Buddhism and Democracy (Part II)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This urgent need for cooperation can only strengthen mankind, because it helps us recognise 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 wellbeing.

Despite the rapid advances made by civilisation, 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?

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?

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 clear that, however important I may feel, I am only one, while others form the majority.

Filed under: The Dalai Lama

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