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Ikeda Sensei

A Life Dedicated to Dialogue (Part 1)

Photo by Nazar Rybak / Getty Images.

Joyfully communicating
with many people,
take action
as wonderful
champions of youth.

Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), whose work I took great pleasure in reading in my youth, emphasized the importance of conversing with others. He said: “To my taste, the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.”[1] I agree. Conversation, dialogue, always brings fresh, new discoveries.

“Let’s talk!”—with this invigorating spirit, my dialogue with the eminent British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975) began, as if we were embarking on a stirring musical duet. In our dialogue, which was held in May 1972 and 1973 and totaled more than 40 hours, we discussed, with deepening mutual understanding and sympathy, a wide variety of subjects, including humanity and the world, history and the future, life and the universe.

On our last day together, the 84-year-old Professor Toynbee clasped my hand and said to me, “My young friend, I hope you will continue to engage in dialogues like this with people throughout the world.” I was 45 at the time. I took his words as his final injunction to me. The melodies of dialogue that Dr. Toynbee hoped I would create have now become a magnificent symphony that resonates across the globe and continues into the present century.

The chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
resounds vibrantly
far and wide,
forming a golden bridge
of  peace and culture.

The English word dialogue derives from the Greek dialogos, meaning “through discourse meaning is shared.” Dialogue is not simply two people asserting their opinions, nor is it just a simple exchange of words. Through conversing, we can gain a shared insight into each other’s point of view and intent. It is also a process of creating something of new and positive value.

Where dialogue is absent, stagnation sets in. Where dialogue is lively, fresh energy flows. My mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, said: “We are entering an age of dialogue. Conversing with others is a way to voice our ideals and bring people together.” He also said: “If the founders of all the world’s religions were to assemble in one place, I am sure they would converse with each other in a spirit of great compassion and mutual respect. I am also certain that, for the sake of enduring happiness for all humanity, they would work together to put an end to war, violence and conflict.” This was also a conviction voiced by founding Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo Makiguchi during World War II.

As the disciple of Mr. Makiguchi and Mr. Toda, I have engaged in dialogues with world leaders and thinkers in every field—to date, the number of such discourses exceeds 7,000. Presently, I am conducting a dialogue by correspondence with former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, a philosopher-statesman, on the subject of Islam and Buddhism.

The world is a big place filled with many different kinds of people. Speaking with others is to learn from others. It is how we deepen our understanding and respect for one another. Through dialogue, we can make friends with people from all walks of life and in all corners of the globe.

The voice does the Buddha’s work—
your good fortune and benefit from such efforts
will endure throughout the three existences.

Socrates, the outstanding master of dialogue, said that there is no greater misfortune for a human being than having an aversion to debate and discussion.[2] Dialogue can serve as a bastion against all forms of violence that threaten the dignity and sanctity of life.

Nichiren Daishonin’s treatise “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land,” in which he denounces the devilish nature of the authorities of his day, is written in a question-and-answer format, a dialogue between a host and a guest. Its presentation in this format can be taken as a clarion call by the Daishonin for the rulers of the day to recognize the importance of dialogue.

“On Establishing the Correct Teaching” opens with the passage: 

Once there was a traveler who spoke these words in sorrow to his host: In recent years, there have been unusual disturbances in the heavens, strange occurrences on earth, famine and pestilence, all affecting every corner of the empire and spreading throughout the land. (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 6) 

The starting point for this dialogue is sorrowful indignation at the tragic state of affairs in society and empathy for the suffering people. If such a common sentiment is shared, it becomes possible to engage in sincere and honest dialogue as fellow human beings regardless of our differences.

Last year (2008), I was interviewed by the popular Korean magazine Wolgan Chosun (Monthly Chosun). One of the questions I was asked was, “What is the key to a successful dialogue?” I replied that all human beings, no matter what their social standing or their beliefs, experience what Buddhism describes as the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. When we engage in dialogue, we should bear in mind that we are talking to another person who, like ourselves, inevitably faces these sufferings. If we can do so, I said, we can communicate with anyone.

We practice Nichiren Buddhism, which illuminates the essence of life, and we actively strive to change society for the better based on the principle of “establishing the correct teaching for the peace of the land.” Regardless of whom we meet, we need never feel shy or intimidated. We can speak confidently and freely with the aim of contributing positively to people’s lives and society as a whole.  

During the dialogue that takes place in “On Establishing the Correct Teaching,” the guest grows angry on several occasions when his positions are refuted by the host. The host knows what needs to be said and is prepared to say it, no matter how the guest might react. When the guest becomes enraged, the host calmly accepts his anger and, by doing so, wins his heart over, thereby lifting the dialogue to a new level. Eventually, the guest comes to understand and appreciate the host’s position and the two resolve to walk the path toward peace together. 

This kind of open dialogue brims with the conviction that everyone possesses the Buddha nature, even those who may not at first agree with our views. Everyone has different experiences and viewpoints, and each person is unique. When we pursue dialogue grounded in the principles of Buddhism, we don’t focus on such differences. Our main aims are to awaken the other person’s Buddha nature and to bring individuals together in the cause of realizing peace and happiness for all people based on humanistic principles. This is the purpose of dialogue for us. Such is the noble art of dialogue that the Daishonin magnificently demonstrated in his own life. 

I first visited Moscow 35 years ago, in 1974. During that trip, I met and spoke with Ivan Kovalenko (1919–2005), a top official dealing with Asian affairs in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. As we spoke, Mr. Kovalenko began to forcefully criticize the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty that was being negotiated. This was at a time when the tensions between the Soviet Union and China were running extremely high.

Pounding his fist on the table, Mr. Kovalenko shouted: “President Ikeda! The Soviet Union can destroy Japan. Should we go to war against each other again?” He was a key figure in Soviet relations with Japan, and had a reputation for his intimidating style of diplomacy. While he continued hitting the table, his eyes flashing, I asked with a smile, “Doesn’t your hand hurt?”

He looked perplexed, the wind clearly having been taken out of his sails. Through this interaction, we gradually became close enough to speak frankly and openly with each other. We were thus able to embark on a truly humanistic exchange.

To be continued in an upcoming issue.

March 1, 2024, World Tribune, pp. 2–3


  1. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, translated and edited by M. A. Screech (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 1045. ↩︎
  2. See Plato, Phaedo, in Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, translated by Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 309. ↩︎

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