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Buddhism and Human Rights

By Sajitha Prematunge-October 4, 2018, 8:53 pm

Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, at the service of St.
Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Ekala, recently said something along
the lines that 'human rights had become the latest religion in the West...Sri
Lankans have been inclined towards human rights through religion for
centuries...Those who do not practice religion are the ones who are hung up
on human rights.'
Despite the comment being criticised as populist by Minister of Finance and
Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera, scholars point out that Buddhist
teachings are in harmony with Western concept of human rights. In fact,
many of these rights are either implied or explicit in the moral teachings of
most religions. This is not to suggest that one should peruse Buddha Dhamma
in search of human rights in order to prove that it is on par with international
law. Rather religions such as Buddhism can act as a moral compass, upon
which modern human rights laws can be based.

Religions can endorse human rights laws and encourage respect towards
individual rights and call for their implementation. The Declaration towards a
Global Ethic, a set of moral principles, including many that concern human
rights, which all religions subscribe to, formulated as a result of the 1993
Parliament of the World's Religions meeting in Chicago, is a case in point.
Religions such as Buddhism that have a legitimate stake in human rights can
be used to resolve conflicts and ensure reconciliation in-house without having
foreign forces meddling in the processes. This is probably what the
Archbishop wished to point out, although he was sadly misconstrued.


Human rights is based on the notion that ‘everyone is born equal’, but
according to Buddha Dhamma, nobody is equal and whatever someone brings
to this world is based on one's karma. Equality is just an ideal. Referring to
the Western concept of equality, Ajahn Brahmavamso Thera in 'Simply This
Moment!' points out, "Idealism has its place but surely it must be founded on
truth and reality."

Equally idealistic but far from the truth is the concept of freedom.
Governments try to market it and individuals aspire towards it. However,
Ajahn Brahm points out that the Western and Buddhist concepts of freedom
are at loggerheads with each other. The Western concept of freedom has to do
with the freedom of desire, where as the Buddhist concept of freedom means
freedom 'from' desire. To be free from desire is to be truly content, says
Brahm. Ajahn Brahm refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as
'completely dogmatic and insensitive' and not in the least universal.

The Buddhist concept of Anatma (no-self), deems that all individuals are
equal in the most profound sense, in that anatma is a universal reality. The
'self' is just a Sanna (concept). In fact, we are all made of the four great
elements; Patavi Dhathu (earth), Apo Dhathu (water), Thejo Dhathu (fire),
Vayo Dhathu (air) also known as Satara Mah? Bh?ta. However, this same
concept of no-self renders 'individual' rights null and void, since the
'individual' does not exist.

Human rights in Buddhism

Consequently, trying to look for mention of human rights verbatim in
Buddhism may result in confusion. But elements of human rights are certainly
both implied and explicit in Buddhist cannon. For example, in 'Buddhism and
human rights: a Buddhist commentary on the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights' L.P.N Perera points out that every single Article of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from labour rights to fair wages,
leisure and welfare, has been adumbrated, cogently upheld and meaningfully
incorporated in an overall view of life and society by the Buddha.

Discussing the first sentence of Article 1 of the Declaration 'All human beings
are born free and equal in dignity and rights', Perera says, "Buddhahood
itself is within the reach of all human beings...and if all could attain
Buddhahood what greater equality in dignity and rights can there be?" In
fact, the Buddha rejected cast and class prejudices and distinction based on
endowment, ensuring equality under the law of Dhamma. The Buddha taught
that the ultimate happiness, Nibbhana, is achievable by all irrespective of cast,
class or for that matter gender.

Perera claims that Buddhist thought is in accord with the Declaration,
however Buddhism supersedes it. For example, in addition to human rights,
animal rights are also ensured through the observation of the first of the Five
Precepts. Phra Payutto, one of the most influential thinkers in modern Thai
Buddhism has said, "If human beings act in accordance with the Five
Precepts there is no need for "Human Rights"...we can find the many
provisions of the Human Rights Declaration in the framework of the Five

Another Thai scholar, Somparn Promta opines that the Five Precepts have
been laid down in order to protect human rights, independent of a law
enforcing authority. In fact, rights such as right to life, right not to have one's
property stolen, right to fidelity in marriage, and a right not to be lied to is
implicit in the Precepts. Promta points out, "...humans 'do not have the right'
to take another human being’s life (first si?la); to steal (second s?ila); to
commit adultery (third si?la) and to lie (fourth s?ila). Because as a
consequence of these actions, other’s rights to life, property and (in case of the
fourth precept) to truth will be infringed upon."

Rights to liberty and security is ensured in the Eightfold Path's 'Right
Livelihood' which dictates that trading in live beings, including slaves and
prostitutes, is one of five occupations that are not to be engaged in. According
to Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassan? meditation, S.N. Goenka, the
Precepts are the minimum requirements for right conduct. And right conduct
is one of the eight elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. Goenka points out
that impure acts such as killing, stealing, sexual promiscuity propagate lust,
hatred, and delusion that harms both the individual who engages in these acts
as well as those affected by the acts.

Attupanayika Dhammapariyaya given in the Veludvara Sutta is the
foundation of Buddhist social ethics and a prime example for Human Rights
in Buddhism. In the Sutta the Buddha propounds a sort of 'self-standard
principle' to the villagers of Ve?ludv?ra that teaches one not to do anything to
others that one does not like done to oneself. "For a state that is not pleasant
or delightful to me must be so to him also; and a state that is not pleasing or
delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?"

It ensures ones safety by offering safety to others (Attanam rakkhanto param
rakkhati, Param rakkhanto attanam rakkhati). This principle can be applied
to the Five Precepts as well. Through observing the Precepts human rights for
everyone is invariably guaranteed, as all individuals in such a society prevents
from inflicting harm on anyone else.

In Buddhism, the reciprocal obligations of husbands and wives, kings and
subjects, teachers and students can be interpreted as rights and duties. The
Buddha's advice to Sigalaka in Sigalovada Sutta is to 'support those [parents]
who support him, do his duty to them', and respect one's wife by 'honouring,
not disrespecting, being faithful and sharing authority. These then, can in
reverse, be interpreted as rights of parents and spouses.

The eighth and 10th of Dasa Raja Dharma (Ten Duties of the King) also
ensures that rights of individual liberty and security is not violated by the
state. The 10th duty of a king is Avirodha, non-opposition, non-obstruction,
which means that he should not oppose the will of the people, should not
obstruct any measures conducive to the welfare of his people. He should rule
in harmony with his people. The eighth, Avihimsa, recommends non-violence,
which not only means that the ruler should refrain from harming anybody,
but that he should try to promote peace by avoiding and preventing war, and
everything which involves violence.

The central Buddhist ethic of ahimsa or non-violence deplores violence and
thereby ensures human rights are protected.

"All tremble at violence,

All fear death;

Comparing oneself with others

One should neither kill nor cause others to kill."

(Dhammapada, Verse 129)"

The karmic consequences of violence is explicit in these words of the Buddha;

"Brahmin youth, here some woman or man is one who makes onslaughts on
creatures, is cruel, bloody-handed, intent on injuring and killing, and without
mercy on living creatures. Because of that deed, accomplished thus, firmly
held thus, he, at breaking up of the body after dying, arises in the sorrowful
way, the bad bourn, the Downfall, the Niraya...Monks, the guardians of
Niraya Hell, subject them to what is called five-fold pinion. They drive a red-
hot iron stake through each hand and each foot and a red-hot iron stake
through his breast. Thereat, he feels feelings that are painful, sharp and
severe. But he does not do his time until he makes an end of that evil." (quoted
in Violence and Disruption in Society: A Study of Early Buddhist Texts (1994)
by Elizabeth Harris.)

Flaws in Western human rights concept

Phra Payutto, points out that Western-influenced discourses on equality is
based on competition, equal rights to compete with each other, which in turn
breeds mistrust and fear. Therefore these Thai philosophers encourage the
middle path to human rights, where human rights are respected, but only to
the point it does not infringe on others' rights. Both Payutto and Promta
argue that Western ethical systems are flawed in that human rights result
from a basic attitude of division and segregation.

According to Western 'ethics', defilements such as greed (lobha), aversion
(dosa), craving (tan?h?a) and conceit (m?ana) are an inherent part of human
nature that cannot be resolved. Therefore ethics or rights must be imposed to
ensure human rights are not violated through these adverse human qualities
(defilemts). However, according to Buddha Dhamma one does not have to
constrain oneself, going against desire, in order to rid oneself of defilements.
Buddhism teaches to rid of defilements through development and training.
Payutto argues that Western thinking underestimates this ability of humans
to self develop, pointing out that their version of human rights is not

Payutto points out that every individual has the right to self-development.
"Ideally, all conditions, both social and natural, should be made favourable to
and all kinds of help should be provided for the self-development of every
individual." Payutto suggests that western laws must act as Buddhist training
rules (sikkha?pada), that would lead to the creation of good people and not
enforced to do away with the bad. He opines that good legislation must
acknowledge the human ability to self-develop.

However, Payutto warns against appropriating the human rights of others, in
the struggle to secure the human rights for oneself. Man must know to wage
the struggle to freedom without destroying it in the process.
Posted by Thavam