Dialogue as a Path to Empathy



Section five of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2016 peace proposal, “Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace.”

In addition to this learning-based approach, we have stressed the importance of dialogue as the foundation for our activities. It is my personal conviction that dialogue is essential if we are to build a world in which no one is left behind.

To successfully meet the challenges facing humankind, it is vital to continually revisit such questions as what it is that we must protect, who is going to protect it, and how. We must start from the perspective of those most severely impacted and work with them to find paths toward resolution. Dialogue provides the framework for this.

Against the backdrop of a series of natural disasters and extreme weather events, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) held in Sendai, Japan, last March, establishing such shared goals as greatly reducing the number of people affected by disaster by the year 2030.

related article Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace All people have the right to live in happiness. The prime objective of our movement is to forge an expanding solidarity of ordinary citizens committed to protecting that right and, in this way, to rid the world of needless suffering. Our activities in support of the UN are a natural and necessary expression of this. I was struck by the attention devoted to the principle of “Build Back Better.” This refers to the idea that recovery efforts should take into account and seek to ameliorate the specific challenges that had affected a community prior to the disaster. For example, even if the seismic resistance of homes of the elderly living alone is improved as part of DRR activities, that could still leave a range of problems unresolved, such as the day-to-day difficulty of accessing medical facilities or shops. Efforts to build back better seek to address critical issues that existed prior to the disaster through the recovery process.

Here, I am reminded of the following Buddhist parable: Once, a man saw a magnificent three-story house belonging to a wealthy person and decided that he must have one for himself. Returning home, he immediately commissioned a carpenter to build such a house, and the carpenter began work on the foundation and then the first and second stories. Unable to understand this, the man pressed the carpenter, saying, “I don’t need the first and second stories.” To which the carpenter replied in exasperation, “I’m afraid that’s impossible. How do you expect me to build the second story without the first, or the third story without the second?”

In a similar way, responses to humanitarian crises must have a bedrock focus on the dignity of each individual. Recovery efforts should not be limited to physical reconstruction, but must include scrupulous attention to the more basic questions of how to make life better for individual members of the community and how to deepen the bonds of mutual communication and support among residents. Without this, they will not produce optimal outcomes.

To this end, it is vital to heed the voices of those most grievously impacted and engage in dialogue with them in order to find solutions together. The irony of humanitarian crises is that the deeper the gravity of people’s plight, the harder it is to make themselves heard. Through dialogue, we come face to face with their experiences and can bring to light each of the elements necessary to ensure that recovery efforts leave no one behind. Most crucially, those who have experienced the greatest suffering have invaluable lessons and capacities to share.

The Sendai Framework lists the sharing of knowledge and experience as among the roles that citizens and civil society organizations can contribute as one aspect of their active engagement. In this context, the experiences of people in afflicted regions are of crucial significance.

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. This was on display following the earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Many people who had themselves been impacted by that disaster were able to encourage and support other victims, in this way becoming effective agents of recovery. Through the SGI’s ongoing support of recovery efforts, we have had the opportunity to learn in depth from these invaluable experiences and have stressed the critical importance of the voices and capacities of disaster victims to the process of recovery at subsequent international conferences.

The same applies to efforts to achieve the SDGs. Governments, international organizations and NGOs need to listen to the voices of people in challenging circumstances in order to determine what steps to take and how to ensure their success.

Reflecting on a world that is full of challenges and conflict, where good news is in short supply, Amina J. Mohammed, who served as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning, has stressed that the key to strengthening the unity of international society is “finding a place for our humanity again . . . reclaiming the values that I think that we’ve lost along the way.” Dialogue is indeed something that any of us, anywhere, and at any time can initiate to recover our collective humanity.

In times of heightened tension and conflict, there is another important role that dialogue can play: It can provide the impetus for renewing the connections between oneself and others and oneself and the world. As such, it can serve as the source of the creative energy to transform the era.

As a result of globalization—one of the defining trends of the twenty-first century—an unprecedented number of people are living outside their country of origin for short-term work or educational opportunities or have chosen to settle in a new location. Many countries have seen an influx of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, providing new opportunities for interaction and exchange. At the same time, however, there has been an increased incidence of racism and xenophobia.

In the peace proposal I wrote last year, I warned of the dangers of hate speech, noting that, regardless of whom it is directed at, it is a human rights violation that cannot be ignored. It is crucial that this recognition be established throughout international society. In order to construct societies that are resistant to xenophobia and incitement to hatred, people need to be exposed to and reminded of different perspectives. Face-to-face dialogue can play a crucial role in this.

The Buddhist teaching of the Four Views of the Sal Grove illustrates the way that differences in people’s mental or spiritual state cause them to see the same thing in completely different ways. For example, the sight of the same river might inspire different people to be moved by the beauty of its pure waters, to wonder what kind of fish might be found there, or to worry about it flooding. What is particularly significant is that these are not simply differences in subjective perception; they can give rise to actions that will actually alter that landscape.

An example of this is to be found in the life story of my dear friend, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940–2011).

The people in the Kenyan village where she was born viewed fig trees with reverence, contributing to the protection of the local ecology. Returning to Kenya from the United States where she had completed her studies, a shocking sight awaited her. A fig tree that she had loved since childhood had been felled by the new owner of the land to make space to grow tea. This had not only changed the landscape, but, as the pattern was repeated elsewhere, landslides were becoming more frequent and sources of potable water more scarce.

This is a poignant example of how something that was treasured by one person may appear to another as nothing more than an impediment. The problems arising from such differences in awareness are not limited to relations between individuals but also affect relations among groups of differing cultural or ethnic backgrounds. The things that do not impinge upon our consciousness cease to exist in our version of the world.

related article Peace Proposal 2016<br>Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace Peace Proposal 2016
Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace
by  Daisaku Ikeda, President, Soka Gakkai International In his annual peace proposal released on January 26, 2016, titled “Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace,” Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist association, calls for intensified efforts to respond to the needs of humanity’s most vulnerable, including those displaced by conflict in Syria and elsewhere or by natural disasters.
While we as humans may be adept at understanding the feelings of those with whom we have a close relationship, geographical and cultural distances can result in psychological distancing. Accelerating processes of globalization seem to exacerbate this, with modern means of communication at times amplifying the tendency to stereotype and hate. As a result, people end up avoiding interaction with those who are different, including those living in the same community, viewing them through a filter of discriminatory preconception. Society as a whole has seen a lessening of our capacity to appreciate others—as they are and for who they are. I believe that the surest way to change this is by carefully attending to the stories of each other’s lives through one-on-one dialogue.

Last year, for World Refugee Day, UNHCR launched a public education campaign that introduces the life stories of people who have become refugees, urging viewers to share these stories with their friends and acquaintances. They are each introduced by name and through easily recognized attributes that bear no relation to nationality—“Gardener. Mother. Nature lover.” “Student. Brother. Poet.”—and describe their stories and their feelings about their current situation. Encountering the experience and life story of an individual in such real and familiar terms can enable people to see beyond a faceless classification as “refugees.”

When I met with Professor Ved Nanda of the University of Denver in the United States, he recounted to me his experience at age twelve of being forced from his home as a result of the 1947 partition of India and of walking for days with his mother in search of safety. He went on to study international law and became a leading expert on human rights and refugee issues. As he later wrote:

“There is no doubt that my early childhood experiences had a deep, lasting influence on my life. I will remember until the last day of my life the grief I felt at being forced from my homeland.”

As UNHCR’s effort to show the human face of refugees suggests, our awareness of people belonging to different religions or ethnicities can be transformed through direct contact and conversation with even one member of that group. Such an encounter can bring into view an entirely new and different “landscape.” By engaging in open and frank dialogue, we are able to see things that had been hidden from view, and the world begins to appear in a warmer, more human light.

In September 1974, in the midst of heightened Cold War tensions, I decided to ignore the voices of criticism and opposition in order to visit the Soviet Union for the first time. The belief that motivated me was this: We don’t need to fear the Soviet Union so much as we need to fear our ignorance of the Soviet Union.

Conflict and tension do not in themselves render dialogue impossible; what builds the walls between us is our willingness to remain ignorant of others. This is why it is crucial to be the one to initiate dialogue. Everything starts from there.

At a welcoming dinner the evening I arrived in Moscow, I gave voice to my feelings:

“People sense a human warmth, the warmth of the heart, in the light that spills from windows in the beautiful Siberian winter. In this way, we promise to treasure the light of the human heart, regardless of differences in our social systems.”

The same sentiment prompted my visit to Cuba several decades later, in June 1996. This was just four months after two American civilian aircraft had been shot down by the Cuban Air Force, but I was convinced that a shared will for peace has the power to surmount the most formidable obstacles. And with this determination, I engaged in an unrestrained exchange of views with then President Fidel Castro.

When I delivered a commemorative lecture at the University of Havana, I stressed that education is our hope-filled bridge to the future. We have subsequently engaged in educational and cultural exchanges that continue to this day. I was thus truly delighted when, in July last year, the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a fifty-four-year hiatus.

While diplomatic relations are of course crucial, even more vital is dialogue and exchange at the grassroots level, the active embrace of the reality and richness of another person’s existence. This is something that is too easily obscured by stereotyped approaches to other peoples and religions.

I am convinced that when we, as individuals, use friendship and empathy to recast the world map in our hearts, the world around us will also begin to change.

My mentor Josei Toda (1900–58), the second president of the Soka Gakkai, frequently warned of the danger of allowing the lens of national or other group affiliation to shape our responses to problems. He noted that whereas individuals of different nationalities seek to live alongside each other in a civilized manner, relations between states are marked by “the constant exercise of force behind a veneer of culture.”

He also lamented the fact that ideological differences were giving rise to political and economic conflict; he expressed his concern that the logic of collective identity was blinding us to our common humanity. Further, he called for a broad-based solidarity of humanity united by a shared yearning for peace, a “global nationalism” based on the desire that “the word ‘misery’ no longer be used to describe the world, any country, any individual.”

In 1996, I founded the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research as a means of perpetuating the legacy of my mentor. In February, the Institute will organize a conference in Tokyo on the potential of the world’s religions to contribute to the creation of peace. Bringing together researchers and thinkers with backgrounds in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, the conference will focus on the capacity of religion to bring forth the positive aspects of humanity. Participants will explore ways to turn the world of the twenty-first century away from violence and hatred, generating instead a new current of peace and humane values.

Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), the French philosopher who participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once called for a “geology of the conscience” that would dig down to the indispensable commonalities of human action beyond ideological and philosophical differences. Through its activities under the theme of “Dialogue of Civilizations for Global Citizenship,” the Toda Institute, which will mark its twentieth anniversary on February 11, is actively engaged with this challenge.

The power to move people at the deepest level is not found in formulaic assertions or dogma, but in words that issue from a person’s experience and carry the weight of that lived reality. Exchanges conducted in such language can mine the rich veins of our common humanity, bringing back to the surface glistening spiritual riches that will illuminate human society. This is the conviction that has supported me over the years as I have conducted dialogue with people of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

It is indeed in the encounter between people whose paths in life have differed that our eyes are opened to vistas that would not otherwise have been visible. It is in the resonance of people encountering each other in the fullness of their humanity that the melodies of a new creative energy unfold.

This is the true significance of dialogue: It can serve as a treasure house of possibilities, a dynamo for the creation of history.

Sharing time and space together in dialogue. . . The friendship and trust nurtured through the committed pursuit of this process can form the basis for a solidarity of ordinary citizens working to resolve global issues and bring into being a peaceful world.

Previous    Next

─── other articles ───

our story

page top