Midweek Review
Towards a Buddhist Social Philosophy — Part II
An ‘Engaged Buddhism’?

by Laksiri Jayasuriya
Emeritus Professor
University of Western Australia
A Buddhist desires happiness in this world and the next, and the moral path to this happiness is founded partly on the notion of the perfectibility of the individual and partly on the notion of social concern. This follows from the basic character of the moral path that leads to salvation eventually. The Path specifies a gradual progression of practice extending from the cultivation of virtue (sila) through the practice of the virtue (samadhi) and understanding the truth of existence (panna). This could also be expressed as a movement through generosity (dana), good conduct (sila) to meditation/concentration (bhavana). It should be noted, however, that these aspects of the Path are not linear but operate "in a reciprocal relationship, mutually dependent’.

Importantly, the practice of this Path is not concerned with oneself (e.g., refraining from deeds harmful to one), but is also oriented to others. This is because the virtues depicted by the Path are governed by four mental states - attitudes or states of mind - all of which denote a concern for the other. Loving Kindness or friendliness (metta); Compassion (karuna); sympathetic joy or altruism (mudita); and, Equammity (upekkha). Thus, in the practice of good conduct, one begins with the wish for one’s well-being as well as that of others (loving-kindness) and this is extended to others through compassion. It is compassion which opens oneself to others so that when one practices mindfulness we acknowledge that ‘we notice another person suffers’.

The cultivation of moral virtue and the striving for good conduct is an integral element in the foundation of meditative contemplation — be it meditation of calm or insight. In traversing the Path, it is apparent that in this regard, one acts, not in isolation but in association with others, while this way of thinking about Buddhist practice is more true of the laity than of the monastic order, the latter too did not live idly in isolation. The stories of the monks and nuns during the days of the Buddha as recorded in the Thera and Theri Gathas bear witness to the social character of the moral path for monks and nuns.

Clearly, there is no conflict in pursuing both the reform of society and the salvation of the individual. This interdependence is well understood in the Buddhist texts which states that no one can help or save another unless he has ‘saved himself’, i.e., free from mental burdens and stresses. This is made explicit in the Buddha’s exposition of a moral charactereology of four types of people, namely, the amoralist, the altruist, the egoist, and the enlightened egoist. According to this valuation, the highest and best person is the ‘enlightened egoist’, i.e., the one who works for his own good as well as the good of others. In such persons, there is no necessary conflict between the individual and social welfare, particularly when the good happens to be moral and spiritual. Stated differently, ‘Buddhism is concerned with the reformation of society as well as the salvation of the individual.’

The Buddhist prescriptions for living built around loving -kindness, compassion and generosity pertain to individual as well as social conduct and are well documented in the texts. For example, the ‘Discourse on the Admonition to Sigala’, the (Sigalovada Sutta) contains a broad spectrum of social relations governing relations between different categories of persons, e g. parent and children, teachers, and pupils, marital relations of husband and wife, friendships relations and the laity and clergy. All of these recognize mutual responsibilities - e.g., parents and children, and recognizes above all that pursuit of individual happiness and welfare is inextricably linked with the welfare of others.

The Buddhist notion of welfare is also fully explained in the comprehensive description of the moral virtues provided in the ‘Discourse on Brahama’s Net’, (Brahmajala Sutta). This important discourse makes a reference to the practice of the seven virtues by ordinary laymen, that is, refraining from taking life, stealing, confusing, malicious, harsh speech, frivolous talk and being detached from vulgar sensibility. In other words, the ultimate good is one which includes one’s own welfare as well as that of others.

A concrete example of the social relevance of the Buddhist ethic is also found in the famous ‘Discourse on the Lions Roar on the Turning of Wheel’, the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta which extols, among other things, the Buddhist conception of economic life of human beings. For example, it is observed that when there is an economic downturn, adverse economic conditions are likely to lead to a lack of opportunities, and poverty becomes rampant. Consequently, those distressed by poverty, it is observed, resort to crimes such as lying and stealing and even commit acts of violence. Interestingly, the blame for this is not placed on the individual but on a society as a whole.

The economic prescriptions in this Discourse for alleviating poverty are also of interest e g., they point to the need for better economic opportunities such as increased capital and also a more equitable distribution of wealth. For this reason, it is- suggested that cooperation between the government and people is desirable as a means of achieving a degree of economic and social security for the welfare of society. Again in another Discourse, the Kutadanta Sutta the Buddha attests that, having a meaningful employment is more important than the goods and services produced routinely by individuals because the joy of work is more conducive to moral progress. Here, it is also acknowledged that righteous economic conduct also refers to the means of acquiring wealth, e.g., avoidance of acquiring wealth by the sale of arms, killing of animals or other non-virtuous activities.

These Discourses show the extent to which the social and political philosophy interest in the Buddhist teachings emphasise the moral values of frugality, resourcefulness, control over excessive craving and conspicuous consumption. In fact, there are many instances in the Buddhist texts testifying to the need for a balanced and moderate approach to living such that economic and material happiness is seen as a means to an end which is none other than moral progress and spiritual happiness in the striving for salvation. The manner in which economic or material well-being and moral progress or spiritual well-being go together is neatly explained in a Discourse where the Buddha addresses one of his wealthy disciples from the merchant class (Anathapindika) on what he describes as four kinds of happiness: athhi-sukha (possession of adequate material resources), bhoga-sukha (the gainful use and sensible enjoyment of material resources); annana-sukha (the state of being free of debt); and, anavajja sikha (the leading of an absolutely blameless life). These four forms of happiness refer to happiness of both oneself and the happiness of others, which also importantly includes animals.

The foregoing is sufficient to refute the charge that Buddhism is a selfish and egoistic doctrine steeped in a sterile individualism divorced from the realities of social life. The ethical teachings of Buddhism derive from a conception of reality, a cosmic view of man in society, which is validated by a theory of knowledge. As a philosophy of religion — despite its varied presentations in different traditions Buddhism attests to the value of an alternative path to individual salvation. In this sense, Buddhism epitomizes the essence of scientific humanism, that is, that ‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’.

The morality of Buddhism in Buddhist social philosophy is both pragmatic and utilitarian. In other words, good is that which produce good effects and relieves one’s sorrows and stresses; evil generates ill effects and prolongs the agony of suffering and stress. The prescriptions for moral conduct are carefully laid out not as laws or injunctions to be obeyed as a matter of duty or obligation, but as rules or principles of conduct which flow from a theory of reality capable of validation and verification.

Given that the key tenets and principles of Buddhism extol the virtues of reason, human freedom and moral responsibility, man in contemporary society, especially in a highly scientific and technological age, can profitably engage in a meaningful dialogue with Buddhist thought and practice to determine its relevance to one’s individual and social needs. The crux of a Buddhist social philosophy lies on how one conceptualises the concept of the individual and society, or the self and the other. Following Kalupahana, this may be through the concepts of ‘self-interest’ and ‘mutual self-interest’ (to) provide a conceptual bridge between individual and society or self and other. The basis of an ‘engaged Buddhism’ is firmly entrenched in a social ethic and a morality which integrates individual betterment or perfection with the good of others.