Giving Dignity to
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
To ask what it means to live with dignity may sound strange in an age like our
own, when our frantic struggle to make ends meet hardly allows us the leisure
to ponder such weighty matters. But if we do pause a moment to give this question
a little thought, we would realize soon enough that it is not merely the idle
musing of someone with too much time on his hands. The question not only touches
on the very meaning of our lives, but also goes even beyond our personal quest
for meaning to bore into the very springs of contemporary culture. For if it isn't
possible to live with dignity then life has no transcendent purpose, and in such
a case our only aim in the brief time allotted to us should be to snatch whatever
thrills we can before the lights go off for good. But if we can give sense to
the idea of living with dignity, then we need to consider whether we are actually
ordering our lives in the way we should and, even more broadly, whether our culture
encourages a dignified lifestyle.
Though the idea of dignity seems simple enough at first sight, it is actually
fairly complex. My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1936!) defines dignity as
"elevation of character, intrinsic worth, excellence... nobleness of manner,
aspect, or style." My Roget's Thesaurus (1977) groups it with "prestige,
esteem, repute, honor, glory, renown, fame" -- evidence that over the last
forty years the word's epicenter of meaning has undergone a shift. When we inquire
about living with dignity, our focus should be on the word's older nuance. What
I have in mind is living with the conviction that one's life has intrinsic worth
that we possess a potential for moral excellence that resonates with the rhythm
of the seasons and the silent hymn of the galaxies.
The conscious pursuit of dignity does not enjoy much popularity these days, having
been crowded out by such stiff competitors as wealth and power, success and fame.
Behind this devaluation of dignity lies a series of developments in Western thought
that emerged in reaction to the dogmatic certainties of Christian theology. The
Darwinian theory of evolution, Freud's thesis of the Id, economic determinism,
the computer model of the mind: all these trends, arisen more or less independently,
have worked together to undermine the notion that our lives have any more worth
than the value of our bank accounts. When so many self-assured voices speak to
the contrary, we no longer feel justified in viewing ourselves as the crowning
glory of creation. Instead we have become convinced we are nothing but packets
of protoplasm governed by selfish genes, clever monkeys with college degrees and
business cards plying across highways rather than trees.
Such ideas, in however distorted a form, have seeped down from the halls of academia
into popular culture, eroding our sense of human dignity on many fronts. The free-market
economy, the taskmaster of the modern social order, leads the way. For this system
the primary form of human interaction is the investment and the sale, with people
themselves reckoned simply as producers and consumers, sometimes even as commodities.
Our vast impersonal democracies reduce the individual to a nameless face in the
crowd, to be manipulated by slogans, images, and promises into voting this way
or that. Cities have expanded into sprawling urban jungles, dirty and dangerous,
whose dazed occupants seek an easy escape with the help of drugs and loveless
sex. Escalation in crime, political corruption, upheavals in family life, the
despoliation of the environment: these all speak to us as much of a deterioration
in how we regard ourselves as in how we relate to others.
Amidst these pangs of forlorn hope, can the Dhamma help us recover our lost sense
of dignity and thereby give new meaning to our lives? The answer to this question
is yes, and in two ways: first, by justifying our claim to innate dignity, and
second, by showing us what we must do to actualize our potential dignity.
For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings does not stem from our relationship
to an all-mighty God or our endowment with an immortal soul. It stems, rather,
from the exalted place of human life in the broad expanse of sentient existence.
Far from reducing human beings to children of chance, the Buddha teaches that
the human realm is a very special realm standing squarely at the spiritual center
of the cosmos. What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity
for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings. Though this capacity
is inevitably subject to limiting conditions, we always possess, in the immediate
present, a margin of inner freedom that allows us to change ourselves and hereby
to change the world.
But life in the human realm is far from cozy. To the contrary, it is inconceivably
difficult and complex, rife with conflicts and moral ambiguities offering enormous
potential for both good and evil. This moral complexity can make of human life
a painful struggle indeed, but it also renders the human realm the most fertile
ground for sowing the seeds of enlightenment. It is at this tauntingly ambiguous
crossroads in the long journey of being that we can either rise to the heights
of spiritual greatness or fall to degrading depths. The two alternatives branch
out from each present moment, and which one we take depends on ourselves.
While this unique capacity for moral choice and spiritual awakening confers intrinsic
dignity on human life, the Buddha does not emphasize this so much as he does our
ability to acquire active dignity. This ability is summed up by a word that lends
its flavor to the entire teaching, ariya or noble. The Buddha's teaching is the
ariyadhamma, the noble doctrine, and its purpose is to change human beings from
"ignorant worldlings" into noble disciples resplendent with noble wisdom.
The change does not come about through mere faith and devotion but by treading
the Buddhist path, which transmutes our frailties into invincible strengths and
our ignorance into knowledge.
The notion of acquired dignity is closely connected with the idea of autonomy.
Autonomy means self-control and self-mastery, freedom from the sway of passion
and prejudice, the ability to actively determine oneself. To live with dignity
means to be one's own master: to conduct one's affairs on the basis of one's own
free choices instead of being pushed around by forces beyond one's control. The
autonomous individual draws his or her strength from within, free from the dictates
of craving and bias, guided by a thirst for righteousness and an inner perception
The person who represents the apex of dignity for Buddhism is the arahant, the
liberated one, who has reached the pinnacle of spiritual autonomy: release from
the dictates of greed, hatred, and delusion. The very word arahant suggests this
sense of dignity: the word means "worthy one," one who deserves the
offerings of gods and humans. Although in our present condition we might still
be far from the stature of an arahant, this does not mean we are utterly lost,
for the means of reaching the highest goal is already within our reach. The means
is the Noble Eightfold Path with its twin pillars of right view and right conduct.
Right view is the first factor of the path and the guide for all the others. To
live with right view is to see that our decisions count, that our volitional actions
have consequences that extend beyond themselves and conduce to our long-term happiness
or suffering. The active counterpart of right view is right conduct, action guided
by the ideal of moral and spiritual excellence. Right conduct in body, speech,
and mind brings to fulfillment the other seven factors of the eightfold path,
culminating in true knowledge and deliverance.
In today's hectic world humankind is veering recklessly in two destructive directions.
One is the path of violent struggle and confrontation, the other that of frivolous
self-indulgence. Beneath their apparent contrasts, what unites these two extremes
is a shared disregard for human dignity: the former violates the dignity of other
people; the latter undermines one's own dignity. The Buddha's Noble Eightfold
Path is a middle way that avoids all harmful extremes. To follow this path not
only brings a quiet dignity into one's own life but also answers the cynicism
of our age with a note of wholesome affirmation.