Rights and Responsibilities

The rights and responsibilities involved in being a Buddhist are best thought of in terms of the positive implications of the Five Precepts: one should live with kindness and compassion to all; one should practice generosity to all; one should aim for contentment with few wishes; one should always be truthful; one should be mindful and aware. These values determine how Buddhists privately live their lives, but also how they interact socially – treating people with compassion and generosity. Therefore these values determine Buddhists’ views of human rights and their responsibilities in a global context.

There is a clear link between certain Buddhist beliefs and the modern concept of Human Rights. According to Buddhism, all human being are equal in that each has the potential to achieve Enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhists recognise the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings. The Buddha pointed out the importance of treating others as if they were members of one’s own family, since, due to the infinite number of rebirths, all have at some point been one’s parents, siblings and children. The Buddhist respect for human life is very much an ideal inherent in Human Rights ideas.

Social Justice is also an issue which resonates with Buddhists. While on the one hand Buddhists attempt to be mindful of suffering and accept it with a calm mind, the Buddha never taught a message of inaction. One of the most important aspects of being a human (or any sentient being) is freedom to act. This freedom generates both good and bad kamma / karma and allows us to change ourselves and eventually escape samsara. While suffering even in the case of social injustice, can be seen as a result of bad kamma / karma (although not every occurrence is seen as the result of kamma / karma), this is not a reason for inactivity. For many, removing social injustice is viewed as a kammically / karmically good action. A good example of a Buddhist fight for Social Justice can currently be seen in Burma, where the Sangha engaged in a peaceful protest through the streets of Rangoon. A 20th Century example is Thic Quang Duc who burnt himself to death as a public protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnam’s administration. Equally, the importance of Asoka / Ashoka to Buddhists illustrates how strongly they believe in social justice. King Asoka / Ashoka is viewed as the paradigm of a Buddhist King. He treated all of his subjects as equals, regardless of class or religion, constructed hospitals, built roads and universities, as well as promoted freedom, equality and vegetarianism among other qualities.

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