The Buddha and Basic Human Rights

Continued from issue #107

By Dr. Buddhadasa P. Kirthisinghe

In the practice of Buddhism, knowledge and wisdom are stressed. During the reign of Ashoka, educational institutions sprang up in every temple in the land. And thereby every Buddhist temple became a veritable center of learning, some of which later grew into world famous universities, from the second century, A.D., at Nalanda, Taxila, Vikramashila, etc.

      The Buddhist civilizations of India, Burma, and Sri Lanka were among the first to have university education in the annals of mankind. Admittance was based on competence and not on wealth, race, or creed. Students from Afghanistan to China resided in these centers of learning. The universities flourished up to around the 13th century A.D. They were totally destroyed by the invading Mongol armies of the north from the 14th century onwards.

During the 3rd century B.C. both India and Sri Lanka had hospitals for both humans and beasts. These facts are noted in The Outline of World History by H.G. Wells. Emperor Ashoka was the first to establish hospitals in India and he encouraged, in the 3rd century B.C., the cultivation of medical herbs. No wonder the late H.G. Wells called Ashoka "the noblest king in the history of mankind."

The Buddha laid the foundation for this movement. It is said that once an old Bhiksu of a surly disposition was afflicted with a loathsome disease, the sight and smell of which was so nauseating that no one would go near him. It is said that the Buddha came to the Vihara where this unfortunate man lay, and on hearing his case, he ordered warm water and went to the sick room to nurse him. He ministered unto this sick Bhiksu daily as long as he stayed in that place, and declared, "Whoever nurses the sick will be serving me."

Religious freedom is one of the greatest virtues stressed by the Buddha. He preached the gospel of tolerance, compassion, loving kindness, and non violence. He taught men not to despise other religions and not to belittle them.

In his day Ashoka practiced the golden principle of tolerance. Under his patronage Buddhism flourished in his time. As a Buddhist, he was tolerant of other religions.

One of his edicts says:

All religions deserve reverence for some reason or other. By thus acting, a man exalts his own religion and at the same time does service to the religion of other people.

The Buddha sounded the clarion call of human liberty. He said:

Take ye refuge in yourself and be your own light. With earnestness and high resolve work out your own salvation.

      The Buddha further declared, according to the Kalama Sutra, that one should not even accept his teachings unless one found them to be in accord with one's own personal reasoning.

To summarize, the Buddha, for the first time in the history of India or perhaps the whole world, proclaimed equality between people and people and between the sexes. He Stressed security of people in their old ape and also when sick, besides the right to an education, and the rights of children. The right to work is embodied in the Buddha's Noble Eight fold Path, where he enjoins people to select the right (noble and useful) livelihood. Thereby he prohibits the practice of slavery and "white slavery," that is the exploitation of men or women for financial gain.

Further, the Buddha pave people sturdy independence and thereby elevated human liberty, religious tolerance, and free speech. Lastly, according to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, he even preferred the representative form of government over autocratic rule, which was common in his day.

The basic human rights, as declared by the Buddha, are as refreshing today as they were in the 6th century B.C. They are incorporated in all declarations of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. In fact, they are the foundation on which the United Nations' edifice has been built.

      Dr. Buddhadasa P. Krithisinghe is a Representative of the Maha Bodhi Society of India and the World Fellowship of Buddhists. He is also an Honorary Minister of the New York Buddhist Church.