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Global Perspective

The Three Transformations: Freeing Humanity From Warfare and Violence

At the East-West Center, Ikeda Sensei discusses the departure point for lasting peace and human security: the renewal and invigoration of the human being.

In October 1960, Ikeda Sensei began his worldwide travels for peace, starting from Hawaii. Incidentally, that same year, the U.S. Congress established the East–West Center in Honolulu to foster better relations among the U.S., Asia and the Pacific islands through “programs of cooperative study, training and research.”[1]

Thirty-five years later, on January 26, 1995, Sensei gave a lecture there, titled “Peace and Human Security: A Buddhist Perspective for the Twenty-First Century,”[2] which he began with a stark retrospective of the 20th century, “a century of war and revolutions.” He noted that accompanying the benefits of rapid scientific and technological advances were the dramatically increased lethality of weapons and the widening income gap between Northern and Southern Hemispheres that gave rise to structural violence, malnutrition and disease. Never mind the spiritual impoverishment rampant in both the East and West “that demonstrates the vacuity of mere material prosperity.”[3]

What had the 20th century gained at the cost of this staggering sacrifice of human life? The central lesson, he said, was that humanity’s most conscientious efforts for peace and happiness produced the opposite result because, while it had feverishly devoted itself to enhancing the structures of society and the state, it had avoided the fundamental issue of how to reform and revitalize the human being. Sensei continued:

Only when our efforts to reform society have as their point of departure the reformation of the inner life—human revolution—will they lead us with certainty to a world of lasting peace and true human security.[4]

Sensei then offered his perspective on the three transformations that humanity faces in the 21st century and what Buddhism can teach us about moving from “knowledge to wisdom,” “uniformity to diversity” and “national to human sovereignty.” Following are excerpts from his lecture on these points.

Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

1. From Knowledge to Wisdom

Clearly, the volume of information and knowledge possessed by humanity has increased extraordinarily compared to 100 or even 50 years ago. It can hardly be said, however, that this knowledge has led to the kind of wisdom that gives rise to human happiness. Rather, the suffering generated by the grotesque imbalance between our knowledge and our wisdom is succinctly symbolized by the fact that the most sublime fruits of our science and technology have been nuclear weapons and the widening North-South development gap to which I referred earlier.

With the advent of an increasingly knowledge-and-information-based society, it becomes all the more crucial that we develop the wisdom to master these vast resources of knowledge and information. The same communication technologies that can be used to incite terror and hatred in whole populations, for example, could just as easily produce a dramatic expansion of educational opportunity worldwide. The difference lies solely in the degree and depth of human wisdom and compassion.

The consistent intent of Buddhism is to develop the compassionate wisdom that is inherent in the depths of human life. …

A distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, and of Eastern thought in general, is the insistence that all intellectual activity be developed in intimate dialogue with such existential, subjective questions as “What is the self?” and “What is the best way to live?”[5]

Fear arises from taking up arms and preparing to strike.

There is growing concern that competition for water and other natural resources will be an increasingly frequent cause of regional conflicts. In this connection, I am reminded of the wisdom that Shakyamuni demonstrated in response to a communal conflict over water in his native state.

When his peripatetic teaching brought Shakyamuni back to Kapilavastu, he found that a drought had depleted the waters of a river running between two ethnic groups in the region, bringing them into conflict. Neither group was prepared to yield, both had taken up arms, and bloodshed seemed unavoidable.[6]

Stepping between the two factions, Shakyamuni admonished them: “Look at those who fight, ready to kill! Fear arises from taking up arms and preparing to strike.”[7]

It is precisely because you are armed that you feel fear—this clear and simple reasoning reverberated in the hearts of the conflicting parties, awakening them to the folly of their actions. Everyone put down their weapons, and friend and enemy sat down together.

When Shakyamuni spoke again, he addressed not the rights and wrongs of the immediate conflict but the primal terror of death. He spoke with power and intimacy on overcoming the foremost fear—of our own inevitable death—and on living a life of peace and security.

Of course, compared to the fierce complexity of contemporary conflicts, this episode may appear all too simplistic in its outcome. The present war in the former Yugoslavia,[8] to take but one example, has roots that reach back nearly 2,000 years. During that time, the region has seen the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian churches, the conquests of the Ottoman Turks, and in this century, the atrocities of fascism and communism. The tangled animosities of race and religion are indescribably deep and powerful. Each group emphasizes its uniqueness; each group knows and draws upon its history for justification. The result is the deadly stalemate we see today.

It is for just these reasons that I find an urgent meaning in the pattern demonstrated by Shakyamuni’s courageous dialogue. Our times demand an embracing wisdom that, rather than dividing, brings into view that which we share and hold in common as human beings.

The teachings of Buddhism offer a treasure trove of peace-oriented wisdom. Nichiren Daishonin, for example, offers this pointed insight into the relationship between the basic negative tendencies within human life and the most pressing external threats to peace and security: “In a country where the three poisons [of greed, anger and foolishness] prevail to such a degree, how can there be peace and stability? …  Famine occurs as a result of greed, pestilence as a result of foolishness, and warfare as a result of anger.”[9]

The wisdom of Buddhism enables us to break the confines of the lesser self, the private and isolated self held prisoner by its own desires, passions and hatreds. It further enables us to contextualize the deep-rooted psychology of collective identity as we expand our lives, overflowing with exuberance, toward the greater self, which is coexistent with the living essence of the universe.

This wisdom is not to be sought in some distant place but can be found within ourselves, beneath our very feet, as it were. It resides in the living microcosm within and wells forth in limitless profusion when we devote ourselves to courageous and compassionate action for the sake of humanity, society and the future. Through this kind of bodhisattva practice, we develop the wisdom to sever the shackles of ego, and the spheres of our disparate knowledge will begin to turn with vibrant balance toward a prosperous human future.[10]

2. From Uniformity to Diversity

The wisdom of Buddhism can also shed considerable light on the question of diversity. Because one central tenet of Buddhism is that universal value must be sought within the life of the individual, it works fundamentally to counter any attempt to enforce uniformity or standardization.

In the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin we find the passage “The cherry, the plum, the peach, the damson … without undergoing any change.”[11] This passage confirms that there is no need for everyone to become “cherries” or “plums” but that each should manifest the unique brilliance of their own character.

This simile points to a fundamental principle of appreciation for diversity that applies equally to human beings and to social and natural environments. As the concept of revealing one’s intrinsic nature indicates, the prime mission of Buddhism is to enable all of us to blossom to the fullest of our potential. The fulfillment of the individual, however, cannot be realized in conflict with or at the expense of others but only through active appreciation of uniqueness and difference, for these are the varied hues that together blossom into the flower gardens of life.

The Daishonin’s teachings also contain the following imagery: “It is like the situation when one faces a mirror and makes a bow of obeisance: the image in the mirror likewise makes a bow of obeisance to oneself.”[12] I think this beautifully expresses the all-encompassing causality that is the heart of Buddhism. The respect we demonstrate for the lives of others returns to us, with mirrorlike certainty, ennobling our lives.

The Buddhist principle of dependent origination reflects a cosmology in which all human and natural phenomena come into existence within a matrix of interrelatedness. Thus we are urged to respect the uniqueness of each existence, which supports and nourishes all within the larger, living whole.

What distinguishes the Buddhist view of interdependence is that it is based on a direct, intuitive apprehension of the cosmic life immanent in all phenomena. Therefore, Buddhism unequivocally rejects all forms of violence as an assault on the harmony that underlies and binds the web of being. …

By focusing on the deepest and most universal dimensions of life, we can extend a natural empathy toward life in its infinite diversity. It is the failure of empathy … that in the end makes violence possible.[13]

3. From National to Human Sovereignty

Undeniably, sovereign states and issues of national sovereignty have been the prime actors in much of the war and violence of the 20th century. Modern wars, waged as the legitimate exercise of state sovereignty, have involved entire populations willy-nilly in untold tragedy and suffering. The League of Nations and later the United Nations, each founded in the bitter aftermath of global conflict, were in a sense attempts to create an overarching system that would restrain and temper state sovereignty. We must acknowledge, however, that this bold project today remains far from the realization of its original aims. The United Nations approaches its 50th anniversary [1996] laden with a trying array of problems.

It is my belief that, if it is to become a true “parliament of humanity,” the United Nations must base itself on the so-called soft power of consensus and agreement reached through dialogue, and that the enhancement of its functions must be accompanied by a shift away from traditional, military-centered conceptualizations of security. It is to be hoped that, through the creation of a new environment and development security council, for example, the United Nations would be empowered to engage the pressing questions of human security with renewed energy and focus.

In this effort, it is essential that we effect a paradigm shift from national to human sovereignty—an idea expressed powerfully by the words We the peoples… with which the U.N. Charter opens. Concretely, we must promote the kind of grassroots education that will foster world citizens committed to the shared welfare of humanity, and we must foster solidarity among them. …

From the viewpoint of Buddhism, the transformation from state to human sovereignty comes down to the question of how to develop the resources of character that can bravely challenge and wisely temper the seemingly overwhelming powers of official authority. …

Indeed, Buddhism possesses a rich tradition of transcending secular authority and making it relative through appeals to, and reliance on, inner moral law.[14] For example, when Shakyamuni was asked by a Brahman named Sela to become a king of kings, a chief of men, Shakyamuni replied that he was already a king, a king of the supreme truth.

Equally striking is the drama of Shakyamuni halting the plans of the imperial state of Magadha to exterminate the Vajjian republics. In the presence of the minister of Magadha, who had come with brazen intent to inform Shakyamuni of the planned invasion, Shakyamuni asked his disciple seven questions about the Vajjians. With some elaboration, these are:

1. Do they value discussion and dialogue?

2. Do they value cooperation and solidarity?

3. Do they value laws and traditions?

4. Do they respect their elders?

5. Do they respect children and women?

6. Do they respect religion and spirituality?

7. Do they value people of culture and learning, whether they be Vajjian or not? Are they open to such influences from abroad?

The answer to each of these questions was yes. Shakyamuni then explained to the minister of Magadha that so long as the Vajjians continue to observe these principles, they will prosper and not decline. Thus, he explained, it will be impossible to conquer them.

These are the famous “seven principles preventing decline,” the seven guidelines by which communities prosper, expounded by Shakyamuni during his last travels.

It is interesting to note the parallels with contemporary efforts to establish security not through military might but through the promotion of democracy, social development, and human rights. This incident is also a vivid portrait of Shakyamuni’s dignity and stature as a king of the supreme truth addressing secular authority.[15]

We propagate the Buddha’s wisdom through dialogue.

The three transformations I have outlined come together in the process of human revolution, the reformation of the inner life, its expansion toward and merger with the greater self of wisdom, compassion and courage. It is my firm conviction that a fundamental revolution in the life of a single individual can give rise to the kind of consciousness and solidarity that will free humanity from its millennial cycles of warfare and violence.

During World War II, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, founder and first president of the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value-Creating Education Society), engaged in a spirited confrontation with the military authorities of Japan. Even in prison, and until his death there at age 73, he pursued principled debate, leading several among those who had judged and jailed him to appreciate and even take faith in Buddhism.

Seeking to live up to that spiritual inheritance, I began my own dialogue with the world’s citizens here in Hawaii 35 years ago. It is my determination to devote the rest of my life to the endeavor, which I hope I will share with you, of marshalling the manifest wisdom of peace to create a new era of hope and security in the coming century.

In closing, I would like to share the following words of Mahatma Gandhi, whose lifetime devotion to the themes we discussed today has long inspired my profound affection and respect: “You have to stand against the whole world although you may have to stand alone. You have to stare the world in the face although the world may look at you with bloodshot eyes. Do not fear. Trust that little thing in you which resides in your heart.”[16]

From the February 2024 Living Buddhism


  1. <accessed on December 18, 2023>. ↩︎
  2. See My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 367–79. ↩︎
  3. See Ibid., p. 368. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., p. 369. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., pp. 369–70. ↩︎
  6. See V. Fausboll, ed., The Jataka, vol. 5 (London: Luzac, 1963), 412; H. Smith, Sutta‑Nipata Commentary II Being Paramatthajotika II, 2 (London: Curzon Press, 1966), 566. ↩︎
  7. See The Sutta-Nipata, trans. H. Saddhatissa (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 1994), 109; Anderson, Dines and Helmer Smith, Suttanipata (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 182. ↩︎
  8. The Yugoslav Wars were a series of separate but related conflicts that took place in the SFR Yugoslavia from 1991–2001. ↩︎
  9. “King Rinda,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 989. ↩︎
  10. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 369–72. ↩︎
  11. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 200. ↩︎
  12. Ibid., p. 165. ↩︎
  13. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 374–75. ↩︎
  14. See “Sela Sutta,” The Sutta-Nipata, trans. H. Saddhatissa (London: Curzon Press, 1987), 65; “Maha Parinibbana Suttanta,” Dialogues of the Buddha, Part II, trans. T. W. and C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London: Henry Frowde), 78–81. ↩︎
  15. My Dear Friends in America, fourth edition, pp. 375–78. ↩︎
  16. Ibid., pp. 378–79. ↩︎

‘I am Myoho-renge-kyo!’

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