The year 2005 was marked by a series of devastating natural disasters, continuing terror attacks and conflict, and the threat of virulent new diseases. These issues affect every one of us, with no respect for political or geographical borders; they are an integral aspect of globalization. But the most effective search for solutions to these global problems starts with a focus on our immediate, individual realities.
The process of modernization has changed the way the individual interacts with the social and natural environment, as ties of relation with family, neighborhood and other communities unravel. While in one sense a pursuit of ever-greater freedom for the individual, this can lead toward the kind of unbridled individualism where untrammeled desire takes control. Certainly this can be seen as a root cause of some of the horrendous crimes that Japanese society has witnessed over recent years.
To avoid a slide into unbridled individualism, what is needed is to develop a robust character that can confront the changes in our society without becoming ensnared in greed and selfishness. This kind of robust individual is rooted in society, in relationships with others and in shared and mutual concerns. Religion can provide the framework for developing robust individuals--indeed, this is the primary mission of religion, as it strengthens the inner life while bringing people together in dynamic social interaction.
Montaigne and Humanism
We can find many guidelines to the practice and norms of humanism in the writings of the sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne. In his Essays, he developed a universalist outlook by enquiring deeply into the nature of his own person. This enabled him to see past the violent divisions of his age--based on religious doctrine, social status, ethnicity--and instead uncover the characteristics that are common to all people, whatever their position in life.
His writings contain important parallels to the kind of Buddhist-based humanism that can be instrumental in the solution of the global problems we face.
First, he was a strong advocate of a gradualist approach, especially in his critique of revolutionary change. He understood how firmly people are embedded in the customs and traditions of everyday life, and how futile it is to try to enforce radical change without paying attention to this everyday reality. Second, he was a firm believer in the power of dialogue. Unfettered by the constraints of the rigid social order of his day, he would engage in and appreciate dialogue with people from all walks of life. Finally, he stressed the importance of the development of personal integrity or character. His relentless questioning of himself led him to see the fundamental elements of a universal human character.
All three of these themes are crucial to the development of a form of humanism that can help us find solutions to contemporary issues. It is by exploring these avenues that religion can most effectively serve the interests of humanity.
The United Nations must serve as the key venue and focus for our efforts to address global issues. To strengthen and reform the UN, it is necessary to pay ever-greater attention to the voices of civil society and to build a solidarity of concerned citizens.
Last year, the UN resolved to establish a new Human Rights Council and to create a Peacebuilding Commission. These initiatives deserve full support, and special attention should be given to developing the means whereby these new structures receive input from civil society and nongovernmental organizations.
In addition to spotlighting specific abuses and seeking redress for victims, the Human Rights Council must embrace sustained efforts to change the social paradigms and political culture that allow human rights violations to continue. To this end, human rights education and public information should be made a standing agenda item for the council. Avenues for participation by civil society and NGOs need to be extended, and a consultative body of human rights experts should assist the council in its work.
The Peacebuilding Commission is designed to aid an integrated approach to international assistance for all stages of recovery from conflict, but it needs also to look to bolder goals, embracing the rebuilding of people's daily lives, the reconstruction of their happiness. With this in mind, it must engage the men and women living in areas suffering in the aftermath of conflict and focus on removing the threats and fears they face. It should also coordinate with civil society to secure sustained assistance from the international community for the full length of time required for the peacebuilding process, and enable people from countries with experience of post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding to make their unique contributions.
Resolving the global environmental crisis is an integral part of meeting the challenge of building a peaceful world. Discussion of successor frameworks to the Kyoto Protocol for the period after 2012 has already begun, and Japan has a special role to play in this process, for example by using the Kyoto Mechanism to assist other countries in preserving and restoring forests and the introduction of renewable energy sources. It is crucial to encourage developing countries to participate in the framework of emission reduction programs by offering constructive means that respond to their specific needs and demands.
The way forward for Japan in the twenty-first century is to make environmental and humanitarian commitments its very raison d'être. For this reason, Japan should focus on promoting the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development, providing a model for implementation at home and abroad.
Peace and Integration in Asia
Asia is one of the regions where international relations are still very much colored by the conflicts and tensions of the Cold War. Recent moves to enhance the structure of dialogue among heads of government in the region are to be welcomed, especially if this leads to the formation of an East Asian Community along the lines of the process of European integration. The institutional frameworks to support this should be created.
The effort to promote mutual understanding, common values and a shared philosophical grounding must center around person-to-person dialogue and exchange on the basis of a common "ethos of coexistence."
Improvement in relations between China and Japan is of particular importance. This requires continuous efforts to build cultural and educational ties at the citizen level, but this must be accompanied by a determination on the part of Japan to reassess the importance of this bilateral diplomatic relationship. It is important to recall the forward-looking attitudes that prevailed when relations where first normalized in the 1970s.
One area that requires regional cooperation is in solving the problem of North Korean nuclear development. In this, the six-party talks process is key, and it is essential to build on these talks, hopefully in the form of a summit of the heads of government of the six parties.
In this crucial area of nonproliferation and disarmament, it is important to stress again the role of disarmament education as a means of transforming the paradigms of society to move from a culture of war characterized by conflict and confrontation to a culture of peace based on cooperation and creative coexistence. Given the current stalemate in talks on nonproliferation, public opinion must rally to the cause of disarmament, and this requires greater efforts in peace and disarmament education.
Peace is not simply the absence of war. A truly peaceful society is one in which all people can maximize their potential and build fulfilling lives free from threats to their dignity. When ordinary citizens around the globe join hands to call for peace, a solidarity of awakened and empowered individuals can propel humankind toward the twin goals of genuine disarmament and a flourishing culture of peace. This is what drives the SGI's movement of Buddhist humanism as we look with hope to the future.