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ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS?
ASIAN AND (IN PARTICULAR) BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVES ON HUMAN RIGHTS
- A REQUEST FOR ARTICLES/BIBLIOGRAPHIES/REFERENCES
I work on Burma, disseminating human rights information etc. on
that country. The junta which seized power in 1988, the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) frequently invokes cultural
relativism, saying that "Western" standards of human rights don't
apply to Asian countries. The Chinese and other Asian governments
(it is usually governments, astonishingly) also take this
As part of my Burma work I would like to explore the universalism
v cultural relativism of human rights (a) at a general,
philosophical level, (b) in the Asian context and (c) in relation
to Buddhism in particular.
The last time I dipped into this topic, about 15 years ago, it
was the subject of a good debate in the "Human Rights Quarterly",
a debate which no doubt continued there and elsewhere.
My request at this time is for:
2) Bibliographies - of hard-copy books, articles etc. that I can
read in a library.
3) References to on-line postings on the Internet - perhaps in
the archives of this and other conferences (I found a few in
unhr.general - which recorded some of the discussion at and
around the Vienna Conference)
4) Any reports/papers from the conference which Chandra Muzzaffar
held in Malaysia in December 94.
Please reply to this conference, by email to darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx,
and/or by mail to David Arnott, Burma Peace Foundation,
777, UN Plaza, 6th Floor, New York NY 10017, USA.
David Arnott 21 June 95
I attach a paper read by U Rewata Dhamma, a senior Burmese monk,
at the Asian Leaders meeting in Seoul last December, which
touches on some of the issues I am interested in.
DHAMMA, ETHICS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Sayadaw U Rewata Dhamma
My responsibility as a Buddhist monk is to teach Dhamma. (Other
traditions may refer to God, Brahm, Logos, the Totality and so
on. In this talk I shall use Buddhist terms, which I hope you
will translate into your own spiritual language.)
Dhamma is sometimes translated as Universal Law, Truth or
Reality. It is not always easy to distinguish reality from
illusion, and this is particularly the case in matters of
religious practice. The other day in New York I was speaking to a
Japanese friend who said of a public figure that he was very
devoted to Buddhism since he made many offerings to monks and
built pagodas. Do such actions truly define a Buddhist? What is
true Buddhism, true Christianity, true Islam or whatever?
To follow the spiritual path, practising love, compassion and
forgiveness towards our fellow beings is the essence of true
religion. This is our true nature or Dhamma, which we realise
when we are in a state of spiritual health. The state of disease
which conceals our true nature the Buddha called Dukkha. He came
as a healer with a specific diagnosis and prescription for this
disease. But how can a healer help unless people actually take
the medicine offered? Antibiotics, for example, do not work if
they just sit on your altar surrounded by flowers and swimming in
incense. You have to take them as prescribed.
The Buddha's medicine is right understanding, right thought,
right action and so on. This practice enables us to see the true
nature of reality and develop love and compassion. These are not
new things I am saying -- you have all heard them before from
your teachers and spiritual friends of all traditions. The
tragedy is that there are very few people, lay or ordained, who
take them seriously and put them into practice. All the problems
of our Asian countries and beyond could be solved if only we took
our medicine as prescribed.
This medicine is not just a remedy for individuals but is also a
vital ingredient of social development. Buddhism teaches that
there is no such thing as a separate individual. We are all made
up of everything and everybody. As Kalu Rimpoche says:
"We live in illusion and the appearance of things.
There is a reality;
We are that reality.
When you understand this, you see that you are
And being nothing, you are everything.
That is all"
The Mahayana specifically emphasises the enlightenment of all
beings, and even we of the little tug-boat praise the triple gem
of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, where Sangha means community -- in
a specific way the community of monks and nuns, but in a broader
sense, of all beings. Every Buddhist tradition gives a central
place to the Brahma-Viharas: Upekha (equanimity), Metta (loving-
kindness), Karuna (compassion), and Muditha (joy in the joy of
others), the last three of which are directly social.
In Buddhist countries an expression of the social dimensions of
Dhamma is the guiding and softening influence which the ordained
Sangha has traditionally exercised over rulers. Where this
influence declines, we see the rulers become ever more cruel and
irresponsible, and most of the Sangha equally irresponsible,
preoccupied with ritual, textual studies and "individual"
development. No amount of pagoda building or formal respect for
the Sangha can substitute for their mutual responsibility to
serve the people and the Dhamma.
>From an understanding of Dhamma (God, the Totality etc) and the
interdependence of every aspect of universe, including that of
community, or Sangha, the religious traditions have developed
ethics or guidelines for human behaviour. These guidelines serve
to maintain the harmony of social life and to encourage the
practice (or medicine) which will help end our individual and
At the heart of Buddhist ethics is inter-responsibility, or
Bodhicitta; what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls Universal
Responsibility. In the Theravada we speak of Samma-sankappa or
Right Thought, which leads to Bodhi, the Awakened Mind. This
principle is expressed in everyday terms by the teaching of
loving-kindness, non-violence, compassion, and particular
responsibilities. For monks and nuns these are set down in the
rule or Vinaya; for lay people in the Sigalovada Sutta and for
rulers in the Dasarajadhamma.
In the early, organic, societies the Buddha was addressing, these
specific responsibilities were assumed to be adequate guidelines
for human behaviour, with no need to identify the corresponding
rights. In modern, fragmented societies, however, where the
fulfillment of responsibilities cannot be guaranteed by the
immediate community, the corresponding rights are specified and
protected by States and International Organisations. In large
part these bodies derive their legitimacy from their protection
of human rights. A State which does not guarantee the enjoyment
of human rights by its people loses its claim to legitimacy.
The depiction of rights as simply a Western invention fails to
understand the relationship of rights to responsibilities and
ethical norms. If the ethical systems we find in different times
and different parts of the world varied greatly, we might have a
problem, but in fact the central values of all societies are very
much the same. All ethical systems encourage people to love each
other, and discourage killing, violence and so on. The
universality and inseparability of human rights may therefore be
understood as reflecting the universality and inseparability of
inter-responsibility emerging from Dhamma.
A striking example of the way responsibilities and rights can
reach across time and cultures is the correspondence between the
right of popular participation enshrined in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and Avirodha. Avirodha is the
principle or non-opposition or non-obstruction contained in the
Dasarajadhamma, or "ten duties of kings". This instruction, given
by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, requires the ruler not to oppose
the will of the people, or obstruct any measures that are
conducive to their welfare.
In conclusion, I would ask those attending this conference to
work in your countries for the true practice of Dhamma, whatever
you call it, and its application to genuine social development.
If the central human values of compassion and loving kindness
were actually practised in our countries, we would soon find a
solution to our problems, and our people would not be sacrificed
on the altars of "security" or economic "development".
May all beings be happy
(Delivered to the Asian Leaders Conference, Seoul, December 1994)