Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
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Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
Section seven of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”
The third theme is that the bonds that form a culture of human rights are woven through the experience of joy shared with others.
On December 10, 2017, a campaign marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was launched at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the site where the Declaration came into being on that date in 1948. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated: “We must take a robust and determined stand: by resolutely supporting the human rights of others, we also stand up for our own rights and those of generations to come.”
The awareness underlying his call is evident in other UN campaigns as well. It can be seen in TOGETHER, the UN campaign dedicated to improving the lives of refugees and migrants, and in the activities carried out by the HeForShe UN Women Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality. As these campaign names suggest, expanding intersectional solidarity is critical to building an authentic human rights culture—something intrinsically different from the kind of passive tolerance in which one has no real understanding of the hardships experienced by others.
Passive tolerance is far removed from coexistence in the truest sense. There is a danger that people’s actions will remain superficial and minimal—limited to acts such as permitting others to live in the same neighborhood or complying with the relevant laws and rules. Such passive tolerance falls short of leading people to actively recognize the common humanity in those they perceive as different, making it an ineffective counter to exclusionist impulses in times of heightened social tensions. This has impelled a fresh approach, led by the UN, to create a human rights culture based on jointly working to transform public awareness toward a society where all can live in dignity.
In Buddhism, we find the phrase: “Authentic joy is that which is shared by oneself and others.” Based on this principle, I believe that the wellspring for creating a society of mutually enriching coexistence can be found in a way of life where we experience joy in seeing one another’s dignity radiate its full potential.
The Lotus Sutra depicts a series of scenes in which Shakyamuni’s disciples, moved upon hearing his teaching of the dignity of life, one by one begin to voice their vow to live by this principle. This sets off a chain reaction of jubilation—described in such phrases as “their hearts were filled with great rejoicing” and “their minds danced with joy”—by which all deepen their sense of the ultimate value and dignity of life.
The people’s movement of the SGI is powered by this same sense of mutually shared joy. It arises from efforts to support each person across differences, so they may continue advancing as they take on life’s challenges. It flows from witnessing friends shine with dignity as they persevere in the face of difficulty, from celebrating another’s growth and progress as though it were our own. This sharing and mutual savoring of joy has been the wellspring of our movement.
related article The Flame of Human Goodness Despite cruel treatment, Mandela never let his trust in humanity wane. This faith in others’ inherent dignity is the essential spirit of Buddhist humanism. Human rights—the imperative to protect that dignity—arises from the fact that each person is irreplaceable, writes Daisaku Ikeda in his 2018 peace proposal. This concept of shared joy brings to mind the historian Dr. Vincent Harding (1931–2014), who told me of his experience participating in the American civil rights movement. Dr. Harding’s visit as a graduate student to the home of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) was decisive in leading to his lifetime commitment to the cause.
This was during a time in the US when the bus boycott had sparked a massive groundswell of voices calling for an end to institutional racism. Tensions ran high, especially in Southern states, as an African American university student was barred from attending classes and black students continued to be refused entry into high school.
Dr. Harding, who lived in Chicago at the time, was exploring the possibility of creating an inclusive church community of black and white Christians. In the course of their work, his group of friends began to ask themselves:
“What would we do if we were living in the South, where it is illegal and dangerous for blacks and whites to live and work together as sisters and brothers? Would we still try to live as we believe and honor our relationships with one another, even if we might get into serious trouble?”
Following this discussion, five friends—two black and three white—decided to test the proposition by traveling together to the South. They drove an old station wagon, making their first stop in Arkansas, where they visited the home of central figures in the movement to help students who had been refused entry into a newly integrated high school. Here, they witnessed firsthand the horrific threats directed at these leaders.
Next, they traveled through Mississippi—where violence against those who challenged the practices of segregation and white supremacy continued unabated—arriving in Alabama where Dr. King was recuperating at his home in Montgomery from a stab wound he had received in a recent attack. Despite this, Coretta Scott King (1927–2006), Dr. King’s wife, warmly welcomed the group to their home, where they were able to meet Dr. King.
Recalling the encounter, Dr. Harding told me:
“During that first Montgomery encounter, he [Dr. King] was impressed that the five of us—two blacks and three whites—were traveling together as brothers. . .
“One of his major goals was not simply to establish legal rights for black people but to go beyond that to create what he termed the ‘beloved community’ in which all people could rediscover a sense of our fundamental connectedness as human beings.”
It goes without saying that Dr. King regarded the adoption of new laws that would pave the way for an equal and just society as a paramount struggle that had to be won: Legal frameworks like civil rights legislation create the groundwork for countering discrimination and oppression prevalent in society and are thus absolutely necessary. And yet Dr. King set his sights even higher—he sought to completely root out prejudice and resentment and aim for what Dr. Harding described as “a new America—an America where blacks and whites, as well as people of all colors, could come together to find common ground for the common good.”
In August 1963, five years after Dr. Harding’s encounter with Dr. King, rising momentum in the civil rights movement culminated in the March on Washington, which drew masses of people from all races and backgrounds. In a record of that day’s events that appears in his autobiography, Dr. King encapsulates the sentiments of the participants as follows:
“Among the nearly 250,000 people who journeyed that day to the capital, there were many dignitaries and many celebrities, but the stirring emotion came from the mass of ordinary people who stood in majestic dignity as witnesses to their single-minded determination to achieve democracy in their time.”
I can’t help but feel that the sentiment shared among those present was one of indivisible joy at witnessing their collective desire for freedom and equality bring about one change after another in society. Their joy was not merely the product of a single day’s journey to Washington but arose from a long and arduous process, a steady accumulation of hard-fought battles leading up to that day.
The March on Washington was not only historic in terms of the solidarity shown by people of all backgrounds, including many whites, but, as Dr. King noted, it also brought the country’s three major religious faiths closer than any other issue in the nation’s peacetime history.
In a similar way, the SGI’s efforts in pursuit of nuclear abolition, including our recent work with various faith-based organizations in drafting and issuing joint statements, arise from a single-minded determination to create a groundswell of change through the solidarity of ordinary citizens. The starting point for this initiative was an interfaith symposium held in Washington DC in April 2014, where representatives of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist traditions came together to debate the nuclear weapons issue, producing a joint statement signed by people from fourteen different faith-based organizations.
Since then, this network of faith communities has continued to raise a shared voice for nuclear abolition, issuing eight joint statements at important junctures, including the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the second session of the 2016 United Nations Open-ended Working Group and the negotiating sessions that produced the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons held in 2017.
These bonds of solidarity are founded not only in a sense of common mission across religious traditions; they also manifest a profound joy in being able to advance together for the resolution of crucial human challenges.
In November 2017, the SGI participated in the international symposium “Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament” held at the Vatican. During an audience with conference participants, Pope Francis not only denounced the use of nuclear weapons but also their possession. Declaring that they create a false sense of security, he said that only an ethics of solidarity could serve as the true foundation for peaceful coexistence. He also recognized the importance of what he termed a “healthy realism” of the kind displayed by the many states that responded to the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons through the negotiations that produced the TPNW. I fully concur with these views.
It was fifty years ago, one month after the assassination of Dr. King, that I made my first public statement urging international consensus on prohibiting nuclear weapons. To this day, I cannot forget the passage from his final address in which he posed the question of which age he would choose to live in from the entire panorama of human history. While noting the appeal of such eras as the Renaissance or the moment Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he explained that the present was the moment in history he would choose:
“Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick; trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. . .
“Another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history. Survival demands that we grapple with them.”
We must heed Dr. King’s words. They are most relevant now, as momentum toward a culture of human rights is building through the collaborative efforts of the UN and civil society and as the movement to realize the entry into force of the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons—which will protect the world’s people’s right to live—enters its crucial phase.
What stands before us is an undertaking that will be chronicled in the annals of human history. The challenge of creating the new reality of a global society where all may live in peace and dignity is not beyond our reach. And it is my firm belief that the solidarity of ordinary people will be the driving force for its realization.