Date: Fri, 06 Oct 1995 03:35:18 -0400
From: "Steven D. Jamar" [email protected]
Subject: Grounding HR in Buddhist Doctrine
How is a doctrine of human rights to be grounded in Buddhist doctrine? Distinctive Buddhist approach to human rights might be formulated in terms of the doctrine of dependent-origination or by reference to compassion. Would anyone like to speak in favour of either of these?
I think we wander directly into all those well-known contradictions in Buddhism – (as seen by outsiders, at least) is it optimistic or pessimistic? here & now or the divine blowing out? altruistic moral action or selfish pursuit of nirvana? The answer to these questions depends in no small part on who is asking and on who is being asked. The Zen Roshi answer may well be different from a Tibetan lama or a Theravadan Monk or an Ambedkar follower. And I think one’s view on such matters drives the discussion. If one views Buddhism very intellectually and abstractly and selfishly, then compassion is not really the center and one must move toward the chain of dependent causality. If one views the precepts and the noble eightfold path as a guide to life, not just to nirvana, then compassion may be the source.
A third alternative is to look at what I consider the second-layer level of Buddhism, e.g., the Noble Eightfold Path and the 5 Precepts and such accretions. One can then ground HR quite easily in the sense of having the HR derivable (in a practical sense, not a philosophically rigorous sense) from these principles.
But if that level is not acceptable, I like the idea of compassion as a good grounding and found Jay Garfield’s submission on this an useful analysis (though I think one need not define rights as he has and so much of what he seeks to do can become superfluous – but that is another story . . .)
Human dignity relates to both an internal sense (I still have my dignity) and an external observer (he is dignified). Buddhism has a lot to say about human dignity and proper treatment of fellow beings. So I think we can find our moral precepts which underpin HR in Buddhism without difficulty and I would trace it ultimately to compassion.
But for those whose path to nirvana is intellectual, we need to use the idea of dependent origination. Unfortunately, to the extent I understand it at all, my understanding is almost unexpressable (sort of Zen-like, huh, Prof. Junger ). So under this approach, I go to the second level noted above – the noble eightfold path as a simpler source. As a practical person seeking to persuade masses of people to accept the ideas of universal human rights, I would pitch them at this level rather than at the level of the abstruse obscurities of dependend origination.
I hope to read suggestions from others which will perhaps help me articulate my way through this thicket more clearly.