He harms living creatures born of womb or of egg, and has no kindness for creatures: know him as a lowlife.
He destroys and devastates villages and towns, a notorious oppressor: know him as a lowlife.
Buddhism and human rights share a sense of social responsibility and all-encompassing concern. Human rights define the minimum of what is necessary to ensure each person’s freedom of choice and right to self-determination. According to this vision of human rights, the institutions in which we typically live are subject to certain limitations that must not be violated in order to protect the fundamental freedom of the person.
Individual rights were first enshrined in international law with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948 and the succeeding human rights agreements. The 30 articles of the UDHR highlight the most significant aspect of the concept of human rights: the protection of the individual or, to be more precise, the protection of the individual against powerful institutions of the state, society, religion, or others. These 30 articles formulate universal rights as being valid for every individual human being regardless of race or ethnic group, gender, religion, and so on.
Prof. L. P. N. Perera, a Sri Lankan scholar, has provided a useful commentary on each of the 30 articles of the UDHR. In his foreword to the commentary, Ananda Guruge points out:
Professor Perera demonstrates that every single Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – even the labour rights to fair wages, leisure and welfare – has been adumbrated, cogently upheld and meaningfully incorporated in an overall view of life and society by the Buddha.(Perera 1991, xi)
Article One of the UDHR states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (UDHR). Perera writes a commentary on Article One from a Buddhist perspective:
This Article (which is really the basis of all human rights) is in complete accord with Buddhist thought, and may be said to be nothing new to Buddhism in conception. The Buddhist view of human rights emerges from two basic assumptions, one philosophical and the other ethical. The philosophical assumption – and this is what matters here – is that human beings are born with complete freedom and responsibility. Not being the creations of a Creator, they are subject only to non-deterministic causal laws, and their destinies are therefore in their own hands… one is certainly born free and if all could attain Buddhahood what greater equality in dignity and rights can there be?(Perera 1991, 21)
Classical Buddhism does not explicitly discuss so-called “human rights.” Discussions of this nature frequently begin by introducing a paradox, which Christopher Gowans expresses very well: “It is widely acknowledged that human rights were not explicitly recognized or endorsed in traditional Buddhist texts. . . . And yet human rights are endorsed and advocated by most (although not all) engaged Buddhists today.” (Gowans 2015, 245) However, the absence of specific discussions around human rights in the ancient texts need not imply that Buddhism opposes the concept. According to the Buddhist understanding of Dharma (a word deeply steeped in Indic ideas of social order and harmony), each person has essential and reciprocal roles and obligations in maintaining and advancing justice. Dharma determines what is acceptable in every scenario, as well as what is reasonable and good in all aspects and situations. Instead of being articulated as rights, Dharma obligations are expressed as duties. As M. Vajiragnana says:
Each one of us has a role to play in sustaining and promoting social justice and orderliness. The Buddha explained very clearly these roles as reciprocal duties existing between parents and children; teachers and pupils; husband and wife; friends, relatives and neighbors; employer and employee; clergy and laity (Sigala-Sutta, Digha Nikaya, NO. 31). No one has been left out. The duties explained here are reciprocal and are considered as sacred duties, for – if observed – they can create a just, peaceful and harmonious society.(Vajiragnana 1993, 3)
The dignity of the human individual serves as the cornerstone of human rights. According to Buddhism, this dignity comes from the value of human rebirth. While all beings possess buddha-nature (tathagathagarbha), only the human form can achieve enlightenment and buddhahood. Human rebirth is seen as being particularly uncommon and precious. Based on these emphases, it is possible to conclude that Buddhism has enduring causes for concern and historic ideals that might serve as the basis for a Buddhist embrace of human rights.
Engaged Buddhism scholar Sallie B. King has been one of the most prolific examiners of philosophical dialogue between modern human rights and Buddhist ethics. I wish to draw attention to several chapters in her books:
“Chapter 5: Human Rights” in Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)
“Chapter 7: Human Rights and Criminal Justice” in Socially Engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009)
“Buddhism and Human Rights” in Religion & Human Rights (John Witte, Jr. and Christian Green [eds.], 103–18. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
These books and chapters all present a helpful analytical framework that articulates Buddhist responses to human rights. First, the concerns: they include the veering of human rights into selfish individualism, the Western-dominated idea of “rights” as an anthropocentric privileging of humanity and an adversarial conception of rights versus responsibilities.
Conversely, reasons for Buddhists to support human rights include the infinite preciousness of human birth and the unique potential for enlightenment, as well as the idea that adherence the Five Precepts can manifest as promoting equality, discouraging violence, and expanding autonomy and freedom. There is also an implicit acknowledgement that meditation and enlightenment cannot be Buddhism’s only concern in a collective organism as complex as a society.
The fundamental moral code of the Buddhist tradition is represented by the Five Precepts, which arguably uphold human rights. The Five Precepts are that one should refrain from: killing; taking what is not given; sexual misconduct; lies; and intoxicants. In this sense, King has observed:
[T]he precepts imply that that society will be Good in which its members do not harm each other, steal from each other, lie to each other, etc. This in turn implies that a member of a Good society should have a reasonable expectation not to be harmed, stolen from, etc. Now one may or may not want to call such a thing a ‘right’, but it is certainly closing in on that ground in a practical sense, if not in the full conceptual sense.(Sallie 2005, 144)
The First Precept upholds the right not to be killed or suffer the infliction of violence. Important ideals associated with nonviolence and the Five Precepts include respect for each person’s autonomy and non-harmfulness. The right not to be harmed, and other norms and principles of peace are all reflected in these values and practices. Leading Buddhists from many Asian nations, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, A. T. Ariyaratne, Maha Ghosananda (1913–2007), and Sulak Sivaraksa, have often used the language of human rights to enrich their Dharmic perspective on social and political issues. For example, Maha Ghosananda has noted: “Cambodian people must obtain all basic human rights, including rights of self-determination and rights to freely pursue economic, social, and cultural development.” (Sallie 2005, 118)
Furthermore, Buddhists have founded organizations that support human rights. These organizations include the Thai National Human Rights Commission, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights, and more. Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Asian nations with significant Buddhist populations are also members of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), founded in 2009.
Buddhism maintains that all people are fundamentally, spiritually equal. Human hierarchies are merely conventional and should be deconstructed at the highest level. The Buddha maintained that everyone can attain enlightenment, rejecting the dominant caste system in principle. Hence, a Buddhist understanding of human rights has to maintain that a person’s value is inherent and, furthermore, their virtue is determined only by their actions rather than being determined by fortune or misfortune. As the Blessed One himself stated:
You’re not a lowlife by birth, nor by birth are you a brahmin. You’re a lowlife by your deeds, by deeds you’re a brahmin.(Vasala Sutta)
Gowans, Christopher W. 2015. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York and London: Routledge.
Perera, L. P. N. 1991. Buddhism and Human Rights: A Buddhist Commentary on the University Declaration of Human Rights. Colombo: Karunaratne and Sons.
King, Sallie B. 2005. Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
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