The Lotus Sutra:

The Oldest Document on Human Rights

Among many teachings attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha who lived around 500 BC, the Lotus Sutra is regarded as the most complete and encompassing. For many centuries, however, the Sutra’s concepts were discussed within the environment of temples - far from the reach of ordinary people in society.  Then, in13th century, Nichiren - a Buddhist reformer in Japan encapsulated the Sutra’s essence in a simple way of practice in the daily life of ordinary people.

The essence of the Lotus Sutra is the revelation of the right of all people to equally enjoy a secure, dignified and meaningful life - and share the state of enlightenment with others, overriding any category of classification or discrimination among people.

Human Rights and the state of “Bodhisattva”

It can be argued that the cause which gave rise to the concept of Human Rights was the awareness of interconnectedness of self and others.  This awareness leads to  acknowledgment that what affects one’s life affects also the life of others.  The feeling of shared humanity manifests through altruistic actions, which propels society forward over time and place.  Altruism is inborn, it is has been ‘hardwired’ in time through the uncounted number of experiences along the path of evolution of humanity. 

A serious consideration of one’s state of life, experiencing joy or sufferings indicates that one’s state of life is inseparable from others.  Striving to elevate one’s own state of life and that of others - through attaining enlightenment is called the Bodhisattva state of mind.

We already enjoy the results of other people’s struggle over the span of time to make life better.  The benefits we receive from sharing humanity triggers also a desire to contribute as well, essentially to share in prosperity, peace and creating value:

“ The Bodhisattva exemplifies the state of compassion, or altruistic life, and a person in this state aspires to help all people gain happiness, seeking in Nichiren’s words ‘to attain enlightenment only after having first saved others from sufferings’.

My point in introducing [here] the concept of Bodhisattva is this: Human Rights will only become truly universal and indivisible when they span the most basic, existential division - that of self and others.  And this can only occur when both the right to and duty of - ‘humane treatment’, are observed, not in response to externally imposed norms, but through spontaneous action stemming from the naturally powerful desire to assist our fellows whose ability to live in a humane manner is under threat...

Only when external norms and inner values function in a mutually supportive manner can they enable people to live as genuine advocates of human rights.

Daisaku Ikeda The Bodhisattva Ideal and Human Rights Culture, SGI Quarterly, October 2011, p.9

Parallel Concepts, different stylesAfter the II W W, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which focus was: the rights of the individual human being.  The mentioned declaration can be seen as an awakening to the fact that prosperity and progress in society on one side - and respect to the rights of the individual citizen on the other side - are invariably interconnected.

A parallel focus on the right of the individual to enjoy the highest state of freedom and contribution to society is found in the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra’s text, of course, does not refer to a specific list of numbered articles on human rights – but encodes its message in images, parables and highly poetic metaphors.

How to Read the Sutra’s Text?

The text of the Lotus Sutra employs poetry, parables and fantastic images to convey the message of its principles.  Its text starts at first by describing a realistic environment in which disciples of the Buddha gathered to practice meditation at a mountain called Eagle Peak. From this ordinary gathering, the protagonists of the Sutra relate a dialogue taking place between the participants in the gathering - but the dialogue takes shape through sceneries of images and fantastic stories turning the text into a dreamlike atmosphere.

It seems first puzzling why would the text of the sutra tend to deliberately create the atmosphere of fantasy: trees appear lit with sparkling jewels, while music instruments produce beautiful melodies - with a huge number of magnificent beings who appear emerging from the soil of the earth, etc...Through poetic verses, and fantastic imagery, the text of the Lotus Sutra encodes its concepts bypassing the limitations of the spatiotemporal reality.  This was also significant, because the text of the Sutra does not specify where in location or at what time its events took place.  Although the initial meeting at Eagle Peak of the Buddha and his disciples took place at the last 8 years of the Buddha’s life, nonetheless the contents of the meeting describes worlds beyond time and space.  This is a subtle indication that the concepts and principles encoded within the parables of the Sutra - are eternal in nature, as the employed images are beyond the usual flow of time and the limitation of space.  The text of the Sutra constantly made shifts from the image of the daily world (governed by the flow of time and constrain of space) - into fantastic projections, to convey a depth of meaning. 

The Lotus Sutra and the ‘dream of humanity’

The participants who appear in the Lotus Sutra were historical individuals appearing also in other sutras, together with the Buddha.  They were all devoted truth seekers who represent the highest level of spiritual practice of the Bodhisattva way - aiming to attain Enlightenment.  They represent Humanity in the drama of asking about the meaning of life, and whether attaining enlightenment, peace, prosperity and good fortune - is truly possible. 

Most importantly, it is the aspiration of humanity to abolish all categories of discrimination among people, and to view individuals as respect-worthy as they are.

The metaphors appearing in the Lotus Sutra beam with dramatic events of human aspirations.  Modern investigation into the meaning of sutra’s teachings, and their relevance to everyday’s life can be found in various literature, and in particular in a series of books : The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra.

                                           The Value of the Individual

The inherent Nature of Human Rights                   Peace and Security in Society

Respecting Diversity of People’s Desires                  The Right to Happiness

Slavery in the history of Religions                    Terrorism and the Law of Revenge


      Author: Safwan Zabalawi                                                            Homepage