2 June, 2023


Buddhist Insights On Human Rights For The Holy See, The United States & China

By Patrick Mendis

Prof. Patrick Mendis

For the first time, the United States launched a federal investigation into the sexual misconduct of clergies and cover-up by the Catholic Church in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States. It may extend to other states, which would have far reaching implications for the Catholic Church in America and elsewhere. 

In the meantime, the Vatican has diplomatically reached out to the nominally-atheist China in the appointment of Catholic bishops that is widely being criticized as appeasing to the Communist Party. 

Indeed, given the gravity of challenges in financial governance of the Holy See and the sexual improprieties of clergies in India and around the world, the Vatican has wasted no-time in redefining its moral mission of the Catholic Church globally. Specifically in this, the Vatican, the United States and China are intertwined in crises that are broadly related to human rights.

Interestingly, however, an insightful but contentious perspective of human rights comes from the unlikely and predominantly Buddhist nation of Sri Lanka that has historical connections to the Vatican, the United States, and China.

Human rights as a “new discovery”

At a recent mass in the St. Matthew’s Catholic Church near Colombo, His Eminent Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka said that “human rights have become the new religion of the West as if it’s a new discovery, but people in our country have been following religions (i.e., primarily Buddhism trailed by Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) for centuries. . . It is those who are not following any religion who talk about all these human rights issues.”

For over two millennia, Buddhism co-existed with the late arrival of other religions in Sri Lanka. In the fifth century, for example, the archaeological evidence of the “Anuradhapura Cross” suggests that a vibrant Catholic community lived in the capital city of Anuradhapura, where the resident Chinese scholar-monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien) once witnessed Buddhist rituals while Arab, Indian, and European merchants and pilgrims traveling on the Silk Road exchanged ideas and goods for spiritual and material progress.

Critics may misconstrue Cardinal Ranjith’s basic argument, but he believes that Buddhist teachings are harmonious with those human rights concepts of the West and the dignity of human life in the Catholic social teachings. Yet, he is raising the perennial question in our understanding of human rights and its premise with a glimpse into the Buddhism and the “reality” of intrinsic nature.

For the cardinal, every major religion endorses human rights but Buddhism resolves conflict and reconciles human rights violations on individual basis without an external power or a grand institution. That is, the Buddhist Dharma (or teachings) has the most enlightened and logical framework in the intrinsic nature of human sustenance and eternal continuity. The Buddha called the latter a Samsaric journey of oneself, whose actions (and reactions) would in reality determine the individual destiny—not an outside force or entity.

American aspiration, not a reality

Contrary to the founding notion of “all men are created equal” with “unalienable rights” in the United States, the Buddha provided the Immutable Law of Nature that each person’s individual Karma (or actions) drives the cause and effect in human behavior and destiny—not an external power “endowed by their Creator” or “Nature’s God” as dictated in the Declaration of Independence. Thus, Thomas Jefferson’s famous American motto, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for the new republic, is simply inspirational—but not grounded in truth and reality of the nature of things.

Jeffersonian liberty—by its extension, freedom—was also initially constructed for the pursuit of wealth, but later changed to happiness, i.e., spiritual happiness. The true happiness in Buddhist Dharma is meant freedom from desire, not freedom of desire for a happy life.

When the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948, it extended the American vision of reality—not as a universal reality.

In Buddhist reality, the no-self (no soul, or Anatma) is the universal reality that the self no longer exists; therefore, there is no individual rights because the person does not exist. What remains is a process from the birth to death that is governed by the Law of Karma, the physics of seen and unseen. In his core teachings embedded in the Law of Dependent Origination, the Buddha further elaborated the Doctrine of Karma that has its own mechanism of rewards and punishments from this world to the other—as the life or the soul is eternal until it reaches its anatta or the freedom of desire, i.e., ending human suffering or attaining Nirvana.

Searching for universal values

When Cardinal Ranjith spoke of Buddhism and human rights as interchangeable as a religion, he underscored the foundations of Buddhist teachings that has sustained a harmonious civilization that has existed in Sri Lanka.

Seemingly for the cardinal, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as expressed in the Article one of the Universal Declaration. Indeed, it is as an accurate statement, as each person—man or woman equally—has the individual power to reach Buddhahood or attain Nirvana (or Anatma). In fact, the Buddha taught that each person—with his or her own efforts—can achieve ultimate happiness without gender, creed, caste, or any other social constructs.

The cardinal apparently envisions that Buddhism surpasses the Declaration because the Buddha included the animals and other sentient materials to be respected as their mutual interdependence would sustain humanity. This is essential for each person to journey in the Samsaric (eternal) life.

The question of human rights in China

Hence, there is no enforcing authority or an external agency to govern a person, individually or collectively. In an increasingly Confucian society of hierarchy in China, the issues related to human rights are even more problematic as the Chinese think more of themselves as a collective entity.

The power relations between state and subject, father and son, husband and wife, and other status-related affairs are predicated on achieving social order—not freedom from desire or suppression. In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddhist reciprocal relations—as rights and duties—are respected and mutually supported as equal between husband and wife, teacher and student, and state and subject.

For a Buddhist, the Five Precepts—i.e., all common to every major religious tradition—and the Noble Eightfold Path are the self-governing mechanisms that prevent oneself from killing, stealing, sexual impropriety, hatred, and delusion. In the Veludvara Sutta, the Buddha said that “one should not do anything to others that one does not like done to oneself,” which is universally now known as the Golden Rule.

Self-reflection in time of crisis

The centrality of Buddhism is its ethics of non-violence. The pursuit of material happiness with freedom of desire did not propel the United States toward achieving its proclaimed rights for women, African-Americans, and the Native Americans until their own struggles for the Women Suffrage, Civil Rights, and the voting and land rights began.

The Confucian China is still struggling with the recognition of self-determination of Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities and religious groups. As the Communist Party of China has seemingly portraited its success in governing domestic affairs, its promotion of Confucius Institutes and Chinese values has now been pushed back by the United States, Australia, and other countries by alleging Beijing’s “sharp power” and influence operation industry.

Altogether for a shared destiny, the problem of the United States and China is that the former does not want to remember its history, especially for the “cause of liberty” in the American Revolutionary War. And, the latter does not want to forget the Chinese history, particularly for the “cause of freedom” from the memories of the Century of Humiliation under the colonial powers. Both nations need to consider self-reflection in times of crisis.

More importantly, this is not to discount the history of the Catholic Church and its dark chapters of the past and present. Yet, Cardinal Ranjith highlights the importance of justice in humanity. Whether it is the Doctrine of Karma or universal ethics rooted in Buddhism, it is critical to exercise occasional self-reflection for healthy discourse for the clarity of Vatican’s moral mission.

Indeed, it is better to think of the status of our world differently than that which we inherited, because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once observed.

*Professor Patrick Mendis is a distinguished visiting professor of Sino-American relations at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. An American commissioner for UNESCO, he is a former Rajawali senior fellow of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent the institutions of his affiliation in the past or present.

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Latest comments

  • 19

    There is no doubt that the Buddha was very compassionate towards all living beings. But Buddhist literature which developed by the monks over centuries – particularly the 550 Jathaka stories , the most popular and authoritative Buddhaagama for the uneducated Buddhist masses – made them love the Bodisathva character and hate the villain! In the Vessanthara Jaathaka the Bodhisathwa is appreciated for giving away his two children as slaves to a beggar. and also his wife!. In Ummagga jathaka – one of the most popular stories among the Buddhists, the Hero Mahausadha Panditha vanquishes his opponent old Kewatta by grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and rubbing his face brutally on the ground!We, Buddhists were systematically brainwashed to love the so called hero and hate the opponent. even if his attitude is a reasonable one. Human Rights? Never expect such sentiments from modern Pure Sinhala Buddhists. Compassion is a word you can not expect to find in their dictionary.They appear to be greater Buddhists than the Buddha himself!

    • 1

      Diogenes refers (no doubt critically) to the Vessanthara Jaathaka. The Buddhist clergy say ~ “….. the Bodhisathwa is appreciated for giving away his two children as slaves to a beggar. and also his wife!”.
      This was most likely created by the Buddhist clergy for gain. Giving away ‘his wife’ like a chattel is misogyny. Buddha was not a misogynist – he was above all this.
      The story about (Hero) Mahausadha Panditha rubbing old Kewatta’s face brutally on the ground is acceptance of violence under certain circumstances. Buddha preached non-violence.

      • 0

        DIOGENES is an IDIOT who has not read much. Christianity has so many different denominations and some have inter marraqiges within the extended family.so, all the children and the adults look very much the same. society was not the same modern society through out the human history. I gave just one example. How about if you say some one in the mdoern society ate human flesh. Can you accept that.

    • 5

      This ‘Diogenes’ represents the Fifth Column that represents American invasion attempts of our culture, Professor Mendis has intelligently described as Cardinal Ranjith had rightly pointed out previously, that we don’t need foreign lessons on human rights or any thing else..
      The problem is that some of the colonial left overs living in this country are still trying to preserve their advantage over the native population and cultures through their attempts to impose the bogus value systems of their Portuguese, Dutch and British ‘pakkali’ ancestors that are totally against our values.
      The Fifth Column, represented by Ranil, Mangala and Rajitha need to be nipped for this reason alone.
      We have a culture and religions (including Christianity) that can look after our problems and we don’t need God-less, sex and war driven American values to sustain us.
      Thank you Professor Mendis.

  • 16

    Patrick Mendis has a Christian name. He claims the observance of Buddhism is trailed by the other religions. He then alleges a late arrival of all other religions.

    A Nestorian cross was found in Anuradhapura. This represents an early Christian presence in the island. Islam appeared in this island within a century of Muhammed’s death. Several Hindu Temples go back to the early centuries of the common era at least.

    Buddhism in Sri Lanka is superficial with a Sinhalese Christian establishment that is purportedly Buddhist and a rural population that is Hinduized in observance. The traditional new year is one example.

    Sinhala Buddhism is barbaric as witnessed in the latest parliamentary proceedings. It’s fake with most Buddhists frequenting Hindu Temples, Catholic Churches and even Muslim Sufi burial shrines for succor.

    This is not a Buddhist country.

    • 0

      This heathen Iren-ass says “This is not a Buddhist country”. What the fruck is it then?

      Do you know Buddhism existed for 2000 years in this island before your meat eating, blood drinking Jewish and other heathen gun holders came here?

      The murderous blood sucker mfruckers calling Sinhala Buddhist as barbaric does not deserve a response.

      Go and take a bath, and wash your backside Irene-ass.

  • 1

    Well, the native culture has suffered near extinction from foreign Buddhist colonialism here and our fellows are pointing fingers at others, it’s just a case about accusing and self-patronising, western or eastern.
    Theoretically then Buddhism and human-rights (and other religious doctrines) are not at odds with each other, so the issue is with the outer packaging and not the essence.
    The Buddhists and Hindus have to accept this bad fortune as it is their karma, the old Christians and Muslims as the will of God.
    Cardinal Ranjith, the champion of the old western Roman Catholic doctrine is critical of the new western HR doctrine. A doctrine thrives due to its followers, it is a numbers game, this is also so for the Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic, it’s a turf war, evolved from the jungle to the city.

  • 0

    Well said Elmo. I think Prof Mendis is just a leftist trying to put his message out. To Edwin Ireneuss Fernando; mate ! I am a Christian and I don’t agree with you. This is a Sinhala Buddhist country and it has always been one. “Anuradhapura Cross” is not enough evidence say this was a Christian country. You can’t call Buddhism barbaric based on the actions of few idiots in the parliament (all of them are idiots if you ask me). Would you call Christianity barbaric because Templars led number of invasions in the name of the church? I don’t think so. Its because of that narrow minded “my religion is the best” mentality that divides us and the Buddhists.

    Bottom line; Buddhism and Christianity gives a good foundation to human rights and we can’t human right as how they say in any particular religion as it is not a practical thing to do in this Morden time.

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