Commencement Address by Dr. Amartya Sen

May 23, 2014


Public reasoning can contribute richly to making the world a safer and more secure place, as well as helping it to pursue global justice.

I feel deeply privileged to be here today, and am most grateful for the kindness of the president and of the university for inviting me to be here and to speak at this wonderful ceremony. I have had a huge respect for a long time for the extraordinarily enlightened tradition to which the Soka University of America belongs, and for the remarkable vision of its founder, Daisaku Ikeda. I was naturally thrilled by the message from Mr. Ikeda himself, which has been just read out. I cannot express adequately my gratefulness for his extremely kind remarks about me (he has of course been much too generous). He has also sent some important advice for this year’s graduating students from which the class of 2014 will undoubtedly benefit.

I am also delighted to be in such excellent company: the company of you – today’s graduating students, getting your hard-earned degrees right here and right now. As a standard practice in the commencement ceremonies of different universities, some elderly people are asked to join the ceremonies to “free ride” on the diligent work and achievements of graduating students – like I am getting a joy ride today from your dedicated studies at SUA. It is to record and celebrate your success in completing the degree courses that a university has to have a grand commencement like this, and when they have one of these elaborate things, they have to inject at least one or two elderly people to make sure that the occasion does not look too much like a boisterous youth festival – a carnival of the young. Actually, carnivals are great fun, but to make a commencement also an academic and sombre event – moderating the explosion of youthful energy – all universities tend to find some honorary role for older people, and even fix a commencement speaker who is meant to say very complicated things with the intention of giving you something to think about (whether or not it actually has that effect). Clearly, I owe my place on the stage here to the splendid work done by the class of 2014 of Soka University of America. So I thank you warmly, in addition to congratulating you for doing your work successfully and getting your much deserved rewards.

I would also like to thank the guests for coming here to join us and to cheer the degree recipients and to add warmth to the festivities. I know many of you – parents and guardians and family members and friends – have excellent reasons to be proud of what today’s graduates have achieved, which is being recognized in this degree ceremony. Along with the graduating students, you too deserve congratulations, since the support of guardians and relatives and friends is often critically important for the work that the students succeed in doing.

When my own children graduated and got their degrees, I kept on telling them how vastly indebted they should feel to their parents. I have to report that I was – shall we say – only partly successful in convincing them. Speaking now to the graduates again (members of this year’s splendid graduating class), you must be very happy that your hard work here has come to a successful end, and is being handsomely recognized. There are, of course, debates about the value of university education. Mark Twain, the great writer, thought that higher education did make a real difference to the lives of people. Indeed, Mark Twain argued “a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” So I congratulate you, the real graduates here, for your transition from being a cabbage to the glory of becoming a cauliflower. And I feel extremely privileged to be able to speak today to a splendid collection of blossoming cauliflowers.

You are graduating at an interesting but difficult time. The global economic crisis that we have just experienced erupted with some suddenness in the second half of 2008. Even though the rapidly aggravating crisis was halted in 2009, the removal of some of the worst aspects of the recession – unemployment in particular – has been disturbingly slow. The most affected have, in general, been the poorer sections of the people, those who are at the bottom of the pyramid in the respective countries and in the world. Families who were already worst placed to face any further adversity have often suffered most from still greater deprivation, in the form of lasting unemployment, loss of housing and shelter, loss of medical care, and other deprivations that have reduced the lives of hundreds of million people across the world. We can appreciate the severity of the current global crisis only by examining what is happening to the actual lives of human beings, especially the less privileged people: their well-being and their freedom to lead decent human lives.

The crisis has not been confined to any particular country, even though the incidence of it has varied from country to country. It is clearly a global phenomenon, affecting the population of the world to varying extents. In determining how to think about these issues in a way that our sense of justice – our reasoned sense of justice – may demand, we need an understanding of justice that is not confined only to the citizens of a particular country, a narrowness that is, I would argue, a characteristic of many traditional – and modern – theories of justice, going back all the way to Thomas Hobbes, and continuing through to our own time, in contemporary theories of justice and injustice. There is much to learn from these well-established theories of justice, and yet we have reasons to depart from Hobbes’s leadership both (1) because we must think globally, rather than nationally, and (2) because we must focus on human lives and freedoms directly, rather than on institutions and orders. These readjustments in focus can make a very big difference, I have tried to argue in my book called The Idea of Justice. There is a need for our understanding of justice and injustice to be global, rather than being nationally restricted, and for it to be life-oriented, rather than being institutionally confined.

I have been talking so far only about the global economic crisis, but there is of course a larger and more long-term problem of poverty across the world, along with gigantic inequalities between the advantaged and deprived within every country, and much more radically, across the borders of nation states. We have to ask why and how poverty arise and continue, how and why inequality is tolerated and is often allowed to grow more intense. If this talk is an instigation to have more discussion of global justice, it is also an invitation to make more use of our reasoning, especially interactive public reasoning, in pursuit of that objective.

The need for more discussion on global justice is as strong today as it has ever been. Public reasoning can help us to come to grips with what can be done to reduce – or even to eliminate – gigantic deprivations from which so many people across the globe suffer. Discussion alone cannot solve problems of injustice, but we cannot fully understand what would be the right steps without extensive public discussion.

The tradition of public reasoning is present across the world, but some particular philosophical approaches have tended to put special importance to public reasoning. The Buddhist tradition is certainly one in which public reasoning has been strong right from the time of Gautama Buddha himself in the sixth century BC. I know that the Soka University of America is a secular and non-sectarian university, and cannot be seen, in any way as a Buddhist institution. And yet there is a Buddhist connection in that SUA was founded on the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights, and the sanctity of life, applied to the world, without national borders. And SUA also has had the opportunity to benefit from the wise and humane thoughts of Daisaku Ikeda – a great leader of global ideas. There is no reason why students trained in the wonderful SUA should not put particular emphasis on the need for global public reasoning, including on matters of justice and injustice, and of security and insecurity. That, I would submit, would be an excellent way of addressing and helping to remedy problems of injustice as well as insecurity across the contemporary world.

Since I have been invoking Buddha, I must make it clear that I personally do not have any religious beliefs. Despite being influenced by the illuminating reasoning of Gautama Buddha; I am not a Buddhist in the standard religious terms. In fact, had I been a religious Buddhist, I would have had a great deal to worry about regarding the religious leadership in some Buddhist countries in the world, including – right now – in Burma or Myanmar, where Muslim Rohingyas are being brutally targeted and systematically persecuted, according to reports in the global media, by some well-organized Buddhist agitators, with evident support from many monks as well as the military rulers. I am, however, not talking about the practice of Buddhist religious institutions, which may be going through some serious lapses in particular countries in the world (happily not many). My comments, rather, are about Buddha’s own teachings and the long tradition of humane and enlightened Buddhist thinking, with which some allegedly practicing Buddhists might seem to be out of touch.

I would argue that Buddha’s ideas – and the person behind those ideas – not only have great relevance to the problems of the world today, but they also have a remarkable approachability that defies religious boundaries. It is interesting to ask why does Buddha seem so approachable, and continues to be so relevant today – two and half millennium after his own time. One reason it is easier to draw on Buddha’s ideas than that of many other religious leaders is that he was very concerned about problems that move all of us – ordinary human beings. The ideas that moved the young Buddha and made him leave his princely home for seeking enlightenment – fear of mortality, the tragedy of old age and disability, the terrible impact of diseases on human life – move us too, no matter what religious beliefs, if any, we may have. There is a basic humanity in the story of Buddha’s life that is easy to access and absorb in our own lives. And this makes it much easier for us to benefit from the wisdom of his vision and understanding.

This feature of “ordinariness” of his concerns, combined with the extraordinariness of his ideas and reasoning, also gives Buddha’s thoughts an immediacy and relevance in political and social pursuit of a better world at any period in history – including today. That immediacy became even clearer to me when the “human development” approach emerged sharply as a powerful line of analysis in the 1990s – a movement in which I was privileged to be involved. I remember thinking immediately of Buddha when my friend and visionary thinker, Mahbub ul Haq, wanted me to join him in initiating his great brainchild, the Human Development Reports, which became a regularly published periodical by the United Nations from 1990 onwards. The so-called “human development index” has become perhaps the most widely used social indicator in the world, in dealing with comparative assessment of developmental progress of different groups of people – nations as well as regions. Mahbub ul Haq was wanting to change the concentration of development studies in general, and development economics in particular, away from such distant indicators of good living as the gross domestic product – moving the discourse towards direct indicators of the quality of human lives and of substantive freedoms that people can enjoy to lead the kind of lives they have reason to value.

The human development approach concentrates on indicators like longevity, education, removal of abject poverty, and other concerns that have an uncanny closeness to the problems that had engaged the attention of young Buddha 2,500 years ago. Indeed, with its focus on longevity, on education, and on the removal of human deprivation and suffering, the HDI comes quite close to the perspective of worldly problems that propelled Buddha to search for enlightenment. And with that immediacy there was also in Buddhist thought a powerful recognition of the need for reasoning and scrutiny, including public reasoning and global dialogue.

Even though in Western discussions it is often assumed that a distinctively reason-based approach to solving problems is a special contribution of European Enlightenment, reliance on reasoning has been invoked, in various forms, over a long period of human history. Buddha relied on reasoning, rather than on blind faith, throughout his life, and this applies also to his experimentations, early in his life, with various ways of resolving his existential dilemma, including his investigation of the effects of fasting and other deprivations on his own body (he concluded that we could not enhance the soul simply by depriving the body).

Enlightenment, in Buddha’s perspective, is not a matter only of individual pursuit, but also one of communicative interaction. And the journey cannot but take the form of a joint quest. The Buddhist tradition, which has always emphasized the importance of public deliberation for individual enlightenment as well as social progress, not only led to extensive institutional developments for communication and joint action (Buddhist “sanghas” were particularly important in this), but also produced some of the earliest open general meetings in the world. The so-called “Buddhist councils,” which aimed at settling disputes between different points of view, drew delegates from different schools of thought, from different places in the world.

The first of these great councils was held in Rajagriha (a town that is now called Rajgir), and this pioneering council occurred shortly after Gautama Buddha’s death. Rajgir is, in fact, only a few kilometres away from the site of the great Buddhist University, Nalanda, to be established a few hundred years later, which can claim to be the oldest university in the world, to which students came from many different countries, not just India, but also China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and elsewhere. It was destroyed by a sequence of military attacks in the 1190s (all the professors were killed and the nine-storied library burnt for three full days). The ancient university is now being re-established as a part of a joint effort of the East Asia summit, and the new Nalanda University is being located just on the border of old Rajgir, where the fist Buddhist global council met 2,500 years ago.

The second global council for public reasoning was about a century later in Vaisali, not far from Rajgir, and the last of the famous meetings occurred in Kashmir in the second century AD. But the third – the largest and the most well-known of these councils – took place in the third century BC, hosted by Emperor Ashoka, in the then-capital of India, Pataliputra (now called Patna).

The Buddhist council for open public reasoning fitted in well with Buddha’s argument that social deliberation must occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other, and this priority is well reflected in the inscriptions that Emperor Ashoka placed on specially mounted stone pillars across India – and some outside India as well. The importance of such interactive and respectful deliberation is well recognized also in Buddhist writings elsewhere, in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Srivijaya in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sometimes these principles were reflected in rules of governance as well. The need for public consultation and the legitimacy of different and contrary perspectives were emphasized, for example, by the Buddhist Prince Shotoku in Japan, who, as regent to his mother Empress Suiko, introduced a remarkably liberal constitution or kempo (known as “the constitution of seventeen articles”) in 604 AD. It insisted, six centuries earlier than Magna Carta (signed in 1215 AD), but in a very similar spirit: “Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.”

A particularly important effect of the Buddhist focus on learning and communication was through its impact on the development of printing. It is not adequately recognized in the global history of the world that all the earliest attempts at generating the technique of printing were undertaken by Buddhist engineers, with the explicit intention of making it easier for people to benefit from the thoughts and ideas of others. Every enterprise of early printing in the world – in China, in Korea, and in Japan – was undertaken by Buddhist innovationists, with a commitment to expanding public communication. As it happens, the first printed book in the world (or rather, the first printed book that is actually dated) was the Chinese translation, done by Kumarajiva in 402 AD, of an Indian Sanskrit treatise, the so-called Diamond Sutra, which was printed in China four centuries later, in 868 AD. In fact, the book, Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikaprajnaparamita, in Sanskrit) itself was translated into Chinese about a dozen times. But it is the early fifth-century translation – indeed the first – of this Sanskrit document by Kumarajiva that has the remarkable distinction of being the first printed book in the world. The motivation for this innovative departure is described in the tail-piece of that pioneering printed volume as: “reverently made for universal free distribution” – it is interesting that printing and publishing that later became a profit-making business began as a move for free distribution, with a deep commitment to broadening public reasoning. That commitment is a huge tribute to the importance attached to communication and to the joint quest for learning in the ancient world in which Buddhist thinking flourished.

The importance of communication and public discussion, to which the Buddhist intellectual tradition was committed, cannot be overemphasized in the world in which we live today. Even the economic crisis of recent years and its far-reaching social implications demand much more global discussion – the attempt to have under-discussed and under scrutinized programs of “austerity” in Europe has been quite disastrous. Also, the benefits from, and the difficulties with, globalization call for more interactive global scrutiny. Indeed, even some of the policy disasters we have recently seen, for example the ill-considered 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-dominated coalition has clearly offered a lesson on the penalty of unilateralism, shunning the well-tried path of multilateral discussion and interactive understanding. Open public discussion with the parties that were sceptical of the move could have done much to prevent the undertaking of an unenlightened act that has made peace in the world more – not less – precarious. Similarly, environmental challenges faced today, including global warming, demand public reasoning and interactive critical scrutiny.

Indeed, in many different ways, public reasoning can contribute richly to making the world a safer and more secure place, as well as helping it to pursue global justice. One does not have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the crucial role of global public reasoning in the difficult world in which we live. There is a tradition – an intellectual background (rather than a religious background) – that links SUA to the richness of a heritage of reasoning that stretches over thousands of years, which remains crucially relevant today for addressing problems of global insecurity as well as of global injustice.

I end by congratulating the new graduates of SUA once again, and wishing you a wonderful life after your excellent education here. I wish you a life of wellbeing and freedom. And a thrilling life of reasoning – both reasoning on your own and reasoning jointly with others.