Midweek Review
Towards a Buddhist Social Philosophy—Part I

By Laksiri Jayasuriya

Emeritus Professor
University of Western Australia
The spirited revival of interest in Buddhism in the West is due to a variety of reasons. Foremost among these are the contradictions arising from the juxtaposition of present day scientific achievements (e.g., the genome project or the new science of cosmology) and the conventional religious systems, fractured with cults, sects, arid fundamentalism and the profound disenchantment with the new cultural ethos of unfettered greed and selfishness in post industrial societies. As regards the latter, there is no doubt that ‘Buddhism is a profoundly subversive force in post modern consumer society’.

One response to this cultural and social malaise in the west has been a rekindling of interest of the long standing ‘cold war’ between science and religion. Indeed, as H. G. Wells observed many decades ago, Buddhism stands unique among the mainstream religions of the world in that there is no qualitative difference between the rational empiricism of the western scientific tradition and the Buddhist metaphysic. The Buddhist emphasis on man’s ability through reasoned and critical inquiry to discover the Truth testifies to the congruence between the Buddhist approach to knowledge and understanding of the material and non-material world Put simply, ‘Buddhism is more congenial to western rational thought than western religious beliefs’.

At the same time, the scientific humanism, inherent in Buddhism is able to confront meaningfully the challenge presented by the contemporary culture of selfishness and greed characteristic of post modern societies. This derives from the causal mode of analysis in depicting the human condition and formula for overcoming the strains and stresses of modern living. The new social ethic of postmodern societies represents an attitude of mind born out of perverse forms of selfishness, ruthless competition and an excessive and unmitigated ideology of individualism, all defining characteristics of many western societies governed by market dominated neo liberal economic paradigms.

Not surprisingly, many western intellectuals who may have turned to Buddhism, because of its congeniality with the western intellectual tradition, have also been attracted by the deep and abiding interest of Buddhism in human welfare and wellbeing. As Walpola Rahula reminds us, Buddhism was a powerful ‘spiritual force against social injustices, degrading superstitious rites ... the tyranny of the caste system ... (advocating) the equality of all men... (and emancipating) women’. This important and often ignored aspect of Buddhist thought has recently been highlighted in the path finding study of Kancha Ilaih. This book among other things, according to its reviewer, Omvedt makes the pointed observation that the Buddha, ‘far from being a ‘religious’ thinker, was pre-eminently a social thinker.

It is this perennial tradition of social thinking, evident in the edicts of Emperor Asoka which was ignored or minimized by Max Weber who was largely responsible for generating a ‘world denying’ tradition of Buddhism in the West. Bond rightly observes that Max Weber ‘undoubtedly overstated the extent to which early Buddhism was .. a religion of individual salvation striving ascetic monks’. A return to the social ethic inherent in Buddhism is reflected in what recently has become known as ‘Engaged Buddhism, (a term coined in 1963 by the well known Vietnamese Buddhist Teacher in the West, Thich Nhat Hanh).

The logic and rationale of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ goes against those theorists (e.g., Obeysekera 1970) who from a standpoint of a limited anthropological discourse, rejects a ‘world-affirming’ view, of Buddhism, one which focuses on the social dimensions of living. Such a point of view, these critics regard merely as an reinterpretation of Buddhism as a response to modernization, a way of accommodating Buddhism to the dominant Christian ethic. Hence, the use of the term ‘Protestant Buddhism’ (Gombrich & Obeysekera 1998) describes aspects of contemporary Buddhism in countries like Sri Lanka such as the Sarvodaya Movement which looks at social development from a Buddhist perspective. The interpretation of Sinhalese Buddhism as ‘Protestant Buddhism’ has been disputed sharply by Holt and others on philosophical/doctrinal and empirical grounds.

Bond also notes that Obeysekera, has in addition, argued that Buddhism is a philosophically incapable of expounding a ‘social ethic’. Without entering into the philosophical niceties of this point of view, it will suffice to see how Western Buddhists have, more so than the traditional adherents of Buddhism (eg., in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand or Burma) understood Buddhism as a moral philosophy capable of dealing with questions of social morality and ethics in an age of selfishness.

Morality, after all, provides us with ‘action guides’ for dealing with the ‘problems of living’, usually focused on how we deal with human interactions Our moral statements or actions, and the rationale that justifies and validates these blue prints are concerned mostly with how we relate to one another, and in general, guides us as to how we can live together with others in peace and harmony - be it in the family, the workplace, or the wider community. It is simply a prescriptive guide, not just for one’s individual betterment or perfection, but for the good of others.

What is significant for the conceptualization of a Buddhist morality and eventually a Buddhist social philosophy, lies in its ability to show that the Buddhist code of conduct, the Path for individual betterment and salvation, is not narrowly confined to one’s narrow self interest. In other words, ‘engaged Buddhism’ as expounded in a Buddhist social philosophy, has to demonstrate that the analytical mode of reasoning crystallized in the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold path is equally concerned with one’s self as well as a sense of social awareness, a concern for others.

This, of course, bears directly on the oft-made criticism that the Buddhist code of morality or ethical conduct is selfish or egocentric. Many have seen Buddhism as passive, other worldly, and even escapist. The charge is that Buddhism, at least in some traditions (e.g., the Theravada by contrast with the Mahayana), is highly individualistic and concerned predominately, if not exclusively, with personal salvation at the expense or neglect of others. Stated differently, this refers to the reclusive Buddhism practised by some monks or the self-awareness training (e.g., through retreats and meditation centers) of the laity.

While there may be differences of emphasis in the practice of Buddhism between the main traditions of Buddhism (East Asian, South East Asian and Tibetan), there is, however, a common heritage shared by the different traditions and several schools of Buddhism. A key - though a sometimes neglected aspect of these different traditions - is the shared foundations of the Buddhist ethic. As Kraft rightly observes, ‘the principles and even some of the techniques of an engaged Buddhism have been latent’ in all traditions despite the fact that these were evident in the earliest teachings.

The reference to a mode of thinking, characteristic of ‘engaged Buddhism’, obviously suggests a shift from self to ‘other regarding’ sentiments. This immediately introduces questions relating to alleged selfishness in Buddhism or that Buddhism is selfish, and/or other worldly. This is applied especially to the Theravada tradition which is regarded as being highly individualistic and concerned predominantly, if not exclusively, with personal salvation even at the expense of concern with others. But, as the distinguished Buddhist scholar Kalupahana observes, referring to early Buddhist thought:

The individual is neither a totally independent entity with absolute inalienable rights nor one that is totally determined by the society with no claims to rights. ... society is neither a mere conglomeration of individuals without any relations nor an absolute reality imposing its authority on the individual without restrictions.

There is no doubt, as Wijesekera has observed in a different context, the social philosophy of Buddhist and other Indian religions places its ‘primary emphasis on the individual and ... social consequences follow from the centre of the individual’s own psychology’. It is for this reason that, as Wijesekera comments, ‘the Buddha, while acknowledging social and environmental factors, always emphasized the subjective aspects of his social ethic’, and, as an illustration, he adds that ‘peace in the general social sense is only the end result of the cultivation of peace-mindedness by the individual who is the ultimate unit of the social community’.

By asserting that the centrality of the individual, one’s freedom and autonomy is not an absolute independence, Buddhism recognises the complex and interdependent relationship that exists between individuals and society, or the self and the other. The notion of individual identity is a complex and difficult question bearing on how we understand the Buddhist concept of the Self and No-Self (the Anatta doctrine). Without embarking on an exposition of the philosophical basis of the Anatta doctrine it will suffice to recognize that what is denied is the ultimate reality of a permanent immutable self (e.g., as in atman), not the existential reality of the conventional concept of self, nor the operation of ‘self-interest’ or the perceived sense of individuality. Buddhism, however, does not commit the error of reifying the self and celebrating the self as an independent entity. Similarly in humanistic psychology self understanding is not loaded with a ghost in the machine such as a reified self as agent; rather it is concerned with dispositions such as wishes, intentions and feelings. This is exactly how the self-interest functions in Buddhist psychology - i.e., through a stream of conscious acts, motives and violations (citta and cetasikas).

K. N. Jayatilleke has perhaps given the definitive Buddhist answer to the damaging charge that Buddhist individualism amounts to selfishness and indifference to human welfare and the improvability of society by arguing that this dilemma of the self is not simply a question of self or the other (egoism vs altruism). The either/or fallacy inherent in this point of view is decried by Jayatilleke who rightly observes that there is ample evidence in the Buddhist teaching to demonstrate that the life of a Buddhist - be he a lay person or an ascetic - has to be lived partly in a social as well as a personal dimension.

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.