[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]



Saneh Chamarik 

Preamble by Phra Rajavaramuni

Paper No. 12 
ISBN 974-572-182-4

Thai Khadi Research Institute
Thammasat University
Bangkok, Thailand

(Paper originally presented at the Expert Meeting on The Place of Human
Rights in Cultural and Religious Traditions, Bangkok, Thailand December 3-7,
Reprinted by the permission of the author.)

Of course one must beware against stretching the concept too far into the
field of social inquiries.  Leaving aside the lokuttara (supramundane)
dimension of human problems, which is the transcendentally ultimate goal of
Buddhism as religion and which is at any rate beyond the reach both of
natural and social science researches, one can gain from its conceptual
approach very instructive insights into the nature and problems of human
relations.  For our purposes here, it is important to look more closely and
objectively into the actual forces and process of becoming and change.
Current modes of social studies have been focusing quite extensively and
intensively on technological, social and other environmental factors.  There
is also no lack of scientific endeavours in modern psycho-analysis to gain
increasing insight into man's inner world of experience.  But Buddhism gives
a sense of purpose adding to more understanding of the concept of progress
in human evolution.  Evolutionary theory stresses technological advances as
the key factor that increasingly frees mankind from the forces of nature.
And yet, it is the same technological knowledge and skills that, in the
course of development, can make or unmake the domination of man by man.
>From an evolutionary point of view, "Emancipation from the forces of nature
and emancipation from domination by privileged individuals and groups,
therefore, go hand in hand to mark human progress.  (Wertheim, op cit. pg
47.  See pp 35-48 for examination of the criteria of progress and the
emancipation principle.)

The emancipation principle is clearly in line with Buddhist thinking.  Only
that Buddhism goes further beyond the evolutionary theory by tracing to the
root causes of all human suffering and problems that are inherent in the
nature of life.  For, even more fundamental than the social restrictions,
life itself is subject to the physical vicissitudes of its own creation:
from birth, decay, disease and death,.  Buddhism sees the two aspects,
individual and social, constantly interwoven in the ongoing processes of
becoming and change, and sees, above all else, in man the true and ultimate
answer to the problems.  Genuine emancipation and freedom, in short, is that
which originates within man and is in relation with his fellow beings.  The
Buddha himself is definitely clear in his social purpose:

"Even as a mother, as long as she does live, watches over her child, her
only child, even so should one practice an all-embracing mind unto all beings.

"And let a man practice a boundless good-will for all the world, above,
below, across, in every way, good unhampered, without ill-feeling or
enmity."  (Metta Sutta from The Wisdom of Buddhism, op cit pg 90

On the Nature and Value of Man

The specific emphasis on man also tends to be mistaken for individualism
pure and simple -- and this leads to may a practice and behaviour contrary
to Buddhist norms of conduct even in self-styled Buddhist communities.  In
Buddhist terminology, as will be seen, man is never an end in himself.
Neither is man the measure of all things, but the one to be measured.  This
attitude is derived from a conception of man and ultimate reality that looks
to the nature and problems of human emancipation and freedom in a
fundamentally different light from the standpoint of natural law the school
of thought regarded as the historical and inspirational source of today's
ideal and practice of human rights.  (See Leah Levin, 'Human Rights:
Questions and Answers' from International Congress on the Teaching of Human
Rights, Vienna, Austria, 12-16 Sept. 19978, Unesco)

This not meant to pass judgment as to which is superior or inferior.  It is
certainly un-Buddhist to entertain such a vainglorious conviction.  One
feels, rightly or wrongly, even reluctant to speak of the one as Western and
of the other as Eastern.  In terms of human progress as described above,
Buddhism and the concept of natural law, although poles apart conceptually,
could be seen in their functionally positive relationship.  On the one hand,
the achievement and impact, both historical and intellectual, of the concept
of natural law cannot be underestimated.  Indeed, it has come such a long
way since its inception as the 17th-18th Century ideas opposing political
absolutism and arbitrary rule, and replacing divine right with common man as
the basis of political authority.  On the other hand, the concept of natural
law is concerned principally with the question of domination of man by man
which simply calls for the external and institutional guarantees and checks
and balances.  There can be no denying the enormous significance of the
natural law theory in this regard.  Witness the historic accomplishments
such as the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of
the Rights of Man and Citizen, and internationally, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights -- all drew inspiration from it.  Nonetheless,
all that the natural law concept implies could give only a partial answer,
that is, with respect to the external dimension of human emancipation and
freedom.  There still remains the other side of the question that has been
left unanswered.  For this, it is strongly believed, one may turn to
Buddhism for clarification.

Conceptions of man are not born in a vacuum, but, in a general scheme of
social and political thought, are drawn upon and related to concrete human
experiences and problems.  The notion of natural law is a case in point.  As
well represented by its prominent thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and
Rousseau, it is based on an assumption of perfect freedom and equality of
men in the state of nature.  This is summed up very well in Article I of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood."

Originally, it should be noted, these postulates were not quite as universal
as they sounded.  Actually, they tended to be circumstantially motivated.
For Hobbes, for example, with his extremely base view of human nature, man's
action and behaviour were solely prompted by fear and insecurity, so much so
that they would only try to destroy or subdue one another.  And this gave
rise to inordinate concern for law and order and a constant need for "a
common power to keep them all in awe."  (Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford
University Press, 1952, pg. 96)

Or for Locke, Father of Liberalism, freedom simply meant being free to do
what one liked; but then his liberal ideas seemed in the last analysis
preoccupied with the security and protection of property rights with the
rising of the middle class of his time.  (Locke, Two Treatises of Civil
Government, Dent and Son, London, 1953, pp 119, 129-141)

There is no need for further elaboration of this point as it would go beyond
the scope of this paper.  It is briefly pointed out here in order to
emphasize the detachment and universal character of the Buddhist way of
thinking.  The natural law notion may have something in common with Buddhism
in doing away with supra-natural beings and placing faith in man.  But that
is about all.  Rousseau seems to have come a little closer when he observed
that, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."  (Rousseau, "The
Social Contract", translated by Hopkins, Oxford U Press, 1948 p 240)

But then, according to Buddhist view, what really obstructs the attainment
of freedom is not so much the social and conventional "chains" or
restrictions, as one's own ego and the three poisons:  lust, hatred, and
delusion.  Thus, contrary to what is popularly assumed, man is indeed far
from being born free.  Not only is man born into the world of suffering and
the sorrows of birth, decay, disease, and death; he is also subject to
egoism which is part of mankind's kamma (law of causation) and deeply rooted
in the essential nature of man.  Neither are men born so equal in the
faculties of body and mind, as Hobbes would have us believe.  For men may or
may not be equally capable of learning and rising above their own respective
selves in order to be free.

Such is the universal reality of the human condition described as the Three
Characteristics of Existence or the Law of Change: anicca (impermanence),
dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) Life is by nature suffering because it
is hemmed in by all things that are transient.  Human existence itself is
not permanent, but only a composite of the five aggregates and therefore,

"Everything is non-self or anatta ... Everything is impermanent: body,
feeling, perceptions, dispositions, consciousness; all these are suffering.
They are all 'non-self.'  Nothing of them is substantial.  They are all
appearances empty of substantiality or reality.  There can be no
individuality without putting together components.  And this is always a
process of becoming: there can be no becoming without a becoming different,
there can be no becoming different without a dissolution, a passing away or
decay, which sooner or later will inevitably come about.  (Hajime Nakamura,
op cit. pg. 8.)

In the light of this universal truth about life, the concept of natural law
and natural rights seems to be concerned by and large with things within the
confines of, or, at best, not much beyond self; that is to say, life,
health, physical nad material interests.   These things, in terms of utility
value, are obviously not unimportant.  In this sense, there is in the main a
quantitative connotation with little, if any, qualitative consideration
attached to it.  It is not difficult to see the social and political dilemma
of this rather lopsided notion, as so well illustrated in the historical
development of laissez-faire brand of liberalism which succeeded only too
well, and still does, in bringing about increasing human exploitation and
domination even on a global scale.  It could be argued that that merely
represents an abused form of liberalism.  But the dilemma is already there
and, unfortunately, there seems to be no end to it.  Within Western
demcoracies themselves, cases of discrimination agains the minorities and
other disadvantaged people abound.  All these certainly demonstrate the dark
side of what has veen balued as "the comparative advantage of the liberal
West."  (Fouad Ajami, op. cit. p 5)  

So quite contrary to what was expected, human beings seem adctually far from
being endowed with "reason and conscience: and do not always act towards one
another in a spirit of brotherhood."  This phenomenon cannot simply be
dismissed as historical accident.  Nor is it to be granted as historical
inevitability as both Capitalism and Marxism would happily embrace.  It all
depends on how and dto what end human intelligence and "reason" is to be
directed.  The truth is that the notion of freedom and human rihts thus far
comes to nothign much more than serving what, by Buddhist defintion, is
exactly the freedom and right to the craving and scrambling for things
trnsient and illusory.  In consequence, self-styled rights and freeom could
only be directed by an acquisitive and possessive instinct and hence
misguided reason for the mere purpose of self preservation (Rousseau), or
doing what with and disposing of one's possession as one likes (Locke), or
coming to the worst, destroying or subduing one another (Hobbes)./

Buddhism is neither fatalistic nor negative about life.  Far from it.  The
Buddha's Dhama is full of moral and intellectual vitality.  It does not
content itself simply with the "nature" of man as it appears to be, but
searches for the intrinsic value of man free from self and tanha (ignorant
craving).  Adn this is the cruz of the matter.  Buddhism does not entirely
deny the significance of the self.  Only that, "the self cannot be
identified with anything existing in the outside.  We cannot grasp the self
as something concrete or existing in the outer world.  The self can be
realized only when we act according to unviersla norma of human existence.
When we act morally, the true self becomes manifest.  (Hajime Nakamura, op
cit. pg 11)

Without going further into an elaborate discussion on the theory of non-self
or anatta which is quite beyond the grasp of the man in the street including
this writer, suffice it to stress at this point the value and meaning of
knowledge as the principle of problem solving.  Buddhism is in no sense a
philsophy of despair or nihilism, with its never-ceaseing faith in man's
aptitude for goodness and compassion.  Virtue is knowledge wherein lies the
Oath to the true self and value of man: that is to say, knoweldge or
awakening as to the truth of non-self or transitoriness of everything
including life itself.  Self-awakening is the first and foremost step that
paves the way for a man to depart fromt he self or ego.  Only in this way
can a aman live a free life, i.e., life of knowledge and wisdom, without
being subject to tanha and delusion.  Only in this way can a man learn to
gain pure and objective reason as against egoistic one.  (Phra
Srivisudhimolee, op. cit. pp 24-25)

"Comprehending thus, the aryan disciple turns away from the body, from the
sensations, from perceptions, from the mental tendencies and conditions,
from consciousness.  Being thus detached, he is free from desire-attachment,
thus is he liberated, and he experiences the freedom of liberation...  (The
Wisdom of Buddhism, op .cit. p 78)

And finally, only in this way can individual rights and liberties be
channeled into a truly positive and creative direction leading towards human
liberation, progress, justice, and peace.

On Individuality, Freedom, and Common Interest

In dealing with the question of the self and knowledge, the Buddha, unlike
Plato, does not conceive of it in terms of division into a superior part and
an inferior one, whereby for a man to be his own master, the one must come
under control of the other.  The distinction is not just a matter of
semantics, but a most significant one in regard to the question of the value
and place of the individual in society.  Plato of course uses the nature and
problems of the individual as an analogy and model in search of a just or
ideal state.  But his postulate on human nature raises a number of basic
issues that seem relevant to the subject matter under discussion.  In
particular, Plato had this to say which is worth citing at length here:

"...within the man himself, in the soul, there is a better part and a worse;
that he is his own master when the part which is better by nature has the
worse under its control.  It is considered a disgrace, when, through bad
breeding or bad company, the better part is overwhelmed by the worse, like a
small force outnumbered by a multitude.  A man in that condition is called a
slave to himself and intemperate."

and further on,

"It is also true that the great mass of multifarious appetites and pleasures
and pains will be found to occur chiefly in children and women and slaves,
and, among freemen so-called, in the inferior multitude; whereas the simple
and moderate desires which, with the aid of reason and right belief, are
guided by reflection, you will find only in a few, and those with the inborn
dispositions and the best educated.

"Do you see that this state of things will exist in your commonwealth, where
the desires of the inferior multitude will be controlled by the desires and
wisdom of the superior few?  Hence if any society can be called master of
itself and in control of pleasures and desires it will be ours."  (Plato,
The Republic, trans. Conford, Oxford U. Press, 1951, pp 121-122)

The statement indeed has quite a familiar ring and its authoritarian flavour
has been too well echoed in all ages of human history.  Thus far we have
been concerned with the flaws and shortcomings of liberalism as derived from
the concept of natural law and natural rights which, admirable as it is, has
culminated in unbridled individualism which, in turn, goes on and on
magnifying and enlarging the areas and scale for the loss of human freedom
with no clear solution in sight.  The line of approach such as Plato's
presents quite a different sort of problem.  On the face of it, it
represents an attitude of mind and long-time prejudice which can hardly
stand the test of reason, although its influence still remains strong and
cannot be underestimated.  On more subtle ground, the superior-inferior
thesis can also claim to serve as the champion of freedom.  Only that it is
the case of losing one's freedom in exchange for a "new" one or for a
"final" destination in a distant future.  It is a matter of "natural" or
"historical" necessity of submitting oneself to one's superior group "who
know better", in order to be one's own master.  Or, in Rousseau's language,
it is a matter of necessity for one "to be forced to be free".  All in the
name of "reason and right belief".  The trouble we are facing today, and may
be far into the future, is that this very superior-inferior complex has long
become the habit of mind for both the "superior few" and the "inferior
multitude", and, curiously enough, among both reactionaries and
revolutionaries alike.  By Buddhist definition, however, this is precisely
part of individual and social restrictions and thus suffering of which man
is to rid himself.

Be that as it may, this superior-inferior postulate raises the question of
ends and means which has significant implications regarding the individual
value as well as the meaning of freedom.  In contrast with Plato's and
Rousseau's conceptions, Buddhism puts great and unqualified faith in man's
perfectibility with no distinction as to class, race and sex.  Buddhism, as
well, values the virtue of temperance and moderation -- the Middle Way as is
well known --, but definitely does not conceive of it in terms of one part
of the self (soul, ego) mastering or controlling another.  It aims
fundamentally at the cessation of suffering and departing entirely from the
self which is in the last analysis only transient and therefore unreal.  And
of more importance still, the deliverance from the self to the true self can
be accomplished and achieved solely through the individual's own endeavour
and kamma, which needs no external command or control, or, for that matter,
Plato's Philosophic Rulers or Rousseau's General Will as against the
individual's will.  At best, a man may simply need, if ever need be,
intellectual guidance, the Path which then serves no more than as a way to
find his own spiritual development (HD Lewis and RL Slater, Op. Cit and
Ruth-Inge Heinze, The Role of the Sangha in Modern Thailand, Taipei, 1977 pp

Dogma in any form is anathema to Buddhism.  Even the Buddha's own teaching
is not to be taken at face value, but must be probed with one's own effort
in the light of reason.  This is made clear in his address to the Kalamas:

"Now look you, Kalamas, Do not be misled by report or tradition or hearsay.
Do not be misled by proficiency in the Collections of Scriptures, nor by
mere logic and inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after
reflection on some view and approval of it, nor because it fits becoming,
nor because the recluse (who holds it) is your teacher.  But when you know
for yourselves: These things are censured by the intelligent, these things,
when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow -- then do you
reject them (The Wisdom of Buddhism op. cit. p 71)

In short, the principle of relying on oneself is the essence of each
individual's virtues, as the Buddha emphatically asserts in his last sermon:

"I have taught the Dhamma without making any distinction between exoteric
and esoteric doctrine; for in respect of the norm, Ananda, the Tathagata has
no such thing as the closed fist of those teachers who hold back certain

"Be islands unto yourselves, Ananda: Be a refuge to yourselves; do not take
to yourselves any other refuge.  See Truth as an island, See Truth as a
refuge, Do not seek refuge in anyone but yourselves.

"...Work out your own salvation, with diligence."  (Mahaparinibbana Sutta,
ibid.  pp. 93-94)

In the Buddhist view, then, the individual is not merely a means.  One can
sense a subtle meaning of equality here.  Although men may not be born
"free", they are equal in dignity and rights, that is to say, dignity and
rights to their own salvation or freedom.  Only in this perspective, can one
make full sense out of the first paragraph of the Preamble of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which says:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and
inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of
freedom, justice and peace of the world."

to be continued....