Resources: Buddhism and human rights

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Texts from the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka

Here are some passages from the Tipitaka suggesting important correspondences between Buddhist teachings and the modern concept of human rights.

Ajahn Brahm: HUMAN RIGHTS IN BUDDHISM   Ajahn Brahm gives a public talk on ‘Buddhism and Human Rights’ at Curtin University Human Rights Education Unit on 2nd November 2010. Ajahn explains how Buddhist principles can inform our understanding of human rights.

Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto: A Buddhist Solution for the Twenty-first Century   Advice from one of Thailand’s most well known Buddhist monk scholars, Ven.Payutto. His writings cover not only traditional Buddhist subjects but also perspectives on modern themes. He discusses modern social trends and politics, offering Buddhist insights into such subjects as freedom, democracy, and happiness.

Damien Keown: ARE THERE “HUMAN RIGHTS” IN BUDDHISM?: “My theme in this paper may be summed up as the conceptual and doctrinal basis for human rights in Buddhism. I am concerned with the intellectual bridgework which must be put in place if expressions of concern about human rights are to be linked to Buddhist doctrine. There are many aspects to this problem, but three related issues will be considered here: the concept of rights, the concept of humanrights, and the question of how human rights are to be grounded in Buddhist doctrine. I ask first if the concept of “rights” is intelligible in Buddhism. Next I ask whether the Buddhist concept ofhuman rights (if such a thing exists) is the same as the Western understanding. Finally I consider in what specific area of Buddhist teachings a doctrine of human rights might be grounded.”

Damien Keown : Some Problems with Particularism   This article suggests that due to a restricted understanding of the nature and scope of ethical theory, particularism discounts prematurely the possibility of a metatheory of Buddhist ethics. The textual evidence presented in support of particularism is reconsidered and shown to be consistent with a metatheoretical reading. It is argued that writers who have adopted a particularist approach based on W. D. Ross’s “Principalism”—such as Tessa Bartholomeusz in her study of just war ideology in Sri Lanka—have failed to give a satisfactory analysis of the moral dilemmas they have identified. Although particularism rightly draws attention to stories as important sources of moral data, it fails to disprove that the diversity of such evidence can be explained by a single comprehensive theory.

Martin T. Adam: Buddhism, Equality, Rights   How might rights be grounded in Buddhist doctrine? This article begins by attempting to demonstrate the conceptual link between the idea of equality and the ascription of rights in Western philosophic thought. The ideas of Thomas Hobbes are taken as an example. The paper then proceeds to examine the possibility that Buddhist ideas of equality could serve as grounds for the attribution of rights in a similar manner. A number of senses of equality in Buddhism are identified. I argue that while these ideas of basic equality clearly underlie Buddhist morality, any attempt to found rights on such grounds should lead to a conception of rights that is truly universal in scope, notably including the animals. For a Buddhist believer in rights, rights-possession cannot be limited to human beings.

HH The Dalai Lama: Human Rights and Universal Responsibility:   “When we demand the rights and freedoms we so cherish we should also be aware of our responsibilities. If we accept that others have an equal right to peace and happiness as ourselves do we not have a responsibility to help those in need? Respect for fundamental human rights is as important to the people of Africa and Asia as it is to those in Europe or the Americas. All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured. The question of human rights is so fundamentally important that there should be no difference of views on this. We must therefore insist on a global consensus not only on the need to respect human rights world wide but more importantly on the definition of these rights.”

Anton Luis Sevilla : Founding Human Rights within Buddhism: Exploring Buddha-Nature as an Ethical Foundation:   “In this article, I hope to suggest (1) a fertile ground for human rights and social ethics within Japanese intellectual history and (2) a possible angle for connecting Dōgen’s ethical views with his views on private religious practice. I begin with a review of the attempts to found the notion of rights within Buddhism. I then fuse these two approaches in a single concept: Buddha-nature.”

G. P. Malalasekera & H. N. Jayatilleke : Buddhism and the Race Question   From Buddhism and the Race Question (UNESCO 1958) written by two of the most distinguished Buddhist scholars of Sri Lanka in modermn times. The present text comprises the pages 32–73 of the original book. First Published by Buddhist Publication Society: 1974. BPS Online Edition © 2006

Stephen McCarthy : Why the Dalai Lama Should Read Aristotle The purpose of this paper is to discover a classical foundation for the establishment of universal human rights in Buddhism. Such a foundation must necessarily overcome the modern barrier imposed by the Asian values rhetoric and its claims that “Western,” Lockean, and essentially private ideas of rights have no place in Asian “family-oriented” culture. To facilitate its purpose, this paper will consider the modern, Lockean understanding of “rights” as the source of much of the Asian values’ argument, and proceed to an examination into the compatibility of a Buddhist understanding of human rights with Aristotle’s understanding of ethics and natural law. If it is possible to discover the source of universal human rights in Aristotle’s writings, as well as discover a compatibility to Buddhist beliefs and practices, then we may ground a case for the idea of human rights existing prior to their modern Lockean origins and accessible to Buddhism.


Buddhism and Human Rights, edited by Damien V. Keown, Charles S. Prebish and Wayne R. Husted, Surrey, UK: Curzon, 1998.

Buddhist Approaches to Human Rights, Dissonances and Resonances, edited by Carmen Meinert & Hans-Bernd Zøllner, Bielefeld, Transcript Verlag, 2010

Perera, L.P.N.  Buddhism and Human Rights: A Buddhist Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Colombo: Karunatne and Sons, 1991

Vincent Eltschinger, Caste and Buddhist Philosophy, Continuity of Some Buddhist Arguments against the Realist Interpretation of Social Denominations, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass, 2012


Perry Schmidt-Leukel (2006) “Buddhism and the Idea of Human Rights: Resonances and Dissonances”, in Buddhist-Christian Studies 26, pp. 33-49.

Hoffman, Frank (2001): ”Buddhism and human rights”, in Contemporary Buddhism,  Vol:2: 2, pp. 139 -151.


Journal of Buddhist Ethics, at