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Global Perspective

The Wisdom of Buddhist Humanism—Human Rights

Excerpts From Ikeda Sensei’s Annual Peace Proposals: Human Rights

Photo by Wylly Suhendra / Unsplash

Our voices have the power to move people’s hearts and to change society and the world. With this spirit, Living Buddhism is highlighting key themes from Ikeda Sensei’s peace proposals, which he began issuing annually in 1983 on January 26, the Soka Gakkai International’s founding day, to set into motion a new momentum toward peace. Today, his proposals are read by leading thinkers around the world.

The goal of the SGI’s movement for peace, culture and education, is the happiness of all living beings. Based on the Buddhist principle of dependent origination, working for the betterment of others is inseparable from improving one’s own life. Ikeda Sensei explains how Buddhism provides a philosophical foundation for establishing human rights, writing:

Some find it impossible to respect those who are different, so they discriminate against or pick on them. They violate their rights as individuals. … All people have a right to flower, to reveal their full potential as human beings, to fulfill their mission in this world. You have this right, and so does everyone else. This is the meaning of human rights.[1]

Deluded to the true nature of life, some people see others as separate from themselves, or even as a threat to their well-being. As a result, they develop a worldview that is intolerant toward those different, spurring contempt for human dignity. Sensei writes about this:

Those unable to see people of other countries as human beings the same as themselves are spiritually impoverished. They have no sound philosophy of life. They do not ponder life’s more profound questions. They care only for their petty concerns. Our society is filled with people who are consumed by hunger and at the mercy of unrestrained greed and animality, picking on the weak and fawning on the strong. These negative tendencies are what make our society discriminate against and ignore human rights.[2]

Buddhism teaches that to develop a society and world that protects and upholds human rights for all people, more individuals must awaken to the interconnectedness of life. This can be expressed as thoughts like: I need to fight for your happiness and dignity in order to achieve my own. I cannot build my happiness on your unhappiness. My nation cannot build its happiness on the unhappiness of another nation. Sensei writes about our mission to strive for human rights:

The Soka Gakkai’s movement is a human rights struggle—by the people, for the people. Our movement’s history is one of extending a helping hand to those suffering, those lost and forgotten—to people exhausted by sickness and poverty; people devastated by destructive relationships; people alienated and forlorn as a result of family discord or broken homes. We have shared people’s sufferings and risen together with them.[3]

Below are selections from Sensei’s peace proposals illustrating key ideas on human rights.

—Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

Excerpts From Ikeda Sensei’s Peace Proposals

Building a Society Where Everyone Wins (1996)

I cannot help thinking that the concept of “national self-determination” should perhaps not be accorded the overriding value it has enjoyed and that a reassessment may be necessary. Although this right is recognized in various ways by international law, the question remains as to whether it can be applied without limits.

Of course, I do not deny the importance of ethnic or national self-determination. But if we say that the goals of peace and freedom cannot be achieved in its absence, then we are saying most of the nations and peoples who have not attained statehood in the full sense of the term will never be able to realize these goals. At the same time, we must note that established nation-states have not necessarily succeeded in realizing these goals, either.

It therefore seems clear to me that national self-determination cannot be viewed in absolute terms. Instead, what is needed is a calm and measured look at the factors that prevent the sought-after “fruits” of national self-determination—peace and freedom—from being realized. We must thoroughly examine the circumstances that permit simplistic national rhetoric to take precedence over more complex realities. Likewise, we must continually strive to remove false trappings and think long and hard about what genuinely constitutes the best interests of the human person.

I believe that it is precisely the spirit of tolerance that nourishes the much-desired fruit of peace and freedom. If any nation proves this, it is the new South Africa led by President Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), which continues to struggle with and overcome one challenge after another. President Mandela himself has spoken of these challenges, and of the grand dream of transforming South Africa from a “country in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future.”

More than a year and a half has passed since the people of the new South Africa took up the task of forging a “rainbow nation.” This beautifully symbolic phrase indicates a nation in which people of different ethnicities and cultures form a multi-hued, harmonious whole while giving free rein to the distinctive characteristics of each component group. Many issues must be resolved before the South African people can fully emerge from the shadow of long years of discrimination and abuse. It is clear, however, that they are making steady progress toward building a society of racial harmony. …

In June 1992, then-President FW de Klerk (1936–2021) expressed these thoughts concerning apartheid: “We desire to create a society in which all people are victors, instead of one consisting of winners and losers who oppose and threaten one another in the pursuit of self-interests.”

This determination not to create losers is crucial if we are to resolve the widespread civil strife that plagues our world today. So long as there are even a few losers, people who know the bitter taste of defeat, we can neither hope for a truly stable society nor expect to eliminate completely the seeds of future conflict.

I believe that education is the only tool we have to heal past wounds and build forward-looking societies in which everyone is a victor. In my conversations with President Mandela, we continually returned to the theme of education. At first, education may seem an indirect means of addressing these problems, but I am convinced that it is in fact the most effective means of instilling the spirit of tolerance. Only through learning can we open the spiritual windows of humanity, releasing people from the confines of ethnic or other group-based world-views.[4]

The Spirit of Bodhisattvas (1998)

The qualities that make a bodhisattva can be described from various perspectives, but here I would mention one that is of particular relevance to human rights. The bodhisattva undertakes a vow to save others and bases all action upon this vow, which is spontaneous and unforced expression of altruism. Nor is the vow a mere expression of determination or desire, but a defining commitment to whose realization the bodhisattva devotes her or his entire being. The bodhisattva refuses to be dissuaded or discouraged by the difficulties posed by this challenge.

The Lotus Sutra speaks of the pure white lotus rising from the waters of a muddy pond. This analogy illustrates the attainment of a pure and empowered state of life in the midst of the sometimes degrading realities of human society. In this way, the bodhisattva never tries to escape from reality, never leaves suffering people unsaved and plunges into the turbulent waters of life in the effort to help each person drowning in suffering onto the great vessel of happiness.

Another Buddhist scripture describes the vow of Srimala, the daughter of King Prasenajit and a contemporary of Shakyamuni Buddha:

If I see lonely people, people who have been jailed unjustly and have lost their freedom, people who are suffering from illness, disaster or poverty, I will not abandon them. I will bring them spiritual and material comfort.

My point in introducing the concept of the bodhisattva is this: Human rights will only become truly universal and indivisible when they span the most basic, existential division—that of self and other. And this can only occur when both the right to and duty of humane treatment are observed, not in response to externally posed norms, but through spontaneous action stemming from the naturally powerful desire to assist our fellows whose ability to live in a humane manner is under threat.[5]

Well-being of Self and Other (2021)

It is only natural that we would regard our own lives as the most precious of all. This reality is embraced in the approach to human rights expound by the Buddhist teachings practiced by members of the SGI.

For example, we have the following account drawn from the life and teachings of Shakyamuni. On one occasion, while in conversation, the king and queen of the ancient Indian kingdom of Kosala came to realize that they each held no one dearer than themselves. Upon hearing this honest feeling, Shakyamuni responded with the following verse:

Having traversed all quarters with the mind,
One finds none anywhere dearer than oneself.
Likewise, each person holds himself most dear;
Hence one who loves himself should not harm others.[6]

In other words, if you regard your own life to be precious and irreplaceable, then you should grasp the fact that each person must also feel that way; making this realization the basis for how you conduct your life, you should resolve never to act in ways that will cause harm to others.

The Buddhist perspective on human rights urges us not to extinguish or suppress our feelings of cherishing ourselves above all else. On the contrary, by extending and opening the love we feel for ourselves to love for others, we can rebraid the tapestry of our lives, restoring the ways in which we connect to others and to society.[7]


  1. Discussions on Youth, p. 121. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 124. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 129. ↩︎
  4. A Forum for Peace, pp. 250–53. Adapted from Ikeda Sensei’s 1996 Peace Proposal, “Toward the Third Millenium: The Challenge of Global Citizenship.” ↩︎
  5. A Forum for Peace, pp. 264–65. Adapted from Sensei’s 1998 Peace Proposal, “Humanity and the New Millenium: From Chaos to Cosmos.” ↩︎
  6. Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 171. ↩︎
  7. Sensei’s 2021 Peace Proposal, “Value Creation in a Time of Crisis.” <accessed on November 22, 2021>. ↩︎

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