Date: Tue, 10 Oct 1995 11:24:21
From: "Dayal Abeyasekere, Ph D" [email protected]
Subject: An Engineering Viewpoint on Human Rights in Buddhist Countries
I am an engineering academic with a Buddhist background who has followed a small but important fraction of the discussion which has taken place so far on Human Rights in Buddhist countries.
The philosophical part of me is very impressed by the philosophical issues which have been raised in increasing the understanding of every one in this worldwide discussion among all those taking part.
I would like to introduce a "practical engineering perspective", which I hope will be of interest to at least some of you. My comments on "endlessness of potential discussion" may offend the more sensitive of my philosophical participants of this very worthwhile discussion. I offer an apology with a clear statement that I do believe that everything which has a beginning also has an end. Perhaps the emphasis could be of the balance among our thoughts words and deeds, rather than a concern for the "potential endlessness". I am reminded of the pali stanza "Kayena vaca cittena …." which I would invoke of those who feel offended by my own values of practicality.
I hope I am satisfying at least some of the purposes or directions of discussion specified by our conference moderators for this WEEK TWO.
There are many legal issues and political issues which have been quickly overshadowed by the philosophical, ethical and moral issues. It is best to categorise these issues under these broad classes if we are to avoid believing that satisfying any purpose or need in one of these fields is capable of satisfying purposes or needs in other fields.
When anyone raises an interesting issue or question without specifying a purpose or need for addressing that issue or question, we can easily generate an endless discussion believing that we understand each others needs and purposes. Buddhism is perhaps the only religion where its founder quite clearly discouraged the addressing of questions which do not lead towards "enlightenment" in some "practical" Buddhist sense of "enlightenment".
My background of values in "engineering" leads me to value the purpose of generating greater political awareness for the need for Human Rights and of generating the creation of legal systems which support the protection of Human Rights in ALL countries regardless of the religious beliefs of people of any country.
Buddhism emphasises personal and social morality of the most compassionate type without emphasising a need to share a supernatural belief for being ethically and morally exemplary. This allows discussions of questions like Human Rights with a very high level of respect for the opinions of all who wish to take part in the discussion, regardless of their relgious beliefs. This has been clearly demonstrated by the contributions of all contributors allowed access by the moderators.
All Buddhists who can agree to value a "practical purpose" to our discussion on Human Rights are also likely to value the emphases of compassion, personal ethics and respect for different social development views in Buddhism, as shown by the practices followed over thousands of years in Buddhist countries. I believe that these qualities are the very ones that have allowed Buddhist to conduct this kind of universal debate on Human Rights in logical relation to their religion, even before any other group can even consider doing so with the level of mutual respect shown so far among its participants.
The only way by which we can avoid generating an endless discussion is to define some clear practical purposes for the discussion and show that there is atleast as much in the Buddhist tradition to support all such purposes as would be found in any other religion.
When Politics and Laws relating to Human Rights are discussed in the confines of one Religion, that Religion is automatically placed on the defensive. In this case Buddhism is placed in this defensive position by an association of somewhat greater violations of Human Rights in countries where the majority are Buddhists. Since the very best of intellectuals among us are not sufficiently educated in all relevant fields, we are likely to show many of the characteristics of the blind men who described an elephant by feeling only a part of the elephant. Let us become aware of the classifications that we can describe best. It allows us to define or understand the limits of usefullness of our various contributions.
All religions have attempted to increase the respect that humans have for each other as well as for other living creatures or sentient beings, as Buddhists may generalise. Buddhism has not encouraged as much respect for living beings as Jainism, where everyone is encouraged to wear face masks in order to avoid destroying microbes through inhaling. But Buddhists have generally accepted the "rightfulness" of stories of sacrifices of ones right to life in sustaining that of another.
What is right and what are rights have traditional, social and other complex components, and will be different for different individuals, societies, and groups within societies such as lawyers and politicians. Rulers of modern societies hold values which they are allowed to hold by the immediate circle of socio/political support within which they exercise their authority.
Countries which are relatively less affluent have socio economic factors which keep their political and civil defence establishments less respectful of procedures used for maintaining law and order than in the more affluent countries. None of the political or military leaders in any country can call on the principles of any religion for violating ‘rights’ of any animal, let alone of humans. Buddhism is clearly no exception.
As populations increase, and as the diversity of character of people consequently increase, the number of people who violate traditions, political and moral standards will also increase. This will happen in any group – independently of the majority religion. No society of millions of people is likely to be completely free from murderers.
To hold any ethical or moral code responsible for the existence of those who violate these ethical and moral codes, in societies which are large, ignores the forces that create diversity. The forces that reduce the damaging component of this diversity in large societies are largely "educational". Family upbringing, social upbringing and formal education, …, will all influence the level of concern that people have for the rights of others, in the exercise of their own rights. The more compassionate religions will tend to err on the side of respecting more human rights of others rather than less. I am certain that those who have studied different religions and lived among people of different religions will describe Buddhism as striking a "sensible balance" at a personal or individual level. The history of modern Western philosophy, at least of the first half of this century, has had notable figures who have expressed a very regard for Buddhism from outside of the religion.
If we are to increase the concern that any society has in safeguarding the Human Rights of its citizens, we will need to be concerned with ALL of the factors that contribute to that concern – especially, economic, educational and political. To draw too close a logical link between one set of ethical and moral codes or traditions and a lower level of concern for Human Rights in societies of millions of people is clearly not conducive to the effect desired, of increasing the concern of all (influential and politically powerful) members of large societies to the rights of their citizens.
Every religion, which has any form of ethical foundation, is concerned with Human Rights. Every large society has ethically exemplary and ethically deplorable members regardless of the dominant religion or philosophy. In order to increase the concern for Human Rights, those in societies with acceptably high concerns for Human Rights should feel obliged to do what they can to improve the economic and educational levels of less well off societies. Since affluence is confined to a very small fraction of people and societies on the earth and inequalities, even in the more affluent countries economic inequalities are also on the increase, the link among personal psychological-well-being and consumption may need to be reduced, and the link between sharing wealth and increase in personal psychological well-being may need to be increased up to impractical levels, for Human Rights to have a greater likelihood of being more universally respected. This has been the fundamental exhaltation of ALL religions that have survived over thousands of years. As I understand the problem, we are trying to develop ways of making societies more compassionate, starting from traditional ways pointed out by all religions to make individuals more compassionate.
In essence, I have tried to identify a small number of political or legal purposes for this Human Rights discussion, with a view to reducing the time taken to arrive at some "practical" suggestions or conclusions. I have preferred to interpret this purpose as increasing the political awareness of people for the need for respecting Human Rights and increasing the legal infrastructures for supporting Human Rights in all countries. I have tried to demonstrate that Buddhism as a religion has sufficient emphases on compassion and related ethics to satisfy philosophical requirements. I contend that economic factors are probably more important in satisfying the purposes that I have emphasised. If you take equally large samples of Buddhists who have settled down in developed Western countries and compare their concern in a practical sense for supporting Human Riights, I predict that the Buddhist sample will come out with appropriately high levels of support as with any other sample from any other religion. Most Asian groups who have migrated to Australia are economically more productive than the average for the whole country. I believe that that result will extend to their respect not only for productivity but respect for modern political and legal cultural descriptions of society such as respect for Human Rights. I believe that the verification can and should be resolved using a "social survey" instrument rather than using a potentially never ending discussion dominated by purely philosophical criteria.
If we are to improve the Human Rights record of poorer countries, all of us who can afford the luxury of engaging in any potentially endless discussion should accept some responsibility to help these poorer countries become less poor. So far the path to affluence has required the extensive use and depletion of non-renewable resources of our planet. I believe that that path need not be taken by any country in the future. If we connect the Internet to a significant fraction of educational establishments of these poorer countries using computers that are being effectively discarded in the West, these poorer countries may become productive very quickly and learn the political significance of Human Rights. I believe that Buddhist communities will not be any less quick to develop themselves than any other community in any country, in economics or any aspect of politics, including political awareness of the need for Human Rights, in the process of achieving economic development. We should make this wonderful universal medium of communication steadily more universal and extend it quickly to the truly needy who can clearly make far more practical use of it than even we can. The reason for my optimism is based partly on my own observations of the speed with which practical problems in my own complex technical field are being solved everywhere in the world using Internet communications, by comparison with traditional methods prior to Internet.
I have given more details of how this educational and IT based economic and social development can be achieved in two relevant papers presented at the South East Asian Regional Computing Conference of 1995 held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month.