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Dialogue, interaction and discussion have always been crucial to the process by which people come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Buddhism.
Large gatherings may be an effective means of transmitting information; likewise, print and other media can provide important sources of information and inspiration. But they also hold the risk that they will become one-way avenues of communication. Within religious movements, in particular, even with the best of intentions one-way communication can establish a sense of hierarchy—between those who teach and those who learn. The result can be the disempowerment of believers, who become reliant on their leaders or teachers. If the true mission of religion is to enable people to enjoy the highest happiness, it is vital to make efforts to avoid such outcomes.
Small group discussions provide an opportunity for questioning, for voicing and responding to doubts.
Small group discussions provide an opportunity for questioning, for voicing and responding to doubts. This is a shared process of learning that proceeds at the pace that is genuinely comfortable and effective for all the participants. From the perspective of Buddhist humanism, truth is not the exclusive possession of a select individual or group. Rather, truth is something to which all people have equal access. It is discovered through our committed engagement with our fellow human beings and is shared and transmitted through an expanding web of empathetic connection among people. Such interactions, on the basis of equality, are the crucible in which our humanity is forged.
Nichiren (1222–82), the Buddhist reformer whose teachings inspire the SGI’s activities, valued this form of dialogue and study. From his writings, it is clear that his disciples gathered on a regular basis to study a wide range of Buddhist texts. Nichiren saw such discussion as crucial for the correct transmission of his own intent. He begins one letter written at a time of severe persecution with these words: “Those resolved to seek the way should gather and listen to the contents of this letter.”
related article The Practice of Dignity by Mitch Bogen, Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, USA Mitch Bogen describes the ethos and activities of the Ikeda Center and explains how the 2015 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue offers a window into the center’s history. Small group discussion meetings have been the foundation of the Soka Gakkai since the 1930s. Founding president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi traveled widely throughout Japan to participate in such meetings, attending some 240 small group discussions during a two-year period near the end of his life, even as religious freedom was being suppressed by the militarist authorities of his day.
Today, SGI discussion meetings are held in all corners of the globe, usually on a monthly basis. The vast majority of these are held in the homes of members who make them available for this purpose. Participants are women and men, children from all walks of life, educational and economic backgrounds.
The meetings are held in local neighborhoods, and give people the opportunity to develop the kind of relations that are increasingly rare in contemporary urban environments—where people may live for years as neighbors without developing any personal connection. Discussion meetings are open to all and bring together people who might never otherwise encounter each other in societies divided along various seen and unseen lines. Everyone, including children or those for whom speaking in front of others does not come easily, is encouraged to speak, to offer their comments or reactions.
The sharing of faith experiences—the transformation in people’s lives realized through Buddhist practice—is a central element of discussion meetings. There is perhaps nothing more heartening for people struggling with problems than the example of others who have successfully confronted and overcome their own challenges. The best discussion meetings are filled with a bright mood of mutual encouragement. Buddhist study is another important feature; an individual or group of individuals may prepare a presentation on a theme or concept, which then sets the stage for further discussion. Guests or others interested in learning more about Buddhism are encouraged to comment and question.
SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has described the significance of the modern-day discussion meeting in these terms: “The culture of the spirited, resilient common people is found in the exchange and interaction of voice with voice, the coming together of people in their raw humanity, the contact of one life with another. Contemporary society is a flood of soulless information. It is for just this reason that sharing of living language, the actual voices of people, can make a crucial contribution to the health of society.”
[Courtesy April 2007 SGI Quarterly]