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Global Perspective

The Wisdom of Buddhist Humanism—Combating Poverty

Excerpts From Ikeda Sensei’s Annual Peace Proposals: Combating Poverty

Photo by Gabriel / Unsplash

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

Buddhism exists for all people to lead happy and fulfilled lives. Critical to this, then, is for one to have the resources to seek and practice the Mystic Law. That is why we aim to develop an equitable society where all people can exercise their abilities and creativity, and live to their fullest.

Poverty is linked to numerous social ills that fill our world and some 1 billion people remain under the global poverty line. Those suffering from poverty lack adequate access to healthcare, education and nutritious food, forcing nearly 20% of the global population to live each day thinking about how they and their families can survive the week, day or hour.

What approach do we take as individual Buddhists to combat this issue? First, people and nations not directly affected by poverty must not ignore those suffering from it. In his dialogue with University of Denver professor Ved Nanda, Ikeda Sensei says:

Leaders of the industrialized countries must realize and take more seriously the destabilizing threat that poverty poses to the global social order. As Gandhi states, “True economics … stands for social justice, it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest.” We must recognize that something is terribly off kilter when the economic system contributes to increasing impoverishment and when society abandons its most vulnerable suffering in poverty.[1]

A second point is to develop the consciousness that material resources are gained for other’s well-being in addition to our own. Sensei urges us:

It is important that we undertake a global transformation in awareness as well as in behavior.

In Buddhism, the Shrimala Sutra shares the pledge of Shrimala, a woman who lived during Shakyamuni’s time:

“Lord, from now on, and until I attain enlightenment, I hold to this sixth vow, that I shall not accumulate wealth for my own use, but shall deal with it to assist the poor and friendless.”

Bodhisattvas use their wealth to relieve the poverty, suffering and hardship of others. They do not accumulate wealth for the sake of their own pleasure and avarice but to help others. I believe that the people of the industrialized countries should adopt such a bodhisattva practice as their model of behavior.[2]

This does not imply that we should give up the desire for material possessions or should feel guilty about accumulating wealth. Rather, we should ask, For what purpose do I have my material possessions?

The more people adopt the mindset of a bodhisattva, the quicker we could alleviate poverty. Sensei expresses his hopes for fostering an economic system that prioritizes the well-being of all people:

In our contemporary world, as the powerful forces of the global economy daily exacerbate the crises of global injustice and poverty, all individuals and communities involved in economic activity are called upon with increasing insistence to rise above the cold logic of the market and, instead, to demonstrate new models of genuinely creative coexistence informed by a robust ethical perspective.[3]

Through our daily practice of invoking the Mystic Law, awakening to our true value and encouraging others to see their irreplaceable worth, we can transform the poison of greed into a strong desire to benefit both ourselves and others. 

—Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff

Excerpts From Ikeda Sensei’s Peace Proposals

Removing the Gap Between Rich and Poor (2000)

The eradication of poverty … is a humanitarian challenge of great urgency. One effect of globalization has been an ever-growing gap between rich and poor. While people in a few countries consume a disproportionately massive amount of resources and enjoy affluent lifestyles, fully one-quarter of the world’s population subsists in extreme poverty. For these people, human dignity is under constant assault. We must eliminate these obscene imbalances if we are to fulfill our responsibilities for the new millennium. …

Poverty is one of the key causes of conflict, as it destabilizes societies. Poverty gives rise to conflict, which in turn further aggravates poverty. Choosing to sever this vicious circle would simultaneously lead to the eradication of one of the causes of war and resolve this global injustice. Removing the causes of war and poverty that menace human dignity will enhance enjoyment of human rights.[4]

A World That Leaves No One Behind (2015)

The deep sadness of losing one’s home is something I also have experienced. During World War II, my father’s ill health and the conscription of my four older brothers undermined the family’s finances, forcing us to sell my childhood home. The house we lived in after that was torn down to create a firebreak, and immediately after we moved into our new home it was struck by an incendiary bomb and burned to the ground.

Because of these experiences, I can easily imagine the sadness and despair afflicting those who have lost loved ones and been forced to leave their long-accustomed homes. This is the pain of losing the world in which one has lived. The true challenge of restoration and recovery must be to restore hope and the will to live of all the victims. To this end the seamless support of society as a whole is essential.

This experience of losing one’s place—the sense of belonging and community—is, in fact, prevalent everywhere, although often in less dramatic form. Again taking the example of Japan, it is estimated that one in five people over the age of sixty-five lives in poverty and one in six children experiences deprivation, including food insecurity. For many, the pain of this economic deprivation is compounded by a sense of social isolation.

In the search for solutions to this problem, I think we can gain insight from the views of the American political philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. Nussbaum has noted that traditional conceptions of the social contract were formulated without including women, the elderly, children and persons with disabilities. She also cites the influence of utilitarianism as a reason why the suffering of certain people is overlooked. She states:

Thus, one person’s great pain and misery can be compensated for by a plurality of people’s exceeding good fortune. Here a moral fact of paramount importance—that each person has only one life to live—has been effaced.

Nussbaum urges us to move beyond the idea of mutual advantage as the sole organizing principle for society and calls for a reconfiguration on the basis of a concept of human dignity that excludes no one. She asserts that every one of us, for reasons of ill health, age or accident, may at some point require the assistance of others to live. She urges that we all consider the question of a new direction for society as a matter of profound personal concern.[5]

Empathize With the Suffering (2019)

There is a regrettable tendency for people living in countries that are not directly impacted by the refugee crisis or problems of poverty to distance themselves from these challenges and the responsibility to resolve them. The goal of people-centered multilateralism is to get past the differences in national perspective and find ways of relieving the suffering of people facing grave threats or crises.

The story of Shakyamuni’s four encounters describes the initial motivation for the teachings of Buddhism, and it is suggestive of the transformation in consciousness required of us today. Born into a royal family in ancient India, Shakyamuni enjoyed high political status and material abundance. His youthful years were spent in an environment where large numbers of people directly served the royal family, such that he never had to worry about the cold of winter or the heat of summer or that his clothes would ever be soiled by dust, chaff or the dew of night.

One day, however, Shakyamuni stepped outside the palace gates where he saw people suffering the ravages of illness and old age. He also came across the corpse of a person who had died by the side of the road. Deeply shaken by these encounters, he intensely sensed the reality that no one, himself included, could avoid the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. What pained him beyond these sufferings themselves was the way so many people imagined themselves immune from them and, as a result, despised and distanced themselves from those who suffer. Later, recalling these events, he described this human psychology as follows:

In their foolishness, common mortals—even though they themselves will age and cannot avoid aging—when they see others aging and falling into decline, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate—all without ever thinking of it as their own problem.

His words apply not only to the suffering of aging but also to sickness and death. Our sense that the sufferings of others bear no relation to us, the distaste we might even feel, was admonished by Shakyamuni as the arrogance of the young, the arrogance of the healthy, the arrogance of the living. If we reconsider that arrogance in terms of the connections of the human heart, we can clearly see how the apathy and lack of concern arising from arrogance actually deepens and intensifies the suffering of others.

In any era, there is room for such attitudes to take hold—the fatalism, for example, that sees poverty or other dire conditions to be an individual’s fixed destiny or the result of personal failings, or the kind of negation of morality that denies responsibility for any harm or pain one has inflicted on others. Shakyamuni’s response to such attitudes was his teaching that although the various sufferings of life may be unavoidable, it is possible to transform one’s life through the full development of one’s inner potential. Further, our efforts to empathize with and support those struggling with difficulties help weave networks of mutual encouragement, giving rise to an expanding sense of security and hope.[6]



  1. Our World to Make, pp. 145–46. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 148. ↩︎
  3. Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy, p. xiii. ↩︎
  4. ↩︎
  5. ↩︎
  6. ↩︎

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