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Buddhist Solutions for the Twenty-First Century
P. A. Payutto
translated and compiled by Bruce Evans


The Making of Democracy

When they think of democracy, most people think of its forms and its physical structure, such as the senate, the house of representatives, the courts, and the powers of legislation, administration, and arbitration, but little thought is given to the truly indispensable part of democracy, which is its heart. The heart of democracy, its real substance, is an abstract condition. Without this substance, the structure is meaningless. To obtain democracy, we must look deeply into its substance or heart, not simply its structures.

    Structures do have their place: water without a glass or cup is very difficult to drink. Structures must also be appropriate to their intended purpose: a vessel for holding water must be properly designed: those that leak or are pervious are obviously unsatisfactory, as are those that are too big or too small; a very thin vessel with a very small base will easily fall over, while a very short vessel with a very wide aperture will be difficult to hold and the water will easily spill. We must choose structures that fit our objective in the best possible way.

    This is the importance of structures. On the other hand, structures without substance serve no purpose: we may feel very pleased with ourselves at having a glass, but without water to put in it, the glass is meaningless. The substance and the structure must exist together; either one without the other will not be truly effective. However, what we really want is the substance, not the structure. The structure's only meaning is in its capacity to contain or support the substance.

    It is the same for democracy. There must be a structure, but there must also be substance. More important than the structures of democracy is whether we can ensure that those structures will really support democracy's heart, and not become empty, polluted or false. True democracy cannot be obtained by copying a set of structures.

    We do not pay enough attention to the substance of democracy and the kind of structures that are most fitted to it -- some countries simply copy entire structures from other countries, and then use them in dishonest ways, or use them incorrectly or inefficiently, or use them for the wrong objectives. We could use a water glass for drinking alcohol, or for splashing mud onto other people, or simply for putting on display, or we could indeed use it to drink water from, but not look after it, letting it become dirty and scratched.

    Even in choosing a suitable structure for such a trifling item as a drinking glass, there are many factors to consider. How much more circumspect must we be to devise suitable structures for democracy?


Defining democracy

In olden times countries were usually governed by monarchies, in which the King had absolute power. In such a structure, the assumption is that the greater mass of people are not capable of governing themselves, they need the guidance of one who is more gifted or capable. In more recent times we have come to feel that people are more educated and possess sufficient knowledge and understanding to govern themselves, to think rationally and make decisions for themselves, to discern between right and wrong and to act accordingly. When people govern their own country like this, it is called "democracy."

    Any people who are to govern their country must first know how to govern themselves. If the individual members of society are incapable of governing themselves, they will be incapable of governing each other or governing the country. Therefore, to further clarify our definition of democracy, we should say, "Democracy is government by a population of people who know how to govern themselves." When individual persons know how to govern themselves, they will then be able to help in the government of the country.



Liberty is first and foremost the absence of stricture or limitation. According to this definition, most people would interpret liberty as the freedom to do what they please. But consider: will people with such an understanding be capable of governing themselves? It seems very unlikely. They will most likely experience only failure in life. If they wanted to sleep rather than study or go to work, they would go to sleep. We may have traffic laws, but if nobody takes any notice of them, the roads will be in chaos. Those who see liberty as the freedom to do what they please will not be able to govern themselves.

    No country, even the freest, will allow people to do everything they please. Liberty, then, must mean the freedom to create or act constructively, but not to destroy. As an example, we are free to search for knowledge, but there are restrictions on the amount of alcohol we can consume, and the times and places we can consume it, and while we are free to earn money, there are restrictions on how we can earn it.

    So now we have developed a definition for the word "liberty," one which is often quoted -- "the right to act or speak so long as it does not violate the rights of others." That is, one is free to speak or act conditionally, or under the limitations and restrictions of the law. This is, in other words, conditional liberty.

    Some people would understand conditional liberty as the freedom to do as one pleases, but in a limited way. Where there are conditions, there are restrictions. As long as there are restrictions, there can be no true liberty, and such an understanding falls short of the full meaning of liberty.

    The word liberty can be looked at on many different levels. Let us now look at it in the light of the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha's teaching is said to be the teaching of a liberated one, one who has attained true liberty. A person who attains the highest goal according to Buddhism is one who realizes the truth, and is completely and truly free. While it is possible to be partially free, as long as the truth has not been fully realized, there can be no true or absolute freedom.

    On the lowest level, liberty is understood as the freedom to do what one pleases. A little higher than that is the freedom to do what one pleases within limitations -- conditional liberty. Higher than that, and more in keeping with the Buddha's teachings, is the definition of liberty as a balance or harmony. That is, there is the perception that we have liberty, but our liberty is related to the liberty of other beings. This is very similar to conditional liberty, but it is more a product of wisdom and understanding than external coercion, and it does not lead to such a feeling of oppression. Wisdom is an important factor for the realization and maintenance of true liberty.

    Personal liberty is related to the liberty of others. Our own liberty must not infringe on or harm the liberties of others. If we are endowed with reflexive awareness, we will naturally avoid infringing on the rights of others, and will be able to appreciate and respect them.

    Another meaning of liberty is the readiness to give others a chance. This kind of attitude is essential in a democracy. Without this readiness to give others a chance, liberty is a very selfish thing, something that is good for oneself but not for others. Personal liberty and the liberties of others must be coexistent, there must be balance. When liberty is coupled with the readiness to give space to others, there is balance. In other words, personal liberty which is countered by the equal liberty of others leads to balance or harmony. It is liberty that is limited by equality, which is one kind of balance, and is a characteristic of the Buddhist Middle Way. Some Western scholars call the state where freedom is balanced by equality the midway point, the meeting ground of democracy.

    Those who perceive liberty as the freedom to do what they please will find it impossible to find the liberty they desire, no matter where they go. Their attempts to find it will fail -- either they will have to compromise their desires or society will collapse and anarchy prevail. Even in the most liberal societies, which pride themselves on their freedom, liberty must be constrained by restrictions, such as social regulations, laws, public consent and tradition. In America, for instance, which is considered a very free country, there are a great many restrictions and regulations. The people also relate to each other in ways which are mutually restrictive. For instance, you may want to extend your house, connect water pipes or install more electrical wiring, or you may want to let your garden go to ruin -- it is your house, after all. But if your actions did not conform with the laws or the tacit social agreements, and caused trouble for others, you would probably be sued. Someone who could not adjust to this way of doing things would feel very oppressed living in America.

    While liberty in this sense is more advanced, it is still not perfect, so now let us look at some of the more profound levels of liberty.


Democracy as full realization of human potential

There are two ways in which liberty can be seen: one is freedom to acquire, and the other is as freedom to give. The freedom to acquire is readily understood and often referred to, but freedom in terms of giving is rarely considered.

    Let us first look at liberty as freedom to acquire. Such liberty is the right to acquire the benefits that are one's proper due under the democratic system, to which all people should have equal access. If only one group of people has access to this benefit, while others do not, then it can be said that the people in general do not have liberty. This kind of liberty is called "freedom to acquire."

    Giving should also be free. The free opportunity to give is a very important right. It is the heart of the causal side of democracy, unlike the freedom to acquire, which is the resultant side. Before there can be a result there must be a cause. Without liberty to give, liberty to receive will be unrealistic.

    The democratic system is the system of government which seeks to provide maximum opportunity for people to express their social potential. Liberty here, then, is the ability to contribute personal potential to overall social growth. Everybody has their potential and abilities, but they cannot be expressed without freedom. Without liberty, people cannot voice their views or make use of their intelligence. Society in turn derives no benefit from their potential. Undemocratic governments tend to close off or limit opportunities for people to use their potential, and so they do not make the most of their human resources. In a democracy, people's abilities and intelligence are allowed to participate freely in social development, and this is one of the strengths of the democratic system. It is one of democracy's "causal factors." If people seek only what they believe are their rights, while neglecting this causal factor, democracy will not work.

    We must take careful note of these causal factors in democracy. How can we maximize opportunities for people to express their full potential? This is where the liberty to give comes in. It is a kind of liberty which is often overlooked. A well-developed democratic government will try to provide opportunities for its people to fully utilize their potentialities, each according to his or her abilities, as a factor in social development. When people are provided such an opportunity, they will tend to think in terms of how they can contribute to the constructive growth of society. Any democracy which provides such an opportunity can be expected to prosper.

    When we speak of liberty, we tend to either look on it as the freedom to indulge our desires, or the freedom to acquire our rights. Rarely do we think of the causal factors in democracy. Some people even look at participation in terms of what they stand to gain out of it -- their rights to obtain an equal share of the benefits like everybody else. If everybody thought like this, democracy would not succeed. The word "participation" refers to collective constructive effort; putting one's share, one's abilities, into the collective effort to create benefit in society. The emphasis is on giving, not on getting.

    Giving other people an opportunity, as mentioned before, is another kind of liberty in giving, and it must also be applied to collective effort or participation. When liberty to obtain is supported by liberty to give, there is balance and moderation. It is the Middle Way, which is the surest way to the prosperity and growth of democracy.


Rights and duties

Another word which is often used in conjunction with liberty is "rights." Webster's Dictionary defines the word "rights" as a "power or privilege to which one is justly entitled." In general it refers to those things which a person can be expected to obtain, as his or her rightful privilege.

    The ability to pursue and obtain one's rights is an important indication of liberty. Thus the words "rights" and "liberty" tend to go together. Sometimes it is even said "the right to liberty." Sometimes the two words are used interchangeably, such as in the phrases "civil rights" and "civil liberties."

    Because rights are an indication of liberty, we tend to gauge liberty by whether or not its members have rights. Many laws are legislated in order to protect the rights of the citizens of democracies. On the highest level, there is the constitution, dealing with the fundamental rights and liberties of the people, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and so on up to freedom to protect one's property, equal rights in education and employment, equal rights in travel, livelihood, use of public services and equality before the law.

    However, sometimes we tend to give so much attention to our rights and liberties that we forget that there are duties required of us. Rights must be balanced by duties. The people of a democracy have rights, and they also have duties; having obtained their rights, they must perform their duties. Rights are something which is acquired, duties are something which require giving. For example, all members of the population are required to study and to conduct their livelihoods properly; they have duties in regard to their families, to the community, to the society, to the country; they must attend the necessary functions required to conduct community business; they must help to maintain community facilities and property; they must help to conserve the natural environment; they must uphold the laws, and they must pay taxes.

    When people perform their duties toward the community and the government in accordance with their station, a good society or democracy will have something to give them in return, which is their rights. If the people did not participate in creating the causes for these rights, which are their duties, what would the society have to give them? If you are going to demand your rights, you must not forget your duties. To put it another way, only those who have performed their duties well are truly entitled to demand their rights. Rights so demanded or claimed must be used properly. Those who know how to perform their duties correctly will be also know how to use their rights correctly.

    Rights must arise with duties, and those who perform their duties will value their rights highly. It is the duty of a democratic government to create an awareness of the importance of duties, so that the people understand that rights obtained are to be offset by duties performed. People should ask themselves what needs to be done in exchange for the rights they are to obtain, and think more of what they can do or give than what they can get. This attitude is exemplified in the famous statement by President John F. Kennedy -- "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

    When rights are coupled with duties there is a balance between getting and giving, between receiving and relinquishing. When this kind of balance arises we have the Middle Way which leads to good democracy.


Liberty and responsibility

The word duties is often mentioned in connection with the word responsibilities. Rights come with liberties, while duties come with a sense of responsibility. And in the same way that rights must be balanced by duties, liberty must be balanced by responsibility.

    Liberty coupled with responsibility means having a sense of responsibility toward our liberty and its use. The responsible use of liberty can be divided roughly into two stages: responsibility toward things we have already done, and responsibility before acting, or acting with a sense of responsibility.

    The first kind of responsibility is that which is applied to actions after they are done. That is, having acted according to our freedoms, we accept responsibility for the results, whatever they may be. If the result is deleterious, we accept the blame, we do not try to brush it off onto others. Although this kind of responsibility is better than not accepting responsibility at all, it is not the ideal. Its use is limited because it is applied at the level of results rather than causes -- it may be too late to rectify any damage done. While it does indicate some mental virtue, it is not based on wisdom.

    Thus we can divide responsibility into different levels: on the lowest and most dangerous level are those who do not accept responsibility for their actions at all, who do not apply themselves to the duties required of them, and who, having abused their freedoms, shrug off any responsibility for the consequences. The second group, slightly better, consists of those who accept responsibility, but only after the event. The third group are those who truly accept responsibility for their actions, who have a sense of responsibility even before they make use of or express their liberties. They are the most desirable members of a democracy. Theirs is a responsible kind of liberty, imbued with a sense of awareness and caution. They reflect on the results that are likely to arise from their actions and try to ensure that they only perform actions which will lead to good results. In addition to having responsibility toward their own work and actions, which they will try to perform as well as possible, they will screen their actions with the reflexive power of wisdom and circumspection, with an awareness of the facts, the benefits and drawbacks, and with the aim of conforming with that which is true and good.

    All people, as citizens of the community, have a right to speak on political matters. However, we should not think only of exercising our rights, but also reflect whether what we are about to say is truly vital or beneficial to the community. Our views must be tempered with mindfulness, circumspection and wisdom to the best of our capability. We should not allow matters of vital importance to the country to become mere games or ways of letting off steam, or venues for showing how clever we are. They are opportunities to contribute to social well-being.

    A sense of responsibility not only ensures that our actions and speech are circumspect and useful; it also has a beneficial effect on our mental state and our relationship with others in the community. One with a sense of responsibility will not see the limitations on liberty necessitated by living in a community as a hindrance or a shackle, but will be able to live at ease within them. Such people will be willing to abide by the restrictions that exist and use their rights in such as way that does not cause disorder in the community.

    If we do not develop a sense of responsibility we will feel restricted and confined even in the most liberal of countries, such as America. In America you can't even do what you want with your own possessions without running into laws and restrictions. If liberty is defined as the freedom to do what you want, then you might find very little of it in America.

    The more freedom there is, the more is a sense of responsibility necessitated. If liberty is coupled with a sense of responsibility, a balance -- a Middle Way -- will result, ensuring the creation of a true democracy.


Inner and outer freedom

There is another kind of freedom which lies on a more profound level. In order to have true freedom on the outer level, it is essential to have inner, mental freedom. Mental freedom is freedom from oppression by those qualities which force our minds to fall from what is true (dhamma), the defilements of greed, aversion and delusion, or craving, conceit and views. When the mind is under the influence of these defilements we are unable to abide in righteousness (dhamma) and our minds deviate from the truth (dhamma). When the mind deviates from the truth, our actions in the outer world fall from virtue. We act for selfish advantage through greed or under the influence of hatred or delusion. When freedom is polluted by these defilements it becomes indulgence and righteousness is hampered. When people's minds are enslaved by defilements, all they can contribute to the community is more greed, aversion and delusion. Instead of constructively creating a better society they help to drag it down. Thus, freedom from the defilements is the most important form of freedom.

    Craving (tanha) is the desire for selfish gain, the desire for personal advantage and satisfaction (desire for consumption).

    Conceit (mana) is the desire for eminence and greatness, the desire for importance or power over others (desire for dominance or influence).

    Views (ditthi) refers to stubborn attachment to personal ideas, the desire for others to accept one's views, blind attachment to ideas, schools of thought and ideals (fanaticism and bigotry)

    These three defilements are all forms of selfishness. Whenever we are lacking in mindfulness we will fall into their power, resulting in trouble for ourselves and others.

    Liberty can only be successful and lead to true democracy when people use it with a wisdom that is impartial and sincere. If the mind is in the grip of the defilements, how can impartial and sincere wisdom arise? As long as we are guided by greed, aversion and delusion, our "wisdom" is also guided by these things. Our thinking will be attuned to personal gain and destruction of our enemies, and immersed in delusion. It is impossible for any benefit to arise in society in such a situation. Thus, inner freedom is essential for the attainment of outer freedom.

    It is this inner freedom which is most often overlooked. Everybody wants to express their views, everybody wants to fulfill their desires, but few are interested in finding inner freedom. In Buddhism it is said that one who is truly free is one who has attained the truth, who is enlightened. Ultimately, it is the Arahant, who is completely free of all selfishness. The actions of such a person are free of selfish motives or the influence of hatred, enmity or delusion. Such people are said to be truly free, both internally and externally. The inner and the outer are in harmony, and as such this is the most comprehensive kind of freedom.

    Thus, we cannot look at liberty as simply the freedom to do as one wishes. Such a view is the least intelligent and leads to no good result. We must understand freedom on many different levels, with the highest being the freedom of the mind from the influence of all defilements.

    The importance of inner freedom is that it frees our thinking from bias. When the mind is freed from bias, our intelligence is pure, our thinking is clear, and we are able to look at things as they really are. Members of a democratic society must be able to use their wisdom -- they must be able to look into the true causes and conditions behind things, and their actions, speech and expressions must arise from wisdom and understanding.

    The importance of liberated thinking cannot be overestimated. It is the highest level of liberation. True liberty can only be attained when there is liberated thinking. External expressions of liberty must be controlled by an understanding of that which is true and good rather than the mere awareness of what doesn't break the law or infringe on the rights of others. It is adherence to the law both in letter and in spirit.

    When the members of a community know how to govern themselves, each has the freedom to choose his or her own actions, and each takes responsibility for those choices. People will not make choices simply on the basis of personal preference, in expectation of personal gain or on the basis of ignorance or lack of circumspection. They will consider beforehand whether or not their choices are conducive to the benefit of the community. Their decisions will be made with wisdom, and wisdom must arise as a result of development. This is why the role of education in a democratic community is so important.

    One of the most important of democratic forms is voting. Democracy adheres to the voice of the majority. Such a form can only be truly effective and useful to the community when it is supported by heart -- that is, when the voters are intelligent and use their voice responsibly rather than through greed, aversion or delusion. If one thousand idiots held a vote to decide whether the world was flat, the world would not be flat even if the vote was unanimous that it was. Then there is the story of the band of monkeys trying to cross a raging river -- they reasoned together that kapok, being light and fluffy, was the ideal substance to make a raft from. When the kapok became soaked with water, of course, it became heavy and dragged the unfortunate monkeys to their doom. As it is said: the ignorance of the masses leads the way to great destruction.

    A teacher can't be bothered teaching, so he gets the students to have a democratic vote on whether to study or to play. The students immediately put their hands up in favor of playing. Whenever the teacher wants to rest he takes a vote and always gets the results he wants -- he gets to rest, and the children get to play, but the examination results are terrible.

    In the last century, King Chulalongkorn ceded the parts of Thailand east of the Mekong River to France and parts of the southern peninsula to England to try to stave off the threat of colonization by these two countries. At that time, if the voice of the majority was sought, the people, who were bitter, would have chosen to fight with France and England, a course of action which would have probably cost Thailand its independence, like Burma before it.


Liberty based on wisdom is the flag of democracy

In a democratic system the voice of the majority holds reign. It is like the voice of heaven. If we don't want to see the voice of heaven becoming a voice of hell we must develop democracy by developing the quality of its citizens. They must be taught to use wisdom, to make intelligent choices through thinking that is free of the influences of greed, aversion and delusion. They must also be able to maintain their equilibrium when learning of news events through the media so that they can extract the real essence of the situation, and see it in a way that is attuned to preventing loss and encouraging progress and betterment. News from the media should be listened to with care and discernment. Even though there may be certain aspects of it which are particularly arresting, we should regard them as simply points from which to embark on a reasoned analysis of the situation. We should consider things in depth and for a suitable period of time before acting upon or making any decisions on them. This applies particularly to news that is exciting or disturbing, such as advertising, which should always be greeted with skepticism.

    Most people like fun and pleasure. Given the choice, they will usually watch or listen to entertainments that are exciting and entertaining rather than documentaries or academic programs. Before people can use wisdom, they must have it, and before they can have it they must develop it. If we want to develop wisdom we must be prepared to look at some serious programs such as documentaries. It is all right to look at some entertainment, but not exclusively. Wisdom would be very difficult to develop if we spent all our time looking at light entertainment. We should learn to exercise our discernment when we are enjoying entertainment and consider the merit of what is being said from many different perspectives. This is the way to develop wisdom and discernment.

    Good speech has certain characteristics. It should be true, not misleading or deceiving; it should be reasonable and not frivolous; it should be helpful and constructive, not provocative; it should be polite, kindly and beneficent, not vulgar; it should not be slanderous and divisive or argumentative; it should also have such characteristics as being timely, moderate, reasonable, and soundly based. In terms of results, ideal speech should be easily understood, inspiring and a joy to listen to.

    When listening to others, try using these standards to gauge their speech by. Do they speak correctly, truthfully, reasonably, and usefully? Look also at their motivations: are they speaking from a pure motivation, or does their speech betray some ulterior motive? Are they speaking simply out of greed, aversion or delusion, or trying to rouse those qualities in the listener?

    In order to judge a situation, we must know about it -- and that means really know about it. We must ask ourselves whether we really know about this subject, whether we really know the facts of the case, and if not, refrain from making a judgment about it. If we do not yet know the truth about something, we should at least keep an open mind.

    People these days are very attached to and taken in by speech that incites extreme reactions. If it isn't for inciting desire and attraction, it's for rousing hatred. People are easily drawn in and roused to follow all sorts of causes. Things that are truly beneficial and based on truth and reason must be treated with care and circumspection. If there is some excitement in the mind you should avoid making any decisions. Excitement is a sign that our minds are not being circumspect and that democracy has yet to arise. If we want to develop a true democracy we must use wisdom, and aspire to truth, to what is useful and important.

    The applied use of wisdom is the essence of democracy, and only when we are free of the influence of defilements will we be able to use that wisdom purely, justly and fully. Only actions and expressions arising from the careful and sincere use of wisdom will lead to good results.

    Thus, liberty must be based on the wisdom of one who has a free mind. One who can govern oneself is one who has wisdom, and such wisdom is imbued with freedom. Wisdom is thus the connection between external expressions of free action and freedom as an internal quality. When external freedom issues from internal freedom, or is controlled by the free mind, the result is balance. There is a balance between internal and external freedom, and this state of balance is the attainment of the Middle Way.

    Balance is not a state of inertia. It is rather a channel through which wisdom functions and moves most fluently. When external behavior is used as a vehicle for obtaining knowledge and developing wisdom, knowledge is free of biases and penetrates to the truth. When wisdom is applied to external behavior it becomes constructive.

    With just this much, democracy is viable. People who are endowed with wisdom, who can govern themselves, will be able to organize a good and fair democracy, in accordance with causes and conditions, time and place. Without such wisdom, democracy will be only an external form created out of ignorance, and arguments about the various forms it may take will be rife. That is why it is important to grasp the heart of democracy -- government by a wisdom that is liberated.

    The important kind of wisdom is knowledge of the Dhamma -- truth, righteousness or goodness. The task of wisdom is to lead people to Dhamma. When they have reached the Dhamma, when their wisdom is immersed in the Dhamma, they will then live and act in accordance with it, and it is then that democracy attains heart and is properly founded.

Preface | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |


Updated: 3-5-2000

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