Date: Sat, 7 Oct 1995 17:03:20 GMT+10000
From: "John Jorgensen EDA" [email protected]
Subject: Conference papers, a response
Dear editors, the following is a rather hasty but long response to some of the papers.
"Human rights" talk is a well-meaning rhetoric developed by humans. Even Buddhism is a human product, albeit the product of enlightened humans. Buddhism hence allows rhetoric as a skilful means, and so may use "human rights" rhetoric as a way of creating compassion or //ahi.msa//. But rhetoric, and skilful means, are in the realm of the provisional level of truth, that of ordinary, ignorant humans. In a sense that initially seems antinomian, the "rights" of some humans or animals, such as the cat killed by Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) in a vain attempt to enlighten his students, are depicted in some Buddhist texts as having being violated for a "higher good ". At least in Ch’an/Zen rhetoric, the enlightened transcend good and evil, and Hui-neng in the //Platform Sutra// advises against thinking in terms of good or evil, for that is dualistic discrimination. Having "no mind", the enlightened lack volition and are without intention, which means they are not culpable for killing etc, for like killer typhoons etc, they have no ego. They act automatically or spontaneously in the aid of other beings. Their ostensibly evil acts are not morally fathomable to a person mired in the provisional level of understanding. Yet the justifications for these deeds in Ch’an and Tantra texts at least, is akin to an appeal to a "greater good", which frequently has diabolical consequences, as in the PRC or Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Because "human rights" belongs in the category of rhetoric and legal fiction, as a concept that is deemed desirable, "human rights" contains the danger of becoming an object of craving (there is a palpable thirst for human rights) and thus a hindrance to liberation and enlightenment (the "end" of Buddhism, if Buddhism can be said to have an end).
The actuality in the provisional world is that "might is right". A right remains a mere fiction or idea if it is not //enforced// (note the elements of coercion here!) by people and states. If a person’s rights are violated, that right in effect does not exist, for the right is empty of a function. Those tortured in Tibet had no enforceable rights. It is only the enforceability, the pressure of public opinion plus action that creates a right. A right is a human product, not a natural (although humans are part of nature) or inherent thing, for it comes from the mind. Only by making the values universally accepted (and that would mean an end to rights, just as Buddhism as skillfull means will disappear when all beings and their environments are liberated) can rights be made fully manifest and enforced. The vast majority of people and states would have to act, otherwise these rights become a form of delusion, a representation of craving, a "mirage" or "hare’s horn". There is implicit in the call for human rights an assumption that ideas must lead to action, that people act on their beliefs. This does not necessarily follow (even in my own case), for "people may ‘know’ the good and yet not always act in accordance with it" (Callicott and Ames, //Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought//, 287).
Moreover, even where a majority of people hold an opinion, that may not be translated into action, especially when frustrated by totalitarian regimes. As Christopher Stone, //Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects//, writes, "societies have long since passed the point where a change in human consciousness on any matter will rescue us from our problems. More than ever before we are in the hands of institutions", not just states, but also multinationals. Sometimes these companies and states are in cahoots, as in the case of BHP and the New Guinea government in respect of the denial of rights to sue over the pollution of a great river system.
More seriously for Buddhism and sentient beings, "rights" are divisive, and have led to violence, with US anti-abortionists for example, killing other humans in the name of the "rights of the unborn foetus".
Rights are a product of the concept of property. The theorists of "natural rights", such as John Locke, and the leaders of the American Revolution, linked property rights to the right of revolution when that state fails to protect property rights. The main beneficiaries of the English, American and French revolutions were the property owners. As hannah Arendt has observed, "Who said property, said freedom, and to recover or defend one’s property rights was the same as the //fight//(my emphasis) for freedom". (Cited in Roger Bowen, //Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan??, 190. Chapter 4, "Ideologies and Organizations", is most useful on how Western concepts of rights were made into Japanese "ken", the same character used for "provisional truth" in Buddhism.) Indeed, the suppression of full, grass-roots democracy for all, was restricted in these revolutions because the leaders of "state democracy" feared that "democracy was really mob rule, whose ‘ultimate purpose’ was ‘the denial of property rights’" (Bowen, 189). Indeed, in Meiji Japan, leading Buddhists did not stress "civil rights" or the limits to the powers of the state, but rather the "rights of the state" (Winston Davis, //Japanese Religion and Society//, 164). Even in "early" Buddhism, the notion of property was an obstacle to extending //ahi.msa// to plants (Lambert Schmithausen, //The Problem of the Sentience of Plants in Early Buddhism//, 105, 45-48). This linkage of property and human rights is not something that can be wished away; it was a historical trend that still exerts influence. Some have thus thought that the greed for property may be insatiable in the majority of people even after basic needs have been satisfied, because an inexorable desire to strengthen the ego can only be sated by the accumulation of non-essential material possessions (Peter Russell, in Daniel Chira, //Environmental Science: A Framework for Decision Making//, 2nd edn, 60-61). Therefore " rights" include the dangers of the human will to possess and to ego, a craving which inhibits compassion, and the threat of violence, which violates //ahi.msa//.
Perhaps Buddhists should stress non-ego, //ahi.msa// and compassion, rather than "rights". //Ahi.msa// is more than an antidote to physical violence, for it also cures the ills of the violence of logic (which excludes paradox and ambiguity, important features of life), the automatic, mechanical application of laws and even rights, and ego. //Ahi.msa// involves mindfulness, right livelihood, and is probably a prerequisite for compassion (with the caveat of the "higher good" mentioned above). //Ahi.msa// extends beyond sentient beings into one’s total environment.
In an analysis of karma, which seems to be the moral enforcing mechanism, Fa-tsang (643-712) stated that beside karmic requital proper (//cheng-pao//) of the "personality (not self) in rebirth" (whether in another life or other moment), there is also the dependent or collective requital (//i-pao// or //kung-pao/yeh//), the environment into which one is "born". That there is evil, or violations of the "rights" of humans and others, is due to one’s karmic requital proper and to the collective karma of the environment in which one lives. Thus the environment is not the product of a single bein’s karma or mentation; it is a joint, collective creation.
Therefore all deeds are linked, and the "rights" of an individual cannot be isolated from that of the whole. If there was no collective karmic requital, how can Buddhism explain the sufferings of Tibet and the killing fields of Cambodia, both Buddhist countries? How are we to react, other than with distant horror and pity, to these events. Although I cannot read His Holiness Dalai Lama’s mind, it seems he has prohibited Tibetans from fighting physically for their rights, for that would create more bad karma on top of that which Tibet is already experiencing, thereby undermining the aims of "human rights". Violence in the name of rights violates //ahi.msa// and compassion. But for Tibetans now in Chinese occupied Tibet, these rights do not exist except as fictions in the minds of some people and in a few fine-sounding declarations. These rights have not been enforced, and thus remain fictive. The Dalai Lama’s promotion of human rights then seems to be a means of convincing the vast majority of people and states to change the situation in Tibet by bringing moral pressure on the PRC leadership. But are the means skilful when the leaders of China fail to listen because they wish to retain possession of Tibet? Many proponents of human rights, I fear, underestimate evil. The evil is not simply that of the state; it is an evil born of ignorance which discriminates. The killings in Rwanda were not committed in the main by the former government. It may have encouraged the killing, but the majority of killers were the neighbours of the killed. Large numbers of ordinary people became killers of those who were discriminated on ethnic grounds, supposedly. History demonstrates that the rhetoric or ideology covers a much darker reality. Asoka conquered India violently before becoming an adherent of //ahi.msa// most conveniently (and for even that we really only have his word?). The pre-modern Chinese elite often proclaimed adherence to the Mencian strain of Confucianism that averred human nature is basically good and that there can be legitimate revolution (demonstrating "might is right" throughout history). Rather, the governments subscribed in their actions to the theories of Hsun-tzu, who stated that human nature tended to evil and required correction. That "correction" was usually oppressive and violent. In like manner, many writers on Buddhism take the optimistic approach that humans have the potential for enlightenment and so are basically good. But the core Buddhist analysis of existence is that of //du.hkha// or discontent, which is born of ignorance. Moreover, some Buddhists saw Buddhism as in a decline over historical time. The oppressed, who hoped for a new Pure Land on earth, often revolted violently when someone announced the advent on earth of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Thus history requires analysis, for Buddhism exists in time and place, and is not timeless, except in rhetoric.
Therefore, if Buddhists are to be socially active in this provisional realm in order to alleviate suffering and its cause, ignorance, //ahi.msa//, compassion and wisdom need to be promoted rather than rights. Analysis is required of the history of Tibet and the Cambodian genocide to see what lessons can be learned. We cannot hide behind well-meaning rhetoric, but rather should demonstrate compassion and non-violence in actual conduct. Right conduct, right livelihood, compassion, //ahi.msa// and the inculcation of wisdom that removes ignorance are the effective tasks at hand, not the rhetoric of rights. This does not imply that Amnesty International for example should stop championing human rights, but rather that it protests more and assists in removing ignorance and the demands of "state ego" (nationalism and central government) as a preventative measure. Buddhists should not forget human rights, but be mindful of the dangers within the demands and remember that rights are only fictions that can only become reality when enforced (which seems to violate //ahi.msa//, an example of the contradictions inherent in life). Ego and ignorance are the greater dangers and the true causes of the violations of human rights, and so education in non-ego and in insight and compassion etc are the real tasks. The powers of governments, large companies and the military must be curbed also, for these institutions are the main offenders. Be ever mindful.
Date: Sat, 07 Oct 1995 09:45:03 -0700
From: "JHS" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Conference papers, a response
Thank you very much for your contribution to JBE-L!
You restored the confidence in me that there are _some_ scholars out there who are not deluded by the rhetorics of the power struggle on Earth.
I share your concerns (see my address to the conference ‘To Whom It May Concern’) from last Wednesday.
For me, even the discussion of double-think issues like ‘Cultural Relativism’, ‘War Criminals’, is a fallacy and is not leading to more insight and compassion. In the contrary.
Thank you again! ( It seems I’m not the only one.)
Joachim H. Steingrubner, PhD
Date: Sat, 07 Oct 1995 17:30:56 -0400
From: "Steven D. Jamar" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Conference papers, a response
If a person’s rights are violated, that right in effect does not exist, for the right is empty of a function. Those tortured in Tibet had no enforceable rights. It is only the enforceability, the pressure of public opinion plus action that creates a right. A right is a human product, not a natural (although humans are part of nature) or inherent thing, for it comes from the mind.
This seems to be a statement out of the positivist school law – rights are only what we say they are – there is nothing universal or transcendant about them. This goes even one step further to negate any claim of right whenever it is unenforceable. It even goes a stretch farther to say whenever a right is unenforced it does not exist. There is a long pedigree for this sort of approach. But many of us disagree.
"rights" are divisive, and have led to violence
Absence of rights has led to incredible violence. Divisiveness exists on the basis of any construct, including such things as the existence of a soul which is reborn, as in Tibetan Buddhism, or the lack of a soul as in other Buddhist strains. (I don’t intend to spark a discussion of the meaning of soul here – I mean it as purely a shorthand for the idea of something is reborn and some Buddhist traditions don’t really follow that approach and instead use a chain of dependent causality which is abstracted from the idea of self – under this idea of becoming, I explained to me by a Buddhist monk, who I am now is not who I was when I started this posting.) Though I’ve never heard of Buddhists coming to blows over this.
As to the equation of property rights with human rights – I don’t really see the rights or free expression or free exercise of religion as necessarily having anything to do with property or property rights. So an indictment of property rights and the concept of property seems relatively irrelevant to many of the rights.
Even the economic, social and cultural human rights are not typically thought of as providing property rights, though they come closer.
And even the right to own property is not a property right per se. The ownership (apologies to and indulgence begged from Prof. Junger) of property is a property right, but the right to own property seems not to be one.
Many proponents of human rights, I fear, underestimate evil.
In my experience just the opposite is true and HR’s is seen as a way to combat the evil. However, most HR proponents are optimists – pessimists can’t take so many defeats and Pyrrhic victories and small steps over and over without getting discouraged.
Therefore, if Buddhists are to be socially active in this provisional realm in order to alleviate suffering and its cause, ignorance, //ahi.msa//, compassion and wisdom need to be promoted rather than rights.
I don’t see this as an either/or situation. It seems both can be effective.
The powers of governments, large companies and the military must be curbed also, for these institutions are the main offenders.
With this I agree. And I agree that education in right thinking and wisdom and such is a good idea for this. And I would much rather see corporations born of compassion and wisdom than selfishness and greed since I do not see how a society founded on "me first" and greed can ultimately be a just one.
But I think that as to the military and the governments, the rights based concepts and the idea of the rule of law will be positive steps toward justice. Mulitnational corporations pose a knottier problem.