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Global Perspective

The Wisdom of Buddhist Humanism—Change Through Dialogue

Excerpts From Ikeda Sensei’s Annual Peace Proposals: Change Through Dialogue

Photo by Harli Marten / Unsplash.

In the following excerpts, Ikeda Sensei explains why dialogue with the goal of transcending national boundaries is a fundamental tool in constructing a just society.

Discussion Is the Proof of One’s Humanity (1989)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of dialogue, for I believe that the propensity for logic and discussion is the proof of one’s humanity. In other words, only when we are immersed in an ocean of language do we become truly human. In Phaedo, Plato astutely associates hatred of language (Greek misologos) with hatred of man (Greek misanthropos). To abandon dialogue is in fact to abandon being human; and if we abandon our humanity, we cease to be the agency of history, relinquishing this authority to something of a lower order, a kind of bestiality. We know only too well that history is filled with tragedies where bestiality, in the name of ideology or dogma, trampled upon humankind with brutal force and violence. …

At this point, I would like to propose a methodological concept that I believe would help guide our search for a new globalism. This is the concept of “inner universalism.”

Let us first see how this concept can be applied to the individual human being. In his writings, Nichiren Daishonin (1222–82), founder of the Buddhist school on which the SGI is based, said that the inherent dignity of one person serves as an example of all, meaning that all human beings should be regarded as equal. The idea of the absolute equality and the sanctity of all human beings expressed here, is the product of the unrelenting inward search and exploration of life itself as it is manifested in the individual. Because this view of man is internally generated it leaves no room for distinctions on the basis of such external factors as nation and race.

In my lecture at Beijing University, I characterized the traditional Chinese mode of thinking as one of “arriving at universality via particularity”; and “reaching generality through specificity.” This approach has something in common with my methodological concept of “inner universalism.” When Joseph Needham declared, in his Science and Civilization in China, that “We are in the dawn of a new universalism,” I am certain he had in mind this dynamic interplay of the universal and the particular in China’s traditional patterns of thought.

By contrast, the kind of universalism that has characterized the confrontational ideologies of the superpowers is external and transcendental as far as the individual is concerned. Both liberal democracy and Communism are by and large institutional concepts, in that they seek to control human beings from outside or from above. So while both ideologies go beyond the framework of the nation or the state, they do so in an external and transcendental manner.

Creating a Spiritual Base for Peace (1990)

One of our most important tasks today and one upon which the fate of humankind rests, is to effectively transcend national borders and to create new channels of communication to link this and other trends to the global movement.

We must begin by looking into ourselves, by examining, as Plato advocated, the “state within” even more rigorously than the “state without.” That process of introspection will, I believe, offer us important insights in defining the universal meaning of human rights. Articulating such a definition will both serve as a symbol of the movement for freedom and democracy and answer one of our most pressing needs as we stand on the threshold of the 21st century.

Half a century ago, alarmed by the advancing threat of fascism to humanist and democratic values, the British poet T.S. Eliot made a ringing appeal on radio. He said, in part:

One reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery: or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people—a clan, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth—never in oneself. …

The bodhisattva believed that since all humans possess the Buddha nature, none could be despised, that all life, all humanity had to be accorded the highest respect. Even when proud and boastful people denounced the bodhisattva, struck him with their staffs, and pelted him with stones, he still refused to disdain them, believing that to belittle them would be to belittle the Buddha. He continued to preach this doctrine, to the end, honoring respect for humanity in his every word and deed.

Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s unshakable belief that humanity should never be despised exemplifies the kind of self-control we must learn to nurture in ourselves. In the Lotus Sutra, the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging is a parable of the ultimate in Buddhist discipline, but it also is akin to Plato’s contention that we must learn to place our souls under the control of our “rational part” and illustrates the importance of self-control as a universal virtue of all humankind.

Whether we can become good citizens of the world hinges upon the degree of self-control we can achieve. It is, after all, the ability to see ourselves penetratingly that enables us to transcend national boundaries and ethnic lines. Eternal peace is not a static condition, but a continuum that is consciously maintained through the interaction of self-restraining individuals within a self-restraining society. Cooperation for peace is necessary in the areas of politics, economics and education, of course. But the building of lasting peace depends on how many people capable of self-restraint can be fostered through religious guidance. If a religion is worthy of the name, and if it is one that can respond to the needs of contemporary times, it should be able to nurture in its followers the spiritual base for becoming good citizens of the world.

Overcoming Attachment to Difference Through Dialogue (2000)

The goal of embracing Buddhism is to experience within our lives the state that [Josei] Toda described as “the common mortal enlightened since time without beginning” (Jpn kuon no bompu). In his own writings, Nichiren elucidated the concept of kuon—time without beginning—as meaning to be unadorned, in one’s primordial, original state. Thus, when we relinquish all artifice, and unleash the natural splendor that is inherent in our being, we are able to rise above our differences and see them in perspective, freeing ourselves from excessive attachment to them.

Metaphorically, intermediary causes and effects can be thought of as the stars and moon that grace the night sky, and the common mortal enlightened since time without beginning as the sun. When the dawning sun rises in the east, those celestial bodies which had been such a vivid presence through the night immediately fade into seeming nonexistence. They don’t, of course, cease to exist, but are simply overwhelmed by the light of the sun, which represents our innate vitality and wisdom. This, I believe, is the function of religious faith and practice. When I wrote earlier of a “pellucid state of life, indestructible and adamantine” and described our lives as “manifestations of the cosmic life itself, eternal and filled to overbrimming with the energy of creation,” I had in mind these treasured words of my mentor, Josei Toda.

The Buddhist law of causality—that every aspect of who we are is the result of causes we ourselves have made—and the emphasis on an inner transcendence of difference in no way mean that we should passively accept discriminatory practices. The Buddhist idea of inner causation and responsibility should never be allowed to degenerate into the kind of fatalism that causes people to turn a blind eye to real social ills. It is our natural duty to challenge such practices and prejudices and the social structures that give rise to them. Any time religion renders people passive and powerless, it deserves the dishonorable title of “opiate.”

On the most basic human level, even if the ideal of a society completely free of all discrimination were to be realized, human differences would persist. The Buddhist terms for the world which we inhabit are all words for difference, distinction and distance, reflecting an understanding that these are the elements that comprise experiential reality.

Overcoming negative forms of attachment to difference—discrimination—and bringing about a true flowering of human diversity is the key to generating a lasting culture of peace. And dialogue is the means. The Buddhist approach outlined here can, I believe, loosen the shackles of abstract concepts and language that can be so destructive. Thus freed, we can use language to the greatest effect, and can engage in the kind of dialogue that creates the greatest and most lasting value. Dialogue must be pivotal in our endeavors, reaching out to all people everywhere as we seek to forge a new global civilization.

As Nichiren wrote, “When the mind encounters good or bad causes, it creates and puts forth the aspects of good and bad” (“The Unanimous Declaration by the Buddhas,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 844). This indicates a philosophical stance that is active and engaged, whose praxis is the kind of dialogue through which even negative, destructive circumstances or conditions can be transformed into positive, creative realities and experiences.

To put this into actual practice, I have sought to promote dialogue among civilizations, meeting with individuals from every continent on Earth. I have held discussions with intellectual leaders coming from various religious backgrounds—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.—and these conversations have often been published. Based on years of such experience, I am keenly aware of the possibilities of open dialogue and the importance of its implications in society.

SGI organizations around the world are carrying out activities to create a peaceful society in their respective areas in accordance with one of the principles of the SGI Charter: “The SGI shall, based on the Buddhist spirit of tolerance, respect other religions, engage in dialogue and work together with them toward the resolution of fundamental issues concerning humanity.”

From the June 2023 Living Buddhism

Nichiren Daishonin—His Lifelong Vow and Great Compassion

Highlights of the June 2023 Study Material