Buddhism and Human Rights

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

6
HUMAN RIGHTS AND COMPASSION:
TOWARDS A UNIFIED MORAL FRAMEWORK 1

Jay L. Garfield


Introduction

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been a tireless advocate for human rights in a global context. Some leaders and moral theorists of non-Western cultures — and some contemporary Western moral and political theorists — have argued that the assertion of fundamental human rights is merely an accidental feature of the moral outlook of modern Western moral and political theory. The extension or imposition of this moral framework and its demands on non-Western cultures, they argue, is an instance of cultural imperialism and hegemony, incompatible with and disruptive of those cultures. Some in the West have even argued that this framework has outlived its usefulness even in Western cultures and that the overcoming of modernism should include the abandonment of a moral and political discourse grounded in rights. His Holiness has consistently rejected this view, and has urged in his public statements and in his writings on morality and politics that the demand for the recognition of human rights is indeed universal in scope, and that to the extent that a culture deprives its citizenry of fundamental human rights, that culture is morally deficient. It follows from such a view that to demand of a society that it respect some fundamental set of such rights is not an instance of illegitimate cultural imperialism but an instance of mandatory moral criticism, even if it is not so experienced by those to whom such an effort is directed at the time. On the other hand, His Holiness, grounded in, and advancing with considerable eloquence, the tradition of Buddhist moral theory rooted in the teachings of the Buddha, as transmitted through texts such as Aryadeva's Four Hundred and Santideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life has been a consistent exponent of the view that moral life is grounded in the cultivation and exercise of compassion. He has urged in many public religious teachings, addresses, and in numerous writings that the most important moral quality to cultivate is compassion, and that compassion, skill in its exercise, and insight into the nature of reality are jointly necessary and sufficient for human moral perfection. 2 This view, is of course, not original with His Holiness. It is the essence of Buddhist moral theory. On the other hand, His Holiness is certainly the most eloquent exponent and advocate of this moral position of our time, and his application of this moral vision to public life and to

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