In 1893, an audacious gathering took place in Chicago drawing together faith leaders from around the globe in a first-of-its-kind event: the Parliament of the World’s Religions. This first Parliament of Religions opened to audiences eager to learn from religious luminaries, one of whom was Swami Vivekananda, who wrote in a letter home ahead of the event, proclaiming his hopes for religion:
A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up—the gospel of equality.(Kittelstrom, 243)
As Prof. Amy Kittelstrom, who studies the history of religion in the United States at Sonoma State University, asks: “Was [the 1893 Parliament of World Religions] the beginning of a new era of inter-religious harmony consolidating the positive power of religion to remake the world according to divine goodness?”
We know today that it was not. Instead, members of the great religions returned home to more local concerns. Nonetheless, the act of bringing so many religious leaders from so many different places—notably missing were leaders of indigenous religions from Africa, Australia, and South America—would have effects that would ripple out through society like a rock dropped in still water. And just as the exposure to distant religions touched the mostly white, Protestant audience in Chicago 130 years ago, the idea of universal truths and global equality resonated across the globe.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions has continued to stoke the fires of universal ideals in the face of a stream of issues and difficulties. Humanity has witnessed two world wars, several genocides, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the growing threat of the climate crisis. And yet, the parliament has always aimed to foster a better humanity through the voice of religion.
This year, the ninth parliament focuses on human rights and what is possibly the greatest threat to them: authoritarianism.1 In its 2023 promotional video, images of protesters holding a banner reading “Support Ukraine, save peace in Europe” are followed by scenes from the 6 January 2021 attacks on the US Capitol by mobs supporting Donald Trump, while the narrator speaks about the threats to democracy facing our world.
The topic, and the inclusion of Buddhist leaders at this year’s parliament, naturally gives rise to the question: what do Buddhists say about human rights? This question further gives rise to a number of issues about the nature of human rights and the term “Buddhism” as an abstraction, covering more than 500 million people today and countless billions over the past 25 centuries.
Fortunately, Damien Keown, emeritus professor of Buddhism from Goldsmith’s College, University of London, has examined both of these issues in a 1995 paper titled “Are there ‘Human Rights’ in Buddhism?”
In that work, Prof. Keown affirms that while human rights may have been absent as a concept in most Buddhist traditions, it still existed and could be described using other terms and concepts. Prof. Keown notes that the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions included representatives of many major Buddhist schools, including Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Zen, and a closing address was delivered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Then, as now, Buddhists from various traditions have come together to affirm common ideals. And then, as now, common language has been used to draw together sometimes disparate understandings and practices. To exemplify the way that Buddhists across time and traditions could come together to affirm human rights, Prof. Keown quotes Buddhist scholar Kenneth Inada:
Like a storm which consumes everything in its wake, an experience in terms of relational origination involves everything within its purview. Hence, the involvement of elements and, in our case, human beings as entities should not be in terms of mere relationship but rather a creative relationship which originates from the individual locus of existence. In other words, each individual is responsible for the actualization of an “extensive concern” for everything that lies in his or her path of experience. So, we may say that the sum total of the “extensive concerns” can be referred to as a mutually constituted existential realm, and it thereby becomes a fact that there will be mutual respect of fellow beings. It is on this basis that we can speak of the rights of individuals. These rights are actually extensions of human qualities such as security, liberty, and life.(Keown 1995, 19)
In his conclusion, Keown restates: “It is legitimate to speak of both rights and human rights in Buddhism. Modern doctrines of human rights are in harmony with the moral values of classical Buddhism in that they are an explication of what is “due” under [the] Dharma.” (28) Going further, Keown suggests that Buddhists would also extend rights to non-human animals. Perhaps we could consider the rights of devas and hungry ghosts as well.
Given this, it becomes difficult to think of any Buddhist denying the importance of human rights or other universal values in Buddhism. Nonetheless, one can find countless occasions of Buddhists doing just this: from ongoing justifications of gender inequality, to ethnic discrimination and violence, and the defense of violent and abusive Buddhist teachers.
What should be clear from human rights failures within Buddhism is not that the concept of human rights is absent or obscure, but rather that certain Buddhists will always choose selfish or otherwise narrow ideals over the greater good and true commitment to the Buddhist path.
Grounded in the Buddhist version of human rights, whether it draws from the Pali Buddhist ideal of cultivating loving-kindness for all beings, just as a mother cares for her child, or drawing from the Mahayana ideal of ending the suffering of all sentient beings, Buddhists can engage in both dialogue and action to promote human rights around the world.
Keown, Damien. 1995. “Are there ‘Human Rights’ in Buddhism?” Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Volume 2. 3-27.
Vivekananda, Swami, Letters of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1964), 49, 51, 52. Quoted in Kittlestrom, Amy. 2009. “The International Social Turn: Unity and Brotherhood at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 19, No. 2, 243–74.
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