Buddhism and Democracy

Washington, D.C., April 1993
 
1. For thousands of years people have been led to believe that only an authoritarian organization employing rigid disciplinary methods could govern human society. However, because people have an innate desire for freedom, the forces of liberty and oppression have been in continuous conflict throughout history. Today, it is clear which is winning. The emergence of peoples' power movements, overthrowing dictatorships of left and right, has shown indisputably that the human race can neither tolerate nor function properly under tyranny.

2. Although none of our Buddhist societies developed anything like democracy in their systems of government, I personally have great admiration for secular democracy. When Tibet was still free, we cultivated our natural isolation, mistakenly thinking that we could prolong our peace and security that way. Consequently, we paid little attention to the changes taking place in the world outside. We hardly noticed when India, one of our closest neighbours, having peacefully won her independence, became the largest democracy in the world. Later, we learned the hard way that in the international arena, as well as at home, freedom is something to be shared and enjoyed in the company of others, not kept to yourself.
 
3. Although the Tibetans outside Tibet have been reduced to the status of refugees, we have the freedom to exercise our rights. Our brothers and sisters in Tibet, despite being in their own country do not even have the right to life. Therefore, those of us in exile have had a responsibility to contemplate and plan for a future Tibet. Over the years, therefore, we have tried through various means to achieve a model of true democracy. The familiarity of all Tibetan exiles with the word 'democracy' shows this.
 
4. I have long looked forward to the time when we could devise a political system, suited both to our traditions and to the demands of the modern world. A democracy that has nonviolence and peace at its roots. We have recently embarked on changes that will further democratize and strengthen our administration in exile. For many reasons, I have decided that I will not be the head of, or play any role in the government when Tibet becomes independent. The future head of the Tibetan Government must be someone popularly elected by the people. There are many advantages to such a step and it will enable us to become a true and complete democracy. I hope that these moves will allow the people of Tibet to have a clear say in determining the future of their country.
 
5. Our democratization has reached out to Tibetans all over the world. I believe that future generations will consider these changes among the most important achievements of our experience in exile. Just as the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet cemented our nation, I am confident that the democratization of our society will add to the vitality of the Tibetan people and enable our decision-making institutions to reflect their heartfelt needs and aspirations.
 
6. The idea that people can live together freely as individuals, equal in principle and therefore responsible for each other, essentially agrees with the Buddhist disposition. As Buddhists, we Tibetans revere human life as the most precious gift and regard the Buddha's philosophy and teaching as a path to the highest kind of freedom. A goal to be attained by men and women alike.
 
7. The Buddha saw that life's very purpose is happiness. He also saw that while ignorance binds beings in endless frustration and suffering, wisdom is liberating. Modern democracy is based on the principle that all human beings are essentially equal, that each of us has an equal right to life, liberty, and happiness. Buddhism too recognises that human beings are entitled to dignity, that all members of the human family have an equal and inalienable right to liberty, not just in terms of political freedom, but also at the fundamental level of freedom from fear and want. Irrespective of whether we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, to one religion or another, adhering to this ideology or that, each of us is just a human being like everyone else. Not only do we all desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering, but each
of us has an equal right to pursue these goals.
 
8. The institution the Buddha established was the Sangha or monastic community, which functioned on largely democratic lines. Within this fraternity, individuals were equal, whatever their social class or caste origins. The only slight difference in status depended on seniority of ordination. Individual freedom, exemplified by liberation or enlightenment, was the primary focus of the entire community and was achieved by cultivating the mind in meditation. Nevertheless, day to day relations were conducted on the basis of generosity, consideration, and gentleness towards others.  By pursuing the homeless life, monks detached themselves from the concerns of property. However, they did not live in total isolation. Their custom of begging for alms only served to strengthen their awareness of their dependence on other people. Within the community decisions were taken by vote and differences were settled by consensus. Thus, the Sangha served as a model for social equality, sharing of resources and democratic process.
 
9. Buddhism is essentially a practical doctrine. In addressing the fundamental problem of human suffering, it does not insist on a single solution. Recognising that human beings differ widely in their needs, dispositions and abilities, it acknowledges that the paths to peace and happiness are many. As a spiritual community its cohesion has sprung from a unifying sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. Without any apparent centralized  authority Buddhism has endured for more than two thousand five hundred years. It has flourished in a diversity of forms, while repeatedly renewing, through study and practice, its roots in the teachings of the Buddha. This kind of pluralistic approach, in which individuals themselves are responsible, is very much in accord with a democratic outlook.
 
10. We all desire freedom, but what distinguishes human beings is their intelligence. As free human beings we can use our unique intelligence to try to understand ourselves and our world. The Buddha made it clear that his followers were not to take even what he said at face value, but were to examine and test it as a goldsmith tests the quality of gold. But if we are prevented from using our discrimination and creativity, we lose one of the basic characteristics of a human being. Therefore, the political, social and cultural freedom that democracy entails is of immense value and importance.
 
11. No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature. It is also the only stable foundation upon which a just and free global political structure can be built. So it is in all our interests that those of us who already enjoy democracy should actively support everybody's right to do so.
 
12. Although communism espoused many noble ideals, including altruism, the attempt by its governing elites to dictate their views proved disastrous. These governments went to tremendous lengths to control their societies and to induce their citizens to work for the common good. Rigid organisation may have been necessary at first to overcome previously oppressive regimes. Once that goal was fulfilled, however, such rigidity had very little to contribute to building a truly cooperative society. Communism failed utterly because it relied on force to promote its beliefs. Ultimately, human nature was unable to sustain the suffering it produced.
 
13. Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom. The hundreds of thousands of people who marched in the cities of Eastern Europe proved this. They simply expressed the human need for freedom and democracy. Their demands had nothing to do with some new ideology; they were simply expressing their heartfelt desire for freedom. It is not enough, as communist systems have assumed, merely to provide people with food, shelter and clothing. Our deeper nature requires that we breathe the precious air of liberty.
 
14. The peaceful revolutions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have taught us many great lessons. One is the value of truth. People do not like to be bullied, cheated or lied to by either an individual or a system. Such acts are contrary to the essential human spirit. Therefore, those who practice deception and use force may achieve considerable short-term success, but eventually they will be overthrown.
 
15. Truth is the best guarantor and the real foundation of freedom and democracy. It does not matter whether you are weak or strong or whether your cause has many or few adherents, truth will still prevail. Recently, many successful freedom movements have been based on the true expression of people's most basic feelings. This is a valuable reminder that truth itself is still seriously lacking in much of our political life. Especially in the conduct of international relations we pay very little respect to truth. Inevitably, weaker nations are manipulated and oppressed by stronger ones, just as the weaker sections of most societies suffer at the hands of the more affluent and powerful. In the past, the simple expression of truth has usually been dismissed as unrealistic, but these last few years have proved that it is an immense force in the human mind, and, as a result, in the shaping of history.
 
16. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, we find that the world has grown smaller and the world's people have become almost one community. We are also being drawn together by the grave problems we face: overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, and an environmental crisis that threaten the very foundation of existence on this small planet we share. I believe that to meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for his or her own self, family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the real key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace, the equitable use of natural resources, and the proper care of the environment.
 
17. This urgent need for cooperation can only strengthen mankind, because it helps us recognize that the most secure foundation for the new world order is not simply broader political and economic alliances, but each individual's genuine practice of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and our need for them lies at the very core of our being. The practice of compassion is not just a symptom of unrealistic idealism, but the most effective way to pursue the best interests of others as well our own. The more we - as nations or as individuals - depend upon others, the more it is in our own best interests to ensure their well-being.
 
18. Despite the rapid advances made by civilization in this century, I believe that the most immediate cause of our present dilemma is our undue emphasis solely on material development. We have become so engrossed in its pursuit that, without even knowing it, we have neglected to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness, cooperation and caring. If we do not know someone or do not feel connected to a particular individual or group, we simply overlook their needs. And yet the development of human society is based entirely on people helping each other. Once we have lost the essential humanity that is our foundation, what is the point of pursuing only material improvement?
 
19. In the present circumstances, no one can afford to assume that someone else will solve our problems. Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction and we must each assume that responsibility. What we have to aim at is the common cause of our society. If society as a whole is well off, every individual or association within it will naturally gain from it. They will naturally be happy. However, if society as a whole collapses, then where can we turn to fight for and demand our rights?
 
20. I, for one, truly believe that individuals can make a difference in society. As a Buddhist monk, I try to develop compassion myself - not just from a religious point of view, but from a humanitarian one as well. To encourage myself in this altruistic attitude, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine myself, a single individual, on one side and on the other a huge gathering of all other human beings. Then I ask myself, 'Whose interests are more important?' To me it is then quite clear that, however important I may feel, I am only one, while others form the majority.
 
 

 

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