DHAMMA, ETHICS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Sayadaw U Rewata Dhamma
My responsibility as a Buddhist monk is to teach Dhamma. (Other traditions may refer to God, Brahm, Logos, the Totality and so on. In this talk I shall use Buddhist terms, which I hope you will translate into your own spiritual language.)
Dhamma is sometimes translated as Universal Law, Truth or
Reality. It is not always easy to
distinguish reality from illusion, and this is particularly the case in matters
of religious practice. The other day in
To follow the spiritual path, practising love, compassion and forgiveness towards our fellow beings is the essence of true religion. This is our true nature or Dhamma, which we realise when we are in a state of spiritual health. The state of disease which conceals our true nature the Buddha called Dukkha. He came as a healer with a specific diagnosis and prescription for this disease. But how can a healer help unless people actually take the medicine offered? Antibiotics, for example, do not work if they just sit on your altar surrounded by flowers and swimming in incense. You have to take them as prescribed.
The Buddha's medicine is right understanding, right thought, right action and so on. This practice enables us to see the true nature of reality and develop love and compassion. These are not new things I am saying -- you have all heard them before from your teachers and spiritual friends of all traditions. The tragedy is that there are very few people, lay or ordained, who take them seriously and put them into practice. All the problems of our Asian countries and beyond could be solved if only we took our medicine as prescribed.
This medicine is not just a remedy for individuals but is also a vital ingredient of social development. Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as a separate individual. We are all made up of everything and everybody. As Kalu Rinpoche says:
"We live in illusion and the appearance of things.
There is a reality;
We are that reality.
When you understand this, you see that you are nothing;
And being nothing, you are everything.
That is all"
The Mahayana specifically emphasises the enlightenment of all beings, and even we of the little tug-boat praise the triple gem of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, where Sangha means community -- in a specific way the community of monks and nuns, but in a broader sense, of all beings. Every Buddhist tradition gives a central place to the Brahma-Viharas: Upekha (equanimity), Metta (loving-kindness), Karuna (compassion), and Muditha (joy in the joy of others), the last three of which are directly social.
In Buddhist countries an expression of the social dimensions of Dhamma is the guiding and softening influence which the ordained Sangha has traditionally exercised over rulers. Where this influence declines, we see the rulers become ever more cruel and irresponsible, and most of the Sangha equally irresponsible, preoccupied with ritual, textual studies and "individual" development. No amount of pagoda building or formal respect for the Sangha can substitute for their mutual responsibility to serve the people and the Dhamma.
From an understanding of Dhamma (God, the Totality etc) and the interdependence of every aspect of universe, including that of community, or Sangha, the religious traditions have developed ethics or guidelines for human behaviour. These guidelines serve to maintain the harmony of social life and to encourage the practice (or medicine) which will help end our individual and social disease.
At the heart of Buddhist ethics is inter-responsibility, or Bodhicitta; what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls Universal Responsibility. In the Theravada we speak of Samma-sankappa or Right Thought, which leads to Bodhi, the Awakened Mind. This principle is expressed in everyday terms by the teaching of loving-kindness, non-violence, compassion, and particular responsibilities. For monks and nuns these are set down in the rule or Vinaya; for lay people in the Sigalovada Sutta and for rulers in the Dasarajadhamma.
In the early, organic societies the Buddha was addressing, these specific responsibilities were assumed to be adequate guidelines for human behaviour, with no need to identify the corresponding rights. In modern, fragmented societies, however, where the fulfillment of responsibilities cannot be guaranteed by the immediate community, the corresponding rights are specified and protected by States and International Organisations. In large part these bodies derive their legitimacy from their protection of human rights. A State which does not guarantee the enjoyment of human rights by its people loses its claim to legitimacy.
The depiction of rights as simply a Western invention fails to understand the relationship of rights to responsibilities and ethical norms. If the ethical systems we find in different times and different parts of the world varied greatly, we might have a problem, but in fact the central values of all societies are very much the same. All ethical systems encourage people to love each other, and discourage killing, violence and so on. The universality and inseparability of human rights may therefore be understood as reflecting the universality and inseparability of inter-responsibility emerging from Dhamma.
A striking example of the way responsibilities and rights can reach across time and cultures is the correspondence between the right of popular participation enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Avirodha. Avirodha is the principle or non-opposition or non-obstruction contained in the Dasarajadhamma, or "ten duties of kings". This instruction, given by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, requires the ruler not to oppose the will of the people, or obstruct any measures that are conducive to their welfare.
In conclusion, I would ask those attending this conference to work in your countries for the true practice of Dhamma, whatever you call it, and its application to genuine social development. If the central human values of compassion and loving kindness were actually practised in our countries, we would soon find a solution to our problems, and our people would not be sacrificed on the altars of "security" or economic "development".
May all beings be happy
(Delivered to the Asian Leaders Conference, Seoul, December 1994)