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


Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

Lack of unity in American democracy

According to the democratic tradition, a democratic society must have the three essential qualities of liberty, fraternity and equality. In the United States, which is generally regarded as being at the vanguard of democratic reform, the stress has been very much on liberty and equality. Equality keeps liberty within moderate bounds, and together they produce what might be called "equal liberty." The third quality, fraternity, is not often mentioned, and when it is it is used in a different sense from that which was originally intended. It is used to refer to student bodies or organizations.

    Although American society does not overtly recognize or extol fraternity, this is not to say that fraternity has not played a major role in the development of American society. In fact fraternity, albeit under different names, has played a vital role in the growth of the American nation. As a country peopled by many different nationalities, races and religions, the "great melting pot," it could only function smoothly if these different groups learned to live together in harmony, and some measure of success has been achieved in the U.S. in blending so many different races together under one flag -- more, some say, than any other nation in history.

    However, American society has also experienced a great deal of racial, religious and cultural friction from its very beginnings. The melting pot has not been as successful as first meets the eye, and the problem of unrest has been growing. Modern writers such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Andrew Hacker and William J. Bennett[*] have analyzed these problems in depth and found little in the way of solutions for them.

    Why I have mentioned these problems with the American dream is in order to point out the importance of the often overlooked quality of unity, harmony or fraternity, as it is called, in the creation of democracy. This third of the three essentials is probably the least strongly emphasized in American culture. While the importance of and relationship between the three qualities is recognized, the importance of the system as a whole is not clearly appreciated, with the results that lack of fraternity has become a chronic condition in American society.


No liberty or equality without fraternity

Usually problems of democracy are looked at from the perspective of liberty before all else: that is, from the first of the three essentials (liberty) to the second (equality) to the third (fraternity) -- without equality of liberty, or equal rights, people start to ask, "They can do it, why can't I?" This is lack of equality, without which there can be no unity. Conversely, it could be said that if we cannot unite, if there is no fraternity, it is because we have no equality; we have no equality because our liberties are not the same. This is one way of describing the social problem.

    However, problems can manifest in the opposite way. They may begin at fraternity, and from there spread to equality and to liberty. When people are disunited, when they have no fraternity, they live in suspicion and fear of each other, and start thinking, "They can do it, why can't I?"; "They have it, why don't I?" Lack of equality and liberty (that is, liberties are not equal) naturally follow. If this kind of thinking takes over, even trivial matters turn into serious problems.

    The family is the simplest example of this. Brothers and sisters in a family situation can easily experience problems with their liberties if the parents treat them unequally or with favoritism. When they begin to feel that they have no equality they get divisive and argumentative -- they lose fraternity.

    Sometimes the problem is not a result of bias on the part of the parents but simply lack of warmth between the children themselves. They begin to mistrust each other. As soon as one of them gets a gift or reward the others get jealous. They don't want to get jealous, they can't help themselves, it is an automatic reaction. Small misunderstandings become major incidents, and no-one wants to give in. They are always taking sides against each other, always complaining that they have not received their fair share or their due rights. The whole family is full of suspicion and lacks love and happiness.

    Conversely, in a family where the children are loving and harmonious and the parents are not biased, any gains that arise are shared equally. Sometimes the sharing may not be exactly equal, but no-one complains. It may even happen that one will give up his or her share for the others; those who receive a large share refuse to take it and instead share it around. Potentially volatile situations do not erupt into major incidents; major incidents become minor ones and minor ones disappear altogether. This is because the family has fraternity, the members of the family look on each other with kindness and togetherness.

    Similarly, it is necessary to work for social harmony from both ends of the democratic equation. Firstly by ensuring liberty, and from there to equality and fraternity. When people have an equal share of the proper kind of liberties, there is equality, which minimizes the possibility of friction arising and increases the possibilities for social harmony.

    Note that I say "possibilities." Social harmony is not a foregone conclusion in this scenario, only a possibility, because liberty and equality are not the only factors required, and are not sufficient, for the arising of kindness, harmony and fraternity. There are many factors other than lack of equality which are instrumental in creating suspicion, fear and division in the world. Moreover, the word equality can be seen to have a much broader meaning than the common understanding of equal rights and equality in the face of the law. In its more profound senses, which I will go into presently, equality can be an important factor for the birth of fraternity and unity.

    Secondly, we must work toward solutions to social problems from the last to the first of the three essentials: by creating a sense of harmony and mutual kindness, people are encouraged to look on each other as friends and relatives, and equality and liberty will strike a natural balance. Practically speaking, it is necessary to work from both ends, by providing equal liberties and also creating a sense of fraternity.

    Problems with lack of fraternity may take many forms, because the factors which may lead to dissension are many. Race, country, locality, religion and belief can all become causes for conflict, and each of these may require its own particular solutions. However, regardless of which factor is the main cause of discrimination, we must always be careful to avoid refusing access to the means of intellectual and personal advancement on account of it. When people are given unequal access to opportunities for personal advancement, huge disparities arise in the social structure, which only makes problems harder to rectify. Pride is a natural condition, and it tends to create suspicion -- people are ever wary that they are being criticized or insulted. They forget to look at themselves. Problems cannot be solved by expecting others not to insult us. We must look into and examine ourselves. Democracy is the society of personal development. In a democracy we must learn to let go of personal pride, but at the same time make ourselves worthy of respect.

    This is where the importance of education in a democracy comes in. One of its duties is to ensure that people as a whole are sufficiently intellectually developed to prevent dissension from getting out of hand.


The moment of truth

In countries in which democracy is not very mature, social problems will tend to pertain to lack of liberty and equality. They are problems for the people at large, and as such, the people will be mobilized to work together for reform. While the roots of disharmony are there, when people are mobilized for a common goal, disharmony is dormant and lack of fraternity is not obvious.

    In countries, however, where democracy is more well-established and mature, demands for liberty and equality, which are now more available, are no longer so urgent. Then lack of fraternity or unity will begin to manifest, and it is this problem which is most critical and difficult to alleviate. It may even be the dead end for human civilization.

    An obvious example is in America, where the people are guaranteed liberty and equality of a high degree, but at the same time they are experiencing problems with conflict and mistrust on account of race, color, custom and even sex. We see factionalism spreading all over the world, and rather than harmony, conflict and mistrust seem to be legacy of democracy. A clear example is the once mighty Soviet state, which, while under authoritarian rule, appeared to be one homogenous and stable mass, but which, when liberty was allowed in, immediately broke up into disputing factions. Such problems are becoming more intense, not less, and no answer is in sight.

    There is hardly a country in the world whose population is made up entirely of one race. Most countries are made up of mixed races, ethnic groups, religions, languages and customs of varying degrees. These differences are potential hot-houses of contention, and they are ignited by a lack of fraternity.

    Once the struggle for rights and liberties is over, lack of fraternity, which has laid dormant, emerges and once again agitates problems with liberty and equality. This time, lack of liberty and inequality arise in new forms: they are seen in terms of groups, races, colors and religions rather than individuals.

    To alleviate such problems we must work from both directions -- on the basic level ensuring that all groups of people receive equal rights and liberties, and on a deeper level encouraging the growth of fraternity. However, it is not so easy to instill a sense of fraternity, because we must deal with the mind -- attitudes, beliefs and values -- within which there are many obstacles, such as attachment to race and color, intellectual and cultural arrogance, and attachment to personal beliefs and social preferences. When the mind is not inclined to kindness, harmony and fraternity cannot really arise. Things that should not become problems become problems, and small problems become big problems -- because the mind is set in a hostile attitude.

    We need to reflect that all human beings are the same kind of animal, descended from the same ancestors, but, having multiplied and wandered far and wide, we have split into groups. Now the world is getting smaller, and we are forced to once again live on close terms. We are one community and we must relate to each other as such. With such an understanding we will be able to do away with discrimination and dissension and become more harmonious, to unify into one world community of diversity within unity.

    This may be the last great problem awaiting solution for the human race. It is the final test of whether we will be able to really develop human potential and attain to a peaceful and liberated community or not.

    Politicians, administrators, social reformers and all who desire a working democracy must be far sighted. We should not look only to expedient, short-term goals such as liberty, human rights and equality, but prepare a long term plan. Politicians who are abreast of problems in the future will have to rise above the contemporary situation and see things in a more universal perspective. They must be able to rise above temporal restrictions and aim for solutions for the human race as a whole, bearing in mind the universal problem that exists the world over -- lack of fraternity. In order to address this most deep-seated problem, a certain amount of genius is required. The problem is beyond the scope of political, administrative and economic means, which are materialistic approaches. It is a mental one, connected to attitudes and values, and it requires the collective wisdom of religion, philosophy, ethics and the humanities to address. In short, all branches of human knowledge should be applied to addressing this problem, and it will only be solved if humanity can progress to a new level of being.

    The word "democracy" used to describe this harmonious society is simply a name based on one perspective of its structure -- the emphasis is on administrative power, which is in the hands of the people. But if we look from a different perspective, we might call it something else, such as in the distant past in India when such a political system was called samaggadhamma, "the system of harmony." The emphasis here is different -- the relationship between people. This is the real heart of a democracy and is what ensures its stability and success.


Equality and liberty flourish on unity

In Buddhism liberty, equality and fraternity are viewed as interrelated conditions. Fraternity can be compared to a sports field, stadium or meeting hall where sportsmen, actors and seminar members gather together freely, each of them with the same rights and liberties. Each person is in his rightful place and they all relate together with kindness. The manifestations of liberty and equality function freely within the bounds of that place. When all of the people have equal rights and express them harmoniously and in accordance with their respective positions, everything flows smoothly.

    In Buddhism there is a teaching describing the main principles of fraternity with repercussions on liberty and equality, known as the saraniyadhamma, the conditions for fraternal living. The meaning of the teaching is similar to that of fraternity -- principles for generating harmony and cohesion in society. The gist of this teaching is that a democratic society must be endowed with some unifying principle, something which causes people to think of each other with kindness. Harmonious actions can be expressed in different ways, but they must always be imbued with goodwill (metta), a desire for others' benefit, and this in turn implies wisdom. Wisdom must be imbued with goodwill, and goodwill must be founded on wisdom. Goodwill without wisdom, such as when we cast aside our critical abilities in order to help a friend, can lead to bias. Wisdom without goodwill may cause insensitivity to the well-being of others and actions, albeit unintentional, which are harmful to them. Thus both wisdom and goodwill must be used in balance.


The six conditions for fraternal living

The six saraniyadhamma are as follows:

    1. Actions based on goodwill: such actions help to create a feeling of togetherness, and as such add to the stability of the community and provide the basic structure within which people can constructively express their full potential.

    2. Speech based on goodwill: this is important in meetings and discussions. Debates and discussion conducted with aversion rather than wisdom only lead to arguments and resentment. When we speak with goodwill, we are motivated by a sincere desire for understanding and harmony, and we speak constructively. Without goodwill, problems become causes for argument, and eventually lead to aggression.

    3. Thoughts based on goodwill: when goodwill is incorporated into our reasoning it helps to counteract the negative forces of greed, hatred and delusion. Instead we consider things with a clear intention for mutual benefit. Moreover, thinking based on goodwill imbues our bearing and facial features with pleasant attributes, and a pleasant smile is the forerunner of harmonious speech.

    Goodwill goes much deeper than this. It is a nondiscriminatory kind of love. All people are seen as equal, all are friends in birth, aging, sickness and death, all abide by the same laws of nature, and all must die just the same.

    With goodwill in our hearts we do not deal with others out of ulterior motives; we do not meet them with a desire to find their similarities while holding on to our differences. Rather we accept the differences along with the similarities. There may be superficial differences, such as race, nationality, belief and intelligence, but we can accept them as they are, we don't make them into causes for dissension or hatred. We are always ready to unite with others because we recognize the fundamental similarities in all people.

    4. Sharing of rightfully acquired gains: when people lack proper education they are filled with selfishness, and they search only for personal gain. They are unable to share with others, and this leads to great disparity in the levels of income of different sectors of the population, which is one cause for contention and conflict. Sharing is an important antidote to this. Buddhist monks, for example, share their gains in all respects -- food, clothing, shelter and medicine. If modern day society adhered to this Buddhist principle it would be a great improvement. People would not be so motivated toward personal gains at the expense of others. The Buddha said nekasi labhate sukham -- "One who eats alone eats not happily." Some may disagree with this, but in fact any happiness that arises from "eating alone" is tainted with separation and alienation. If, on the other hand, we share with others, we obtain a much warmer kind of happiness.

    Buddhism holds that human development must progress by stages. A completely undeveloped person will find happiness in a selfish way -- he must obtain, he must gain, he must get and consume before he can be happy. For such a person, giving to others is seen as a loss, not a cause of happiness.

    A more developed person will appreciate a subtler kind of happiness which arises from giving. People with virtue will appreciate this kind of happiness. A simple example is parental giving. Why is it that parents feel happy when they give something to their children? It may be something that the parents themselves want, but if their children ask for it they will give it readily. It is because their minds are imbued with goodwill for their children. Whenever there is goodwill in the mind, sharing is a possibility, and giving is a cause for happiness.

    Parents love their children so they easily feel goodwill for them. Friends, too, can easily feel goodwill toward each other. If we were able to spread these feelings to wider circles, to all our fellow human beings and all residents of the world, we would feel happy whenever we had the opportunity to share with them. This is the way a developed mind will think. It is expressed in one part of the blessing chant given by monks -- sukhassa data medhavi sukham so adhigacchati --  "For the wise, to give happiness is to receive it."

    The well-trained and virtuous person is able to experience this higher kind of happiness, the happiness of giving. It is a relaxed and buoyant kind of happiness. In Buddhism it is taught that the ability to give should be developed through training, and the ability to experience happiness from giving is considered to be a gauge of mental maturity. People who are so developed will be the ideal members of a democratic society.

    5. Uniform moral conduct; a harmonious society must consist of people with a certain level of morality, who respect the laws and regulations of the country and are honest toward each other. If people's conduct is not uniform, the laws are not effective or fair, and crime is rife, no matter how democratic a society may be, it will not be harmonious and development will be very difficult. A truly harmonious and peaceful society should be based on the five precepts.[**] A respect for the laws and regulations of the land, in which all share the same principles and are equal before the law, is also necessary, especially in a democracy, and such a feature is a sign of a democracy's administrative success.

    Lack of discipline or self restraint is a sign of an inability to govern oneself. If the members of a society are not able to govern themselves, and if a society displays such a trait, it becomes a good excuse for dictators to arise and restore order to the land. The dictator says, "If you can't govern yourselves, I'll have to govern for you." If social unrest is especially extreme or prolonged, the desire for such a government will naturally arise, and we are thrown once again into totalitarianism. A society that is weak in discipline and moral restraint places obstacles in the path of democracy and destroys any chances for its development and survival.

    6. Uniform views: harmonious views, ideals and principles of belief are also important factors for ensuring harmonious society. Members of a democracy should at least possess the same beliefs in relation to democracy, beginning with the common acceptance of the democratic state, and ideally they should also have a common understanding of the heart of democracy and the meaning of liberty. Without such a common understanding, problems are bound to arise. Simply by understanding that liberty is the freedom to do what one pleases we are inviting contention and disharmony.

    Views are related to intelligence and wisdom, of which there are many different levels. On the basic level, to understand and uphold the principles of democracy is sufficient to ensure some social cohesion, but a deeper level is required to ensure long lasting fraternity and unity. It entails understanding the truth of nature, the way things are, the way they work; understanding that all things are impermanent and bound for disintegration and that nothing is eternal.

    What is the use of such an understanding? It leads to removal or weakening of attachment and selfishness. What is particularly desirable in this context is the removal of avarice and grasping (macchariya), of which in Buddhism there are said to be five kinds. Here I would like to point out only two[***] which are directly relevant to our discussion of democracy.

    1. Kulamacchariya: avarice and grasping on account of family name, clan, or group.

    2. Vannamacchariya: avarice and grasping on account of race.

    With the mitigation of these two kinds of grasping, contention and discrimination are done with and harmony, fraternity and unity are assured. When the people are imbued with goodwill, when they see each other as relatives, the problems of liberty and equality will naturally strike a balance, and the threefold essentials of democracy -- liberty, equality and fraternity -- will be realized.

    This last of the six conditions for fraternal living is of vital importance: people must have some common understanding and belief in the principles of democracy. When they understand and see the world in the same way, as it really is, democracy will be truly stable.

    Summarizing once more, the six conditions for fraternal living are:

    1. Kindly bodily conduct.

    2. Kindly speech.

    3. Kindly thoughts.

    4. Sharing of gains.

    5. Uniform or harmonious moral conduct.

    6. Uniform or harmonious views.

    By abiding by these six principles harmony is assured. We relate to each other with kindness, speak to each other with kindness, think of each other with kindness, share our gains, abide by the laws and regulations of the society and refrain from harming or exploiting each other, and ultimately have beliefs or understanding that is harmonious. In this way, unity will arise and progress is assured.



[*] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America [New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 1992]; William J. Bennett, The De-Valuing of America [New York; Summit Books, 1992]; Andrew Hacker, Two Nations [New York; Charles Scribner's & Sons, 1992]. [Back to text]

[**] The five precepts  are the basic moral tenets of Buddhist practice. They are to refrain from: 1. killing; 2. stealing; 3. sexual misconduct; 4. lying; 5. taking intoxicants. [Back to text]    

[***] For the other three macchariya, see Chapter 5. [Back to text]

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


Updated: 3-5-2000

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