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Global Perspective

Radicalism Reconsidered

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Just over a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ikeda Sensei delivered a lecture at Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts institution with a curricular emphasis on government and international relations, among other disciplines. In his talk, “In Search of New Principles of Integration,”[1] Sensei juxtaposed revolutionary radicalism, which tends to deny “the human capacity to create our own destiny through our own efforts,” with gradualism, of which dialogue is the most potent weapon.

And he touched on one of the central teachings of Buddhism, the Ten Worlds, concluding that the most critical point is which of those states forms the basis for our lives. As Buddhism offers a way of life centered on the highest states, that of bodhisattva and Buddhahood, it becomes possible to shape and direct the human experience through an elevated consciousness. “I am confident,” he says, “that Buddhism can deeply affect the formation of character, which is the key to the restoration of human wholeness.”[2]

Linus Pauling, then 91, in his commentary following the lecture, expressed his conviction that the bodhisattva spirit is key to human happiness: “I think it is [important] to strive to attain this realm of human existence—number nine, the bodhisattva state—and act accordingly.”[3]

Sensei later wrote that his 1993 speech focused on “three crucial aspects to the practice and norms of a humanism that is rooted in Buddhism: 1) a gradualist approach; 2) an emphasis on dialogue; and 3) a focus on personal character or integrity as a pivotal value.”[4] What follows are key excerpts from his speech that elaborate on these points.

Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

1. The Case for Gradualism 

Among its constant features, history has demonstrated cycles of coming together and breaking apart, integration and disintegration, but now we face the prospect of pitching into a level of global chaos from which there may be no recovery. I refer to the extremely potent disintegrative forces of national and ethnic fundamentalism, which, in the wake of the Cold War, are emerging to fill the vacuum left by the abandonment of ideology as the ersatz principle around which our world was ordered and integrated.

At each important juncture in recent history—the liberation of Eastern Europe, the peaceful birth of a reunified Germany, and the end of the Gulf War—we have heard discussions of the need for a vision on which to base a new international order. But dreams have rapidly faded, and still we are searching blindly for the outlines, having achieved only a general agreement that whatever form a new order takes, the United Nations will play a central role.

Our world can be likened to the scorched earth that is left after a brush fire. If we are to sow this desolate bed with the seeds for new growth, we cannot depend on the old guidelines. We must put our full energies into the task of discovering new principles of integration for our world.

Peoples and nations have only just begun to awaken from their long intoxication with ideology. Several of my friends from the former Soviet Union have used the parable of the bed of Procrustes to describe the domination and victimization of people by ideology.[5] When we pause to think of the enormous sacrifice and the toll of human suffering that have been the price of attachment to ideology, it is clear that the search for integrating principles must be conducted with great caution. This search cannot be transcendent but must be entirely human in scale, directed at our inner lives.[6]

In an interview published in the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper, the Seikyo Shimbun, pioneer researcher in psychopharmacology Joel Elkes astutely observed: “Healing is a restoration to the whole …The words healing, whole and holy all derive from the same root. To be holy is to be complete, connected as a person and with other persons, connected with the planet. Pain is a signal that the part has become loose from the whole.”[7] This observation applies not just to physiological pain but to all that ails our contemporary civilization, whose fundamental pathogenesis can be found in the breakdown of human wholeness. …

In the final chapter of his admonitory work Apocalypse, D. H. Lawrence repeats his frequent appeal for a restoration of wholeness, delineating the problem with great clarity: “What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolated salvation of his ‘soul.’ … What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money and reestablish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.”[8] … 

“Human wholeness” refers to that vibrant state of being where we can absorb and embody the immanent rhythms of cosmic life in new patterns of action and activity, and in so doing, give vital meaning to history and traditions. The experience of human wholeness is one of deep fulfillment, enabling us to manifest the qualities—such as composure and generosity, tolerance and consideration—that have been considered virtues since ancient times.[9]

How can we restore wholeness to the human condition without jeopardizing the benefits of modernization, among them the work being done to eliminate hunger and disease? It is my belief that balanced, steady gradualism will allow us to rein in the terrible momentum of disintegration and develop new principles of integration. Such an approach may strike some as circuitous, but in the long run it represents the most direct and fundamental way to provide lasting solutions for the ills of our age. As we take on the challenge of this daunting task, there are a number of points to consider, the first of which is the importance of the gradualist approach to change.

The year before last, the 70-year experiment of communism in the Soviet Union culminated in abject failure. Some observers remarked that the Russians had ended the process started by the French Revolution. In other words, the dissolution of the Soviet Union thoroughly undercut attempts to view history as a linear, causal process in which, for example, the bourgeois revolution in France must inevitably lead to a proletariat revolution in Russia. To me, such a diagnosis of the failure of what might be called the “radical rationalist approach to history” is convincing. …

There is a natural relation between rationalism and radicalism. If all events can be understood by rational processes, from which the blueprints for a rationalist utopia can be drawn, theoretically they can be sped up, and the sooner the utopia is realized, the better. Equally natural is the quick resort to force in dealing with counter-revolutionary elements who refuse to adopt this utopian vision as their own.

This kind of radicalism does not necessarily have general appeal. Consider, for example, the words of the Kyrgyzstan-born novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, one of the leading lights of contemporary Russian literature. In the dialogue he and I have carried on over the past several years, Aitmatov has written: “A piece of fatherly advice: revolution is riot. Young people, put no trust in social revolutions! For nations, people and society, it is mass sickness, mass violence and general catastrophe. We Russians have learned this fully. Seek instead democratic reformation as the way to bloodless evolution and the gradual rebuilding of society.” [10]

Not only revolutionary radicalism but any worldview that bases itself on “historical inevitability” fundamentally denies the human capacity to create our own destiny through our own efforts. We must always resist the temptation to treat individual lives or history as mere objective things or facts; their truth can only be known through active, living engagement and participation. To be of real and lasting value, change must be gradual and inspired from within. The application of external, coercive force will always destroy some aspect of our total humanity and compromise the balance and integrity of life. [11]

2. ‘Death-Defying Dialogue’

Let me also stress that just as radicalism is fated by its nature to resort to violence and terror, the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the gradualist is dialogue. In Socrates, we see the steadfast commitment to dialogue, to verbal combat from which there is no retreat, and an intensity that is, in some literal sense, “death-defying.” Such dialogue can be sustained only by resources of spiritual energy and strength far greater and deeper than will be found among those who so quickly turn to violence. …

We are not born human in any but a biological sense; we can only learn to know ourselves and others and thus be trained in the ways of being human. We do this by immersion in the ocean of language and dialogue fed by the springs of cultural tradition.

I am reminded of the beautiful and moving passage in Phaedo in which Socrates teaches his youthful disciples that hatred of language and ideas (misology) leads to antipathy toward humanity (misanthropy).[12] The mistrust of language that gives birth to a misologist is but the inverse of an excessive belief in the power of language. The two are different aspects of the same thing, which is a frailty of spirit unable to cope with the stresses of human proximity brought about by dialogue. Such spiritual weakness causes a person to vacillate between undue trustfulness and suspicion of other people, thus becoming easy prey for the forces of disintegration.

To be worthy of the name dialogue, our efforts for dialogue’s sake must be carried through to the end. To refuse peaceful exchange and choose force is to compromise and give in to human weakness; it is to admit the defeat of the human spirit. Socrates encourages his youthful disciples to train and strengthen themselves spiritually, to maintain hope and self-control, to advance courageously choosing virtue over material wealth, truth over fame.[13]

3. The Central Importance of Character

Almost contemporaneous with the establishment of Claremont McKenna College, my mentor in life and second president of the Soka Gakkai, Josei Toda, emerged from a two-year imprisonment imposed by the forces of Japanese militarism to initiate a new humanistic movement in Japan. In his efforts, he always focused on raising people of character, one person at a time, from among the populace. I have many fond memories of this compassionate man, whose love for youth knew no bounds and who encouraged us to be great actors on the stage of life. Indeed, the power of character is like the concentrated energy of an actor who has given himself or herself entirely over to the performance. A person of outstanding character will always, even under the most difficult circumstances, retain an air of composure, ease, and even humor, like an accomplished actor playing a part. This is nothing other than the achievement of self-mastery or self-control.

Goethe, who was an outstanding stage director in addition to his other talents, responded when asked what he looked for in an actor: “Above all things, whether he had control over himself. For an actor who possesses no self-possession, who cannot appear before a stranger in his most favourable light, has, generally speaking, little talent. His whole profession requires continual self-denial.”[14][15]

One of the central teachings of Buddhist philosophy bears directly on the question of character formation. Buddhism classifies the states of life that constitute human experience into ten worlds or realms. …

Within each of these ten states or worlds is likewise to be found the full spectrum of the Ten Worlds. In other words, the state of hell contains within it every state from hell to Buddhahood. In the Buddhist view, life is never static but is in constant flux, effecting a dynamic, moment-by-moment transformation among the states. The most critical point, then, is which of these ten states, as they exist in the vibrant flow of life, forms the basis for our own lives? Buddhism offers a way of life centered on the highest states, those of bodhisattvas and Buddhahood, as an ideal of human existence. Emotions—joy and sorrow, pleasure and anger—are of course the threads from which life’s fabric is woven, and we continue to experience the full span of the Ten Worlds. These experiences, however, can be shaped and directed by the pure and indestructible states of bodhisattvas and Buddhahood. Nichiren Daishonin, whose Buddhist teaching is the basis of our SGI organization, did more than merely preach this doctrine; he lived it, providing a remarkable model for the future. When, for example, he was about to be executed by the iniquitous authorities of the time, he reproached his lamenting disciples saying, “What greater joy could there be?” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, 767). After overcoming the greatest trial of his life, he even had sake brought for the soldiers who had been escorting him to his execution.

Because of these qualities, I am confident that Buddhism can deeply affect the formation of character, which is the key to the restoration of human wholeness. As a practitioner of Buddhism, it is my hope that, together with our distinguished friends gathered here today, we will set off on a courageous journey in search of those new principles of integration that will determine the fate of humankind in the coming century. I would like to close by quoting a passage from a poem by Walt Whitman, whose poetry I have read and loved since my youth.

I see male and female everywhere,
I see the serene brotherhood of philosophs,
I see the constructiveness of my race,
I see the results of the perseverance and  
industry of my race,
I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations,
I go among them,
I mix indiscriminately,
And I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.[16][17]

From the March 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. Ikeda Sensei delivered the lecture on January 29, 1993, at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. His talk was later published under the title “Radicalism Reconsidered.” ↩︎
  2. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, p. 238. ↩︎
  3. February 2023 Living Buddhism, p. 60. ↩︎
  4. 2006 Peace Proposal. <accessed on January 18, 2024>. ↩︎
  5. Procrustes was a mythical Greek robber who stretched or lopped off the limbs of his “guests” in order to make them fit the size of his bed. ↩︎
  6. MDFA, fourth edition, pp. 229–30. ↩︎
  7. Joel Elkes, interview, Seikyo Shimbun, July 8, 1992. ↩︎
  8. D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 125. ↩︎
  9. MDFA, fourth edition, p. 231. ↩︎
  10. Chingiz Aitmatov and Daisaku Ikeda, Ode to the Grand Spirit, trans. Richard L. Gage (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 30. ↩︎
  11. MDFA, fourth edition, pp. 232–34. ↩︎
  12. The Portable Plato, ed. Scott Buchanan, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 238. ↩︎
  13. MDFA, fourth edition, pp. 235–36. ↩︎
  14. Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, trans. John Oxenford, ed. J. K. Moorhead (London: Everyman’s Library, 1972), 100. ↩︎
  15. MDFA, fourth edition, pp. 236–37. ↩︎
  16. Walt Whitman, “Salut au Monde!” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Pocket Books, 2006), 161–62. ↩︎
  17. MDFA, fourth edition, pp. 237–39. ↩︎

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