For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings does not stem from our relationship to an all-mighty God or our endowment with an immortal soul. It stems, rather, from the exalted place of human life in the broad expanse of sentient existence. Far from reducing human beings to children of chance, the Buddha teaches that the human realm is a special realm standing squarely at the spiritual center of the cosmos. 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. Though this capacity is inevitably subject to limiting conditions, we always possess, in the immediate present, a margin of inner freedom that allows us to change ourselves and thereby to change the world.
The notion of acquired dignity is closely connected with the idea of autonomy. Autonomy means self-control and self-mastery, freedom from the sway of passion and prejudice, the ability to actively determine oneself. To live with dignity means to be one’s own master: to conduct one’s affairs on the basis of one’s own free choices instead of being pushed around by forces beyond one’s control. The autonomous individual draws his or her strength from within, free from the dictates of craving and bias, guided by an inward perception of righteousness and truth.
– from “To Live With Dignity” by Bhikkhu Bodhi, originally published by BPS (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_38.html)
One thing that Bhikkhu Bodhi is pointing to in this essay is that there are both external and internal forces that can compromise our autonomy and our dignity. If we are very sensitive to the expectations of others (“obligers” in Gretchen Rubin’s lexicon), we may do things or respond in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily choose without perceived pressure from outside. If we are not aware of our own flaws, our unwholesome inclinations, we might give them free reign, thinking it can’t be helped, that it’s just the way we are. Both of these false imperatives can be recognized and counteracted, leading us to actions and words of greater autonomy and dignity.
If we choose the Buddha’s 8-fold path as our guide, we can cut through our confusion; we can use it to question, to investigate, and to come to a better understanding of our own motives and our perceptions of outside pressures. By using the 8-fold path as the engine of our reflections, we can protect ourselves from poor decision-making caused by our own passions and prejudices.
When we are tempted to say something harsh or unkind, we can ask ourselves, “Is this right speech? If I say what I’m planning to say, will benefit or harm be the result?” If we are filled with righteous indignation, we can investigate: “What view am I clinging to tightly enough to cause this suffering?”
In all of us humans there’s an underlying integrity which is the source of our dignity. If we use the Buddha’s 8-fold path, it can help us strengthen our integrity, one action at a time, one moment at a time.