Back to listSep 20, 2008

Boston Research Center's Fifth Ikeda Forum Explores Life and Death

For its Fifth Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (BRC) explored perspectives on life and death at the center's conference facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, on September 20, 2008.

080920x_brc_birth_death1.jpg From left to right: Professor Harding, Professor Laverty, Dr. Marsella, Dr. Kirchner and BRC Executive Director Virginia Straus Benson

This year's forum was part of the BRC's year-long exploration of the "deeper continuity of life and death that we experience as individuals and express as culture," a concept put forward by BRC founder Daisaku Ikeda in his 1993 Harvard University lecture, "Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization." A companion forum titled "Understanding Death, Appreciating Life" was held in February 2008, and on October 18, 2008, BRC will host a lecture and commentary titled, "Enjoying the Rhythm of Birth and Death: A Buddhist Perspective."

During the morning session of the one-day event, the more than 100 participants engaged in small group discussions structured around two directives: "Share one experience with death that changed you" and "As you have had other experiences with death, how have your own views toward life and death changed?" Through a multitude of observations a common theme became apparent: there is no experience more humanizing than death--both for those facing their own death and for those supporting someone who is dying.

The afternoon session, called "Possibilities for Cultural Change," featured a diverse panel--hospice physician Pam Kirchner, educational philosopher Megan Laverty, psychologist Anthony Marsella and social historian Vincent Harding--exploring cultural changes that could accompany our increasing acknowledgement of death as something natural and inspiring, rather than something strange and threatening.

Dr. Kirchner shared how medical treatment in the United States, as well as the experience of dying itself, has been humanized considerably since the advent of hospice care in the 1970s, and that the view of life is shifting from an emphasis on quantity to one of quality. Dr. Kirchner stated that more than anything, the open, humanistic approach to death and dying is helping Americans discover that it is relationships that matter most of all, "more than our accomplishments and financial acquisitions."

080920x_brc_birth_death2.jpg Dr. Marsella addresses the audience

Next Dr. Marsella, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, referenced Mr. Ikeda's lecture and suggested that the true mystery is not found in either life or death alone but the fact that "they cannot be separated." He said that our task is not only to identify with all of our fellow humans but with life itself, and that doing so would have implications for human and planetary health and well being.

Professor Laverty of Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, followed with a talk citing philosopher John Dewey and urged those attending to become more innocent and at ease in the presence of death's inevitability.

Finally, Vincent Harding, professor emeritus, Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado, explored the possibilities for cultural change from a social and historical perspective. Professor Harding wondered aloud what might have to die in American culture for a new society to be born, a society that would embody the values and vision of his colleague and friend, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor Harding challenged the forum attendees to become "midwives" and facilitate the birth of a more hopeful, healthy and just society. The midwife's primary message, he said, is a simple one: "You can do it."

[Adapted from a report prepared by the BRC,; also reported in the September 27 and 28, 2008 issues of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photos courtesy of Marilyn Humphries]