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  • Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy
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While democratic aspirations may be manifested in different ways, some universal principles lie at the heart of any democratic society—representative government (established through free and fair elections), the rule of law and accountability (as enforced by an independent judiciary), and freedom of speech (as exemplified by an uncensored press). Democracy, however, is about much more than these formal institutions; it is about genuine freedom and the empowerment of the individual. I am neither an expert in political science nor an authority on democracy and the rule of law. Rather, I am a simple Buddhist monk, educated and trained in our ancient, traditional ways. None-theless, my life-long study of Buddhism and my involvement in the Tibetan people’s nonviolent struggle for freedom have given me some insights that I would like to discuss.

As a Buddhist monk, I do not find alien the concept and practice of democracy. At the heart of Buddhism lies the idea that the potential for awakening and perfection is present in every human being and that realizing this potential is a matter of personal effort. The Buddha proclaimed that each individual is a master of his or her own destiny, highlighting the capacity that each person has to attain enlightenment. In this sense, the Buddhist world view recognizes the fundamental sameness of all human beings. Like Buddhism, modern democracy is [End Page 3] based on the principle that all human beings are essentially equal, and that each of us has an equal right to life, liberty, and happiness. Whether we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, a follower of one religion or another, each of us is a human being. Not only do we desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering, but each of us also has an equal right to pursue these goals. Thus not only are Buddhism and democracy compatible, they are rooted in a common understanding of the equality and potential of every individual.

As for democracy as a procedure of decision making, we find again in the Buddhist tradition a certain recognition of the need for consensus. For example, the Buddhist monastic order has a long history of basing major decisions affecting the lives of individual monks on collective discourse. In fact, strictly speaking, every rite concerning the maintenance of monastic practice must be performed with a congre-gation of at least four monks. Thus one could say that the Vinaya rules of discipline that govern the behavior and life of the Buddhist monastic community are in keeping with democratic traditions. In theory at least, even the teachings of the Buddha can be altered under certain circumstances by a congregation of a certain number of ordained monks.

As human beings, we all seek to live in a society in which we can express ourselves freely and strive to be the best we can be. At the same time, pursuing one’s own fulfillment at the expense of others would lead to chaos and anarchy. What is required, then, is a system whereby the interests of the individual are balanced with the wider well-being of the community at large. For this reason, I feel it is necessary to develop a sense of universal responsibility, a deep concern for all human beings, irrespective of religion, color, gender, or nationality. If we adopt a self-centered approach to life and constantly try to use others to advance our own interests, we may gain temporary benefits, but in the long run happiness will elude us. Instead, we must learn to work not just for our own individual selves, but for the benefit of all mankind.

While it is true that no system of government is perfect, democracy is the closest to our essential human nature and allows us the greatest opportunity to cultivate a sense of universal responsibility. As a Buddhist, I strongly believe in a humane approach to democracy, an approach that recognizes the importance of the individual without sacrificing a sense of responsibility toward all humanity. Buddhists emphasize the potential of the individual, but we also believe that the purpose of a meaningful life is to serve others.

Many nations consider respect...