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Mahayana Buddhist Contributions to the Issue of Human Rights

By Toru Shiotsu
Professor in Constitutional Law, Soka University, Tokyo
Chief Research Fellow, Institute of Oriental Philosophy

[Published in Annals of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, Vol.31, NR.XI, MMI, Georg Olms Verlag, 2001]

1. Introduction

The former inter-religious dialogues dealt mainly with doctrinal issues of Christianity and Buddhism, but now on we wish to turn to those subjects that confronted us in modern society. Bearing this in mind, the subject of our present symposium is human rights. From the point of view of Mahayana Buddhism, I would like to talk about the possible approaches Buddhism can offer here. I would like to first summarize the present position of human rights and then deal with the question of how Mahayana Buddhism, views human dignity Finally, we will consider the correlation between human rights theory and Mahayana Buddhist doctrine and practice.

2. Present Tasks of Human Rights Theory

Theoretical considerations on human rights

The history of human rights shows that since 1789, the time of the French Declaration of human rights, these have been integrated into the constitutions of various nations. On the one hand, this signifies the guarantee of human rights in an institutional framework, yet on the other hand it leads to the unfortunate observation that human rights, if not clearly defined in a constitution, can not be guaranteed. Historically, this consideration has been strengthened by the development of a certain legal view, called "legal positivism". When the term human rights was initially introduced it was understood to take precedence over the existence of a nation. But, by being integrated into the governmental institution of a constitution, human rights have since been reduced to the status of individual articles.

Legal positivism, one-sidedly stressing the significance of legal systems, was called into question due to its formal character as recently as post- World War II. In its place, the philosophical content on which the legal system itself is based, gained increasing importance. Here we are talking about the renaissance of natural rights in Europe. This meant that human rights, which were defined specifically as constitutional elements, should not be interpreted through formal logic alone, but they should be examined on the basis of their fundamental origins. A perspective on human rights was called for that was based on a philosophical concept, one which could answer the question, "what image of man should be our starting point.?"

Historically speaking, in Article I of the Constitution of the Republic of Germany, for instance, in which human dignity is firmly and extensively guaranteed, the concept of natural rights is pointed out. After its establishment in the constitution, the article on the guarantee of human dignity contributed not only to increased philosophical implications of individual human rights, but also became established as the basis of new, additional aspects of human rights. Concerning human rights as a system it raised the question as to what specifically is required to guarantee human dignity, thus enhancing and enriching the actual contents of institutional system of human rights.

Since the Warren Court in the 1960's, the Supreme Court of the USA has held the point of view, mainly concerning the revised 14th Article on the due process of law, that not only is an adequate trial required, but that the law itself should be correct. This point of view is called "substantive due process" referring to the examination of the content, rather than a judgment of the substantial correctness of the law. In other words, we are no longer dealing with mere formal interpretations of the legal system, but instead asking questions about what sort of human image must be assumed. Only on this basis can one formulate rights for individual lives.

The issue of the essence of human dignity

In Germany, human rights are seen to be founded upon human dignity, whereas in the USA they are founded upon public reason or justice. In both cases, a certain image of mankind is assumed. In the case of Germany, consideration of the essence of human dignity is indispensable for the development of the human rights theory. In the German Constitution, the concept of human dignity might find its spiritual origin in the Christian concept of man having been created in God's image. Furthermore, this could be essentially influenced by Kant's thoughts on the individual, equipped with the rational ability for self-determination. Against this background of the history of ideas, the first article of the German Constitution became defined in the course of the revival of natural rights during the post-war period.

It can be clearly seen that, in the case of German constitutional law, an understanding of human dignity serves as a foundation for a legal interpretation of human rights, but is not restricted to this usage alone. In fact, it can also serve generally for the development of a human rights theory. Furthermore, even if the concept of human dignity were in the past subject to certain philosophical trends, as in Germany, this says little about any future interpretations of human dignity, which itself is open to a variety of theoretical approaches.

Seen from this viewpoint, not only could Christian ideas provide a spiritual foundation for the concept of human dignity, but also Buddhist concepts. Unfortunately, to date no considerable Buddhist contribution to the theory of human rights has been made. For this reason, I would like to present here a few thoughts on possible answers to the issue of human dignity as the basis for human rights, from the point of view of Mahayana Buddhism.

3. Human dignity as seen in Mahayana Buddhism

Like other religions, Buddhism had to go through a number of changes, so that now there are diverse interpretations of the Sutras and Buddhist thoughts. Furthermore, though I am a Buddhist, I am not a Buddhologist. For this reason, I can only analyze the possibilities of Mahayana Buddhism on the grounds of my technical expertise, mainly from the point of view of constitutional doctrine. This said, I would like to point out a few approaches to the idea of human dignity in Mahayana-Buddhism. II will refer to three major concepts: "Buddhahood", "dependent origination" and "karma" and will examine their, practical consequences.

The concept of Buddhahood

To start with, there is a close correlation between human dignity, as taught within the framework of Mahayana Buddhism, and the concept of Buddhahood. Buddhism is the doctrine of Buddha, but also the doctrine for becoming a Buddha. Christianity teaches that all humans are equal before God, but it seems as if the gap between the absolute, transcendent God can not be bridged. In contrast to this, the Nirvana Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood is immanent within all beings. This ensures that all humans have the potential to become Buddha.

Buddhism further offers concrete methods for the fulfillment of this potential. Shakyamuni Buddha taught that "everyone can achieve enlightenment by his own efforts". So Buddhahood can be fulfilled by one's own will, as, for instance, in the form of Bodhisattva vows and practices. Thus the practices are of an independent and self-determined nature, so here is yet another egalitarian element.

In addition, according status to priests is not regarded as an indispensable condition of enlightenment in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Even less do we encounter discrimination in the form of differences between priests and laymen. A concept that would differentiate people in a spiritual hierarchy does not agree with the modern theory of human rights.

The concept of Buddhahood, however, does not refer to a mechanistic idea of equality, where all men are equal or should be equal. Neither does the fulfillment of Buddhahood mean that we cease being human. We, live within and among the realities of life, and this real and concrete life is appreciated as valuable. According to the Chinese master T'ien-t'ai (Chi-i)(538-597), this life can be categorized into ten states. These are, listed from the lowest state of life to the higher ones:

  1. the state of hell
  2. the state of hunger
  3. the state of animality
  4. the state of anger
  5. the state of tranquility
  6. the state of rapture
  7. the state of learning
  8. the state of partial enlightenment
  9. the state of the Bodhisattva
  10. the state of the Buddha

The first six states are often seen in daily life. They point to the tendency of our life to be urged on by desires and continually alternate between joy and suffering. The significance of this insight into the ten states of life is that the ordinary person, who is mainly characterized by the nine lower states of life, is nevertheless not separated from the highest state--that of the Buddha. Due to their potential of the Buddha-state, they can even transform their desires, which otherwise account for the cause of suffering, into the quality of enlightenment.

Thus, the so-called Buddha is not understood as some heavenly being who exists beyond the realities of daily life, but as the quality of Buddha or Buddhahood, immanent within all humans,. This is why we can, through our Buddhist practice, develop this quality as wisdom, in order to enhance our conflict-ridden daily life with meaning, depth and richness. The development of Buddhahood manifests itself quite differently, according to individual physical and spiritual qualities and various states of life. This is why the concept of Buddhahood cannot imply a simple mechanistic equality, but must recognize the development of the possibilities inherent within each individual. The principle known as "immanent transcendence" states that every person, though maintaining his concrete physical form, is nevertheless, in his character as a Buddha, elevated above the secular world.

The idea of human dignity, as it is expressed in modern human rights theory, seems to be based on an ideal image of man, who makes rational decisions and acts accordingly. But this would imply in contrast, that the poor, the sick and the old, who are not able to fully develop the above-mentioned qualities, would not deserve this dignity. Of course, these doubts are only theoretical, since under the real legal system, various relief actions are taken for such social victims. Nevertheless, this presents a problem on a theoretical level at least, which needs to be considered.

Buddhahood offers us an alternative perspective, one that comprehends human existence not in its status quo, but in its possibilities. This brings us to the principle of "allowing for the possibility", whereby even someone, who in respect of his will and actions does not have sufficient ability to develop his potential, could, through the help of others or by social actions do so. Thus everyone is treated with tolerance and respect because of his potential, and his subjectivity is appreciated. Yet in real social life people are often judged according to their abilities, and the weak are either socially excluded or seen merely as the object of social welfare. The concept of Buddha-hood provides for respect towards all human beings, since they are all equipped with it. Developing a new human rights theory based on this perspective could prove meaningful and valuable.

The concept of dependent origination

Another new perspective on human dignity also emerges from the Mahayana Buddhist principle of "dependent origination". Here, the aspect of relationship" or "inter-relatedness" of all existence is in the fore and, as such, contrasts sharply with modern human rights theory, based as it is on respect for individual life and being more or less individually designed.

The Majimhima Nikaya, a collection of Sutras of the Pali Canon, for instance, says on the subject of dependent origination: "If this exists, that will also exist. If this is not there, that will also not be there. Since this originates, that will also originate. Since this disappears, that will also disappear." Thus, the concept of dependent origination expresses a world view, whereby anything, that exists in this world, does not exist by itself, but only in its relationship to other things. Here, two aspects have to be considered, one positive, or rather affirming," the other negative., or rather, "negating."

The negative aspect lies in the negation of substantiality, which perceives a substantial, unchanging being in everything that exists. Nagarjuna, a great master of Indian Buddhism in the 2nd century, declares that "dependent origination is nothing but emptiness." The term "emptiness" (Sansk. shunyata) in this case does not mean nothingness" and therefore, as applied to the level of religious practice, it does not mean to negate one's own existence, but rather to free oneself from attachments or illusions, which are considered to be the causes of suffering in Buddhism. In even more general terms, this concept urges us not to accept existing institutional systems and traditional customs as absolute. As a rule, people not only tend to consider the status quo as something unchangeable but even become dependent on holding such a view. However, according to the concept of dependent origination, we can hold a clear and objective outlook on reality and recognize its relativity comprehending that it can be changed if a particular determining relationship is changed.

An understanding of dependent origination based on negation not only calls for renouncing a one-sided definition of reality, but also for abandoning a passive attitude towards it. To call the existence of things into question is certainly one initial step in the direction of creativity and serves as momentum for the positive transformation of the relationships in which we presently find ourselves. Thus any definition of human dignity becomes dependent on the respective historical conditions of society. Even the legal aspects of human rights, which as we have seen are based upon human dignity, should not assume a rigid status quo, but should change appropriately according to continual reconsideration of human dignity. Thus, the negating aspect of dependent origination is actually one of continual creativity.

The positive, or "affirmation" aspect of dependent origination lies in our adopting a view of human existence as defined by our relationships to one another rather than as isolated individuals. In Buddhism, human existence is understood mainly as relationships between individuals, as they can not exist in isolation. From this basic understanding, we see that community and interdependence play a major role. In modern human rights theory, the existence of single individuals and respect for them is often presupposed. But as long as mankind is regarded as collection of single isolated beings, there is no need for the consideration of others. On the other hand, insight into our interdependence on each other makes consideration and trust in others indispensable.

Interdependence as represented in the concept of dependent origination, however, does not imply an impersonal, common relation, degrading people to passive objects in a totalitarian framework. Rather it encourages us to have active mutual respect for each others' Buddhahood as well as to influence the relationships between people, thereby fully revealing all our inherent capabilities. This positive aspect of dependent origination is also expressed as compassion, or mercy. The Lotus Sutra talks about the practice of the Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, who revered all people because of their potential for attaining Buddhahood. If you wish to realize your own attainment of Buddhahood, you cannot reject that same possibility in others.

The relationship of the negating element to the affirming element of dependent origination is that you can fulfill your own Buddhahood if you can free yourself from egocentric attachments and illusions and open your heart to others. As already mentioned, from the concept of dependent origination we can arrive at the practical conclusion that assuming Buddhahood to exist in all human beings, including the socially disadvantaged, leads to a respect for their potential. Furthermore, the concept of dependent origination encourages us to regard people not as isolated individuals but in terms of community and interdependence, thereby strengthening the bonds of human solidarity and concern for the socially disadvantaged.

The limitations presented by individualism with respect to human rights theory are pointed out by John Rawles who tries to overcome the deficiencies of the individualistic approach by emphasizing instead the spirit of community. Rawles develops his theory of Justice" based on the categorical imperative of Kant that "mankind in our person is always purpose in itself, and it should never be treated as a means by anyone." In this context, community spirit is stressed so that more care can be taken of the underprivileged. Rawles' theory of justice is similar to the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, with its emphasis on the interdependence of human existence.

Furthermore, it is important to point out that the concept of dependent origination explains not only the interdependence of human existence since as already mentioned, Buddhahood is understood to exist in all living beings. In the Mahayana Buddhism of China and India, this concept is expressed even more universally, so that even plants are seen to be endowed with Buddhahood. According to this, people should not abuse or exploit nature, as it too is endowed with Buddhahood. Miao-lo (711-782), a Chinese master of the Lotus Sutra tradition, explains the principle of the "inseparability of the subject and its environment", which postulates the symbiotic interdependence between man and nature.

The concept of karma

The general Buddhist concept of karma means first of all, causality: good actions cause fortunate circumstances, and bad actions cause unfortunate circumstances. This implies that everyone is the subject of his own deeds and reaps whatever he sows and ultimately, everyone is ethically responsible for what he does. In other words, emphasis is placed on the decisions one makes, as well as on the ethical nature of one's actions.

Everyone creates his own karma in three ways: through thought, word, and deed. Thought corresponds to deliberate mental activity, word to verbal expression and deed to physical activity. These three modalities constitute the sum of mental and physical activities which we carry out daily. Depending on one's good or bad intentions, and on the actions that result from them, one experiences good or bad effects. Based on the principle: of causality, one is led to consider the practical consequences of Whatever one does and then naturally to act in such a way as to experience the most fortunate effects and the least possible suffering.

This concept of causality can also be interpreted pessimistically, to imply that the problems of the present being the effects of previously made causes, one must accept and endure unfortunate circumstances, abandon all hope of changing things, and content oneself with the search for inner peace. In the course of history, this pessimistic version of the concept of karma was misused for the suppression of human rights. Priests, for example, used it to justify predetermined destiny, and to legitimize differences in status, profession, sex or even physical health. But this pessimistic approach is entirely different from that of Shakyamuni Buddha whose original intention was to use the concept of karma to teach people to take personal ethical responsibility for their own lives. This decidedly optimistic concept was meant to encourage us to make good causes in order to change any situation for the better.

Thus, the concept of karma also concerns the ethical aspects of our personal action and this is given additional emphasis by the fact that it not only includes outward, physical deeds, but also intention, or spiritual aspects. In modern human rights theory, it is mainly outer physical activities which are examined, particularly as they relate to legal sanctions. Yet karma is not based on legal sanctions, but rather, solely on inner decision-making and on personal responsibility, emphasizing the ethical aspects of human works.

How does the concept of karma relate to society? In the Sutta-Nipata, for instance, it is stated, "You do not become an impure human being or a Brahmin by birth. Only by your deeds do you become either an impure human or a Brahmin." Just as Shakyamuni in his day criticized the discriminatory caste system, in Buddhism, no judgments are made about people based on their social status, their actions being the only decisive factor. Furthermore, the caste system itself is considered merely a consequence of human greed and arrogance. This touches on the concept of common or "collective" karma, whereby, a social system is not seen as something that exists independently of the individual and his intentions, but rather as a result of collective action. Thus, the concept of karma states that individuals can, through their own determination, change their collective social awareness as well as their social systems.

4. Buddhist Theory and Practice

Human rights theory and the Buddhist approach

As has already been pointed out, today's human rights theory goes beyond a logical interpretation of mere legal stipulation by asking what human dignity assumes to be the ideal image of man. This expresses a tendency to a normative comprehension of human rights. The point where Buddhist thought and the human rights theory intersect is not in their interpretation of individual stipulations about human rights, but rather in their basic understanding of human dignity.

Modern human rights theory presupposes an individualistic image of man--an independent, autonomous being, responsible for his physical actions., Buddhism, in contrast adopts an image of man in which everyone is open to possibilities beyond his present individual situation and, although an autonomous being, he nevertheless exists in mutual interdependence with others. Here it is important to note that the ethical aspects of one's inner world play an important role in achieving peaceful and harmonious coexistence with others. The question of how much this Buddhist approach can contribute to a new definition of the human rights theory is yet to be worked out, but one thing at least is clear, that it can supply a fruitful impetus for further discussions about the nature of human dignity.

I do not wish to take the dogmatic, exclusivist point of view that Buddhism alone can provide a reasonable foundation for human rights theory. In one of the Mahayana Sutras, the Buddhavatamsaka-Sutra, a person is described who, in his search for truth, also turns to masters outside of Buddhist doctrine. Buddhists should be flexible enough to seriously try to understand the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Western philosophy and the natural sciences and to learn from them. It is to be hoped that others as well, rather than remaining in isolation, will adopt this fundamental attitude to the relevant issues and that, through an exchange of approaches from varying doctrinal traditions, we can arrive at an even more appropriate human rights theory.

The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) educational movement for human rights

Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the SGI, once said that the decisively important basis for the guarantee of human rights is not to be found in human rights theory and the legal system alone, but also in the consciences of people supporting such theory and practice. In concrete terms, this refers to compassion for the sufferings of others, which accompanies a sensitivity towards human rights issues. The question then arises, how and to what extent can we share this sensibility? To this end, educational work for human rights can and should play an important role. A further point of contact between Buddhism and the human rights theory lies not only in the possibilities for developing new theories, but in actual Buddhist activities.

The focus of Mahayana Buddhism is not on each individual's striving for his own enlightenment; rather, the essence lies in the Boddhisattva practices based on the spirit of action on behalf of the well-being of others. On the one hand, Bodhisattva practices are self-directed, in that one determines to fulfill one's own Buddhahood through actual practice; on the other hand, these very practices foster the development of one's capacity for compassion for others. Through activities of daily living, sensibility for human rights can be internalized, and not on a theoretical level, but as real feelings towards others. The SGI is a religious group striving to fulfill the Mahayana Buddhist spirit in modern society, a movement whose actual practice of faith contributes to a heightened awareness for human dignity in the hearts of individuals.

The SGI has already carried out a series of activities, not just among Buddhists, but together with many other world citizens, in order to teach the importance of guaranteeing human rights for all. Human rights seminars have been held in large cities in Japan, USA, England and Italy, for example. In cooperation with the UNO, the SGI has also organized exhibits on human rights which have been shown worldwide. Furthermore, the SGI supports the activities of the UNHCR to assist refugees internationally. All of these activities of the SGI for human rights education fulfill the spirit of Mahayana Buddhist practice to establish human dignity, both in the conscience of individuals and in society as a whole.

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