Re-imagining Self, Other, & the Natural World, Session One

This article is a report from 10th Anniversary Conference of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (renamed the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in 2009). Held in September 2003 and called "Reimagining Self, Other, and the Natural World," the conference consisted of two sessions. Session One focused on the theme of global interconnectedness. The conference was cosponsored by the The Center for Respect of Life and the Environment (Richard M. Clugston, Director) and the Harvard-Yenching Institute (Tu Weiming, Director). You can read here about Session 2: Relational-Cultural Perspectives.

Introduction to Session One: Global Interconnectedness

Introducing himself as the “president and servant” of the BRC, Masao Yokota returned to his memory of a meeting with Daisaku Ikeda in September 1993 at the time of the founding of the Center when Ikeda said to the small staff, “Even the Mighty Mississippi River started with a single drop.” And added, “You are that single drop.” Yokota explained that this metaphor of the “single drop” was not meant to be “an isolated self, but the noble, universal self, the self that includes the other.”

From this vision, the Center has developed as a model of transformation through dialogue. Echoing Ikeda’s words, Yokota explained the importance of “sowing the seeds of peace through dialogue, because peace is a process.” He then shared excerpts from the founder’s 10th Anniversary Message and introduced the four speakers -- Steven Rockefeller, Virginia Straus, Tu Weiming, and Sarah Conn -- who had gathered to address various aspects of Eastern religious thought and spiritual interconnection.

Steven C. Rockefeller

Professor Steven C. Rockefeller’s presentation was entitled “Interconnectedness in Action: Emerging Global Ethics.” Referring to the Earth Charter as a “declaration of ethics for an interdependent world,” Rockefeller addressed the organic interconnection of self, other, and nature that is woven into the Earth Charter as a result of the global grassroots dialogue that led to its creation. He noted that the Center “recognized the significance and promise of the project and became one of the Earth Charter’s strongest partners in promoting cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue on global ethics,” and expressed his appreciation as former chair of the International Earth Charter Drafting Committee. In this context, he explained that the many conversations at the Center—especially those involving Elise Boulding—contributed to the Earth Charter’s emphasis on building cultures of peace, or ways of living together which encompass “ingrained attitudes, ethical values, knowledge, and social habits essential to maintaining peace.”

After expressing concern that the global culture has shifted since 9/11 to a culture of fear and violence, Rockefeller then turned to the ethical implications of the organic connections of self, other, and nature in terms of our responsibility as human beings to the vast community of life. Pointing out that the twentieth century saw many scientific, social, philosophical, religious, and spiritual movements that rejected individualistic and dualistic thinking, he concluded that “These currents of thought that oppose atomism and dualism all in various ways emphasize the concept of organic interrelationship or interdependence as of fundamental importance in understanding the nature of the self and the larger world, and in developing an ethical vision adequate to the times. The Earth Charter is to be understood to a large extent as a product of the convergence of these social, intellectual, and spiritual movements at the end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the new millennium.” Among the movements he mentioned were ecology, the new physics, process philosophy and process theology, Thomas Berry’s cosmology, the democratic social thought of American Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, eco-feminism and eco-feminist theology, and the evolving study of interconnectedness throughout the world’s great religious traditions.

From this concept of the self and the self’s relationship to the whole, Rockefeller proposed a number of practical implications. Among them, the individual “is both a sustained and sustaining member of the community.” In other words, “It is not possible for the self to find fulfillment as an isolated entity. . . . Meaning is found in and through relationships, caring for others, pursuing knowledge, creating, and serving the community.”

Furthermore, referring once again to the Earth Charter, “. . .it recognizes that our interdependence is global as well as local. Without denying the importance of cultural differences in the formation of our individual identities or the uniqueness of the human species, the Earth Charter challenges all efforts to define our selves exclusively in terms of ethnic origin, nationality, or religion or even humanity as a whole.” Through the vision of the Earth Charter, human beings become members of a large and diverse family that includes all living things.

Rockefeller’s analysis of the concept of interconnectedness and the Earth Charter included the theme of universal responsibility, a phrase which forms the heading of paragraph five of the Charter. He explained the double meaning of “universal responsibility” by saying that in addition to the suggestion that we must be responsible to one another as human beings, it also suggests that everyone shares responsibility for the greater whole, for all living things. Thus, once again, the ethical vision of the Earth Charter calls on humanity to enlarge its scope and care for the entire world.

“Universal responsibility implies global ethics,” said Rockefeller. “If we are all members of one emerging global human society and one great Earth community, to what basic ethical values must we commit ourselves in order to cooperate effectively in building, protecting, and sustaining our local communities and the global community?” In response to this question, he noted that “Building a culture of sustainability and peace has a spiritual dimension that goes beyond ethics and to which all the religions can make a valuable contribution.”

In closing, Rockefeller stated that thousands of organizations have endorsed the Earth Charter worldwide, including over 750 in the United States. Additionally, it is being used widely in schools and universities and will be integrated into the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that begins in 2005. Reminding the audience that “our ethical and spiritual values are the true measure of our humanity,” Rockefeller declared the Earth Charter to be “a vision of global organic connection, universal responsibility, and a culture of peace.”

Virginia Straus

BRC Executive Director Virginia Straus, in offering a Buddhist perspective on inter-connectedness in theory and practice, began by observing that for “right relations” to be realized in the fullest sense, the key question is how can human beings today make the “change of heart and mind” that the Earth Charter calls for in its last section entitled “The Way Forward.” She asserted that, from a Buddhist point of view, the answer to this question lies in pursuing dialogue with an open heart and in so doing, enabling human beings to come into their own as the main force in history — a force more powerful, as Dr. Ikeda pointed out in his conference message, than any particular civilization or religion.

She said that in studying BRC founder Daisaku Ikeda’s lecture on Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization (delivered at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1993 when the Center was established), she found his three points about how Buddhism can contribute to a peaceful twenty-first century to be extremely relevant to the theme and purpose of the 10th anniversary conference. First, he said it is important to understand Shakyamuni’s view of collective conflict. Shakyamuni saw the root cause of all the warfare surrounding him in his own time and place (500 BCE India) not as a clash of cultures, religions, or ideas somehow external to human beings but as a direct result of the inner processes at work in the hearts of all the people involved in a given conflict. This is why he pursued dialogue and condemned violence. Through dialogue Shakyamuni could show each person what he called the “single invisible arrow” piercing his or her own heart, which he conceived of as an unreasoning emphasis on difference — difference of any kind. Dialogue at its best, in other words, removes the arrow and brings us into communion with our underlying humanity.

The second relevant point of the 1993 founding lecture, Straus said, was Ikeda’s assessment of our current predicament. There’s been a swing of the pendulum, in a sense, from the “God-centered determinism” of the nineteenth century to an excessive faith in the powers of the individual, “a dangerous over-inflation of the human ego,” according to the lecture. Buddhism can help moderate this extreme by “restoring the human person” to his/her rightful place in the universe. The Buddhist teacher Nichiren in thirteenth-century Japan taught, as part of a practice for the common person to attain enlightenment (based on Shakyamuni’s Lotus Sutra), that we “reach enlightenment neither solely through one’s own efforts nor solely through the power of others.” For Western sources of a similar outlook, Ikeda’s lecture pointed to the American philosopher John Dewey and his understanding of “the religious” not as specific religions but simply as something greater than ourselves that inspires us to grow and create values in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. This way, we locate the “eternal” within us and realize our full potential as human beings—or, in other words, “restore the human person.”

The third point of the lecture, Straus observed, is the one that influenced most directly the theme of the 10th anniversary conference: interconnectedness. Ikeda pointed to the need in the current age to find a “philosophical basis for creative and symbiotic coexistence.” The Buddhist idea of dependent origination or dependent co-arising, which posits that “no one exists in isolation but relatedness doesn’t obscure individuality,” can serve as an antidote to the ego-driven self because it points to a “greater self” fused with universal life. Western sources for such a self-understanding can be found in Jung’s idea of the integrating self buried in the depths of the ego and Emerson’s idea of the eternal “One” to which every part and particle are equally related.

After her commentary on the Center’s founding lecture, Straus pointed to the Center’s first ten years of development, which was “organically” evolved “in relationship” between the founder and the staff, as one illustrative example of a Buddhist approach to empowering the human person through dialogue and mutuality. She also confessed that events manager Beth Zimmerman and she had wracked their brains trying to figure out how to create a conference that would reflect a Buddhist view of interdependence and had finally concluded that the best way was just to gather together the social influences that had inspired them the most over the years—the Earth Charter, Eastern philosophical understandings, relational feminism, and indigenous ways of living. Having realized the potential synergy of these social movements and ideas, Straus felt that perhaps the third point of Ikeda’s lecture — about the need for a “wide-scale awakening” to a philosophy and practice of “symbiotic coexistence” — is a key to the change of heart and mind the Earth Charter’s values rest upon and also one way that the BRC, through its further exploration of these dynamic influences during the next 10 years, can contribute to social healing — or “right relations” as the Earth Charter conceives of it.

Tu Weiming

Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, began by pointing out that humanity has “never been so divided in terms of wealth, power, influence, and accessibility to economic, social, and cultural goods,” in spite of the potential of globalization to create a sense of interconnectedness throughout the world. He went on to say that, in recent decades, our species has been acknowledged as an integral part of the evolutionary process. “We are more than simply a product of evolution because we also contribute—unfortunately often negatively—to what for millions of years has been instrumental in shaping our form of life.”

He then moved from this understanding to the Confucian perspective, which, he noted, was one of many sources of inspiration for interconnectedness. Confucians, he explained, believe that “what we do as individuals in the privacy of our homes is not only significant for us, but also relevant to society, the nation, the world, and the cosmos.” As an example of this connection, he spoke of environmental degradation brought about by the impact of human life on the planet, noting that it was only 35 years ago in 1968 that human beings first observed “our blue planet” from space. He, further, suggested that the primary source of contention in our lifetime may shift from oil to water as the human impact continues to exert stress on the natural world. He also spoke of weapons of mass destruction which pose great threats to human survival. “A sense of insecurity is pervasive, even in the wealthiest and militarily most powerful nation on earth…. This shared vulnerability makes international cooperation necessary, which may enhance the meaning of collaboration at all levels: local, national, and global.”

In spite of these realities, Tu offered “hope and promise for humanity.” Turning to sources we might draw on for this, he referred to “the great Western transformation,” which he said, “has engendered a process of liberation that has fundamentally redefined who we are and what we can become.” In Confucian terms, Tu explained that this process has transformed human beings into “co-creators of the cosmic process.” As co-creators, we have brought innumerable benefits to human existence, from science and technology to the availability of food, public health, and transportation. “On this earth, our presence is everywhere. . . . The human hand has touched virtually all aspects of the lifeboat that sustains us.”

This concept of “co-creativity” implies responsibility to face up to the challenge in front of us. “Human flourishing,” he said, “lies in our stewardship for, rather than our domination over, the blue planet.” In this context, he elaborated on the Confucian view of interconnectedness, which encompasses the self, the community, nature, and the cosmos. This approach recognizes that while the kingdom of God may eventually come, the conditions that have shaped our world are irreducible. In this sense, he said that “Even though we can never become omnipotent, we must try to be omnipresent and omniscient in understanding the world beyond us, the world around us.”

The four dimensions of self, community, nature, and heaven or God integrate the body, mind, soul, and spirit. “The spirit is not a disembodied force,” he explained, “but is embedded in our existence here and now. Every one of us is confronted with the challenge of harmonizing the basic relationships among many parts of our selves that are not only integrated, but also essential for our human flourishing.”

Regarding the relationship between the self and other, especially community, he stated that “without fruitful interaction, we will never be able to realize our selves as a center of relationships.” He quoted William James who said: “Without the individual impulse, the community stagnates; but without the sympathy of the community, the individual impulse fades away.” Thus, the relationship is more than the relationship between the individual and the community, it also implies the connection of the human species as a whole to nature. “We need to develop a relationship with nature, not simply out of respect for nature, but out of respect for human beings as the center of relationships.”

Finally, Tu suggested that as human beings are part of the cosmic order, we must also develop a relationship with heaven. Because human beings are co-creators, “heaven wills that we take an active part in the transformation of the cosmos.” In the end, the Confucian view begins and ends with an assumption that we came into being as the result of a very long process of evolution “with the purpose of being a partner in that pure, creative power.” While we have the power, as co-creators, to destroy everything around us, the fact that heaven has willed us to share in its power offers hope and promise to us as “responsible members of heaven’s covenant” who can embrace the world and make it new. Referring to this view of the universe as “anthropocosmic,” Tu suggested that this outlook is reflected in the Earth Charter when it declares that the Earth is alive in all its dimensions.

Sarah Conn

Sarah Conn, who works in the field of ecopsychology, led the audience in an experiential exercise inspired by Joanna Macey designed to bring those present in touch with the web of life. Describing an important aspect of her work as a process of “exploring ways to evoke ecological consciousness and ecological identity,” she proposed a key question: How can we know ourselves as part of the Earth as a living system? How can each of us know and connect with our unique place in the whole web of life? This, she suggested, requires that we step back from our “usual habitual ways of interacting in the world” so that we may bring “other ways of knowing into our everyday lives… into our experience of self, other, and the natural world.”

With this in mind, she led the group in a guided meditation in which she encouraged each person to focus on breathing to help slow the body’s rhythms. She then said, “Let your awareness drop deep within you, like a stone. . . sinking below the level of what words can express to the deep web of relationship that underlies all experience.” Her measured pace and calm voice created an atmosphere of calm and contemplation. “The oxygen you inhale, ignites each cell,” she said. “Extend your awareness deep within to feel this energy.” She pointed out that this energy was “all around you, sustaining the bodies in this room,” and went on to speak of “the great cycles of air, water, fire, and earth flowing through us all.” She called on those present to imagine these “interlacing currents, like threads of light” connecting us all and extending beyond us. Through this image of the web of life, she drew further images of human ancestors and animals. “We are each a jewel in this vast net, called into being in this time,” she said. “Each of us an unrepeatable jewel sparkling with awareness, reflecting the world.”

Following the meditation, Conn asked everyone to turn to someone sitting close to them and speak about a time when they had a chance to get in touch with the web of life that surrounds us. In this way, Conn’s brief presentation touched on both the personal and universal experience of connectedness, and illustrated how we might support that sense of connectedness in the future.

Open Dialogue

Several people shared their thoughts and feelings after the speakers’ presentations, almost in the spirit of a Quaker meeting in which one after another person spoke as they were moved to speak, in response to one another. Like jewels in the web that Conn spoke of, each comment sent out its own rays of light and reflected other glimmers of connection in the room.

Jovan Ristic of MIT offered a metaphor of fish who swim in schools but never collide. Julie Matthaei of Wellesley College spoke of her experience of interconnectedness in the process of engaging in social justice movements. Other participants underscored the importance of “awareness,” wondered aloud how they might “make a difference,” and questioned where the force of “righteous indignation” belonged in the web of relationships.

Robert Johnson of UMASS shared a powerful experience of connecting with a inmate who has been on death row for 18 years. After meeting this man Johnson asked himself, “Why should I care about this person? They all say they’re innocent.” But after looking at his artwork and listening to him and realizing how his paintings had become a way to keep his hope for freedom alive, Johnson decided to bring his paintings to Boston. The idea of an exhibit was embraced by the Harriet Tubman House and framing and food for the opening reception were donated. And at the same time, a New York law firm had gotten a positive decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court to reconsider the case due to evidence that had been withheld by the police at the time of the crime, evidence that suggested the incarcerated man was, indeed, innocent. As he reviewed this, and other, unexpected connections related to this individual, Johnson said, “I’m wondering about this idea of connectedness, and I’m wondering what is it that’s touching people and making people feel as if they need to get involved. I can’t define the web or how it comes about, but—at least in this case—people are coming together to save a man who is an artist on death row in Tennessee… and that’s magnificent.”

Meenakshi Chhabra of Lesley University raised a question about action vs. contemplation as she reflected on her recent trip to India where she saw so many people engaged in the non-contemplative work of day-to-day survival. “Is action enough [to feel a part of the web of life]?” she asked.

In response to this question, Steven Rockefeller spoke to the spontaneous and direct connection to life experienced by children. While such immersion in action clearly allows for the experience of connection, he pointed out that “we want to go beyond the split that reason and reflection and self-consciousness has introduced [to our adult selves]” and bring spiritual awareness into our action as adults. He added that “It may very well be that a person without a great deal of education is able, for example, to much more easily live as an adult, as a mature person, in direct connection with others. In fact, I’ve often envied people that I have known whose lives, in many ways, are much simpler than mine because they seem to have that connection. There can be tremendous wisdom without all this university education and sometimes the university education may actually mess you up.” Tu also spoke of the problem of “educated incapacity,” which often confuses “received knowledge” with true wisdom.

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