Monday, January 19, 2015

Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration

Ken Jones (1995, edited by Wisdom Quarterly from Paul Ingram (ed.), The Middle Way, Vol. 54, No. 2 Summer 1979, 85-88) encouraged by Ven. Nyanaponika,
The Buddha, ancient Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand (Holger*/
1.1 Buddhism and the new global society
Gilded hand, Sukhothai (Holger*/flickr)
It is the manifest "suffering" [dukkha, better translated as disappointment, unsatisfactoriness, instability, unreliability] 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 Buddhism has implications of significance for Christians, humanists, and other non-Buddhists.
By "social action" is meant the many different kinds of action intended to benefit humankind. 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 that 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 the 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 or "traditions," serving the experiences of different cultures, ranging from Sri Lanka through Tibet and Mongolia to Japan. Buddhism may therefore 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 is based on the latter, drawing on the different Eastern traditions to present the teachings or Dharma in an attempt to relate them to our modern industrial society.
From the evidence of the Buddha's lengthy discourses (sutras) 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 (274-236 BCE). Ven. 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 [people]; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom" (Rahula, 1978).

The Buddhist texts 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 that flourished [26] centuries ago.

The Buddhist householder in the Sigalovada Sutra  (DN 31, translated in Everyman's Ethics, Buddhist Publication Society's The Wheel No. 14) experienced a different way of life from that of a computer consultant in Tokyo or an unemployed black youth in Liverpool. And the conditions that  might favor their cultivation of the Middle Way must be secured by correspondingly different -- and more complex -- social, economic, and political strategies.
It is therefore 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 relate the basic, perennial teaching to the specific conditions of his day.

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 200 years society in the West has undergone a more fundamental transformation than at any period since Neolithic times, both in terms of technology and ideas. And now in the East while this complex revolution is undercutting traditional Buddhism, it is also stimulating Eastern 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, while at the same time preserving its inner truths. Thus has Buddhism spread and survived.

The historic task of Buddhists both East and West in the 21st century is to interpret perennial Buddhism in terms of the needs of industrial humans in the social conditions of their time and to demonstrate its acute and urgent relevance to the ills of society. To this enterprise Buddhists bring boldness and humility, as this is no time to cling to dogma or defensiveness.

1.2 Social action and the problem of suffering
Martin Luther King Jr: "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love." Justice = peace.

In modern Western society humanistic social action, in its bewildering variety, 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 paths.

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/fear, and delusion, which clearly are also the root causes of all social ills.

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 -- and to overcome it completely -- is the starting point of Buddhist teachings and of any attempt to define a distinctively Buddhist social action.

However, misunderstandings can arise at the start because the Pali word dukkha, which commonly translated simply as "suffering," has a much wider and more subtle meaning:

There is gross, objective suffering in the world arising from poverty, war, oppression, [racism, sexism, patriarchy, slavery, greed, hatred, fear, delusion], and other social conditions. We cling to  good fortune and struggle at all costs to escape from bad fortune. More

Violence and Disruption in Society: A Study of the Early Buddhist Texts

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