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We are clearly living in a period of profound historical transition. As many point out, more positive forms of human interaction and dialogue must be developed if we are to bring out the creative possibilities of this era. What can Buddhism contribute to building a new culture of dialogue?
The practice of dialogue expresses a central tenet of Buddhism—faith in human beings, in their limitless dignity and potential as possessors and embodiments of universal truth.
The word dialogue comes from the Greek dia—through—logos, a word that includes the meanings of language, principle, rationality, law, etc. Dialogue in Buddhism is not merely a vehicle or means for communicating its message. Rather, the practice of dialogue expresses a central tenet of Buddhism—faith in human beings, in their limitless dignity and potential as possessors and embodiments of universal truth. In the Buddhist tradition, dialogue—open and respect-based human interaction—has played a central part in the quest to discover and identify common or universal values that would allow human beings to live in the best, most humane and empowering ways.
Today the idea of “universal values” is often viewed with suspicion, if not open hostility, as code and cover for one culture imposing itself on another. But a belief in the existence of common human values need not contradict belief in a particular cultural and religious perspective.
If we examine the lives of all of humanity’s great religious and philosophical teachers, we find that they have all been masters of the art of dialogue. At the same time, they are without exception people of firm, seemingly unshakable faith. This suggests that strongly-held convictions are not necessarily an impediment to dialogue; rather, they may be the critical condition for its success.
The sutras, which record the teachings of the Buddha, reveal Shakyamuni as a teacher who spent his adult life traveling from one place to another, interacting with people, striving to offer the means of living with confidence and hope in the face of life’s inevitable sufferings. The people he encountered were diverse in terms of their level of education, their social and economic backgrounds, and their capacity to grasp the full implications of his teachings. Thus, he engaged in a fluid and organically unfolding style of dialogue through which he sought to awaken people to the dharma—the enduring and universal truth within. And he sought to share with others his profound confidence in their ability to embody and act on that truth in order to realize lives of genuine happiness.
related article Conservation and Education in the Amazon—Brazil SGI by Celso Hama, Brazil Introducing the Soka Institute Amazon Environmental Research Center in Brazil. Nichiren, the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist reformer whose teachings inspire the SGI, was himself a master of dialogue. Many of his important works, including those in which he remonstrated with the government, are written in dialogue form. Perhaps his most important treatise, “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” (Rissho ankoku ron), unfolds as a dialogue between two individuals, the host and the guest, whose views are quite at odds, but who find a common ground in their shared concern for the plight of a society wracked by warfare and natural disaster. The host tells the guest, “I have been brooding alone upon this matter, indignant in my heart, but now that you have come, we can lament together. Let us discuss the question at length.” The dialogue develops as the two exchange views on the causes and possible responses to the dire situation confronting society; it concludes with the two vowing to work together toward a common goal.
Dialogue has been central to the SGI since its inception. From the earliest years in the 1930s in Japan, small group discussions have been the key venue for study and practice. One-on-one dialogue and encouragement rooted in a sense of mutual respect and human equality have also played a central role.
As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has stated: “The conquest of our own prejudicial thinking, our own attachment to difference, is the guiding principle of open dialogue, the essential condition for the establishment of peace and universal respect for human rights.”
Humanism is a key concept within the SGI, which often describes its philosophical basis as “Buddhist humanism.” Dialogue is a process through which we uncover and reveal our human grandeur. Dialogue withers when our hearts are closed to the infinite possibilities of the other and we assume we already know all we need to know about them. Dialogue flourishes when it is conducted in an open-minded spirit of discovery based on compassion, on the desire to build on what we have in common and transform our differences into rich sources of value.
Courtesy January 2007 issue of the SGI Quarterly.