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Interview with Professor Jim Garrison
June 28, 2011

[The following is taken from a phone interview with Dr. Jim Garrison, professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, USA, conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Dialogue, and Learning.]

Masao Yokota: I speak with many people who continue to be inspired by your dialogue with President Ikeda.

Jim Garrison: That was an intense discussion and I have not learned all there is to learn from it. It really had quite an effect on me.

Masao Yokota: Ikeda’s goal when he was in his 60s was to establish a foundation for the global peace movement; in his 70s, his goal was to establish a philosophy of new humanism; and in his 80s, I understand, he is determined to continue to take the lead in the global movement with the spirit of eternal youth. It is this idea of a “spirit of eternal youth” that I’d like to discuss with you. You mentioned that when Ikeda talked about his mentor, Josei Toda, his eyes transformed into the eyes of 19-year-old youth.

Jim Garrison: He wasn’t just telling a story, he was re-experiencing the event. He’s told that story [of his first encounter with Toda as a 19-year-old] many times; it’s well known. But it is new every time. I think seeing the world anew every day, as something new and fresh, is critical to the “spirit of eternal youth.” And in a certain sense I could see the boy in the man.

Something else that I saw and have reflected on is that he’s very playful. That’s the youthful spirit. The world is frightened of the spirit of play because this spirit is claiming that the greatest beliefs and values of the world can be challenged. But Ikeda embraces the spirit of play, even mischievousness, a sort of impish playfulness--not mean-spirited, it’s as far as you can be from that. That playfulness actually is critical because you cannot be creative if you can’t be playful and see things anew and fresh. It is not childishness but a child-likeness and a playfulness.

Another thing I have reflected on is that we were in this room in a very formal setting, yet it was as though there were long intervals--ten and fifteen minute intervals--when it was as though it was only he and I in the room. That again is the perception of youth. It’s intense. It’s engrossed. It’s curious even. He wanted to get to know me. There is only going to be one of me and he wanted to know me in my uniqueness, not just as an emissary or a scholar. It is almost like this mischievous, playful boy that just wanted to have some fun with a good conversation, where he could play with someone else. That left an intense impression on me. It was like he doesn’t recognize things, he cognizes them; he doesn’t classify you, he gets to know you as a particular. That is critical for creativity. It was really a wonderful experience and I have been unfolding what it means ever since.

Something else, too--his approach to people is he is going to trust you first. Of course, we are wary as adults. We have all been harmed, and President Ikeda has been incredibly harmed by people and organizations he has trusted. Yet he has not allowed this to make him jaded or distrustful. There is almost a naïve trust there. But of course it is a naïve trust informed with experience and wisdom.

The word I like is “anew.” He sees everything new and fresh and that allows him to be a creator.

This is critical for value creation. The ability to see every situation as new and approach it with a playful attitude means you can see the possibilities where others wouldn’t any longer. That allows you to create and recreate new belief and value and to respond to the needs of the time--to foster peace, education and dialogue. It is the perfect context for creating dialogue: “I don’t want to go to work with you; I want to go play with you and we will see what we can create together.” He wasn’t lecturing me on Buddhism or Nichiren Buddhism or Soka Gakkai or anything. That playfulness, the mischievousness, the ability to be both fresh and new was inside of our interaction. That is exactly what you need for creative dialogue so that you can create value and dialogue with others.

The personal encounter, to me, was almost the very thing that Soka Gakkai does when it does it spiritually well.

He also has extraordinary moral perception. That is a buddha-esque quality. I am not saying he is the Buddha any more than any of us have Buddha potential in us. He is able to see particulars very well. Not abstractions but particular individuals and particular situations, and see them for who and what they are. Not judgmentally but just simply to perceive them. I think also he has rich moral imagination, a moral perception.

What the Buddha does is the right thing in the right way at the right time, because he or she perceives the uniqueness of the situation and has the imagination to choose the best possibility. I don’t know Buddhism but in a certain sense that is what the Buddha would have to be like. This requires seeing the situation for its uniqueness, fresh and new, and to be playful in it rather than to be overly serious in it. “These are the principles of my religion and I am not violating them for anyone”--that’s seriousness. Playfulness is asking oneself, “What can I do to ameliorate the situation for the good of us all?” Again it is playful. It is creative but it requires freshness of perception.

So when I went back and looked at that exchange in terms of what it has come to mean to me over this time, in a certain sense the two words “eternal youth” almost capture it.

It has taken me quite a while to fully understand what that interaction meant. No one ever fully understands what a rich interaction means. They just know that they have received gifts and hopefully have given a gift.

Yokota: One part of the dialogue that many people have been struck by was your conversation on the mentor-disciple relationship. How do you think the disciple or student can most valuably respond to or learn from the mentor’s spirit of youthfulness?

Garrison: In a certain sense knowledge is important. Ikeda attended “Toda University” and has over 300 honorary doctorate degrees to prove that it was a good education. But wisdom of course is always beyond knowledge. What he really was able to do was to absorb the spirit of Toda. I might add and through Toda the spirit of Makiguchi and through both of them the spirit of Nichiren and Nichiren Buddhism.

That is critical because these things are ultimately passed down in face-to-face relationships. I have met many, many people that have interacted with Ikeda personally and like me remember it, even if it was only for thirty seconds. To me spiritually means an intimate relationship to the world in which our creative acts matter.

That is what is moving through--rather than from--the mentor to the disciple. But of course the mentor and the disciple live together inside that larger spirit. Both mentor and disciple are trying to release their Buddha nature and the mentor cannot do it without the disciple. Every mentor and disciple is each helping each other actualize their Buddha potential.

The spirit that is conveyed is not some ethereal substance. It is in the energy, it is in the youthful energy itself occurring inside the mentor-disciple relationship. In a sense what I am saying is that the mentor and the disciple are in fact both youth. One is vastly wiser than the other, but in a certain sense they are always young and learning. The law itself--this spirit--is the teacher. So are you youthful? Are you playful? Are you mischievous? Do you see the world fresh and new every day? Are you trusting? Are you curious? Are you engaged? If you got this thing from the teacher, then it is now passed from the mentor to the disciple.

Yokota: In a sense, Ikeda is a great example of a disciple.

Garrison: I could not agree with you more.

Yokota: Regarding what you said about the disciple learning from the law--that really is the wellspring, because Ikeda didn’t copy Toda at all and Toda did not copy Makiguchi, but their own uniqueness fully blossomed.

Garrison: Exactly, and that is where the eternal youthfulness is important. There is something eternal here. It is the life force or the law, or call it whatever you want to. Just as the teaching of the Buddha remains the teaching but if you understand it you can enact it only your way, with your style, given who you are. And you can only do it in the situation that you are in. You could never be a great mentor if you weren’t a great disciple. In some sense even in an ordinary teacher-student relationship, if the roles cannot reverse at all, then it is a bad relationship. The mentor needs the disciple as much as the disciple needs the mentor. How one actualizes that spirit has got to be new in every generation. I would say in some ways it has got to be new every day.

Jim Garrison is professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, and former president of the John Dewey Society. His research interests focus on John Dewey and American Pragmatism. A dialogue titled "New Currents in Humane Education: Dewey and Value-creating Pedagogy" (tentative translation) between Prof. Garrison, Daisaku Ikeda and Larry Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies, was serialized in the Japanese education magazine Todai. .