Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
Section three of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”
As well as the adoption of the UDHR, the year 1948 also saw the start of the policies of racial segregation in South Africa known as apartheid. Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), who subsequently became South Africa’s president, transmuted his feelings of rage and grief at the injustice and discrimination he faced into the struggle to dismantle apartheid. I first had the pleasure of meeting President Mandela in October 1990, eight months after his release from prison.
In his autobiography, he describes his motivation for committing himself to the struggle for freedom in his youth:
“A steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
Despite the brutal treatment he endured in prison, President Mandela’s heart never became engulfed in hate because even in the most harrowing of times he would hold on to the “glimmer of humanity” he saw in the guards and use it to keep himself going.
President Mandela, who sensed that not all whites harbored hatred for blacks, made the effort to learn Afrikaans—the language spoken by the prison guards—and was able to soften their hearts by addressing them in their native tongue. Even the despotic prison warden showed some degree of warmth toward him for the first time as he was taking leave of his post. Through this unexpected experience, President Mandela understood that the prison warden’s continued cruelty was rooted in the fact that “his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system.”
During his twenty-seven years—some ten thousand days—of imprisonment, President Mandela cultivated an abiding conviction that “man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” Following his release, as the nation’s president, he took action to protect the lives and dignity of all people, black and white alike.
One time, when anger against whites in the black community was fueled by another massacre of black people by a group of whites, President Mandela did not rely simply on hackneyed phrases to appeal for harmony. In the middle of a campaign speech, he suddenly called out to a white woman who was standing toward the back of the audience and asked her to come to the stage. Smiling, he introduced her to the crowd as the person who had nursed him back to health when he fell ill in prison.
It is not the difference of race that constitutes the problem. Rather, the problem is what lies within the human heart. The mood of the crowd changed as they saw this message unfold before them, and the impulse for revenge subsided. President Mandela’s actions in that moment seem to reveal that he knew too well, painfully so, how the chains of an inhuman system could rob one of their humanity.
related article A Culture of Human Rights Woven of Shared Joy Ties that form a culture of human rights are woven through a way of life where we experience joy in seeing one another’s dignity radiate its full potential. One of Dr. King’s goals was not simply to establish rights for black people but to create a “beloved community” where all could rediscover their shared humanity. The Buddhism upheld by the members of the SGI portrays the example of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, whose persistent practice resonates with the conviction that the flame of human goodness can be hidden but is never extinguished. Bodhisattva Never Disparaging appears in the Lotus Sutra, which encapsulates the essence of Shakyamuni’s teachings. True to his vow to never look down on others no matter how much they despised him, this bodhisattva bowed in reverence to each person he met. Even when slandered or mistreated, he refused to abandon his practice of offering them the following words: “You can absolutely attain Buddhahood.”
To the very end, despite the cruel treatment he endured in prison, President Mandela did not let his trust in people’s humanity wane. Similarly, Bodhisattva Never Disparaging continued to believe in the incomparable dignity inherent within the other, regardless of their disdain for him.
Nichiren (1222–82), who propagated Buddhism in thirteenth-century Japan based on the Lotus Sutra’s teaching of the dignity of all people, explains that the spirit of this sutra is encapsulated in the actions of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. He writes:
“What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.”
Indeed, Shakyamuni’s actions to light a flame of hope in the hearts of people were not the result of some transcendent capacity on his part, but stemmed from a very human desire to alleviate in some way the suffering of those he encountered.
On one occasion, unable to ignore the plight of a disciple who was bedridden with illness, Shakyamuni proceeded to wash the man and offer encouragement, even as others stood by. When a blind disciple trying to mend the seam of his robe muttered, “Is there no one who will thread this needle for me?” it was Shakyamuni who approached him to lend a helping hand. Later, even amidst his grief at the death of his two most trusted disciples, Shakyamuni pressed ahead, encouraging himself to keep going. And after turning eighty, while accepting the fact of his physical limitations, he continued to expound his teachings for the sake of others to the very last moment of his life.
To go to the side of those sunk in the depths of despair, to bring the sun to rise in one’s heart in the midst of painful circumstances and to continue to encourage and embolden others—this all too human behavior of Shakyamuni is the font from which the vital flow of the Lotus Sutra’s philosophy of life’s inherent dignity arises and continues to this day.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is referred to as an ordinary being worthy of the highest respect. As such, a Buddha is in no way estranged from humanity. Bodhisattva Never Disparaging exemplifies the Lotus Sutra’s core teaching—that it is through our human efforts to awaken to and savor our own dignity as we cherish and care for those around us that our lives come to shine with the sublime light of Buddhahood.
Nichiren described this transformative power of life as follows: “We thus become the father and mother of this [Buddha of] perfect enlightenment, and the Buddha is the child that we give birth to.” Every person who takes action for the sake of others even while carrying the burden of personal hardship manifests their original essence and mission to illuminate society with the light of dignity.
The same can be said of human rights. They are not granted to us by laws or treaties; the imperative to protect the freedom and dignity of all people arises from the fact that each of us is inherently precious and irreplaceable.
As exemplified by the lives of Dr. Humphrey and President Mandela, the individuals who have succeeded in breathing life into human rights legislation are those who, while subjected to discrimination and human rights violations themselves, refused to allow others to suffer what they had endured as they worked to break down harsh social barriers one by one.