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Toward a Century of Humanity (University of California, Los Angeles, USA, 1974)

(University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), California, USA, April 1, 1974)

I am deeply honored at this invitation to speak today at the University of California, Los Angeles, a leading center of scholarship in the United States. I would like to express my deep appreciation to Chancellor Charles E. Young, Vice-Chancellor Norman P. Miller, and all the students and faculty present this afternoon. I would like to talk with you not formally as a lecturer, but more as a friend deeply concerned about your future development, since you are the youth who will soon shoulder the responsibilities of leadership for the future age, not only for America but for the entire world in the twenty-first century.

During the past two years, I have had the privilege to have several frank discussions with Professor Arnold J. Toynbee, the renowned British historian and philosopher. We met in London in May of 1972 and again in 1973, and I felt that our ten days together were deeply rewarding. This type of person-to-person contact mutually inspires each participant, and this is why I place the greatest importance on dialogue.

I am sure you will agree with me that Professor Toynbee is one of the greatest scholars of our time and a treasure for all humanity. He has an extremely sharp mind and, although an octogenarian, is still in the prime of life, never ceasing in this creative work.

Professor and Mrs. Toynbee rise at 6:45 each morning—a time when most of you are probably still in bed or, perhaps, only waking up to go to the bathroom and then to return to bed. The Toynbees, however, are making the bed and having breakfast. At 9:00, whether or not he has any work scheduled for the day, Professor Toynbee enters his study, seats himself at his desk, and begins his day. Learning this, I truly felt that they embody the beauty of aging. There is certainly a beauty in youth like yours, but there is a different and noble sense of beauty in those who have aged so gracefully. I sincerely hope your parents will also age in such a graceful way, and that you will not disappoint them by failing in your schoolwork.

During our talks, I asked Professor Toynbee if he had any personal maxim. He offered the single Latin word “Laboramus”—“Let us work.” The same word was spoken by the Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus as he lay on his deathbed during a campaign in northern Britain in 211 CE. It was cold and desolate, and he was dying, but he continued to take command from his bed. Just before he died, he uttered this word to his troops—“Let us work.” As Professor Toynbee was telling me this story, I realized that this simple maxim was the real secret to his vigorous approach to work and to his youthful manner. I was able to perceive the ultimate human beauty of carrying out a lifelong struggle in the realm of ideas.

Our talks covered a wide range of subjects. Some of the topics we discussed were civilization, the nature of life itself, scholarship and education, literature, art, the natural sciences, international affairs, the nature of society, the meaning of human life, and the changing role of women. As we shared our hopes and expectations for the coming century, our discussions continued with no subject off-limits, lasting some forty hours in all. Even after I returned to Japan, our dialogue continued through the exchange of many letters.

I remember my first meeting with Professor Toynbee. He had a very solemn expression, and with a determined voice said, “Shall we begin? Let’s converse together now for the sake of all humankind in the twenty-first century.” He had a profound concern for the fate of the world beyond the horizon of his own passing; his compassion was genuine and deeply moving. On several occasions, he expressed his strong desire to be able to leave a profound message for all of us, the younger generation. I must confess that I feel a similar sense of earnest determination to offer something of value to all of you today.

As we neared the conclusion of our discussions, I asked Professor Toynbee what words he had for humanity in the twenty-first century. He replied as follows: Humankind in the twentieth century has become intoxicated by the power of technology, but this same technology has poisoned our environment and led the human race toward self-destruction. We must gain the wisdom to examine ourselves and exercise self-control. To that end we must avoid the extremes of hedonism and asceticism and learn to walk the way of the Golden Mean. This, he said, is the path humanity must take in the twenty-first century.

I found myself in complete agreement with Professor Toynbee’s assessment. I was especially impressed by his use of the term the “Golden Mean.” Mahayana Buddhism, which is the heart of Eastern philosophy, is based on the fundamental principle of the Middle Way, similar to what Professor Toynbee described as the Golden Mean. I am convinced that this is a third path of life itself, one that leans neither toward idealism nor materialism but represents a new synthesis.

Professor Toynbee and I also discussed concrete measures that might correct the distortions afflicting our civilization, but we soon realized that technical approaches or methods alone were not sufficient. We both keenly felt that we first had to address the basic root issues—namely, what is it to be human, to be alive? These questions necessarily led us to consider the nature of life, and I found this to be one of the most stimulating aspects of our dialogue. It is crucial that we probe into the nature of life itself in order to truly understand the life activities of humankind that are fundamental to the formation of civilizations.

Having lived through two world wars, Professor Toynbee strongly asserted that war is a system of utter evil with which there can be no compromise. He also experienced the inexpressibly deep anguish of losing his own son. These events seem to have focused his concern on the problems of life and death and on the inner depths of life itself.

I myself lost a brother to war. I strongly feel that there is nothing more tragic than war, nothing more inhuman. As long as I live, my feelings about this will never change. Sharing our experiences, we found ourselves in firm agreement that the most urgent task facing us is to instill in the hearts of all humankind a genuine and lasting respect for the sanctity and dignity of life.

I feel that the twenty-first century will be the age in which the wellsprings of life will be explored and brought to light. Or rather, I believe that we must make it so. Then and only then can our technology-centered civilization develop into a civilization that is humane in the richest, fullest meaning of the word.

My discussions with Professor Toynbee on the nature of life were extensive, covering such topics as the relationship between mind and body, the eternity of life, the death penalty, euthanasia, and human egotism. Today I would like to discuss the nature of life in its broadest sense and think, along with you, about the implications for the future of humankind.

As many of you may already know, the starting point for Buddhism is to acknowledge that life is filled with various kinds of suffering, represented by the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death. There is also the anguish of having to part from loved ones, or the frustration of seeking things in vain.

When happy, we feel that time passes quickly, yet happiness inevitably fades away. As this feeling of happiness is lost, it adds to our sorrow, and so our suffering seems to last even longer. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in society; there is also great diversity among ethnic groups, cultural practices, and expressions—rather than being a source of joy, these latter are experienced as the cause of pain.

What is the fundamental source of this suffering? Buddhism attributes this to people’s ignorance of the impermanence of all things. That is, nothing—none of the phenomena of the universe or things we experience in life—is eternally unchanging.

The young will inevitably grow old, and anything with a physical form is destined to decay. Even a healthy person will in time experience sickness. All living things must die. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated that all things are in constant flux. Everything in the universe is like a flowing river that changes continually without a moment’s pause. There is no reason to doubt that this desk, this microphone, and this building are solidly constructed, yet when sufficient time has passed they will all crumble. In which case, I suppose we could dispense with this lecture. But I’m afraid my body won’t last long enough for that to happen.

Buddhism teaches that losing sight of the principle of impermanence and becoming attached to things that we think will last forever gives rise to the sufferings of the human spirit.

Suppose you have a very attractive girlfriend or boyfriend. I doubt many of you date them while visualizing how they will look in thirty or forty years. It is only human to hope that the beauty and youth we have today will last forever. By the same token, I do not think anyone works with all their might because they actually believe they can take their wealth with them when they die.

Of course, people work hard to keep the wealth they have earned for as long as they can. None of this is in any way mistaken; these are perfectly natural feelings. Nevertheless, it is because we have these emotions that we also suffer. We want to hold onto those we love, but this causes emotional turmoil and maximum pain when we eventually part. Likewise, because people feel the need to accumulate wealth, they attach themselves to it, which can lead to conflict with those in their proximity, and yet someday they must come to taste the bitterness of losing it all.

The problem of death is similar. The fact is that we are alive at the moment and we could not live our lives if we were constantly thinking about death. At some point we have come to act as if life will go on forever, and we do everything possible to maintain it. At the same time, it is this strong attachment to life that leads to all manner of human suffering. It is because we fear death that we feel terror at the prospect of becoming old or sick. It may well be said that our life is an endless struggle through the swamp of what Buddhism calls deluded impulses or earthly desires.

Buddhism encourages us to clearly perceive the reality of impermanence and ceaseless change. It asserts that we must find the courage to accept this as fact. The path to true enlightenment starts with resisting the urge to avert our gaze from this reality or chase after continually changing phenomena, instead accepting this reality calmly and with composure.

Our life is one of impermanence, and for this reason an accumulation of suffering: moreover, this mortal body of flesh and blood is destined for death. Buddhism exhorts us to be undeterred by the fear of dying and to delve into that which lies within and beyond.

As I mentioned before, it would be wrong to dismiss as simply foolish our attachment to the impermanent phenomena of life, our penchant to be ensnared by earthly desires. Rather, as long as we live—so long as there is life—it is only natural that we strive to preserve life, cherish the love of others, and seek material gain.

Buddhism has generally been thought of as requiring people to renounce their delusions and extinguish earthly desires. It has been seen as existing on a different dimension from modern civilization and even as a hindrance to progress. This is the outcome of the stress that has been placed on the aspect of impermanence. But to see the teaching of impermanence as the entirety of Buddhism is to take a partial and one-sided view.

The core teachings of Buddhism do not urge severance from this-worldly desires or that we distance ourselves from all attachments. They are neither passive nor nihilistic, encouraging the resignation that comes from awakening to the impermanence of things. Rather, Buddhist thought teaches the existence of an enduring principle, the ultimate essence of life that underlies all the transience of actuality, which integrates and gives impetus to changing phenomena, generating the desires and attachments of human life.

A life dominated by desires and preoccupied with impermanent phenomena is referred to in Buddhism as the “lesser self.” To become enlightened to the universal truth existing in the depths of all phenomena and, from that perspective, to embrace all of the world’s ever-changing phenomena is to live in the “greater self.” This greater self is one with the fundamental principle of the universe, the law that operates in the depths of reality to give rise to all of our life activities. In my discussion with Professor Toynbee, he used the philosophical term “ultimate spiritual reality” to describe this. He also said that, rather than trying to understand this reality in anthropomorphic terms, it would be less misleading to think of it in terms of a law or principle as is done in Buddhism.

Living in the greater self does not mean abandoning the lesser self. Rather, the best qualities of the lesser self are brought forth through our efforts to live in the greater self. It may well be said that the advance of civilization is due to the various attachments and desires common to all people. Without the pursuit of wealth, there could be no economic growth. Without the will to overcome the natural elements such as the winter’s severe cold, there could have been no development of the natural sciences, and if people were not beset with the desires and turmoil of love, a very important part of literature could not have developed.

Some schools of Buddhism, especially in the earliest stages of its development, taught that all desires should be extinguished, to which end some practitioners even engaged in self-immolation. However, human desires arise from a core aspect of our lives and as such can never be fully eliminated. In fact, they are the generative force driving all behavior.

In this context, it is absolutely necessary to direct and guide this desire-ensnared lesser self. The authentic teachings of Buddhism seek to uncover a fundamental greater self. Buddhism teaches that we should neither attempt to suppress this lesser self nor allow ourselves to be dominated by it. I feel very strongly that when we act on the basis of this greater self, controlling and directing the impulses of the lesser self, civilization will develop and realize the most meaningful progress.

The preceding should make it obvious that Buddhism first clarified the concept of impermanence and taught people to face their own death in order to enable them to understand the vivid reality of the eternal and unchanging principle underlying all existence.

A Buddha is not someone who encourages resignation but a person enlightened to this eternally enduring law. A Buddha can face death without fear and clearly perceive the transience of phenomena because they are awakened to the eternal and unchanging principle within the depths of transience and to the reality that human life is based on and functions in accordance with this principle. It is this that makes life precious and worthy of the highest respect.

Death will inevitably take this mortal body into its embrace. Yet Buddhism looks beyond death to explain that our individual lives are part of a larger, indestructible flow of life that arises and transforms eternally and without cease. Buddhism invites us to unflinchingly view the transience of life and death with absolute confidence in this truth.

Buddhism expounds that life and death are two ways in which the eternal and constant flow of life manifests itself, with neither being subordinate to the other. And it is only in the dimension of non-substantiality (Jpn. ), which transcends our understanding of time and space, that we can grasp the eternal and ultimate vital principle governing all individual manifestations of life and death. During the dialogue I had with Professor Toynbee, we repeatedly discussed this problem of eternity, and he concurred that the “ultimate spiritual reality” could only be grasped in terms of non-substantiality as propounded in Buddhism.

While it would be extremely difficult to explain non-substantiality in this short lecture, it can be stated without hesitation that it does not mean a void or nothingness, as is commonly thought. Existence and nonexistence are easily discernible through our normal cognitive frameworks, but the idea of non-substantiality deals with the primal world which underlies them.

From the time we are born until we become adults, we undergo tremendous physical changes; certainly, we look completely different from when we were children. Likewise, over the long course of life, we will change in innumerable ways. It is natural that great changes will take place mentally as well. Yet, despite all these changes, we maintain a consistent sense of self. This is not simply a function of memory, but rather arises from the living entity that is us—from what might be called a primal self.

We are not always aware of this self, which is manifested on both the physical and the mental planes, but it is the fundamental reality that lies beyond the realm of existence and nonexistence. Buddhism explains that this primal self is integrated with the life that permeates the entire cosmos. As such, this self continues to function without cease, at times assuming the aspect of life and at times that of death. This is the Buddhist view of the indivisible oneness of life and death. We all possess this greater self in the depths of our lives and, while partaking of the great cosmic life, continue to live in the midst of this ever-changing world.

Unfortunately, our contemporary society has become dominated by the lesser self, whose impulses have been allowed to run wild. Human desires have manifested in various forms, including environmental pollution, the depletion of oil and other resources, and the development of a vast scientific and technological civilization. Colossal skyscrapers, high-speed transportation networks, different kinds of artificial foods, and even the most abominable weapon systems are all evidence of human attachments and desires. If we allow things to continue in this way with humankind in the thrall of our desires, our self-destruction seems inevitable.

It may be said that the current global trend of questioning the reckless course of contemporary civilization and focusing on the human being shows that we have finally taken the first steps toward becoming truly human. A person controlled by desire in ceaseless pursuit of the constantly changing world of phenomena, even when they fully deploy the gifts of intelligence, is still living a fundamentally instinctual way of life. Only when we focus our attention on the unseen reality residing within the depths of the phenomenal world can we manifest the kind of value that renders us genuinely human.

Professor Toynbee has termed desire that is controlled by the lesser self as “diabolic desire” and desire that is integrated with the greater self as “loving desire.” He asserted that, in order to control such diabolic desire, it is absolutely necessary for each of us to engage in introspection, guiding and governing our inner lives. This was his admonition to the twenty-first century.

In the coming century, we must break free from modes of civilization dominated by egoism. We must align human civilization with the greater self, the eternally abiding reality that underlies the changing phenomenal world, and thereby enable its full and harmonious flourishing. Then and only then will humanity stand on its own and build a civilization that is authentically human. It is in this sense that I wish to declare that the twenty-first century must become a century of life.

Our life, along with all phenomena in the universe, is like a great revolving wheel. How we experience its turnings will depend on whether we are floundering in a quagmire of desires or advancing smoothly on the firm ground of life itself, awakened to the greater self. Only then will our civilization be able to make sound and sure progress.

Whether the coming century will see the long dreamed-of civilization that extols the glory of humanity depends solely on whether we can focus on what it means to be human and discover therein the eternally abiding, powerfully dynamic, indomitable reality of our lives. I would like to declare to all of you that we are now at that crossroads.

I feel that the period spanning the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first is the pivotal moment that will decide whether we become fully and authentically human. At the risk of sounding extreme, humans seem still to be living in an animalistic or instinctual manner, albeit with the additional element of intellect. Within the 700-year-old writings of Nichiren, the Buddhist teacher whom I follow in faith, the phrase “talented animals” appears. Today this phrase takes on ever greater relevance. I believe that human beings, possessing not only intellect but also a spiritual dimension and, further, a vitality of comic scale, must now take that next step toward becoming truly human.

This is the challenge facing all of us today. To this end, I feel that it is first necessary for each of us to seek out our own path to real human agency and autonomy. I myself have embarked upon such a journey of life based on Nichiren Buddhism. I hope that each and every one of you, as youthful planners, builders, and pioneers living through this unprecedented age of transition, will discover your own path.

Today it has been my privilege to share with you some elements of the wisdom inherent in Buddhism. It will indeed bring me joy if this lecture has provided each of you with some clarifying guide posts in that pursuit. Thank you for your attention.

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