issue 15
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Beyond Mediocrity

Subhuti argues that democracy’s power to improve society is limited, higher values must be spread by individual example

‘It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Thus Winston Churchill, with his usual trenchant wit, summed up the paradox of representative democracy. Whatever method is used to determine ‘the people’s choice’, ironies and inequities inevitably emerge. The recent election of the President of the US by a minority of voters is a topical example, as is the cheerful acceptance of the result by the great majority of citizens who have deep respect and love for their system and the office of President (feelings that more cynical Europeans find difficult to comprehend). Despite these ironies democracy is widely upheld as the ideal form of government and most modern Buddhists, certainly in the West, would agree. But what is the relationship of Buddhism to democracy and what is the duty of Buddhists as Buddhists towards a democratic system?

It is only recently that Buddhists have been able to concern themselves with these questions, since only recently have they lived in democracies or even been aware of the possibility of doing so. Discussion of political issues in traditional Buddhist sources generally assumes monarchical or aristocratic government and emphasises the ruler’s duty to care for his subjects and attend to their material and moral welfare. The criteria of evaluation are moral and spiritual, rather than constitutional. This should lead us to wonder whether a political system is necessarily bad because it is not a representative democracy. We should be especially cautious about evaluating anachronistically or failing to take into account different cultural perspectives and circumstances. None the less I believe that the best form of government today is generally a democratic one. Since it provides formal mechanisms for transferring power between factions, it promotes stability and public order. Since every citizen has a vote, the interests of all are more likely to be taken into account in forming policy.

There are, however, severe limitations to the benefits of democracy. This is illustrated in the life of one the greatest democrats of the 20th century, Dr BR Ambedkar, who was also one of its greatest Buddhists. He was born an ‘untouchable’ in caste-ridden India, but through extraordinary talent and dedication rose to be Law Minister of the newly independent India and chaired the committee that framed the constitution, promulgated in 1950, under which Indians live to this day. He believed passionately in democracy, especially because it gave a voice to minorities, making it harder for them to be exploited and oppressed.

Although there are many obvious faults in Indian political life, the representative system of which Dr Ambedkar was chief architect is astonishingly successful. Given the scale of the country’s problems and the vast numbers of electors, it is a wonder that it works at all, let alone as effectively as it does. There is much here of which Indians in general and followers of Dr Ambedkar in particular can be proud. But soon after the constitution was inaugurated, Dr Ambedkar expressed great disillusionment. He did not see the sweeping away of caste prejudices he had hoped for and he watched the system being captured by the ‘higher’ castes who ran it in their own interests. Instead of being a medium through which all could cooperate in creating a better society, it seemed that Indian political life amounted to little more than naked partisanship and factionalism. However good the constitution might be, the people were failing it.

The limitations of democracy lie in the moral, and even spiritual, quality of the electorate. A democracy is as good as its people and tends, in the modern world, to promote a moral and cultural mediocrity. A telling symbol of this mediocrity is London’s Millennium Dome, a British government project that absorbed large sums and reportedly amounted to little more than slick and shallow entertainment. Modern democratic society seems to be characterised by a rising tide of trivia.

It is often said that for a democracy to work effectively there must be an educated electorate that knows and understands the issues of the moment and can evaluate arguments in political debate. But this is not enough. With such knowledge each citizen can simply fight his or her own corner, pushing for his or her own interests, asserting his or her own rights. Democracy remains then merely a system for orderly negotiation and adjudication between competing interests. That is a considerable advance, likely to make it harder for any one factional interest to predominate entirely. However, it offers little more in terms of cultural, moral and spiritual value, unless citizens want more.

It is the business of a democratic government to educate the electorate for democracy. But is it the government’s duty to promote cultural, moral and even spiritual values? Surely not, since values are pre-eminently matters of individual choice. Buddhists especially believe that spiritual values have to be individually undertaken. We must be free to reject them if we are to be free to accept them. They should not be imposed nor even promoted by the state (for that reason, the Church of England should be disestablished). From a Buddhist point of view the secular nature of most democracies is one of the system’s greatest advantages. It leaves us free to choose whether or not to be Buddhists.

The state should provide a framework of law that prevents citizens from harming each other and establishes procedures for settling disputes. Broad principles of what is right and equitable must underlie the law and the education system should teach these principles. It is not the business of government, however, to tell us what is good and true in a higher sense, nor to instruct us in the meaning and purpose of our existence. Buddhists in the West, being yet a tiny minority, should easily acknowledge that the practice of their religion depends precisely on governments leaving them free to follow the values they chose.

If a democratically elected government does not promote higher values, how can society rise above mediocrity? That can only happen if those who espouse cultural, moral and spiritual values promote them themselves. Primarily they must promote them by living in accordance with them, offering an example and inspiration, and encouraging others to do so. But then they must bring those values to bear on the issues that they confront together with their fellow citizens. Buddhists must make sure that the Buddhist point of view on current issues is widely known and appreciated. We should be arguing the Buddhist case, speaking of public issues in the light of our own convictions about what it is to be a human being. We have hardly begun this work.

We must especially argue that for democracy to be an effective means to a better society, individual citizens must take themselves in hand. They must set themselves moral standards and try to live for something beyond gratification, acquisition and comfort. We must encourage each to reflect on the ultimate meaning and purpose of our human existence and to try to live in accordance with a higher ideal. This requires each to work on themselves, changing their own lives, their minds and hearts, for the better.

Once democracy has been successfully established, it is this moral and spiritual change that is going to bring about a better society. Reform henceforth must be reform of the individual. Economic development, technological advance and organisational effectiveness can achieve only so much. They cannot stem the tide of trivia nor rescue us from mediocrity and meaninglessness.

After all his political struggles, achievements and disappointments, Dr Ambedkar saw this with great clarity. In 1956, shortly after his conversion to Buddhism and a few weeks before his death, he addressed a conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Nepal. He gave a speech on Buddhism and Marxism in which he said, ‘The greatest thing the Buddha has done is to tell the world that the world cannot be reformed except by the reformation of the mind of man and the mind of the world’. This should be our fundamental message, too. Making this point heard is the essential work of Buddhists in a democracy