness is brilliantly illustrated by Shakyamuni’s method of teaching as described in the Lotus Sutra. Conscious of the imperative need to make widely available the truth he himself had attained, Shakyamuni taught that the road to Enlightenment is open to everyone. This means that each individual human being is of priceless importance. Many people are accustomed to thinking of beings like the Buddha or God as abiding in some distant place, inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Unable to divest themselves of such preconceptions, Shakyamuni’s audience found his idea startling and hard to understand. At first, Shakyamuni gives them a theoretical explanation. Since only one person in the audience understood, he moves on to parables through which he hoped to convince those who could not or would not grasp the essence of his message. …

Thus Shakyamuni, the Enlightened One, strove to lead people to understand, accept and enthusiastically practice his philosophy of self-perfection. He did not compel. He did not condescend. Nor did he speak for his own enjoyment, ignoring the inability of people to understand the essence of his teaching. His soul was constantly troubled to find a way to transmit the truth that enables them to enter the orbit of happiness. Skillful use of parables and persuasion are the hallmarks of the compassionate and gradual method he employed to achieve this aim.

In connection with your comments on radicalism and extremism, I might say that nothing—not even scientific ideas—instilled in human consciousness by means of violence endures. Contemporary radicalism falls into the trap of mistaking knowledge for wisdom. Certainly, human knowledge has grown incredibly in many areas. Knowledge alone, however, does not necessarily bring wisdom. Indeed, wisdom is not infrequently inversely proportional to knowledge. It can be said that, when bloated and arrogant, knowledge desiccates wisdom. Contemporary radicalism errs by equating the two and trying to force social change according to plans compiled solely on the basis of knowledge. Advocates of this ideology think that the faster recognized goals are attained, the better. They also think it is permissible to use force to compel others to see eye to eye with them. Such radicalism has spilled seas of blood and caused untold suffering.

Gorbachev: Struggle and conflicts burn up the diversity of life, leaving only a social desert behind. Today, a caring attitude toward Nature presupposes a solicitous and caring attitude toward humanity, with all its inherent passions and contradictions of worth and weakness. This means getting to know humanity in order to live in harmony with ourselves, to control ourselves and to perfect our volition. We must not seek to destroy or remake or to demand the impossible of humanity. The idea of the omnipotent god-man endowed with all rights is extremely dangerous and can be fatal.

On the basis of our post-communist experience, we in Russia have become convinced that radicalism and revolutionary extremism can assume the most unexpected and cynical forms. Violence against what is owned by society is just as pernicious as destruction of what belongs to the individual. In both instances, the human being is the victim. This is why the struggle with the philosophy of violence is always topical.

Deep roots in the past make the new durable. Only gradual, evolutional reforms ensure the irreversibility of change.

Mikhail Gorbachev

March 2, 1931–

Notable Achievements

Was the last president of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991.

His domestic policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) allowed for enhanced freedom of speech and of the press, while decentralizing economic decision making.

Was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his diplomacy that led to the end of the Cold War.

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