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Sunday 3 August 2014

Buddhism and Human Rights

In last week’s post I mentioned the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which also happened to feature in the very first thing I ever wrote for publication. That was a review of a book called Buddhism and Human Rights, which appeared in the Buddhist Society magazine The Middle Way back in August 1998 – sixteen years ago, in other words.

Since the whole purpose of human rights is to protect individuals against authoritarian governments, I took the (possibly over-simplistic) view that to oppose such rights is to show support for authoritarian governments. Yet for the most part the book’s contributors – mostly Western academics – seemed lukewarm about human rights at best. Since I can’t think of anything else to write about this week, here is an abridged version of my review:

Human rights are a man-made concept, developed within the specific context of modern Western culture. The concept is not native to Buddhism, but it is so central to the modern world that Buddhist thinkers must face the subject squarely if they are not to appear irrelevant or anachronistic. This book constitutes the proceedings of an online conference held in October 1995 to address just this issue.

A book of this kind needs to consider three important questions. First, exactly what are Westerners referring to when they speak of human rights? Secondly, are these concepts compatible with Buddhist morality and practice? And finally, can a Buddhist viewpoint help to alleviate suffering in countries with poor human rights records, whether the Buddhists in question are an ethnic minority or a government-supported majority? The book answers the first question very well, but gets so bogged down in the second that the all-important third question does not receive the attention it deserves. Earlier this year [1998], demonstrators in London were handing out leaflets accusing one particular government of waging “genocidal war” while being “propped up by a vicious fundamentalist Buddhist priesthood”. Whether or not there is any truth to this claim, it brings home the enormity of the issues at stake, and dispels any illusion that we are talking about a cosy theoretical abstraction.

Human rights, as affirmed in the UN declaration, address the relationship between society and the individual, in particular protecting the latter from exploitation and persecution. The purpose of the declaration is not ethical or philosophical but legal. Although it is not legally binding in itself, it forms the basis of other documents which do have power in international law. To Western thinking, at least some of the clauses should apply to all cultures at all times – the right to life and to equality of treatment, for example. Others are more politically specific, such as the right to own property or to join a trade union, but it is only the former category of “universal” rights that needs to concern a book such as this. The various contributors achieve reasonable, though not total, consensus that these universal rights are consistent with Buddhist morality, the most persuasive argument being based on the Buddhist notion of compassion for all beings.

Despite this grudging consensus, only a minority of the authors represented here seem prepared to embrace human rights wholeheartedly within a Buddhist context. Others are deeply suspicious of the concept because they cannot find its germ in Buddhist teachings, which is akin to denouncing the Highway Code because the Buddha never said anything about road safety! Another stumbling block is the egocentric, though legally convenient, wording of “rights language” – even though the underlying concepts could equally well be recast in terms of the duties of a state towards its people. The worry is that the existing formulation may foster the wrong attitude in some people (“I know my rights!”).

The book’s weakness is its tendency to descend into pedantic hair-splitting, rather than squarely facing the reality of human rights violations and asking how Buddhist beliefs and practice could help to eradicate them. This hair-splitting is not just frustrating, it sends out the wrong message. Any government unwise enough to engage in the repression of minorities might take comfort from this book that Buddhists (or rather Western academics studying Buddhism) are divided over whether to condemn them or let them off. Sometimes even philosophers should come down off the fence.

[The photograph is one I took in the Musée Guimet in Paris last year]

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