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Emzin Interview with Daisaku Ikeda, SGI president

Emzin, a biannual literary magazine published in Slovenia, carried an interview with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in its 2003 November issue. This is an English translation of the article that appeared in the Slovenian language.

Emzin: What are the special challenges of communication in the information age?

Ikeda: It is ironic that in an age of rapidly developing communications technologies, people are in fact turning inward and becoming more withdrawn. There is no doubt that the development of the Internet, e-mail and similar technologies have made possible instantaneous global communication, unrestrained by national borders. The technology itself is neutral--it can be a force for good or for evil, bringing people closer together or fueling hatred, depending on the motivation of the people using it.

But I am afraid that we have not yet seen the new communications technology being fully and wisely utilized to bring people together. The result is that while the physical and technical barriers to communication are coming down, the walls separating people in their hearts are in some senses growing higher.

The more we rely on one-way communication, like radio or TV, static words in print or images on a computer screen, the more I feel we need to remember to treasure the sound of the "live" human voice--the simple but invaluable interaction of voice and voice, person and person; the exchange of life with life.

In a face-to-face conversation, the listener can ask questions or disagree. Those providing knowledge are exposed to questioning and critique. Dialogue is not merely an exchange of information, it is a process through which we learn, open up and explore issues together and come to a deeper appreciation and understanding.

Clearly, the projection of images in virtual reality has some value. But it can distort as well as simulate the real-life experiences in which people share direct contact with each other. On the harmful side, I think the overpowering stimulation and excitement of virtual reality can dull the imagination and numb sympathetic feelings for real pain and suffering.

My concern is that people may turn into mere passive receptors of programmed images. Recent research in neuroscience has confirmed that active faculties--such as the ability to think critically, to make decisions, to love and sympathize, to believe in something--tend to grow weaker when we are subjected to such one-way flows of information.

I am reminded here of the words of Prof. Majid Tehranian, a peace scholar originally from Iran with whom I recently published a dialogue. He said that we live in a world of "expanding channels of communication yet sorely in need of dialogue." I fully concur with him.

Interestingly, I think perhaps no group of people underestimate the value of dialogue as much as my fellow countrymen, the Japanese. At the office they tend to work silently. They never speak with strangers during their long commutes. Once home, many will read the newspaper, or watch TV with only minimal conversation among family members. In recent years, many Japanese children have become deeply involved in computers and TV games, and this has further reduced direct communication between parent and child. Observers have voiced concern about this as the lack of heart-to-heart dialogue weakens family bonds and hampers the overall development of children.

Perhaps in this sense I'm not a typical Japanese. I have always enjoyed conversing with a wide range of people. I find it inspiring to be exposed to different ways of thinking. This is a kind of spiritual nutrition for me. On a larger scale, I truly believe that the central challenge facing humanity today is that of revitalizing the sense of connection between people that seems at times to have grown so weak. This can only be done through dialogue and this effort is essential if we are to lay firm foundations for a global society of peace and creative coexistence.

Emzin: What skills do we need in order to carry out effective dialogue in today's world?

Ikeda: First and foremost, I believe we need to maintain a sincere faith in the humanity of the other person. So long as efforts to communicate are rooted in a sense of our common humanity, a path forward can always be found.

I recall, for example, the first time I met with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 when he was President of the Soviet Union. I was determined that our exchange would not be limited to meaningless niceties. So I greeted him by saying that I had come to pick a fight with him. The interpreter looked rather startled, but I explained that I wanted to engage in a frank exchange of views that would actually benefit the people of our respective societies and the world. He welcomed my "challenge" and said that he also enjoyed speaking openly and honestly with others. This was the start of a fruitful dialogue unhindered by differences of ideology or cultural background.

It is my firm belief that we must look beyond the labels--such a friend or enemy--and focus instead on the reality of our shared humanity. If we keep that firmly in mind and voice what is in our hearts, even the most seeming intractable problems can be resolved.

Again, it is the ability to respect the other person that makes truly open dialogue possible. In this sense, the effort to listen sincerely to the other person is in some ways more important than conveying your own views. The renowned American peace scholar Dr. Elise Boulding has stressed that attentively listening to the views and feelings of the other person is at the heart of a "culture of peace."

The Jewish thinker Martin Buber is also famous for his philosophy of dialogue. He wrote critically of monologues disguised as dialogue. And indeed, we all too often see conversations that are in fact nothing more than the one-sided voicing of opinions. And he understood the great challenges involved in dialogue, stating: "It takes a lifetime to learn how to hold your own ground, to go out to the others, to be open to them without losing your ground. And to hold your ground without shutting others out."

Genuine dialogue is a process that transforms both yourself and the other person. It is an effort to summon forth the most positive, moral qualities that exist in the depths of the human being. It is a profound spiritual undertaking that involves committed engagement and exchange between two souls.

In the teachings of Buddhism, this is likened to the fact that if we bow to the image in a mirror, it will bow back respectfully to us. And ultimately, to embrace and express a profound respect for the life of another is actually to manifest this same respect for our own lives.

Emzin: What about people, and this seems to be most frequent among young people, who seem to want neither contact nor communication with other people?

Ikeda: This is one of the most disturbing trends of contemporary society, a matter of deep concern. In order to start to change this we need to remember that the "self" can develop only through awareness of others. Intense spiritual interaction--including even an element of conflict--is essential if we are to grow, mature and become truly human. Without this process, people cannot develop beyond the stage of egotistical self-absorption. Self-centered narcissism is actually the cradle in which hatred and violence are nurtured.

To refer again to the situation in Japan, this kind of self-absorbed attitude and insensitivity to others has become so prevalent that, a few years ago, the question posed by a young person of "Why is it wrong to kill people?" had to be taken up on a popular TV program, in magazines and books.

This kind of indifference to the value of life is ultimately rooted in the inability to acknowledge and embrace the existence of the "other." This is the danger in an apathetic, cynical approach to life, in which we find only an isolated sense of self roaming the outer surfaces of consciousness. A truer, fuller sense of self is possible only when we realize that we are in fact inextricably linked to everything that is "other"--all those who are different from us.

The "self" lacking identification with the "other" is insensitive to pain, anguish and suffering. This leads to a way of life in which people withdraw into their own world, either sensing threat in the slightest provocation and triggering violent behavior, or turning away in rejection. If we don't have within us the concept of "other," or the possibility of a different perspective, true dialogue cannot take place. In our exchanges, peace scholar Johan Galtung stressed that "inner dialogue" is the prerequisite for an "outer dialogue." Exchanges between two parties lacking an inner sense of "other" might appear to be dialogue but are in fact simply the trading of pre-set opinions. Reality can be revealed only through genuine dialogue, where "self" and "other" transcend the narrow limits of ego and fully interact.

It is only in the burning furnace of such intense, soul-baring exchanges that our being is tempered and refined. Only then can we begin to grasp and fully affirm the reality of being alive.

Emzin: How can communication across cultural differences be improved?

Ikeda: When people are excessively attached to a narrow sense of identity, cultural differences can become a source of friction or even conflict. In this sense, I think it is important to reconsider the essential nature of culture. Personally, I believe that the world's cultures condense the long history of diverse peoples' effort to tune their ears to the vibrant "inner voice" of wisdom and compassion that exists within all people and, in my view, in the very life of the cosmos. It could thus be said that at the heart of all cultures is a quest for truth, one that could even be termed religious.

Drawing on this inner wisdom, different peoples have sought to respond to their circumstances, to meet the various challenges presented by the natural and human environment. Even more essentially, they have sought to give voice to an understanding of what it means to be human. In this sense, every human culture contains something from which we can learn and is inherently worthy of respect.

In the Buddhist sacred text, The Lotus Sutra, there is passage that describes how a great diversity of trees and grasses, of various sizes and shapes, are all nourished by the same impartial rain. The rain can be thought of as symbolizing the compassion and wisdom of the universe; the trees and grasses symbolize the peoples of the world and their diverse cultures.

To say that all our lives are supported by the same source of universal vitality is not to say that we are, or should try to be, the same. Quite the opposite. Just as this parable indicates, cultural diversity, like biodiversity, is both natural and necessary. It can greatly enhance and enrich our individual and collective lives as we learn to see ourselves reflected in the experiences and cultures of others. Ideally, those differences can serve as a source of stimulation to mutual development and growth. Such interactions can deepen and clarify our own sense of identity in a way that does not involve the exclusion or rejection of others.

In order to bring out the positive, stimulating aspect of cultural differences, I think it is vital that we keep in view the universal roots of all cultures, and maintain a basic stance of respect for all cultural traditions. This will enable us to see past such differences to our common humanity, enhancing the possibilities for genuine communication.

Emzin: How do you see the role of intercultural exchanges?

Ikeda: I firmly believe that when the so-called "ordinary citizens" of different cultures have the opportunity to gain direct exposure to one another's culture and arts, there is a sympathetic understanding that naturally arises among them.

I view such exchanges as an opportunity to create echoes of recognition within human hearts and to link humanity in our common desire for peace.

Music, for example, is something that speaks directly to the heart. It transcends any political doctrines or ideology. We have only to open our ears; then the music within will naturally begin to resound in harmony with the music outside.

This response, this echo within the heart, is to me something to be treasured, for it is proof that human hearts can transcend the barriers of time and space and nationality. It reaffirms the possibility that we can converse honestly with one another. Perhaps it could be called the most truly human kind of dialogue we are capable of.

Art and culture that enrich the human heart and stimulate the most positive aspects of human nature have the power to forge bonds between people despite all differences of race, language or custom. It is possible through the power of music and other forms of creative expression, to communicate and respond to each other's innermost feelings.

Exchanges of culture can play an important role in enabling people to overcome the prejudices and hatreds of the past and to build a peaceful society. Based on this conviction the SGI is actively involved in promoting cultural and educational exchange.

Emzin: Finally, could you speak about the role of religion? It seems that religion has served more to divide than unite people. Is meaningful dialogue between religions possible?

Ikeda: Since 9/11, much has been made of the role religious belief plays as a factor in terrorism. But the real issue is that of exclusionary ideology and fanatic actions that hide behind the language and symbols of religion. If we fail to appreciate this, and start being suspicious of the practitioners of a particular faith, we will only deepen mistrust and further aggravate tensions. It goes without saying that any religion that justifies either terrorism or war has undermined the spiritual basis for its own existence.

Religions can first contribute to building a more peaceful world by providing the philosophical basis for shifting the core thinking of the era from "hard" to "soft" power. At the same time, they can play a vital role in building the solidarity of ordinary citizens of goodwill, enabling this to be the driving force of change.

Over the years it has been my privilege to talk with thinkers from a wide range of religious and philosophical traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism. The consistent theme of these discussions has been the search for lasting peace. These experiences have deepened my confidence that if we return to the starting point of our shared humanity it is always possible to uncover paths toward the resolution of even the most intractable problems.

Without dialogue we are fated to walk in the darkness of our own dogmatism. Dialogue by its nature is a source of light that can disperse the darkness and illuminate our forward steps.

In this dialogue we must focus on the shared mission of all religion--to garner human wisdom and create a common foundation for action that will resolve the global crises facing humankind; the challenges of disarmament and conflict prevention, of poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

To do this, interfaith dialogue cannot be limited to superficial acts of friendship and cooperation, but must be a shared effort to discover the contours for the ideal global society and work toward its establishment. To this end, religion must function, to use Gandhi's words, not in a sectarian way, but in contributing to building "faith in the ordered moral government of the universe."

On the one hand, religion seeks out and strives to bring human beings into unity and harmony with the eternal and universal. At the same time, religion is ideally characterized by a commitment to contribute to the betterment of the real lives of peoples and societies. We must never forget that people do not exist to serve religion; religion exists to serve the cause of human happiness and peace.

Ultimately, however, I feel it is a mistake to believe that people can or should be classified by their ethnic, religious, or class affiliation. Rather, we should strive to engage with each as a unique individual. In this sense, more than dialogue among religious groups or about religious dogmas, there is a need for dialogue among people. It is to this kind of dialogue--life-to-life exchanges among individuals the world over--that I have determined to devote my life.

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