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June 24, 2015 @ 4:14 pm by Iselin Frydenlund

Workshop in Sri Lanka

Successful workshop at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, 23-24 April 2015.


Yo attanam rakkhati, so param rakkhati” — He who protect himself protects others;

“Param rakkhanto attanam rakkhati” — When you protect others, you protect yourself.


Successful workshop held at the Buddhist and Pali University, Sri Lanka, 23-24 April 2015. 30 monks and lay people from various parts of Sri Lanka, and from different organizational backgrounds, came together to address religious freedom issues and the place of religious minorities in Buddhist majority societies. The Buddhist Federation of Norway (BFN), in cooperation with the Buddhist and Pali University, Sri Lanka, organized the workshop.


Ambitious aim. Reports from the UN have criticized Buddhist actors for incitement to disharmony and discrimination of members of other religions. In light of this, there is a need to clarify the Buddhist position on religious tolerance and co-existence. The aim of the workshop was to affirm values according to the Dhamma and to communicate these principles to a wider audience.


Buddhism and other religions. One of the issues raised at the conference was Buddhism´s relationship to other religions. It was pointed out that while Buddhism ranks number four in the world in terms of numbers (after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism), it was held that Buddhism was followed by many adherents of the other religions as well, including Muslims. Buddhism´s philosophical aspects were highlighted, as well as the need to spread the Buddha´s message around the world. It was also firmly stated that Buddhism does not go against other religions.


Buddhism as minority religion. The President of the Buddhist Federation, Mr. Egil Lothe, and advisor to the project “Affirming Buddhist values regarding religious pluralism”, Ven. Manirathana Thero, both pointed to the importance of the principle of freedom of religion or belief to the Buddhist minority community in Norway. This policy of equal treatment in contemporary Norway has facilitated the promotion of Buddhism in Norway in several important ways. Also, it was pointed out that the King of Norway regularly invites representatives of all religious communities to the palace to facilitate interreligious dialogue concerning challenges that arise in religiously plural settings.


Common agenda to promote interreligious dialogue. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana of the Jathika Hela Urumaya gave an opening speech in which he pointed out the need for a context-specific analysis, not reducing our understanding to the concepts alone. Moreover, he emphasized the need for a common global agenda in order to promote interreligious dialogue and co-operation between the religions, for example through environmental work.


The threat to Buddhism. Several participants showed a great deal of concern for the impact of global flows of money, militarization and missionary movements upon the “world heritage”, for example by the threat of the Islamic State. It was claimed that in Sri Lanka also the heritage is being destroyed and that only through the preservation of the heritage can real peace be achieved. Also, of great concern was the lack of religious freedom of religious minorities in the Arab world, particularly in relation to Buddhist immigrant workers in the Arab peninsula.


Buddhist tools to address conflict situations: the participants showed to the need for meditation as a tool to make inner peace, and the need to practice Buddhism in daily life. Also, if the ethics of the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta concerning right speech had been taken to heart, many things would have been different. The need to nurture spiritual friendship (kalyana mittata) within the Buddhist community was also highlighted in order to avoid conflict.


Asoka as the exemplary model. The rock edicts of Asoka were highlighted as an exemplary model for religious pluralism and peaceful religious coexistence.


Some of the participants noted that Asoka´s reign represents the only true Buddhist government in history, and it was held that it is a true challenge that there is no Buddhist governance today, except for Bhutan, which has a constitution based on Buddhist governance. Various aspects of Asoka as exemplary model were discussed, for example Asokas thirteen ministers of goodness whose aim was to improve the quality of ethics, which, it was pointed out, must have included Buddhist monks as well. To many of the participants Asoka signified the concept of good governance, which one could find in the Sri Lankan tradition realized through the bodhisatta ideal of kingship.


Others pointed to the fact that Sri Lanka then and now represented two very different social systems, and that the question now was rather how to convert Asoka’s message of religious tolerance into the contemporary settings with demographic changes.


Religious co-existence in Sri Lanka. While clashes between adherents of different religions were discussed, it was also pointed out the need to highlight the mutual respect and religious co-existence found many places in today´s Sri Lanka. However, some participants pointed to the fact that over the last years people from religious minorities have been killed, for example in Aluthgama and Dambulla. Although there are many examples of co-existence, the Buddhist community also need to address the violence and be self-critic.


Human Rights compatible with Buddhism. The agenda of the workshop included discussions on three important sources, or “pillars” for how to deal with religious pluralism: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed by Ceylon in 1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, signed by Ceylon in 1980), both of which where distributed to the participants. The task at hand was to discuss these documents from the point of view of the Dhamma. The third and last “pillar” for discussion was the edicts of Emperor Asoka, with special emphasis on Rock Edict 12, where Asoka favours the growth in the essentials of ALL religions/sects (pasamdani).


The aim of the workshop was to discuss the principles found in these sources, not historical details. Which actions – and for what reasons – are considered to be dhamma, or adhamma, kusala or akusala? Five major issues were discussed: a) freedom to self-determination (in terms of changing one’s religion and in marriage), b) freedom of expression (right and wrong speech, hate speech and freedom of speech), c) human equality d) cultural diversity and religious pluralism, and e) Buddhist perspectives on human rights.


It was claimed that the point about a Buddhist community is not to strive for political power, but is to be a moral community, showing moral leadership. In an increasingly global village, there is a need to have common rules. The participants acknowledged the need to make “the golden rule of ethics” into a plan for the global village. From this principle, a lot of principles for Human Rights can be derived. Moreover, how to treat followers of other religions according to Dhamma? With regard to interreligious relations – why is something right/wrong (kusala-akusala, dhamma-adhamma, puñña/papa)?


It was pointed out that violations of human rights are due to four agatis. You do something unjust or unfair, due to certain psychological state. 1) You do something bad due to favouritism (chanda agati), 2) you do something unjust because you have some kind of aversion or anger, 3) people do unjust things because they fear the consequences of doing the right thing, and 4) people to unjust things due to confusion of mind.


Equality or hierarchy? Humanity is superior to other forms of being. All human beings are equal, only after that we are divided into different religion. Buddhism includes anyone without discrimination. However, it was also pointed out that in the canon there are all sorts of hierarchy: nature, humans and family.


Freedom of religion or belief. The principle of religious freedom, Mr. Lothe pointed out, expresses Buddhist as well as Asokan ideals. They are important for Buddhist minorities in world, and it is in Buddhist interests to promote religious liberty and protection of religious minorities. This is relevant not only for religious minorities in Buddhist majority states, but also for Buddhist minorities. The horrible example of mass killings of Buddhist monks in communist Mongolia in 1937 was held as a prime example of the need to protect individuals against state violence and persecution.


In the discussion, several important issues relevant to the concept of freedom of religion or belief in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were raised. These issues relate to marriage (art 16), religious freedom (article 18), the duty to the community (article 29), as well as the important distinction made in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights between having and manifesting religion. While having a religion is a fundamental right, the right to manifest one´s religion is subject to certain restrictions. For example, coercive measures are not allowed. Also, incitement to hatred and violence is also prohibited (article 20).


Several declarations on human rights have been made by world religions, for example the Roman Catholic Church published its Dignitatis Humanae and Muslim scholars issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of human rights. The Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar LPN Perera wrote the book Buddhism and Human Rights in which he defends international human rights on Buddhist grounds, but Buddhists have yet to make such a Declaration.


Rights vs. duties. While the majority of the workshop participants thought the overall framework of human rights to be compatible on Buddhist grounds, some participants argued that the human rights regime has gone too far, and that rights-based thinking is foreign to Buddhism. Rather, it was held that Buddhism gives emphasis to duty. Thus, what is needed is a “Declaration on the Human responsibilities”. However, this was questioned by others who argued that such a declaration on duties would be difficult to create at the global level as how duties were defined would vary tremendously from one country to another. The question of language was also raised, pointing to the fact the word “right” is not a Pali word, but that there are many other terms that cover what we refer to by “rights” today. The best word would be dhamma; it has no sectarian meaning and it is universal. Ethical principles like dhamma could be used to deduce principles for social well-being. Others again questioned the ability of the various religions to truly engage with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and pointed to the fact the “rights” also depends on the societal and cultural context for its interpretation. Moreover, it was held, there is a need to respect the cultural aspect, not only the “universal right”.


This opened up for an engaging debate on universal vs. particular values. In this respect, some of the participants argued for the need of identifying shared human values. As human beings, it was argued, it is possible to find some core values; certain aspects of life are similar, and based on this core system of values can be identified.


Some claimed that human rights are already within Buddhism, and that if people observe pansil, then other´s rights are protected. Pansil are valid through time and space, for all people. The need for all to follow pansil, this is how human beings should be treated, universalism. What are those universal principles that we want to affirm?


While “human rights” do not exist as a concept in any sacred texts, certain core values can be articulated and addressed in Buddhist language.


Freedom of religion and its limitations

The language of “freedom” sounds better within a Buddhist framework than “rights”, so one option is to speak of the “Freedom of choice” and the “freedom of religion”. If you have freedom, this is limited by responsibility. Buddhism advocates 3 freedoms: 1) epistemological freedom 2) psychological freedom and 3) behavioral freedom.


Freedom is important in Buddhism, but it was also pointed out that there are two sets of ethics: freedom and responsibility. Every right has a limit.


Parental rights. Regarding rights of parents in relation to freedom of religion, various positions and concerned were raised. Some emphasized the rights of children to choose and that parents should not limit their children’s right to change religion, others were concerned with “fundamentalist Islamist brainwashing of children”. However, the right of parents to bring up their children according to their religion was confirmed as a Buddhist value. Also, it was suggested that all children should be exposed to all religions in school, in addition to the religious up-bringing. This is important, it was pointed out, as there seems to be increasing segregation between the communities. Buddhist monks should be ready to go to Christian and Muslim schools to inform about Buddhism.


Freedom and self-determination of the individual in relation to the right to change religion and right to marry. It was pointed out that there is a conflict between autonomy and paternalism. Buddhism has never advocated full autonomy, but parents have the responsibility to provide good advice. Some shared their concern over full freedom to children to choose partners, as they could choose a partner from a different religions. Consent from parents is important in Buddhism, and this was held out as one possible obstacle in relation to Human Rights.


Buddhism has a liberal view on conversion. With reference to the Upali Sutta it was held that becoming Buddhist is a question about change of mind-set, not necessarily about social habits or communal belonging.


Freedom of expression: On Buddhist grounds, freedom of expression should not be restricted (Kalama Sutta).


Unethical conversion/proselytism. The question about unethical/ethical ways to disseminate religion and the need to formulate good criteria for this was discussed at length. It was generally accepted that it was unethical to proselytize to a captive audience (prison/hospital) where there is no opportunity to escape. Also, it was held that door-to-door advocacy was impolite in the Asian context. Generally, it was held that “ethical conversion” was to convince people by the doctrine, but if it includes material benefit, then it is to be regarded as unethical. The particular example of a Buddhist orphanage in Malawi was discussed as a possible example of “unethical conversion” by Buddhists towards non-Buddhist children.


Animal welfare. Animal welfare is of great concern, and it was suggested that the Human Rights paradigm should be extended to also include animals. The Buddha goes against animal slaughter. In recent ethical discussions, there are certain principles which extend the boundaries of ethical relationships. In some traditions, ethical relationships exist between humans only, but we find that in modern thinking it has become man-nature relationship. We destroy nature because we do not have an ethical standard.


Ritual slaughter. Some participants held that ritual slaughter should be outlawed. Others held that what is needed is friendly dialogue and that Buddhists could not impose their values, we can have friendly dialogue and reason out. Rather than legal restrictions, we need to work for slow change. Various ways to reduced aminal suffering were discussed, for example to only have one animal killed as symbolic representation to the possibility of using a replica instead of real animals.


The need to work with the moderates. The participants raised the issue of religious extremism, recognizing the need for cooperation with moderates from all religions. Some pointed out that violence committed against Muslims in Aluthgama pushed the traditionalists to the extremists.

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