Date: Mon, 02 Oct 1995 17:21:14 -0400
From: "Steven D. Jamar" [email protected]
Subject: Panelist Statement of Steven D. Jamar
There appear to be two very distinct fundamental concerns when examining human rights and Buddhism. First, and the topic which consumes much of the digital ink spilled thus far in the articles submitted, concerns looking at the underlying, core philosophical approaches to the world reflected in Buddhism and in a rights-based approach. The second concern is a more pragmatic one of considering the extent to which Buddhists are right to be concerned with human rights, or at least it is not "religiously incorrect" for a Buddhist to be concerned with human rights. I will comment further on these two concerns in order.
1. I think the distinctions being drawn between Buddhist teachings and the human rights approach to the human condition are being drawn to sharply. My reasons are as follows. First, human rights is premised not on a rights tradition, but on a view of human dignity. Human dignity requires that people have certain conditions of existence. To the extent the law can affect those conditions of existence, it ought to do so in such a way as to enhance human dignity. The basic human rights movement dovetails with the idea of the rule of law rather than the rule of individuals. Both the rule of law and the human rights movement are concerned with the temporal and the secular. The domain of applicability is not the same as religions focusing on ultimate questions of the nature of existence.
But Buddhism also has something to say about the temporal and the secular and about human dignity. Indeed, the Middle Way, and the Noble Eightfold Path can easily be seen as being concerned with the here and now and about proper living. One can, I think, easily find human rights to be fully consonent with the Middle Way and the Noble Eightfold Path. As pointed out in Prof. Jay Garfield’s article, Human Rights and Compassion: Towards a Unified Moral Framework, JBE Conf on HR & Buddhism, (1995), the idea of compassion carries with it much of the idea of human dignity which underlies human rights.
I also think that the conception of human rights is too narrow as written by some, in particular Prof. Peter Junger’s article, Why the Buddha Has No Rights, JBE Conf on HR & Buddhism (1995). As Junger recognizes, though perhaps incompletely, human rights involve much more than the rights relating to physical integrity and the civil and political rights of the western rights-as-limits tradition. Human rights extends to a panoply of economic, social and cultural rights as well. Extending the term rights to encompass these other aspects (such as the right to work, the right to a clean environment, the right to health, the right to education, etc.) requires one to extend the very concept of rights beyond the original Lockian boundary.
One of my mentors, Prof. Goler Teal Butcher, defined human rights as follows: A claim, interest, demand, or need which is cognizable at law and which proceeds from moral precepts necessary for human dignity. Viewed in this more expansive and inclusive way, I think that human rights is cut loose from its negative rights origin. One cannot exclude the Marxist critique which found its way into the very conception of rights and which, indeed, permeates Roosevelt’s speech on the four freedoms which include freedom from want and freedom from fear.
2. Turning now to the second thread I would like to consider, the more pragmatic side. The fruit we call human rights might grow from several different roots. If one looks at the content of the rights more than the sources of them, that is, if one looks at the apple, not at the roots, then I think a great deal of what we call human rights is consonent with Buddhism, at least as it is understood and practiced by many Buddhists.
Examples are legion. The Dalai Lama advocates human rights as a proper concern of people. Buddhists immolated themselves in Vietnam in protest to the war. Ashoka sought to create a Buddhist culture in his empire. The Middle Way does not counsel complete otherworldliness.
If one finds that Buddhism is concerned with virtue, not rights, there is no conflict if the rights are virtuous. And since human rights are concerned with human dignity, it would seem almost tautological to say that practicing virtue leads to or includes respect for human dignity.
Thus it seems to me that rights-based approach to human dignity and a Buddhist approach to compassion and virtue are not only not in conflict, but are at core concerned with many of the same things.
Steven D. Jamar
Assoc. Prof. of Law
Howard University School of Law