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  • Buddhism, Human Rights and the Japanese State*
  • John M. Peek (bio)

I. Introduction

In 1947, under unrelenting pressure from the US lead occupation forces, the government of Japan approved a new constitution. 1 At the heart of this new constitution were a transfer of sovereignty from the Emperor to the people of Japan, the replacement of the household with the individual as the basic unit of society, and the related recognition of a wide array of individual political, social, and economic rights. Nearly fifty years later this constitutional revolution is one of the few reforms carried out by the occupation that remains intact.

A number of factors have contributed to the ability of the principles set forth in the constitution to weather the periodic demand of the political right to purge the constitution of elements foreign to Japanese society. 2 This paper argues that one of the most significant and most overlooked explanations lies in the fact that the concepts of popular sovereignty and human rights have deep roots in Japanese culture. Specifically, it attempts to demonstrate that Buddhism, as one of the “Three Treasures” of Japanese culture, is inherently antithetical to the authoritarian sociopolitical structures that have periodically been imposed on the people of Japan. 3 [End Page 527]

Our analysis will begin with an overview of the core teachings of Buddhism with special emphasis on the centrality of the individual. From there it will proceed to a discussion of the proper nature of political, economic, and societal relationships according to Buddhism. It will end with a summary of the fundamental human rights that can be derived from Buddhism.

II. The Essentials of Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, is estimated to have lived in northern India between 566 and 483 B.C. He is claimed to have devoted most of his adult life to a negation of the prevailing Brahmanic religion and the related caste system. The heart of his teachings (Dharma) is an explication of the path to transcending the rounds of existence and attaining Nirvana (self-enlightenment). Movement along the path towards Nirvana involves the accumulation of positive Karma that comes with thinking and behaving in a manner consistent with that which is morally just.

Those traits considered essential to the accumulation of positive Karma are collectively referred to as the Eightfold Noble Path. The Eightfold Noble Path in ascending order consists of right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation. 4 Right views refers to a recognition of the teachings of Buddha as simply guidelines to the attainment of self-enlightenment. Dharma is not to be mistaken for a set of absolute dictums or divine commandments. Herein lies Buddhism’s fundamental aversion to dogma and dogmatists.

Right thought involves a renunciation of lust and greed. Right speech is being truthful. Right action is defined by avoiding harm to others. Right livelihood means avoiding such morally reprehensible occupations as trading in weapons, living beings, flesh, intoxicants, drugs, or poisons. Right effort deals with the cultivation of healthy attitudes toward self and others. All five of these paths emphasize the social context of human existence and that self-enlightenment, in large part, comes with assuming personal responsibility for the nature of those social relationships.

Right mindfulness is being constantly alert to possible forces internal and external to the individual that could lead to a harmful thought, word, or action. Progress along the path to Nirvana, thus, also reflects one’s success in avoiding the accumulation of negative Karma. Consequently, there is [End Page 528] nothing in Buddhism comparable to wiping the slate clean through some form of absolution, nor perhaps to the temptation to sin now and seek forgiveness later. Right contemplation is acquiring the clearness and composure of mind that allows for the attainment of Nirvana.

While the Eightfold Noble Path reflects much of the ethical system of Buddhism, the core principles are referred to as the Five Precepts. 5 The Five Precepts are to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, falsehoods, and intoxicants. The Five Precepts must not be viewed in the same context as the Ten Commandments even though there are some similarities in content...

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pp. 527-540
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