Virtues of Asian Humanism
Department of Philosophy
University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844-3016
Keynote Address at the 40th Annual
Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Soka University,
Note: The Soka Gakkei (The Value Creating Society) is the largest lay
Buddhist Organization in the world. They are one of 200 Buddhists sects
in Japan that follow the medieval monk Nichiren�s
exclusive focus on the Lotus Sutra. Daisaku Ikeda, scholar and activist, is the
president of their international organization.
It is man that makes the Way great and not the
Way that can make man great.
The Buddha is an ordinary
human being; ordinary human beings are the Buddha.
Note: Scroll to the end for the endnotes.
There are no links for the blue numbers.
Humanism, one of the greatest achievements of
world civilization, has become a dirty word. Humanism, one of the essential
aspects of the American heritage, has become an un‑American word. Something is
terribly wrong when a good term like this is abused by people who ought to
know better. It used to be that all of America’s ills were blamed on a
�communist� conspiracy, but now this has been replaced by a �humanist�
conspiracy. Humanists are being targeted as the source of every �evil,� from
homosexuality to one‑world government. The fact that the American Communist
Party had become fossilized and a laughingstock did not deter earlier
conspiracy theorists. And now to propose that the 3000‑member American
Humanist Association has a stranglehold on our minds is an insult to all
intelligent Americans. Communism, by and large, deserves the bad press that it
receives. One can understand how Communism has become a dirty word. Many lives
and much freedom have been lost in the name of Communism, just as formerly
many were lost in the name of Christianity. But as far as I know, no one has
ever been killed in the name of humanism.
Why has this innocent name of been blackened?
Why has the humanist become the new Satan and anti‑Christ? The Religious Right
must certainly take most of the blame, even, regrettably so, some of the best
evangelical theologians. John Jefferson Davis, who otherwise makes some
positive contributions to systematic theology, claims that an
�antirevelational� humanism is the cause of mental illness, international
terrorism, and other evils.
Some of the blame also lies with narrow‑minded humanists who have
insisted that only their views are �true� humanism. When some humanists say
that only those who reject a belief in God and put their trust squarely in the
scientific method are real humanists, they are distorting the meaning of
humanism. When someone like B. F. Skinner, one of the signers of the Humanist
Manifesto, claims that human beings have neither freedom nor dignity, this is
also a significant deviation from traditional humanism.
The evangelist Jerry Falwell charges that
humanism �challenges every principle on which America was founded. It
advocates abortion‑on‑demand, recognition of homosexuals, free use of
pornography, legalizing of prostitution and gambling, the free use of drugs…
and the socialization of all humanity into a world commune.�
Needless to say, traditional humanism is not bound at all to any of
these positions. Many of the humanists in the Libertarian Party would agree
with most of this list, but as laissez‑faire capitalists, they would
definitely reject the world commune idea. There are also many Christian
humanists who would disagree with most of these points. It is also clear, as I
have argued elsewhere,
America was founded on humanist principles.
This attack is truly incredible if one
considers that the Greek humanism contributed to the ethical foundations of a
democratic liberalism that is world-wide in scope. The humanism of the Greek
Sophists gave law its adversarial system and inspired Renaissance humanists to
extend education to the masses as well as to the aristocracy. The Christian
humanism of Aquinas and Erasmus helped temper negative views of human nature
found in the biblical tradition. The humanism of the European Enlightenment
gave us political rights, representative government, and free market
economics. It has been said that �the pluralistic, democratic, secular,
humanistic state…is one of the greatest political inventions of all
In this essay
I will argue that both Confucian and Buddhist humanists can offer sage advise
to Euro-American humanists, whose emphasis on the individual has sometimes
undermined social stability and traditional values. We will also see that both
Confucian and Buddhist humanism presents a balanced view of heart-mind, which
unfortunately has been upset by an overemphasis on the intellect in European
philosophy. I will also show these Asians joined Greek humanists in affirming
a virtue ethics rather than a rule-based ethics. Furthermore, the fact that
Buddhism includes animals in the moral community allows contemporary humanists
to avoid the mistake of becoming overly anthropocentric and exclusive in their
thinking. Finally, I will propose that the Soka Gakkei is the most promising
and constructive Buddhist humanism in the world today.
THE ORIGINS OF
Humanism has a long, distinguished history
which goes all the way back to Confucius and the Buddha, whose emphasis on
human dignity and right human relationships makes them, a full generation
before Socrates, strong candidates as the world’s first great humanists. A
good one‑sentence summary of Confucian humanism can be found in the
Analects: �It is humans that makes the Way great and not the Way that can
make humans great� (15:28). When the Jesuits first went to China, they thought
they had discovered the Asian equivalent of their own Christian humanism. It
is important, however, to note that Christian humanism is theocentric, whereas
Buddhism and Confucianism are humanistic in the strong sense that neither view
requires divine aid for attaining liberation or achieving the good life.
Accounts indicate that neither the demon Mara nor the Hindu Brahma could
prevent the Buddha from achieving enlightenment. It is only some Pure Land
schools, with their emphasis on �other� power rather than �self� power, that
do not meet the criteria of strict humanism.
I would like to propose a Buddhist equivalent
of Analects 15:28: �It is humans who make the Buddha nature great, not
the Buddha nature that makes humans great.� Let me hasten to prevent a
possible misunderstanding. In a basic sense it is the Buddha nature that makes
all things great, but the humanistic principle here is that it is people
themselves who have to actualize their Buddha natures; no one else can do it
for them. Also consonant with Confucian philosophy is that idea that humans
play a unique role, through language and thought, in revealing the true nature
of all things in the cosmos. In this regard the Soka Gakkei reading of
Analects 15:28 is, I believe, particularly instructive: It is we who create
value and it is we, through art, religion, and culture, who reveal the value
of all nature around us. Protagoras� homo mensura is therefore too
strong: humans are not the measure of everything; rather, they are the only
beings who can reveal the true nature of things through philosophy, religion,
art, and science.
This strict definition of humanism–human
beings achieve their goals completely under their own power–is not suitable
as a general definition. I believe that it is essential to formulate a basic
definition of humanism that is religiously neutral. It is imperative,
especially in a world of cultural pluralism, for believers and nonbelievers to
be able to share the same basic humanistic values. A religiously neutral
definition of morality is necessary so as to protect atheists from unfair
charges of immorality. Common dictionary definitions of humanism are
comprehensive enough to include both European and Asian traditions and
sufficiently neutral to embrace both theists and nontheists. This one from the
Random House College Dictionary is eminently suitable: �Any system of
thought or action in which human interests, values, dignity, are taken to be
of primary importance….�
Both Asian and Greek humanists focused on
this‑worldly concerns but without giving up the idea of a transcendent realm
altogether. In other words, humanism’s principal concerns in Greece, China,
and India were secular. Greek and Asian humanists turned from cosmology and
metaphysics to the important problems of human action and conduct. A central
imperative for both of them was to establish correct human relationships with
the goal of peace, harmony, and justice. The stress on reason has been a
pervasive element in European humanism, an element clearly subordinate in
Asian traditions. For Confucians the highest virtue ren consists in
reciprocity and loving others; he does not emphasize cultivating virtues
according to right reason. Although the Buddha was a consummate dialectician,
he, too, insisted that right living was much more important than right
IN SEARCH OF BUDDHIST HUMANISM
In an unpublished paper entitled "Buddhism and
Chinese Humanism," David Kal�upahana contends that it is Buddhism, not
Confucianism, that should be promoted as the true humanism of Asia. He claims
that Gautama’s rejection of tran�scendental knowledge, his declaration of
moral freedom in the midst of karmic de�terminants, and his refusal to go
beyond immediate experience all converge nicely with major elements of
European humanism. Based on knowledge gained from experience and induction, a
Buddhist, says Kalupahana, can use an evaluative knowledge called anumana,
a mode of moral reflection which allows her to complete the eight-fold path
and become an uttamapurisa, an "ultimate" person. This ideal person is
one who acts with a clear goal in view and harms neither herself nor others.
Although Kalupahana translates ut�tamapurisa as "superman," this
obviously does not represent a Buddhist Titan, as it may have in Hinduism or
as it does in the later Buddhist Mahavastu. (Spiritual Titanism is an
extreme form of humanism in which human beings take on divine attributes and
The ut�tamapurisa simply acts "with a clear goal in view and does not
waver when faced with obstacles. He is one who has attained freedom from the
suffering and unhappiness in the world. . . . Such a person. . . is not only
happy by himself, but also makes other people happy by being pleasant and
helpful to them."
This Buddhist saint sounds very much like a Confucian sage rather than a
Kalupahana sums up his view of Buddhist
humanism in this way:
The philosophy of . . . Buddhism. . .
undoubtedly represents one of the most comprehensive and systematic forms of
humanism. It is based on naturalistic metaphysics, with causal dependence as
its central theme. Rejecting any form of transcendentalism, determinism, or
fatalism, it em�phasizes its ultimate faith in man and recognizes his power or
potentiality in solving his problems through reliance primarily upon empirical
know�ledge, reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision. It
believes in the freedom of man, not in a transcendental sphere, but here and
now. The highest goal it offers is not other-worldly but this-worldly.
Kalupahana concedes that Euro-American
humanists would not be sympathetic to the Bud�dhist belief in transmigration,
but he counters that the Buddhist version of reincar�nation does not undermine
human freedom in the way that he believes that Hindu or Jain views do.
Two other objections to Kalupahana’s thesis
should be mentioned. First, Buddhist monks claim that the capacity of
retrocognition, clairvoyance, and telepathy aids them in apprehending the
twelve-fold chain of causal dependence. Contemporary Euro-American humanists,
especially those as�sociated with a leading humanist journal Free Inquiry,
have consistently rejected claims of ESP and other claims of paranormal
experience. Second, these same critics might also respond negative�ly to
Buddhism’s "soft" determinism, claiming that true humanism must be based on a
theory of genuine self-determination. If freedom of this sort is a
requirement for humanistic philosophy, then none of the classical Asian
philosophies, including Confucianism, qualifies as such. Ironically,
Euro-American humanists cannot consistently hold to this criterion of freedom
either. The Humanist Pantheon, com�prised of historical humanists chosen by
the editors of Free Inquiry and listed on the back of each issue,
features determinists such as Lucretius, Epictetus, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, and
Freud. Their Academy of Humanism also contains sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and other prom�inent
scientists who subscribe to the theory of universal determinism. It is clear
that ancient and contemporary humanists support moral and social freedom, but
do not agree on the issue of free-will and an internal self-determining agent.
BUDDHIST ETHICS AS �CHARACTER CONSEQUENTIALISM�
European humanism commenced with the classical
Greeks, especially Socrates, Protagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, who celebrated
the use of reason and discovered human conscience � Socrates’ daimon
that always warned him of wrong actions. In Plato’s Protagoras (324
ff.) we find the idea of an inner habit of virtue by which we become morally
responsible and to which punishment is directed if we do wrong. In this
dialogue Socrates’ debate with Protagoras reveals a basic split in Greek
humanism, a division which is still with us. In the passage referred to above,
Protagoras is a protoutilitarian in his concept of moral responsibility and
punishment. The modern doctrine of rehabilitation and deterrence is actually
2500 years old: �He who desires to inflict rational punishment does not
retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the
future, and is desirous that the man who is punished, and he who sees him
punished may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of
prevention…� (324 B). Plato, Aristotle, and Kant have a different view of
moral responsibility and punishment. Their moral objectivism is nonutilitarian
and their idea of justice is retributive: punishment is not future‑oriented
with deterrence in mind; but past‑oriented, focusing on the deed done, rather
than on the hypothetical better deeds which will come by rehabilitation.
We, therefore, have two major schools of Greek
humanism. The Sophists and Epicureans are fully secular humanists; they are
protoutilitarians; they believe that moral laws are conventions, and they hold
that virtues come about as the result of a pleasure‑pain calculus. In their
rejection of hedonism and relativism, Plato, Aristotle, and their modern
followers affirm a virtue ethics basic on objective moral values. Although
they still emphasize human dignity, Plato and Aristotle reject Protagoras’
famous motto homo mensura � humans are the measure of all things.
Furthermore, Plato and Aristotle preserve the unity of
truth, goodness, and beauty. Following the Greek atomists, the Sophists and
Epicurus separate fact and value. For them the fundamental nature of reality
consists of inert atoms bouncing around in empty space. Accepting this view
of reality, modern science essentially agrees with the Sophists: values such
as goodness and beauty are merely human projections upon a valueless world.
Anticipating the Greek philosophers by a
generation, the Buddha established an essential link between goodness and
truth on the one hand and evil and untruth on the other. Mahayana Buddhism in
China and Japan is most aware of the aesthetic dimension of being moral, and
the founder of the Soka Gakkei continues this tradition. Even though
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi substituted benefit for truth in his trinity of benefit,
goodness, and beauty, he still agreed with the Greeks that beautiful deeds are
performed by beautiful souls.
Makiguchi�s focus on the idea of benefit sounds utilitarian and it is
completely consistent with a pervasive consequentialism that is found in the
One of the most striking and
controversial examples of conseqentialism is that some Mahayanists Buddhists
hold that Bodhisattvas may kill persons who will, if not stopped, murder
others in the future.
At least three good consequences result from such action: Bodhisattvas accrue
merit that they then can bequeath to others, the would-be murderers are saved
from the horrors of Hell, and the lives of many people are saved.
In a famous passage that demonstrates that the
Buddha is a humanist in the strong sense, he exhorts his disciples to reject
all traditional forms of authority. He tells his disciples that they should
not accept any claim merely on the basis of appeal to holy scripture or that
it was said by a great yogi; rather he says �if you find that it appeals to
your sense of discrimination and conscience as being conducive to your benefit
and happiness, then accept it and live up to it.�
After sixty of his disciples had reached enlightenment, he offers the same
advise: �Go forth, O monks, . . . for the good, benefit, and happiness of the
people and devas.�
Buddhist consequentialism, however, is not
utilitarian because the Buddha rejected all forms of hedonism, and he also
believed that intentions were just as important as consequences.
Consqeuentialism is a moral theory that insists that all moral value lies in
consequences not intentions, but not all consequentialists agree that moral
value is established by a pleasure-pain calculus. Gandhi�s works contain a
strong appeal to consequences as well, but his view is what might be called a
�spiritual� consequentialism rather than the utilitarianism with which we are
most familiar. A theory that is even more appropriate, however, is the
�character� consequentialism that P. J. Ivanhoe has attributed to Confucianism
and which can be applied to Buddhism as well.
As opposed to most hedonic calculations,
character consequentialism focuses on the long-term benefits that the virtues
bring to individuals and society as a whole. Ivanhoe illustrates this
distinction between the short-term utility of quarterly results in American
corporations and the lifetime commitment of Japanese companies to their
employees. What the Japanese lose in terms of quick and large profits, they
gain in the form of corporate, civic, and personal virtues of loyalty,
perseverance, and benevolence. One of the weaknesses of the hedonic calculus is
the myriad contingencies and uncertainties that make prediction virtually
impossible. In stark contrast, the value of the virtues is well-attested and
the person of character is eminently predictable and reliable.
A thoroughly contingent future makes the
application of rules difficult, but the virtue theorist, always working from
concrete particulars, offers moral agents the freedom to adapt and to
improvise. Although critics claim that virtue theory is vulnerable to
perfectionism, it appears that both rule ethics and utilitarianism have even a
greater liability on this point. Their abstract and universal perspective may
deceive them into thinking that there must be a solution to every moral
dilemma. The particularist and contextualist perspective of virtue theory
should to save it from this danger. Furthermore, Ivanhoe adds: �If one does not
recognize that some moral problems simply have no satisfactory solution, one
runs the risk of cultivating a seriously deformed character.�
This conclusion leads Ivanhoe to one of his most
powerful insights. He is very concerned that both rule ethics and
utilitarianism, primarily because both assume a disembodied moral agent,
occasionally require actions that ignore the impact on personal integrity and
character. Ivanhoe grants that it is conceivable that a few people in isolated
situations may be forced to perform gruesome deeds in order to maximize the
social good. But there must be something fundamentally wrong with a theory that
uses the language of moral necessity in hypothetical actions such as torturing a
child to save the lives of ten adults. There is also something terribly wrong
with the Kantian rule that it is always wrong to lie, even when doing so might
save the life of your best friend. The Kantian allows that it is prudent for
you to lie but insists that your action has no moral worth at all. Kant�s
reasoning has the absurd result that it moves many of our most trying decisions,
ones that have the much moral force and difficulty, out of the realm morality
ARISTOTLE, THE BUDDHA, AND VIRTUE ETHICS
If we are to speak of a Buddhist virtue ethics,
at least two major differences must be noted vis-�-vis the Greek tradition.
First, for the Buddha pride is a vice, so the humble soul is to be preferred
over Aristotle’s "great soul" (megalopsychia). Second, the Buddha would
not have accepted Aristotle’s elitism. For Aristotle only a certain class of
people (free-born Greek males, to be exact) could establish the virtues and
attain the good life. In stark contrast, the Dharmakaya contains all people,
including the poor, the outcast, people of color, and women. Even though the
Analects contains one reference to a feudal class structure (8.9), there are
other passages that imply universal brotherhood (12.5) and the education of all
children (7.7, 15.38).
An Aristotelian definition of virtue ethics
might be phrased as the following: It is the art of making the soul great and
noble (megalopsychia). A Platonic definition, drawing on the principal
insights of the Republic�the art of making the soul balanced and
harmonious–is actually more compatible Confucianism and Buddhism. But it is
again a Soka Gakkei definition that gets at the full meaning of art in the
modern sense of the word. Virtue ethics for them would be the art of creating
value for themselves and for the world around them. The Chinese have a
wonderful image of all people as rough gems at birth, each with the
responsibility of polishing their stones so that each shines uniquely and
distinctively as radiant gem-persons.
Even with the significant differences mentioned
above, there are still several constructive parallels between Aristotle and the
Buddha, and David Kalupahana and Damien Keown are the scholars who have led the
way in this comparative analysis. As far as I can ascertain, Kalupahana is the
first to suggest a parallel between the Greek eudaimonia and the Sanskrit
sukha and sugata, both best translated as �well-being,� �inner
peace,� or �contentment,� although �happiness� is acceptable if it is understood
in a nonhedonistic way. Kalupahana appears to go astray in his interpretation
when in his later work he identifies Buddhist ethics as primarily utilitarian.
Damien Keown critiques Kalupahana and others on this point, proposes a full
fledged Buddhist virtue ethics, and offers a brilliant comparison analysis of
the Buddha and Aristotle. Keown should also be commended for rejecting an
intellectualist reading of Buddhist ethics, one that holds that insight (prajna)
alone, just like Aristotle sophia, can leads us to nirvana/ eudaimonia.
Keown states that prajna �is the cognitive realization of [no-self] while
sila (virtue) is the affective realization,� and cites Croom Robertson to
strengthen the point: �wisdom . . . is a term of practical import; it is not
mere insight, but conduct guided by insight. Good conduct is wise; wise conduct
The Buddha would have agreed with this statement completely.
Let us now supplement Keown�s excellent work by
proposing that one can discern the operation of Aristotle�s practical reason in
the Buddha�s eight-fold path and also in one of his most famous sayings: �They
who know causation (prattiyasumutpada) know the Dharma.�15
Let us unpack the meaning of this pithy proposition. First, a more accurate
translation of the Sanskrit phrase prattiyasumutpada is �interdependent
coorigination.� Second, the word Dharma can be translated as �reality,�
�truth,� �moral law,� or �righteousness.� Contrary to some European humanists
and modern science, the word Dharma fuses the realms of facts and values.
Sometimes the term is used to describe basic moments of reality, an anticipation
of the quanta of energy of contemporary physics. Dharmas in this sense are not
substantial things but events and processes. The Buddha embraced what is best
called an organic, holistic, interdependent world, one that has been reaffirmed
in many disciplines, including contemporary physics. The Buddhist virtue of
compassion (karuna) is based on the interrelatedness of all life, and
this was the fundamental moral discovery of the Buddha�s Enlightenment. The
Buddha realized that compassion and sympathy can have no meaning if the Sankhya
purusha, Jain jiva, or Vedantist atman are, as these
schools hold, independent substances.
We are now ready for an interpretation of this
powerful phrase. I propose that it means the following: Those who know their
own causal web of existence know the truth (i.e., the true facts of their lives)
and they will know what to do. As Kalupahana states: "Thus, for the Buddha,
truth values are not distinguishable from moral values or ethical values; both
are values that participate in nature"; and this means that Dharma consists in
moral and physical principles derived �from the functioning of all dharma,� as
basic constituents of existence.The
truths we discover by means of this formula will be very personal truths, moral
and spiritual truths that are, as Aristotle says of moral virtues, �relative to
us.� Both Aristotle and the Buddha thought it was always wrong to eat too much,
but each person will find his/her own relative mean between eating too much and
eating too little. A virtue ethics of moderation is still normative, because
the principal determinants in finding a workable mean for eating are objective
not subjective. If people ignore these objective factors–e.g., temperament,
body size, metabolism, and other physiological factors–then their bodies,
sooner or later, will tell them that they are out of their respective means.
The motto above can also be interpreted in terms
of the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Those who are mindful of what is going on
inside of themselves as well as what is going on in the world about them will
know what to do. For most ancient philosophers this meant breaking through the
veil of disordered desire to the truth of the situation, which essentially means
learning to desire only that one needs rather than craving for things one does
not need or cannot obtain. This is not simply a cognitive knowing of everything
but a practical grasp of what is appropriate and what is fitting for us and our
surroundings. (Like Aristotle�s phronesis it is primarily nonsensuous
correct perception.) The famous "mirror of Dharma" is not a common one that we
all look into together, as some Mahayanists believe, but it is actually a myriad
of mirrors reflecting individual histories, distinctively individual needs, even
different environments and cultures. This is why mindful and tolerant Buddhists
would excuse the Inuit from their exclusive meat eating.
�Those who know causation know the Dharma�
sometimes has a provocative addition: �Those who know the Dharma know me.�
This conclusion appears to undermine the thesis above that we are essentially
our own standard for determining the Dharma. In Mahayana schools that deify the
Buddha one is faced with the possibility that the Buddha becomes the absolute
standard for value in the same way that God is in Christian ethics. The fact
that this additional phrase appears in Pali texts as well as later Sanskrit
texts indicates that there may be an alternative reading to �knowing me.� The
Buddha would not be a Spiritual Titan if he claimed, especially in the context
of the Indian acceptance of knowledge of past lives, that he knew the Dharma
better than anyone heretofore. One need only compare the moral knowledge that
mindful people learn from trial and error in one life to a vastly expanded font
of moral lessons one could learn from thousands of past lives. Therefore, we
can see the Buddha as a paragon of virtue without at all deifying him, and
�knowing me� could be interpreted as an invitation for us to find our own middle
way by the Buddha�s example. This would coincide with the Confucians referring
to the ancient sage kings as models of virtue. We therefore must reject Keown�s
claim that the Buddha�s choice �determines where virtue lies.�
This is simple not compatible with Buddhist personalism and contextualism, but
more importantly, it undermines the foundations of Buddhist humanism.
Let us now look at a humanistic interpretation of
Nichiren�s myoho renge kyo and relate it to the motto about causality and
the Dharma discussed above. The Japanese renge means �lotus� and kyo
means �sutra,� so the passage is calling on the authority of the Lotus Sutra.
Myoho means the Dharma as moral law and fundamental reality. Separating
out myo as �potentiality� and ho as �action,� we can see the basic
link between causality, personal action, and the Dharma discussed above.
Myoho is sometimes translated as �mystic law,� and many Euro-American
humanists would reject this as irrational. In terms of our interpretation of
the Dharma above, the word �mystic� should mean �incomprehensible� rather than
�irrational.� This is especially true if we are speaking of ordinary humans and
not perfected Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Even though we might be very mindful of
how the law of causality works in our life and the lives of others, this does
not mean that we can claim to understand it completely. When the millions of
Nichiren Buddhists chant myoho renge kyo they are attempting to actualize
the best possible action from the great potential of the Dharma and the flux of
interdependent coorigination. In their chanting they are dedicating themselves
to producing nonviolent actions, developing the virtues, and improving their
overall personal character. In short, as they know causation they know and
realize the Dharma. Most significantly, they act through their own personal
virtue rather than according to abstract moral law.
THE ASIAN FUSION OF HEART AND MIND
In his book The Abolition of Man C. S.
Lewis, who calls himself a Christian humanist, declares that secular humanists
who reject human immortality undermine what it is to be truly human.
Just the opposite, I believe, is true. The doctrine of natural immortality is
not only unbiblical but also a basic element of spiritual Titanism. True
humanists are they who recognize their earthly limits and their proper place in
the world, and that is obviously not at its center. Genuine humanists reject the
idea that they are the sole focus of cosmic activity; and they do not suffer
from the illusion of Nietzsche’s �otherworldly hopes�; rather, they follow
Zarathustra’s gospel of remaining �faithful to the earth.� I must also
respectfully disagree with Joseph M. Shaw’s thesis that the Incarnation actually
makes Christian humanism �revolutionary.�
The humanization of God is just as serious a mistake as the divinization of
human beings. The former confuses divine nature as badly as the latter
undermines human nature.
Daisaku Ikeda has written a very fine biography
of the Buddha that strongly emphasizes the humanity of the Buddha,
and thus avoids the docetism that characterizes many other Mahayana schools. In
a most striking statement Ikeda paraphrases Nichiren as follows: "The Buddha is
an ordinary human being; ordinary human beings are the Buddha."
The interpretation of the second phrase is essential to formulating Buddhist
humanism correctly. From the standpoint of Pali Buddhism to say that we are all
Buddhas simply means that all of us have the potential to understand the Four
Noble Truths and to overcome craving in our lives. The Mahayanist interpretation would be that we
all possess a Buddha-nature that has an intimate relationship to the Dharmakaya,
the cosmic "body" of the Buddha. One of the problems with this option is the
absolute monism that some Mahayanist schools affirm: the belief that our Buddha
natures are completely one with the Dharmakaya. This position of course
undermines a central tenet of humanism: the individual integrity of each human
For the absolute monist or nondualist, the Mirror of Dharma shows
one reality united with one universal soul, but for Buddhist humanist the mirror
reflects all personal histories as distinctively unique and valuable united
within the Dharmakaya. Thich Nhat Hanh offers his own playful critique of
absolute monism: "Non-duality means ‘not two,’ but ‘not two’ also means ‘not
one.’ That is why we say ‘non-dual’ instead of ‘one.’�
Radical individualism has been humanism�s
greatest flaw, and it certainly is if the individual is conceived as a social
atom externally related to other isolated selves. But if the individual is
interpreted as a real relational and social self within the unity of life and
reality as whole, then we have found the Buddhist Middle way between the two
extremes of monistic dissolution and social atomism.
Let us now look at the diagram
above next page that I call �The Circle of
Humanism.� The cardinal directions of the circle indicate the �heart� as north,
the �mind� as south, the �west� as secular and the �east� as sacred. The
significant feature of this graphic is that except for Hume, all the European
philosophers are in the lower �mind� part of the circle. What the graphic
demonstrates is that both Buddhism and Confucianism offer an essential
corrective to European humanism, which has generally not only split the heart
from the mind and made it the dominant faculty, but has also dichotomized the
secular and the sacred. I believe that the Buddha would agree with the
Confucian concept of xin, the essence of humanity is not just the
intellect, nor is it the just the passions, but a unity of both heart and mind.
Unfortunately, the ascetic tradition in Buddhism devalued the passions and the
world in general in a way that the Buddha would have disapproved.
Some Mahayanist schools, such as Zen and Soka
Gakkai, should be commended for preserving this all important balance of heart
and mind and also affirming the passions and the body. (Indeed, Daisaku Ikeda
has one of the most positive views of the body in all of Buddhism.)
Furthermore, we should reiterate that both Confucianism and Buddhism offer a
significant corrective to the concept of self. The Euro-American tendency to
see the self as self-contained and self-sufficient is balanced by a
Confucian-Buddhist self is social and relational, a position that some political
philosophers are now calling a �situated autonomy.� Therefore, in Nichiren
Buddhism a �practice for self� is also a �practice for others.� Finally, more
than any other Buddhist school, the Soka Gakkei should be praised for its
refusal to dichotomize the secular and the sacred, which has led them to a firm
commitment to worldly concerns and to the promotion of intercultural
understanding, social justice, and world peace.
1. John Jefferson Davis,
The Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
1984), p. 83.
2. Quoted in Charles Krauthammer, �The Humanist
Phantom,� The New Republic (September 25, 1981), pp. 20-21.
3. See N. F. Gier, "Religious Liberalism and the
Founding Fathers" in Peter Caws, ed., Two Centuries of Philosophy in America.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, pp. 22-45.
4. Robert Primack and David Asby, �The Roots of
Humanism,� Educational Leadership (December, 1980), p. 225.
5. See N. F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism: Indian,
Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000). Parts of
this paper have been excerpted from chapter 8. Parts of the introduction are
taken from N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (Lanham, MD:
University Press of American, 1987).
6. David J. Kalupahana,
"Buddhism and Chinese Humanism," p. 11. This paper was presented at a Symposium
on Chinese Humanism, sponsored by the Society for Asian and Comparative
Philosophy during a special session of the American Philosophical Association,
March 25, 1977.
7. Ibid., p. 12.
8. See N. F. Gier and Paul
Kjellberg, �Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will� in Freedom and Determinism
(Seven Bridges Press, forthcoming).
9. Dayle M. Bethel, ed., Education for Creative Living: Ideas and Proposals
of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (Ames: Iowa State
University Press, 1989), pp. 75, 82.
10. See Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 1989), p.
12. Cited in Radiant Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, ed.
Jean Smith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 12.
13. Philip J. Ivanhoe, �Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian
Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory,� Journal of Religious Ethics
19:1 (Spring, 1991), p. 62.
14. Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (New York: St. Martin�s
Press, 1992), p.112; see also pp. 38-43, passim; the Croom Robertson passage is
cited in Mrs. Rhys Davids, The Birth of Indian Psychology and its Development
in Buddhism (London: Luzac Press, 1936), p. 268.
15. Majjhima-nikaya I.190-1, quoted
in Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, HI:
University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 64.
16. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 63; Ethics in Early Buddhism,
See the Shalistramba S�tra,
trans. N. Ross Reat (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), �3, p. 28.
18. Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p. 226.
19. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 30.
20. Joseph M. Shaw, et al., eds.,
Readings in Christian Humanism
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), p. 25.
21. Daisaku Ikeda, The Living Buddha: An Interpretative Biography, trans.
Burton Watson (New York: Weatherhill, 1976).
22. Nichiren, �The True Aspect of All Phenomena� in The Writings of Nichiren
Daishonin (Tokyo: Soka Gakkei, 1999), p. 384.
23. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987), p.
Daisaku Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries
of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World (London: MacDonald,
1988), pp. 141-42.