I am continuing in January a series of blogs on human rights that I began in December: “Towards Human Rights.” The purpose of this blog series is to make the case for the implementation and acceptance of human rights as a global values system. It is based on my Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System?
“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” …Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Towards Human Rights as a Global Values System, part 12
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
A History and Philosophy of Human Rights
“Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people’s suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal.” … Dali Lama (Tibetan Buddhism)
Buddhism currently has about 365 million followers and is the world’s 4th largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Little is known of the founder’s, Siddhartha Gautama (563-460 BCE), early life and no scribe wrote his biography during his lifetime. According to tradition, Siddhartha was born a prince in Kalinga, India.
As in the case with other religious leaders, miraculous stories described his birth to his mother, Maya, and father, the king of the Śãkyas clan. In one legend, he emerged from his mother’s side without causing her any pain. In another legend, the earth shook at his birth and as a newborn, he was showered with water. His family named him Siddhãrtha, the “one who has achieved his aim,” and Gautama was his clan name.
Raised as a Hindu, Siddhartha’s parents thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps as king. But his parents were deeply troubled by a prediction from a fortune teller, who said at his birth that he would either become a great monarch or a monk and a great
religious teacher. They wanted Siddhartha to follow into the kingship rather than into the life of a monk, so his parents raised him in a state of comfort and encouraged him to attach to earthly desires and pleasure. At the age of 16, he married his wife Yaśodharã and at the age of 29 they had their first son.
Shortly after his son’s birth, Siddhartha fell into an intensely troubled state when he spotted a helpless, elderly man suffering from advanced disease and a grieving family carrying the dead body of a family member to a cremation site. He reflected deeply upon the suffering brought about by old age, illness, and death and had a vision of a religious monk who led a calm life of meditation. These visions pushed him to follow the path of a monk and seek a spiritual solution to life’s problems brought about by human suffering. He left his wife, child, luxurious lifestyle, and future role as king in order to seek truth. It was not an unusual practice at the time for some men to leave their families and lead the life of a monk.
He first tried meditation, and learned this valuable skill. However, meditation did not
last forever. He then joined a group of other monks in a forest where he practiced breath control and fasted intensely for six years. He skirted the edge of death by only eating a few grains of rice each day, but after suffering great physical pain, he abandoned this path. He realized that neither of the extremes he experienced would lead to enlightenment. Instead, he found the path to enlightenment – a state of freedom and release from suffering – was to pursue a middle way. For him, practicing moderation and meditation was the middle way.
One night, while seated underneath a large Bodhi tree, he experienced major spiritual breakthroughs and attained enlightenment – now he was known as “The Buddha” (the Awakened One). For seven days after his enlightenment he puzzled over his future:
whether to withdraw from the world and live a life of isolation or whether to reenter the world and teach his Middle Way. He decided to share his teachings with others. He wandered through Northeast India for decades, teaching all who would listen, eventually drawing tens of thousands of followers.
He later established an order of monks and nuns. His wife Yaśodharã became the first nun. In his late 70s, his health began to fail. After 45 years of teaching, he died of natural causes in a small town, Kuśinagara, at the age of 80.
About the Author:
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.
For more information about the topic of human rights see Dr. Ames’ book Human Rights:Towards a Global Values System, $17.95, 225 pgs. Also available on Amazon.