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Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal (PDF)
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Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal

Editor’s Note: The book was first published by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2000, and is still available from them in paperback. There is a notice accompanying the publication which reads as follows:

Material contained in the document may be reproduced for the promotion and protection of human rights. In such reproduction, an acknowledgement of the author and publisher would be greatly appreciated.

A Note on Canonical References

[5] Throughout this text, references to the Buddhist canon, the Tipiṭaka, are contained in parentheses. Among the three Piṭakas, or “baskets”, the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Book of Discipline; and the Sutta Piṭaka, the Book of Sayings, were used as sources for this study. The second basket is divided into five Nikāyas, or “collections”, of Suttas: the Dīgha Nikāya, the Long Sayings; the Majjhima Nikāya, the Middle-length Sayings; the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Kindred Sayings; the Anguttara Nikāya, the Gradual Sayings; and the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Short Sayings. Suttas from the first two collections are most frequently cited in this text. Numerical references and titles correspond to those of the Pāli Text Society (London).


[7] This text is an elaboration of the keynote address I delivered at a workshop in Colombo, “Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal”, organised by the Ecumenical Institute of Colombo and sponsored by the Asian Human Rights Commission. My address differed somewhat from that which might be expected of a discussion on the Buddha’s Teaching in relation to the contemporary discourse on fundamental human rights. My aim was not to provide a comparative study of the Buddha’s Teaching and formally codified laws such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My approach was philosophical rather than juridical – to investigate the philosophical assumptions underlying the Western discourse on human rights: what is the genealogy of the Westem discourse on rights? On what basis are some rights regarded as “universal” and “fundamental”? What is the foundation of the “fundament”? From clarifying the premises underpinning Westem Philosophy of Right, I proceeded to compare these with the basic principles of the Buddha’s Teaching. I adopted this approach in the workshop because the majority of participants were Buddhist. Since the contemporary human rights discourse originated in the West, I considered it necessary to first identify the moorings of the Western discourse on rights in Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian theology.

The Buddha declared certain values inviolable by appealing to empirically verifiable facts. He claimed that his Teaching was founded on a Basic Law of universal validity because it transcends particular views and observances, and the vagaries of time and place. This was not an a priori claim to which he demanded acquiescence solely on his teaching authority. It could, he said, be tried and have its validity tested by any intelligent person of goodwill (Majjhima Nikāya I.265). This explains why the Buddha urged his disciples not to be elated when his Teaching was praised, or depressed when it was reviled. Neither his personal prestige nor credibility were at stake if his message was not heeded (Dīgha Nikāya l). The Buddha’s equanimity in the face of attacks on his Teaching can be explained [8] through a contemporary example. Madame Curie’s creation of the X-ray machine has enabled physicians to diagnose the causes of diseases inside the human organism not visible to the naked eye. This technique is now universally applied, since its validity has stood the test of practice. Madame Curie’s personal honour or scientific credentials are not affected if people refuse to make use of her discovery.

The Buddha’s Way is the only Teaching to reach us from ancient times that approximates what we today call “scientific method”. Centuries before Karl Marx, the Buddha pointed out that debates about the truth or falsehood of propositions independent of practice are purely scholastic preoccupations. The Buddha realised that human physiological processes like breathing and digestion, perception, cognition and deeds that produce external effects are all without exception practical activities, or sankhāras. The solution to humanity’s problems lies in human practice and the right understanding of human practice. This universal principle can be verified in the Saharan desert or the snow-covered Alaskan region. The Buddha’s Teaching has a universal validity not because it corresponds to universal ideas conceived by a Creator God or an Absolute Spirit, but because it can be empirically verified by anyone anywhere, irrespective of gender or ethnicity. It is not an ‘oriental religion’.

The Buddha’s ethical values are not based on a system of rights intrinsic to so-called sovereign individuals, but on compassion towards all sentient beings and awareness that the environment of living beings is not an externality. A person awakening to truly perceive actuality experiences that the distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ is a delusion and that all life is a pulsating flow, without self-subsistent ‘things’ or ‘beings’ in motion. Caught in the web of language, humans break even impersonal events into subject-predicate differences and say, “it rains”, “the river flows”. Language reinforces the delusion that the conceptualised world is real, whereas outside the thinking head, the perceived form from which a concept is derived and fixed by a verbal signifier is subject to the law of impermanence and flux. One never steps into the same river twice. It [9] is human re-cognition that makes it the same river and not an underlying, unchanging essence of ‘riverness’.

Given the narcissism attached to the word “I”, the Buddha avoided using this term and referred to himself in the third person. When speaking of himself his preferred term was tathāgata, the “thus-going”. From a radical Buddhist view, every person is a “thus-going”. The Buddha alone was the pre-eminent tathāgata, because in his life there was perfect co-incidence between his consciousness and actual passing existence.

The basic premises of the Buddha’s ethic - aniccā, impermanence; and anattā, no permanent self or substances - have a radical implication: craving for and clinging to things as if permanent and laden with intrinsic significance is based on commonly shared delusion and is a vestige of primitive animism. The empirical outcome of this deluded belief is ego-selfishness for material goods, sensuous pleasures, political power and most sinister of all, dogmatic clinging to sectarian views. That is why the debate over whether there is an eternal unchanging reality behind and beyond the changing appearance of things ceases to be purely theological or philosophical when one addresses the question of fundamental rights.

The Buddha recognised the intrinsic connection between the views a person clings to and his or her psychological disposition. He shifted traditional concern from the abstract or logical truth of ideas to investigation of the connection between ideas and their practical implications. He pointed out that people dogmatically cling to or reject views not because they are true or false but because they are in accordance with their likes or dislikes. Long before Friedrich Nietzsche, the Buddha masterfully disclosed that the belief in a permanent ultimate reality is fuelled by a compelling will-to-power, a strong desire to ground one’s ideas, projects and institutions on an eternal, unchanging and invincible principle. To desire an infinite being is to magnify desire to infinite proportions. Today the practical outcome of this condition is belief that the economy is also an unchangeable, sacred reality manifesting itself as a spiral of infinite growth. Apologists for this system argue that its demi-urge - the profit motive - is the logical expression of human nature, which is [10] intrinsically egoistic. The Buddha declared the most dangerous of all deluded views to be the belief that the self or ego is a sovereign and immortal entity, that its body and the physical world are merely instruments of the ego’s self-realisation. He-established that such hubris is the root cause of conflict in the world (Majjhima Nikāya I.111).

The Buddha realised that even his own Teaching, wrongly grasped, could be a basis for conceit among his followers. The message could be reified into a doctrine, fetishised and fought over, instead of being used as a raft for crossing to the shore of freedom (Majjhima Nikāya I.135). The Buddha’s Teaching is self-dissolving of its authority, because when the goal of the Path is realised, the Teaching as ‘a view’ can be discarded: liberated disciples would “speak of what is known by themselves, seen by themselves and found by themselves” (Majjihma Nikāya 1265).

Since all ‘realities’ are impermanent and without substance, the Buddha observed that “nothing is worth clinging to” (Majjhima Nikāya I.225). This [is] not a recipe for melancholy but a hygienic measure for the depression that arises when people fail to recognise the true character of actuality: perpetual flux. The attitude the Buddha advocated for well-faring in an ocean of impermanence is dispassion towards oneself and compassion towards others. The community that the Buddha founded, as we shall see, was an attempt to translate this value into practice.

Dehiwela, Sri Lanka
Vesak 17 May 2000


[11] I am aware that when I am teaching Dhamma to companies of many hundreds, each individual thinks thus about me: “The Teacher Gotama is teaching especially for me.” But [it] should not be understood thus. When a tathāgata teaches Dhamma to others, he does so only for general upliftment (Majjhima Nikāya I.249).

The construction of “a religion called Buddhism” by Western scholars and Christian theologians towards the end of the eighteenth century, and their presentation of Siddhattha Gotama Buddha purely as a religious leader, has distracted attention from his teachings on social, political and economic affairs. The impression given suggests that he was primarily concerned with personal liberation from cosmic existence and that the way to realise this came to him in a flash of mystical illumination, even though the Buddha repeatedly insisted that his Teaching was not based on mystical insight or intuition. Determined to realise moral perfection, he broke through to an understanding about the root cause of human suffering, in all its dimensions, after six years of relentless search, investigation and experimentation. Especially in the West, the Buddha’s Way is generally understood as a way of meditation for achieving inner tranquillity, ideally practised in solitude, away from the vexations of everyday life. In the hybrid forms of Buddhism propagated in the West today, the social outreach of his Ethical Path is either ignored or underplayed.

The central concern of the Buddha’s Dhamma (Teaching) and Magga (Ethical Path) is the identification and eradication of the sources of suffering. Human liberation is not a purely private affair, neither is it an escape from society or dissolution of the self in a “Cosmic Self”. The Path’s goal is eradication of craving for and clinging to things material and immaterial; to persons and institutions mistakenly perceived as supports. According to the Buddha, the obsessive oscillation between lust and hate is the principal source of suffering. Protest against oppressive social [12] institutions and compassionate actions to alleviate suffering in the world, were originally envisaged as integral aspects of Buddhist missionary endeavour. The Buddha sent out his first disciples with the mandate to propagate his message of deliverance “for the welfare and happiness of the many-folk (bahūjana) out of compassion for the world”. Even though this objective does not receive the attention it should today, Trevor Ling observes:

Concern with social and political matters receive a large share of attention in the teaching of the Buddha as it is represented in the Pāli texts... To speak of Buddhism as something concerned with the private destiny of the individual is to ignore the basic Buddhist repudiation of notion of the individual soul. The teaching of the Buddha was not concerned with the private destiny of the individual, but with something much wider, the whole realm of sentient being, the whole of consciousness. To attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is futile (122).

Passages in the Buddhist canon’s Book of Discipline, the Vinaya Piṭaka, convey an impression that the Buddha’s monastic order enjoyed the patronage of kings and social elites from the beginning. But the same scriptures provide no evidence that the Buddha resided in the type of well-appointed monastery described in the Book of Discipline. The picture emerging from the scriptures is of a teacher who for forty-five years went from place to place, propagating his Teaching, instructing and training his disciples so that they would realise the goal of his Path: Liberation from Suffering. The Buddha died as he had lived, “on the way”. He passed away by an obscure village attended by his devoted aide, companion and kinsman Ānanda. Besides Ānanda, few disciples were present when he passed away. But his message of liberation captured the people’s imagination and many embraced the new teaching. Without the backing of empire or force of arms, the Buddha’s Dhamma spread far beyond Northeast India.

The analysis of Buddhism’s social origins by German sociologist Max Weber continues, by and large, to influence scholarly and popular perceptions about early Buddhism. Weber’s views were coloured by limited information from secondary sources available to [13] him at the time of writing. Weber argued that “it is a specifically unpolitical and anti-political status religion, more precisely a religious ‘technology’ of wandering and intellectually-schooled mendicant monks” from whose ranks “a rational economic ethic could not develop” (Weber 203 & 221).

In the decades since Weber wrote his dismissive appraisal, scholars of Buddhist canonical works have buried the notion that the Buddhist ideal is life-denying. Views from two scholars of Indian religion and philosophy reflect a realistic analysis of factors leading to Buddhism’s rise:

Hitherto unheard of miseries created in the lives of the people by the new institutions of taxation, slavery, extortion, torture, interest, usury: the voluminous Jātakas are full of these. The Buddha himself saw all these. But what was to be done? He was too realistic to believe that God, prayers and sacrifices could bring any effective remedy to the miseries he saw all around him... Nor could the Buddha believe in the value of ascetic self-mortification, which he considered “painful, unworthy and unprofitable. He was, again, too disturbed to take seriously the Upanishadic claim that metaphysical wisdom could bring salvation... In short, the problem that obsessed him most was essentially a practical one. It was the bewildering mass of sufferings he saw around him. And he wanted to have an essentially practical solution for this. But how, under the conditions in which he lived, could such a solution at all be evolved...? He asked the people to take the pabbajja and the upasampadā ordinations, i.e., “to go out” of the actual society and “to arrive at” life in the saṁgha-s or the community of monks. For within the saṁgha-s things were different. Modelled consciously on the tribal collectives - without private property and with full equality and democracy among the brethren - these alone could offer the real scope to practise the ‘simple grandeur of the ancient gentile people’, for which the Buddha was really pleading. The Saṁgha-s could become ‘the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions’ (Chattopadyaya 1987: l57-l59).

Brahminism, as is well known, sanctified the estate structure of society (its division into the varṇas) and the dominant position of the Brahmin priests, who by that time had become an impediment to social progress. Buddhism rose against the senseless sacrificial system [of the priests] and, in the first place

[14] against him to the sacrifices were offered - against the God Brahma, declaring him to be non-existent. The cult of someone who never existed is truly meaningless. They dealt a final blow to Brahmins and their property institutions, Buddhists spoke against any property whatever and against the boundaries between the estates... Reflecting as it did the dissatisfaction of the free commoners and the lower urban castes, which were ruined and oppressed, Buddhism succeeded in winning the support of many oppressed people suffering from lack of rights, poverty, and hunger. In referring to early Buddhism, it should be noted that it succeeded, under the definite socio-historical conditions of the times, in expressing in a specific form the aspiration of the people for a better life (Brodov 110).

The Buddha insisted that he was a human being who had broken free from the shackles of craving “by human energy, by human effort and by human striving” (Anguttara Nikāya I.45). This unambiguous statement excludes the possibility for insinuating that the Buddha’s Path to Human Liberation was based on a divine revelation or was enabled by divine grace. But within the first century after his death, the historical Buddha was transformed into a wondrous person, superior to all beings, even the gods. Some Buddhist traditions maintain that the Buddha reincarnates himself from time to time, solely out of compassion. Such views, G.C. Pande (29) notes, are quite foreign to the earliest texts and must have developed gradually. Good historical reasons can be advanced for this elevation of the Buddha to quasi-divine status. Popular enthusiasm for the Buddha’s message of liberation attracted the attention of social elites, and the community of renouncers received lavish donations of land and goods from kings and wealthy entrepreneurs. Early texts are critical of disciples who readily accepted donations of entire villages and ruled over them like kings. The Book of Discipline records the first donation of an entire village, together with its inhabitants, to a member of the male mendicant order. This ‘renouncer’ began a successful business enterprise in the village, which came to be called by his name. Monastic landlordism structurally integrated the order of mendicants into the system of production. The radical edge of the original message was blunted, as monastics sought to justify the social system rather than criticise it. The Buddha was projected as a [15] superhuman being whose life ordinary men and women could not emulate.

Widespread enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teaching was due in part to its propagation in simple and popular language. The Buddha ruled that his Teaching should be propagated everywhere in the language of the people (Vinaya Piṭaka II.139), a striking departure from the practice of the orthodox priests, the Brahmins. They had reified the (Hindu) Vedic traditions and their ritual incantations in an elegant language, Sanskrit, which ordinary people could not understand. Sanskrit became fetishised as a sacred language. The Buddha’s words have been preserved in one of the Magadhan languages, Pāli, and today monks chant this language on ritual occasions. Simple devotees no longer understand the chanting and have come to believe that the mere sound of the Buddha’s words in Pāli has a propitious effect: for example, that [it] can turn ordinary water and reels of thread into things vested with supernatural power. This notwithstanding Buddha’s condemnation of such fetishistic beliefs and other superstitious practices like astrology, palmistry and divination as “base arts and wrong means of livelihood” and the products of an “animal like consciousness” (Dīgha Nikāya I.9-13).

In Sri Lanka today a Buddhist monk is president of the National Astrological Association. Buddhist politicians consult monk-astrologers and Hindu swāmis alike before fixing dates for important events like the calling of elections. The Buddha explicitly forbade his mendicant disciples to engage in such activities. There is a direct relationship between the quasi-divinisation of the human Gotama and the seepage of ‘Brahmanic’ ideas and practices into folk-Buddhism. As the Buddha was made to recede further and further from ordinary mortals, the mediators of his words and blessings became more important than the Buddha himself. In countries like Sri Lanka, Buddhist institutions and popular practices seem ‘orthodox’ because their external features are similar to these institutions and practices described in the canonical works. But the same scriptures contain traces of more radical ideas and practices. This study aims to highlight these radical elements, which suggest that in the beginning Buddhism was a social movement of dissent and protest against social abuses of the time. The [16] communities of mendicant men and Women tried to embody the values of the Buddha’s Teaching and offer people a model for egalitarian and harmonious living. The radical elements of early Buddhism have now been submerged by dominant social values: a glaring example is justification of the caste system or gender and social inequalities through appeals to the Buddhist theory of re-birth. Yet canonical works clearly indicate that the first Buddhists raised a banner of revolt against caste, priestcraft, tyranny and social injustice. This submerged tradition can be recovered and revivified. It can provide inspiration for Buddhists and others who are committed to social renewal and the creation of a just and humane society.

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