Buddhism and Human Rights

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, whereas 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 s?ilas.”

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 sustainable.

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.

By Sajitha Prematunge

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