Our World To Make Event

Ved Nanda Explores Friendship and Global Civil Society

By Mitch Bogen

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Our recent event celebrating the publication of Our World To Make nicely illustrated the Ikeda Center’s commitment to peace building at every level, from the personal to the global, the microcosm to the macrocosm. It celebrated friendship among individuals as well as the friendship toward humanity demonstrated by the individuals and NGOs who work internationally to promote human rights, widespread education, and the rule of law rather than the rule of force.

On September 26, 2015, a crisp early autumn Saturday in Cambridge, co-author Ved Nanda spoke with a diverse gathering of Boston-area residents, including many university students, about themes from the newest offering from Dialogue Path Press. Dr. Nanda, who is Evans University Professor and Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law at the University of Denver, co-authored the book with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda. Our World To Make is subtitled Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Rise of Global Civil Society, and over the course of the book Nanda and Ikeda trace how their religious faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism respectively, have shaped their lives personally and inspired their work for global peace and wellbeing.

The afternoon kicked off with brief remarks from Center senior research fellow Virginia Benson and Center editorial manager Jeff Farr. Benson introduced the work of the Ikeda Center, noting that while our full name is the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue, it would be just as accurate, maybe even more accurate, to describe our mission and method as peace through learning and dialogue. She summarized one of the Center’s core commitments, saying “that all life has intrinsic value and worth, or what Mr. Ikeda would call dignity. When we honor that dignity in others through our dialogue and interactions with them, we bring forth our own dignity. And this, he says, is the surest path to peace.” The publications from Dialogue Path Press, she added, are intended as contributions to what Mr. Ikeda calls a new global humanism.

Having good friends constitutes all of the Buddha Way.Farr focused on the theme of friendship that runs throughout the book. Citing Mr. Ikeda’s Preface, Farr noted that the name Nanda originates from Ananda, the name of one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s closest and wisest friends and disciples. One exchange in particular between the two is frequently cited by Mr. Ikeda, said Farr. Ananda once asked Shakyamuni, “Having good friends and practicing among them would be halfway to the mastery of the Buddha Way, would it not?” But Shakyamuni disagreed: “Having good friends does not constitute the midpoint to the Buddha Way. It constitutes all of the Buddha Way.” Knowing this, Farr was struck by Dr. Nanda’s statement in the book that: “Ideology, advocacy, and ideals are all important. It is human beings, however, whose conviction is the source of positive change. This is why I believe in human virtue, friendship, people, and a bright future for humankind.”

Nanda event particpipant candid

Friendship, Mentorship, and the Dawn of Human Rights

From the start of his talk, Dr. Nanda affirmed Farr’s point, recalling with warmth how much his friendship with Mr. Ikeda has meant to him. He recalled his first meeting with Mr. Ikeda, in Tokyo in 1994, when he went with Mr. Ikeda and his wife Kaneko Ikeda to hear Soka University students performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the finale, “Ode to Joy.” Of that day, Nanda says: “It was absolutely, absolutely mesmerizing. Still it reverberates, and I think about it often.”

And he recalled how when Mr. Ikeda came to the University of Denver to receive an honorary degree he shared these words with the graduating class: “The sun is shining brilliantly. The moon, too, is shining upon all of you. The sun symbolizes passion, and the moon, intellect. And the Rocky Mountains, with their air of unshakeable conviction, are watching over you.” Later that day, Mr. and Mrs. Ikeda, along with one of their sons, visited Dr. Nanda and his wife and daughter at their Denver home. There, Mr. Ikeda asked if he could play the family’s small upright piano, and proceeded to perform a song celebrating the bond between parent and child. Simply spending time together like this was a treasured experience, said Nanda.

Professor Nanda also spoke warmly of his mentor at Yale Law School, Professor Myres S. McDougal, whom he described as “one of the most prominent international lawyers of the late twentieth century.” McDougall was a large and intimidating man, and very, very busy, recalled Nanda, but when you would visit him in his office, “for the next ten minutes, half an hour, or even an hour, as you sat with him, nothing mattered to him but you.” This attentiveness to the concerns of students is something that Nanda has tried to emulate throughout his own teaching career. It is a source of great pride and satisfaction that he has built lifelong friendships with many of his own students.

Human rights and international peace and security are intertwined.Like Professor McDougall, Dr. Nanda is a leader in the field of international law. Among many notable positions, he is past president of the World Jurist Association and now its honorary president, and is currently a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights. He is also a past recipient of the United Nations Association Human Rights Award. So it was appropriate that his comments on the rise of global civil society focused on the role of human rights in growing and securing a peaceful future for humanity and the planet. He noted that after the Second World War there was a dawning realization “that human rights and international peace and security are intertwined,” that “they are interdependent — you can’t have one without the other.” Time and again we see that “those countries that violate the human rights of their own people are the ones who then act in the international arena lawlessly.” This is why human rights “have a prominent place” in the UN charter, Nanda said, and why, in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the creation of which was spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt, Nanda noted.

Admitting that the enforcement of human rights law internationally has been spotty, Dr. Nanda nevertheless described the Declaration as indispensible. It has been said, and rightly, observed Nanda, that a “single piece of paper, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, had more impact upon changing Europe than all of Napoleon’s armies.” Nanda believes that the same might someday be said of the Declaration of Human Rights. After all, said Nanda, in the fight against South African apartheid, the people were armed not with weapons but with the Declaration, which they held up, asserting, “I have rights. As a human being these are inalienable rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives me these rights.”

Q & A: The Way Forward

During a 30-minute Q & A session Dr. Nanda discussed some of the opportunities and challenges presented by today’s movement to create a world characterized by increasingly widespread peace and wellbeing.

The first questioner asked Dr. Nanda how he deals with the general lack of clarity about what international law actually is and how it plays out in practice. Nanda agreed that international law appears to be “something obscure,” something that maybe isn’t even law, since the UN and other bodies rarely have effective means of enforcement. But it is a mistake to only think of international law in terms of “war and peace,” Nanda said. International law actually thrives in the form of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and many other international bodies. Further, there are laws that guide and make possible international communications and commerce.

We as individuals, as part of civil society, have the ability to bring about change.Most critical, said Nanda, are the international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that hold everyone’s feet to the fire when it comes to international justice. “Please know that it’s not simply governments that at the present time are going to bring about change,” said Nanda. Rather, “we as individuals, we as part of civil society,” have the ability and responsibility to work for and bring about positive change.

Next, Professor Nanda responded to two questions, one about how our “increased awareness of and dedication to human rights and civil society” is being impacted as the world is made smaller by communications, the other a request to identify hopeful signs “with respect to human rights abuses in this country.” Choosing to address the second topic first, Nanda said that recent events show that regarding race “we still have a long way to go.” Personally, Nanda places his faith in education as the means to a better future. His classes at the University of Denver, he said, are filled with students who “feel very, very strongly about these issues,” adding that they are a “ray of hope for tomorrow.”

In terms of communication, said Nanda, global wellbeing is enhanced by cooperative initiatives such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which articulate actions to achieve universal primary education, reduce child mortality, ensure environmental sustainability, and more. For Nanda, “the basis of all these must be human rights,” with a focus on women’s empowerment and an awareness that “women’s rights are human rights” and not simply a side concern.

The next topic concerned the refusal of the United States to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Is this kind of resistance something that NGOs can transcend? For context, Nanda noted that the ICC itself resulted from the dedicated, coordinated efforts of a coalition of NGOs, to whom Nanda was honored to serve as a consultant. From the start, however, the United States refused to grant domestic jurisdiction to the ICC, fearing that the US track record with Native Americans and in regard to race might incriminate it in the eyes of the ICC. As it turns out, said Nanda, the ICC is quite “conservative” and doesn’t “touch those kinds of issues.” Nanda believes the US will come to see that it is in its interest to support the ICC. For now, lack of US support weakens and discredits the ICC just as the Security Council veto weakens and discredits the United Nations.

Another vexing issue for global human rights, said another attendee, is the role of international corporations. Did Professor Nanda know of cases where corporations have been moved to mitigate their “greed” in favor of compassion? Nanda stated that corporations are really the main entities today that have the technology, resources, and expertise to impact global change. Yet at the same time, said Nanda, “for years and years they have ruthlessly exploited people and resources.” That said, Professor Nanda expressed hope that more and more organizations will develop a legitimate sense of “corporate social responsibility,” as opposed to mere “whitewashing, green-washing, or public relations.” One reason he has hope is because many of his former students serve as general counsels to major corporations, and make the case for environmental, human rights, and labor issues whenever they can.

Government action must be based on informed consent.The final two questions concerned the relationship between human rights and democracy. The first wondered about the difference in promoting human rights in democracies versus authoritarian regimes. In response, Nanda stressed that democracy “has a deeper meaning” than “free and fair elections.” A crucial foundation for democracy is that government action must be based on “informed consent.” Even if this is not always the case, suggested Nanda, it is only in democracy where such consent is at least possible. In authoritarian states the people can never experience the fundamental rights of self-determination and the opportunity to shape the nation’s future.

The other asked Professor Nanda to discuss how a greater consideration for human rights can be injected into our current political debates and campaigns. He bluntly characterized the current Republican primaries as an overcrowded “circus” in which there has been little room for substantive debate. It is his hope that when the field narrows, committed citizens' groups like the League of Women Voters and others can force a discussion of key issues. To conclude, he reiterated that civil society groups and individuals alike need to ensure that our leaders address the issues that matter the most, especially human rights and climate change.

To close, Center president Richard Yoshimachi cited words from Daisaku Ikeda’s Preface reinforcing Dr. Nanda’s vision. In Our World To Make, wrote Ikeda, “We shine a light on the protagonists of the new era who, through their steady yet unheralded efforts in NGOs and other venues to tackle the world’s many problems, are paving the way for peaceful coexistence in the twenty-first century.”



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