Date: Mon, 02 Oct 1995 09:23:51
From: "Wayne R. Husted"
Buddhism and Human Rights: A Few Thoughts Jamie Hubbard, Smith College
September 29, 1985
I. Speaking without regard to the historical record:
A. Buddhists would probably find that the ethical values of the dhamma are entirely consonant with many of the values enshrined in "human rights."
B. This is not to say that the presuppositions behind those values are consonant with the presuppositions of human rights.
C. In fact they are radically opposed.
1. The notion of rights is:
a. historically tied to the idea of individual ownership, contracts, and an underlying metaphysical structure of independent and sovereign "beings;" it is thus clearly a product of a particular time and place, i.e., post- Enlightenment Euro-America.
b. realized through legal and ultimately coercive authority; rights are adversarial in nature. (1) Realized through legal authority, the natural adjudicators of human rights are elected officials, legislators, and the courts.
2. The ethics of the dhamma:
a. presuppose no-self, hence the inherency of rights is problematic, as is the idea of the inherent existence of their owner.
b. demand individual cultivation of discriminating wisdom as the only real solution to suffering of self and others.
(1) The embodiment of Buddhist discriminating wisdom is the monastic community.
D. This is why Western rights theory is troubling to many Asians and philosophically problematic for Buddhists; the culturally particular genesis of human rights also helps to explain why the import/export of the human rights culture is often associated with the import/export of other aspects of Western culture, including the hyper-consumerism so oft-attacked by Sivaraksa.
E. So while to be Buddhist might mean upholding the values of human rights and might dictate using rights language as a rhetorical expediency for today’s world (skillful means), the rationale *and* the goal is different.
II. Speaking in terms of the historical record:
A. Insofar as Buddhist cultures derive normative social values from dhamma, they still have no particularly privileged record of sanctity or sagacity. Wars and injustice have been known throughout the Buddhist world in the past and, from the current vantage point, it would be hard to say that Buddhist cultures were particularly well-equipped for their encounter with modernity and the onslaught of Western culture (although the story is by no means over yet). The postcolonial experience for Asia, as with most of the world, has been one of turmoil and tragedy, perhaps only slightly less so than the colonial experience.
B. Perhaps this is because, reflecting I.C.2. above, Buddhist doctrine has had little to say on social issues (not to say that Buddhists have not been inextricably intertwined with social and political realities); Buddhist political activism in the name of "justice" or "human rights" is a new phenomena.
1. Even when Buddhist doctrines have been deployed in the name of state and social values, the record is mixed at best, as when the Japanese understood their national polity in terms of Kegon philosophy (which caused the downfall of the Nara court and more recently served as a buttress for the militarism of the 30’s); Muslims in Thailand don’t always get such a fair shake from the dominant Buddhist population. In today’s world I am nervous about overt and covert forms of theocracy.=7F
III. Thus it seems to me that:
A. Buddhists can derive the necessary social values from Buddhist doctrine without recourse to the culturally and philosophically problematic notion of rights– perhaps Phra Dhammapidok’s notion of "social kamma" is a good place to start; although social kamma is a traditional element of Buddhist doctrine, it can be derived from the tradition more easily than human rights.
B. for human being living in this particular time and place, the rhetoric of human rights seems of good service and should be advocated, as the Dalai Lama and others have done so successfully; Buddhists, however, might ultimately have other priorities.
C. the Buddhist goal of eliminating the suffering of self and others puts the primary focus on self-cultivation; in my opinion the social genius of Sakyamuni was not in organizing protests about the conditions of palace slaves or the rights and duties of householders but rather in creating an institution devoted to the purpose of individual self-cultivation (monasticism); insofar as the monastic institution succeeds *in that pursuit* society benefits.