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The Bodhisattva Ideal and Human Rights Culture

 

Excerpted from the 1998 peace proposal "Humanity and the New Millennium: From Chaos to Cosmos."

Part 1

Bodhisattva

What then is this concept of the bodhisattva, which has attracted the attention of such distinguished thinkers? The bodhisattva, in short, exemplifies the state of compassion, or altruistic life, and a person in this state aspires to help all people gain happiness, seeking, in Nichiren's words, "to attain enlightenment only after having first saved others from suffering."

The qualities that make a bodhisattva can be described from various perspectives, but here I would mention one that is of particular relevance to human rights. The bodhisattva undertakes a vow to save others and bases all action upon this vow, which is a spontaneous and unforced expression of altruism. Nor is the vow a mere expression of determination or desire, but a defining commitment to whose realization the bodhisattva devotes her or his entire being.

The bodhisattva refuses to be dissuaded or discouraged by the difficulties posed by this challenge. The Lotus Sutra speaks of the pure white lotus rising from the waters of a muddy pond. This analogy illustrates the attainment of a pure and empowered state of life in the midst of the sometimes degrading realities of human society. In this way, the bodhisattva never tries to escape from reality, never leaves suffering people unsaved and plunges into the turbulent waters of life in the effort to help each person who is drowning in suffering onto the great vessel of happiness.

Another Buddhist scripture describes the vow of Shrimala, the daughter of King Prasenajit and a contemporary of Shakyamuni Buddha:

"If I see lonely people, people who have been jailed unjustly and have lost their freedom, people who are suffering from illness, disaster or poverty, I will not abandon them. I will bring them spiritual and material comfort."

True to her vow, Shrimala worked throughout her life for the benefit of others, striving always to bring forth the inner goodness that exists in all people.

My point in introducing the concept of the bodhisattva is this: Human rights will only become truly universal and indivisible when they span the most basic, existential division--that of self and other. And this can only occur when both the right to and duty of humane treatment are observed, not in response to externally imposed norms, but through spontaneous action stemming from the naturally powerful desire to assist our fellows whose ability to live in a humane manner is under threat.

In this regard, I would like to introduce the words of Upendra Baxi, an Indian law scholar, in his lecture "Human Rights Education: The Promise of the Third Millennium?":

"The single most critical source of human rights is the consciousness of those peoples of the world who have waged the most persistent struggles for decolonization and self-determination, against racial discrimination, gender-based aggression and discrimination, denial of access to basic minimum needs, environmental degradation and destruction, and systematic "benign neglect" of the disarticulated, disadvantaged and dispossessed (including the indigenous peoples of the Earth)."

The similarity of the concerns expressed in this remark and Shrimala's bodhisattva vow is striking indeed.

Buddhism stresses the quality of our motivation, valuing that which issues spontaneously from within, as expressed in the simple phrase, "Our heart is what matters most." It teaches that the ultimate objective of Shakyamuni's life was revealed in the humanity he manifested in his behavior and actions. Thus the cultivation and perfection of a person's character is considered in the Buddhist tradition to be the true goal of religious training. Norms that are not inner-generated and do not encourage the development of individual character are ultimately weak and ineffective. Only when external norms and inner values function in a mutually supportive manner can they enable people to resist evil and live as genuine advocates and champions of human rights.

In the 1940s, at the height of Japanese militarism, Soka Gakkai founding president [Tsunesaburo] Makiguchi declared, "Rejecting evil and embracing good are two actions born of the same impulse." He also said, "Only a person courageous enough to fight against evil can be a true friend of the good," and, "It is not enough to indulge passively in goodness; we must have the moral courage actively to pursue good." In this way Makiguchi launched a critique of the militarist regime which trampled human rights as it carried out its wars of invasion. In the face of constant persecution, he never yielded an inch, holding firm to his beliefs up to the moment of his death in prison. I derive profound personal inspiration from the struggles that culminated in his martyrdom; I feel that it is here that we can find the spiritual wellsprings of the SGI's current activities to promote human rights.

[In 1975,] I appealed to the members of the newly-formed SGI, saying, "Let us not seek praise or glory for ourselves, but instead dedicate our lives to sowing the seeds of the Mystic Law for peace everywhere in the world." Just as unhappiness is not something only others suffer, neither can happiness be for ourselves only. In this sense, my appeal was a cry from the depths of my heart that we should live the bodhisattva way of life: overcoming the ego, developing an extended, more inclusive sense of self--seeing ourselves in others and feeling others to be part of ourselves.

As responsible citizens of their respective societies, the members of the SGI are working to advance a movement for peace, culture, and education. In the immediate context of their daily lives, they act with the bodhisattva spirit, refusing to ignore or abandon those who suffer. They initiate and carry out countless acts for the benefit of others, striving to encourage this person, to relieve the anguish of that person, and to help those around them. I am proud of them and believe theirs are the kind of quiet, grassroots endeavors that will certainly help to create the human rights culture that our times demand.

 

Part 2

It is my belief that if we can foster, in the depths of each individual human life, the kind of active, independent basis for altruistic behavior exemplified in the bodhisattva's vow, we can establish the fundamental basis for an ethic of responsibility and commitment, upon which a genuine culture of human rights can flourish. This is because the inner motivation that spurs people to act in the face of threats to human dignity is the most crucial supporting and sustaining force for human rights.

As was evident in the sharp division of views at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the issue of the universality of human rights is not fully resolved and requires careful and sensitive treatment. As I have tried to describe through my discussion of the bodhisattva ideal, I believe that when people spontaneously undertake to live by those norms which they find most desirable, and to the extent to which they bring their actual behavior in line with those norms, human rights can transcend the limitations of an externally imposed regime and, as internalized values, become a force for the transformation of reality.

In that sense, it is vitally important that dialogue be undertaken to promote a new synthesis between the views of those who argue for the universality of rights and those who consider them embedded in cultural relativism. It is only through such dialogue that a genuinely universal understanding of human rights can be reached and the conditions created by which human rights can be implemented equally and without distinction among all the Earth's inhabitants.

We must never lose sight of the fact that a third millennium imbued with respect for the sanctity of life, free from nuclear arms and war, and rich with the rainbow hues of diversity, will only come into being through the efforts of empowered and responsible citizens who don't wait for someone else to take the initiative. As the ominous clouds of World War II were drawing low, Czech novelist Karel Capek (1890-1938) severely condemned the phrases "someone should" and "things are not so simple" as illustrative of the spiritual poverty that passively accepts the status quo.

He appealed to people:

"When someone is drowning, it is not enough to stand aside and express the reasonable opinion that 'Someone should jump in and save him.' History needs those who act rather than those who only say what someone else should do. We could say that almost all the useful or important things that have happened in the last thousand years were not exactly simple. If people were to convince themselves that nothing can be done only because 'things are not simple,' the world would not have much of what is called human endeavor."

We should heed this admonition as bearing directly on our own responsibility. What is needed most now is the courage to confront the realities that face us, and concrete actions to transform them.

We have a shared responsibility to advance step-by-step amidst these crushing realities. It is only through such an effort that we can prevent any repetition of the nightmarish tragedies that have marred the twentieth century and pass on the fruits of human endeavor to future generations.

Let us arise and act now, firm in the conviction that we are the world citizens who can shape and author future history. Let us embrace the kind of profound optimism that no fear or difficulty can conquer. The members of the SGI are committed to a movement, inspired by the principles of Buddhism, that promotes the values of peace, culture and education. Through these efforts we will continue the work of forging a broad-based network of solidarity among people of goodwill throughout the world.

--SGI President Daisaku Ikeda

Excerpted from Ikeda's annual peace proposal dated January 26, 1998

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