Friendship for the Sake of Friendship

A Conversation with Masao Yokota

In February 2013, former Center president Masao Yokota sat down with Ikeda Center publications associate Mitch Bogen to discuss the process of founding the Center in 1993. The interview proved a good opportunity to establish a timeline of events and talk about many of the key people involved in the founding. It also served as a time to consider Daisaku Ikeda's vision for the Center and the ideals and values that guided the activities of the Center's original team of staff and advisors. Among those values were twin commitments to listening and the building of friendships for the sake of friendship. Now senior advisor to the Ikeda Center, Mr. Yokota served as its president from 1993 to 2009.

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Mitch Bogen: When did you first start with the Center? Were you here at the beginning? 

Masao Yokota: Yes, at the beginning. The Center opened in 1993. But prior to that I started working with Mr. Tomosaburo Hirano, who was my senior at the Seikyo Newspaper in Tokyo. He was the one who communicated with academics, activists, and others that we would interview for Seikyo. We had a couple of connections with academics and activists here, and we started doing the groundwork.

MB: Had you already met people like Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School? 

MY: I think I met Harvey Cox sometime in 1990 or 1991. Then I invited him to come to Mr. Ikeda’s lecture on soft power in 1991 at Harvard’s Kennedy School. What happened is that after the talk Professor Cox stayed in his seat, by himself. Everyone had left, so I went up and asked him, “What do you think of Mr. Ikeda’s talk?” He didn’t respond to that, but he said, “I really like him. I really want to meet him again.” Then Prof. Cox went to Japan the following year, May 1992.

MB: Do you think he was reacting not just to Ikeda’s words but something he felt about him as a person?

MY: It’s difficult to tell. After he met with Mr. Ikeda in 1992 in Japan, Harvey told me, “I really like this person. He is really open-minded.” He also said that he is not like a typical Japanese person!

MB: Dr. Cox’s irreverence gets at something real, doesn’t it? After all, Mr. Ikeda is among those at the forefront in Japan of introducing more Western ideas of individualism and so forth.

MY: Right.

MB: Do you think there is more acceptance now in Japan for that point of view, the Western philosophy of honoring the individual—the things that Ikeda brings forward from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman? Do people in Japan react well to that now, or is it just within the Soka Gakkai community? 

MY: People in Japan have known about Emerson and Thoreau, especially Thoreau, because what he says relates to environmental issues. Thoreau is very popular in Japan, more so than Emerson. The works of Emerson and Thoreau were translated already in the Meiji Era, more than 100 years ago. So that’s why people are familiar with Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. But few had conducted dialogues on Emerson and Thoreau directly with American scholars, as Mr. Ikeda has done. That’s why the Japanese audience, not only Soka Gakkai members, really appreciates his work. 

MB: I see. Mr. Ikeda’s work is distinguished by direct dialogue. Then it came time for the 1993 Harvard lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization.” How did this come about?

MY: Actually when he met with Ikeda in 1992, Harvey shared a very interesting thought about interfaith dialogue. He said one of the huge issues in modern society is the conflict between Christianity and Islam. So he said to Mr. Ikeda, “I believe Buddhism can be a bridge to connect those two,” and suggested that Mr. Ikeda play a role in that. Specifically, Prof. Cox used the example of the tripod. If you have only two legs, he said, it’s not stable. But with three, you can stabilize. So this tripod could consist of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Buddhism can play this stabilizing role.

MB: You know, in The Inner Philosopher, Lou Marinoff makes exactly this same point. Possibly in your own talks with Lou he has brought this up. But he believes that Buddhism can be a humanizing bridge because it doesn’t threaten the other religions by asking them to believe in a supernatural deity other than their own. It’s simply asking them to draw forth the most expansive part of their own humanity. So Lou also believes Buddhism has this powerful potential.

MY: Then Harvey asked Ikeda, “I really want you to come back to Harvard again.” So his was the initial invitation to come to Harvard a second time. And Professor Nur Yalman was also interested in bringing him to Harvard, because Ikeda would be talking about a dialogue among civilizations. Nur doesn’t want to “represent” Islam, but he has a deep knowledge about Islam. So Nur and Harvey, who is a Christian, were the respondents for Ikeda’s talk. Then John Kenneth Galbraith joined them, as third respondent. He and Mr. Ikeda had engaged in informal dialogue previously, and both admired each other’s work.

MB: In the early days were you especially focused on the academics here, or were you meeting scholars in other parts of the country too?

MY: We were mostly focused here in the Boston area, because many great people are here. Mr. Ikeda shared this focus.

MB: So this was the nucleus. This was where we started.

MY: Yes.

MB: Was the decision to found the Center made before or after the 1993 lecture?

MY: Actually, before the lecture. Mr. Ikeda really wanted to leave something here in Cambridge more substantial than just his talk. Then because of his idea, we worked together to make things happen, to create the Center. 

MB: Something more than just his words.

MY: One of the foundational messages that Ikeda shared in his talk was the idea of open minds engaging in open dialogue across faiths and cultures. So that’s why it was really clear for us to promote that kind of conversation at our new Center, which we called at the time the Boston Research Center for the Twenty-first Century.

MB: Virginia Benson (whom we know as Ginny) often talks of the Center’s work as bringing together “open hearts and open minds.” What did Mr. Ikeda initially hope for the Center?

MY: I don’t think he had a special hope, but he had a clear idea. His idea was to honor Harvey’s request for us to be a bridgenot just between Christianity and Islam, but, as I said, more generally among faiths and cultures. So he asked us to practice and actualize that.

MB: So going in, he simply put a lot of trust in you and others to come up with something that would make that happen.

MY: It might not be quite that simple, but yes. He is a person to trust everyone. Ultimately, for guidance he gave the Center the three mottoes: "Be the heart of a network of global citizens. Be a bridge for dialogue between civilizations. Be a beacon lighting the way to a century of life.”

MB: Can you say more about Mr. Ikeda’s quality of trust?

MY: Actually his style is to raise capable people, younger people. He gives people the opportunity to be challenged and to grow. So the Center is an example of that. He simply asked us to try. “I trust you,” he said. “You try.” 

MB: That’s very interesting. I know that Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter have said a similar thing about their one-time employer and creative mentor, Miles Davis. They said that Miles put a lot of attention into who he would ask to be in a band but once they were in, he would give them very little explicit instruction. I like that. To achieve what Mr. Ikeda has achieved on the scale that he has, you would have to trust people. Of course if people didn’t follow through it could be a bad situation.

MY: I don’t know if it’s good or bad. Actually, I don’t think it’s bad at all. Mr. Ikeda is the type of person to give people the opportunity to do something, but he is rarely picky about the result. Even if people fail, he doesn’t dwell on it. He goes on to the next undertaking. 

MB: At the beginning then, there was a lot of faith in you and Mr. Hirano. When did Virginia Straus Benson come aboard? Right away?

MY: Right away, because as soon as we were doing the groundwork we knew we needed to choose the director and the staff. We agreed that we should choose a woman to be the director because Mr. Ikeda always tells us that the 21st century is the century of women. Women can be very good at networking. This is a place for network and dialogue, which sometimes men resist.

MB: I learned about that here at the Center in our work with peace scholar and activist Elise Boulding. Many colleagues said that networking was possibly her greatest strength. She was always networking, always connecting. This was before computers and databases, and she apparently had the most enormous address book in the world. She knew so many people. So it was important to have a woman. For those of you involved at the start, what would you say was your initial vision? What did you think you were going to try to be at that point?

MY: I didn’t have any big vision, just to proceed with meeting people one by one.

MB: Just start connecting.

MY: Connecting with people, then inviting people here to have a dialogue to connect with others.

MB: From the timeline Ginny recently created for our website, I noticed that the initial activities included a lot of luncheon seminars, which looked like a good way to bring a lot of different people together quickly.

MY: Yes. Many topics were discussed, but one question we kept returning to was, “What is dialogue?” 

MB: What did you discover at that point? What was dialogue?

MY: Listening. We really learned about the importance of listening, not talking; listening to each other.

MB: When the academics came for those seminars, did it seem like they were all listening? Were they humble? 

MY: The scholars who joined us, mostly from Harvard, really appreciated the chance to talk and learn from colleagues who were in different departments and represented many disciplines. I think it was Winston Langley of UMass Boston who at some later point said, “The BRC is an oasis of life.” 

MB: An oasis of life.

MY: Yes, made by connecting people through listening to one another.

MB: It’s remarkable how unique something as simple as that can be.

MY: I believe that was from Winston. He said it is because people feel really comfortable, cheerful, and hopeful after our dialogue sessions. 

MB: That is not always what happens in academia, which is probably better known for its competitiveness—both of the productive and, shall we say, less-productive kind. Winston has probably seen a lot of that, so to come here over the years must have been, and hopefully still is, refreshing for him. So you started with these dialogues and then how did things develop?

MY: We have learned many things along the way. One important lesson came from Tu Weiming. He was invited by Kofi Annan to be one of the facilitators of the United Nations’ “Dialogue Among Civilizations” in 2001. He represented Confucianism. After he participated in a couple of sessions, he realized that if we focus on the teachings or character of a religion or culture, it becomes difficult to conduct a dialogue. Instead, he said that it is best to choose a universal topic, like human rights, nonviolence, or the environment, and then to share the unique perspective on that issue of a particular religion or culture. That really works, he said. We were inspired by that idea, and it reinforced our commitment to addressing universal topics, both through our events and our books, including Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions and Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy.

MB: This creates conversations that every tradition can contribute to without others predetermining what they expect to hear.

MY: It’s a matter of cooperation, not competition, right? Instead of saying, “This is my teaching, this is your teaching, and only mine is good,” the goal is to see what kind of wisdom can we provide together.

MB: I believe that Mr. Ikeda’s whole quest through his many dialogues is to find those universal truths and expressions of wisdom, and to look at them from every angle.

MY: Right.

MB: It could be from a philosophical angle, as in the recent dialogue book with Lou Marinoff. It could be through a combined political, philosophical, and educational angle, as in the new Vincent Harding dialogue book. What other guidance was Mr. Ikeda providing in the early years?

MY: Right before we started in 1993, Mr. Ikeda met with our first three staff members: Masa Hagiya, Nancy Hodes, and, of course, Ginny. Mr. Hirano and I were not office staff; we initially supported behind the scenes as members of the center's organizing committee, as did Rob Eppsteiner, who was then the SGI-USA leader of the New England area. Nancy is now teaching at Soka University of America. Mr. Ikeda told them, “You are three tiny, single drops, but that is enough to create the mighty Mississippi River. So that was the reason we started step by step. We don’t have to rush out to create some stream or river, we said; just keep creating single drops.

MB: That’s a wonderful guidance there, isn’t it? You might have been overwhelmed trying to consider the enormous task in front of you.

MY: That’s right—easy for us to be impatient, thinking we have to do something big.

MB: Maybe by building step by step and through relationships, you might have felt less intimidated by the great scholarly achievements of your early friends. As you explained, some of the biggest names at Harvard were involved from the start. I know that I would have been at least a little intimidated! But if you are thinking about it not in terms of competition but in terms of relationships, you don’t have to be as wary.

MY: I don’t know exactly which year, but when Ginny went to Tokyo and met with Mr. Ikeda, she told him: “You gave us the guidance, ‘You are a single drop.’ But now we have been able to create a real stream.” He said, “Oh, that is so great. I deeply appreciate your work.” 

MB: Often, when thinking about the Center, I wonder if there is another institution like this in the entire world. Normally, to understand something, you compare and say, “This is like that.” However, whenever I try to explain to someone what we do, I can’t say it is like anything else. I think part of it is what you have been saying, that most people, when they hear the word ‘dialogue,’ they usually think it’s in the context of negotiations or difficult conversations. But for the most part, our work is a search for and celebration of shared values. That’s new for a lot of people.

MY: As I said, after our dialogical events, people feel happy and uplifted. Why? This is Mr. Ikeda’s style of dialogue: to really appreciate others—especially to try to understand others’ backgrounds. He tries to understand others’ background first, and also to appreciate the best part of them. So they feel they are valued. That is “the Ikeda style.” Some people question, asking why are you always praising each other? But that is the purpose. Mr. Ikeda really wants to recognize others. When you are in a fighting mode, even in a dialogue, others become defensive; they don’t show the truest aspects of themselves. But in a dialogue based on appreciation, we can truly open up ourselves. 

MB: I’ve heard so many of our speakers confirm what you are saying, that this feeling is so unique here and that this is what they appreciate. Our warmth makes them feel good and grounded.

MY: We sometimes get the criticism, “You only get together with like-minded people.” Maybe in the future we can be different, but for the time being our mission is to create real trust and understanding. To create harmony is crucial in such an isolated, divided, and competitive world.

MB: I asked Professor Nur Yalman about that when I interviewed him in 2009. This was after the publication of his dialogue with Mr. Ikeda, A Passage to Peace. I observed that his conversation with Mr. Ikeda was characterized by warm, interpersonal connection, but that some might see this as a minor contribution in a world fraught with intense, large-scale conflict. He acknowledged that reality, but emphasized that a peaceful world will depend on friendships across nations and cultures. I see that the act of creating more of these relationships is crucial.

MY: I learned something else important from Harvey Cox. He said through dialogue, of course you understand others more deeply, but you understand yourself more deeply.

MB: Why is this 20th anniversary important?

MY: It’s not special just because it’s the 20th. Tenth was important. 20th is important. We have accomplished a lot, and it’s always important to revisit, to reflect. It’s a time of great reflection. Yes, we can recognize our own accomplishment but then what’s next? I don’t think the number 20 has significance in and of itself.   

MB: The significance is in us treating it as an opportunity to think about where we’ve been and where we want to go.

MY: Right.

MB: You have met so many people through this process and you continue to. That has to be very meaningful for you.

MY: Yes. I used to be just the reporter, and I would visit people just once a year or once in half a year. That’s it. But after we created this Center, I’ve been able to continue to work with those people and create deeper friendships. That’s a great benefit for me.

MB: So you have been personally enriched.

MY: Yes, personally enriched.

MB: Would you say more about what relationships mean to this work and to Mr. Ikeda’s vision?

MY: This is what I learned personally from Mr. Ikeda himself. He really wants to connect with good people. Good in this case means those people thinking about working for others, contributing to other people. So, not just to connect with great scholars, but great scholars who are always thinking about society and others. So I’m really mindful of that when I connect with those people. That’s why eventually we started communicating with like-minded people. So this is a clear focus in our networking. 

MB: Sometimes, when discussing the Center, I say that one thing that is interesting is that our relationships seem to be an end in themselves. The goal is simply to create wonderful relationships. We are not creating that relationship so that we can do something else. This is so hard for people to understand in a world that’s driven by money or objective measures of achievement. It’s just so different. We have the rare and precious opportunity to create relationships for no other reason except to add more good relationships to the world. It’s an amazing thing.

MY: Thank you so much for sharing that. In one of the early luncheon sessions, I don’t remember which subject it was on, but one of the participants said people often create friendships for the sake of certain interests but we should really create friendship for the sake of friendship. That had a huge impact on me. “Oh, that’s right!” Of course, at the beginning we did build our network of great people with the personal interest of establishing the Center.

MB: Yes, but that may be important sometimes.

MY: But it was never just that. We really have wanted to create friendship for the sake of friendship. Then I think people trust us more deeply. Ginny is really great at creating friendship for the sake of friendship. 

MB: Yes, her warmth and openness, and her tendency to laugh a lot, impressed me from my first days here in 2007.

MY: One of the other unforgettable memories for me has to do with something Harvey Cox once told me. Early on, he told me that many groups come to Harvard to use the name of Harvard and then they disappear. He said, “I don’t want you to be like that.” So that was great advice for us—trying to be friends, not using others for our own sake. That was a really important message.

MB: I think it has worked out that way, because here we are, across from the Harvard campus, but the network extends so far beyond the institution of Harvard now. We certainly have great people participating from so many institutions that aren’t nearly as famous as Harvard.

MY: I think around the time of the tenth anniversary, or on another special occasion, we invited people to celebrate at the Harvard Faculty Club. Harvey spoke then. He said the same thing again, “Many groups come in to try to use Harvard and then they are gone. But the BRC survived. Now the BRC is part of the Harvard community.” I am really proud of that. 


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