Giving Dignity to Life

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 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 task master 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 centre 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 of truth.
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 lile but also answers the cynicism of our age with a note of
wholesome affirmation.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #38 (1st mailing, 1998) Copyright © 1998 Buddhist Publication Society For free distribution only Revised: Sun 3 October 1999