A Buddhist understanding of Dharma and human rights

- through Francois Leclercq

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He harms living beings born from the womb or egg, and has no kindness to creatures: consider him a thug.

He destroys and devastates villages and towns, a notorious oppressor: know him as a thug.

(Vasala Sutta)

Buddhism and human rights share a sense of social responsibility and global concern. Human rights define the minimum of what is necessary to guarantee the freedom of choice and the right to self-determination of each person. According to this view of human rights, the institutions in which we usually live are subject to certain limitations which must not be violated in order to protect the fundamental freedom of the person.

The United Nations in New York. Photo by Raymond Lam

Individual rights were first enshrined in international law with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948 and subsequent human rights agreements. The 30 articles of the UDHR highlight the most significant aspect of the concept of human rights: the protection of the individual or, to be more precise, the protection of the individual against powerful institutions of the State, society, religion or others. These 30 articles formulate universal rights as being valid for every human being, without distinction of race or ethnic group, gender, religion, etc.

Professor LPN Perera, a Sri Lankan academic, provided a useful commentary on each of the 30 articles of the UDHR. In his foreword to the commentary, Ananda Guruge points out:

Professor Perera demonstrates that every article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – even the rights of labor to fair wages, leisure and well-being – was outlined, convincingly defended and meaningfully incorporated into a global vision of life and society by the Buddha.

(Perera 1991, xi)

Article XNUMX of the UDHR states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and must act towards each other in a spirit of fraternity” (DUDH). Perera writes a commentary on the first article from a Buddhist perspective:

This article (which is in fact the foundation of all human rights) is in complete agreement with Buddhist thought and can be considered as having nothing new in its conception. The Buddhist vision of human rights emerges from two fundamental assumptions, one philosophical and the other ethical. The philosophical assumption – and this is what matters here – is that human beings are born with complete freedom and responsibility. Not being the creations of a Creator, they are subject only to non-deterministic causal laws, and their destiny is therefore in their own hands... everyone is certainly born free and if all could attain Buddhahood, what greater equality in dignity and rights could there be? ?

(Perera 1991, 21)

General Assembly Hall. From un.org

Classical Buddhism does not explicitly discuss so-called "human rights." Discussions of this nature often begin by introducing a paradox, which Christopher Gowans expresses well: “It is widely recognized that human rights were not explicitly recognized or endorsed in traditional Buddhist texts. . . . And yet, human rights are today endorsed and defended by most (but not all) committed Buddhists. (Gowans 2015, 245) However, the absence of specific discussions of human rights in ancient texts does not necessarily mean that Buddhism opposes this concept. According to the Buddhist understanding of Dharma (a word deeply rooted in Indian ideas of social order and harmony), each person has essential, reciprocal roles and obligations in maintaining and promoting justice. Dharma determines what is acceptable in each scenario, as well as what is reasonable and good in all aspects and situations. Instead of being expressed as rights, the obligations of Dharma are expressed as duties. As Mr. Vajiragnana says:

Each of us has a role to play in maintaining and promoting social justice and order. The Buddha explained these roles very clearly as reciprocal duties existing between parents and children; teachers and students; husband and wife; friends, relatives and neighbors; employer and employee; clergy and laity (Sigala-Sutta, Digha Nikaya, NO. 31). No one was left behind. The duties explained here are reciprocal and are considered sacred duties, because – if respected – they can create a just, peaceful and harmonious society.

(Vajiragnana 1993, 3)

The dignity of the human person constitutes the cornerstone of human rights. According to Buddhism, this dignity comes from the value of human rebirth. While all beings possess Buddha nature (tathagathagarbha), only the human form can achieve enlightenment and Buddhahood. Human rebirth is considered particularly rare and valuable. Based on these emphases, it is possible to conclude that Buddhism has continuing causes for concern. et historical ideals that could serve as the basis for a Buddhist embrace of human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi. From p-crc.org

Sallie B. King, a committed scholar of Buddhism, is one of the most prolific examiners of the philosophical dialogue between modern human rights and Buddhist ethics. I would like to draw attention to several chapters of his books:

“Chapter 5: Human Rights” in Being kind: the social ethics of engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005)

“Chapter 7: Human rights and criminal justice” in Socially engaged Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

“Buddhism and human rights” in Religion and human rights (John Witte, Jr. and Christian Green (eds.), 103-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

These books and chapters all present a useful analytical framework that articulates Buddhist responses to human rights. First, the concerns: these include the shift in human rights toward selfish individualism, the Western-dominated idea of ​​"rights" as the anthropocentric privilege of humanity, and an antagonistic conception of rights versus rights. responsibilities.

Conversely, the reasons why Buddhists soutien Human rights include the infinite preciousness of human birth and the unique potential for enlightenment, as well as the idea that adherence to the Five Precepts can be manifested in the promotion of equality, the discouragement of violence and the expansion of autonomy and freedom. There is also an implicit recognition that meditation and enlightenment cannot be the sole concern of Buddhism in a collective organism as complex as a society.

The fundamental moral code of the Buddhist tradition is represented by the Five Precepts, which arguably uphold human rights. The Five Precepts state that one should refrain from: killing; take what is not given; sexual misconduct; lies; and intoxicating substances. In this sense, King observed:

(T)he precepts imply that this society will be good in which its members will not harm each other, steal from each other, lie to each other, etc. This in turn implies that a member of a good society should have reasonable expectations. not to be hurt, robbed, etc. Now, one may or may not want to call such a thing a "right", but it certainly approaches that ground in a practical sense, if not a complete conceptual sense.

(Sallie 2005, 144)

Maha Ghosananda. Taken from nonviolentliberationstrategy.com

The First Precept supports the right not to be killed or subjected to violence. Important ideals associated with nonviolence and the five precepts include respect for the autonomy and nonharmfulness of each person. The right not to be harmed, as well as other norms and principles of peace, are all reflected in these values ​​and practices. Prominent Buddhists from many Asian countries, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, AT Ariyaratne, Maha Ghosananda (1913-2007), and Sulak Sivaraksa, have often used the language of human rights to enrich their perspective dharmic on social and social issues. political problems. For example, Maha Ghosananda noted: “The Cambodian people must obtain all fundamental human rights, including the right to self-determination and the right to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. » (Sallie 2005, 118)

Additionally, Buddhists have founded organizations that advocate for human rights. These organizations include the Thai National Human Rights Commission, the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, the Cambodian Institute for Human Rights, etc. Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and other Asian countries with significant Buddhist populations are also members of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), founded in 2009.

Buddhism holds that all people are fundamentally spiritually equal. Human hierarchies are only conventional and should be deconstructed at the highest level. The Buddha held that everyone can achieve enlightenment, in principle rejecting the dominant caste system. Therefore, a Buddhist understanding of human rights must hold that a person's worth is inherent and, furthermore, that their virtue is determined solely by their actions rather than by fortune or misfortune. As the Blessed One himself declared:

You are not a thug by birth, nor a Brahmin by birth. You are a thug by your actions, by your actions you are a Brahmin.

(Vasala Sutta)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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