Human Rights and the World's Major Religions

By William H. Brackney | Go to book overview

FOURTEEN
Are There Human Rights
in Buddhism?

INTRODUCTION

The whole question of human rights and justice seems to be a modern introduction to the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists focused much more on perfecting the individual through the cultivation of morality, meditation, and insight rather than on reforming society. Buddhist literature and learning in the areas of philosophy, meditation, and individual moral development are remarkably well developed. These vast and deep endeavors in learning and wisdom constitute one of the great treasures of civilization. However, Buddhists have never developed any comprehensive social philosophy or theory. Damien Keown, of Goldsmith College, London, a leading authority on Buddhist ethics, noted “For such an intellectually dynamic tradition Buddhism is a lightweight in moral and political philosophy.”1 Keown’s own groundbreaking books on Buddhist ethics from 1992 and 1995 hardly venture into social ethics and seem not to mention human rights at all.2

The 1991 Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society, a compendium of papers from major Buddhist scholars, illustrates the relative weakness of political theory in the tradition. Justice is only mentioned in one passage in the contribution of Sulak Sivaraksa, the noted Siamese Buddhist reformer. In his paper, Sulak argues that there is indirect support in Buddhist thought for a “minimum distributive justice”3 from general Buddhist principles of the middle way. Sulak notes that there is nothing in the scriptures or in Theravada tradition that directly advocates radical social transformation.

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