Creating Waldens

Foreword to Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance

By Ronald A. Bosco

The conversations that appear in this volume have their origin in May 2001, when Joel Myerson and I visited Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California, just prior to its opening, and then Soka University of Japan and several Soka schools and institutions in and around Tokyo.

All our visits were at the invitation of Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International and founder of the Soka schools. President Ikeda’s reputation for learning and his lifetime of public advocacy to improve the human condition—by advancing the cause of world peace, championing the preservation of the natural environment with which humankind was originally blessed, and institutionalizing the forms of value-creating education central to the Soka education system—admirably demonstrate his commitment to the humanistic development of a global culture.

Our visit to Tokyo provided us with an opportunity to meet with President Ikeda in both public and private settings; our meetings with him and Mrs. Kaneko Ikeda were warm and intellectually engaging. During one of those meetings, which occurred in a public forum before Soka University students and faculty, President Ikeda asked me what I thought represented the greatest classroom challenge to today’s schoolteachers and university professors. When I replied that I believed it was incumbent upon teachers and professors to restore reverence for poetry and the poetic content of life to all acts of learning, our conversation turned in a direction that neither he nor I could have anticipated.

A practicing poet, President Ikeda, whose writings convey both an impressive lyrical quality (which looks back to the Romantic foundations of his early familiarity with Eastern and Western poetic traditions), and a spiritual and social urgency (which expresses his personal commitment to improving the lives of people far and wide), shared with us his excitement as a young man in postwar Japan at first encountering the poetic sensibility and life-validating lessons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

President Ikeda said that first Emerson and Whitman’s democratic vision, then Thoreau’s spiritual wisdom grounded in nature, inspired the direction in which he wished to move his own life. These influences would work in concert with the heroic example set for him by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, first Soka Gakkai president and founder of Soka education; the lessons imparted to him by his mentor, Josei Toda, who was Makiguchi’s successor; and the life-affirming belief in the individual that he drew from Nichiren Buddhism.

Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance emerged from that exchange. At our parting, President Ikeda invited Dr. Myerson and me to engage in a series of conversations with him on the connection between the poetic heart and reverence for life as represented in the lives and thought of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Makiguchi, and Toda, and in the spiritualism of Nichiren Buddhism. These conversations, which, beginning in 2002, were facilitated by our mutual friend Masao Yokota, then president of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (renamed the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in 2009), initially occurred over an eighteen-month period during which we shared our personal and professional histories and discussed the influence that the writers we had selected and the various spiritual beliefs to which we each subscribe have exerted on our individual lives and hearts. Early versions of our conversations appeared in Japanese in Todai magazine as they occurred, and then we revisited them again for publication in Japanese as Utsukushiki seimei—chikyu to ikiru (Renaissance of Life, Light of Poetic Heart). (1) Our preparation of the present volume has afforded President Ikeda, Dr. Myerson, and me an opportunity to revisit those earlier conversations once more.

And is this not, after all, the truest purpose of conversation? To bring together individuals from various walks of life through ongoing conversation so that they may achieve an honest understanding of one another’s minds, hearts, and aspirations, and thereby transcend those boundaries of national origin, education, politics, and class that too often separate people from one another rather than join them together as citizens of one human race? Our purpose throughout the conversations now gathered in Creating Waldens has never been to persuade one or the other of us to a particular point of view but to share our respective thoughts on the luminaries and sources of spiritual wisdom drawn from the past that have shaped our minds, informed our convictions, and touched our hearts.

Throughout the several-year course of our conversations, we have been cognizant of events unfolding in the world around us as we have addressed our principal subjects. These included joyous events within the Soka community, such as the graduation of the first class of Soka University of America in May 2004, and also heart-wrenching events like the Great Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake that spawned the catastrophic Asian Tsunami in December 2004, the succession of hurricanes that devastated the southern United States throughout the summer of 2005, the disheartening prospects for peace in the Middle East so often reported in worldwide news, and most recently the collapse of global financial markets. Events unfolding in the world around us only reinforced our sense of the timeliness of addressing the particular writers, thinkers, and subjects we had chosen.

With the fulfillment of Makiguchi’s pedagogical theories and Toda’s educational practices in the preparation and then graduation of that first class from Soka University of America, we witnessed the transcendence of the ideal educational vision championed by these men to shores quite far from that vision’s origin. Similarly, against the backdrop of the natural catastrophes, famines, outbreaks of international hostilities, and global economic crises that have occurred over the period of our conversations, we gained a greater appreciation of the connection between the everyday, mid-nineteenth-century concerns of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and the intellectual and ethical needs of our own time.

With Whitman, for instance, we could affirm that the poetic vision of the oneness of all humanity he voiced in his ecstatic claim in “Song of Myself” is as valid today as when he first published these lines in 1855:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (2)

In the confluence of natural disasters with climatic changes such as global warming that are laying waste to so much of our world’s environment, we could similarly affirm that Thoreau’s principal doctrine—“Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity”—which he expressed in his journal on January 5, 1856, (3) is a conviction that humankind would do well to embrace once again today. And even as we addressed disheartening aspects of world events, we could take comfort in Emerson’s insistence that, as he wrote to his friend Thomas Carlyle on June 30, 1840, the human mind and spirit possess the capacity to be “poetic,” not just “stupid.” (4)

During our conversations, we took note of humankind’s disposition to sometimes opt for the “stupid,” but along with President Ikeda, Dr. Myerson and I have consistently opted for the sanctity of life and the centrality of the poetic heart in all human endeavors. In doing so, especially through the dialogic process in which we have engaged, the three of us have emulated a pattern of discourse, friendship, and mentoring that was common to the principal figures we discuss in this volume.

Throughout their lives, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, along with many others of their generation, most prized relationships established on spoken and epistolary words. They often communicated with one another better in conversation and through personal letters than through their public writings.

In the case of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Concord, Massachusetts, circle to which they belonged—which over the years included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others—it was not unusual for letters and personal journals to be exchanged in round-robin fashion as written extensions of the desire of each individual to share openly with the others his or her most intimate thoughts and ambitions. Through the conversation, friendship, and intellectual rigor of their intimates, these American writers found—to use Emerson’s term—their “infinitude” as private persons (5) nurtured, tested, and informed by flesh-and-blood relations and responses to their individual thought. And the benefit of such openness was always mutual.

As Emerson wrote in “Uses of Great Men,” the opening chapter of his Representative Men:

In every solitude are those who succor our genius, and stimulate us in wonderful manners. There is a power in love to divine another’s destiny better than that other can, and, by heroic encouragements, hold him to his task. What has friendship so signal as its sublime attraction to whatever virtue is in us? We will never more think cheaply of ourselves, or of life. We are piqued to some purpose. (6)

This, as President Ikeda explains in the conversations that follow, is a pattern of influence that was not unique to the mid-nineteenth-century American writers we focus upon; it is, indeed, a pattern of influence we also see and many live by today that begins with Makiguchi, extends to Toda, and has as one of its fullest expressions the ideals of Soka education.

Emerson more than once remarked that the highest calling of the poet was to teach his reader to “despise” (by which he meant, to improve upon) the poet’s song. Neither Emerson nor Thoreau nor Whitman nor Makiguchi nor Toda ever sought imitators; rather, as Emerson suggests about the calling of his ideal poet, they were mentors—individuals who offered their personal thoughts, dreams, and aspirations for the betterment of humankind and to inform those who might profit from such knowledge by ultimately improving upon the mentor’s example.

Throughout these conversations, President Ikeda, Dr. Myerson, and I repeatedly voice our respect for those persons who have been our intellectual and spiritual mentors, but we also acknowledge that our task in this life is not to replicate either their lives or their respective worlds but to build a better world for ourselves and our fellow human beings. That is why our conversations invariably end on a note of hope—hope for peace, hope that all take inspiration and courage from the divinity that, in Thoreauvian terms, humankind shares with nature, and, especially, hope that the aspirations of young people throughout the world will not be thwarted by age-old demons that still gnaw away at the better impulses of human nature: demons such as self-interest, materialism, and despair.

This, too, is a gesture that I believe we each have inherited from our spiritual and literary forebears. For as we have shared them with one another, we now share our thoughts, aspirations, and hopes for a better world with you, our readers. By addressing you as “our readers,” we do not wish to see our words remain on the page only but to encourage your own thoughtful conversations on the topics we address among your friends and associates as well as with us.

Indeed, we never claim to have all—perhaps, even, any—of the answers to the most pressing social, political, or spiritual questions of our time, but we do claim the importance of asking those questions in the expectation that answers will come. Although we share with you here such answers that we each have found for ourselves, our collective disposition is ultimately shaped by Whitman, our ideal poetic mentor, who stated in a passage near the end of “Song of Myself,” “You are also asking me questions and I hear you, / I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.” (7)

In a moving tribute to the power and authority of poetry, President Ikeda wrote that the poet comprehends the “boundless potential” of every individual while making visible the “invisible bonds of life / that unite all human beings.” (8) Like the answers to the pressing questions of our time, which everyone must discover for themselves and then act upon, all of us must be open to those opportunities that honest conversation and friendship provide to discover those magisterial yet “invisible bonds of life” that join all humans together. Only by acknowledging those bonds do we begin to realize our boundless potential as individuals and identify the unique contributions we are in a position to make to the global community of which we are a part.

Thus, Creating Waldens is not a conclusion that we offer for your consideration; rather, it is our contribution to the beginning of new thoughts and, possibly, resolutions in you—thoughts and resolutions that may build on our own but ideally will eclipse those we arrive at here.

President Ikeda, Dr. Myerson, and I have certainly gained new insights into our world, into ourselves as individuals, and into one another as the friends we have become by virtue of first entering and now twice revisiting these conversations; however, not one of us is prepared to rest content with the ideas or lessons we have either contributed to or taken from this exchange. Instead, as our latest conversations during our preparation of this volume drew to a close, we have each felt somewhat as Thoreau must have on a lovely day in 1853, when he stated that he had not yet reached the top of his real or metaphorical earth. In his journal on March 21 of that year, he remarked:

It is a genial and reassuring day; the mere warmth of the west wind amounts almost to balminess. The softness of the air mollifies our own dry and congealed substance. I sit down by a wall to see if I can muse again. . . . We are affected like the earth, and yield to the elemental tenderness; winter breaks up within us; the frost is coming out of me, . . . and thoughts like a freshet pour down unwonted channels. . . . Our experience does not wear upon us. It is seen to be fabulous or symbolical, and the future is worth expecting. Encouraged, I set out once more to climb the mountain of the earth, for my steps are symbolical steps, and in all my walking I have not reached the top of the earth yet. (9)

 

Notes

1. See Todai (Lighthouse), nos. 527–44 (August 2004–January 2006), and Utsukushiki seimei—chikyu to ikiru (Renaissance of Life, Light of Poetic Heart) (Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbun, 2006).

2. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, in Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), p. 188.

3. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906), 8:88.

4. Emerson to Carlyle, June 30, 1840, in The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 272.

5. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), 7:342.

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men, in Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 621.

7. Whitman, Leaves of Grass, in Poetry and Prose, p. 242.

8. Daisaku Ikeda, “Poetry,” excerpted from “Poetry—A View of Humankind,” Symphonic Poems with Nature (Tokyo: Seikyo Press, 2002), p. 8.

9. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, 5:34–35.

 

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