The Essence of Human Rights

A Discussion Between SGI President Ikeda and Youth Representatives

This article is excerpted from a series of discussions between Daisaku Ikeda and Soka Gakkai high school division leaders Hidenobu Kimura (young men's leader) and Kazue Igeta (young women's leader).

photo Soka schools founder Daisaku Ikeda congratulating students at the Kansai Soka High School graduation ceremony in March 1996 [©Seikyo Shimbun]

Ikeda: Buddhism teaches the principle of "cherry, plum, peach and apricot"--that all things have their own unique beauty and mission. The cherry has its distinct beauty. The plum has its delicate fragrance. The peach blossom has its lovely color. And the apricot has its special flavor. Every person has a singular mission, their own individuality and way of living. It's important to recognize that truth and respect it.

Unfortunately, in our human world it does not always work this way. Some find it impossible to respect those who are different, so they discriminate against them or pick on them. They violate those people's rights as individuals. This is the source of much unhappiness in the world.

Everyone has a right to flower, to reveal their full potential as a human being, to fulfill their mission in this world. You have it, and so does everyone else. That is the meaning of human rights. To scorn and violate people's human rights serves to destroy the whole natural order of things. We must become people who prize human rights and respect others.

Kimura: We may see discrimination and bullying in our immediate surroundings, or they can take extreme forms, such as war and oppression. Do you think these are basically the same thing?

Ikeda: Yes. It is sometimes said that bullying is just war in miniature.

Pettiness, arrogance, jealousy and self-centeredness--all of those base and destructive emotions violate human rights. On a larger scale, they manifest as war and crime.

Igeta: In most European countries, discrimination is viewed as a criminal offense. In that sense, Japan is still an underdeveloped country as far as human rights are concerned.

Ikeda: Many people have said as much. Our distorted society is responsible in no small part for the bullying that plagues our schools.

Whatever the reason or motive, bullying and discrimination are impossible to justify.

We are all human beings; that is what matters. But most Japanese think of themselves as Japanese first, and members of the human family second. Such is the narrow-minded island-nation mentality of Japan. There is a tendency to reject and attack anything that is the least bit different.

Kimura: The constitution guarantees respect for basic human rights, but structural discrimination that violates those rights is still deeply entrenched.

Ikeda: We have to raise people's awareness of human rights through education. Our schools and religions must teach human rights, and our government must respect human rights.

Unless we can build a society that regards human beings not as a means to a goal but as the goal itself, we will remain forever a society of discrimination, unhappiness and inequality--a world of animality where the strong prey upon the weak. We will simply repeat the same patterns.

photo The young Rosa Parks, unassuming hero of the American civil rights movement, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the background (ca. 1955)

Kimura: Unless our commitment to human rights has a basis in a profound philosophy and view of humanity, our words will ring hollow. Ikeda: Yes. To study human rights we must study philosophy. But just as important as philosophy is the willingness to stand up for our beliefs and take action. Human rights will never be won unless we speak out, unless we fight to secure them. Even if human rights are protected and guaranteed by law and government policy, ceaseless efforts are necessary to ensure that they are indeed upheld; otherwise those rights will become empty, a reality in name only.

This is because power, whether it be the power of national governments or any other institution or organization, is a demonic force that despises human rights. Securing human rights protects the individual, based on the awareness that each person is precious and irreplaceable. The purpose of upholding human rights is to enable all people to live with dignity and realize their potential. But power looks on people as a mass, not as individuals. It treats them as objects, as numbers and statistics.

Every sphere of human endeavor--education, culture, science, politics, business and economics--must guarantee and foster human rights or come to a dead end. In education, for example, schools should exist for the sake of the students, yet today it is as if the students exist for the sake of the schools. We need to refocus on the importance of benefiting humanity, and make a fresh departure from there. That is how human rights are established.

Living with Dignity

Igeta: A high school student has a question: "I suffer a physical disability. People in school and in the streets make fun of me. I don't know what to do about this. Could you advise me?"

Ikeda: Essentially, you have to become stronger. That, too, is part of the struggle for human rights. Having your rights as a human being recognized by others is not just a matter of having people behave sympathetically toward you. You must be proud of yourself as an individual, regardless of your disability. You must be proud of your personal mission. Those who laugh at you and make fun of you are cruel and wrong, and they are creating negative karma for themselves by ignoring your right to be treated as a human being. Letting their taunts get to you is a defeat for human rights. Your strength, however, is a victory for human rights.

I have met and engaged in dialogue with champions of human rights the world over: Linus Pauling of the United States, Austregésilo de Athayde of Brazil, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, B. N. Pande of India, and many others. All of them were gentle people, and all of them were strong people. They had the strength to endure the hardships of persecution or imprisonment, yet by just meeting them you sensed a warm responsiveness and sensitivity to others' feelings.

One such gentle yet strong individual, Rosa Parks, fought against racial discrimination in the United States. Even at the height of discrimination against African-Americans, she refused to ride in the elevators marked "Colored." Unable to compromise with such discrimination, she took the stairs. She resented riding on the buses where the seating was segregated and often chose to walk long distances instead. One hot summer day, her throat was parched; but rather than drink from the "Colored" water fountain, she went thirsty. Mrs. Parks has written, "I have never allowed myself to be treated as a second-class citizen. You must respect yourself before others can respect you."

One must live with dignity. Character is the foundation of human rights. It is far more valuable than money. We must build a society that has more than its short-term profit as a goal. To do that, the first step is to respect ourselves and to live with dignity, self-confidence and pride. Such a person can then treat others with respect.

A great river begins with a tiny drop of water and, from that humble beginning, flows into the sea. The current toward a century of human rights has just begun.

Human rights are the sun that illuminates the world. And so, too, are love of humanity, kindness and consideration. All these things light our world. It is their light that brings "cherry, plum, peach and apricot" into glorious bloom in society, that enables everyone to reveal their unique potential.

It is the mission of youth to make the sun of human rights rise over the 21st century. To do that, we must first foster a courageous love for humanity in our own hearts.