Monday, July 08, 2013

Several Buddhist Contributions to Humanistic Progress

While I’ve posted previously on the Indian emperor Aśoka (304-222 BCE) who ruled the Mauryan Empire on the Indian subcontinent from c. 270-232 BCE, I thought to expand a bit on the material there with the following from Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005): 

“In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to the early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress. This commitment produced, among other results, some of the earliest open general meetings in the world. The so-called ‘Buddhist councils,’ which aimed at settling disputes between different points of view, drew delegates from different places and from different schools of thought. [….] These councils were primarily concerned with resolving differences in religious principles and practices, but they evidently also addressed the demands of social and civic duties, and furthermore helped, in a general way, to consolidate and promote the tradition of open discussion on contentious issues.

The association of Aśoka, who ruled over the bulk of the Indian subcontinent (stretching into what is now Afghanistan), with the largest of these councils is of particular interest, since he was strongly committed to making sure that public discussion could take place without animosity or violence. Aśoka tried to codify and propagate what must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion—a kind of ancient version of the nineteenth-century ‘Robert’s Rules of Order.’ He demanded, for example, ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions.’ Even when engaged in arguing, ‘other sects should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions.’ 

Aśoka’s championing of public discussion has had strong echoes in the later history of India, but none perhaps as strong as the Moghal Emperor Akbhar’s sponsorship and support for dialogues between adherents of different faiths, nearly two thousand years later. [….] 

…Aśoka was critically important for the spread of Buddhism and its social values in the world beyond India. It is interesting to note that attaching special importance to discussions and dialogue moved with other Buddhist principles wherever Buddhism went. For example, in early seventh-century Japan, the influential Buddhist Prince Shotoku, who was regent to his mother, Empress Suiko, introduced a relatively liberal constitution or kempo (known as ‘the constitution of seventeen articles’) in 604 CE, which included the insistence (in the spirit of the Magna Carta to be signed six centuries later, in 1215): ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with the many.’ Shotoku also argued: ‘Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong.’ Indeed, some commentators have seen, in this seventh-century inspired constitution, Japan’s ‘first step of gradual development toward democracy.’

Another major Buddhist achievement—not unrelated in fact to the interest in public communication—is that nearly every attempt at early printing in the world, in particular in China, Korea and Japan, was undertaken by Buddhist technologists, with an interest in expanding public communication. The first ever printed book (or, more exactly, the first printed book that is actually dated) was the Chinese translation of an Indian Sanskrit treatise (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), the so-called ‘Diamond Sutra.’ This was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (a half-Indian, half-Turkish Buddhist scholar) in 402 CE and this manuscript was printed in 868. The introductory note that went with the volume explicitly explained that it was made for ‘universal free distribution.’

I should also note here that the achievements that are linked to Buddhism include not just the focus on public reasoning and printing, but also accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature, painting, sculpture and even in the practice of public health care—a subject in which Buddhists were particularly involved and which greatly interested Chinese visitors to Indian such as Faxian in the early fifth century and Yi Jing in the seventh. Also Aśoka, the Buddhist emperor, was a pioneer in creating hospitals for public use in the third century BCE. There is also a statement in one of the Edicts that Aśoka had established hospitals in the Hellenistic kingdoms—a claim that may sound implausible but has been plausibly defended on the basis of available evidence by Thomas McEvilley. [….] 

[Aśoka’s] inscriptions on stone tablets about good behaviour and wise governance, includ[ed] a demand for basic freedoms of all—indeed, he did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did; he even insisted that these rights must be enjoyed by ‘the forest people’ living in pre-agricultural communities distant from Indian cities. Aśoka’s championing of tolerance and freedom may not be at all well known in the contemporary world, but that is not dissimilar to the global unfamiliarity with calendars other than the Gregorian.” (pp. 15-16, 81-83, and 284 respectively)


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