Leonardo's Universal Vision and the Parliament of Humanity (University of Bologna, 1994)
Delivered at the auditorium of the University of Bologna, Italy, on June 1, 1994
Please allow me to thank honorable Rector Fabio-Roversi Monaco for his kind words of introduction. I deeply appreciate the honor of receiving this special ring upon conferral of a doctorate from the University of Bologna.
Rector Roversi-Monaco, professors of the University of Bologna, honored guests and dear students: I regard this opportunity afforded me today to speak at your distinguished university, an institute of higher learning with the world's most venerable tradition, as the greatest honor. May I express my sincere thanks to the rector and all other members of the university who have made this possible.
I am also deeply grateful that so many of you have gathered today, in spite of the fact that it is the busiest season of the academic year: examinations. May I humbly request that the rector and all the professors see to it that the students who are in attendance today be specially rewarded with high marks!
Today I have been asked to share some of my thoughts concerning the United Nations. I can think of no place more suited to the discussion of the United Nations and various related global topics than the University of Bologna. As I said five years ago, when I met with Rector Roversi-Monaco and Pro-Rector Rinaldi in Tokyo, your university possesses a priceless legacy of universalism and cosmopolitanism pulsing vigorously through the nine centuries of its history. These values are important in bringing a global perspective to the United Nations--a perspective transcending localized interests of the constituent member states.
By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, students from all over Europe flocked to your university, drawn to its fine reputation. They built a university city, cosmopolitan and independent. Threatened with aggression by Frederick II (1194-1250), students of your university replied, "We are not reeds in the marsh, flattened by a single gust of wind. If you come here, you will find us to be so." 1 This is exemplary of their lofty spirit. Such sentiments are the backbone of global citizenship, then and now.
Efforts to Support United Nations Endeavors
As a non-governmental organization (NGO) registered with the United Nations, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has participated in and supported many UN activities. Since 1982, we have cosponsored several exhibitions with the United Nations in dozens of cities around the world: "Nuclear Arms: Threat to Our World"; "War and Peace: From a Century of War to a Century of Hope"; and "Toward the Century of Life: The Environment and Development." The purpose of these exhibitions is to call attention to the need for pooling our wisdom to find solutions to the global problems that confront us.
In addition, we have cosponsored exhibitions pleading the cause of human rights. In December of last year we held the exhibition "Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today's World" at the United Nations Office in Geneva to commemorate the forty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was displayed there again in February to coincide with the meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The exhibition was also shown in London, until the day before yesterday (May 30).
Themes concerning youth, the heirs to the twenty-first century, have been taken up by the Soka Gakkai Women's Peace and Culture Conference. Their exhibitions on "Children's Human Rights" and "UNICEF and the World's Children" have been widely praised. Young people of our organization have also been deeply involved with campaigns to aid and raise funds for refugees of various countries. Their collection of nearly 300,000 radios was sent to Cambodia to assist the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in its efforts to inform the public about the general election.
Personally, I have submitted proposals to three UN Special Sessions on Disarmament, and have offered many proposals for peace and disarmament as well as for reform of the United Nations.
Revitalizing World Body's Founding Spirit
The SGI is not a political organization, nor is it simply a social movement. It is fundamentally a movement based on the philosophy of Buddhism, seeking to promote the inner reformation of human beings. Accordingly, I would like to consider today not proposals for practical reforms of the United Nations but the ideals to which it should aim, the spiritual base from which this parliament of humanity can be revitalized and the ethos that will guide the global citizens to whom this task will fall.
In homage to the culture of your great nation, I will focus on the genius which Italy produced in the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and elaborate on the self-mastery he embodied and the continuous flight of creativity that characterized his life.
The essence of the global system represented by the United Nations is cooperation and dialogue--in other words, soft power--and soft power is strengthened through spiritual and philosophical means. Though there may be times such as the case in Bosnia in which hard power was used as a last resort, there can be no debating that the primary mission of the United Nations is to achieve its goals through soft power.
The history of the United Nations is as yet a short one-next year it will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. In comparison to the long history of humanity, the United Nations has just been founded. Yet when we consider the brief and unfortunate life span of its predecessor, the League of Nations, we realize that we should not take the half century of the United Nations' existence lightly.
Since the end of the Cold War, expectations have risen for the United Nations to take a much more active role in the world for the cause of peace. It seems that the international body is gradually beginning to function in the spirit in which it was founded, and we must do our utmost to carry this new trend into a hope-filled twenty-first century.
Five decades ago, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt was instrumental in the founding of the United Nations. Roosevelt inherited the legacy of another U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, a key figure in the establishment of the League of Nations. Like Wilson, he possessed an idealistic, international and humanitarian vision. As we all know, this vision became the founding spirit and motivating force of the United Nations.
Roosevelt tirelessly persuaded other world leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill of the importance of global security. Some historians dismiss Roosevelt's aspirations--humanism on a grand, and some have said almost cosmic, scale--as unrealistic. When we reflect on the paralysis of many important UN functions during the Cold War period, we may find some semblance of truth to his detractors' claims. Amid growing sentiments, however, that the United Nations return to its founding spirit of realizing universal security and world peace, a humanism on a cosmic scale no longer seems a flight of fancy.
As I was considering these and related issues, the image of the great Leonardo da Vinci arose clearly in my mind, as immediate and sharp and commanding as the outline of an object that suddenly comes into focus when adjusting a camera lens. Perhaps you will find my efforts to link Leonardo da Vinci and the United Nations strained, the two being of such different dimensions. After all, Leonardo, in his serene and independent progress through life, seemed to have transcended worldly conventions of good and evil, while the United Nations is, by its very nature, enmeshed in tortuous wrangling over conflicting national interests.
But I think we must view all things from both near and far. Adopting the larger, farther view, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers has said, "Leonardo and Michelangelo are two worlds between which there is little contact: Leonardo a cosmopolitan, Michelangelo a patriot. 2 I agree with Jaspers, and believe that there has never been an age so much in need of Leonardo da Vinci's point of view as today.
In Pursuit of Self-Mastery
The first lesson I believe we would do well to learn from Leonardo is self-mastery. Leonardo was an utterly free and independent individual, not only liberated from the strictures of religion and ethics but also unconstrained by ties to nation, family, friends and acquaintances. He was a citizen of the world, matchless and serene.
It is well known that he was illegitimate and that he remained single throughout his life. As a result perhaps, little is known about his family, and his ties to the country of his birth, the republic of Florence, were very weak. When he had completed his period of apprenticeship in Florence, he left without the slightest hesitation for Milan, where he spent about seventeen years working under the patronage of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Following Sforza's fall from power, Leonardo spent a short time working for the powerful duke of Romagna, Cesare Borgia, after which he moved to Florence, to Rome and to Milan as his interests and projects led him. In the last years of his life, he traveled to France at the invitation of Francis I, and it was there that he died. Leonardo was not an emotionless person, nor did he lack virtue, but his life is marked by a transcendence of the mundane, as he devoted himself faithfully to his own pursuits.
Whatever his circumstance or course of action, Leonardo showed little interest in the divisiveness of what was judged as patriotism, allegiance, goodness, beauty and benefit, striving instead for a state of life that enabled him to look upon all things with detachment. He paid no heed to the lures of fame and wealth, yet he did not rebel against authority. In his singular devotion to his interests, he was impervious to worldly convention.
Leonardo, painter of the mysteriously smiling "Mona Lisa," is also painter of the fiercely battling, powerful soldiers of the "Battle of Anghiari." The same Leonardo who studied hydrodynamics, plant physiology and analyzed the flight of birds also took avid interest in human anatomy.
Whatever is said of Leonardo, he was of a scale too grand to be measured by the norms of society. In addition, the freedom with which he transcended all worldly concerns and limitations offers us a glimpse of the essence of the truly liberated world citizen. Leonardo's life perfectly expresses the unique spirit of the Italian Renaissance, so full of freedom and vigor.
It is my opinion that Leonardo's self-mastery led him to achieve such freedom. Leonardo himself wrote, "You can have neither a greater nor a less dominion than that over yourself." 3 Clearly, self-mastery was the first principle for Leonardo upon which all others followed. His self-mastery fully engaged, he could respond freely to any reality, while all conventions found within that reality--such as loyalty, goodness, beauty--were of only secondary or even tertiary value to him.
Leonardo had no qualms about accepting the invitation of the king of France, who had caused the downfall of his previous patron, Sforza. To the outsider, this may appear as a lack of principle or integrity, but as far as this giant individual is concerned, the seeming inconsistency only bespeaks an enormous acceptance and generosity of spirit.
Leonardo "Knew the Orient"--Nietzsche
Leonardo's transcendence of convention is rather similar to the Buddhist teaching of "transcending the world" (Jpn. shusseken). The "world" refers to the realm of distinctions, of differences--differences between benefit and detriment, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. "Transcending the world" means liberating oneself from attachments to all such distinctions.
The Lotus Sutra, the highest teaching of Buddhism, speaks of the need "to guide living beings and cause them to renounce their attachments." 4 The most profound commentary on the Lotus Sutra instructs, "The word 'renounce' should be read 'perceive'" 5 signifying that it is not enough simply to liberate oneself from attachments. After we have transcended them, we must look clearly at all those attachments, see them for what they really are, and learn to make proper use of them. "Transcending the world," then, indicates the establishment of a strong inner self that will enable one to do so.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, another individual who had transcended the conventions of good and evil, declared that Leonardo "knew the Orient ." 6 This relates, I think, the similarity between Leonardo's spirit and Eastern philosophy. The likeness is also suggested by the fact that both Leonardo and Buddhism compare the mind that transcends convention, transcends the world, to a mirror.
The biography of Leonardo by the Russian writer Dmitri Merejcovski, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, contains an unforgettable passage that demonstrates the self-mastery of which I speak. Without a doubt the biography imaginatively dramatizes Leonardo's life, but the scene from which I quote is extremely powerful and moving and brings to life a very real and convincing picture of Leonardo. Leonardo stands on a hill with his favorite disciple [Francesco Melzi], watching the battle below in which the forces of his patron Sforza are defeated by the French army:
"'All that you see here, Francesco, was at one time the bed of an ocean, covering a great part of Europe, Africa and Asia.'
"He again looked at the distant cloudlet of smoke, with its sparks of cannon-shots. By now it appeared to him so small in the infinite distance, so tranquil and roseate in the evening sun, whose glow was like that of a holy lamp, that it was hard to believe a combat was raging there, and men were slaughtering one another.
". . . what did it matter which would vanquish the other . . . The fatherland, politics, glory, war, the fall of kingdoms, the uprising of nations,--all that seems to men great or awesome,--does it not, amid the eternal serenity of nature, resemble that cloudlet, melting away in the light of evening?"7
The reality of war is petty and small, reflected in the mirror of the mind of one who has attained self-mastery. Here Merejcovski skillfully captures what I envision as humanism on a cosmic scale.
The SGI, based on the philosophy of Buddhism, not only supports the United Nations but conducts many other activities for the promotion of peace and culture. Through these activities, we aspire to contribute to society, while emphasizing the importance of the inner reform of the individual. I see our philosophy of human revolution as sharing a great deal with Leonardo's spirit of self-mastery.
As we approach the end of this troubled century, shaken in recent years by the tragedy of explosive ethnic conflicts, our sole focus on the external, on systems and circumstances, is not serving us well. I believe that an approach similar to Leonardo's, with an emphasis on the internal, on self-mastery, will become increasingly important in solving the problems we confront.
The Continuous Flight of Creativity
The second theme I would like to discuss with regard to Leonardo da Vinci is the continuous flight of his creativity. Leonardo's dream that human beings would someday fly like birds is well known, but I think we can say that his own spirit soared in creative flight throughout his life.
Leonardo wrote 8: "You will so exert yourself in youth"; "Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind"; "Death rather than weariness"; "No labor suffices to tire me." He was a person of extraordinary energy and perseverance.
While painting "The Last Supper," Leonardo would sometimes work from dawn to midnight without stopping to eat or drink. Then for three or four days he would not touch the painting, pacing the floor, utterly lost in thought. In spite of this amazing concentration, this all-consuming devotion to the act of creation, Leonardo completed relatively few of his works. Most of his paintings, though painstakingly planned and sketched, remain incomplete.
A multitalented genius, Leonardo in addition to painting set his hand to sculpture, mechanical inventions, military weapons and civil engineering, displaying his amazing versatility and breadth of interest. But as his flying machine, which stayed a dream, symbolizes, most of his work remained in the stage of ideas and plans and was never realized. Interestingly, that did not disturb Leonardo. He did not look upon these incomplete creations as failures or sources of frustration; without attachment, he moved on to the next project.
Things that may have seemed incomplete to others were perhaps for him finished in a sense, and in fact may have had a synergism as the completeness of incompleteness. Unless this were true, it would be very difficult to reconcile Leonardo's passion for creation with the enormous number of his uncompleted works. The completeness of incompleteness is, at the same time, the incompleteness of completeness.
Incorporating the Universal into the Particular
The spirit of the Renaissance is often described as being of the whole, of totality, of the universal. Leonardo, too, no doubt perceived a world of infinite creativity, a totality and universalism that we might call the life of the cosmos--an all-embracing realm that Jaspers refers to when he says, "He [Leonardo] considered his work as a totality and held that everything he did must be subordinated to that totality." 9.
Leonardo's creativity--whether it be in painting or sculpture, invention, architecture or engineering--was a process in which he called freely upon his monumental talent to incorporate the world of totality, of the universal, into the particular. It was, in other words, a process of making the invisible world visible. As a result, no matter how perfect a masterpiece he created, it could not avoid the fate of being incomplete, as long as it remained an event on the plane of the particular. We are not meant to rest peacefully on that plane; our destiny is to remain in continuous flight, ever moving forward to the next creation.
The last words of Shakyamuni Buddha were "All phenomena are fleeting. Perfect your practice, never growing negligent." The essential teaching of Mahayana Buddhism also urges: "Strengthen your faith day by day and month after month. Should you slacken even a bit, demons will take advantage." 10 Another passage states: "Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished. A mind which presently is clouded by illusions originating from the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but once it is polished it will become clear, reflecting the enlightenment of immutable truth." 11
These words express life's deepest truth.
From the completeness of incompleteness to the incompleteness of completeness--the synergy of these two perspectives is the dynamic activity of life's infinite creativity, the dynamism of existence.
Dangers Inherent in the Reifying
Function of Language
Calling himself a disciple of experience and seeking to observe without preconception reality exactly as it is, Leonardo was suspicious of and even hostile to the reifying function of language to capture experience and render it fixed. Leonardo's emphasis on the visual image and his criticism of language remind me of the thoughts of Nagarjuna, the great Mahayana Buddhist thinker of the second or third century.
In his Mulamadhyamakakarika (The Middle Doctrine), Nagarjuna criticized language for its tendencies to reify our experiences and lend substance to that which is essentially lacking of substance. Speaking of dependent origination (Jpn. `), an essential truth of Buddhism, and the concept of non-substantiality (Jpn. ku), Nagarjuna declared:
"The Buddha taught that the nature of dependent origination is not extinguished or produced, it does not exist momentarily or eternally, it is not single or compound, it does not come and does not go; it transcends the vanity of words and is the ultimate bliss." 12
The reifying quality of language destroys the dynamic synergy of completeness and incompleteness and creates the illusion that a temporary state of stability is eternal. Both Leonardo and Nagarjuna sounded the alarm that this false stability or security encourages a complacency that seeks the way of least resistance. Leonardo's succinct warning that "impatience [is] the mother of folly" 13 shines with its true and glorious colors when considered in this context, I believe. It also illuminates the danger of radicalism that results from confusing articulated ideals as substance and hastening to realize those ideals without proper consideration.
As is true with all political and social issues, radicalism must be avoided in our efforts to revitalize the United Nations. Excessive hopes for the role of the United Nations can easily turn into mistrust when events go even slightly against expectations, and there is a danger of this leading to "throwing the baby out with the bath water." To avoid committing this error, we must proceed as Leonardo would.
Developing an Undercurrent of Humanism
I have tried to discuss Leonardo's spiritual legacy to us, relating it to the teachings of Buddhism and organizing it around the themes of self mastery and the continuous flight toward ever-new creation. The renowned nineteenth-century Swiss scholar of Renaissance art and culture Jacob Burckhardt wrote, "The great man is . . . a man without whom the world would seem to us incomplete." 14 This aptly describes Leonardo da Vinci, who illuminates the Italian Renaissance with undying light. As we stand amid the chaos of the fin de sièle, I can think of no other period of time more in need of people as lofty and independent as Leonardo than today. The creation of a new world order, centered on the United Nations, will depend finally on how many such true cosmopolitans we can summon to carry out that daunting task.
As the opening lines of the Charter of the United Nations declare, "We the peoples of the United Nations," the people are most important; everything ultimately rests with the people. That is why the United Nations must further develop its role, with the increased support and efforts of all world citizens, to become the parliament of all humanity where the voices of all peoples are heard.
What is the proof of life? What is the worth of a human being? What is important in building friendships between nations and peoples? Essential to address these questions is a new pulse of humanism flowing beneath all our dealings, nourishing the development of culture and deepening the exchanges among cultures while recognizing their unique differences. This is the ideal triumphantly proclaimed in the Magna Carta of European Universities signed by institutes of higher learning throughout the world, including our Soka University, on the occasion of your proud university's nine hundredth anniversary.
As a Buddhist, I am determined to carry on the legacy of Leonardo and stride forward, together with you, into the new dawn of human history rising before us.
In closing, as I pray for the eternal glory of your fine institution, mother of scholarship and learning, I would like to recite a verse of the great poet Dante, who had strong ties to your university:
"You must not be afraid," my leader said, "take heart, for we are well along our way; do not hold back, push on with all your strength." 15
Thank you for your kind attention.