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Buddhist humanism is a philosophical perspective based on the teaching of inherent dignity of all human beings, their potential for attaining highest wisdom about their condition  and their essential nature of altruism exemplified by the Bodhisattva spirit of compassion. Buddhist humanism focuses on the interdependence of humanity, all sentient beings and the environment, seeking to create harmony through these interrelated relationships. In practical terms, humanism is expressed on the individual level through action: to “relieve sufferings and impart joy”, to contribute to the welfare of society, abiding by the attitude of nonviolence  supporting human rights, and acting for world peace, effectively advocating the concept of global citizenship.
The diversity of Buddhist schools generated various humanistic movements, such as Engaged Buddhism, Humanistic Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, SGI Value Creation Organization, and others, with a common message of sharing humanity and surpassing differences.
The central focus of the teachings of Gautama Buddha, 563 BC- 483 BC, was on eliminating misery and sufferings from human life and leading the individual to realize the highest potential of enlightenment. Making no reference to an external power of God, Buddhism essentially is a humanistic philosophy, based on principles derived from deductive observation of reality, such as the Interconnectedness of all phenomena (nothing exists in isolation), and the Inseparability of Self, Others and Environment: “At deeper levels, there is a consciousness connecting all humanity, and all this functions upon the foundation of the natural environment”.
Humanity is united by the inevitable phases of human sufferings, common to all people: The Four Noble Truths, and also by the universality of Buddha nature: the equal potential for all people to live a creative harmonious life: “The manifestation of Humanism is evident in Buddhist teachings. For example, the concept of Noble Eightfold Path (or the way leading to the cessation of suffering) in Agama Sutra and the spirit of altruism (or compassion) in Mahayana Buddhism are based on the beliefs of self respect and goodwill toward other individuals; both are fundamental viewpoints of Humanism”.
The Buddha's humanistic teachings marked a historical shift from all doctrines which viewed humanity as dependant on or influenced by the external power of gods, doctrines which could not free people from their sufferings and from injustice experienced in daily life. Buddhist humanism started with overcoming hardships and barriers through great efforts to introduce equality to Buddha’s society based on discrimination: “Shakyamuni waged a head on struggle against dogmas that enchain and divide human beings”, a spirit of struggle against discrimination which also characterizes current Buddhist movements: “From the recognition that all people share a common humanity, a sense of brotherhood replaces obsession with such differences as nationality, ideology and culture”.
Despite diversity of their schools, Buddhist scholars converge in specifying the “ …ideology of Humanism as based on human interests, values, and dignity, without the shackles of theology, so that one can enjoy freedom of thinking and tolerance and respect toward other individuals, and eventually achieve a proud existence in the universe”.
While Buddhism is a man-originated belief, it does not, however, put the human being above or at the centre of nature: “We are not independent, self-sufficient beings but a part of the natural world, where all forms of animal and plant life depend on each other for existence”. The common values which various schools of Buddhism associate with humanism, centre on the inherent dignity of all people, the oneness of self and others and the spirit of compassion, as well as other related values prompting humanistic action in today’s contemporary world:
- The inherent dignity of human beings: the individual is worthy of respect by virtue of being born as a human being: "Buddhist humanism…is a philosophical perspective that reflects the core spirit of the Lotus Sutra, one founded on faith in the inherent dignity of human beings and profound confidence in people's capacity for positive transformation”.
- Bodhisattva spirit, altruism and compassion: “The oneness of self and others is the background of altruism and the aspiration to help others lead a life free from sufferings. The Bodhisattva exemplifies the state of compassion, or altruistic life, and a person in this state aspires to help all people”.
- Self-mastery: Various Buddhist schools differ in their teachings regarding the subject of mastery of human desires, nevertheless there is a common agreement that behavior or actual conduct is a proof of a person’s humanity and self-development, as humanism starts from the individual “Buddhism is concerned with the essential nature of humanity. As Nichiren Daishonin teaches ‘behavior as a human being’ that perfectly accords with reason is what constitutes the heart of Buddhism”. Some Buddhist schools focus on following the precepts to manifest one’s highest form of humanity.
- Peace and nonviolence: The essence of Buddhist concepts of eternity of life, interconnectedness of all beings and the sanctity of life form the ground for nonviolence: “...the Buddha was the greatest teacher of ahimsa (non-violence)”, “A single life is worth more than the major world system [universe].”. To resolve conflicts, Buddhism offers the way of dialogue and sharing responsibility.
- Respect for human rights: Many Buddhist texts emphasize the equality of all members of society regardless of class or gender: “[The Lotus Sutra] is also a grand declaration of human rights that refutes ideas and beliefs that discriminate against women”. The right to live without oppression and the right of the individual for self-development are essential for attaining enlightenment.
- Contributing to society: Contributing to art, culture, education and social welfare is part of acknowledgement of our humanity. The Buddhist principle of Interconnectedness of the individual, society and the environment implies also people’s responsibility for taking action: “To add significance to our lives we must generate value that we ourselves create, and for that we must preserve our autonomy and contribute to our social and natural environment by the creation of noble values.”, aiming at the well-being of all people: “Buddhism, in common with other religions, strives to eradicate all evil and works for the well-being of humanity”,.
- Advocating world citizenship: Humanism has the power and capacity to unify humanity’s diverse racial and ethnic manifestations into one global entity: “At deeper levels, there is a consciousness connecting all humanity”, where diversity is rather treasured and celebrated: “The Buddha's teaching begins with the recognition of human diversity”.
Mind, body, spirit
The three properties of the individual human being: "mind, body, spirit" - can be transformed to express the highest qualities of "wisdom, courage and compassion", characterizing a person of humanistic approach in the reality of daily life:
- The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living.
- The courage not to fear or deny difference; but to strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them,
- The compassion to maintain empathy that reaches beyond one's immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.
Comparison with secular humanism
Common between secular humanism and Buddhist humanism is the rejection of the concept of external super being, and the emphasis of both types of humanism on social justice and reason : “Without common sense, religion develops into blind belief and fanaticism, which have no place in Buddhism. Nichiren writes: “Buddhism is reason. Reason will win over your lord”. In other words, reason will win over authority”. Buddhist literature refers to the human being (man) by the Sanskrit word “manu” which indicates reason or thinking. Secular humanists' maxim “All men are brothers” which was the basis for their struggle against slavery in the 19th century - has parallel in the Buddhist teaching on "equality of all human beings".
There are, however, some arguments differentiating secular and Buddhist humanism, the first pointing to the exclusiveness of secular humanism through its rejection of religious thoughts. Humanism is a whole encompassing perspective, and in this light rejection of any religious thought by secular humanism creates a certain tension of "us" and "them" within humanity itself: “As long as human beings exist, there will always be some kind of religious spirit”.
Another disparity relates to the rejection of the concept of ‘divine’ in secularism. While Buddhism rejects the concept of God, it still maintains strong belief in the ‘divine’ nature of life: “...in a general sense, all living things in the universe are sacred...in contrast to Secular humanism, this [Buddhist] humanism is respectful of the sanctity of all things, including even mountains, rivers, plants and trees”.
Humanistic ideas of secular humanism cannot ensure security and protection of humanity without emphasis on nonviolence and human rights as the most valuable or sacred values: “Unless we see that the divine exists in all people, the idea of respect for human beings will remain empty and rootless”.
A further difference in views between secular and Buddhist humanism relates to paying little attention to the interconnectedness of humanity with the environment: “The error of the European Enlightenment was that it put humans above nature”. Making no mention of the relatedness of humanity to its origin, nature itself, is what secular - and religious - humanism share in distinction from Buddhist humanism.
Comparison with religious humanism
Religious humanism is defined as an integration of humanistic philosophy - which does not pertain to the divine - and religious beliefs which center on the human being. Buddhist humanism - on the other hand - does not avoid the concept of the ‘divine’: “Buddhism locates the divine within the life of the individual”, yet it does not attribute to the human being a special position above other forms of life.
The holistic view of humanity as being an inseparable part of other forms of life - a similar view to the concept of Gaia - constitutes a shift from the anthropocentric beliefs about humanity, prevalent in the teachings of various religions: “The idea that ‘nature exists for humankind is a view of nature based on the creation myth and a human centered understanding of the universe”.
The term religious humanism, however, can be applied to the philosophy of Buddhists: “who chart a middle way between theism and materialistic secularism…what is of vital importance is realizing the ideal possibilities of human existence, not religion, as an end in itself”. In this perspective, neither religious nor secular views on humanism can be helpful in integrating humanity itself into oneness, and neither can claim custody of humanism, in general, because of the dualistic approach of seeing humanity through "either religious" or "non-religious" perspective, while Buddhist humanism can “…break down the dualism of the sacred and the secular, the religious life and everyday life”. Another subject of focus relates to the values and ethics in religious humanism.
Some researchers make a distinction between specific religious systems of belief and religious humanism in general: "Unlike Christian humanism, religious humanism does not appeal to God's relationship to humans to justify our inherent dignity and liberty. Religious humanism puts humanism first and religion second. Humanism in general emphasizes our moral responsibilities in this life and finds human intelligence up to the challenge of figuring out how to live ethical lives”. This view is consistent with acceptance of religious humanism to the diverse nature of rights of individuals, and which may not be identical to particular religious teachings. In general, all types of humanistic thoughts adopt the Golden Rule: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”, a unifying humanistic principle of behavioral ethics.
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- The Globalisation of Buddhist Humanism, Seager, Richard Hughes ISBN 0-520-24577-6
- New Horizons in Eastern Humanism, Weiming/Ikeda, Tauris &Co Ltd, ISBN 9781848855922
- Buddhist Humanism
- Humanistic Buddhism
- Was the Buddha the First Humanists?
- Buddhism and Humanism
- The Virtues of Asian Humanism
- Humanism in Buddhism
- “The Spirit of Humanism in Buddhism” – Xiao Lihua, National Taiwan University
- Humanistic Elements in early Buddhism
- Humanistic Momentum in Buddhist literature
- Humanism and the Buddha
- Buddhism and Intercultural Humanism
All Buddhist schools and temples can be considered as local organizations for studying and practicing the principles of humanism. Buddhist centers vary in their activities aimed at spreading the ideals of Buddhist humanism in society, such as interfaith dialogue, contribution to society - in particular at the time of crises or environmental disasters -, sharing in seminars with various humanists and promoting understanding of the concepts of humanism. Some of the global Buddhist organizations/institutions are:
- Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order
- Tsu Chi Foundation
- Buddhist Global Relief
- Value Creation SGI/ Humanitarian Activities
- Interfaith dialogue/ SGI
- Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, Dialogue