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Buddhism and Human Rights

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, August 1998

BUDDHISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS, edited by Damien V. Keown, Charles S. Prebish and Wayne R. Husted, Curzon Press, 1998, pp. 239, £40.

Buddhist philosophy distinguishes between ultimate realities (dhamma), with which it is deeply concerned, and "concepts" (paññatti), with which it is not. Human Rights fall into the latter category. They are a man-made concept, developed within the specific context of modern Western culture. Yet within that culture, Human Rights are absolutely central to contemporary ethical thinking, so Buddhist thinkers must face the subject squarely if they are not to appear irrelevant or anachronistic. This book constitutes the proceedings of a "virtual conference" held in October 1995 to address just this issue. "Virtual conference" is a euphemistic way of saying that no actual meeting took place, but all the formal papers and discussion contributions were presented electronically on the Internet. The event was sponsored by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics - itself a denizen of the Internet, which can be found on the Web site of Goldsmiths’ College, London. More than two years on, all the conference material is still easily accessible on the Internet, including a large number of discussion contributions not reproduced in the printed version. Many of the people who might otherwise have bought the book may therefore already be familiar with everything it has to say. Nevertheless, the book is well-structured and easy to read, as conference proceedings go, and it contains some serious and well-thought out papers which belie its origins in a medium often associated with trivia and ephemera.

Most of the ten formal papers come from academics in Britain, the USA and Australia; it is a pity that the Buddhist countries themselves are not represented, with the single exception of an interesting paper from a Thai university. The book also contains an Introduction and Epilogue (both of which pretend a slightly greater degree of consensus than the academic papers achieve), a reprint of one of the Dalai Lama’s speeches on the subject, a useful bibliography and a listing of the 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.

A book of this kind needs to address at least 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? Perhaps predictably, 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, 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, and 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 tipitaka says nothing 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. Certainly the existing formulation may foster the wrong attitude in some people ("I know my rights!"), but no-one is suggesting using the UN declaration as a means of teaching the Dhamma.

This is a well produced and thought-provoking book on an important subject. However, all the papers have been readily available in electronic form since 1995, so one might have hoped for some new insights at this stage, and perhaps a distillation of the associated discussion material from the Internet. 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.

Copyright © 1998, 2001 Andrew May

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