One week from today we’ll celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. So, after 236 years of “liberty and justice for all,” how free are we, really?
Sometimes outsiders can help us see ourselves better than we can, because they have the advantage of perspective. Alexis de Tocqueville was from France, but his Democracy in America which was published before the Civil War, is still read today by people serious about understanding what drives American society.
The last few days I’ve been reading Buddhist Solutions for the Twenty-first Century by a Thai Buddhist monk named P.A. Payutto. I found his analysis, like that of Tocqueville, compelling.
Payutto writes that there are several levels of meaning for the concept of liberty or freedom. The lowest level, he writes, is the “absence of stricture or limitation. According to this definition, most people would interpret liberty as the freedom to do what they please.”
The problem with a society built around that kind of freedom, he argues, is that it is only the strongest who are really free. In the jungle, only the lions are completely free. The rest of the animals, except the elephants, have to be constantly on guard, because they are further down on the food chain.
The next level, according to Payutto, is articulated in the oft quoted dictum that -“I have the right to act or speak so long as it does not violate the rights of others.” The limits of my rights end, in other words, where yours begin. I’m free to keep turning the volume of my music up until it begins to bother the person in the condo next to mine.
The problem with that kind of liberty, says the Buddhist monk, is that as long as there are restrictions on my freedom, I’m not completely free. My neighbors’ rights in effect limit my freedom.
The third level of liberty, Payutto writes, is where freedom is defined as balance or harmony. “Another meaning of liberty is the readiness to give others a chance,” he argues. “This kind of attitude is essential in a democracy … When liberty is coupled with the readiness to give space to others, there is balance.”
“There are two ways in which liberty can be seen,” he explains, “one is freedom to acquire, and the other is freedom give … The free opportunity to give is … the heart of the causal side of democracy.”
He adds, “If people seek only what they believe are their rights, while neglecting this causal factor, democracy will not work.”
The most profound level of freedom, however, is internal or spiritual. Payutto states that the biggest enemy to our freedom is inside of each one of us. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” The real enemies of freedom are inner defilements like craving, conceit and blindly clinging to ideologies. “When the mind is under the influence of these defilements,” he declares, “we are unable to abide in righteousness. It is this inner freedom which is most often overlooked.”
“The quality of a democratic state,” the monk contends, “is determined by the quality of its people.” You noticed that he didn’t say “by the quality of it politicians.”
“Voting,” he argues, “can only be truly effective and useful to the community when it is supported by heart-that is, when the voters are intelligent and use their voice responsibly rather than through greed, aversion or delusion. If one thousand idiots held a vote to decide whether the world was flat, the world would not be flat even the vote was unanimous that it was.”
“Any people who are to govern their country must first know how to govern themselves,” writes Payutto. “The quality of a democratic state is determined by the quality of its people.”
I plan to enjoy the fireworks at the Park Wednesday evening. If I am willing to listen to Payutto and want to contribute to the healing and growth of our society, I need to resist contributing to the political fireworks going on and make an effort to get the log out of my own eye before trying to remove the speck in the eye of the guy in the other party who on the surface seems to be my opponent.