Interview with Professor Sarah Wider
October 23, 2010
[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Sarah Wider, professor of English and Women's Studies at Colgate University, USA, that was conducted by Masao Yokota, current advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.]
Masao Yokota: This year marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Soka Gakkai. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's 2010 Peace Proposal is titled "Toward a New Era of Value Creation." This anniversary is an appropriate time to reconfirm the meaning of value creation. What is your understanding of value creation?
Sarah Wider: This is a wonderful, huge topic and a concept vital to the health of our world. Because of the Soka Gakkai I've really been able to think about the term "value creation." Wherever we are and whatever we do, we have the potential to create value. How do we use that potential? We have to be so aware of why we are doing what we are doing, for whom, and what are the larger implications of our actions, not only for the people around us but for the earth itself.
Value creation recognizes what is at the heart of being human: the urge to create. Through creating, we connect and build with others. [First Soka Gakkai President Tsunesaburo] Makiguchi articulated the importance of understanding the profound interconnectedness between individual potential and the health of all existence. One neither sacrifices the self nor aggrandizes it in this process but draws upon its creativity in a larger sense. This contrasts with the view commonly held in the United States that creativity requires isolation and is primarily an individualist enterprise.
I also appreciate that value creation is always ongoing. It's not that values have been created and now we just tend to them. Rather we remain active in this process of creating what is meaningful for our own lives and for the good and the health of the world at large. This understands value in such a different context than the prevalent equation of value with commoditization.
Value creation also includes education. It returns education to an elemental place in human life because it attends to what we human beings can in fact do best: create. Although creative powers can sadly be subverted into a destructive force, those abilities, with wise encouragement and nourishment, can also flourish, creating great beauty, great hope and a greater understanding.
Yokota: As you may recall, when Ikeda founded Soka University in Japan, one of the mottos he gave the students was, "For what purpose should one cultivate wisdom? May you always ask yourself this question!" He wants the students to not forget the prime point of their studies.
Wider: Yes, I agree. From my many years as a college teacher I see how students can get trapped if they lose that sense of purpose. Or if their sense of purpose gets co-opted into "Well I just need to get out of here so I can get a job and make money." Greed is not so much the motivator as fear. It seems the only thing available is a material support structure that supposedly is going to hold them up but invariably empties into despair. We need to make other support readily available so that students and teachers alike can truly see the broader and deeper impact of what we are doing.
Yokota: Our practice in the SGI is based on the Lotus Sutra, the essence of which is the equality and dignity of all life. One theme of the Sutra is the enlightenment of women. In the SGI, there is great emphasis placed on cherishing women. What have your observations been in this regard?
Wider: I have had the great privilege and honor of meeting with members of the women's and young women's divisions as well as the faculty, students and administrators at Soka Women's College, Soka University of Japan and Soka University of America. In each place, I have talked with women who are deeply committed to building cultures of peace. Fierce in mind and heart, their insight leads to long-lasting action. I think in particular of the ongoing work done by the women of the Peace and Culture Conference and Committees.
President and Mrs. [Kaneko] Ikeda's ongoing support has been crucial, I know, for the actions women undertake in establishing communities where all may live freely and harmoniously together. I celebrate their support for women of all ages. I think about the correspondence courses at Soka University that provide opportunities for education throughout one's life, acknowledging the necessity of learning and making that possible regardless of whether or not one can physically be in a classroom. President Ikeda's support also values knowledge that does not depend on having sat in a classroom or received a diploma. Rather, he values the knowledge that comes from a very deep observation of and experience in dealing with other people, which of course is what many of us as women do. Both President and Mrs. Ikeda have truly emphasized the importance of creating inclusive models of education where women's "ways of knowing" can thrive.
I think about this in the context of the mentor-disciple relationship as well. Fundamentally a relational way of learning, it understands and values the process of people learning with each other. It's not a hierarchy but participation and collaboration.
Yokota: Ikeda engages in dialogue with a broad and diverse range of individuals. What are your thoughts on this?
Wider: President Ikeda understands so deeply that as human beings we are all connected. That human connection is crucial. Also, we all are always connected into the larger world of which humans form such a small part. We are each and all connected through something some might call spirit and others a powerful, creative force within.
Societal distinctions can exert tremendous power over others, abusing the powerful connections that fundamentally establish mutual and just relations. Whether through his writings, through our face-to-face conversations or in his ongoing dialogues, I have seen how President Ikeda meets people. He greets the person, not their societal role. He's not speaking to the title or the perceived place in society that person holds. He speaks to the person, to the complex human being, and not simplistically to "the doctor," "the cashier," "the athlete," "the professor," "the janitor." He values the knowledge we gain from our work, not the status or prestige.
We are each a human being, each with something very particular to contribute to this shared world of ours. President Ikeda honors that potential. I turn to my own experience with the dialogue he and I shared. There were so many moments when, through that process of dialogue thoughts broadened, expanded and opened in directions we had not originally seen. Here was the power of potential developed through the practice of dialogue. True dialogue is always larger than any one of the participants. Never just one small limited self alternating its thoughts with another small limited self, it is larger than any two individuals and designed to include all who can imagine and wonder.
Yokota: Ikeda has received many academic honors in his lifetime. What do you see as the value of being honored by a university?
Wider: When a university confers an honorary degree, it should take the occasion as an affirmation and as a challenge: affirming the work done by the person honored, and making certain that the university itself lives up to that work in its daily practices. President Ikeda has devoted his life to education that broadens individuals, opening them to others' thoughts, values, life ways. His large vision of education understands that potential can never be developed at the expense of others and that such potential develops best when difference can speak freely and readily. At its best, a university can be--or can become--such a place. As Emerson called for in "The American Scholar," we should strive to make our places of learning "universities of all knowledges."
Yokota: Receiving one such recognition is a great honor. What are your thoughts about this being the 300th?
Wider: Actually I think of it musically. In 300 I hear a wonderful chorus. One singular voice cannot always be heard. But 300 voices in a chorus are powerful. What else comes to mind is President Ikeda's understanding of what an honorary degree means. Not just another feather in his cap, it honors the people. It's not his honor--it is everyone's.
As a professor of English and Women's Studies at Colgate University in Madison County, New York, USA, Sarah Wider specializes in the American Renaissance, American women writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Native American literature. She is former president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. Her ongoing dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, "Ode to Mothers--On the Poetic Heart and the Age of Women" (tentative translation) is being serialized in the Japanese women's magazine Pumpkin.