Buddhism and Democracy

For thousands of years people have been led to believe that only an authoritarian organisation 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.

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.

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.

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 democratise and strengthen our administration in exile. For many reasons, I decided that I would 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.

Our democratisation 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 democratisation 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 centralised authority Buddhism has endured for more than 2,500 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.

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.

This is the first of a two-part article.

Filed under: The Dalai Lama

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