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Buddhism and Humanism
Dr. Siddhi Butr-Indr

Human personality, according to the Buddhist standpoint, is a composite of psychical and physical components (naama-ruupa) and its very nature is changing and impermanent. In relation to it the presupposition of I and 'mine' arises.[1] Yet it is neither, some by-product of merely material elements' nor 'the divine creation of God.'[2] Its value does not depend upon the two principles, namely, the materialistic and the theistic, but is conditioned by the practice, through human effort, of the three cultural principles as previously discussed.[3] Man possesses a free will and effort in the field of threefold action: in thought, in speech and in deed. The glory of human life, individual as well as social, lies in this element, but it is also the source of difficulties and sometimes of degradation of mankind.[4] Man has human value in the individual who acts in a worthy way for his own welfare and for that of others. Everyone, expressing himself through body-with-mind, is a chooser; he has the choice between free paly of will and restraint of will by regulation. He wants what he believes to be better and it is of his nature to seek freely, through many "betters', a 'best'.[5] He is aware of an inner motivation to act or not to act, he lives with others; each is a willer, each is a chooser, existing according to his own choice-a choice for the improvement of humanity.

The Buddha was a human being alive to this world as one of the religious and philosophical leaders of mankind. He looked upon man's wayfaring in the world as a very true thing, he did not claim to be other than a human being[6] and attributed all his realization, success and achievement to his human endeavour and intelligence.[7] By his example he urged man to put forth his own energy to attain the unattained, to master the unmastered and to realize the unrealized; he was convinced that in possession of that state man will live happily.[8] In this respect, man's position is supreme; he is his own master and there is no other being or power higher than himself judging over his destiny; his success or failure lies in his own will, choice and strength. 'To become a friend, an intimate of that which is good and righteous...you yourself must take into your life diligence in good things.'[9] If a man values his life, it is suggested, he should ever guard it well [10] and live it in the right way, since a wise man lives earnestly. Since nothing is dearer to man than his own life, man should regard and respect the lives of others as he does his own.[11] Human life, or more properly human conditions, are of supreme value, not only because of life itself but also because of the fact that human welfare, material, moral and spiritual, and even final emancipation are gained from it and in it.[12]

The whole body of the Buddha's teachings can be transferred into ethical terminology as follows: 'Not to do any evil, to devote oneself to doing good, and to purify the mind, this is the teaching of the Buddha(s).[13] This teaching offers any individual or society a voluntary way of thought and practice based upon an analysis of human morality which promotes human welfare and well-being, and aims at the realization of the truth of human life and finally at freedom from suffering. Rejecting all claims to heavenly revelation and all appeal s to theological authority, the Buddha discovered and founded his standard of truth and his method of acquiring it through his own experimental effort on practical principles, and this method can be applied to the universal problems of human life.[14] King Bhumibol expresses this idea in his statement that "Buddhism deals with the truth of human life... I am of the opinion, therefore, that the proper way to preach Buddhism is to teach man how to discover and realize the right principles of life and to act according to those principles for his own benefit, welfare and well-being."[15] This concern with human existence and immediate human experience in dealing with the problems relative to humam life, this tolerance of right-minded inquiry and stress on human action guided by right understanding, this religious and philosophical way of life, this reliance upon supreme human will and capacity and emphasis on human value as the highest and best, the possibility of experiencing freedom in perfect existence - all these principles, perhaps, characterize Buddhism and express its view of life.[16] "Buddhism is a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life, which is reasonalbe and practical," Humphreys Writes, "...It points to man and man alone as the creator of his own life and sole designer of his destiny."[17]

The Buddha's Attitude towards Human Interest and Welfare

The Buddha addressed sometimes himself to people who were in trouble. The Pali texts depict him discussing with his hearers what he judged to be immediately relevant to and profitable for their respective present conditions. Everything he taught had a beneficial bearing upon someone's concrete quest and search. The immediate need, according to the Buddha, is to realize the nature of the difficulties and problems of human life and to adopt the right ways of removing them so that humanity may reach its supreme bliss. Thus the Buddha's main concern is to remedy and remove the suffering of mankind. His gospel is the gospel of love advocating generosity, justice, gentleness, loyalty, serenity and compassion among human beings.[18] His heart was full of love for mankind and for all living beings and his sole purpose was to dedicate his life to the propagation of his religion for the sake of mankind.[19] He taught his religion to people for the purification of their minds, words and deeds, for the overcoming of sorrow and despair, the disappearance of grief and dejection, the reaching of the Way, and the realization of security and salvation.[20]

Compassion and concern for the welfare of mankind and of all living beings is frequently spoken of and recommended by the Buddha [21] and his compassionate nature has been famous down the centuries. It seems inconceivable that this should have been without a very real foundation in history.[22] In his declaration, "then in speaking rightly of me one should say: 'A being (the Buddha) not liable to bewilderment has arisen in the world for the welfare, the profit and the happiness of many folk, out of compassion for the world, for the good, the interest, the well-being both of divine and human beings."[23] Elsewhere, we learn that the Buddha does not assert a statement (a) which he knows to be untrue (abhuuta.m), lacking in fact (ataccha.m), unprofitable (anatthasa~nhita.m), unpleasant (appiya.m) and disagreeable (amanaapa.m) to others, (b) which he knows to be true, factual, but unprofitable, unpleasant and disagreeable to others, (c) which he knows to be untrue, lacking in fact, unprofitable, though pleasant and agreeable to others, and (d) which he knows to be unprofitable, though true, factual, pleasant and agreeable to others, and that he would assert at a proper time a statement (a) which he knows to be true, factual and profitable, though unpleasant and disagreeable to others and (b) which he knows to be true, factual, profitable, pleasant and agreeable to others.[24] And the Buddha's sound reason and purpose in justifying this attitude culminates in the statement . It is that the Tathaagata has infinite compassion for the sake of all living beings."[25] From the above passages it appears that special emphasis is laid on a high estimation of the relationship of truth to its utility, which further shows the coherence and consistency between the doctrines themselves and their practical utilization on the part of the believers 'Now, brahmin, I declare: one should not speak of such things seen, heard, thought and known-, by saying which, unprofitable things increase and profitable things decrease. Contrarily, one should speak of such things-seen, heard, thought and known-, by saying which, unprofitable things decrease and profitable things increase.'[26]

Thus, not everything was revealed and taught by the Buddha to his disciples, but only those things that he considered profitable, benevolent, useful and good for them. 'Monks much more in number are those things which I have realized and have not revealed to you. Only few are the things I have revealed. And why, monks, have I not revealed them? Because they are not profitable and do not conduce to the principles of holy life, aversion detachment elimination (of desire), tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment and salvation.'[27] With his compassionate purpose of promoting human interest and welfare-material, moral and spiritual-, the Buddha, too, recognized human dignity and free choice and never wanted blind followers of his authority, who would accept and carry out his instruction without examining, testing and trying its value, necessity and reason.[28] He encouraged people to follow him, not for the sake of himself[29] and not merely because of their faith in a claim of his 'Omniscience'[30] but of their own free will, experimentation and insight into the truth of his teaching and, above all, because of their individual interest and welfare. 'Now, look you, Kaalaamas, be ye not misled by report or tradition or hearsay, nor by the authority of the Collection, nor by mere reasoning, nor by logic, nor by examination of reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theories, nor because it has a fitting (bhavya) form, nor out of consideration; "The recluse is our teacher' ...But, Kaalaamas, whenever you know for yourselves: 'These things (dhamma) are ... blameworthy ... to the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and suffering,'-then, indeed, do you reject them...But if at any time you know of yourselves: 'These things are salutary, blameless and praiseworthy to the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness,'-then, Kaalaamas, do ye undertake them and abide therein...'[31] When asked by King Pasenadi as to whether there is any quality (dhamma) by which man is able to acquire and maintain both kinds of welfare in this life and in the life to come, the Buddha replies, "Surely, Mahaaraaja, diligence (appamaada) is the one quality by which man can acquire and maintain welfare in tins very life and m the fife to come..."[32] and in addition he utters the following verses:

Whoso to length of days aspires, to health,
To beauty, or to heaven, or to the joys
Of the highborn, if he in virtuous deeds
Shows diligence, he wins the wise man's praise.
He that is wise and diligent doth win
Twofold advantage: wins that which is good
In this life and wins good in life to come.
The strong in mind doth win the name of Wise,
Because he grasps wherein his vantage lies.'[33]

The Buddha's Attitude towards Human Value: the Exaltation of Human Will, Effort and Dignity

As observed above, from Buddhist ethics certain concepts can be derived: that there is a continuity of human personality the value of which should be accepted primarily in the existence itself; that the process of ethical concern with human personality is such that the avoidance of evil and cultivation of good along with the purification of the mind tends to make man and his life better and happier; that there is an assertion of a state or the final goal with the means of attaining it-the state of perfection, ultimate freedom and bliss to be obtained only when man's mind is absolutely pure and cleansed of all defilements; and that there is a possibility of a human freewill, effort and potentiality to deal with the concepts, mentioned above.

Concerning the above principles, we find in the original texts the Buddha facing on the one hand the theistic doctrine and on the other the materialistic doctrines including fatalism. The former may imply that the world including human beings and their duties is designed, created and determined by the Supreme Deity, that all events are predetermined and controlled by Him, and that, therefore, in such a situation He is absolute and ultimately responsible for all human deeds-good and evil-, and experiences-happiness and suffering-; that in his present and future condition man is incapable of helping and saving himself without the Divine Grace since human beings become corrupted or doomed or emancipated only by the Divine Will and Grace and, moreover, that man's initiative, potentiality, will and effort as well as his fate and destiny entirely depend upon the Creator. The theistic standpoint (Issaranimimaanavaada) may be illustrated by a statement such as 'He is the Great Brahmaa, the Supreme, the Omnipotent (abhibhuu anabhibhuuto), the Omniscient (a~n~nadatthudaso), the Ruler (vasavatti), the Lord (issaro), the Maker (katttaa), the Creator (nimmata).. the Father (pittaa) of all that are and are to be. All beings are His creation... and at His Will all beings come into existence,'[34] and such as 'Whatsoever happiness or suffering (sukham vaa dukkha.m vaa) or the state of neither suffering nor happiness mankind (purisa.puggalo) experiences, all that is due to the creation of the Lord.'[35] According to the materialistic doctrines, a human being is simply built up of the four elements of earth, fire, water and air and of nothing else: at the time of dissolution, whatever is composite, including human personality, is reduced to the primary elements: there are no moral values, good and evil deeds, nor their results: all events are strictly determined by physical constitution and natural forces.[36] For Fatalism (sa.msaara-suddhivaada: lit. the theory of Purification, through transmigration), Non-causationalism (ahetukavaada),,and Non-actionalism (akiriyavaada), human beings will after an allotted period of transmigration automatically come to the end of this suffering; there is neither cause 'nor condition for the depravity or the rectitude of human beings; the attainment of any given condition, of any character, does not depend on human act, will to act and effort; man is devoid of individual action, of human potentiality, of human power, endeavour, strength and effort (natthi attakaaro natthi purisakaaro, natthi bala.m, viriya.m, purisaparakkamo), there is neither human action nor will to act nor effect of action nor efficacy of action, and thus man cannot help himself.[37]

As the expounder of the law of action, the Buddha criticizes the doctrines outlined above. His criticism of the theistic doctrine mainly focuses on the following grounds:

a) If it is so (i.e. according to the theistic standpoint quoted above), then it is due to God's creation (Issaranimmaanahetu) that people commit murder, theft, and unchaste deeds; it is due to God's creation that they are covetous, malevolent and hold false views. Moreover, for those who uphold the belief in God's creation, there is neither human will nor effort nor necessity to do this nor necessity to refrain from doing this (by themselves).[38]

b) If the creatures experience happiness and suffering due to God's creation, then surely they are created by an evil God in that even now they continually experience such painful, suvere and sharp sensuality.[39]

c) If the Lord designs the life of the entire world, the glory and the misery, the good and the evil deeds being prevalent in this world, then God alone is responsible, and man is but an instrument of His Providence.[40]

d) And therefore, if Brahmaa were the Lord of the whole world and the Absolute Creator of all beings, then why has He ordained misfortune in the world? Why did He not make this whole world happy?... For what purpose and reason has He unjustly created the world with deceit, falsehood, oppression, transgression and conceit? Or the Lord Himself is of evil nature in that He has ordained injustice and the like, where there should have been justice and the like.[41]

Since Buddhism is atheistic, there is no room for the belief in the creation of God or in the Divine Grace, both from the ontological and the ethical points of view. "It is a system that knows no God or God's Grace and refuses any efficacy to prayer and sacrifices," Huxley says, "but it bids men look to nothing but their own efforts for reaching the goal."[42] In this connection, we may observe that the Buddha is a realist and rationalist [43] who claimed to see 'things as they are (yathaaibhuta.m) and to look at things through the eyes of a realist: 'I would treat night as night and day as day.'[44] He frankly accepted 'man as man' in the world of conditional existence, not determined by something beyond man, but by himself alone, whose present and future lies in his own hands, who has absolute responsibility for his own destiny and who is capable of improving his life and attaining the emancipation. In this aspect, the Buddha recognized 'human value' in all respects. Conspicuous in this connection is his exaltation of 'human will, effort and potentiality latent in man.' He asserted that man possesses an element of initial effort (aarabbhadhaatu), personal action (purisakaaro) and own actions (attakaaro), and that there are in man the elements of exertion (nikkamadhaatu), of endeavour (parakkamadhaatu), of strength (thaamadhaatu) of preseverance (.thitidhaatu), and of enterprise (upakkamadhaatu) which make him act of his own accord in various ways.[45]

As far as one's personality and human value are concerned, one is advised to develop them, without referring to the so-called supernatural grace, on the one hand, and without asserting on the other hand the materialistic ideology which absolutely denies human survival, recompense and responsibility as well as moral and spiritual values and obligations. Instead, through the above elements, one should prevent the arising of evil things that have not arisen, eliminate those which have already arisen, make arise good things which have not arisen, and preserve, increase, fully develop, cultivate and perfect those which have arisen.[46] The mental, verbal and bodily acts of man make moral responsibility a reality and self-development a practical possibility, ennobling his nature and regulating his future betterment. Man is what he is and acts because of what he can make of himself by the exercise of his own dignity, will, effort and potentiality. This is what is often emphasized in the statements: One is one's own refuge ... ; by his own well-tamed self, a man gains a refuge which is hard to gain,'[47] 'evil is done by oneself alone: one is defiled by oneself: by oneself alone is evil left undone: by oneself` alone one is purified: purity and impurity depend on oneself: none can purify another,[48] you yourselves must put forth exertion; the Tathaagatas are only the guides,'[49] 'live ye as islands unto yourselves, as refuges unto yourselves; live with the Norm as your island and as your refuge, taking no other as your refuge.'[50]

By mere wish, hope or even idle prayer, one can in no way attain what one wishes and hopes for; but only by exercising one's own energy, actualizing one's own potentiality and applying oneself to what is desired one can attain what one wants.[51] "If, Vaase.t.tha, this River Aciravati were full of water even to the brim and overflowing, and a man with business on the other side ... should come up and want to cross over, and he, standing on this bank, should invoke the other bank, and say, 'Come hither, oh further bank! Come over to this side!, would the further bank ... by reason of that man's invoking and praying and hoping and praising come over to this side?" "Certainly not." "In just the same way, Vaase.t.tha do the brahmins..., omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a bramin and adopting the practice of those qualities which make a man non-brahmin, say thus, 'Inda we call upon Soma ... Varu.na ... Isaana ... Pajaapati... brahmaa...we call upon', verily, that those brahmins ... by reason of their invoking, praying and hoping and praising .... should become united with the Brahmaa - verily, such a condition of things can in no wise be."[52] We read elsewhere that there are five things in the world of householders, which are welcome, sought after, desirable and lovely but hard to get, namely, human and heavenly long life, beauty, happiness, fame and the heavenly worlds. These things are not to be achieved either by vows or prayers, declared the Buddha; for, if they were, then why would any one languish here? Thus, to achieve long life and so on, there is no use for a noble disciple in yearning for them through prayer or invocation. But the way and means that lead to these things must be wayfared and by doing so he will be a winner of these things.[53] How highly the Buddha evaluated human potentiality and effort may be deduced from the following statement: 'Gladly would I be reduced to skin and sinews and bones and let my body's flesh and blood dry up; as long as that which can be reached by human strength, by human energy and by human striving has not been reached, so long there will be no resting place for my (human) energy.'[54]

In this aspect, man is the creator of his own world, the master of his own life, the controller of his own fate and de tiny under the causal law of action (kamma); man's condition his station in life, his sorrow and happiness and so on-depending upon his own deeds under his own responsibility. The merit or demerits of actions performed by man accumulate, and, in the course of time, acquire a vital potency. In this connection Buddhism encourages the earnest pursuit of a course of go action for the betterment of moral existence of mankind and strengthens human potentiality to succeed in striving after human welfare and well-being. The Buddha claimed to be on of the teachers of action, of the efficacy of action, of energy an energetic will to do so.[55] He severely criticized the philosophic theories of materialism, fatalism as well as non-actionism pointing out that they give a false sense of security to man corrupt them and encourage complacency, denying the human value of potentiality, will and effort as well as human morality. He especially rebuked an expounder of non-actionism as born for the detriment and loss of very many people and compared him to a fisherman casting his net at the mouth of a river for the destruction of many fish.[56] 'I do not declare, monks, that o intentional actions done and accumulated there can be a wiping out without experiencing, more or less in one way or another (the result thereof), whether it would arise in this visible state or in some other state hereafter.'[57] Therefore, according to the Buddha, a doer of good experiences good, while a doer of evil experiences evil, just as one who sows the seed reaps the fruit thereof.[58]

Subha, the brahmin youth, asked the Buddha, "What the cause, the reason, that lowness and excellence are to be found among human beings while they are in this world? Why do we see some people with a short lifetime, others with a long one; some people with many, others with few afflictions; some ugly, others beautiful; some of little account, others of great account; some who are poor, others who are wealthy; some who are of low families, others who are of high families; some who are weak in wisdom, others who are full of wisdom?" The Buddha declared: 'Actions are one's own, living beings are heirs to their actions, they have actions as their womb, their kin, their controllers; action divides living beings..."[59] Thus, whatever actions men do, either good or bad, they are bound to them [60] and responsible for them.[61] This idea is illustrated in another place, for instance,'...Whatever man is a taker of life, a taker of what is not given, a wrong-doer in respect of sensual conduct, a liar ... of perverted view,-however much a great multitude of people, gathering and thronging together, might pray and praise and escort him with uplifted palms, saying: 'This man, when his body breaks up after his death, will be born into the happy lot, into the heavenly world...', yet would that man be born into the woeful lot, into the downfall, into hell.'[62] In its rational, realistic aspect, the law of action says: 'None is by birth a brahmin, by birth a non-brahmin: by deed is one a brahmin, by deed a non-brahmin; by deed is one a farmer, or an artisan, or a trader, by deed is one a servant, or a thief, or a warrior, or a celebrant, and even so a king is one by deed: the wise perceive the 'law of action' as it is as well as the ripening of actions, because they understand the i principle of Co-origination (or, Origination in dependence): (thus) by action the world moves and by action mankind moves, too; just as the axle of (the wheel of) a rolling chariot (is bound to move), so living beings existing in bondage are held by their actions.[63]

Notes and References

[1] Cf. D. I. 76; S. IV. 83; D. III. 212; S.Radhakrishnan and P.T. Raju, The Concept of Man, p. 262ff.

[2] D. I. 18; M. I. 327; J. VI. 208.

[3] S.Radhakrishnan and P.T. Raju, The Concept of Man, p. 256ff.

[4] D. III. 68ff.

[5] C.A.F. Rhys Davids, A Manual of Buddhism, p. 192.

[6] C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Gotama the Man, p. 7.

[7] M. I. 481f; II. 211.

[8] A. III. 103ff.

[9] S. I. 75.

[10] The Commentary on the Dhammapada, III. 137.

[11] S. I. 75.

[12] The Commentary on the Dhammapada, III. 235f.

[13] The Commentary on the Dhammapada, III. 237; D. II. 49.

[14] Vin. I. 8; M. I. 171.

[15] World Fellowships of the Buddhists, viii.

[16] Cp. R.A. Gard, Buddhism, p. 16f.

[17] C. Humphers, Buddhism, p. 76.

[18] S. I. 89ff; A. III. 39f.

[19] S. I. 105; Vin. I. 21.

[20] A. V. 194.

[21] Cp. A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, p. 64.

[22] Cp. G.C. Pande, Studies in Origins of Buddhism, p. 329.

[23] M. I. 21, 83. cp. MLS. I. 27, 1000. See also A. II, 147; It. p. 78.

[24] M. I. 395.

[25] ibid.

[26] A. II. 173f.

[27] S. V. 438.

[28] Govinda, Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy, p. 67.

[29] M. I. 465, 468.

[30] M. I. 483.

[31] A. I. 190ff.

[32] S. I. 86.

[33] ibid.

[34] D. I. 18.

[35] A. I. 173f.

[36] D. I. 55; M. I. 515; J. VI. 225f.

[37] D. I. 53; A. I. 33f; M. I. 516.

[38] A. I. 174.

[39] M. II. 222.

[40] J. V. 328.

[41] J. VI. 208.

[42] A. Huxley, Romances Lecture, p.21.

[43] D. III. 81; M. II. 86ff.

[44] M. I. 21.

[45] A. III. 337f. Cf. A. I. 173ff.

[46] S. V. 268.

[47] Commentary on the Dhammapada, III. 148.

[48] ibid, p. 157.

[49] ibid, p. 148.

[50] D. II. 100; III. 58; S. III. 42; V. 163.

[51] A. IV. 125f.

[52] D. I. 244ff.

[53] A. III. 47f.

[54] M. I. 481; A. I. 50; S. II. 28.

[55] A. I. 287.

[56] A. I. 33f.

[57] A. V. 292.

[58] S. I. 227.

[59] M. III. 202f.

[60] A. II. 74, 186.

[61] A. V. 288ff.

[62] S. IV. 312f.

[63] M. II. 196. See also M. I. 285ff; A. II, 230ff; S. I. 72ff.

Special thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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