Last night as I watched the countdown to shutdown on CNN, at one point I thought, you know I bet these guys are just sitting around talking at each other, instead of with each other. It’s too bad there aren’t more Buddhists in Congress, those people could learn something from the Buddhist spirit of dialogue.
It came to me a minute or so later that actually, most Buddhists aren’t any better at dialogue than anyone else. But we should be, because it’s supposed to be a hallmark of our tradition.
In 2006, Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, published The argumentative Indian: writings on Indian history, culture, and identity. In this collection of essays on Indian society, Sen maintains that India has made an unique contribution to the convention of public discussion, pointing to its long history of open dialogue based on mutual respect and a willingness to listen to other points of view.
Buddhism had an immense impact on fostering this spirit of open dialogue: “In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress.” Sen cites the Buddhist Councils as one example, noting that they were some of the earliest open general meetings in the world. I have always thought that the question and answer format of the Buddha’s teachings was also symbolic of the importance he and his followers placed on openness and dialogue.
In one section, Sen talks about King Ashoka, the Indian king from ca. 269 BC to 232 BCE. He describes how Ashoka promoted public discussion, calling for a general agreement on the need to carry out discussions with ‘restraint in regard to speech.’ Ashoka especially objected to disparaging the sects of other people.
Ashoka was critical for the spread of Buddhism and its social values in the world beyond India. It is interesting to note that attaching special importance to discussions and dialogue moved with other Buddhist principles, wherever Buddhism went. For example, in early seventh century Japan, the influential Buddhist Prince Shotoku, who was a regent to his mother, Empress Suiku, introduced a relatively liberal constitution or kempo (known as ‘the constitution of seventeen articles’) in 604 CE, which included the insistence (in the spirit of the Magna Carta to be signed six centuries later, in 1215): ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many. Shotoku also argued: “Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong.”
I believe that Buddhists, and for that matter, upholders of all spiritual philosophies and religions, should strive to be examples to the world in how to live together. This is especially important for Buddhists because as I said, this spirit of open and respectful dialogue is part of our heritage, our kechimyaku – our bloodline.
The Buddha is often quoted as saying, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” But Mahayana Buddhism added something to that: “Be a lamp to others as well.” As we seek to cause our “inner light” to shine, we should also open our hearts so that the light can shine out and be a guiding light to all people. To my way of thinking, Buddhists should set the standard for dialogue. But how can that be possible if as Buddhists we aren’t able to talk to each other in a respectful manner and with a willingness to listen to someone else’s point of view?
Yes, Buddhist should be the world’s guiding light. And if you feel that that sounds like something from a soap opera, or foolishly idealistic, or New Agey or whatever, all I can say to you is what someone else once said: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . . I hope some day you’ll join us . . .