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Our Power for Peace from Hope in a Dark Time

[Published in Hope in a Dark Time--Reflections on Humanity's Future, Krieger, D. (ed.), Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 2003]

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I am very fond of these words of the great American anthropologist Margaret Meade, for they express a profound and enduring truth.

To young people in particular I wish to say: The world is yours to change. Your dreams, your hopes and aspirations--these will create the future. They are the future. The future already exists--in the hearts and minds of the young.

The New Superpower

However hard it may be to believe, each of us is infinitely powerful. We have the power, individually and collectively, to change the world. As my friend David Krieger and others have said, together the so-called "ordinary citizens" of the world are a superpower. We the people are the new superpower.

What are the keys to unleashing that power, bringing it to bear on the task of creating a world of peace? There are four aspects that I think are especially important: Power of Hope; Power of Imagination; Power of Connection; and Power of Dialogue.

The Power of Hope

Sometimes hopes and dreams are spoken of as something fragile and easily broken. In fact, they are anything but that. The power of hope and dreams is the power from which the world is born new each day. The more noble--the more compassionate and humane--the goal toward which our hope is directed, the greater the power we bring forth from within. Nothing is more profoundly empowering than the determination to work for peace--the hope that has been cherished in the hearts of countless generations of humanity.

There are those who tell us that humanity is condemned to war and violence, that it is ingrained in our nature to hate and kill each other. Such people will tell you that they are simply being "realistic." I sincerely hope that you will never submit to such "realism"--not about your own lives, not about the world. If you examine such claims carefully, you will usually find that those who make them have simply decided--in an arbitrary and often self-serving way--what is realistic and what is not. They cut off and deny the limitless possibilities of reality to make it fit on their own pessimism and narrow-mindedness.

President Kennedy clearly rejected pessimism about peace when he said, "We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made. Therefore, they can be solved by man . . . No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."

Every war has started in the human heart. And so has every great act that has changed the world for the better.

The leadership to free the world from the threat of nuclear weapons, to build a world without war, is to be found in "ordinary" people like us. So it is vital that we never forget that we can build such a world, that we are the protagonists of the drama of human history.

In Japanese, the word for "hope" is written with two Chinese characters. One means to desire something deeply and intensely. The other means to gaze far into the distance, into the future.

Mahatma Gandhi was, in his own words, an "irrepressible optimist." But his hope was not based on an objective analysis of the conditions that faced him. Rather, it was based on his absolute faith in the "infinite possibilities of the individual." In the same way, the great dream of equality and human dignity that possessed Martin Luther King Jr., was a dream upheld by the force of diamond-like faith and will.

All those who have achieved great things have done so because of their ability to create hope, to pull it forth from within themselves, regardless of the circumstances or challenges they face. We must learn to make the hope we cannot find. Where there is hope, there is peace.

The Power of Imagination

I also want to stress the power of imagination, for this is the "bridge" across which our ideals travel to become new realities.

Imagination is the wellspring from which hope flows. It is the power of imagination, the power to imagine different realities, that frees us from the mistaken notion that what exists now is all that will ever exist, and that we are trapped inside our problems.

Everything changes. Nothing is "written in stone," fixed and unchanging for all time--not even the stone itself. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus expressed this saying we can never step in the same river twice. The water flows without cease and what we set foot in a moment ago is already gone, replaced by a new flow.

Since everything changes, the real question is whether it will change for the better or for the worse. And that, finally, is up to us. If our hearts are filled with self-hatred and despair, that is the world we will create. If our hearts are filled with hope and compassion, we can without fail create a better, more peaceful world.

The power of imagination is also the power of empathy. It is the ability to imagine, the willingness to feel, the pain of others. It is the spirit that says, "So long as you are suffering, whoever you are and whatever your suffering may be, I suffer also." The scale of our empathy--reaching out to those in distant places, to people whose lifestyles and language may be different from our own--is the scale of our humanity. A life of true fulfillment is one marked by the non-stop effort to expand and deepen one's humanity. Our capacity to feel the pain of others is perhaps the surest gauge of where we stand in that on-going effort.

When the realists tell us to accept a world of suffering, a world of war and injustice, what they are really doing is displaying the stagnation and failure of their own imagination.

I firmly believe that peace education--education that stirs empathetic imagination by conveying the realities of war--is our shared responsibility. All sectors of society, the schools, the media and religious institutions, can play a part. In particular, I hope that young people will learn never to be deceived by sanitized or glorified portrayals of violence and war.

The Power of Connection

The limitless power of the individual is unleashed when we work together. This is the power of connection, the power of human solidarity. Our dreams grow and flourish when we speak them out loud, when we share them with others. To do this requires courage. We must overcome the fear that we will be misunderstood, looked down on or laughed at for putting into words the content of our hearts.

The solidarity of the world's so-called ordinary citizens holds the key to peace. The Buddhist people's movement of the Soka Gakkai, from which the SGI has grown, was founded in Japan in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. In his writings, he noted that evil-minded people, aware of their inner deficiencies, are quick to band together. People of good will, on the other hand, are spiritually more self-sufficient and therefore do not feel so strong a need for allies. As a result, they are often overwhelmed and defeated by people of evil intent. Only when people of good will unite can we change the world.

Wars are almost always described as a struggle of one country against another, of one people or group against another. In fact, however, they are started by leaders who are trying to fill the gaping void they feel inside--their own sense of powerlessness--by controlling and commanding others. The time has come for the world's ordinary citizens to unite in resisting those who promote violence, terrorism and war. The time has come for humanity to unite in rejecting violence in all its forms. This is the vision that motivated the youth members of SGI-USA to start their "Victory Over Violence" campaign, a grassroots effort to empower people to resist and overcome violence in their lives and in the world.

The Power of Dialogue

In the end, peace will not be realized by politicians signing treaties. True and lasting peace will only be realized by forging life-to-life bonds of trust and friendship among the world's people. Human solidarity is built by opening our hearts to each other. This is the power of dialogue.

Dialogue is more, however, than two people facing each other speaking. The kind of dialogue that can truly contribute to peace must begin with an open and earnest "inner dialogue." By this I mean the ability to examine, carefully and honestly, our own attitudes.

We can start by asking ourselves some simple questions: Have I made the effort to find out the facts? Have I confirmed things for myself? Have I been swayed by second-hand information, by stereotypes or malicious rumors?

For Socrates, a clear awareness of one's own ignorance was the starting point for wisdom. By questioning ourselves and our assumptions we can open the way to more meaningful communication. And this is something that applies at all levels--from communications between family and friends, to those between countries and cultures. This is because people who are at least aware that they may harbor prejudicial attitudes can communicate across differences more successfully than those who are convinced that they are free from all prejudice.

Ultimately, the challenge we each face is to grow into the kind of person who is capable of truly respecting others.

In the teachings of Buddhism there is a passage that describes what our attitude toward people should be. It says that we should "rise and greet them from afar," showing them the utmost respect. In fact, it states that we should offer them the same respect we would a Buddha. Here I should clarify that a "Buddha" is not a superhuman being. Rather, this word refers to a person who has fully awakened the limitless capacity for wisdom and compassion that exists in all people. It is another way of expressing the supreme dignity that all people possess simply by virtue of being human.

How could there be war if we saw each meeting with another as a rare and remarkable encounter with the most precious treasure of the cosmos? I can think of no more direct and simple path to peace.

Human Revolution

The second president of the Soka Gakkai, Josei Toda, was the person I look to as my mentor in life. Together with founding president Makiguchi, he was imprisoned for opposing the policies of Japan's militarist government during World War II. President Makiguchi died in prison in November 1944. Mr. Toda was released a little more than a month before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Mr. Toda called the process of fundamentally transforming our lives "human revolution." Caring deeply for others, he worked tirelessly to empower ordinary citizens, to awaken them to the treasures of wisdom and strength they carry within.

It was his belief, one that I have taken up as the core theme of my own work for peace, that a great revolution in the life of a single individual can change an entire society. It can even make possible a positive transformation in the destiny of humankind. This is the kind of power for peace we each possess.