Sublime Motivations

Conversation 5 from The Art of True Relations: Conversations on the Poetic Heart of Human Possibility

By Sarah Wider and Daisaku Ikeda

IKEDA: A youth spent with the friendship of good books is fortunate and exalted. A close acquaintanceship with great literature both elevates and deepens our lives.

The nineteenth-century American Renaissance, when Emerson lived, was a period of many outstanding women writers. One of them was the famous Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, which has been beloved by both children and adults all over the world for more than 140 years. The book has been made into motion pictures numerous times, including several animated versions in Japan. I feel sure that it is one of your favorites, too.

WIDER: Louisa May Alcott is one of my favorite writers and women, and Little Women readily became a good friend early in my childhood. That interest stemmed directly from my mother. She had played the part of Jo in her high school’s theatrical production and in turn shared her fascination with the book and its author. When my sister and I were still relatively young children, Mom read Little Women to us, a chapter each day as we ate lunch.

When I was a child, it was common for girls to play “Little Women.” They would take on the different characters of the four daughters and pretend to be Amy, Jo, Beth, or Meg. My older sister, Susan, and I used to play these roles, too, but with just the two of us, we had to switch parts frequently. Our mother gave us Little Women dolls, and then we could play all the parts in turn.

IKEDA: Your mother wisely guided you into the world of stories. Learning this will be of great interest and use to the young mothers conducting a campaign to promote reading aloud to children in Japan.

My mentor used Little Women, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as reading material in a young women’s study group. At the time, Japan was just beginning to recover following the country’s defeat in World War II, and life was still hard. Daily survival was as much as people could manage. Under such conditions, realizing that women would play a leading role in creating a century of peace, he wanted to provide them with the best spiritual nourishment available. He felt that he could encourage and cultivate young women by presenting to them the life story of Alcott, who brought her literary talents to fruition while supporting a poor family in times of great hardship.

I recall Toda’s explanation that Alcott was able to compose works that so many found deeply moving and affecting precisely because, without collapsing under extraordinary difficulties, she strove tirelessly to become a better person. Josei Toda wanted all of the young women he taught to find happiness, and he was determined to make his wish a reality.

WIDER: Mr. Toda’s choice bespeaks his deep understanding and far-reaching wisdom. In focusing on Louisa May Alcott, he gave young women a life of empowering strength—and a real life, not one romanticized or sheltered. This strength is often reflected in the female characters she created. Jo March is the most well known, and the Jo readers remember is the determined, aspiring, expressive person who would never be defeated.

Little Women remains popular in the United States to this day. My husband, daughter, and I just recently enjoyed an excellent musical production in Syracuse. And with a new documentary on Alcott’s life airing on American television, Little Women will certainly continue to be prominently featured in bookstores. (1) Even when abridged or revised in updated language, the story survives well.

Orchard House in Concord, where the Alcotts lived, is one of the most visited places in the United States. Louisa May’s fame attracts tourists from around the world.

IKEDA: Concord is of course famous for the battles at Lexington and Concord between British and colonial forces in April 1775 that started the American War of Independence. In my speeches, I have commended the good fight of Soka Gakkai International members engaged in grassroots movements for peace by referring to the actions of the anonymous heroes known as the Minutemen, youthful soldiers who fought on the front lines in the War of Independence. (2)

It was in Concord that writers and thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott breathed fresh intellectual life into nineteenth-century America. Emerson, in particular, came to be known as the “sage of Concord.” The region is thus doubly significant, not only as the home of the struggle for American political independence from England but also as the center of its spiritual and cultural independence.

Alcott wrote Little Women at Orchard House. (3) Coerced by poverty, her family changed residences nearly thirty times before finally settling down there for an extended period. Because of the property’s many apple trees, of which her father was fond, Louisa

May referred to the house as “Apple Slump”—taken from the name of a dessert made from apples—a nickname I understand survives today.

Likening herself and her life to an apple, she once wrote:

I think disappointment must be good for me, I get so much of it, and the constant thumping Fate gives me may be a mellowing process, so I shall be a ripe and sweet old pippin [apple] before I die. (4)

We can learn much from these moving, meaningful words. Our only option in life is to keep moving forward steadfastly and cheerfully, never succumbing to despair. Happiness comes to fruition only when we are strongly rooted in the soil of patience.

The Alcotts were close to the Emersons, weren’t they? Emerson helped the Alcotts to find Orchard House.

WIDER: Yes, he did. Louisa May’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, had many ideas, most of which made no money. Louisa May’s mother, Abigail May Alcott, was a pioneer in social work, which was absolutely crucial to societal well-being but not valued by society in monetary terms. Bronson was relentlessly idealistic, and Emerson, while often encouraging, could be vigorously skeptical of his activities. Still, generosity from the Emersons meant a great deal to the family.

Emerson’s influence on Louisa May was large and multidimensional. She referred to him as her Goethe in that he was the intellectual invigorator of her ideas in the way that Johann Wolfgang Goethe had inspired the German novelist Bettine Brentano. Emerson was generous in his support, allowing Louisa May to borrow books from his study or letting her sister May, an aspiring artist, copy paintings he owned. He loved encouraging and helping young people, not just financially but in developing their own ideas.

IKEDA: As the word itself indicates, encouragement fills human hearts with courage. Emerson’s support and magnanimity gave Alcott courage and hope, enabling her to develop her talents in spite of the hardships of her youth. In his study, she came into contact with the great works of Goethe, Shakespeare, Dickens, and others. Engaging in discussion with Emerson and his friends enabled her to imbibe the spirit of the American Renaissance, thus expanding and enriching her inner spiritual world.

I similarly want young people to read as many good books as possible; they provide spiritual nourishment and an intellectual foundation. I have loved reading since my youth and contributed to Soka University my collection of about seventy thousand publications. These included some I took with me for safekeeping into air-raid shelters during World War II and others that I used as texts when my mentor instructed me privately. I have memories associated with each and every book, and I donated them hoping to provide reading and study material for our students.

I presented another collection of about three thousand volumes to Soka University of America, when it opened in 2001. As founder, I am happy that these books will provide sustenance for students’ futures.

The Bodhisattva Way

WIDER: Your gifts bespeak a profound understanding of the role books may play in a student’s life (students of any age, I might add). I think of Emerson’s comment, “Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the man,—has decided his way of life.” (5)

As you say, Louisa May Alcott was deeply influenced by Emerson, both through his personal character and through his thought. She played out a distinct version of self-reliance in her own life. She met her many difficulties with determination and without apology.

Emerson’s ideas are included in various forms in her novels. For example, the heroine of Work: A Story of Experience starts out with untested idealism. She engages in many kinds of work and profits by the accompanying experience as she makes a life for herself. In the end, she develops a social services agency, where she can help other women stay employed. To borrow Emerson’s words from his essay “Experience,” she has accomplished the “true romance,” “transform[ing] genius into practical power.” (6) Alcott’s book enjoyed considerable popularity when it was reprinted in the 1970s and ’80s and deserves to be more widely read today.

IKEDA: No doubt. Undeniably, providing more fields in which women can be active would create avenues to employ the wisdom and sensitivity of women and build a better society. On this subject, Gorbachev commented to me that at present women generally are more active and more trusted than men—including in the world of politics. He also said that he feels the world would be a better place, and we would make fewer mistakes, if women had a greater voice in every area of society.

The heroine of Work, Christie Devon, reflects Alcott’s ideas and is based on the author’s experiences working desperately to support her family. I understand that Alcott’s mother, Abigail, opened an employment agency for women like the one so vividly described in the book.

WIDER: Abigail, or Abby, focused on the kinds of social services that a community should provide in order to address and redress poverty. During the Civil War, Louisa May worked in the same vein and herself became a nurse. It was as powerful an experience for her as it was for Walt Whitman. She incorporated the experiences of the war and the feelings aroused in her by caring for wounded soldiers into Hospital Sketches as well as other stories. She also wanted her fiction to get people thinking hard about individual and societal choices.

IKEDA: She no doubt hoped the works written from her experiences would open people’s eyes to the future and to social realities. For people with high ideals, even the most painful experiences or bitter memories can become priceless assets to encourage others. Alcott sublimated her sufferings into novels, revealing a pathway of courage and hope for others, especially women. In her noble life, we see the true brilliance of the human being.

Your moving description of her life reminds me of Mary Moody Emerson’s encouragement to Emerson, “Scorn trifles, lift your aims; do what you are afraid to do; sublimity of character must come from sublimity of motive.” (7) A great reader and woman of deep faith, Mary Moody Emerson certainly had a unique, powerful influence on Emerson’s young life, guiding his reading and sending him letters filled with good advice (see Conversation Three).

WIDER: I am delighted at how highly you evaluate Mary. For a long time, her intellectual contributions were not taken seriously. Many people considered her an eccentric, if important, family member. Until Phyllis Cole’s (8) and Nancy Simmons’ (9) work, she was marginalized, when in fact she was an intellectual and spiritual heavyweight in her own right.

In her day, some people found her directness and honesty off-putting. Others delighted in it, because it kept them intellectually and spiritually honest. She was a mentor, certainly to the Emerson boys but also to many women who counted themselves lucky to converse with her, if not in person, then through correspondence. People looked forward to her letters, because she would always give them much to think about.

IKEDA: The light of the deep wisdom of life and the true brilliance of human nature are to be found in the lives of ordinary men and women striving earnestly to lead good lives.

When I conducted a dialogue with Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, both past presidents of the Thoreau Society, Emerson’s “little-endians” (10) became a topic of conversation. Emerson used this term to describe human beings who, though not in the spotlight, are outstanding—and he named his aunt Mary among them.

Writing in his journal, Emerson emphasized the great worth of such individuals:

The world looks poor & mean so long as I think only of its great men; most of them of spotted reputation. But when I remember how many obscure persons I myself have seen possessing gifts that excited wonder, speculation, & delight in me. . . . (11)

His words express the conviction underlying the SGI’s many years of grassroots action for peace, culture, and education. It is always my desire to bring to light and honor as many of these anonymous, sincere, and great individuals as I can.

As Arnold J. Toynbee wisely said, history is ultimately defined not by what newspapers think makes good headlines but the deeper, slower movements. (12) In my understanding, he meant by the “deeper, slower movements” not the famous and celebrated but the countless heroes of the people who, aflame with a sense of mission, rise up and act.

WIDER: To paraphrase Mary Moody Emerson’s words, sublime motivation yields sublime character. Here is wonderful encouragement for any person who might see himself or herself as just one inconsequential individual in a sea of billions. Worth is determined not by class, rank, or wealth but by the qualities that compose an individual’s motivation.

What are that person’s aspirations or larger understanding of purpose? What is an individual’s source of insight? Does he or she see forward through to the implications of what is being undertaken? When a person acts from a firm commitment to justice, this work is worthwhile whether outwardly acknowledged or not.

Aunt Mary uses the word sublime. It remains a strong word to this day, but in her time, it carried special value. It suggested the grandeur and power of the greatest elements in nature—the Alps, Niagara Falls, Mount Fuji—and also the grandeur and power of the divine. The noble person is motivated by ideals strong enough to enable him or her to persevere under all circumstances, including injustice.

A person with sublime motivations, to borrow Mary Moody Emerson’s phrase, essentially acts like a sun to others. Even if he or she suffers severe criticism and seemingly fails to move people, such a person often has a strong influence on later times. I find this decidedly heartening.

Real Partnership

IKEDA: In the long course of history, malicious criticism and slander cannot conceal the light of truth. From the viewpoint of the stern law of cause and effect, evil inevitably perishes and receives the harsh judgment of history.

Emerson associated with many dynamic women, including his aunt Mary and Louisa May Alcott, who shone like the sun for many people and who had unshakeable convictions enabling them to serve as pioneers of their day. Among them were Margaret Fuller, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, who exerted a strong influence on the women’s rights movement, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who made such great contributions to juvenile education as opening the first public kindergarten in the United States. The invigorating vitality of these women pioneered a new age.

WIDER: They were visionaries who worked for change in their own day and also wrote for the generations to come. In the 1870s, a concept called the “new woman” emerged in England and the United States. Essentially a working woman, the “new woman” was independent in economic, intellectual, and spiritual terms, and she was often criticized by people opposed to social change. Reading was a way of building community—whether reading The Woman’s Journal, The Independent, or essayists like Emerson—and so reading was a strong source of encouragement for women who saw injustice in established society and sought to right wrongs, individually and collectively.

Emerson regarded women with respect for their particular potential and often showed intense concern about how society treated them and the societal constraints they faced. I have always liked the way Emerson used the word equal to mean having strength to accomplish things. He believed that human beings need to challenge themselves to be equal to the tasks confronting them. Those tasks were profoundly human and not to be limited by society’s gendered norms.

While he lagged behind Margaret Fuller in openly criticizing the societal barriers that forbade women’s direct political involvement, he nonetheless advocated for equal access to education as well as women’s right to make decisions for themselves. He knew that women wanted to work productively and should have access to the employment they chose. He made this point—still revolutionary for its time—in an address titled “Woman,” delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in Boston in 1855.

IKEDA: Yes, an undying address, in which he said: “Women are, by [conversation and] their social influence, the civilizers of mankind. What is civilization? I answer, the power of good women.” (13) His brilliant view of civilization held that the power of conversation—the powerful voices of women awakened to their mission—is the driving force leading society and the epoch in the right direction.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda shared these high hopes for the positive influence of women, and they both did their utmost to bring it to full flower. For instance, more than a century ago, Mr. Makiguchi instituted a correspondence-education course for women. He was convinced that women were the builders of the ideal society of the future and would create peace. Soka Women’s College, which you have visited twice to encourage students, carries on his educational dream.

After World War II, on the occasion of the founding of the Soka Gakkai’s young women’s division (July 19, 1951), Mr. Toda emphasized how important it was for young women to uphold the Buddhist philosophy of the dignity of life and become strong, self- reliant individuals. My wife, after her day’s work at a bank, hurried to that inaugural meeting. Mr. Toda’s teaching that all members deserve to become happy remains the starting point and guiding ideal of the young women’s division to this day.

Wider: Mr. Makiguchi and Mr. Toda chose to persevere in work they knew was going to be valuable instead of undertaking other work that would bring them status or fame. In this, they illustrate Emerson’s idea of greatness, which he carefully distinguished from popular notions of eye-catching charisma or force-wielding power. When Emerson talked about what greatness was and what greatness does, he reminded his audiences “not to imitate or surpass a particular man in his way, but to bring out your own new way.” He called greatness the “fulfillment of a natural tendency in each man” and opened its possibility to every human being. It was the “only platform on which all . . . can meet,” precisely because all people carry within them their own contributing work. (14)

Emerson was always skeptical about work done for praise. For him, the work itself was the acclamation.

This makes me admire the Soka Gakkai all the more and your great founding leaders concerned with appreciating women and working for their happiness and well-being at a time when women’s roles were limited, and women were treated as second-class citizens.

IKEDA: Adhering to the convictions of our first two presidents, I, too, have done all I could to create environments and educational systems enabling women to manifest their full potential. In addition, on every possible occasion, I have proclaimed the need to make ours a time of real partnership between the sexes.

WIDER: A transition to such a time is a major focal point of the twenty-first century. When I teach introductory women’s studies at Colgate, I think about what makes true collaboration possible as well as the whole range of things that hold women back. Many of those obstacles are institutionalized, certainly in the workplace. Some are ingrained attitudes that create a severely limited understanding of women’s capacity.

Even in this day, women are all too often characterized as “weak” or “lesser” or “dependent.” The attitudes my mother had to endure in the 1950s and that women before her endured in their own place and time persist.

Worldwide, women’s experiences are still silenced. Poverty disproportionately affects women, and women’s capacity for productive work is poorly understood and often abused. War is countenanced in the name of terrorism, in the name of democracy, in the name of economic development or self-determination. The costs to women are unspeakably heavy. One need only think about the price women and girls have paid wherever war dominates. Such inequity, such inhumanity, must end.

The stories go on and on. How many girls are denied education or killed because they try to obtain it? There are so many situations where the free use of one’s mind is not deemed important or is seen as “damaging” to what a girl or woman “should” be. How many girls with access to education are still tracked into certain areas and excluded from others?

Even with our guarantees from Title IX15 in the United States, there are still many societal pressures or supports that steer women into certain fields of study but not others. Think how few women have real say in their healthcare and when or whether they give birth. And even something seemingly as trivial as taking a course in which there are no women writers on the syllabus or attending an art exhibition where there are no women artists sends a message about women’s expendability.

No one should be taking a back seat to anyone. We should all be sitting together, listening, talking, and respecting the contributing work each person has to offer.

IKEDA: As early as the thirteenth century, Nichiren declared, “There should be no discrimination among those who propagate the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo in the Latter Day of the Law, be they men or women.” (16) Nichiren Buddhism encourages the establishment of a society in which gender discrimination and all other forms of discrimination have been transcended and the supreme dignity of life itself is allowed to shine forth. This doctrine shows how advanced Nichiren’s philosophy was for the feudal Japanese society of his time.

Humanity’s path forward must be one in which women’s voices are heeded, and women are fully valued and respected. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi learned the spirit of nonviolence not from famous philosophers or religious scriptures but from his wife, Kasturba. Indeed, she supported him as a comrade in his nonviolence movement, joined in the resistance, and died in prison.

I remember chemist Linus Pauling, with whom I shared a dialogue, revealing that an important factor prompting him to take a stand against nuclear weapons was maintaining his wife’s respect—“I felt compelled to earn and keep her respect.” (17) When some Japanese women inquired how she felt about the interference and persecutions she and her husband had encountered, Ava Helen Pauling replied that irresponsible, malicious people are to be found everywhere, and that the two of them would go on doing what they believed in

To honor these two splendid couples at the opening of Soka University of America, one classroom building was named Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi Hall and another Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Hall. On that occasion, Linus Pauling, Jr., recalled that his father felt his Nobel Peace Prize of 1962 should have been shared with his wife.

These two pairs of companions provide excellent models for an age of true partnership between the sexes. Naming the classroom buildings for them represents my hope as founder that the students who study there will bravely follow paths leading to a new peace and humanism.


1. The documentary Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ aired in 2009 on PBS stations throughout the United States and won several awards, including Booklist Best Video of the Year.

2. The name “Minutemen” refers to the soldiers’ ability to spring into action at a minute’s notice. They were mostly farmers or craftsmen; however, in times of emergency they would immediately gather together to handle the situation.

3. Alcott’s Little Women, written at Orchard House, was originally published in two volumes: Little Women (1868) and Good Wives (1869). Starting in 1880, both were published as one book, titled Little Women. Two sequels followed: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

4. Ednah D. Cheny, ed., Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890), p. 127.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address at the Opening of Concord Free Public Library” in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 11: Miscellanies (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903–1904), p. 503.

6. Emerson, “Experience” in Essays and Lectures, p. 492.

7. Nancy Newhall, ed., Time in New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 113.

8. See Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

9. See Nancy Simmons, ed., Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson (Atlanta, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1993).

10. “Little-endians” is an allusion to the orthodox Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s work Gulliver’s Travels. Little-endians insist that hard-boiled eggs must be eaten starting with the little end.

11. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 4, William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al., eds. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), p. 353.

12. Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 213.

13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address at a Women’s Rights Convention, 20 September, 1855” in The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, eds. (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2005), p. 216.

14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Greatness” in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 8: Letters and Social Aims, Edward Waldo Emerson, ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903–1904), pp. 301, 308.

15. Title IX refers to a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972. It states in part: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

16. Nichiren, The Writings, vol. I, p. 385.

17. Linus Pauling and Daisaku Ikeda, A Lifelong Quest for Peace (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1992), p. 67.

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