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Building a Dialogical Civilization

Dialogue Society
April 04, 2013

On February 28, 2013, the second day of 5th Global Forum at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Vienna, Austria, Prof. Tu Weiming, the founding dean of Institute of Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute at Harvard University delivered a keynote speech.

Prof. Tu Weiming has called for a more pragmatic approach by governments and civil society organizations in reaching out to build a more diverse and tolerant world. He highlighted China's desire to create a dialogue based on diversity.

Prof. Tu stated that human rights without responsibility, without a sense of decency, a sense of compassion, is not good enough for a society to flourish. Furthermore, he noted that we need to broaden the scope of human rights from the realm of legalistic language to the language of the heart. As such, Prof. Tu called on all societies to cultivate not only the great Enlightenment values of liberty, rationality, due process of law, human rights, dignity of the individual, equality, but also the language of the heart found in the great spiritual values of justice, compassion, love, care, and the idea of a harmonious society.

The speech was received with great applause by the attendees.

Making Sense of Intercultural Dialogue in our Age by Professor Tu Weiming at UNAOC, 5th Global Forum, Vienna 2013 (Plenary Session) February 28, 2013


Professor Tu's speech echoes ideas shared during his dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda. Both Daisaku Ikeda and Tu Weiming strongly believe that a dialogical civilization is emerging and are committed to the cultivation of a wholesome dialogical civilization as the right path toward a culture of peace for the global village.

The following excerpt is taken from a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and Tu Weiming that was serialized in 2005 and 2006 in the Japanese journal Daisanbunmei and published in the January 2007 issue of SGI Quarterly

A Clash of Civilizations?

Tu: I returned to Cambridge from Hawaii to resume teaching and research at Harvard in the autumn of 1990. In 1993, after my colleague in the Harvard Department of Government, Samuel Huntington, sounded his warning about the clash of civilizations, dialogues among civilizations assumed a new shade of meaning.

Ikeda: Huntington's theory of the clash of civilizations caused reverberations around the world. He divided the world into eight civilizations remaining after the end of the Cold War ideological conflict and prophesied that clashes among them would control global politics and that differences among them would become boundary lines for future conflicts.

Tu: Yes. I did not agree with Huntington's phenomenological description of the danger of civilizational conflict and strongly objected to the dichotomy of "the West and the rest" as the conceptual apparatus for his analysis, but his worries were real and timely. I proposed--and Huntington concurred--that if there is an imminent danger of a clash of civilizations, the promotion of dialogues among civilizations is an imperative and urgent task for all peace-loving citizens of the world.

Ikeda: Without going into the content of his theory, we can say that the amount of international interest stirred up by the concept of conflict and clash among civilizations indicates how deep-rooted the issues are.

Tu: The indescribable anxiety covering the globe explains why Huntington's idea had such a great impact. The UN's designation of 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations clearly recognized respect for cultural diversity as a precondition for peace and prosperity in the world. It also symbolized a new way of thinking in person-to-person, group-to-group, nation-to-nation, region-to-region and culture-to-culture relations.

Beyond Tolerance

Ikeda: The designation was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1998.

Cultural relativism and tolerance were means of moving beyond the tragic circumstances in which civilizations vied for superiority. But, whenever conflict does arise, passive tolerance that merely recognizes the existence of others proves too fragile to survive. Instead of merely tolerating, we must prize others' existence and regard differences as sources of value. We must combine this attitude with ways of life that enrich our humanity.

Tu: Exactly. Although I fully agree with the necessity and desirability of overcoming obsessions with differences, I suggest that we move deliberately and cautiously toward the common goal of social happiness and peace without undermining difference prematurely. The danger of abstract universalism, like that of closed particularity, is its misunderstanding of the human need for both experienced concreteness and transformational sociality.

Ikeda: I understand what you mean. The Buddhist worldview provides fertile ground for radiant diversity. For instance, Buddhism teaches that, without changing their nature, the cherry, the plum, the peach and the apricot all bloom in their own ways. None of them can or should be like the others. It is enough for each to shine in its own abundant individuality. Through analogy they teach us the right way to live.

Buddhism values the spontaneous revealing and manifesting of each individual's true nature in its highest form. Fragrant, beautiful gardens are possible only because, blooming in its own individual way, each plant contributes to the weaving of overall harmony.

Tu: A lucid metaphor. This reminds me of a similar image--the flowing streams all contribute to enriching the resource of the pond. The divergent origins of the streams enable the pond to remain fresh with live waters continuously pouring in.

To change the subject slightly, I became interested in intercultural communication in college when graduates from Oberlin, Princeton and Yale came to Tunghai to serve as English-language instructors. My almost daily interaction with them made me realize that genuine understanding across cultural divides requires an art of listening that may take years to cultivate.

Ikeda: Listening to others correlates with esteeming and respecting others and is the first step toward true dialogue. More than a passive act, it entails exposing oneself to the world the speaker has created, discovered and experienced. Dialogue is doomed to fail unless it involves active listening.

Tu: In person-to-person and nation-to-nation relations, it is important to listen to opinions from the other party's viewpoint. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz makes the interesting observation that coming face-to-face with a person of radical views is a liberating experience. Instead of viewing exponents of views we do not share as enemies, we should understand them as helpful in expanding ourselves and making ourselves more understanding. In a sense, the other is the mirror of the self.


Ikeda: Seeing ourselves always in the same light leads to the pitfall of self-righteousness. Contacts with all kinds of people enable us to reexamine ourselves in new perspectives. Because it reveals its participants in unaccustomed lights, dialogue is spiritually creative. It reveals, in a richer, fresher, wider manner, paths to follow and ways to live.

Tu: Precisely. It is important to regard differences as positive, not negative, values. That is why dialogue must never be limited to attempts to change the other party's way of thinking or unilaterally impose one's own views. Instead, in dialogue, we must listen and, through listening, expand ourselves and intensify our self-awareness, self-comprehension and self-criticism.

Ikeda: On the basis of shared values, to what extent can we expand true dialogue until it becomes a common ground for all humanity? How can we use the power of dialogue to bring the world closer together and raise humanity to a new eminence? In the present highly complex world of overlapping hatreds, contradictory interests and conflict, even attempting to do such things may seem like circuitous idealism. But, no matter how hard the times, we must keep our eye on the undercurrent of the age and continue investigating possibilities of reform. I am certain that to expand the civilization of dialogue in the 21st- century world is to accept the sound and magnificent challenge of attaining world peace.

Tu: This certainly requires determination and conviction. After becoming the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1996, I was involved in designing an infrastructure to empower humanities scholarship in East Asia, specifically China. Our strategy is to enable generations of potential leaders in the humanities at leading East Asian universities to engage in dialogue among themselves and with American scholars by spending a year of unstructured time to explore what they deem most significant. One of my most challenging tasks has been to facilitate Sino-American cultural interchange on a mutually beneficial basis. You would agree that the Sino-American relationship is one of the most crucial bilateral relationships in constructing a wholesome world order.

Pivotal Relationships

Ikeda: I do, indeed. Last year, K. R. Narayanan, former president of India, and I discussed Sino-American relations as a global focal issue in the years to come. The United States, China and India are pivotal to the 21st century. I think cooperation among them is the primary element in leading us into the orbit of world peace.

For Japan, relations with China and the United States have been a fundamental diplomatic theme for many years. Indeed, Japanese diplomacy might be said to amount to a choice between stressing relations with the United States and emphasizing relations with China. But, in my opinion, the time has now come for Japan to take a broader view and function actively as a bridge between the two nations.

Tu: That is a very heartening concept. Unfortunately, at the present juncture, the relationship is quite asymmetrical. The obsession of the People's Republic of China with the United States contrasts sharply with America's insufficient attention toward China. Surely, as a superpower, the United States constantly must deal with all the active players in the world, but if an attitude of and commitment to cooperation, collaboration and teamwork is absent, the superpower may easily lose its moral leadership in the global community. The attitude of regarding China as a threat is not healthy.

Ikeda: Because of their great importance, I hope we can go into Sino-American relations in more detail on another occasion. As you point out in connection with this, however, great attention is focused on the future role of the United States in the world.

Tu: Tragically, 9/11 occurred in the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. In the immediate aftermath, expressions of sympathy for the American people poured in from all over the world. It was a rare opportunity for the American political leadership to exercise soft power in persuading the human community, including the Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia, to form a truly global alliance to fight against international terrorism and promote a culture of peace throughout the world. American unilateralism turned out to be most untimely. It is imperative that we Americans strongly advocate cosmopolitanism and an ecumenical spirit in our endeavor to build human security both for ourselves and for the global community at large. Only through such international instruments as the United Nations can we successfully perform our duty as a guardian of stable and sustainable peace on Earth.

Ikeda: America could manifest its power in more important and effective ways by contributing to the activities of universal organizations like the United Nations. The same is true of Japan, China and the other countries of the world. As John F. Kennedy said in his address to the UN General Assembly in 1963, "My fellow inhabitants of this planet: Let us take our stand here in this Assembly of nations. And let us see if we, in our own time, can move the world to a just and lasting peace."

This year [2005] marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations. On this occasion, I call on the leaders of all nations to reconsider the role of the UN as a platform for the harmonious coexistence of humanity and, pooling their strengths, to redouble their efforts in the name of progress.


SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has over the past 30 years carried out dialogues with hundreds of individuals from a wide range of cultures, countries and walks of life including educators, scientists, economists, peace activists, politicians, writers, artists and astronauts. He comments, "The courage to meet and talk with people is absolutely crucial. Choosing dialogue is itself the triumph of peace and of humanity. That is why I have met, as one human being to another, with all kinds of people, transcending differences of nationality, ethnicity, religion, ideology, generation, gender and social position."

His first published dialogue, Choose Life, was the record of discussions with British historian Arnold Toynbee carried out over several days at Professor Toynbee's London home in 1972 and 1973. Choose Life has now been translated into 26 languages. It covers a wide range of topics, from the nature of human beings to issues such as the death penalty and euthanasia, the future of war, good and evil and the role of religion in the world.

Following Professor Toynbee's recommendations, Mr. Ikeda then carried out similar discussions with other individuals such as The Club of Rome President Aurelio Peccei, with whom he published Before It Is Too Late. His recent dialogues published in English include those with Hazel Henderson, Mikhail Gorbachev and the late Joseph Rotblat.

To date a total of 45 of Mr. Ikeda's dialogues have been published in Japanese, with a further six currently being serialized in magazines in Japan. At the conclusion of their dialogue, Professor Tu Weiming commented, "President Ikeda is, in my opinion, the most seasoned dialogical partner in the world today. Since his celebrated dialogue with Arnold Toynbee . . . he has been the champion of cultivating world peace through dialogue, which entails the art of deep listening. Through dialogical encounters with many public intellectuals from all corners of the world, President Ikeda has helped extend intellectual horizons and deepen critical self-reflectivity of dozens of thinkers of our time."

Mr. Ikeda writes about his dialogues, "Dialogues are like a drama in multiple acts. There are moments when sparks fly, and moments of sheer delight when chords of sympathy reverberate. Lively, vigorous dialogue is satisfying and overflowing with dynamism. That is why I give my absolute all to each and every encounter." For information about Mr. Ikeda's dialogues published and currently available in English, visit www.ikedabooks.org.

Image: Tu Weiming
Credit: Pat Westwater-Jong


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