Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Founding Human Rights within Buddhism: Exploring Buddha-Nature as an Ethical Foundation

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Founding Human Rights within Buddhism: Exploring Buddha-Nature as an Ethical Foundation

Article excerpt


In a religion that preaches the nothingness of things and the absence of self, is there any ground for an active social advocacy for human rights?

This question arises in response to a thought-provoking piece written by Professor Kim Bongjin (University of Kitakyushu) entitled "Reception and Change of the Idea of 'Right(s)' in Nishi Amane: Comparison with Yu Kilchun," which was presented in the Philippines on March 2009 at a conference held by the Ateneo Center for Asian Studies. In his essay, Kim illustrated the changes a particular notion undergoes as it is transplanted from one culture to another. In particular, he showed how the Western notion of human rights was appropriated and hybridized differently in Japan and Korea. He showed that despite the fact that the notion of human rights was appropriated through Confucianism in both countries, different prevailing understandings of Confucianism and the central concept of principle (J. ri, [??]) resulted in different hybridized notions of rights; in the Japanese context, the notion of rights lost its characteristics of universality and equality.

This journey into the history of ideas lead to an inescapable ethical concern: Japan is a major player in world politics, and itself has been deeply embroiled in issues of war and human rights. Given limitations in the Japanese Confucian grounding of human rights, might there be another culturally relevant avenue wherein we might properly found the notion of human rights within Japanese intellectual history?

In response to this question, I turn to my own field of study, Buddhism. How might rights be justified and founded within Buddhist philosophy in general? Specifically in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, whose social ethics has recently come into intense scrutiny (due to Zen complicity in the Pacific War), might there be a central concept that can solidly ground the notion of human rights?

In this paper, I will begin with a review of attempts for founding the notion of rights within Buddhism. I will focus on two Buddhist notions--the Four Noble Truths and compassion--and show how these can serve as a foundation for human rights. I shall proceed to examine the possibility of using the notion of Buddha-nature to fuse together the two aforementioned bases for human rights. Finally, I shall explore Dogen's view of Buddhist spiritual practice and Buddha-nature to see how human rights might find a solid ground within a key Japanese Buddhist concept, and what Zen Buddhism might have to contribute to the discourse on human rights.

The Foundation and Justification of Human Rights

One of the key points of Kim Bongjin's presentation is that Japanese thought (especially that of Nishi Amane) is not deeply grounded in the Confucian notion of principle ([??]). Briefly, the Confucian notion of principle is a notion that nature (or heaven) operates through certain principles--a rhythm, reason, or logic that guides and orders existence. This natural principle bestows upon each creature a specific nature; in the case of humans, it bestows a human-nature that is present equally in all human beings (See Fung 302). Hence, the idea of human nature can serve as the basis for a notion of natural rights (J. kenri,[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, Kim's central point was that without a deep grounding in this idea of principle, the notion of natural rights tends to degenerate into a notion of "power/property is rights" (J. kenri,[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as seen in the political philosophy of Nishi. By "power/property is rights" he is referring to the view of rights as things that are owed to people who have power and property such as the obligations of a fief to his landlord and of the masses to the ruling class, but not vice-versa.

Clearly, this is a matter of ethical concern. Universal rights have a clear importance in preventing the ossification of unfair power structures that marginalize certain groups. …

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