Our Diverse Capacities: A Buddhist Perspective

[Kalpesh Lathigra]

We live our lives making use of a constantly evolving range of capacities. As infants, we pass through a series of developmental "milestones"--first steps, first words, first expressions of autonomous will. There are also more subtle milestones that mark our development into fully socialized members of a community. For many people, this is the beginning of lives and careers as independent adults. There are, however, large numbers of people who don't reach these milestones according to the average, expected timetable, people whose capacities fall outside the range of what has come to be seen as "normal," people who will never achieve the expected degree of independence. 

But this begs a more fundamental question: how "independent" is anyone really? Central to the Buddhist worldview is the idea of interdependence, the webs and networks of mutual support without which a fully rich and rewarding existence is unthinkable. We all need each others' support; in seen and unseen ways, we are constantly asking one another for help. As a past contributor to the SGI Quarterly pointed out, however, from one perspective, an "able-bodied adult" is someone for whom society is organized so that they never need to be aware they are seeking and receiving the assistance of others. 

Nor are anyone's capacities permanently assured. As a result of illness or accident, anyone, anytime, can find themselves facing life with radically altered capacities. Suddenly, acts that had been taken for granted are an arduous exertion, or are impossible and demand the development of new strategies to cope and compensate. Different capacity means a different relationship with one's social surroundings; dealing with the complex and conflicted attitudes people hold toward "the disabled" suddenly becomes a central part of your own daily life. 

Even those of us fortunate enough to grow old without particular incident will eventually find our physical, mental and other capacities impacted by age and our ability to live productive and independent lives compromised. Despite this, there appears to be a powerful, if not entirely conscious, urge among the able-bodied to think of people with disabilities as other and their challenges as something of no direct concern. 

The challenge presented by the diversity of human capacities requires nothing less than a shift in the paradigms around which modern society is organized. We need to rethink what it means to be productive, to be independent, to be a contributing member of a community or society. 

Buddhism appreciates human beings as embodiments of life's inherent diversity; it actively embraces our varied capacities. The enormous volume and rich range of Buddhist teachings are an outgrowth of the desire to reach people--in all their various circumstances and capacities--with a personally resonant message of empowerment and hope. In the Buddhist perspective, the bedrock of human dignity is independent of such factors as gender, ethnicity and physical or mental capacity; socially determined factors such as wealth, education and social standing are entirely irrelevant. 

Rooted in this conviction in the inherent, universal dignity of life, Buddhism places central stress on human responsibility and agency. People with disabilities are not simply victims, the deserving recipients of support and protection. They are the protagonists of their own lives, who make unique and needed contributions to society. From this perspective, every human life can be seen as having the same unlimited creative potential, as well as a specific set of personal challenges or circumstances that provide the fertile ground in which we can grow.

A genuinely humane society would be one in which people mutually recognize and acknowledge each other as necessary partners, people without whom our own growth, development and happiness would be unimaginable. 

For this issue of the SGI Quarterly, we have invited people representing the spectrum of human capacities to share their perspectives, insights and lives.