Buddhism and Human Rights

By Damien V. Keown; Charles S. Prebish et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The papers in this collection were presented at the first online conference sponsored by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics from 1-13 October 1995. The aim of the JBE online conferences is to discuss topics of contemporary ethical relevance, and the theme chosen by the editors for 1995 was "Buddhism and Human Rights." It is difficult to think of a more urgent question for Buddhism in the late twentieth century than human rights. Human rights issues in which Buddhism has a direct involvement — notably in the case of Tibet — feature regularly in the global media. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his efforts in pursuit of global peace, notably through his policy of non-violent resistance to Chinese aggression and in the face of grave and continuing human rights violations in occupied Tibet.

The political, ethical and philosophical questions surrounding human rights are debated vigorously in political and intellectual circles throughout the world. Yet despite its contemporary significance, the subject has merited little attention in mainstream academic research and publication in the field of Buddhist Studies. Why is this? One reason would seem to be the lack of a precedent within Buddhism itself for discussing issues of this kind. Buddhism lacks a developed tradition of social and political philosophy and many of those who study it from a philosophical perspective continue to follow the tradition's own agenda, an agenda which appears to some increasingly medieval in the shadow of the twenty-first century. If Buddhism wishes to address the issues which are of concern to today's global community, it must begin to ask itself new questions alongside the old ones. The aim of the JBE online conferences is to facilitate this process and to unite scholars, practitioners, and other interested parties in the quest for Buddhist solutions to contemporary problems.

In the context of human rights, which was the theme of this conference, an important preliminary question would seem to be whether traditional Buddhism has any understanding of what is meant by "human rights" at all. Indeed, it may be thought that since the concept of "rights" is the product of an alien cultural tradition it would be inappropriate to speak of rights of any kind — "human" or otherwise — in a Buddhist context. Even if it was felt that these objections were overstated, and that the issue of human rights does have a legitimate place on the Buddhist agenda, there would still remain the separate and no less difficult question of how human rights were to be grounded in Buddhist doctrine, particularly in the light of the fact that the tradition itself provides little precedent or guidance in this area.

Questions of the above kind are discussed from a variety of perspectives in the papers which follow. The papers are reproduced here just

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