In Dialogue with Nature, Oneself, and Others

By Mitch Bogen

In September 2009 the Center held a book release event for the publication of Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance. The first title from the Center's Dialogue Path Press, it features Daisaku Ikeda in dialogue with scholars Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson. View a photo gallery of the event here.

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Professors Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson appeared at the Ikeda Center on September 24 not just to celebrate and discuss their new dialogue book co-authored with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda, Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance. They also came to continue the process of what Bosco described as the “intellectual sharing and poetic friendship” that led to the creation of the book. Demonstrating his own commitment to this relationship and process, as well as his respect for the American Renaissance, Mr. Ikeda, who is president of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International, composed a moving personal message that was read at the event.

The more than 75 Boston-area community members who attended benefited from insights based on lifetimes of reflection on the subjects explored in the eighteen conversations that comprise Creating Waldens. Professors Bosco and Myerson are leading authorities on the lives and letters of Emerson and Thoreau. Each has devoted decades to promoting deep understanding of these great figures and their writings. A prolific writer and influential proponent of Buddhist humanism and cross-cultural dialogue, Mr. Ikeda consistently incorporates the lessons of these great figures into the heart of his humanistic vision. In his introductory remarks, Center advisor Masao Yokota observed that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were Ikeda’s “heroes when he was young,” and that even now, when Ikeda speaks of them, his face “returns to that of the young Daisaku Ikeda.”

Throughout the afternoon, it was apparent that the authors want to instruct, yes, but also to inspire all of us, especially our young people, to emulate the reverence for nature, poetry, and self-knowledge so valued by those nineteenth-century seekers.

The Flowering of the Greater Self

In his message, Mr. Ikeda shared how, in the aftermath of the horrible events of September 2001, he renewed his own commitment to dialogue as the true path to peace, especially when it is powered by the “poetic power of the imagination,” which “can create portals of hope and discover entranceways for exchange in the massive walls that divide our world.” He also revealed that he wanted his “first, firm step forward” to be this dialogue with professors Bosco and Myerson, so greatly does he esteem both these scholars and the lessons that the American Renaissance holds for our time.

Their conversations, he said, reaffirmed his belief that unlimited promise and power lies within every individual. Using a phrase popular among Transcendentalists, Ikeda called on people to develop a “self-culture” — one in which people remain true to their deepest commitments and that transforms the very core of being. “What flowers from this self-culture,” he continued, “is not the fragile, forlorn bud of the smaller self but the majestic blossom of the larger self — with its boundless capacity for empathy and understanding.” (Read the full message here.)

For the Sake of Nature – and Poetry

The day also was enriched by the presence of Professor Anita Patterson of Boston University, who offered her own inspiring reflections on Creating Waldens. A valued friend of the Center, having participated in the 4th Ikeda Forum, "Women and the Power of Friendship," Patterson set an idealistic tone for the day, especially in citing President Ikeda’s comment from the book that “nothing is more beautiful than burgeoning youth.” Drawing on her experience as a university teacher, Patterson remarked on “the importance of this book and this kind of conversation [in] creating a safe, reflective place in the classroom for young people today” — one where they can “enjoy the process of learning again,” freed from the worries of having the right grade or being better then someone else.

Setting the stage for the discussion to follow, she cited sections from the book in which Bosco and Myerson explore the profound benefits that can accrue for young people — and indeed for all of us — when we adopt an attitude of reverence and respect for nature and poetry alike. Patterson quoted Bosco from Conversation Five of Creating Waldens: “Thoreau immersed himself in nature for the sake of nature. … By immersing himself in nature he elevated his experience to poetry.” Nature, like poetry, she added, teaches us “to love not for what we can get out of it.”

Patterson then cited Myerson, also from Conversation Five: “Thoreau’s labor not only provided his food, but also literally rooted him to the earth. He learned about nature while working.” Patterson said that Thoreau’s insight holds a parallel meaning for her own students this semester, who are studying the poetry of the American Renaissance. “There is this way in which labor — the labor of studying and the investment we have in learning to work on poetry, or whatever it is we are working on, eventually will bear fruit in our having a sense of profound rootedness in a tradition.”

A Journey Recalled

The afternoon event marked the return of professors Bosco and Myerson to the Center. Bosco, Distinguished Professor of English and Literature at the University at Albany, State University of New York, presented at the Center’s very first Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, “Reawakening East-West Connections: Walden and Beyond.” Myerson, Carolina Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of South Carolina, presented in the 2nd Ikeda Forum, “‘Talking Back’ to Whitman: Poetry Matters.” Moreover, both helped conceptualize and develop the Ikeda Forum as an annual event series.

During their remarks, both Bosco (left) and Myerson shared warm recollections of their interactions with Mr. Ikeda. Recalling their visit with him at Soka University of Japan in 2001, both men marveled at how he brightened in the presence of the young students there — like “turning on a light bulb,” said Myerson.

And Professor Bosco recalled how it was a question from Ikeda during that visit, so simple yet unexpected, that inspired the process of dialogue that led to the creation of this book. What, asked Mr. Ikeda, did he, Professor Bosco, believe to be the real purpose of education and the professor’s role in ensuring that it is achieved? “To inspire poetic reverence for the world we live in and the culture we have inherited,” replied Bosco. Ikeda seized on this idea, and made it “the germ” for the book being celebrated today, added Bosco.

Commenting on Ikeda’s dialogical method, Myerson said that Ikeda’s tendency to ask “straightforward, open-ended questions forced us to re-think some things, and re-articulate some things, so it opened up the dialogue in a fascinating way.” Noting some of the cross-cultural aspects of the dialogue, Bosco said, “It was revelatory to have President Ikeda’s take on how the study of nature in pre-war Japan did yield types like Henry David Thoreau in that culture as well. So Thoreau … is part of a much larger movement within human culture.”

Creating Waldens

Additionally, both authors shed light on the imperative suggested in the very title of the book: that each of us, indeed, is called to create our own Waldens. Speaking of the legacies of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, Professor Bosco said he found it “incredible” that even despite their “largeness as historic and literary figures” that continue to inspire people worldwide, “not one of them insisted that the path that they modeled is the path that we should follow.” In that same spirit, said Bosco, “the purpose of a study such as this [Creating Waldens] is to offer young people far and wide the opportunity to seek their own relationship to the universe.”

Professor Myerson (right) likewise reflected on how Thoreau, in his quest to “live deliberately” went to Walden Pond where he “asked questions of himself and of nature” — to deliberate, as it were — defining himself without consideration for the demands of established society. And he described Emerson as equally a proponent of “finding out who you are,” though he added that Emerson was very upfront about society’s likely displeasure with such non-conformity. Nevertheless, said Myerson, Emerson felt that “it is incumbent upon people who find themselves to bring that knowledge to the other world — as he puts it, ‘to the combatants in the dusty arena below.’” We have a responsibility, said Myerson, “if we find these universal truths, these poetries of life, to share them with other people.”

Understanding the American Renaissance

The afternoon concluded with a group discussion during which all three presenters responded to audience questions. Two threads emerged during the Q & A that gave Professors Bosco and Myerson a chance to talk about how the lessons of the American Renaissance can be appreciated in our time.

1. On teaching and learning the poetry and poetic prose of the American Renaissance

Myerson emphasized that literature of this nature is best taught by giving students “questions for which there are not any answers.” The best learning, he added, “is trying to figure out answers to those questions.” Students are also less intimidated when you show them versions of famous manuscripts with revisions included, revealing the “false starts and wrong ways” that we all experience. Professor Bosco noted that he has his students read Emerson aloud. Because Emerson’s words “were first practiced at a podium,” said Bosco, they contain a musicality that can help make Emerson’s sometimes-difficult ideas more accessible.

2. On the connection between lives and literature

Professors Bosco and Myerson built their careers from the very start on the premise that it was important to understand the full context within which the writings of the American Renaissance occurred, including the facts of the personal lives of Emerson and Thoreau. Who would Thoreau be, wondered Myerson, if he hadn’t lived in Concord? Who would Daisaku Ikeda be if he had not lived through World War II? Understanding such things can bring the writings alive for students, humanizing the writers. Bosco concurred that Emerson, especially, “becomes approachable when you start stripping off the layers of our inherited wisdom about him.” When Bosco’s students learn that Emerson was raised in a series of boarding houses, had to work while at Harvard, and graduated in the lower half of his class, Emerson’s example seems more relevant. “Maybe you could be your generation’s Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Professor Bosco tells students.

Fruitful Conversations, Then and Now

The Center’s location in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provides a tangible sense of closeness to Emerson and Thoreau, whose own lives unfolded in these parts. Myerson noted another, perhaps more intriguing resonance. The group of authors centered in nearby Concord, he said, represented “an incredible cluster of people who not only interacted with one another by means of conversation, but also by exchanging letters and by exchanging journals, so that their conversation could be both verbal and nonverbal. And it’s very appropriate that we are able to participate in a type of descendent of those conversations.”

Professor Bosco remarked on the aspect of integrity that informed the lives and interactions of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman: “No matter what you like or dislike about them, what you appropriate or disregard in their writings, they are three incredibly moral, ethical individuals. There is a parallel between what they think and write about and what they actually believe. They are not out there selling a good word for the trade.” A commitment to this same principle was evident in the presentations of all the day’s participants.

The thoughtful, searching discussion around Creating Waldens represented another step toward Daisaku Ikeda’s dream for the Center, expressed in his message: “My hope is that the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue will lead the effort to create … spiritual sanctuaries of life-affirming dialogue where we can heal the wounds of the alienated lesser self and open pathways to our true self, the greater self, with its unlimited capacity for empathy. From such Waldens, I am confident a mighty river of peace will flow.”

Addendum: Celebrating Some Milestones

A couple of milestones for the Center were also marked on this day: Creating Waldens is the first publication from Dialogue Path Press, the Ikeda Center’s new publishing arm; the event itself was the first public event for the newly re-named and reorganized Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, now under the leadership of new president and executive director Richard Yoshimachi. Also of significance: The date of the event, September 24, was the sixteenth anniversary of Daisaku Ikeda’s second Harvard lecture, Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization.

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