Buddhist Perspectives on Human Rights

By A.N. Das
November 2010
MD Publications
Distributed by
ISBN: 9788175332928
253 pages
$47.50 Hardcover

Buddhist ethics is Dharmic system of role responsibilities rather than an ethic of rights. The essence of Buddhist moral theory is compassion, but that Buddhist compassion is not necessarily incompatible to discussion of the nature of human rights: that human relations are determined by more than rational, external and private domains considerations : that human relationships include rights and duties but also a broader range of choices ; and that compassion grounds Buddhist ethics (especially Mahayana Ethics), human rights builds a framework for extending the reach of natural compassion and for serving the goods that compassion affords to all persons in society. The most constructive contribution Buddhism has to make to international human rights debates because it allows the possibility of incorporating distinctive ethical frameworks for example, Buddhist compassion and Western liberal democracy – into a quest for an enriched and broadened understanding of human rights.

What are today called human rights was originally spoken of as “natural” rights, in other words, rights which flow from human nature. In the seventeenth century philosophers and statesmen began to define these rights and enshrine them in early constitutions such as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut as early as 1639. But what is the Buddhist position with respect to declarations of this kind of rights? It may be useful to begin by asking whether Buddhism would endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The repeated calls by the Dalai Lama for respect for human rights give some reason to think that it would. The signing of the Global Ethic by many Buddhists also suggests that Buddhism has no reservations about subscribing to charters or manifestos which seek to secure universal human rights. Moreover, there seems to be nothing in any of the thirty articles to which Buddhism would take exception.

The various declarations on human rights in Buddhism themselves rarely offer a justification for the rights they proclaim. It says every human being without distinction of age, sex, race, skin, color, physical or mental ability, language, religion, political view, or national or social origin possesses an inalienable and untouchable dignity. And everyone, the individual as well as the state, is therefore obliged to honor this dignity and protect it. Human rights is indeed an important issue, but the Buddhist position is that it is ancillary to the larger or more basic issue of human nature. It can be asserted that the Buddhist sees the concept of human rights as a legal extension of human nature.

It is crystallization, indeed formalization, of the mutual respect and concern of all persons, stemming from human nature. Thus, human nature is the ultimate source, the basis from which all other attributes or characteristics are to be delineated. They all have their respective raison d’etre in it. They are reflections and even byproducts of it. The reason for assigning human nature the basic position is very simple. It is to give human relations a firm grounding in the truly existential nature of things: that is, the concrete and dynamic relational nature of persons in contact with each other, that avoids being caught up in rhetorical or legalistic tangles.

Consequently, the Buddhist concern is focused on the experiential process of each individual, processes technically know as relational origination. It is the great doctrine of Buddhism, perhaps the greatest doctrine expounded by the historical Buddha. It means that, in any life-process, the arising of an experiential event is a total, relational affair.

Religion; Political Science

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