SGI Quarterly

Issue 66 | October 2011

A Legacy of Human Transformation | Dialogue between Austregésilo de Athayde and Daisaku Ikeda

  • Human rights education

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda with Austregésilo de Athayde in Rio de Janeiro, 1993. [Photo credit: ©Seikyo Shimbun]

Austregésilo de Athayde, President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for 34 years until his death in September 1993, is best remembered as one of the most prominent and effective champions of human rights in South America. In his dialogue with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, Athayde recounts how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being and his crucial role in the process. Ikeda, meanwhile, explores the Buddhist ideas of compassion, freedom and equality and discusses their potential to enrich the human rights movement.

Austregésilo de Athayde: The importance of our dialogue lies in the attempt to discover how to respect human rights and how to put that respect into practical application in the 21st century. As one of the compilers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I consider our major goal to be the realization of the ideal of human rights in the spiritual history of humanity.

Daisaku Ikeda: Countless people have given their sweat and blood to achieve the respect afforded human rights today. The devoted struggle of our forebears was not confined to ideals: it took place in the realm of practical action. Each human rights champion has contributed something precious.

Athayde: From the early days of the Code of Hammurabi to the present, humanity has waged a ceaseless heroic battle in the effort to create new spiritual values. As in the distant past, so today, epoch-making people passionately continue the struggle.

Ikeda: In our own century, three passionate struggles in the name of human rights come immediately to mind: Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for Indian independence, Nelson Mandela’s battle against apartheid and Martin Luther King’s campaign for the elimination of racial discrimination and for the civil rights of black people in the United States.

Athayde: All three deserve special mentions as heroes of humanity and warriors in the name of human rights.


US civil rights leader Martin Luther King during the “March On Washington” on August 28, 1963, when he delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. [Photo credit: ©AFP]

Mandela University

Ikeda: The desire to learn is one of the things that make us human. We are so insatiably hungry to learn that education is possible anywhere. Nelson Mandela even converted prison into a place of learning—the Mandela University.

Athayde: Even the violence and oppression inflicted on him could not suppress his ability to lead or stifle his desire to generate new wisdom and novel forms of spirituality by turning prison into a learning place.

Ikeda: Mahatma Gandhi did much the same thing. The mere knowledge of his presence in the same prison put all other prisoners there—even serious offenders—on their best behavior. Even while incarcerated, the undaunted Gandhi continued to lead the nonviolence movement and to carry on an extensive, spiritual correspondence with such people as Rabindranath Tagore.

Athayde: No injustice or oppression can break the courage of people with the lofty mission of creating a noble spiritual order for the new century.

Ikeda: Shoin Yoshida [a Japanese intellectual whose thinking had a deep impact on the Meiji Restoration] provides a good example of such an indomitable spirit among 19th-century political reformers. He, too, was imprisoned at one time. While in jail, he gave instructions in various disciplines to his fellow prisoners. Perhaps revolutionaries must be educators.

I find Mandela’s prison education policies especially interesting. He set up a system whereby prisoners educated each other in their particular fields of expertise.

Athayde: The Mandela University vividly demonstrates an outstanding man’s ability to convert a place of detention into a school providing models for the spirit.

Confronting Ignorance

Ikeda: As we have already said, concern with human rights can be traced back as far as the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest organized legal code to survive to the present time. . . In Hammurabi’s time, society was unsettled. Debts frequently compelled free citizens to sell themselves into slavery. Conceivably, the king enacted his legal code to protect citizen rights and thereby to promote social stability. From the modern viewpoint, the code is not completely fair. For the same crime, it imposes lighter punishments on people who occupy high rungs on the social ladder. Still, like you, I find the king’s lofty ideals laudable.

Athayde: The Mosaic Law, or the Ten Commandments, though later in time and briefer in form than the Code of Hammurabi, is similarly founded on lofty ideas. As a symbolic model of rights and obligations, it has exerted an enormous influence on Western philosophy. . .

Ikeda: For Buddhists, the Five Precepts and the Ten Good Precepts, which all believers are expected to observe, serve the kind of basic ethical role that the Ten Commandments serve in the Judeo-Christian tradition. . . The Buddhist Five Precepts begin with a commandment against taking life, thus giving pre-eminence to nonviolence (ahimsa). All the remaining precepts, too, stress respect for the dignity of life. . .

I am convinced that appreciation for the dignity of humanity cannot gain wide acceptance unless we become aware of the sacred element in ourselves.

Nichiren agreed that respect for the dignity of life must come first since life is incomparably more precious than all the treasures of the universe: “Life is the foremost of treasures. . . Even the treasures that fill the major world system are no substitute for life.” Throughout his life, which was a struggle between a Buddha eager to guide humanity to happiness and the forces of evil that lead to suffering, Nichiren battled unyieldingly with attempts by secular and religious authorities to trample on human rights.

Life is supremely important. Buddhism personifies the forces that take life as devils, or mara. When those forces kill, they simultaneously snuff out the plentiful possibilities with which life is endowed. In this sense, mara violates innate human liberties and rights. Whereas divinely imposed Law is the source of Western thought on the subject, Buddhist ethics defines as good those things that cultivate life’s limitless possibilities and as evil those things that hinder them. The two approaches define Western and Buddhist attitudes toward human rights.

Power from Within

Ikeda: Walt Whitman expressed his ideas as follows: “I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element,” and said that a sublime faith that is deeper and more liberal than anything that has gone before must be revived by a new force. He saw that democracy demands the kind of living faith that stimulates people to formulate internal standards. Just such a religious approach gives human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights their universality.

Athayde: As I have said, I insisted [during the process of drafting the UDHR] on recognition of a universal entity as the well-spring of all human rights. After that had been accepted, I withdrew my insistence on mention of humanity’s having been created in the image of God.

At the time, the world was still too suspicious and fearful to pay much attention to our work. But we planted a seed that will grow into a great blossoming and fruit-bearing tree. In the future, people will come to realize the value of our achievement.

Ikeda: According to Buddhist thought, the law (dharma, from the word dhri, to preserve, maintain or uphold) on which the universe is founded imparts worth and dignity to all forms of life, human and nonhuman. Certain rights are universal because they spring from this ubiquitous dignity. Whereas Christianity claims that all people are equal in the eyes of God, Buddhism teaches that our equality arises from the internal, universal law of cause and effect inherent in each individual. We are all equal because we are all equally capable of attaining enlightenment to the universal law. In its Buddhist context, the word “equal” (samata in Sanskrit) indicates impartiality transcending emotional attachments like hatred and love, affection and disaffection. Arising from the universal law, Buddhist equality triumphs over all discrimination.

Athayde: I sympathize with this Buddhist view because I am convinced that appreciation for the dignity of humanity cannot gain wide acceptance unless we become aware of the sacred element in ourselves.

Ikeda: Precisely. We Buddhists interpret this “sacred” as the radiant presence of the universal law in everyone of all racial and cultural backgrounds. Awareness of the commonly shared law inspires sympathy and compassion that expand the self and stimulate participation in the battle for justice, equality and recognition of the rights of all human beings.

An extract from Human Rights in the Twenty-first Century, Austregésilo de Athayde and Daisaku Ikeda (I.B. Tauris, 2009)