Date: Mon, 02 Oct 1995 09:23:49
From: "Wayne R. Husted"
Damien Keown – Goldsmiths, University of London
I can see four important issues in connection with Buddhism and Human Rights, although there may well be more:
1) Is the concept of "rights" appropriate in a Buddhist context? Specifically, does "rights talk" distort or in some important way misrepresent Buddhist teachings? If so, should Buddhists avoid this language and evolve a distinctively Buddhist vocabulary for addressing issues which are nowadays expressed in the language of rights?
I think using the language of rights in a Buddhist context presents no major conceptual or doctrinal problems. In this respect I share the view of HHDL who in his writings and public statements makes use of the concept of "human rights" freely and without qualification. I do not believe his remarks are directed solely at Western audiences, and even if they were, he surely would not use the concept of rights if he felt it was in any way incompatible with Buddhist teachings. Perera goes through the UN Declaration on Human Rights article by article and shows (in some cases more convincingly than others) how there is a precedent for each item in early Buddhist teachings.
In his statements on human rights, what HHDL seems to be calling for above all is justice, and respect for human dignity, neither of which seem incompatible with traditional Buddhist moral principles. Traditionally, Buddhism would express these ideals by speaking of virtues and duties (such as the virtue of compassion, and the duty not to harm others as embodied in the First Precept) , but they can just as easily be expressed in terms of rights (the corresponding right of others not to be treated unjustly or harmed). Most societies (including the West until comparatively recently) have traditionally expressed their moral ideals in terms of duties, and only in recent centuries has the concept of rights come to prominence. There are historical reasons for this, but the fact that the concept first evolved in the West does not preclude it from being applicable in other cultures, IMHO.
2) Even if Buddhism CAN invoke the language of rights, should it do so?
I share the concern of several commentators that the Western predilection for analysing moral and legal responsibility exclusively in terms of rights is not without its dangers. The exclusively subjective orientation of rights creates a tendency for individuals to conceive of themselves as atomic units who are "owed" something by "society", rather than participants in a community to which they have responsibilities and to which they can make a contribution. In Buddhist terms, the danger is a reinforcement of the notion of "self" and a failure to recognise interdependence ("interbeing"). A society which places too much emphasis on rights may therefore not foster other-directed virtues (such as generosity and compassion) which Buddhism values. To the extent that rights enshrine the idea of "self" in social institutions they represent a tendency that needs to be monitored. At the same time, the important corrective role of rights must not be lost sight of, in that rights emphasise the unique value and dignity of the individual and offer protection against abuse by institutional authority.
3) How is a doctrine of human rights to be grounded in Buddhist doctrine?
Given that Buddhists seem to support the aims of human rights charters, how is this support to be accounted for in terms of Buddhist doctrine? There are several suggestions as to where Buddhism might ground a doctrine of human rights: i) dependent-origination (Inada, Unno, Evans), ii) compassion (Garfield), iii) human dignity deriving from the radical capacity for enlightenment (Keown). This question is a long way from being resolved but in a sense is the most important, since if there is no foundation for human rights in Buddhist teachings the other questions are academic.
4) What is the appropriate Buddhist response in the face of human rights abuses?
This concerns the practical stance Buddhists should take, whether protests should always be non-violent, the kinds of tactics to be used (boycots, embargoes, demonstrations), and so forth. Hovering in the background are larger questions concerning the involvement of Buddhism in politics and other issues of the kind dealt with in writings on socially engaged Buddhism, such as the kind of social philosophy and political system Buddhists should espouse. The relationship between Buddhism and business is extremely important here in view of the influence of multinational corporations on almost every aspect of daily life, and particularly in the third world. This question is dealt with in the paper by David Bubna-Litic.