23 April 2013

A Buddhist View of Human Rights and Development

            Our group had the honor of meeting with Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s leading thinkers, academics and activists who has been repeatedly arrested for his activism, particularly speaking out against the Thai government. Sulak helped us connect the Western concept of Human Rights with Buddhist ideas of how to treat people and the environment. He explained that Western education teaches students to think, over-emphasizing science and rationality in a way that leads to arrogance rather than humility. This intellectually centered approach also ignores other important realms such as spirituality and emotional well-being that are essential to both human rights and development. In contrast, Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is not how to think or even pray but how to breathe. Sulak emphasized that just by learning to breathe calmly and slowly, with awareness of each moment, we can change our mindset from being dominated by greed, hatred and delusion to being humble, peaceful and compassionate because we realize the interconnectedness of all beings.
When we understand and start to feel interconnectedness, we can break down the barriers between others and ourselves, and we can stop seeing people as “friends” or “enemies.” Instead we can embrace everyone’s common humanity and realize that to hurt another is ultimately to hurt oneself. This idea manifests in terms of development and environmental issues in many ways. For instance, when we consider putting poisonous chemicals on the plants that become our food, we can see the connections between the insects that will ingest that poison, the plants that will absorb the poison, the water supplies and earth that will absorb the poison, and realize that eventually the poison will work its way back to us. When contemplating an economic development plan, rather than measure its effectiveness in terms of the amount of buildings it will build or dollars by which it will increase GDP, or we can evaluate its effect on human lives. This can be measured in terms of community structures, ability to be self-sufficient and the degree to which the plan supports traditional ways of life. With a Buddhist perspective we can recognize that when development benefits a few and harms many it will lead to overpopulation, mass migration to cities, unemployment, crime and other problems, therefore ultimately harming everyone.
With this Buddhist framework of Human Rights in mind, it is possible to conceptualize development that does not harm people or the environment. Sulak reminded us, “we cannot practice earth, animal and human rights without practicing generosity and meditation.” In his view, inner reflection and awareness are crucial first steps to peace. While it is easy to think on big scales, advocating systematic change, it is important to also remember that change comes from within and the best way to create a peaceful society is for its citizens to find peace within themselves. Only then can the society can truly work towards sustainable development. In as essay entitled, “Development as if People Mattered,” Sulak says alternative development would “consider the impact upon humans and the environment, taking into consideration spiritual and emotional effects as well as strictly monetary ones.” This form of development will not be easy, because it is based on more than clearly defined statistics and numbers, however Sulak emphasized that we can learn to be “skillful, meaning everything you do makes sense.” Development has the potential to be done mindfully and skillfully, but it will take political will and social pressure to make it so. In trying to change the minds of others, it is important to maintain friendship rather than seeing anyone as an enemy, because only together can we achieve social change. Friendship does not simply mean agreeing all the time. Sulak defined friends as “people who tell you what you don’t want to hear.” By both recognizing each person’s inherent worth and also challenging others to make choices that are in harmony with the well being of people and the environment, we can achieve sustainable development.

Sonja Favaloro 
Bates College


Chloe Ginsburg said...

I also found Sulak’s approach to human rights to be refreshing. In encouraging us to approach development and societal problems from a Buddhist perspective, he brings to light the holistic course that our actions must take if we are to truly create a peaceful and sustainable world. Our lack of consideration for emotional wellbeing in Western cost-benefit analysis at both the personal and policy level, I think, has led to a devolution in what we consider valuable in our every day lives as well as society as a whole. I’m reminded of a particularly interesting theory that perhaps ADHD would be more accurately described as “nature-deficiency disorder.” The author asserted that children in the US often do not have the same extensive outdoor experiences and freedoms as generations past, and that their indoor experiences do not provide the same appreciation for open curiosity and motor skills…leading to the attention deficiencies we now term ADHD. Perhaps allowing our children to gain an appreciation for awareness once again will help to heal our society.

Jeremy Starn said...

I've also come to realize that Western education teaches us to analyze too much. We try to rationalize everything, explain every detail, even examine every detail so as to fully understand it, instead of just accepting it and moving on. He made a really interested connection between spirituality and development, which I think is largely overlooked. Also his belief of interconnectedness is infectious. Even now I feel myself realizing how everything is connected in some manner. One action in the world does not go unreciprocated in some way. For every action there is an equal reaction. Nothing is done without affecting something else, thus everything is connected.

Corinne Molz said...

I really like your comparision between the connectedness within nature and the connection between people, particularly within development issues. The longer I am here the more I realize how much Western society has strayed away from community based living, even how my personal family has gradually become more individualistic as I have gotten older. It has almost become a competition within itself to have a community, the facebook of our generation showing off our number of friends and quality of relationships as "better" than one another's. It could even be seen as a race to have a better life, the better job, better family, better friends, etc. One the other hand, the feeling I've had in villages is that you might not necessarily have to work for the community around you to stay by your side, they will be there unwavering and will band together. The sense of community is so much greater, not just because you have "won" their affections, because villages and neighbors support one another regardless. That is the sense of belonging and inclusion I want to bring back to the states with me.