Homage to the Sagarmatha of Humanism: The Living Lessons of Gautama Buddha (Tribhuvan University, 1995)
Delivered at the Convocation Ceremony of Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal, on November 2, 1995
It is a great honor and joy to have been given this opportunity to speak at the Convocation Ceremony of Tribhuvan University, here in the beautiful land of Nepal, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. 1 I am deeply grateful and would like to express to you my heartfelt thanks.
I would also like to offer my sincere congratulations to all of you who have graduated today from this university, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in Asia. I was deeply impressed to learn of the series of solemn vows that you undertook during the Convocation Ceremony. My heart swells with boundless hope and expectation when I picture you in the future, scaling the mountain ranges of the twenty-first century, keeping always in mind the solemn dignity of the pledge you made here today.
The title of my talk today is "Homage to the Sagarmatha 2 of Humanism: The Living Lessons of Gautama Buddha." I would like to take this opportunity to consider with you the spiritual legacy of this great teacher of humanity, focused on two themes central to his philosophy and character: the penetrating light of his wisdom and the vast scale of his compassion.
When we consider the condition of contemporary humanity, which can be likened to a forced passage across an uncharted, storm-tossed sea, I am reminded of the following poem by one of your nation's great poets, Bala Krishna Sama:
Shun all squabblings as those of an ignorant boy,
Dispossess disunion, flourish and give up blind belief!
Take faith in humanism, live and let others live!
Let there be rivalry always in matters of truth and
resolution for doing good.
Please, O world! break the atom's bow before
I breathe my last,
Wipe away the name of war with the song
of everlasting peace! 3
This poem expresses a keen yearning for peace in this, our war-torn century, as one in the desert craves water. And these lofty and beautiful sentiments are, I am certain, shared by the people of Nepal.
Our aspiration and yearning are met with the sight of Gautama Buddha who, in his towering wisdom and compassion, stands as a Sagarmatha of humanism; his life was one of unsparing and incessant effort to enable humankind to enjoy peace and security.
The first aspect of Gautama's wisdom that I would like to discuss is his urgent appeal that we bring forth the full brilliance of the Treasure Tower of our inner life.
Since the dawning of the modern era, the activities of human society--such as the development of science and technology, industrial and economic growth--have been underlain by a strong faith in the "cult of progress," where the measure of advancement has always been quantitative expansion. This has contained, however, an unforeseen pitfall. As humanity has pursued progress, drunk on the promise of its dreams, we have found reality sacrificed on the altar of social blueprints, the present on that of the future, the environment to growth, the human person to empty theory.
Here is to be found the root cause of the tragic horrors of our century.
In response to our present dilemma, Gautama Buddha's wisdom would urge us to turn our gaze once more to the deepest, most elemental dimension of human life.
Central to the Saddharma-pundarika, or Lotus Sutra--considered to be the core of Gautama Buddha's teachings--is the appearance of a magnificent, ornate Treasure Tower. This tower is symbolic of the vast cosmic life existing in the depths of the human being, and it was to the task of enabling each individual to cultivate this richly fertile dimension of life, the microcosm comprising the universe within the individual, that Gautama Buddha devoted his life-long endeavors.
When we note the growing attention and emphasis placed on the goals of human development in recent years, I cannot help but feel that Gautama's vision and insight have come to shine all the more brightly.
Some ten years ago, I engaged in a dialogue with The Club of Rome cofounder Aurelio Peccei in the course of which he offered the following words of advice to future generations: "within ourselves lies a prodigious wealth of undeveloped and unused capacities that have never been so much as explored . . . a most extraordinary resource indeed, one that is both renewable and expandable." 4
The term Dr. Peccei and I used to describe this process of developing the potential inherent in human life was "human revolution."
It goes without saying that the key to this kind of development lies in education, an area in which Nepal has continued to set an important example. Likewise, education is indispensable to realizing the goals of sustainable development, and to fulfilling our responsibilities to future generations.
The teachings of the Buddha also contain the following passage, "If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present." 5
This passage indicates a way of life that is neither caught up in the events of the past, nor swayed by excessive fear or expectation for the future. Rather, it emphasizes the importance of our integrity and fulfillment in the present moment. The intent of this passage is to encourage us to "dig into the earth on which we stand," knowing that we are certain to find a rich fountainhead in the depths of the eternal instant.
Gautama Buddha urges us to bring forth the brilliance of the Treasure Tower, existing within us at this very moment, and, with that light, to illuminate the future, thus forging the way for humanity's genuine progress and advancement. His are the words of a spiritual giant, a true victor in life.
The second aspect of Gautama Buddha's wisdom I would like to treat is his attitude of listening attentively to the voices of the common people.
Even more than eternal, unchanging truth, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the adaptive wisdom acquired through the fusion of one's life with that truth. In other words, we are encouraged to awaken to the truth that is valid and unchanging in any age or circumstance, and thus to call forth the free-flowing wisdom that can respond to the ceaselessly evolving reality that surrounds us.
I personally feel that the source of Gautama's untrammeled wisdom is to be found in his attitude of lending his ear to the heartfelt expressions of ordinary citizens.
He constantly encouraged those around him to ask any question that might be in their hearts. Truly, Gautama Buddha deserves to be ranked with Socrates as one of the great masters of dialogue. He was an unparalleled giant of humanistic education who guided people through a continual process of dialogue.
For example, when a mother who had lost her beloved child implored Gautama to save the child, he told her he could devise a cure for the child if she would bring him some mustard seeds. But, he added, these had to come from a home that death had not visited. The mother began her desperate house-by-house search but could find, of course, no home in which no one had ever died.
Slowly, the grief-stricken mother came to realize that she was not alone in her sorrow, but that every home bore the same burden of bereavement and loss. Thus she determined to overcome her own grief and awakened to the quest to resolve the fundamental human sufferings of birth, aging, illness and death. This story, as many others like it, illustrates the depth of Gautama Buddha's insight into people's hearts, and the wisdom and compassion he brought to bear on the work of helping them elevate their life condition.
In the Lotus Sutra, the virtue of listening to the voices of all people is given in the description of the ideal practitioner of the Sutra:
The countless varieties of human voices--
one can hear and understand all these.
Again one can hear the voices of heavenly beings,
subtle and wonderful song sounds,
and one can hear men and women's voices,
the voices of young boys and young girls.
In the midst of hills, rivers and steep valleys
the voices of the kalavinka,
the jivakajivaka and other birds--
all these sounds he will hear.
From the tormented multitudes of hell
the sounds of various kinds of suffering and distress,
sounds of hungry spirits driven by famine
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[the voices of the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas,
from the Avichi Hell to the Akanishta Heaven,]
he can hear all these sounds
and never impair his faculties of hearing. 6
I feel that this provides a paradigm of leadership that extends beyond the confines of religious practice, and embraces all fields of human endeavor, including the political, economic, cultural and educational.
The first president of our organization, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, was also the originator of the value-creating pedagogical system (Jpn soka kyoikugaku). His resistance to the Japanese militarists during the Second World War resulted in his being imprisoned and ending his life in jail at age seventy-three. He was an elementary school principal, and whether he was speaking to one of his pupils, or to his jailers and harsh interrogators, he always conducted dia¬logue based on a profound sense of respect for the humanity of the other person.
The pioneering wisdom that shines in his proposals for lifelong education, for community-based environmental education, and in his efforts to reflect the voices of mothers in the process of education, was born of his unwavering effort always to listen to people and to engage them in open dialogue.
The third aspect of Gautama Buddha's wisdom relates to the question of value creation, for it is wisdom that enables us to make the fullest use of knowledge.
Today's graduates, who have benefited from the cutting-edge scholarship available here at Tribhuvan University, remind me of nothing so much as the youth of Gautama and his rigorous studies at Kapilavastu. As a young prince being groomed to rule, Gautama studied a wide range of subjects including astronomy, medicine, law, economics, literature and art. "He did not learn science to cause suffering to others, but studied only the knowledge that was beneficent . . ." 7 This, apparently, was the tradition in which the kings of the Shakya clan were trained.
What impresses me most deeply about Gautama's studies is that he was able to make full use of everything he had learned in his youth as he later strove to save people from suffering. This is why, whether he was addressing kings, farmers, or members of the then emerging merchant class, he was always able to find the most suitable parables and lines of reasoning with which to expound the Dharma. He was able to awaken the wisdom of his listener by teaching in accordance with that person's capacity. He always prescribed, as it were, the right medicine for the illness at hand.
Today we stand at the crossroads, facing the crucial question of whether our rapidly growing scientific knowledge--potently symbolized by atomic energy and genetic engineering--will be used for the happiness of all humankind, or to satisfy the egotism of certain individuals, peoples or states.
Our world today, in which nuclear weapons have yet to be abolished and where we remain hostage to the counterpoised terror of nuclear deterrence, is, to my eye, the sad and pathetic figure of humanity unable to rise above its egotistical nature, and thus prey to the forces of violence and militarism.
Elsewhere in the Buddha's teachings, we find the admonition that "one should become the master of his mind rather than let his mind master him." 8 This means neither being controlled by the negative impulses of greed and violence, nor attempting unreasonably to extinguish one's natural desires. Rather, it means, as master of one's mind, to guide and redirect these potentially destructive tendencies toward the creation of value. To be master of one's mind means to cultivate the wisdom that resides in the inner recesses of our lives, and which wells forth in inexhaustible profusion only when we are moved by a compassionate determination to serve humankind, to serve people.
Together with his wisdom, the embracing, oceanic compassion of Gautama Buddha merits our attention.
The first aspect of this that I would like to address is the idea that humanity's collective mission in the cosmos lies in the practice of compassion.
To my mind it is clear that, for Gautama, the universe itself was the very embodiment of compassion. His own behavior was a consistent manifestation of this primal compassion.
All phenomena in the universe exist within the context of mutually supportive relationships, what Buddhism refers to as "dependent origination." In this view, nothing exists without meaning and nothing is wasted. Interweaving these "threads" of interdependence, the universe has brought forth and nurtured life, including human life on this planet.
The views of Buddhism on this point accord with those of modern astronomy in that they suggest the existence of active, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. From this perspective we can view the cosmos as a creative life form, the embodiment of an inestimably vast compassion.
Thus we find Gautama on his final journey, which likely had as its destination his place of birth, repeatedly voicing his sense of beauty and joy at the sight of the villages and verdant forests along the way. The compassion of the Buddha, who traversed vast regions in his lifelong pursuit of peace and human happiness, resonated with the eternal rhythm of compassion inherent in the very life of the universe.
In our own age, a central crisis facing humanity is that which could be termed the loss of meaning. We are without answers to such essential questions as: What is the human being? For what do we live? Consumed by our unquenched thirst for meaning, we wander aimlessly, estranged from society, nature and the cosmos.
Buddhism teaches us that the purpose of humanity's advent on earth is to be active participants in the compassionate workings of the universe, enriching and enhancing its creative dynamism as we live out our lives to the very fullest.
In other words, Gautama Buddha's message is that compassionate action--nurturing and leading all forms of life toward happiness and creative evolution--is the mission with which we have been entrusted by the cosmos. It is by becoming aware of and working to fulfill this mission that we can enjoy the experience of genuine meaning.
The Buddhist understanding of compassion can, I am confident, serve to foster a new culture of symbiosis that is based on respect for the human person, and to foster a new relationship with nature, one of mutual flourishing for humanity and the global environment. Further, it encourages the kind of altruistic action or Bodhisattva practice that alone can redirect human history from division to unity, from confrontation to harmony, from war to peace.
The second aspect of Gautama Buddha's compassion that I would like to consider lies in his admonition that we maintain at all times a Himalayan composure and confidence. The establishment of a firm and unshakable sense of self is the necessary basis for true compassion.
The vast and compassionate life condition of the Buddha, directed toward the happiness of all living beings, reminds me of nothing so much as the magnificent peaks of the Himalayas, unswayed by the fiercest of storms.
In one of his teachings, he states: "Even from afar the good reveal themselves like the Himalaya mountain; the wicked though near are invisible like arrows shot by night." 9 To me this indicates that when Gautama imagined his own human ideal, these soaring mountains, their peaks wrapped in a glistening mantle of snow, were clearly present in his mind.
As many thinkers have pointed out, the more vigorously freedom and equality are championed, the more fluid and changeable human societies--for better or worse--become. Thus the work of forging a firm sense of identity and purpose becomes all the more vital. Without this, it is all too easy to lose oneself in meaningless comparisons with others, to fall prey to the habits of jealousy and animosity.
In any age, the peace and stability of societies ultimately derive from the actions of individuals who can maintain a consistent, unshaken selfhood in the midst of changing circumstances. I think there has perhaps never been an age that demanded this more urgently than our present era.
Therefore, I feel that Gautama Buddha's parting admonition to his disciples, "Rely on your self, rely on the Law," 10 is at the same time a message for humanity as a whole, encouraging us toward the establishment of an unshak¬able "Greater Self" fused with the cosmic Dharma.
Finally, I would like to discuss some guidelines for action which Gautama Buddha has given us, and which I feel can be expressed by the phrase "seek happiness for yourself and others."
It goes without saying that the greatest achievement of human rights thinking in the modern era has been to demand that the sanctity of the individual be respected. The problem of human rights, however, cannot be solved through institutional measures alone. Rather, the single-minded focus of contemporary humanity on our personal rights has caused us to forget the existence of others. Ironically, this undermines the basis for our own being.
Gautama Buddha described the relationship between self and other in the following words: "People cannot find anything more precious than themselves. In the same way, others also treasure themselves. Thus, one who treasures him- or herself will, from the knowledge of self-love, refrain from harming others." 11
He recognized that for human beings, nothing is more important than oneself. Accordingly, if we can truly place ourselves in the situation of others, we can naturally understand their value and importance. The first step toward compassion is to put ourselves in the place of others, empathetically acknowledging the reality of their existence.
I do not think I am the only one who senses that here indeed is the "good medicine" that can alleviate the profound sense of isolation afflicting modern humanity.
After he attained enlightenment, the Buddha underwent a wrenching process of inner struggle and doubt as to whether or not he should expound the Dharma to others. He knew that if he did, he would doubtless face criticism and persecution growing out of people's inability to understand his message. He considered the possibility of remaining silent, of enjoying in quiet solitude the pleasures of his enlightened state.
According to Buddhist tradition, Brahmadeva 12 appeared before Gautama and beseeched him to preach the Dharma for the sake of all those people poised between advancement and retreat, happiness and sorrow, victory in life and defeat.
This "urging of Brahmadeva" revived a sense of the "other" within Gautama, and occasioned the birth of a genuine Buddha, fully devoted to creating indestructible happiness for self and other.
Elsewhere we find these words: "Because all living beings are subject to illness I am ill as well." 13 The cries of people--enduring the sufferings of birth, aging, illness and death--always resounded in Gautama Buddha's ears. His message to us, which transcends time and place, is: "Revive the other within you, and together savor the greatest happiness!"
The thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher Nichiren offers, in his exegesis on the Lotus Sutra, this reply: "Joy is to share wisdom and compassion with self and other. 14
This message also relates to the idea of third-generation human rights or solidarity rights, among which are the right to a peaceful international order and to a wholesome natural environment. This solidarity of humanism is the key, I am certain, to the general prosperity for humankind, realized through the development and advancement of the richly diverse and unique human societies that adorn our planet.
Each of you possesses a profound mission. It is my hope and my confidence that--extending the twin wings of wisdom and compassion--you will rise into the skies of a twenty-first century marked by peace and reverence for life.
Finally, as an expression of my sincere wish that your future will be filled with hope, health and happiness, I would like to quote from one of your national poets, Madhav Prasad Ghimire, whom I deeply admire. His poem is entitled "Youth."
The first rays of light on the snowy peaks,
And new fresh vigour springing up in the hero's arms,
Fetch up, o youth, the arrows of the new rays,
Start, with your touch, a new wave,
And with your fingers, wake the world up
To a new, pulsating life! 15