Building Solidarity: The Role of Young People



Section two of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2017 peace proposal, “The Global Solidarity of Youth: Ushering In a New Era of Hope.”

The first challenge I would like to address is creating solidarity toward respectful coexistence on the one planet that we all share. In this, the role of young people is central.

The Paris Agreement, a new international framework for combating climate change, entered into force in November of last year. It was adopted in December 2015 and signed by the representatives of 175 countries and territories in April 2016. Its entry into force less than one year after being adopted was unprecedented.

With this, the countries of the world came together to confront a common threat in a way that had previously appeared impossible. This reorientation was the result of a shared awareness that climate change is an urgent issue for all countries, a recognition spurred by extreme weather events, rising sea levels and other tangible manifestations.

If we are to make progress in the alleviation of poverty and toward the achievement of all of the 17 goals and 169 targets that comprise the SDGs, we will need to share a similar awareness and solidarity across all fields.

The broad spectrum of concerns covered by the SDGs has caused some people to wonder if they are in fact achievable. But it is important to remember that the large number of targets speaks to the vast number of people facing gravely challenging conditions, none of which we can afford to overlook. In addition to the direct impacts of conflicts and natural disasters, the victims are often tormented by the sense that they have been forgotten and ignored.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, US, January 2017 United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, US, January 2017 [© UN Photo/Mark Garten]

While the urgent nature of the refugee crisis is all too evident and was a central topic of the World Humanitarian Summit held in May of last year and of the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September, effective international cooperation has continued to lag.

The new UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, stated in an interview last October soon after his appointment:

“I will do everything I can . . . for refugee protection to be assumed as a global responsibility, as it is. And it’s not only the refugee convention. It’s deeply rooted in all cultures and all religions everywhere in the world. You see in Islam, you see in Christianity, you see in Africa, in different religions, in Buddhism and Hinduism, there is a strong commitment to refugee protection.”

Indeed, efforts to respond to the refugee crisis must be strengthened, and the spiritual wellsprings to support this can be found in living traditions throughout the world. The key to dealing with even the most seemingly intractable challenges is to be found when people come together and continue to do all in their power for the sake of others.

The starting point for Buddhism is to work alongside those who are suffering to enable them to overcome that suffering. Shakyamuni’s vast body of teachings—sometimes referred to as the eighty thousand teachings—were for the most part expounded in the effort to confront the troubles and sufferings afflicting specific individuals. Shakyamuni refused to limit the audience for his teachings, and sought instead to be “friend to all, comrade to all.” Thus he taught the Dharma to all whom he encountered.

In his portrait of Shakyamuni, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) states: “The Buddha did not appear as a teacher of knowledge but as the herald of the path to salvation.”

Jaspers notes that the phrase “a path to salvation” derives from an ancient Indian medical term. And what underlies all of the Buddha’s teachings is encouragement that functions like medicine prescribed for the specific conditions of various ailments. Shakyamuni called on his disciples and comrades: “Go ye now, O Bhikkhus, and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many.” Thus Shakyamuni and his disciples who continued the practice of traveling to wherever people were in need, without distinction to differences of race or class, were referred to as “the people of the four directions.”

Shakyamuni himself embraced a profound conviction in the dignity and preciousness of life. He was convinced that this dignity exists in the lives of all people and that it is always possible to bring forth life’s inherent potentialities under even the most trying conditions.

In the society of his time, two currents of thought prevailed. One was a kind of fatalism that our present and our future are entirely determined by karma accumulated in the past. The other held that all things are a matter of chance and that nothing in our lives is the outcome of any particular cause or condition.

The fatalistic view engendered the resignation that no effort on our part can alter our destiny and our only choice is to accept our fate. This worked to rob people’s hearts of hope. The other view, by disassociating any action from its outcome, uprooted people’s sense of self-control, making them indifferent to the harm they inflicted on others.

Shakyamuni sought to free people from the constraints and harmful influence of these two views when he taught:

Judge not by birth, but life.
As any chips feed fire,
mean birth may breed a sage
noble and staunch and true.

Everything in our lives, far from being immovably determined, can be transformed for the better through our actions in this moment. In this way, Buddhism teaches that a change in our inner determination in this moment can change the present reality of our lives (Jpn: in; cause) that produces future outcomes (Jpn: ka; effect). At the same time, it emphasizes the critical importance of conditioning context (Jpn: en; relation) that can powerfully shape the interplay between cause and effect. In other words, depending on the context of the relations that are formed, the same cause can give rise to widely varying effects.

From this perspective, Buddhism encourages a way of life in which, upholding powerful confidence in the dignity and possibilities of life, we form relations of mutual encouragement and fellowship with those who are on the verge of losing hope.

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the term bodhisattva is used to describe a person dedicated to the realization of happiness for oneself and others, as portrayed allegorically in the following words from the Vimalakīrti Sutra:

During the short aeons of maladies,
They become the best holy medicine;
They make beings well and happy,
And bring about their liberation.

During the short aeons of famine,
They become food and drink.
Having first alleviated thirst and hunger,
They teach the Dharma to living beings.

During the short aeons of swords,
They meditate on love,
Introducing to nonviolence
Hundreds of millions of living beings.

related article Restoring Hope in the Lives of Refugees Restoring Hope in the Lives of Refugees Work and education are vital for dignity. Developing an aid architecture to enable displaced persons to work in fields that contribute to enhancing resilience and promoting the SDGs would help solve humanitarian challenges and protect human dignity. This signifies extending encouragement to people as they confront the inevitable sufferings of life, what Buddhism refers to as the four sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. And as indicated by the following words from the Vimalakīrti Sutra—because living beings are ill, I also am ill—to be a bodhisattva means to be motivated by the spirit of empathy to respond to grave social crises, wherever you are and whether or not you are directly impacted.

In the same sutra, the effects of this compassionate action are described as an “inexhaustible lamp”: the light of hope we ignite will not only illuminate the life of the individual with whom we are interacting, but will continue to brightly light the lives of others in our immediate surroundings and in society as a whole.

This spirit of the bodhisattva is the foundation that has sustained the SGI’s efforts as a faith-based organization that supports the UN and works for the resolution of global challenges. Over the years, we have engaged in such activities as the relief of refugees and rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters. And our consistent focus has been on promoting empowerment of, by and for the people.

Like the inexhaustible lamp, the inner capacities of people that are unleashed by empowerment serve as an enduring source of energy for transformation, a wellspring of inextinguishable hope.

The Lotus Sutra, which expresses the essence of Shakyamuni’s teachings, contains the Parable of the Phantom City and the Treasure Land.

A caravan was crossing a vast desert guided by a leader who was well acquainted with the dangerous terrain. Members of the caravan became exhausted and were ready to abandon their journey. If they were to turn back, however, their efforts would have been in vain, so the leader used his magical powers to conjure up a vision of a magnificent city toward which they could progress and encouraged them to persevere until they reached it. This vision revived the hopes of the members of the caravan, and when they reached the city they were able to rest there. Seeing that they were rested, the leader revealed that the city they were in was in fact a phantom city he had conjured up to encourage them. Their actual destination, the treasure land, was nearby, and he urged them to advance together until they reached it.

The theme that runs through this parable is found in Shakyamuni’s words—together you may reach the treasure land. This may be understood as a proud affirmation of the human spirit—to advance together with others in an indefatigable pursuit of shared happiness no matter how painful or desperate that pursuit may at times seem.

If we consider this in terms of the causal relationship touched on earlier, people who had fallen into a state of utter exhaustion (cause) and who might otherwise have been unable to go on (effect) were revitalized and enabled to reach their destination (alternative effect) thanks to words of encouragement (relation).

Nichiren (1222–82), the Japanese Buddhist teacher who developed a unique interpretation of Buddhism rooted in the spirit of the Lotus Sutra, asserted that there was no fundamental difference between the phantom city and the treasure land, but that they were in fact identical. It is not simply the outcome of reaching the treasure land that matters, but the process—together you may reach the treasure land—that is invaluable.

When the cause and relation of people’s suffering and the encouragement to overcome it are harmoniously fused, each step forward becomes a “moment of life in the phantom city” and shines with the ultimate dignity of life—a “moment of life in the treasure land.”

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 2015 Adolfo Pérez Esquivel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 2015 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Writing about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which preceded the SDGs in the period up to 2015, I noted that the effort to achieve them must be focused on not only meeting targets but also restoring the well-being of the individual who is suffering. When too much attention is paid to numerical outcomes, there can be a failure to pay adequate attention to the needs of real people; this can undermine the motivation necessary to achieve the objectives.

Here I am reminded of the words of the Argentinian human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel: “When people aim for a shared human goal, when they aspire to peace and freedom, they unleash extraordinary capabilities.”

Dr. Esquivel developed this conviction through deepening solidarity with the people of Latin America who refused to relinquish hope for the future even in the midst of the most difficult social conditions. He expressed his admiration for the actions of the common people with this striking image:

“When we enter more deeply into the lives of ordinary people, we see that man or woman, young or old—with no pretense at heroics—optimistically look daily for a miracle to occur and a bud to blossom.

“Such a flower can bloom in the midst of the struggles of daily life, in a child’s smile, in the creation of hope and in the illumination of our path showing us that our exertions are our liberation.”

None of the SDGs will be easy to achieve. But through maintaining empathetic connections with those who struggle and dedicating ourselves to the work of empowerment, each of us should be able to cause a flower to bloom in our immediate surroundings.

No one has a more crucial role to play in this than youth.

Security Council Resolution 2250, which I mentioned earlier, stresses the importance of youth participation in peacebuilding. As this affirms, young people have the power to create new breakthroughs in any field where they are given the chance to be actively engaged.

People throughout the world were moved last summer when a team composed of refugees took the field at the Olympic Games for the first time. The words they shared on that occasion continue to resonate in many hearts. One expressed the desire to use the opportunity of running at the Olympics to send to fellow refugees the message that life can be changed for the better, while another looked back on his life experiences and said he drew strength from them and was running with the hope that refugees would be able to lead better lives.

Their words convey the fact that the true essence of youth is not to be found in the past, nor in the future, but rather in the desire to do something for the benefit of the other people living with us in the present moment.

Likewise, for young people, the vision of the SDGs—to leave no one behind—is not something to be achieved in a distant place or a goal for some time in the future. The SDGs point to the present realities of living together on this one planet with our fellow human beings, a way of life dedicated to the daily effort of building a society in which the joy of living is shared by all.

When youth make the determination to illuminate the corner of the world they inhabit now, it brings into being a space of security in which people can regain hope and the power to live. The determination to live together that is ignited in this space of security shines as an embodiment of the global society in which no one is left behind, inspiring courage in people living in other communities who confront similar challenges.

The true value of any state or society lies in what it does for those who are most afflicted by suffering, not in its military or economic prowess.

In my proposal three years ago, I stressed that today’s youth are the generation that will most powerfully shape the work of achieving the SDGs. I also proposed that the UN and civil society should work together to promote the kind of education for global citizenship that unleashes the limitless potential of youth.

I was thus very gratified when last year’s conference of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) affiliated with the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI/NGO Conference) was held in South Korea under the theme “Education for Global Citizenship: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Together.” Attended by many young people, the conference adopted the Gyeongju Action Plan committing participants to promoting education for global citizenship.

The true value of any state or society lies in what it does for those who are most afflicted by suffering, not in its military or economic prowess.

Education gives rise to the actions and activities that shape the direction of society over time. Education for global citizenship, in particular, can provide the conditioning context (relation) that enables people to reframe events, wherever they may occur, through a shared human perspective, and to foster action and solidarity. It can encourage people to consider global issues in terms of their own lives and lifestyles, thus bringing forth the inner capacities we each possess.

Through education for global citizenship, learners have the opportunity to: (1) gain the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of others; (2) discover and clarify what is necessary in order to build a society where we can all live together; and (3) collaborate to give birth to spaces of security in their immediate surroundings.

I am convinced that this kind of education can serve as a catalyzing context (relation) that enables young people to bring forth their full potential, increasing the momentum for global change.

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