Buddhism & Social Action

Buddhism and the new global society

It is the manifest suffering and folly in the world that invokes humane and compassionate social action in its many different forms. For Buddhists this situation raises fundamental and controversial questions. And here, also, Buddhism has implications of some significance for Christians, humanists and other non-Buddhists.

By “social action” we mean the many different kinds of action intended to benefit mankind. These range from simple individual acts of charity, teaching and training, organized kinds of service, “Right Livelihood” in and outside the helping professions, and through various kinds of community development as well as to political activity in working for a better society.

Buddhism is a pragmatic teaching which starts from certain fundamental propositions about how we experience the world and how we act in it. It teaches that it is possible to transcend this sorrow-laden world of our experience and is concerned first and last with ways of achieving that transcendence. What finally leads to such transcendence is what we call Wisdom. The enormous literature of Buddhism is not a literature of revelation and authority. Instead, it uses ethics and meditation, philosophy and science, art and poetry to point a Way to this Wisdom. Similarly, Buddhist writing on social action, unlike secular writings, makes finite proposals which must ultimately refer to this Wisdom, but which also are arguable in terms of our common experience.

In the East, Buddhism developed different schools of “traditions,” serving the experiences of different cultures, ranging from Sri Lanka through Tibet and Mongolia to Japan. Buddhism may thus appear variously as sublime humanism, magical mysticism, poetic paradox and much else. These modes of expression, however, all converge upon the fundamental teaching, the “perennial Buddhism.” This pamphlet is based upon the latter, drawing upon the different oriental traditions to present the teachings in an attempt to relate them to our modern industrial society.

From the evidence of the Buddha’s discourses, or suttas in the Digha Nikaya, it is clear that early Buddhists were very much concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values. An outstanding example of this, in later times, is the remarkable “welfare state” created by the Buddhist emperor, Asoka (B.C. 274-236). Walpola Rahula stated the situation — perhaps at its strongest — when he wrote that “Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.” (Rahula, 1978). The Buddhist scriptures do indicate the general direction of Buddhist social thinking, and to that extent they are suggestive for our own times. Nevertheless it would be pedantic, and in some cases absurd, to apply directly to modern industrial society social prescriptions detailed to meet the needs of social order which flourished twenty-three centuries ago. The Buddhist householder of the Sigalovada Sutta [1] experienced a different way of life from that of a computer consultant in Tokyo or an unemployed black youth in Liverpool. And the conditions which might favor their cultivation of the Middle Way must be secured by correspondingly different — and more complex — social, economic and political strategies.

It is thus essential to attempt to distinguish between perennial Buddhism on the one hand and, on the other, the specific social prescriptions attributed to the historical Buddha which related the basic, perennial teaching to the specific conditions of his day. We believe that it is unscholarly to transfer the scriptural social teaching uncritically and with careful qualification to modern societies, or to proclaim that the Buddha was a democrat and an internationalist. The modern terms “democracy” and “internationalism” did not exist in the sense in which we understand them in the emergent feudal society in which the Buddha lived. Buddhism is ill-served in the long run by such special pleading. On the other hand, it is arguable that there are democratic and internationalist implications in the basic Buddhist teachings.

In the past two hundred years society in the West has undergone a more fundamental transformation than at any period since Neolithic times, whether in terms of technology or the world of ideas. And now in the East while this complex revolution is undercutting traditional Buddhism, it is also stimulating oriental Buddhism; and in the West it is creating problems and perceptions to which Buddhism seems particularly relevant. Throughout its history Buddhism has been successfully reinterpreted in accordance with different cultures, whilst at the same time preserving its inner truths. Thus has Buddhism spread and survived. The historic task of Buddhists in both East and West in the twenty-first century is to interpret perennial Buddhism in terms of the needs of industrial man and woman in the social conditions of their time, and to demonstrate its acute and urgent relevance to the ills of that society. To this great and difficult enterprise Buddhists will bring their traditional boldness and humility. For certainly this is no time for clinging to dogma and defensiveness.

Social action and the problem of suffering

In modern Western society, humanistic social action, in its bewildering variety of forms, is seen both as the characteristic way of relieving suffering and enhancing human well-being and, at the same time, as a noble ideal of service, of self-sacrifice, by humanists of all faiths.

Buddhism, however, is a humanism in that it rejoices in the possibility of a true freedom as something inherent in human nature. For Buddhism, the ultimate freedom is to achieve full release from the root causes of all suffering: greed, hatred and delusion, which clearly are also the root causes of all social evils. Their grossest forms are those which are harmful to others. To weaken, and finally eliminate them in oneself, and, as far as possible, in society, is the basis of Buddhist ethics. And here Buddhist social action has its place.

The experience of suffering is the starting point of Buddhist teaching and of any attempt to define a distinctively Buddhist social action. However, misunderstanding can arise at the start, because the Pali word dukkha, which is commonly translated simply as “suffering,” has a much wider and more subtle meaning. There is, of course, much gross, objective suffering in the world (dukkha-dukkha), and much of this arises from poverty, war, oppression and other social conditions. We cling to our good fortune and struggle at all costs to escape from our bad fortune.

This struggle may not be so desperate in certain countries which enjoy a high material standard of living spread relatively evenly throughout the population. Nevertheless, the material achievements of such societies appear somehow to have been “bought” by social conditions which breed a profound sense of insecurity and anxiety, of restlessness and inner confusion, in contrast to the relatively stable and ordered society in which the Buddha taught.

Lonely, alienated industrial man has unprecedented opportunities for living life “in the context of equipment,” as the philosopher Martin Heidegger so aptly put it. He has a highly valued freedom to make meaning of his life from a huge variety of more or less readily available forms of consumption or achievement — whether career building, home making, shopping around for different world ideologies (such as Buddhism), or dedicated social service. When material acquisition palls, there is the collection of new experiences and the clocking up of new achievements. Indeed, for many their vibrating busyness becomes itself a more important self-confirmation that the goals to which it is ostensibly directed. In developing countries to live thus, “in the context of equipment,” has become the great goal for increasing numbers of people. They are watched sadly by Westerners who have accumulated more experience of the disillusion and frustration of perpetual non-arrival.

Thus, from the experience of social conditions there arises both physical and psychological suffering. But more fundamental still is that profound sense of unease, of anxiety or angst, which arises from the very transience (anicca) of life (viparinama-dukkha). This angst, however conscious of it we may or may not be, drives the restless search to establish a meaningful self-identity in the face of a disturbing awareness of our insubstantiality (anatta). Ultimately, life is commonly a struggle to give meaning to life — and to death. This is so much the essence of the ordinary human condition and we are so very much inside it, that for much of the time we are scarcely aware of it. This existential suffering is the distillation of all the various conditions to which we have referred above — it is the human condition itself.

Buddhism offers to the individual human being a religious practice, a Way, leading to the transcendence of suffering. Buddhist social action arises from this practice and contributes to it. From suffering arises desire to end suffering. The secular humanistic activist sets himself the endless task of satisfying that desire, and perhaps hopes to end social suffering by constructing utopias. The Buddhist, on the other hand, is concerned ultimately with the transformation of desire. Hence he contemplates and experiences social action in a fundamentally different way from the secular activist. This way will not be readily comprehensible to the latter, and has helped give rise to the erroneous belief that Buddhism is indifferent to human suffering. One reason why the subject of this pamphlet is so important to Buddhists is that they will have to start here if they are to begin to communicate effectively with non-Buddhist social activists. We should add, however, that although such communication may not be easy on the intellectual plane, at the level of feelings shared in compassionate social action experience together, there may be little difficulty.

We have already suggested one source of the widespread belief that Buddhism is fatalistic and is indifferent to humanistic social action. This belief also appears to stem from a misunderstanding of the Buddhist law of Karma. In fact, there is no justification for interpreting the Buddhist conception of karma as implying quietism and fatalism. The word karma (Pali: kamma) mean volitional action in deeds, words and thoughts, which may be morally good or bad. To be sure, our actions are conditioned (more or less so), but they are not inescapably determined. Though human behavior and thought are too often governed by deeply ingrained habits or powerful impulses, still there is always the potentiality of freedom — or, to be more exact, of a relative freedom of choice. To widen the range of that freedom is the primary task of Buddhist mind training and meditation.

The charge of fatalism is sometimes supported by reference to the alleged “social backwardness” of Asia. But this ignores the fact that such backwardness existed also in the West until comparatively recent times. Surely, this backwardness and the alleged fatalistic acceptance of it stem from the specific social and political conditions, which were too powerful for would-be reformers to contend with. But apart from these historic facts, it must be stressed here that the Buddha’s message of compassion is certainly not indifferent to human suffering in any form; nor do Buddhists think that social misery cannot be remedied, at least partly. Though Buddhist realism does not believe in the Golden Age of a perfect society, nor in the permanence of social conditions, yet Buddhism strongly believes that social imperfections can be reduced, by the reduction of greed, hatred and ignorance, and by compassionate action guided by wisdom.

From the many utterances of the Buddha, illustrative of our remarks, two may be quoted here:

“He who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming himself or another, nor of harming both alike. He rather thinks of his own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world. In that way one shows understanding and great wisdom.”

— Anguttara Nikaya (Gradual Sayings) Fours, No. 186

“By protecting oneself (e.g., morally), one protects others; by protecting others, one protects oneself.”

— Samyutta Nikaya (Kindred Sayings) 47; Satipatthana Samy., No. 19


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