Buddhists and Human Rights

Buddhists and Human Rights

An analysis of Buddhist affirmations of human rights might begin in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. There in 1956 another Hindu, B. R. Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism and took some four million other untouchables with him.1

Sangharakshita, a Buddhist who played an important role in the mass conversion movement that Ambedkar set in motion, writes of Ambedkar:

In the end, after years of unsuccessful struggle for the basic human rights of his people, he was forced to recognize that there was going to be no change of heart on the part of the Caste Hindus, and that the casteless, “Protestant” Hinduism of which he had sometimes spoken so enthusiastically was only a dream.2

As early as 1935 Ambedkar had threatened to leave Hinduism, when in a speech to a conference of the depressed classes he “spoke bitterly of the failure of their attempts to secure their basic human rights as members of the Hindu community.”3

Ambedkar had considered conversion to Sikhism, but finally admitted that only the personalities of the Buddha and Christ captivated him. However, because the caste system was observed in the Christian churches of Southern India and Ambedkar felt the Christian community had not fought against social injustice, he turned to Buddhism.4

Ambedkar wrote that his philosophy was “enshrined” in three words: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.5

He suggested that fraternity was only another name for democracy, which is “essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards [one’s] fellow men.”6 Buddha transformed attitudes of respect and obedience contained in the ethnic Hindu notion of dharma into a universal morality. By admitting members of lower castes and women into the Bhikshu Sangha, the Buddha took “concrete steps to destroy the gospel of inequality.”7

Ambedkar argued that for Buddhists the dharma is that

universal morality which protects the weak from the strong, which provides common models, standards, and rules, and which safeguards the growth of the individual. It is what makes liberty and equality effective. . ..”8

For Ambedkar, fraternity “is nothing but another name for brotherhood of men which is another name for morality. This is why the Buddha preached that Dhamma [dharma] is morality and as Dhamma is sacred so is morality.”9


Many Buddhists are reluctant to identify the dharma with human rights. Buddhist scholar Masao Abe writes that “the exact equivalent of the phrase ‘human rights’ in the Western sense cannot be found anywhere in Buddhist literature.”10 The Western concept of human rights concerns only humans. By marked contrast, in Buddhism

a human being is not grasped only from the human point of view, that is, not simply on an anthropocentric basis, but on a much broader trans-homocentric, cosmological basis. More concretely, in Buddhism human beings are grasped as a part of all sentient beings or even as a part of all beings, sentient and nonsentient, because both human and nonhuman beings are equally subject to transiency or impermanency.11

Therefore, the human self is also impermanent, or relative.

The notion of absolute self-identity or substantial, enduring selfhood is an unreal, conceptual construction created by human self-consciousness. Buddhism calls it maya, or illusion, and emphasizes the importance of awakening to no-self by doing away with this illusory understanding of the self.12

Though self and nature are different from one another on the relative level, “on the absolute level they are equal and interfuse with one another because of the lack of any fixed, substantial selfhood.”13

For this reason Buddhism, Abe tells us, differs radically from the monotheistic religious traditions.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the problem of human rights and human duty to other people must be considered in relation to the exclusive commandment of the supreme God, whereas in Buddhism the same problem should be grasped in relation to all living beings in the universe. This difference entails that in Buddhism conflict between human rights and religious freedom becomes much less serious. . ..14

It also means that for Buddhists nature is no more subordinate to human beings than human beings to nature. Buddhism offers a kind of ecological view of life: “Under the commandment ‘Not to destroy any life,’ the rights of animals and plants are as equally recognized as are human rights.”15

On the basis of this Buddhist analysis, Abe makes the following recommendations to foster human rights and overcome religious intolerance. First, attachment to doctrine and dogma should be eliminated, for this is the cause of intolerance. Second, wisdom rather than justice should be emphasized, as this is the basis of compassion and love. Third, monotheistic traditions must come to understand the Oneness of ultimate reality in a nondualistic way in order to avoid exclusivistic and intolerant attitudes toward other traditions.16

Similarly, Kenneth Inada acknowledges the importance of human rights, but suggests that for Buddhists human rights are “ancillary to the larger or more basic issue of human nature.”17 Human nature is understood as part of the process of “relational origination (paticcasamupada),” which is the greatest doctrine of Buddhism:

It means that, in any life-process, the arising of an experiential event is a total, relational affair. A particular event does not arise in a vacuum, nor does it result by the imposition of external forces of elements. It is a unique arisal which is vitally dependent on or related to all the elements present within the surroundings. Thus, in the process there is nothing which is fragmentary or has any gaps, since it relates with the complete fullness of all the elements present. Each relationship is full insofar as the process is concerned. This means that relational origination is a most concrete way in which life-process goes on.18

This is the Dhamma (dharma), for the Buddha said: “He who sees relational origination sees the Dhamma and he who sees the Dhamma sees relational origination.”19 Therefore, “there is an intimate and vital relationship of the Buddhist norm or Dhamma with that of human rights.”20

The Bodhisattva personifies the ideal existence, for it goes to the heart of human nature:

In its concern for fellow beings, it demonstrates the best concrete illustration of the doctrine of relational origination—in which every being is involved in every other being . . . It is not only the beginnings of harmony with other beings, but more important, the sustenance of harmony within the changing ambient world.21

The Bodhisattva ideal reminds us that there is no actual, individual experience, for it “speaks to us of “equality, liberty, and security from the total perspective.”22

Human rights are an extension of human nature. Thus, in the Buddhist perspective they flow from right human relations.

Human rights are legal matters which can be legislated, but only to a certain extent, especially so in a divided world. Human nature, however, is an existential matter which can neither be legislated nor measured; therefore, one must resort to persuasion and self-realization in order to seek one’s unique existence.23

Inada concludes that “when governments, singly or in consortium, are able to provide an ambience conducive to individual life-fulfillment by way of an open and free contact to all, the question of human rights based on human nature should be eased considerably, if not solved.”24

Taitetsu Unno asserts: “The fact that the Buddhist tradition in its past history has had little to say about personal rights in the current sense of the term does not mean that Buddhists were not concerned with human well-being, with the dignity and autonomy of the spirit.”25 Moreover, he argues that contemporary Buddhism “must clarify what it has to offer to the concept of personal rights and its realization for all people.”26

The key to the Buddhist contribution, Unno believes, is its notion of the human person. The human person is a part of the interdependence of all life. Thus, the Buddhist teaching of no-self (anatman) makes possible an appreciation of persons as more than entities or individuals. This awareness liberates a person from the enslaving concepts and practices of culture and religion, such as those imposed by the Hindu tradition of caste.

By negating the metaphysical basis of traditional values and practices the Buddha affirmed instead the crucial nature of human conduct and virtus [sic] as determining what is truly human. He also stressed reliance on the powers of analysis and autonomous reason and rejected revelation, authority, and tradition as sources of knowledge.27

The Sangha was to model this image of the human person, as “a society of equals—regardless of birth or lineage or whether one was rich or poor, man or woman.”28 People are human in relation to others and nature, by virtue of their conduct and character.

Rights are a reflection of this interdependent reality. When one realizes the interconnectedness of all life, one realizes that rights are fundamental not only for people but equally for all sentient beings, as well as for nature itself. Unno asserts:

respect for the individual and the recognition of rights is not a static but a dynamic fact which makes it imperative that as we affirm our own individual rights we must also be willing to give up ourselves in order to affirm the rights of others. When, however, we affirm only our own rights at the expense of the rights of others—including the rights of humanity over nature, one nation or one race over another, one belief or view over others—we become tyrannical and oppressive.29

Only with such an understanding of interdependent reality will assertions of human rights contribute to a society of equals. In this way will we see that the person is not “one among the many, but one as the absolute subject, the negation of the many; and the many is not simply a collection of ones, but many as the common good, the negation of separate ones going their different ways.”30

While the Bodhisattva is exceptional, all persons may live with a sense of gratitude for the interdependence of reality in the recognition that “one lives by virtue of the working and sacrifices of countless others, including the blessings of nature.”31 The common Japanese expression “Okagesama” reflects just this kind of humble gratitude.


Thus, from a Buddhist perspective, human rights need to be grounded in what today might be described as an ecological view of nature and humanity, and rights need to be conceived for other forms of life and not just for humans, if the ego-centeredness often associated with personal rights is to be avoided. In this respect, religion has often been a stumbling block.

The most subtle forms of disguised self-centeredness appear in all world religions; we see it in sectarianism and triumphalism, classism and sexism. How can we root out this radical egocentricity, all the more difficult because it is affirmed in noble language? How can we affirm plurality, cherishing our own beliefs without negating those of others? Good will and tolerance have been inadequate as evidenced in the world today. What is necessary is a new understanding of reality, a new vision of the ideal community, based on the interdependence and interconnectedness of life. . ..32

Unno concludes “that it is necessary for contemporary Buddhism to come forth with a clear a unequivocal statement on personal rights,” to aid in the development of an adequate foundation for human rights.33

Similarly, Robert Thurman argues that the Buddhist experience has much to offer human rights considerations: “the principles of human rights were all there in the Buddha’s earliest teachings” and were embodied in the Sangha; however, they never led to an institutional democracy until modern times, and then only when there was outside help.34

Thurman asserts: “The Buddhist ‘individual,’ as a living, relative, social, conventional being emerges as the center of the Buddha’s Teaching since there is no such thing as an unchanging, ultimate, isolated, intrinsically identifiable ‘individual’.”35 Thus, in Buddhism

the individual human who possess rights is presented as a spiritual as well as physical being of unique accomplishments and valuable opportunities. We have earned our rights through suffering and transcending egotism in the sea of evolution, and no one can deprive us of them, since no one conferred them upon us. Societies cease to be truly human when they cease to acknowledge that each individual’s fulfillment is the purpose of the whole. And humans are free also to give away their rights in furtherance of the fulfillment of others. Indeed it is by the supreme generosity of giving even one’s life that one evolved into a human out of lower forms. Thus talk of rights quickly passes over into talk of responsibilities, as the self-fulfilled (that is, enlightened as to selflessness) individual automatically wills to share that happiness of release with others by aiding them in their own quest of enlightenment.36

As persons assume responsibility, there is less need to talk about or enforce human rights.

Thurman argues that several texts provide the foundation for a Buddhist social philosophy and notes that the stone-carved edicts of Emperor Ashoka (third century B.C.E.) set forth five basic principles of Buddhist politics: “(1) individualistic transcendentalism, (2) nonviolent pacifism, (3) religious pluralism with an educational emphasis, (4) compassionate welfare paternalism, and (5) reliance on a powerful central authority to affirm the rights of individuals over claims of intermediate groups.”37 He also discusses Tibet as a “long-term Buddhist experiment” in “furthering human social and cultural rights.”38

Contemporary Advocacy

Apart from these theoretical considerations, Buddhists have begun to speak of human rights in various ways.39 Buddhists protest “human rights violations” in China, Tibet, Laos, and Korea.40 Buddhists join with other members of religious traditions in conferences concerned with human rights.41 Buddhists participate in resolutions on human rights, such as the Seoul Declaration of the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace, which declared: “Human dignity must be safeguarded by human rights, through which human dignity can be fully manifested.”42

The late U Thant, a Burmese Buddhist who served as Secretary-General of the UN, on at least one occasion reiterated Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the “Magna Carta of Mankind.”43 Furthermore, he wrote of the family:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else. But this right of parents to free choice will remain illusory unless they are aware of the alternatives open to them. Hence, the right of every family to information and the availability of services in this field is increasingly considered as a basic human right and as an indispensable ingredient of human dignity.44

In a statement that clearly reflects Buddhist philosophy, at least as articulated by Abe and Inada, U Thant urged: “We must all foster and encourage a climate of opinion in which human rights can flourish. We must be alive to any encroachment upon the rights and freedoms of any individual. And, above all, we must practice tolerance, and respect the rights and freedoms of others.”45

Dr. Tilokasundari Kariyawasam, President of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Women and Deputy Director General of Education in Sri Lanka, also strongly supports human rights: “Buddhism is an all pervading philosophy and a religion, strongly motivated by human rights or rights of everything that exists, man, woman, animal and the environment they live in.”46 She writes of the influence of Buddhist thought on the woman “as an individual born free and equal in dignity and rights,” claims that the “rights, the Buddhist woman has enjoyed for centuries are revolutionary and daring,” and suggests that concern “for human rights is seen in the efforts of women to ensure great equality of access to and participation in Buddhism.’47

Thai Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa, in writing of the Sangha as an ideal for human society, translates the basic ethical precepts of Buddhism into modern terms. He suggests that the precept to speak the truth is taking new collective forms today: “Out of the networking of the global peace, justice and human rights movements arises a radical discourse, a pluralistic, insurgent understanding, a dynamic truth which threatens the power of the forces of violence, greed and ignorance.”48 As a Buddhist he asserts: “The defense of human rights and justice takes ethical precedence over national sovereignty.”49 Thus, he urges Buddhist involvement in international issues, the United Nations, and development in the Third World.50

Moreover, in a Sri Lankan village Buddhists and Roman Catholics have found a common cause in human rights. In 1981, before a thousand people gathered to celebrate the triple light festival of Vesak, recalling the birth, enlightenment and the mahaparinibbana of the Buddha, a Christian speaker suggested: “if we violate human rights for food, clothing, shelter, justice, then we violate the first precept: pranatipata vera mani sikkha. . ..”51 The Venerable Kotaneluwe Upatissa of the ancient Happoruwa temple, who was present for the festival at Suba Seth Gedara on this occasion, replied: “Let me say that this Catholic priest expounded dhamma well.”52

Similarly, when Buddhists and Christians joined together to seek help for farmers who had lost their harvest due to severe drought, the Venerable Alutwela Piyananda—although pressured by local officials not to participate in the petition—affirmed instead his unity with the Christians in their common cause: “For whom did Jesus live and die? for man. For whom did the Buddha work? for man, for men and women. Now let us get together and work for human rights.”53

Thus, Buddhists do affirm human rights, as central to their understanding of the dharma and the living out of the Buddhist precepts. Despite the conceptual difficulties of justifying human rights, as central to Buddhist faith, at least some Buddhists find human rights language expressive of their religious commitment to the Three Refuges: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Of course, at various times and places Buddhists have justified violence in defense of a favorable political regime or in self-defense. Historically, the spread of Buddhism benefited from violence, which it did not condemn. In 1959 a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka assassinated the nation’s Prime Minister, and more recently Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have supported violent anti-government protests. One such monk explained that this was simply the law of karma: “those who live by the sword die by the sword.”54

However, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists articulates in contemporary idiom a more traditional view of Buddhist teaching. The Dalai Lama, suggests that “we all have an equal right to be happy”55 because of our common humanity: “This shared humanness and thus the shared aspiration of gaining happiness and avoiding suffering, as well as the basic right to bring these about, are of prime importance.”56 He concludes that:

Universal responsibility is based on an understanding of the desire, the right, and the possibility of achieving happiness for all beings. When we recognize the importance of this outlook, a true sense of compassion becomes possible, and, eventually, a natural reality.57

For Buddhists, recognition and protection of human rights may be seen not only as the fruits of wisdom and compassion, but also as a means of attaining both.