High Peaks Pure Earth presents a translation of a long essay by Tibetan writer Buddha called “Man and Freedom” that was posted on a new Tibetan language website called Korawa (འཁོར་བ་ Samsara) on December 3, 2014.
This erudite examination of the meanings and interpretations of freedom by Buddha is an impressive work and he quotes Western philosophers from Rousseau to Hobbes to Locke. Buddha avoids making any direct commentaries on Tibet and China but keeps more to theory and the history of these ideas.
Although a doctor by profession, Buddha is also a poet and writer. From the Ngaba region of Amdo, in December 2010 Buddha was sentenced to 4 years in prison along with other writers Dhonko and Kelsang Jinpa for “inciting separatism”. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, all three writers “wrote powerful essays in the Tibetan language journal Shar Dungri or Eastern Snow Mountain. This collection of writings was the first published Tibetan language commentary about the protests and crackdown, and it offered a critical perspective reflecting a prevailing despair, loss and darkness, but also a way forward.”
The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported in June 2014 that Dhonkho and Buddha had been released from prison after serving their terms.
High Peaks Pure Earth would like to thank Palden Gyal from Merabsarpa Journal for the translation from Tibetan to English.
“Man & Freedom” By Buddha
The story of life on this planet began following eons of earth’s formation, and likewise, the species called Homo sapiens or humans came into existence subsequent to a very long period of time since living beings arose on this planet. Our “knowledge” about earth’s early history, the extinct species or the major events from millions of years ago is beyond the capability of human intelligence and resource, and as a result, much of it is limited to mere speculation. People conceived different accounts of the origin of life and human society in accord with their cultural and religious beliefs. Since man conquered the earth by subjugating all non-human animals, and thereby establishing himself as the sovereign of earth, we might as well use “humanland” as a faithful appellation for earth. Hence, the subject of human beings has become central to our discussions about the humanland. From time immemorial, throughout the unfolding of human civilisation our societies have become increasingly large and complex. Despite the progress brought by human ingenuity, our societies have become ever more hostile and inimical in an increasingly pluralistic environment. Every facet of human civilisation; arts, literature, religion, science and technology is a result of human intellect and ingenuity. Likewise, all the miseries and tragedies of human beings are also brought about by our intellect and behaviour. Since human intellect and ingenuity have become the source of both happiness and misery, good and bad –a matter of critical discernment, how are we supposed to make our judgments? Contending views exist across all different cultures and societies in their views on the moral limits of human intelligence and behaviour. As individuals, it is imperative that we form our own standpoints in context of our own conditions, because it is our perspectives and viewpoints that define our lives, and thereby determine our failures and fulfillments. Sometimes your own perspectives and judgments may breed an unwavering conviction in your life, or on the contrary, develop an earnest and inescapable sense of enslavement and alienation.
As indicated above, ultimately, the capability of human intellect is dependent on the existence and value of freedom. To elucidate, man’s ingenuity is an expression of his freedom without which there would be no room for the exercise of his intellectual development and capability. Human intelligence or ingenuity is the foundation of our creative civilisation and it is for this reason, why so many ruthless and despotic rulers throughout our history have strived towards keeping man’s intellect in captivity. Today, unscrupulous officials of governments employ various tactics to impede the exercise of man’s freedom of the intellect in their jurisdictions and beyond. To infer, any action that is directed against the human intellect is an effort towards keeping it in captivity –a deprivation of freedom.
As an established fact about the human nature, all human beings long for freedom. Ironically, even the ruthless and violent individuals who suppress the freedom of others do so as means to achieve and realise their own freedom. They too venerate and long for freedom. A cursory observation of human history suggests that despite the deep-seated aspiration for freedom, it is largely a history of subjugation and tragic experience. However, one could argue that it is the struggle and fight for freedom against authority and subjugation that inherently shapes our history –the natural desire for freedom and the endeavour for its acquisition drive human history.
I read the book “Tolerance” by Hendrik Willem van Loon, a famous American author. The chronicles of brutality and intolerance in the history of human civilisation horrified me when I first read the book, and I was bewildered yet enthralled by the title of the book. I think it demonstrates van Loon’s good intention and faith in humanity despite the testament to man’s atrocity and cruelty. More importantly, it symbolises the firm conviction of human aspiration for happiness and courage in its pursuit. It doesn’t require a philosophical investigation to substantiate the truth of human aspiration for freedom, but it is essential to understand what freedom is and how is it realised. Freedom is not invented by a gifted mind at some point in history nor is it ascertained by any culture.
With regard to our fundamental values, freedom is an appellation for all human aspirations. It signifies our desire and hope for happiness. Unfortunately, our pursuit of freedom is fraught with episodes of bloodshed and butchery, drenched in the tears of tragedy and treachery. It echoes with the cries of orphans and widows lamenting in some forsaken land. As a paradox of the human condition, such events have befallen for the love of freedom and in rebellion against the spectre of subjugation, when the seedlings of hope and aspiration for freedom were trampled under the feet of despotism and when countries invade one another in brutal force and hostility. Furthermore, efforts to preserve and promote one’s culture in the name of realising a collective cause, concerns of inheritance and posterity, values of independence and individuality, and understandings of identity and nationalism are all directed towards and for the love and realisation of freedom –the ultimate object of human aspiration.
Many attempts have been made at defining the notion of freedom in western political philosophy, and there seems to be no consensus as to what freedom really means. However, I think most people would agree that freedom is something that everyone has a right to. In olden times when there weren’t strict constraints placed upon by religion, morality and culture, people attacked each other in brute force to acquire property and fulfil their desires. In those times when brute force governed communities, there was no limit to the freedom of the mightiest. Political science suggests that freedom is not unlimited – that there are constraints and conditions where and when a person’s freedom may end. Man as a social being his very existence in a society adheres moral and legal limits on his freedom, and in fact, that is how societies or states came into existence. The strength of a society comes from its collective concern and respect for the law. The “unlimited freedom” of the primitive age was thus disappeared with the emergence of civil society, and it gave all the individuals in a society the opportunity of exercising their capabilities in various ways. Consequently, be it religious or secular laws, a society where there is efficient enforcement of law, public respect and courage to defend their the law as its guardians and true holders, could be considered a fortunate and flourishing society.
In addition, according to some scholars of ancient Tibet, the realisation of the true nature of all phenomena as emptiness is the source of true peace and happiness, and only such a state achieves the state of ultimate and unlimited freedom. I think that is plausible, because even though it is difficult to claim that the freedom of the mind is unlimited, there is no dispute about the limits of civil and political freedoms. It is reasonably uncontroversial to maintain that the ultimate goal of happiness is freedom of the mind. The more freedom of the mind there is, the more is there happiness. Thus happiness and freedom are inextricably bound. All different intellectual cultures in the world have their own sense and interpretation of what freedom means and what constitutes it. And likewise, different individuals have their own meaning of freedom in accordance with their own attitudes and values. That being so, there isn’t a single definition of freedom that is valid and reasonable to everybody, i.e. freedom is fundamentally relative to different cultures and persons.
Freedom is both remarkable as well as unexceptional. For instance, while the President of a country is well regarded and respected by all the people of the state as an exceptional figure, he is also an ordinary individual with the same basic human desires and impulses. It is not the case that freedom is something distant from us, but it is the complications and hinderances around which that impede our experience and realisation of it. It is beyond my capability to discuss and access all the philosophical treatises and debates on the notion of freedom, but I think it is safe to say that freedom is something that everybody reveres and longs for. There seems to be the assumption that it is something to be acquired and secured externally from somewhere –that it exists outside the person himself. It raises a question in me: what is the true benefit of a freedom that is contingent upon external factors, ultimately? If your well-being is determined by such a trifling notion of freedom, then you do not have freedom at all in a fundamental sense.
Today, we live in political units as societies that are bound by elaborate rules and regulations (even though actual enforcement may vary from country to country). And the more complicated the nature of social relations become, the more dependent people become on the law to secure their freedom. The law represents an object of aspiration and hope for the people –the ultimate embodiment of consent and commitment. The American “Declaration of Independence” of July 4, 1776 stands as evidence to and is founded on a vision of political society that recognises and respects the basic equality of all human beings before the law. In the historical French Revolution of 1789, they issued the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which is the fundamental document of the Revolution. Both the event and the document were heavily influenced and inspired by the American Declaration of Independence. The Enlightenment political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), was the architect of the document. As the driving intellectual force behind the French Revolution, Rousseau first conceptualised the notion of natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. The Revolution was met with support and resistance from the public, but I do not intend to discuss it here any further. In any case, it is the result of our collective past experiences that inform us the significance of a legal system that protects and ensures our fundamental rights and freedoms. This is the quintessential attestation to the victory of civilisation over savagery: a representation of our common vision and courage for a safe and secure collective existence that is fulfilled in a spirit of unity and cooperation.
In primitive communities as well as even in the age of monarchical rule, powerful individuals and despotic rulers did not only reject and ridicule the notion of freedom and inherent rights; they disdained the idea as an undesirable cause of misfortunes. Thus, in those societies there appeared only a small number of courageous individuals who sacrificed their lives to confront their repressive rulers and campaign for freedom, while the multitude slumbered in the darkness of ignorance. In modern states, with regard to the civil society, its stability and prosperity are defined by the value a state puts in the freedom of the people. Today, the wellbeing of a people, society or state primarily depends on how they value and protect freedom of its citizens. Freedom has now become a universal value. However, this shared consciousness and concern requires a collective courage and a united force to protect and fight off any transgression. With full awareness about the legal system that imparts the actual strength of the law, it is the power of civil disobedience that keeps the violation of our rights and freedoms at bay. Whether there is freedom in a society or state could be understood from the appreciation of freedom as an inalienable right of all by the people. Freedom is not something that dwells in some isolated or distant place, nor is there freedom in being alone in an empty space. Ultimately, freedom resides in the mind.
So far I have attempted to discuss and examine the notion of freedom with regard to its nature, social and political significance as well as its implications and value as a fundamental element in the constitution of human happiness and aspiration. Then there is the account of how freedom could be prospered, preserved and protected from potential threats. Be it its value theory or methods of achieving freedom, the fundamental preamble to the discourse of freedom is the understanding that freedom is not something we showcase on our altars, but something that runs deep in our nerves, blood and bones. Because it is inherent in all human beings, and no one can steal or plunder it. For instance, wisdom that exists innately in an individual cannot be stolen or plundered, and likewise, freedom is an inalienable attribute of human nature. Just as wisdom and knowledge can grow with the exercise of intellectual engagement, naturally, efficient and judicious use of wisdom towards protecting and preserving freedom can increase its stability and strength. Even though a prisoner is by definition deprived of his freedom of movement, nothing can hold captive of his spirit and aspiration for freedom. External factors like political affairs may end with a person behind bars, but the ultimate freedom that is innate to the individual is irrepressible, indestructible.
Since the dawn of human civilisation many thinkers and philosophers have made attempts to define and theorise freedom. For instance, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the ardent proponent of monarchism and political philosopher, argued that freedom of the population in a society is solely dependent on the protection and security facilitated by a powerful monarch, and that is the central thesis of his famous political treatise “Leviathan.” Hobbes attempted to provide a rational argument to demonstrate how and why public freedom is contingent upon the existence of a powerful monarch. However, under that schema of reasoning, an obvious contradiction arises because the method of protection of freedom itself becomes a cause of fear and menace when the whole wellbeing and happiness of all individuals in a society is concentrated in the hands of a monarch. Thus it deprives people of their rights and opportunity to strive for their own happiness and freedom. However, realising this danger, even Hobbes maintained that the public has the right to rebel and even displace the monarch under certain circumstances. In “The Spirit of the Laws,” Montesquieu (1689–1755) contended that freedom is the ability to do whatever one wants to do within the law, and it always requires the protection of a legal system. He realised the possibility of abuse of political power by government officials and first proposed the separation of powers, the tripartite system of legislature, executive and judiciary. Montesquieu argued that freedom consists of doing whatever one wants to do and not forced to do whatever one doesn’t want to do. The founding father of liberalism, John Locke (1632–1704), propounded similar views on freedom and the state. Locke also maintained that in a civil society, freedom is contingent upon the legal system that limits as well as protects it. With the fundamental assumption that the law of a state represents the aspirations and wellbeing of the public, civil societies came into existence with the promise of protection of their freedom by the state.
Undoubtedly, the separation of powers by establishing separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility is a monumental progress. Today, many democratic states follow and are founded on the model of three branches of government as legislature, executive and judiciary, including the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In such a political system, from the president to ordinary individuals, the law treats everyone equally with regard to their rights and duties. There is a fundamental egalitarianism laid down in the constitution of such a political system that it supports and protects individual rights and freedom, while it also punishes and disciplines those who offend the law equally. In a political society where the power and limits of the state or government is defined and determined by its legal system, liberty and rights of its citizens are best preserved and protected. It is a political system that is given birth by the courage and hope of individuals manifested in numerous popular movements and campaign. I suspect that is the reason why all nations are striving towards establishing liberal democratic states as a superior model.
It doesn’t take a comprehensive understanding of human history to realise that since the beginning of civilisation, states and governments have become increasingly powerful and sophisticated. Throughout history conquerors have treated the conquered with despise and disdain, while the established interest groups have exploited and abused the poor and dispossessed of their resources. I began with a discussion on the importance of liberty or freedom, because it is the foundation of human well-being and happiness. All the other investigations and inquires that followed are necessitated by the protection of freedom through legal systems and moral obligations. Above all, it is essential to be cognisant of the fact that freedom is an innate attribute of human nature. Like a seedling that requires air, water and sunlight for flourishing, freedom demands constant attention and protection by the individual for its realisation. As a result, ordinary individuals like you and me have the responsibility to be conscious this natural fact and be watchful of it. The simple understanding that freedom is the fundamental basis of my well-being and happiness restrains me from intruding on the freedom of others.
To conclude, theoretically, freedom or liberty is total, limitless and unconstrained. However, man as a social being, his freedom is finite and contingent upon external factors, not independent. In a spirit of cooperation and solidarity, civil society came into existence with the appreciation of a fundamental fact that we live interdependently. In an environment where all individuals have unlimited freedom, there could be no society, because civil societies came into existence with all its inhabitants giving up a certain portion of their freedom to live together. As Rousseau famously declared, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”.