The Buddha and Basic Human Rights
-By Dr. Buddhadasa P. Kirthisinghe.
The Human Rights Commission of the United Nations Organization, New York City, U.S.A., has enumerated and elaborated an international Code of Human Rights, within the last fifteen years. But the principles of basic human rights have been recognized from the earliest times of history. Great thinkers around the 6th century B.C. made notable contributions; among them were Socrates of Greece, Confucius of China and the Buddha in India. Of these, the contributions of the Buddha are very impressive.
The Buddha's message to mankind was for people's spiritual and social ascendancy. He called on people for cheerful service to others, love for all life and restraint for all irrational desires. His path is both intellectual and spiritual. And its goal can be attained by self-discipline, plain living and noble thinking. The Buddha stood for human justice; therefore it is not surprising that the basic codes of Human Rights are incorporated in his Teachings.
The women in Indian society in the Buddha's time did not receive such recognition. It was the Buddha who raised the status of women. The Buddha foresaw the danger of admitting women to the Sangha, and had three times not granted Mahaprajapati Gotami's request to be admitted to the Order as a Bhiksuni. But later, observing the zeal of both Prajapati and Yasodhara for leading a religious life, he no longer could resist it and assented to have them admitted to the Sangha. When the Venerable Ananda asked the Buddha whether women were competent to lead the life of a left-home person, he declared them to be competent to be admitted to the Sangha and to attain release from a wearisome repetition of rebirths and to attain sainthood. The equality in social, economic and political life of women with men in Buddhist lands is not at all surprising. Sri Lanka has even produced a woman Prime Minister in these modem times.
The Buddha made no distinction between men and women. No life was insignificant and all were equal in his sight. He led them all on a path of righteousness. From beggar to king, all received his compassion and love.
The caste system was becoming rigidly established in India in the Buddha's time. He revolted against this injustice and welcomed to the Sangha people of low and high castes. He admitted into his order Sunita, the outcast, Sati, the son of a fisherman, Nanda, a cowherder, Ambapali, a courtesan, and Punna and Punnika who were slave girls.
The story of the ordination of Upali, the barber, is an outstanding example of how the Buddha tried to abolish the caste system. Once six Sakyan princes closely related to the Buddha came to seek admission to the Sangha. Upali, the barber, followed them--his masters--to the Buddha and asked for ordination. The ordination was arranged so as to give Upali the place of seniority in the Order. The princes, who also became monks, had to pay homage to Upali, who later became the highest authority on monastic discipline.
Some members of the nobility were upset by these actions of the Buddha and one of them challenged the Buddha to define a nobleman. It was then that he declared:
No person is noble by birth,
No person is ignoble by birth.
A person is noble by his or her own deeds,
A person is ignoble by his or her own deeds.
The more fascinating example of non-recognition of a person's caste is the case of a girl at a well. Ananda, the favorite disciple of the Buddha, had been sent by him on a mission. He was passing by a well near a village and on seeing Pakati, a girl of low caste, he asked for water, to drink. The girl hesitated, saying: "O nobleman, I am too humble and mean to give you water, as I am of the Matanga caste."
And the Venerable Ananda replied: "Sister, I ask not for caste but for water." Then the girl's heart leapt for joy and she gave him a drink.
It is not surprising that there was no caste system in Buddhist India from the 3rd century B.C. under the influence of the great Emperor Asoka, who ruled India then, until about the 10th century A.D. This is true even today of all Buddhist nations from Sri Lanka to Japan. However, when Brahmanism replaced Buddhism in India from the 10th century A.D. onwards, the caste system reestablished itself. It is obvious that the Indian elite became parasitic and not creative. Thereafter the great Indian civilization declined rapidly.
The Buddha condemned slavery in every shape and form. It was not William Wilberforce (U.K.) and Abraham Lincoln (U.S.A.) who were pioneers in the abolition of slavery, as is often claimed in the West. According to the United Nations Organization reports, slavery is not practiced in any part of the world today. The Buddha led the anti-slavery movement by laying down a rule for the right manner of earning one's living, and that none should engage in any form of trafficking in human beings. Human beings might be engaged for domestic services or elsewhere, but it was enjoined that they be treated with as much consideration as a member of the family, as regards their personal rights, and even to share little treats on special occasions.
Sigalevada-Sutta (the laymanís Code of Discipline) is a famous sutta of the Buddha. Here he proclaims the duties of parents to children, children to parents, pupil to teacher, teacher to pupil, wife to husband, and vice versa. This laymanís discourse, which is based on social ethics, is highly commended by the world-famous British scholar, Professor Rhys David.
In the Mahmangala-Sutta, which is highly cherished in all Buddhist lands, is a comprehensive summary of Buddhist ethics. Here the support of the mother and father, wife and children, is greatly stressed.
Here are three of twelve verses that make his views clear. The English translation from Pali is the work of Dr. R.L. Soni of Burma:
With the fools no company keeping,
With the wise ever consorting,
To the worthy homage meeting;
This, the Highest Blessings.
Mother, father aptly serving,
Children, wife, duly cherishing,
Lifeís business coolly attending
This, the Highest Blessings
Acts of charity, righteous life,
From all alarms the kins of protecting,
Blameless pursuits fully rife,
This, the Highest Blessing.
The verse indicates why problems of old age are not so acute in Buddhist lands, as people look after their parents in their old age. Illicit traffic in women and slavery were abhorred by the public. Although no civilization is perfect, at least the influence of Buddhist ethics dominated life in these Asian lands.
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