Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Many people have asked me how I felt at the time of my appointment at Acting Secretary General. They have been invariably surprised to learn that I did not feel the way most people would have felt in similar circumstances. To understand my feelings and my conception of the role of Secretary General – the nature of my religious and cultural background must first be understood. I should therefore like to outline not only my religious beliefs, but also my conception of human institutions and of the human situation itself.

As a Buddhist, I was trained to be tolerant of everything except intolerance. I was brought up not only to develop the spirit of tolerance, but also to cherish moral and spiritual qualities, especially modesty, humility, compassion, and most important, to attain a certain degree of emotional equilibrium. I was taught to control my emotions through a process of concentration and meditation. Of course, being human, and not yet having reached the stage of arahant or arhat (one who attains perfect enlightenment), I cannot completely “control” my emotions, but I must say that I am not really excited or excitable.

To understand my religious background, a brief explanation of certain ethical aspects of Buddhism will be necessary. Among the teachings of the Buddha are four features of meditation, the primary purpose of which is the attainment of moral and spiritual excellence: metta (good will or kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upkkha (equanimity or equilibrium).

A true Buddhist practices his metta to all, without distinction; Buddhists need to apply in their daily lives the teachings of metta even to those whom they have never seen before, and will not see afterwards. “Just as the sun shines on all, or the rain falls on all, without distinction,” metta embraces all beings impartially and spontaneously, expecting nothing in return, not even appreciation. Metta is impersonal love or good will, the opposite of sensuous craving or a burning, sensual fire that can turn into wrath, hatred, or revenge when not required. A true Buddhist has to practice metta to friends and foes alike.

Karuna (compassion) is the second aspect of Buddhist meditation that all true Buddhists are expected to practice. This quality of compassion is deeply rooted in the Buddhist concept of suffering. Human life is one of suffering; hence, it is the duty of a good Buddhist to mitigate the suffering of others, not only in his thought but also in practice. He shows his compassion or pity to all, be they living in this or in another world. (Buddhism believes in life after death.) Buddhist charity is best seen during the feasts or dana given to the poor or to homeless monks, who are provided with alms food with a view to the donor’s attaining a higher order of bliss in the other world. The regular practice of compassion opens one’s mind to the “Noble Truth of Suffering” and its origin. For the Buddha has taught us that suffering originates in craving and ignorance. Hatred, or instance, is the root of all evil.

Mudita (sympathetic joy) can best be defined as one’s expression of sympathy with other people’s joy. The happiness of others generates happiness in the mind of a good Buddhist. Melancholy and pessimism have no place in the Buddha-dhamma or dharma (the cosmic and moral law governing the world, as formulated by the Buddha in his teachings.) One’s life gains in joy by sharing in the happiness of others, as if that happiness were one’s own. The person who cultivates altruistic joy radiates it over everyone in his surroundings, and thus everyone enjoys working and living with him. The practice of mudita not only dispels worry and frustrations but strengthens our moral fiber. Thus a true Buddhist is expected to pray for the happiness of all human beings. By practicing mudita, one automatically renders as important service to the entire community.

Upekkha (equanimity or equilibrium or detachment) connotes the acquisition of a balance of mind, whether in triumph or tragedy. This balance is achieved only as a result of deep insight into the nature of things, and primarily by contemplation and meditation. If one understands how unstable and impermanent all worldly things and conditions are, one learns to bear lightly even the greatest misfortune that befalls one or the greatest reward that is bestowed on one. This lofty quality of even-mindedness or emotional equilibrium is the most difficult of all ethical virtues to practice and apply in our hectic world. To contemplate life, but not to be enmeshed in it, is the law of the Buddha.

To achieve upekkha, one has to meditate. The Buddha’s teaching regarding meditation aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, emotional equilibrium, and tranquility. But this concept of Buddhist meditation is very much misunderstood, both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The word “meditation” is generally associated with a particularly posture, or musing on some kind of mystic or mysterious thought or going into a trance. Such misunderstanding is mainly due to the lack of s suitable English word for the original term bhavana, which means mental culture or mental development. The Buddhist bhavana aims at cleaning the mind of impurities, such ill will, hatred, and restlessness; it aims at cultivating such qualities as concentration, awareness, intelligence, confidence, and tranquility, leading finally to the attainment of the highest wisdom.

In other words, through meditation I seek inner peace. I heartily agree with Father Dominique Georges Pire, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, when he says: “I still think that to be a peacemaker, that is to say a man of peace, one must first be at peace with oneself. One must achieve inner peace. This involves getting to know oneself and learning to control one’s impulses. Only then can a peaceful being approach the immense task of creating harmony between groups and between individuals.

It is far from my intention to claim that I have reached a very high stage on the path to attainment of the highest wisdom, or that I have attained complete “inner peace”. I can claim, however, that I practice bhavana every day. I try to cultivate the ethical aspects of Buddhism, and I believe that I have attained a greater degree of emotional equilibrium than most people. This explains why I received the tragic news of the sudden death (in a traffic accident) of my only son, Tin Maung Thant, on May 21, 1962, with minimal emotional reaction. For are not birth and death the two phases of the same life process? According to the Buddha, birth is followed by death, but death, in turn, is followed by rebirth.

The same minimal emotional reaction applied to the news brought to me on September 23, 1965, by the Norwegian permanent representative, Ambassador Sivert Nielson, that it was the intention of the Nobel Peace Committee in Oslo to award me the coveted prize for 1965. He showed me the letter addressed to him by the Nobel Peace Committee. My response was / is not the Secretary General merely doing his job when he works for peace? After Ambassador Nielsen left my office, my thoughts wandered to those who were more deserving of that prize than myself – those whose lifelong preoccupation had been the peace of the world, the welfare of mankind, and the unity of the human community: people like Paul Hoffman, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, and many others. In any event, it was most gratifying to learn (on October 25) that UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), whose accomplishments in the humanitarian field no one questions, was the recipient of that prize.

Ref: MANDALA, (PP. 7-8)

February 1990

Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society

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