Interview with Professor Lou Marinoff
January 3, 2011
[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Lou Marinoff, professor and chair of philosophy at The City College of New York, USA, and founding president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in January 2011.]
Masao Yokota: You have described the SGI’s practice of Buddhism as being between secular humanism and religious humanism. Could you please clarify what you mean by this?
Lou Marinoff: It’s the Middle Way between these two kinds of humanism. If you look at SGI along a certain axis then it is obviously a religion. You are practicing religion; you’re basing your practice on the teachings of Nichiren, and basing your liturgy on your scripture--the Lotus Sutra. From that standpoint it looks like a religion.
But then, if you look at it from a different perspective and you ask who is the leader of SGI? President Ikeda. But “president” is not a religious term. It is a secular term. “President” is usually reserved for a head of state (a public sector term), or for a head of a company (a private sector term), or for the head of an NGO or non-profit organization (a civil sector term). If you describe someone as a president, then that is a leadership role which is secular almost by definition, because most religions would have as their leader a Dalai Lama, Pope, Rabbi or Imam.
If you look at what President Ikeda has done, he has built universities. Even though they are built on a Buddhist foundation, they are dedicated to secular studies and liberal arts. President Ikeda has also built the Min-On Concert Association for incredible opportunities to celebrate music. The [Tokyo] Fuji Art Museum doesn’t particularly collect religious art but their collection includes great masterpieces of secular society. This is not a usual thing for a religion.
Yokota: Secular humanism has many positive aspects, but at the same time, there are certain dangers. The same can be said about religious humanism. What is the benefit of practicing the Middle Way?
Marinoff: This is a huge question to try and give you a clear answer to. We see this problem in actually every religion, but Mahayana Buddhism has a unique way to resolve it. Not every religion, especially in the West, has figured out how to do this.
When you speak about the dangers, I think it is very clear that the danger of divorcing secularism from a foundation of core beliefs is that you can produce moral anarchy, where people have no moral compass. We know and understand the dangers of letting people do anything they want without any kind of inner guide. This clearly would be a problem.
If on the other hand you have too much asceticism, we know from the history of Buddhism that this leads to a kind of priesthood elitism. People withdraw from the world and cease to fulfill the mission of alleviating suffering. They sometimes become self-righteous and look down on others, which, especially in Buddhism, you never want to see happening. But it does. Religion can corrupt people if it is institutionalized and becomes too concerned with its own power.
We saw this in the history of Christianity in the West. People are much more attuned to the Christian manifestation of this problem, in what Augustine called the City of God and the City of Man. This was his way of addressing the same problem. If people pay too much attention to politics, business and worldly things--living in the City of Man--they will lose their spirituality. He thought we really have to pay much more attention to what he called the City of God.
But in the providential religions, you have to consecrate this life as a preparation for divine judgment after death. This life becomes a kind of penance or sacrifice. This is not entirely healthy either for people, because they try to ignore that we are embodied beings and we have to live in this world.
I think the Mahayana solution is a very good one because it is looking for the Middle Way. It says we have to practice, we have to believe certain things, we have to be strict with ourselves, but we also have to live in the world and reach out to other people. This is the humanistic side.
We saw how early Buddhism disappeared in India because it became institutionalized. People saw it as another kind of high caste version of heterodox philosophy and it disappeared. Priests took control and, in a sense, they took it away from the people. [The second century Buddhist scholar] Nagarjuna was really saying that this belongs to everybody. That is the spirit of Mahayana, it’s not reserved for just a few. This is also what Nichiren did later in 13th-century Japan. Nichiren studied all these traditions and said, “We have to give this to the people,” and he went on to the Lotus Sutra like Nagarjuna.
In the West, we have a parallel with Luther. Christianity was at a certain point owned by the priests, and they became the intermediaries between man and God. It was a way of exercising power. Luther basically liberated people to have their own dialogue with God.
In a way, Nagarjuna and Nichiren did this, and President Ikeda is doing this in his own way--liberating people to have their own experience of Buddha nature and not be dependent on the priests for it. It is a kind of reformation. Our tendency as human beings is to become corrupt and institutionalized. We need reformers to shake up the way, to loosen the way to benefit other people. This is the Mahayana spirit.
Yokota: Can you share your thoughts on the title of your dialogue book with President Ikeda, Tetsugaku runesansu no taiwa ("Dialogue on a Renaissance of Philosophy")? Renaissance is a powerful word.
[Editor’s note: Tetsugaku runesansu no taiwa ("Dialogue on a Renaissance in Philosophy") was published in Japan in January 2011. The English-language edition, The Inner Philosopher: Conversations on Philosophy’s Transformative Power, was published in September 2012, and includes numerous updates and additions].
Marinoff: The idea of a philosophical renaissance is a very important one for the twenty-first century. We have to find a way to revitalize enthusiasm, hope, opportunity and optimism in great numbers of people. It is an ongoing challenge.
This century is a century of ideology. If people are poisoned by destructive ideologies, or by limited ideologies, then they will be unhappy and they will also cause unhappiness around them. It is very important to imbue people with the idea that they can actually co-create a renaissance, have a wonderful experience of life and help others to achieve the same thing.
With all the ideologies, and the propaganda from television--people need a stronger and clearer message. We know that President Ikeda has influenced millions of people in the world already, and I have exerted some small influence on some readers. By joining forces in this way [publishing The Inner Philosopher] then hopefully we can create more than either of us could do individually and maybe our message will be very clear and very powerful. This is my hope. People need a good philosophy of life.
Yokota: One of the things that many modern people have lost is the sense of inter-connectedness. It is very crucial to be connected to others.
Marinoff: Yes, but via real connectedness--not social media. This is part of the problem that we discuss in our book. Technology is positive. It does many good things for us. But it can also disunite people, disconnect people from nature, and disconnect people from each other socially. Emailing somebody is not the same as being in the same room with them and sharing a human experience.
SGI is doing a very good job of bringing people together and connecting people. It is really important that we connect. This is the idea of having culture centers so that people can gather together and have discussion and dialogue.
Yokota: Another big problem facing people today is not valuing human life. People don’t value themselves or others. This leads to many people losing confidence in themselves and their innate value. It is vital that we find new wisdom to value human life.
Marinoff:Yes, we face a big challenge to accomplish this. In a materialistic society, the biggest concern is about the price of things, not the worth of things. When people attach their sense of well-being to the market--if the market goes up then they feel better, if the market goes down, they feel worse--they have abdicated control over their ability to value themselves as human beings and to value others. This becomes a very serious problem.
These shifts that we are seeing in the economy are going to continue. This is not a political issue that one government is going to solve. The dynamics of globalization are very large and powerful now, and it is clear that the developing world is rising and becoming more powerful economically. Europe has the sovereign debt crisis and the US is still trying to recover from the crash of 2008.
This poison of the recession could actually become a very powerful medicine for people to use this opportunity to reconnect with values. They see that the economic indicators are weak. Property values and equity are down, and unemployment is high. But this gives us a chance to ask what is important in life. Many people are saying, “Wait a second, what is really important in life?” And then they can rediscover the humanistic side and not worry so much about the price tag. This is really what Americans have to do to enjoy a better quality of life. It is not about quantity, it is about quality of life.
Yokota: We celebrated the Soka Gakkai’s 80th anniversary in 2010, and right after we reached our 80th anniversary, President Ikeda encouraged us to advance toward the 100th anniversary of the Soka Gakkai in 2030.
Marinoff: Amazing youthful spirit. Youthful people have tremendous enthusiasm, and one of the dangers of maturity is to become cynical. We should never lose this great youthfulness. President Ikeda has this spirit, and he is not resting on his laurels.
Yokota: What do you think is the best way for young people to actualize their potential?
Marinoff: I think Oscar Wilde said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Because when we are young, we have this tremendous energy but usually there is no focus. Young people are all over the place and trying all kinds of things. But, when we are older, hopefully we develop a little bit of wisdom, so we know how to manage our time better, but then it’s usually too late for us. We lose the enthusiasm and energy of youth. We want to have the energy and enthusiasm of youth with the experience of maturity put together. This is the ideal situation. You can’t give that to young people so you have to encourage them. But, we have to build structures and blaze trails to encourage them to go further and give them a good constructive beginning to life. This is the best we can do for them because they are going to take over anyway and change the world in their own way. We have to bequeath them what is valuable from human experience across the centuries. I am very serious about this.
The humanistic values, Buddhist values, liberal arts values--from all these wonderful values that come from human civilizations, we have to collect the best and make sure that we transmit these to the next generation. This is the best thing we can do as educators.
Lou Marinoff is professor and chair of philosophy at The City College of New York, USA, founding president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), and an internationally acclaimed bestselling author on the topic of philosophical counseling. He earned his doctorate in philosophy of science at University College London. Dr. Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda collaborated on a dialogue that was first released in Japan in January 2011 as Tetsugaku runesansu no taiwa ("Dialogue on a Renaissance in Philosophy"). The English edition, The Inner Philosopher: Conversations on Philosophy’s Transformative Power, which includes updates and additions, was published by Dialogue Path Press in September 2012.