In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years?
Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism regards dignity as an innate and defining quality of human beings. It is the birthright of every living person. In his essay “Giving Dignity to Life,” the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it this way:
For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings . . . stems . . . from the exalted place of human beings in the broad expanse of sentient existence. . . . What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi goes on to say, human dignity is both an inborn potential in human beings and a quality to be cultivated through disciplined effort. Through daily meditative practice and the exercise of our unique capacity for moral choice, we can “actualize our potential for dignity.”*
In Buddhist meditation, as in other Eastern traditions, mind and body are seen as inextricable. And in practice, the cultivation of dignity can begin with moment-by-moment awareness of the body, including its positions, movements, and anatomical parts. Significantly, the four basic positions of the body–sitting, standing, walking, and lying down–are known in Buddhist teachings as the Four Dignities. And in systematic practice, each of the Four Dignities becomes an object of mindful awareness. When Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, advises practitioners to “sit in a way that embodies dignity,” he is echoing the Buddhist origins of his secular program. Similar admonitions accompany the practice of walking meditation, as when Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to “walk like a free person,” and Jack Kornfield advises us to walk slowly and with regal dignity, as if we were royalty out for stroll.
Beyond this attention to posture and movement, the quality of dignity can be cultivated through silent contemplation. We can become what we contemplate. Of the many objects of contemplation available to the practitioner, two are of particular importance.
The first of these is the contemplation of impermanence, not as an abstract concept but as an immediate reality. It is one thing to affirm the proposition that “everything changes.” It’s quite another to accept the reality of unrelenting change, especially when a loved one is involved, and the change is catastrophic. Yet, if we can truly accept the darker side of impermanence, our acceptance can lend dignity to our lives. Sakyong Mipham, a teacher in the Tibetan tradition, explains:
No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. It means we have more freedom and appreciation, because we can relax into the ebb and flow of life. Understanding the meaning of impermanence makes us less desperate people. It gives us dignity.**
As Mipham’s observation suggests, there is a direct connection between awareness of impermanence and the realization of personal dignity. The one engenders the other.
And just as a deep acceptance of impermanence can foster dignity of heart and mind, so can the cultivation of the mental state known as upeksha, or equanimity. The most exalted of the “Four Immeasurable Minds,” equanimity might be defined, in simplest terms, as a quality of balanced awareness when encountering life’s vicissitudes. Not to be confused with indifference, the mind of equanimity is engaged, warmly and compassionately, with whatever occurs, but it is not overwhelmed. For Westerners who might wish to contemplate an image of equanimity, I would suggest Robert Frost’s sonnet “The Silken Tent,” in which Frost likens his wife to a silken tent “loosely bound / By countless ties of love and thought” and supported by a “central cedar pole.” “Strictly held” by none of her obligations, she “gently sways at ease.” Frost originally titled the poem “In Praise of Her Poise.”
With stories of warring states and terrorist atrocities dominating the news cycle, it often seems that dignity is in short supply. Indeed, the concept of human dignity is most often invoked in the context of human rights–and gross violations thereof. But in our everyday lives, as in our interactions with others, dignity is not only a possibility but a living presence, however neglected or obscured. Like a secluded garden in a noisy, violent city, it has only to be tended.
* Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Giving Dignity to Life,” Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010.
** Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally (Riverhead, 2003), 150.
Photo: Fragrance Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, by Daderot.