The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson

IV. Buddhist Humanism as a Means to Religious Harmony by David J. Kalupahana

University of Hawaii
Department of Philosophy

Humanism is generally considered a Chinese phenomenon, especially Confucian. As a philosophy and literary movement in the West, it is supposed to have originated in Italy during the second half of the fourteenth century.1 This paper is intended to show that a very enlightened form of humanism came to be propagated in India by the Buddha, who was a contemporary of Confucius (sixth century, B.C.). Unfortunately that humanistic aspect of Buddhism has rarely been emphasized by scholars who wrote on Buddhism during the last two centuries.

One of the earliest among Indian thinkers in his search for a solution to the problem of the origin and development of the universe, directed his attention to the notion of human desire (kama) as the connecting link between nonexistence (asat) and existence (sat), thereby emphasizing the primacy of human nature.2 Unfortunately, it did not take much time for those who followed him to adopt the principle of "great extension" (similar to what one finds in Schopenhauer), in order to reach the conclusion that the reality of the universe, including man, is a cosmic "self (Atman), spiritual in nature, yet transcending ordinary humanity.

Thus, in the Upanishads, the emphasis comes to be laid on a cosmic principle, the individual being a mere microcosmic element within it. Although, at first, attempts were made to see an identity between these two realities, these attempts did not succeed. Knowing oneself implied knowing oneself as that (tat tvam). Knowing the nature of the cosmic self constituted the highest knowledge, the highest goal of human endeavor. It was the eternal, timeless, immutable and non-dual self. Such a transcendental self could not be easily reconciled with the notion of an impermanent, mutable and depraved individual person, as he is ordinarily understood. Hence, before long, the individual reality became a mere illusion (maya) and every from of individuality came to be sublimated by the notion of the transcendental self.

The failure on the part of the skeptical thinkers of the Materialist and Ajivika schools to know experientially such a transcendental self, not only led them to the other extreme of denying a cosmic spiritual reality, but also prompted them to accept a completely deterministic view of nature. Reality being what is sensorily given, human life, they believed, is completely determined by the laws of physical nature which they called svabhava. These were the "physicists" of the Indian tradition. For them physical nature constituted the reality. Psychic life, being a by-product of matter, is subordinate to physical nature. Therefore, they maintained that all beings, including humans, are propelled by the forces of physical nature and continue to wander in samsara with no self-power, no free-will, etc. They are thrown into one of the six types of existences (abhijati) by an inexorable unknown power and thence forward evolve according to the nature of that existence.3 Consequently, discourse on ethics and morality turns out to be nothing but idle talk. According to these thinkers, humanism has no place in the scheme of things.

The attempt to reconcile these two opposing traditions led the Jaina thinkers, in a rather curious way, to recognizing an extreme form of moral determinism. They believed that human life is partly determined and partly undetermined. It is partly determined because of the possibility of discovering the causes that determine it. It is partly undetermined because, sometimes, the causes are not discovered (adrsta). Among the causes that are known (drsta) human exertion (purusakara) constitutes an effective one. This recognition would make the Jainas humanists. But at the same time they insisted that among the known cause, there are some that are destined to occur (niyata) and which cannot be avoided. These are the effects of one's past actions (karma). Thus, for them, karma itself becomes an inexorable law, similar to the svabhava of the Materialists and Ajivikas. This explains their extreme asceticism which is intended as a sort of atonement for one's past karma.

To sum up the background, first there was the transcendentalism of the Upanishads which, in spite of its promise of freedom for man, was not easily accessible to him, except for the few initiated disciples. Secondly, the strict determinism of the Materialists and Ajivikas made it impossible for man to achieve any freedom on his own initiative. And thirdly, the moral determinism of the Jainas rendered man a slave of his own actions from which he could free himself only through excessive self-mortification. This represents the background in which Buddhism arose. The humanism of Buddhism is best understood in the light of this background.

The Buddha had an initial training in these disciplines, and being dissatisfied with them, he went on his own way to realize freedom from unhappiness and suffering in the world. It was only after he had decided, with great reluctance, to explain that freedom that the so-called philosophical problems arose. His problem was how best to explain the nature and status of man in the face of prevailing theories of transcendence and strict determinism. Like the Materialist, he discounted the existence of a transcendental self (Atman). But unlike the Materialists, he admitted that man occupies a very significant, but limited, place in the affairs of the world. His famous doctrine of "dependent arising" or causation (paticcasamuppada) was intended to explain the nature and status of man, without committing himself to any one of the extreme theories.

The Buddha did not recognize any transcendental knowledge to the activities of the five senses only. Like some of his predecessors in the yogic tradition, he recognized the ability of man to develop his powers of perception that would enable him to see certain phenomena that normally escape the attention of a person with an unconcentrated mind. Yet he did not exaggerate their value; nor did he claim that they reveal a transcendental reality5 Higher faculties such as telepathy. Retrocognition and clairvoyance merely provided information regarding life and death than are yielded by ordinary man's sense experience. For example, retrocognition enables one to remember the various conditions under which one has been living in one's past lives, especially the causes that led to one's continued rebirth. Clairvoyance helps one to understand how other beings, when they have passed away at death, are reborn in various states of existence, once again determined by different causes and conditions. These higher knowledges did not constitute final knowledge, for they are not only limited in scope, but also could lead to error, as in the case of some who believed that they are able to perceive a permanent and immutable self by such means.6 Final or veridical knowledge, for the Buddha, was the result of the cessation of defilements (asavakkhaya), better known as panna (Sk. prajna). The elimination of defiling tendencies such as likes and dislikes enables one to see things in their best perspective without any limitation imposed by one's disposition. The correct knowledge of phenomena or the best knowledge by experience is possible only after the elimination of the defilements. It is a result of this knowledge that the Buddha, as he claimed, was able to verify the fact of causation.7 When likes and dislikes are eliminated, things are not seen in terms of self or other. For the Buddha, the theories of self-causation or external causation are not only metaphysical, but also products of prejudice.8 The Buddha maintained that when things are seen from an unprejudiced point of view, they are perceived as arising depending upon (paticca) circumstances. This knowledge by experience is with regard to what is existentially given. It is called knowledge of phenomena or knowledge by experience (dhamme nana).9 On the basis of this knowledge by experience, it is possible to draw reasonable inferences regarding the past and the future. Such knowledge came to be called inductive knowledge (anvaye nana).10

From this it becomes clear that the Buddha recognized knowledge by experience and induction as being indispensable for man. While knowledge by experience gives man information regarding causal dependence (paticcasamuppada) of presently experienced phenomena (dhamma). inductive inference provides man with further practical knowledge with regard to the obvious past and the future, namely, that causation or dependence has a certain uniformity of occurrence (dhammata).11

With this knowledge of causation and causal uniformity, the Buddha proceeded to explain human life. Human life, according to him, is determined by a complex of causes or conditions. The combination of causes or conditions is important in that variations in the effect can only be accounted for by a variation of the complexity of conditions. Thus, examining the effect it is always possible to find causes that give rise to it. The notion of necessity is strengthened from this point of view. Examining a set of conditions with a view to determining the possible effect or effects, one can only hope for sufficiency and not necessity. This fact was very clearly recognized by the Buddha when he analyzed human life.

The Buddha maintained that the past human dispositions or volitional actions have played a major role in determining the present life. He saw death, not as the end of life, but as the beginning of a new one. This new beginning will occur only when the necessary conditions are obtained. Continuity of life after death is due to one's excessive grasping (upadana) for existence, coupled with other circumstantial conditions. Not only in the case of rebirth, but even with regard to life from birth to death, a complexity of conditions is operative. Human action or decision constitutes one important factor among this complexity of conditions. It is not the sole determinant.12 This was the Buddha's Theory of Karma.

It is possible for man to change his future provided he is able to understand this complexity of conditions that determines it. The Buddha admitted the difficulty of knowing beforehand with certainty this complexity of conditions. In such cases, he seems to claim, one can be guided by inductive inference regarding the uniformity of dependence (dhammata). Thus, as mentioned before, knowledge by experience and induction is essential and practically important for a man to achieve the best possible form of life.

But how is one to decide which is the best possible form of life? Knowledge by experience and induction alone is not sufficient for this. One needs a different kind of knowledge. Such a form of knowledge has to be evaluative rather than factual. This evaluative knowledge the Buddha called anumana or "measuring accordingly." "Measuring" (mana) is done "according to " (anu) knowledge by experience and induction, and not independent of it. Anumana is, therefore, knowledge by reflection and reasoning according to or based upon knowledge by experience and induction. Reflection will not be valid unless it is guided by the information yielded by experience and induction, i.e., the knowledge of causal dependence. This is the same as "reasoning or reflection according to causal genesis" (yoniso manasikara).13 Knowledge of good (kusala) and bad (akusala) can be had only by such reflection and reasoning according to experience. Buddha's "Discourse on Measuring in Accordance with" (Anumana-sutta)14 is intended to elucidate this idea. Here he says:

Your reverences, a monk should evaluate himself by himself thus: 'That person who is of evil desires and who is in the thrall of evil desires, that person is displeasing and disagreeable to me; and, similarly, if I were of evil desires and in the thrall of evil desires, I would be displeasing and disagreeable to others.' When a monk, your reverences, knows this, he should make up his mind that: T will not be of evil desires nor in the thrall of evil desires.'15

Reflective knowledge is thus evaluative or normative. It provides information regarding what is good and bad, what is pleasant and unpleasant. It pertains to ultimate virtue or goodness. As is evident from the above passage, this reflective knowledge is not only evaluative, but also directive. Evaluative knowledge would be useless unless it is followed by proper practice and action. The goal of learning by experience and reflection is to perfect one's personality, to be a perfect man (uttamapurisa).

On the basis of the above-mentioned knowledge of facts and values, the Buddha came to the conclusion that human suffering in this world is due to excessive desire or attachment (raga). aversion (dosa) and confusion (moha).16 A greedv and confused man not only harms others, but also harms himself. Using this criterion it is possible to find four types of persons in the world.

1, One who harms oneself (attantapo).

2. One who harms others (parantapo).

3. One who harms both oneself and others (attantapo ca parantapo ca). and

4. One who harms neither oneself nor others (neva attantapo na parantapo ca).17

The "superman" according to Buddhism is one who harms neither oneself nor others. He is the "awakened one" (buddha) or the "worthy one" (arhat) who is endowed with both knowledge and conduct (vijjacaranasampanno). Such a person has crossed over all doubt (tinnavicikiccho), which means that he is able to act with a clear goal in view, and does not waver (akathamkathi) when faced with obstacles. He is one who has attained freedom (uimurri) from the suffering and unhappiness in the world. Living according to the factual and normative knowledge, the enlightened man remains unsmeared by the suffering and happiness in the world. He is likea lotus (pundarika) that grows in the muddy water, but remains unsmeared by it.18 Such a person, it may be maintained, is not only happy by himself, but also makes other people happy by being pleasant and helpful to them.

While the elimination of the three roots of evil mentioned above enables one to lead a happy and purposeful life here and now (ditthe'vadhamme). it also enables one to put an end to continuous rebirth, for one of the important conditions that contributes to the cycles of births and deaths according to the Buddha, is excessive desire for existence (bhava-tanha). With no such desire for existence, the enlightened one faces death without worry or trepidation.

The goal of Buddhism is thus not the attainment of a transcendental or immortal state after death. Immortality (amata) is merely the absence of rebirth (apunabbhava), not the avoidance of death in this present life. Such is the freedom attained by a person who understands the nature of life on the basis of the knowledges discussed above. This is a very naturalistic view of life, where man is not subordinated to a supernatural power or principle. It recognizes the ability on the part of man to attain freedom and happiness through an understanding of the nature of human life.19

The philosophy of early Buddhism, as outlined above, undoubtedly represents one of the most comprehensive and systematic forms of humanism. It is based on naturalistic metaphysics, with "causal dependence" (paticcasamuppada) as its central theme. Avoiding any form of transcendentalism, determinism, or fatalism, it emphasizes its ultimate faith in man and recognizes his power potentiality in solving his problems through reliance primarily upon empirical knowledge, 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 The only point on which early Buddhism would differ from modern theories of humanism20 seems to be on the question of life after death, a fact recognized in early Buddhism in such a way that it does not interfere with its humanistic approach.

How can a philosophical tradition that recognizes no transcendence, either of God or ultimate reality, contribute to religious harmony when most of the major religions in the world do recognize such transcendence? Out of the major religious traditions in the world, Buddhism has enjoyed the reputation of being the most nonviolent and tolerant. It was able to co-exist with many leading philosophical and religious traditions. In the Far East, it survived for centuries in the midst of Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism without having to compromise its basic teachings for the sake of such survival. In modern times, it has enjoyed peaceful co-existence even with theistic systems such as Christianity and Islam when it came into contact with them. The disappearance of Buddhism in India is generally attributed to the destructive force of the Muslim invasions. However, it is important to keep in mind that by the time of the Muslim invasions of India, Buddhism had already disappeared from its soil. What was left to be destroyed was only a handful of Buddhist monks and monasteries.

Ironically, the only major religious tradition in the presence of which Buddhism could not survive for length of time seems to be Hinduism. A very careful examination of the reason for this failure may provide an interesting insight for those who are looking for ways and means of bringing about mutual understanding and harmony among the adherents of the divergent religious traditions in the modern world.

Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are all theistic religions. All of them recognize the belief in a Supreme Deity who is also the creator of the universe, even though the form in which that deity is conceived of may be different. Buddhism rarely had difficulty in dealing with such a conception. The Buddha's attitude toward conceptions such as God or ultimate reality was such that he was able to avoid any direct conflict with anyone who believed in such concepts. Whenever someone claimed that there exists a permanent and eternal self or soul or ultimate reality that goes beyond ordinary sense experience or even the extraordinary powers of experience, the Buddha remained silent, without either asserting its existence or denying it. Therefore, there was no reason for him to come into conflict with anyone who asserted such a conception. The same is true with regard to his attitude relating to the conception of God. The only occasion he denounced such a conception of ultimate reality or God is when that interfered with or contradicted individual initiative. So long as the individual initiative and the ability on the part of man to make himself happy or unhappy is not denied, the Buddha was willing to keep quiet. This was not the case with Hinduism. The Hindu religion not only recognized the existence of a Supreme Deity who created the world, but also insisted that the four-fold social order consisting of priests (brahmana), rulers or warriors (ksatriya), citizens (vaisya) and servants (sudra) were also created by him and therefore the preservation of that world order (dharma) was an inalienable duty of each and everyone (svadharma). The economic, social, political, moral as well as spiritual life of man was thus completely determined by the divinely ordained caste-system. This was an idea that came into direct conflict with Buddha's philosophy of humanism. Therefore, he condemned it outright. The result was that during his day and fora few centuries after his demise, the downtrodden classes as well as the more enlightened ones from among the so-called higher classes embraced Buddhism and enjoyed a sense of freedom without any economic, social or political constraint. However, it did not take long for Hinduism to revive its philosophy based on the caste-system and present it to the people in a more attractive and subtle form and this is the function of the famous Hindu classic, the Bhagavad-Gita. With that, Buddhism disappeared as a major religious tradition from the Indian soil and thrived in contexts where no such absolute social systems existed. However, scattered groups of Buddhist monks and scholars continued to survive in the various centers connected with thelife of the Buddha or his disciples.

This means that Buddhism could cooperate and coexist in harmony with any religious tradition that recognizes the value of human life and equality among human beings. It could not survive in the face of traditions that discriminated among human beings on the basis of color or caste. The recognition of the value of human life and equality among human beings, in other words, the recognition of humanism, therefore, seems to be a pre-condition for bringing about harmony among the various religious traditions, even though they may be divided on the basis of the metaphysical ideas they uphold.


1. The Enclyclopaedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York and London: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1972, vol. 4. p. 69.

2. Rgvedax. 129. See especially "A Re-examination of Rgveda x. 129. The Nasadiya Hymn," by Walter H. Maurer, The Journal of Indo-European Studies. Washington, D.C. 3 (1975): 217-238.

3. For a detailed study of the Materialist and Ajivika theories of nature (svabhava), see my Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, pp. 24-41.

4. Ibid., pp. 44-50

5. Digha-nikaya, ed. T.W Rhys Davids and J.E. Carpenter: London: Pali Text Society, 1967, i. 14 ff.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., i. 83-84.

8. Samyutta-nikaya, ed. M. LeonFeer, London: PTS, 1960, i. 17-21.

9. Ibid. i. 58.

10. Ibid.

11. See ibid. i. 25-27.

12. For a detailed analysis, see my Causality, pp. 115-132.

13. Digha-nikaya, iii. 227

14. Majjhima-nikaya. ed. V Trenckner and R. Chalmers, London: PTS, 1887, i.95 ff.

15. Ibid. i. 97

16 Ibid. i. 47, 489.

17 Ibid. i. 414 ff.

18. Anguttara-nikaya, ed. R. Morris, London: PTS, 1955,ii. 37-39.

19. For a detailed discussion of Nibbana in early Buddhism, see my Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1976, pp. 69-88.

20. See Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism (Revised), New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974, p. 12 ff. 

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