Daisaku Ikeda's A New Humanism: One Reader's Response
by Jim Garrison, February 2013
Dr. Jim Garrison is professor of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, USA
The new humanism is a profound expression of the ageless law of the Dharma, which is forever renewing, forever young. It finds its fullest expression through the continuous creation of value in response to the demands of the eternally changing never repeating drama of daily life. I will strive to respond to Ikeda's A New Humanism in the spirit in which it was written.
The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey inspires much of my work. Dewey has inspired many others as well, including Louise Rosenblatt who used Dewey's philosophy of transactionalism to develop what she called a "reader response" theory of reading. One of her most famous books is: The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. There she developed the idea that there are as many good interpretations of a text as there are careful, caring, and creative readers. The ancient Greek word "poiesis" means to make, to create, or to call into existence. According to Rosenblatt, the poem (that is, the meaning) of a text emerges in a unique creative transaction between each individual reader and the text; the meaning is not solely in one or the other. It is rather like a good conversation between the author and the reader. The readers ultimately determine the value of any text. A great work written according to the Mystic Law will have something new to say to every generation that reads it. It is in this spirit that I read Ikeda's A New Humanism. To truly experience the meaning of this text, you must read it for yourself and make your own meaning, not mine.
It seems to me that Ikeda's idea of a new humanism walks the middle way between two other dominant ideas of what it is to be human. On one side, there is the older way of dogmatic supernaturalistic religion that denigrates humanism and places all of its trust in our dependence on a transcendent deity that works from outside worldly affairs in a dimension entirely removed from our universe. Such a stance implies that except for petitioning and propitiating an all-powerful and all-knowing Being, human action is as hopeless as it is insignificant. Rigid religion tends to define the essence of humankind in terms of powerlessness, original sin, and destitution. This way is often intolerant. It easily falls into fanaticism, authoritarianism, and persecution of those that do not agree with its doctrines. Dogmatic religion depends entirely on nonhuman powers and seeks salvation by escaping to another realm wherein that power resides. It tends to be life denying and denigrates the creative passions of life.
The other way leads to materialism and secular humanism. It is the dialectical negation of supernatural religion. It assumes human rationality is the essence of humankind and that we possess all the power required to determine our destiny. Therefore, we have no need to rely on any other power within or without the universe than ourselves. It assumes endless progress, provocation, self-assertion, logical providence, and riches of every kind. Secular humanism often falls into self-centered individualism, subjective moral relativism, and scientism. It too can spawn fanaticism, authoritarianism, and dogmatic ideology. Although it does affirm life, it often chains the creative passions to fixed, final, and presumably rational concepts, categories, and rigid rules of right thinking.
The young are often sensitive to the failure of supernatural religion and materialistic secular humanism even when they cannot fully articulate their alienation. Meanwhile, too many of their elders are only interested in imposing their inflexible regimes rather than their wisdom. However, many perhaps most, whether young or old, have yielded to the nihilism brought on by the death of some dogmatic God and equally dogmatic Rationality. Often, this nihilism results in lives devoted to amusement, entertainment, and other passive pleasures that are enjoyable enough, but pale before the far greater pleasures of creating meaning and value with others within the community of humankind.
The middle way explores the vast territory that lies between the two forgoing extremes. Ikeda (2010) refers to the words of Nichiren to illustrate the Mahayana understanding of enlightenment: "People are certainly self-empowered, and yet they are not self-empowered . . . people are certainly other-empowered, and yet they are not other empowered." (p. 171). He also invokes Dewey's book, A Common Faith to help explain what he means (p. 171-172). Dewey spoke of what he called "natural piety," by which he meant devotion to the forces that have brought us into existence, continue to sustain us, and upon which we may depend for the success of whatever we may sagely pursue. Dewey comprehends humankind as a creative participant in an unfinished, unfinishable, and continuously creating universe. We are not spectators of a complete or completable cosmos.
Reflecting on Dewey's philosophy led me to the following statement of my own personal sense of spirituality: Spirituality is an intimate relation to the universe in which our individual creative acts matter in the course of cosmic events. I find a similar sense of spirituality in Nichiren Buddhism and Ikeda's new humanism. I am also of the opinion that the Soka Gakkai (literally "Value-Creation Society") expresses this cosmic creativity especially well in the everyday affairs of our times. Following Nichiren, but not the priesthood of the Nichiren Shoshu, it seeks continuous re-creation in response to present conditions and strives to remain forever young, which is why it has for decades placed special emphasis on the creative energy of young people as future creators of meaning and value. In the new humanism, human beings do not have a fixed essence; instead, individuals and entire societies continuously create and re-create themselves in every generation as they respond to the unique, one-time-only circumstance of their place and time.
For me, the essay, "The Magnificent Cosmos," (given at Moscow State University) in A New Humanism depicting the three stages of transformation in the life of the individual and the development of human character are especially illuminating. The first stage involves "developing an awareness of the fundamental order of life" (p. 45). Individuals have the potential to become, in their own unique way, an ideal human being. In Buddhist terms, every human being has Buddha nature; that is, the potential to become a fully endowed Buddha. When we recognize this overwhelming truth, we embark on the road to self-mastery, human revolution, and freedom from disabling delusions, blinding prejudice, ideology, and the like. Beginning the journey brings a happiness even the best poet cannot fully express. Such happiness comes from finding fulfillment in life beyond sensuous pleasure alone. Its pleasures are of both the senses and the spirit.
Awakening brings about transcendence that is within the world; it does not seek the supernatural. One must not believe the Buddha is "some sort of distant, mythical being" (p. 46). The seed of awakenment lies hidden within. The universe is attempting something new in each one of us. Each individual has unique potential and must find their own way to fulfillment while overcoming their own obstacles. However, we are never alone on our journey because we may creatively employ the forces that brought us here and continue to sustain us (including our parents, siblings, and friends as well as our local and global community) to overcome obstructions. This realization brings us to the next stage.
The next phase involves the Buddhist principle of "perfect endowment." Once perfectly endowed our awakening discards all partiality and prejudice. It becomes "all-encompassing, equally embracing not only all human beings but nature and the whole universe" (p. 47). When we fully realize we are a microcosmos within a much greater cosmos, we discern our symbiotic relationship with the rest of existence, or what Buddhism calls "dependent origination." For instance, there is a symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Plants give off oxygen that animals take in and animals give off carbon dioxide, which the plants need. Every time we breathe, we owe a debt of appreciation to the flora of our planet.
The forces of the universe brought us here and if they ever cease to preserve us, we will perish. All of the elements in the periodic table after the first three, hydrogen, helium, and lithium, including the iron in our blood and the calcium in our bones, are the result of exploding stars, nova, or supernova. These are second or third generation entities in the life of the universe. The first generation of galaxies in the universe only contained hydrogen, helium, and perhaps traces of lithium. Life as we know it is a carbon based life form. The creation of carbon occurs in the plasma core of giant red stars. Novel properties emerge as the various elements begin to transact. For instance, oxygen sustains combustion and hydrogen is highly combustible, yet mixed in the right harmonious proportion, water (H2O) puts out fire. Likewise, life itself is an emergent transaction. One highly plausible account of how life originated on earth involves the functional transaction of carbon and methane under high energy (perhaps lightening) that synthesized protein. Even in the most ordinary sense of the phrase, we are stardust children of the universe.
All that exists depends on relationships with innumerable other things past and present; nothing exists in isolation. The Buddhist term kechi-en captures this beautifully. All phenomena are mutually supportive, or mutually transacting in Dewey's terms. Indeed, according to Dewey, nothing has potential unless there is in the universe something with which it has not yet transacted. Such transactions are mutually transformative, thereby altering the identity of all that participate. Esho-funi, the oneness of life and its environment is a magnificent expression of dependent origination. Herein Ikeda finds the hidden meaning of such things as the tea ceremony or Japanese poetry including renga and haiku: "They derive their full meaning only when placed in a 'space' at the heart of ordinary everyday life. Their value is dependent on kechi-en" (p. 6). We may say the same for time as for space. We may only grasp the full meaning of the present in terms of the past and the future.
The meaning of a poem or any other work of art is something worked out across the generations of the universe including generations of human beings upon this planet:
Pausing between clouds
the moon rests
in the eyes of its beholders
Where does the meaning of the poem reside? Does it live in the clouds, the moon, between them, or in the eyes of its beholders? In Ikeda's new humanism, it lives everywhen and everywhere it has consequences. And what do the words of the poem mean? Ikeda warns that we must remain "suspicious of the reifying function of language to capture experience and render it fixed" (p. 38). The meaning of the poem is the effect it has on the life of everyone that reads poetically. That is why a human revolution in one lifetime is also a revolution in the individual's community, and, simultaneously, part of the cosmic revolution. The new humanism reveals the deeper meaning of Darwinism.
Ikeda realizes that too much emphasis on interdependence "can submerge the individual and reduce one's capacity for positive engagement with the world" (p. 195). The goal is not to suppress individual creativity, but to recognize that individuality and creativity involves co-origination. Each individual is a unique and evolving one-time-only web of relationships. To actualize our unique potential we must weave an ever-growing web of expansive relationships with our environment, other people, our world, and the universe that brought us here and continues to sustain us. In this way, we actualize our unique potential by making our unique contribution to the creative flux of the cosmos. We will come to realize that all creation is really co-creation. Individual self-assertion has an important role to play in the endless flux of events. While we must recognize and yield to the demands of the greater self and the Mystic Law that governs the universe and all that is in it, including ourselves, we must also realize the crucial role played by the lesser self within the greater whole. That means the lesser self must declare itself in the right way at the right time for the greater good. Rightly understood, self-assertion, self-expression, and self-creation are also parts of the new humanism.
Unlike conventional dogmatic religion and equally dogmatic scientism, Nichiren Buddhism believes our individual desires are an expression of the life force and, should we use them according to the law of life, lead to commitment, creativity, and genuine happiness. Ikeda declares:
Each of us consists of a lesser self and a greater self. To be blinded by temporary circumstances and tortured by inordinate desires is to exist only for the lesser self. To live for the larger self means to recognize the universal principle behind all things . . . and rise above the transience of the phenomena of the world. (p. 139)
The greater self is the macrocosm and the Dharma it obeys. However, since we are a microcosm within the macrocosm, we must not abandon our lesser self; it is after all, a part of the creative unfolding of the universe itself. Too often, religion, including Buddhism, has taught self-immolation and the denial of life, while Nichiren Buddhism affirms the self as part of the generative power of life that makes love and creates children of many kinds.
Once we awaken to our unique and limitless potential and the place of our passions within our relations to the greater self, we awaken to the enduring self that resides in the greater life of the universe that operates forever and will realize that life and death are merely phases within the larger life of the cosmos. "Since the lesser self is included in the greater self," Ikeda writes, "each of us partakes of immutable cosmic life while living in the world of transience and change" (p. 141). The Spanish explorer Ponce de León searched for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now St. Augustine, Florida in the United States in 1513. Many seek the fountain of youth and eternal life, but like Ponce de León's explorations, it is a fool's quest. We are always already immortal. Wisely directed desire frees the creative spirit and leads to good karma in the life of our lesser self and the immortal life of the greater self; sadly, foolish desires make us a slave to our passions and squelch creativity. Those who have followed the way of enlightenment thus far have already entered into the final stage.
The final stage is revitalization and self-renewal. "The concept of 'revitalization'," Ikeda writes, "refers to the cultivation of the creative dynamism of life that allows one to be reborn each day and keeps a person from growing stagnant and rigid" (p. 48). When fully revitalized, we delight in the eternal dance of change, of coming and going, including our own coming and going, within the larger tempo of a time beyond any time kept by ordinary clocks and calendars that count only hours, days, and years. Here, you will have the time of your life, and of endless numbers of lives. The revitalized sing with Walt Whitman who writes in his Song of My Self,
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and
luckier (Book 5)
Whitman knew the immortality of his greater self.
Whitman was a remarkably original poet. Like all great poets, he lived fully within the creation and created his poems from what he found there. Ikeda asserts: "Art is the irrepressible expression of human spirituality" (p. 4). He goes on to proclaim that art plays such a primordial and enduring role in human life because "it is the power to integrate, to reveal the wholeness of things" (p. 4). Further, the force of integration "works in living beings by opening the way for the finite to become infinite, for the specificity of the actual experience to assume universal meaning" (p. 5). Like Whitman, Ikeda recognizes that all goes onward and outward and that nothing is lost. We are not only always already immortal, but the meaning of our lives was always already infinite. This is where I find spirituality in Ikeda's new humanism.
All phenomena are fleeting and eventually overflow the concepts of any rational system. "We are not meant to rest peacefully" even in the presence of an artistic masterpiece because "our destiny is to stay in continuous flight, ever moving forward to the next creation" (p. 38). Unlike the fixed and final essences of dogmatic religion and humanistic rationalism, we may only state the essence of humankind in the new humanism as a paradox: We are created creators that continue the creation through our creative acts that constantly transform the world and our selves.
Once revitalized, we learn to live beyond good and evil as conventionally understood. Ikeda boldly writes, for those that know how to read and respond:
The "world" refers to the realm of differences, as between good and evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, advantage and disadvantage. "Transcending the world" is liberating oneself from attachments to all such distinctions. (p. 35)
What Ikeda depicts here is transcendence in immanence. It is part of the middle path. We do not leave the world; rather, we become renewed by its endless creative possibilities. Almost all confuse the actual with the real. The actual is only one of the infinite number of possibilities that comprise reality. You are one of that infinite number, and you may have all the rest if you can only awaken the creative potential you possess as part of the larger doings of the universe. We are connected to the larger universe through innumerable relations of dependent origination. When we fully realize ourselves as creators, we will also realize that all creation is really co-creation.
We may now understand the role of nonattachment in Buddhist teaching. When we transcend the world, we must let go of all rigid distinctions. If we are to live according to the Dharma and realize the paradoxical essence of the new humanism, we must simultaneously accept dependent origination and eternal flux. If everything is constantly changing and we are constantly creating and being created, then the web of dependent relations must also be constantly changing, so we must learn to separate ourselves from them. Nonattachment does not mean that relationships do not matter and so we may easily discard them. Indeed, it means that they are everything and we must accept their endless evolution. The greatest wisdom reveals when and how to reach out, when and how to hold on, and when and how to let go.
I have written about my way of reading of Ikeda's, A New Humanism, but my way is not your way. You must find that for yourself in the company of others upon whom the richness of your life depends.
Jim Garrison is professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, and former president of the John Dewey Society. His research interests focus on John Dewey and American Pragmatism. A dialogue titled "New Currents in Humane Education: Dewey and Value-creating Pedagogy" (tentative translation) between Prof. Garrison, Daisaku Ikeda and Larry Hickman, Director of the Center for Dewey Studies, was serialized in the Japanese education magazine Todai.
Rosenblatt, Louise (1978). The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Ikeda, Daisaku (2010). A New Humanism: The University Addresses of Daisaku Ikeda. New York: I. B. Tauris.