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Global Perspective

The Age of Soft Power

At Harvard University, Ikeda Sensei highlights the shift from “hard power” to “soft power” as the driving force for change and discusses the role of a philosophy of self-motivation in cementing this change.

Illustration by Mohammad Anas / Fiverr.

In the years leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a belief took root that American power was in decline.[1] Some scholars argued that the United States would be surpassed militarily by the Soviet Union and economically by Japan.

Political scientist Joseph Nye expressed a different viewpoint in his 1990 book Bound to Lead, positing that soft power, or “the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than just coercion and payment,” would determine which nations would lead the 21st century.[2][3]

Ikeda Sensei’s first lecture at Harvard University, titled “The Age of Soft Power,” explores the history of power and proposes that a guiding philosophy based on inner motivation is needed to ensure that soft power shapes the future.[4]

At a seminar commemorating the 20th anniversary of this lecture, anthropologist Nur Yalman and political scientist Winston Langley pointed out that Sensei’s vision of soft power differs from that expounded by Dr. Nye, the latter being one in which hard power remains an ever-present contingency.

Sensei, in contrast, approaches soft power from the desire to speak “directly to people’s hearts” to engender an inner transformation, without which institutional efforts to build peace cannot succeed.[5]

In discussing the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth in modern terms, Sensei has equated such people to “the standard-bearers of soft power,” noting that their faith in humanity inspires them to dedicate their lives to pursuing dialogue and finding common ground.[6]

In this issue, we carry excerpts from Sensei’s Harvard lecture that speak to the vital role Buddhist thought plays in building a society undergirded by soft power, arising from the self-motivation of the individual.

Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

The recent political changes in the Soviet Union have shaken the world, calling attention to a momentous and unstoppable trend. It has been hailed as the rise of soft power. In the past, the driving force of history all too often depended on the hard power of military might, political authority and wealth. In recent years, however, the relative importance of hard power has diminished, slowly giving way to knowledge and information, culture, ideas and systems—the weapons of soft power. …

I believe we have a historical obligation to encourage the steady reduction of the use of hard power while ensuring the permanent substitution of soft power in its place.

I propose that self-motivation is what will open the way to the era of soft power. While systems depending on hard power have succeeded by using established tools of coercion to move people toward certain goals, the success of soft power is based on volition. It is an internally generated energy of will created through consensus and understanding among people. The processes of soft power unleash the inner energies of the individual. Rooted in the spirituality and religious nature of human beings, this kind of energy has traditionally been considered in philosophical themes. But without the support of a philosophical foundation to strengthen and mobilize the spiritual resources of the individual, the use of soft power would become nothing more than “fascism with a smile.”[7]

Let me offer an example to illustrate what I mean by self-motivation. In his Les provinciales (Provincial letters), [the Catholic writer] Blaise Pascal (1623–62) attacks the elaborate system of “precedents for the conscience” that were established by the Jesuits to facilitate missionary work. The nature of his attack sheds light on the fundamental difference between internally generated motivation and that which is imposed from without. The Jesuits had developed a highly elaborate system for the propagation of their faith. When expedience demanded, they went so far as to permit Christians to worship non-Christian deities. …

Pascal does not condemn the practice itself; he acknowledges that there might be times when it is necessary. The decision to do so, however, can only be reached through a process of contemplation, self-questioning, and soul-searching, which add up to the workings of the individual conscience. If a preestablished standard or precedent for such a decision is provided from without, this painful process of self-examination is avoided. Instead of developing, the conscience atrophies. …

Nineteenth-century America, while perhaps not evincing the level of purity that would have satisfied Pascal, provides one of history’s rare cases when an emphasis on the inner workings of the soul set the tenor for an entire society. Visiting the United States a half-century after its founding, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) was impressed above all by the simplicity of American religious practices and, at the same time, by their sincerity and depth of feeling. With analytical acuity, Tocqueville conveyed his impressions in Democracy in America, which contains the following passage: “It then became my object … to inquire how it happened that the real authority of religion was increased by a state of things which diminished its apparent force.”[8]

At first glance, it may appear that Alexis de Tocqueville is simply comparing the formalism of French Catholicism with the flourishing spirit of Puritanism in America. On a deeper level, however, I think that he is really praising the intensely personal religious nature that was generated from within and that, refined into its purest form, had become this country’s defining spiritual tone.[9]

After opening the country to the rest of the world in the mid-19th century, Japan plunged headlong into the task of catching up with and overtaking the industrial nations of the West. The great Japanese author Soseki Natsume (1867–1916) characterized that effort as an externally imposed process of civilization. He was right, in the sense that all the goals and models for modernization came from outside. …

Here, I would like to introduce an episode from the life of Inazo Nitobe (1862–1933), the Meiji-period educator and pioneer of Japanese-American friendship. Discussing religion with a Belgian acquaintance, Nitobe was asked whether the Japanese system provided for spiritual education. After careful consideration, Nitobe answered that, from the early-17th through the 19th centuries, it was Bushido, or the way of the samurai, and not religion per se, that had shaped the spiritual development of the Japanese people. In 1899, Nitobe published an English-language book titled Bushido, the Soul of Japan: An Exposition of Japanese Thought. 

There are a number of points in common between the spirituality of Bushido and the philosophy of Protestantism and Puritanism. In part, this accounts for the enthusiasm with which the writings of Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) were received in Meiji Japan. More important here, however, the spiritual development of the Japanese people, guided in part by the ideals of Bushido, was largely inwardly directed. Inner motivation implies self-control; one acts in a correct and responsible manner not because one is forced to but spontaneously and on one’s own volition. …

Because the Japanese people of that period were motivated from within, they were able to attain a high degree of self-control and self-mastery. These qualities are among the best expressions of humanity, insofar as they help to create smoother social relations and less anxiety in personal contacts. Self-control and inner motivation as social ideals gave birth to a culture of distinctive beauty in Japan. It was noticed by many, among them Edward S. Morse (1838–1925), a graduate of Harvard and pioneer in archaeology in Japan. He wrote prolifically about the surprising beauty he found in the life and ways of ordinary Japanese. Walt Whitman (1819–92) was likewise struck by the air of dignity he sensed in the Japanese emissaries he saw walking the avenues of Manhattan. …

The necessary inwardly generated self-control has been conspicuously lacking in modern Japan. Without it, Japan has tended to swing widely between extremes of overconfidence and timidity. Sometimes the nation has seemed unnecessarily obsequious in its relations with other countries, in particular with the West. Now we see an oddly resurgent arrogance based on nothing more than the most recent Gross National Product statistics. The approaching 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a painful reminder of the enormous horror and destruction that the absence of self-control can cause. …

The task that confronts us now is to revive the innate sources of human energy in a world marked by a deepening sense of spiritual desiccation. This task will not be an easy one, either for Japan or for the United States. Much depends on the attitudes we take. In that respect, the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, which shows how profoundly and inextricably our fates are interwoven, can make an important contribution.[10]

One of the most important Buddhist concepts, dependent origination holds that all beings and phenomena exist or occur in relation to other beings or phenomena. All things are linked in an intricate web of causation and connection, and nothing, whether in the realm of human affairs or natural phenomena, can exist or occur solely of its own accord. Greater emphasis is placed on the interdependent relationships between individuals than on the individual alone. As astute Western observers like Henri Bergson (1859– 1941) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) have noted, however, overemphasis on interdependence can submerge the individual and reduce one’s capacity for positive engagement in the world. Passivity, in fact, has been a pronounced historical tendency in Buddhist-influenced cultures. The deeper essence of Buddhism, however, goes beyond passivity to offer a level of interrelatedness that is uniquely dynamic, holistic and generated from within.

We have noted that encounters between different cultures are not always amicable. The reality of opposing interests and even hostility must be acknowledged. What can be done to promote harmonious relationships? An episode from the life of Shakyamuni may help. Shakyamuni was once asked the following question: “We are told that life is precious. And yet all people live by killing and eating other living beings. Which living beings may we kill and which living beings must we not kill?” To this simple expression of doubt, Shakyamuni replied, “It is enough to kill the will to kill.”[11]

Shakyamuni’s response is neither evasion nor deception but is based on the concept of dependent origination. He is saying that, in seeking the kind of harmonious relationship expressed by respect for the sanctity of life, we must not limit ourselves to the phenomenal level where hostility and conflict (in this case, which living beings it is acceptable to kill and which not) undeniably exist. We must seek harmony on a deeper level—a level where it is truly possible to “kill the will to kill.” …

The teachings of Nichiren Buddhism include the passage “Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment.”[12] In other words, Buddhism regards life and its environment as two integral aspects of the same entity. The subjective world of the self and the objective world of its environment are not in opposition, nor are they a duality. Instead, their relationship is characterized by inseparability and indivisibility. Neither is this unity a static one in which the two realms merge as they become objectified. The environment, which embraces all universal phenomena, cannot exist except in a dynamic relationship with the internally generated activity of life itself. In practical terms, the most important question for us as individuals is how to activate the inner sources of energy and wisdom existing within our lives. …

Our society today urgently needs the kind of inwardly directed spirituality to strengthen self-control and restraint. It is a quality that deepens our respect for the dignity of life. In a world where interpersonal relationships are becoming increasingly tenuous, greater self-control and discipline would also help restore and rejuvenate endangered feelings, including friendship, trust and love, for without them there can be no rewarding and meaningful bonds between people.

It is my hope and my conviction that we will see a revival of philosophy in the broadest, Socratic meaning of the word. An age of soft power with its source in this kind of philosophy will bear true and rich fruit. In an age when national borders are breaking down, each of us will need the integrity of an internalized philosophy to qualify us for world citizenship. In that sense, those great standard-bearers of American thought, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, were all citizens of the world.[13]

From the May 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. Joseph Nye, “Soft Power: the origins and political progress of a concept.” Palgrave Communications 3, 17008 (February 21, 2017). ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (Basic Books, 1990). ↩︎
  4. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 126–36. ↩︎
  5. <accessed on March 12, 2024>. ↩︎
  6. Daisaku Ikeda, “Toward a Culture of Peace: A Cosmic View” (1999 Peace Proposal). ↩︎
  7. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 126–27. ↩︎
  8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 1:309. ↩︎
  9. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 127–29. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., 130–33. ↩︎
  11. Ibid., 133–34. ↩︎
  12.  “On Omens,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 644. ↩︎
  13. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 134–35. ↩︎

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