Buddhism and Social Action An Exploration
* Part One: The Fundamentals
* Part Two: The Action
I am grateful to Mr. Paul Ingram who, as the then editor, published the
original, very much abbreviated, version of this paper in the Buddhist
Society's journal "The Middle Way" (Vol. 54, No. 2 Summer 1979, 85-88). My
thanks are also due to the Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera who encouraged me to
develop my ideas further. For these, however, I must accept sole
Part One: The Fundamentals
1.1 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
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
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
 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
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.
1.2 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
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
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
In this section we have introduced the special and distinctive quality of
Buddhist social action. In the remainder of Part One we shall explore this
quality further, and show how it arises naturally and logically from
Buddhist teaching and practice.
1.3 The weight of social karma
Individual karmic behavior patterns are created by the struggles of the
individual human predicament. They condition the behavior of the individual
and, in traditional Buddhist teaching, the subsequent rounds of birth and
rebirth. We suggest, however, that this karmic inheritance is also expressed
as social karma. Specific to time and place, different social cultures
arise, whether of a group, a community, a social class or a civilization.
The young are socialized to their inherited culture. Consciously and
unconsciously they assimilate the norms of the approved behavior -- what is
good, what is bad, and what is "the good life" for that culture.
The social karma -- the establishment of conditioned behavior patterns -- of
a particular culture is and is not the aggregate of the karma of the
individuals who comprise the culture. Individuals share common institutions
and belief systems, but these are the results of many different wills, both
in the past and the present, rather than the consequence of any single
individual action. It is, however, individual karmic action that links the
individual to these institutions and belief systems. Each individual is a
light-reflecting jewel in Indra's net, at the points where time and space
intersect. Each reflects the light of all and all of each. This is the
mysticism of sociology or the sociology of mysticism!
Human societies, too, suffer the round of birth and rebirth, of revolution
and stability. Each age receives the collective karmic inheritance of the
last, is conditioned by it, and yet also struggles to refashion it. And
within each human society, institutions, social classes, and subcultures, as
well as individuals, all struggle to establish their identity and perpetuate
Capitalist industrial society has created conditions of extreme
impermanence, and the struggle with a conflict-creating mood of
dissatisfaction and frustration. It would be difficult to imagine any social
order for which Buddhism is more relevant and needed. In these conditions,
egotistical enterprise, competitive conflict, and the struggle for status
become great social virtues, while, in fact, they illustrate the import of
the three root-causes of suffering -- greed, hatred, and delusion.
"These cravings," argues David Brandon, "have become cemented into all forms
of social structures and institutions. People who are relatively successful
at accumulating goods and social position wish to ensure that the remain
successful ... Both in intended and unintended ways they erect barriers of
education, finance and law to protect their property and other interests ...
These structures and their protective institutions continue to exacerbate
and amplify the basic human inequalities in housing, health care, education
and income. They reward and encourage greed, selfishness, and exploitation
rather than love, sharing and compassion. Certain people's life styles,
characterized by greed and overconsumption, become dependent on the
deprivation of the many. The oppressors and oppressed fall into the same
trap of continual craving" (Brandon, 1976, 10-11). It should be added that
communist revolution and invasion have created conditions and social
structures which no less, but differently, discourage the spiritual search.
Thus we see that modern social organization may create conditions of life
which not only give rise to "objective," non-volitionally caused suffering,
but also tend to give rise to "subjective," volitionally caused karmic
suffering, because they are more likely to stimulate negative karmic action
than do other kinds of social organization. Thus, some of us are born into
social conditions which are more likely to lead us into following the
Buddhist way than others. An unskilled woman factory worker in a provincial
factory town is, for example, less likely to follow the Path than a
professional person living in the university quarter of the capital city. A
property speculator, wheeling and dealing his samsaric livelihood anywhere
is perhaps even less likely than either of them to do so. However, all three
may do so. Men and women make their own history, but they make it under
specific karmic conditions, inherited from previous generations
collectively, as well as individually. The struggle is against nurture, as
well as nature, manifested in the one consciousness. "The present generation
are living in this world under great pressure, under a very complicated
system, amidst confusion. Everybody talks about peace, justice, equality but
in practice it is very difficult. This is not because the individual person
is bad but because the overall environment, the pressures, the circumstances
are so strong, so influential" (Dalai Lama, 1976, p. 17).
In short, Buddhist social action is justified ultimately and above all by
the existence of social as well as individual karma. Immediately it is
simply concerned with relieving suffering; ultimately, in creating social
conditions which will favor the ending of suffering through the individual
achievement of transcendent wisdom. But is it enough, to take a beautiful
little watering can to a flower dying in sandy, sterile soil? This will
satisfy only the waterer. But if we muster the necessary ploughs, wells,
irrigation systems and organized labor, what then will become of the
spiritual life amongst all this busyness and conflict? We must next consider
this fundamental question.
1.4 Is not a Buddhist's prime task to work on him- or herself?
Answer: YES and NO
Buddhism is essentially pragmatic. Buddhism is, in one sense, something that
one does. It is a guide to the transformation of individual experience. In
the traditional Buddhist teaching, the individual sets out with a karmic
inheritance of established volitions, derived from his early life, from
earlier lives and certainly from his social environment, a part of his
karmic inheritance. Nevertheless, the starting point is the individual
experiencing of life, here and now.
Our train of argument began with the anxiety, the profound sense of unease
felt by the individual in his naked experience of life in the world when not
masked by busyness, objectives, diversions and other confirmations and
distractions. Buddhism teaches that all suffering, whether it be anxiety, or
more explicitly karmic, brought-upon-ourselves-suffering, or "external"
suffering, accidental and inevitable through war, disease, old age and so on
-- arise ultimately from the deluded belief in a substantial and enduring
self. In that case, what need has the individual Buddhist for concern for
other individuals, let alone for social action since his prime task is to
work on himself in order to dissolve this delusion? Can he only then help
The answer to these questions is both yes and no. This does not mean
half-way between yes and no. It means yes and no. It means that the answer
to these fundamental questions of Buddhist social action cannot ultimately
be logical or rational. For the Buddhist Middle Way is not the middle
between two extremes, but the Middle Way which transcends the two extremes
in a "higher" unity.
Different traditions of Buddhism offer different paths of spiritual
practice. But all depend ultimately upon the individual becoming more deeply
aware of the nature of his experience of the world, and especially of other
people and hence of himself and of the nature of the self. "To learn the way
of the Buddha is to learn about oneself. To learn about oneself is to forget
oneself. To forget oneself is to experience the world as pure object -- to
let fall one's own mind and body and the self-other mind and body" (Zen
Master Dogen: Shobogenzo). Meditation both reveals and ultimately calms and
clarifies the choppy seas and terrifying depths of the underlying emotional
life. All the great traditions of spiritual practice, Buddhist -- and
non-Buddhist -- emphasize the importance of periods of withdrawal for
meditation and reflection. Their relative importance is not our present
concern. However, in all Buddhist traditions the training emphasizes a
vigilant mindfulness of mental feelings in the course of active daily life,
as well as in periods of withdrawal. It all advocates the parallel
development of habitual forms of ethical behavior (sila).
"We need not regard life as worth [either] boycotting or indulging in. Life
situations are the food of awareness and mindfulness ... We wear out the
shoe of samsara by walking on it through the practice of meditation"
(Chogyam Trungpa, 1976, p. 50). The same message comes across forcefully in
the Zen tradition: "For penetrating to the depths of one's true nature ...
nothing can surpass the practice of Zen in the midst of activity ... The
power or wisdom obtained by practicing Zen in the world of action is like a
rose that rises from the fire. It can never be destroyed. The rose that
rises from the midst of flames becomes all the more beautiful and fragrant
the nearer the fire rages" (Zen Master Hakuin, 1971, p. 34).
It is open to us, if we wish, to extend our active daily life to include
various possible forms of social action. This offers a strong immediate kind
of experience to which we can give our awareness practice. Less immediately,
it serves to fertilize our meditation -- "dung for the field of bodhi."
Thirdly, it offers wider opportunities for the cultivation of sila -- the
habituation to a selfless ethic.
The above remarks are about taking social action. They refer to the
potential benefits of social action for individual practice. They are less
"reasons" for social action than reasons why a Buddhist should not desist
from social action. The mainspring of Buddhist social action lies elsewhere;
it arises from the heart of a ripening compassion, however flawed it still
may be by ego needs. This is giving social action, with which we shall be
concerned in the next section.
Social action as a training in self-awareness (and compassionate awareness
of others) may be a discipline more appropriate to some individual
temperaments, and, indeed, to some cultures and times, than to others. We
are not concerned with advocating it for all Buddhists, but simply to
suggesting its legitimacy for such as choose to follow it. For Buddhism has
always recognized the diversity of individual temperaments and social
cultures that exist, and has offered a corresponding diversity of modes of
1.5 Buddhist social action as heartfelt paradox
As we have noted, the significance of social action as mindfulness training
is, of course, incidental to that profound compassionate impulse which more
-- or less -- leads us to seek the relief of the suffering of others. Our
motives may be mixed, but to the extent that they are truly selfless they do
manifest our potential for Awakening and our relatedness to all beings.
Through our practice, both in the world and in withdrawn meditation, the
delusion of a struggling self becomes more and more transparent, and the
conflicting opposites of good and bad, pain and pleasure, wealth and
poverty, oppression and freedom are seen and understood in a Wisdom at once
serene and vigilant. This Wisdom partakes of the sensitivity of the heart as
well as the clarity of thought.
In this Wisdom, in the words of R.H. Blyth, things are beautiful -- but not
desirable; ugly -- but not repulsive; false -- but not rejected. What is
inevitable, like death, is accepted without rage; what may not be, like war,
is the subject of action skillful and the more effective because, again, it
is not powered and blinded by rage and hate. We may recognize an oppressor
and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence
of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself
a part of our growth towards enlightenment (bodhi).
Such freedom from negative emotions should not be mistaken for indifference,
passivity, compromise, loving our enemy instead of hating him, or any other
of these relativities. This Wisdom transcends the Relativities which toss us
this way and that. Instead, there is an awareness, alert and dispassionate,
of an infinitely complex reality, but always an awareness free of despair,
of self-absorbing aggression, or of blind dogma, an awareness free to act or
not to act. Buddhists have their preferences, and in the face of such social
cataclysms as genocide and nuclear war, they are strong preferences, but
they are not repelled into quietism by them. What has been said above has to
be cultivated to perfection by one following the Bodhisattva ideal. We are
inspired by it, but very few of us can claim to live it. Yet we shall never
attain the ideal by turning our backs upon the world and denying the
compassionate Buddha nature in us that reaches out to suffering humanity,
however stained by self love those feelings may be. Only through slowly
"Wearing out the shoe of samsara" in whatever way is appropriate to us can
we hope to achieve this ideal, and not through some process of incubation.
This Great Wisdom (prajna) exposes the delusion, the folly, sometimes
heroic, sometimes base, of human struggle in the face of many kinds of
suffering. This sense of folly fuses with the sense of shared humanity in
the form of compassion (karuna). Compassion is the everyday face of Wisdom.
In individual spiritual practice though, some will incline to a Way of
Compassion and others to a Way of Wisdom, but finally the two faculties need
to be balanced, each complementing and ripening the other.
He who clings to the Void
And neglects Compassion
Does not reach the highest stage.
But he who practices only Compassion
Does not gain release from the toils of existence.
-- (Saraha, 1954)
To summarize: Buddhist or non-Buddhist, it is our common humanity, our
"Buddha nature," that moves us to compassion and to action for the relief of
suffering. These stirrings arise from our underlying relatedness to all
living things, from being brothers and sisters one to another. Buddhist
spiritual practice, whether at work or in the meditation room, ripens alike
the transcendental qualities of Compassion and Wisdom.
Social action starkly confronts the actor with the sufferings of others and
also confronts him with his own strong feelings which commonly arise from
such experience, whether they be feelings of pity, guilt, angry partisanship
or whatever. Social action is thus a powerful potential practice for the
follower of the Way, a "skillful means" particularly relevant to modern
Finally, it is only some kind of social action that can be an effective and
relevant response to the weight of social karma which oppresses humanity and
which we all share.
Part Two: The Action
2.1 Giving and helping
All social action is an act of giving (dana), but there is a direct act
which we call charitable action, whether it be the UNESCO Relief Banker's
Order or out all night with the destitutes' soup kitchen. Is there anything
about Buddhism that should make it less concerned actively to maintain the
caring society than is Christianity or humanism? "Whoever nurses the sick
serves me," said the Buddha. In our more complex society does this not
include the active advancement and defense of the principles of a national
The old phrase "as cold as charity" recalls numerous possibilities for
self-deception in giving to others and in helping them. Here is opportunity
to give out goodness in tangible form, both in our own eyes and those of the
world. It may also be a temptation to impose our own ideas and standards
from a position of patronage. David Brandon, who has written so well on the
art of helping, reminds us that "respect is seeing the Buddha nature in the
other person. It means perceiving the superficiality of positions of moral
authority. The other person is as good as you. However untidy, unhygienic,
poor, illiterate and bloody-minded he may seem, he is worthy of your
respect. He also has autonomy and purpose. He is another form of nature"
(Brandon, 1976, p. 59).
There are many different ways in which individual Buddhists and their
organizations can give help and relieve suffering. However, "charity begins
at home." If a Buddhist group or society fails to provide human warmth and
active caring for all of its members in their occasional difficulties and
troubles -- though always with sensitivity and scrupulous respect for
privacy -- where then is its Buddhism? Where is the Sangha?
In our modern industrial society there has been on the one hand a decline in
personal and voluntary community care for those in need and, on the other,
too little active concern for the quality and quantity of institutional care
financed from the public purse that has to some extent taken its place. One
facet of this which may be of particular significance for Buddhists, is a
failure to recognize adequately and provide for the needs of the dying. In
recent years there has been a growing awareness of this problem in North
America and Europe, and a small number of hospices have been established by
Christian and other groups for terminally ill people. However, only a start
has been made with the problem. The first Buddhist hospice in the West has
yet to be opened. And, less ambitiously, the support of regular visitors
could help many lonely people to die with a greater sense of dignity and
independence in our general hospitals.
Teaching is, of course, also a form of giving and helping. Indeed, one of
the two prime offenses in the Mahayana code of discipline is that of
withholding the wealth of the Dharma from others. Moreover, teaching the
Dharma is one of the most valuable sources of learning open to a Buddhist.
Here we are concerned primarily with the teaching of the Dharma to newcomers
in Buddhism, and with the general publicizing of Buddhism among
Buddhism is by its very nature lacking in the aggressive evangelizing spirit
of Christianity or Islam. It is a pragmatic system of sustained and
systematic self-help practice, in which the teacher can do no more than
point the way and, together with fellow Buddhists, provide support, warmth
and encouragement in a long and lonely endeavor. There is here no tradition
of instant conversion and forceful revelation for the enlightenment
experience, however sudden, depends upon a usually lengthy period of careful
cultivation. Moreover, there is a tolerant tradition of respect for the
beliefs and spiritual autonomy of non-Buddhists.
Nevertheless, a virtue may be cultivated to a fault. Do we not need to find
a middle way between proselytizing zeal and aloof indifference? Does not the
world cry out for a Noble Truth that "leads to the cessation of suffering"?
The task of teaching the Dharma also gives individual Buddhists an incentive
to clarify their ideas in concise, explicit everyday terms. And it requires
them to respond positively to the varied responses which their teaching will
provoke in others.
It will be helpful to treat the problem on two overlapping levels, and to
distinguish between (a) publicizing the Dhamma, and (b) introductory
teaching for enquirers who interest has thus been awakened.
At both the above levels activity is desirable both by a central body of
some kind and by local groups (in many countries there will certainly be
several "central bodies," representing different traditions and tendencies).
The central body can cost-effectively produce for local use introductory
texts and study guides, speakers' notes, audiocassettes, slide presentations
and "study kits" combining all of these different types of material. It has
the resources to develop correspondence courses such as those run by the
Buddhist Society in the United Kingdom which offer a well-tried model. And
it will perhaps have sufficient prestige to negotiate time on the national
radio and television network.
Particularly in Western countries there are strong arguments for
organizations representing the different Buddhist traditions and tendencies
to set up a representative Buddhist Information and Liaison Service for
propagating fundamental Buddhism and some first introductions to the
different traditions and organizations. It would also provide a general
information clearing house for all the groups and organizations represented.
It could be financed and controlled through a representative national
Buddhist council which, with growing confidence between its members and
between the different Buddhist organizations which they represented, might
in due course take on additional functions. Certainly in the West there is
the prospect of a great many different Buddhist flowers blooming, whether
oriental or new strains developed in the local culture. This is to be
welcomed, but the kind of body we propose will become a necessity to avoid
confusion for the outsider and to work against any tendency to sectarianism
of a kind from which Buddhism has been relatively free.
Local groups will be able to draw upon the publicity and teaching resources
of national centers and adapt these to the needs of local communities.
Regular meetings of such groups may amount to no more than half a dozen
people meeting in a private house. Sensitively handled it would be difficult
to imagine a better way of introducing a newcomer to the Dharma. Such
meetings are worthy of wide local publicity. A really strong local base
exists where there is a resident Buddhist community of some kind, with
premises convenient for meetings and several highly committed workers.
Unfortunately, such communities will, understandably, represent a particular
Buddhist tradition or tendency, and this exclusiveness may be less helpful
to the newcomer than a local group in which he or she may have the
opportunity to become acquainted with the different Buddhist traditions
represented in the membership and in the program of activity.
In many countries the schools provide brief introductions to the world's
great religions. Many teachers do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable about
introducing Buddhism to their pupils and may be unaware of suitable
materials even where these do exist. There may be opportunities here for
local groups, and certainly the Information Service suggested above would
have work to do here.
Finally, the method of introductory teaching employed in some Buddhist
centers leaves much to be desired both on educational grounds and as
Buddhist teaching. The Buddha always adapted his teaching to the particular
circumstances of the individual learner; he sometimes opened with a question
about the enquirer's occupation in life, and built his teaching upon the
answer to this and similar questions. True learning and teaching has as its
starting point a problem or experience posed by the learner, even if this be
no more than a certain ill-defined curiosity. It is there that teacher and
learner must begin. The teacher starts with the learner's thoughts and
feelings and helps him or her to develop understanding and awareness. This
is, of course, more difficult than a standard lecture which begins and ends
with the teacher's thoughts and feelings, and which may in more sense than
one leave little space for the learner. It will exclude the teacher from any
It follows that unless the teacher is truly inspiring, the "Dharma talk" is
best used selectively: to introduce and stimulate discussion or to summarize
and consolidate what has been learned. Dharma teachers must master the arts
of conducting open discussion groups, in which learners can gain much from
one another and can work through an emotional learning situation beyond the
acquisition of facts about Buddhism. Discussion groups have become an
important feature of many lay Buddhist and social action organizations in
different parts of the world. They are the heart, for example, of the
Japanese mass organization Rissho Kosei Kai, which explores problems of
work, the family and social and economic problems.
2.3 Political action: the conversion of energy
Political power may manifest and sustain social and economic structures
which breed both material deprivation and spiritual degradation for millions
of men and women. In many parts of the world it oppresses a wide range of
social groupings -- national and racial minorities, women, the poor,
homosexuals, liberal dissidents, and religious groups. Ultimately, political
power finds its most terrible expression in war, which reaches now to the
possibility of global annihilation.
For both the oppressors and the oppressed, whether in social strife or
embattled nations, karmic delusion is deepened. Each group or nation
emphasizes its differences, distinguishing them from its opponents; each
projects its own short-comings upon them, makes them the repository of all
evil, and rallies round its own vivid illusions and blood-warming hates.
Collective hating, whether it be the raised fist, or prejudice concealed in
a quiet community, is a heady liquor. Allied with an ideology, hate in any
form will not depart tomorrow or next year. Crowned with delusive idealism,
it is an awesome and murderous folly. And even when victory is achieved, the
victors are still more deeply poisoned by the hate that carried them to
victory. Both the revolution and the counter-revolution consume their own
children. Buddhism's "Three Fires" of delusion (moha), hatred and ill-will
(dosa), and greed and grasping, (lobha), surely burn nowhere more fiercely.
Contrariwise, political power may be used to fashion and sustain a society
whose citizens are free to live in dignity and harmony and mutual respect,
free of the degradation of poverty and war. In such a society of good heart
all men and women find encouragement and support in making, if they will,
the best use of their human condition in the practice of wisdom and
compassion. This is the land of good karma -- not the end of human
suffering, but the beginning of the end, the bodhisattva-land, the social
embodiment of sila.
This is not to be confused with the belief common among the socially and
politically oppressed that if power could be seized (commonly by an elite
claiming to represent them), then personal, individual, "ideological" change
will inevitably follow. This absolutely deterministic view of conditioning
(which Marx called "vulgar Marxism"), is as one-sided as the idea of a
society of "individuals" each struggling with only his own personal karma in
a private bubble hermetically sealed off from history and from other people.
Political action thus involves the Buddhist ideal of approaching each
situation without prejudice but with deserved circumspection in questions of
power and conflict, social oppression and social justice. These social and
political conflicts are the great public samsaric driving energies of our
life to which an individual responds with both aggression and
self-repression. The Buddha Dharma offers the possibility of transmuting the
energies of the individual into Wisdom and Compassion. At the very least, in
faith and with good heart, a start can be made.
Buddhists are thus concerned with political action, first, in the direct
relief of non-volitionally caused suffering now and in the future, and,
secondly, with the creation of social karmic conditions favorable to the
following of the Way that leads to the cessation also of volitionally-caused
suffering, the creation of a society of a kind which tends to the ripening
of wisdom and compassion rather than the withering of them. In the third
place, political action, turbulent and ambiguous, is perhaps the most potent
of the "action meditations."
It is perhaps because of this potency that some Buddhist organizations ban
political discussion of any kind, even at a scholarly level, and especially
any discussion of social action. There are circumstances in which this may
be a sound policy. Some organizations and some individuals may not wish to
handle such an emotionally powerful experience which may prove to be
divisive and stir up bad feeling which cannot be worked upon in any positive
way. This division would particularly tend to apply to "party politics." On
the other hand, such a discussion may give an incomparable opportunity to
work through conflict to a shared wisdom. Different circumstances suggest
different "skillful means," but a dogmatic policy of total exclusion is
likely to be ultimately unhelpful.
In this connection it is worth noting that any kind of social activity which
leads to the exercise of power or conflict may stir up "the fires" in the
same way as overtly political activity. Conflict within a Buddhist
organization is cut from the same cloth as conflict in a political assembly
and may be just as heady, but the Buddhist context could make such an
activity a much more difficult and delusive meditation subject. The danger
of dishonest collusion may be greater than that of honest collusion (to
borrow one of the Ven. Sangharakshita's aphorisms). The dogmatism and
vehemence with which some Buddhists denounce and proscribe all political
involvement is the same sad attitude as the dogmatism and vehemence of the
politicians which they so rightly denounce.
To be lost in revolution or reform or conservatism is to be lost in samsara
and the realm of the angry warrior, deluded by his power and his
self-righteousness. To turn one's back upon all this is to be lost in an
equally false idea of nirvana -- the realm of the gods no less deluded by
spiritual power and righteousness, "You do not truly speak of fire if your
mouth does not get burnt."
Effective social action on any but the smallest scale will soon involve the
Buddhist in situations of power and conflict, of "political" power. It may
be the power of office in a Buddhist organization. It may be the unsought
for leadership of an action group protesting against the closing of an old
people's day care center. It may be the organizing of a fund-raising
movement to build a Buddhist hospice for care of the dying. It may be
membership of a local government council with substantial welfare funds. It
may be joining an illegal dissident group. In all these cases the Buddhist
takes the tiger -- his own tiger -- by the tail. Some of the above tigers
are bigger than others, but all are just as fierce. Hence a Buddhist must be
mindful of the strong animal smell of political power and be able to contain
and convert the valuable energy which power calls up. A sharp cutting edge
is given into his hands. Its use we must explore in the sections which
2.4 Buddhist political theory and policy
Buddhism and politics meet at two levels -- theory and practice. Buddhism
has no explicit body of social and political theory comparable to its
psychology or metaphysics. Nevertheless, a Buddhist political theory can be
deduced primarily from basic Buddhism, from Dharma. Secondly, it can be
deduced from the general orientation of scriptures which refer explicitly to
a bygone time. We have already argued, however, that this can be done only
in a limited and qualified way.
Whatever form it may take, Buddhist political theory like other Buddhist
"theory" is just another theory. As it stands in print, it stands in the
world of the conditioned; it is of samsara. It is its potential, its
spiritual implications, which make it different from "secular" theory. When
skillfully practiced, it becomes a spiritual practice. As always, Buddhist
"theory" is like a label on a bottle describing the contents which sometimes
is mistaken for the contents by zealous label-readers. In that way we can
end up with a lot of politics and very little Buddhism.
This is not to decry the value of a Buddhist social and political theory --
only its misuse. We have only begun to apply Buddhism as a catalyst to the
general body of Western social science and most of the work so far has been
in psychology. Such work in allied fields could be extremely helpful to
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
The writings of some Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma and elsewhere offer
interesting examples of attempts to relate Buddhism to nationalism and
Marxism (not to be confused with communism). Earlier in the century
Anagarika Dharmapala stressed the social teaching of the Buddha and its
value in liberating people from materialistic preoccupations. U Nu, the
eminent Burmese Buddhist statesman, argued that socialism follows naturally
from the ethical and social teachings of the Buddha, and another Burmese
leader, U Ba Swe, held that Marxism is relative truth, Buddhism absolute
truth. This theme has been explored more recently in Trevor Ling's book
"Buddha, Marx and God," (2nd ed., Macmillan, London 1979) and Michal
Edwarde's "In the Blowing out of a Flame" (Allen & Unwin 1976). Both are
stimulating and controversial books. E.F. Schumacher's celebrated book
"Small is Beautiful" (Blond & Briggs, London 1973) has introduced what he
terms "Buddhist economics" and its urgent relevance to the modern world to
many thousand of non-Buddhists. Of this we shall say more in a later section
on the Buddhist "good society."
Buddhist social and political theory and policy can only be mentioned in
passing in this pamphlet, although we have earlier introduced the idea of
"social karma" as of central importance. We are, instead, concerned here
with problems and questions arising in the practice of social and political
work by Buddhists and the nature of that work.
2.5 Conflict and partisanship
The Buddhist faced with political thought, let alone political action, is
straightaway plunged in the turbulent stream of conflict and partisanship
and right and wrong.
Let the reader, perhaps prompted by the morning newspaper, select and hold
in his mind some particular controversial public issue or public figure.
Now, how does your Buddhism feel, please? (No, not what does your Buddhism
think!) How does it feel when, again, some deeply held conviction is roughly
handled at a Buddhist meeting or in a Buddhist journal? "The tears and
anguish that follow arguments and quarrels," said the Buddha, "the arrogance
and pride and the grudges and insults that go with them are all the result
of one thing. They come from having preferences, from holding things
precious and dear. Insults are born out of arguments and grudges are
inseparable with quarrels." (Kalahavivada-sutta, trans. H. Saddhatissa,
1978, para. 2) Similarly, in the words of one of the Zen patriarchs: "The
conflict between longing and loathing is the mind's worse disease" (Seng
In all our relationships as Buddhists we seek to cultivate a spirit of
openness, cooperation, goodwill and equality. Nonetheless, we may not agree
with another's opinions, and, in the final analysis, this divergence could
have to do even with matters of life and death. But hopefully we shall be
mindful and honest about how we think and, with what we feel, and how our
opponent thinks and feels. In such controversies, are we each to confirm our
own ego? Or each to benefit from the other in the search for wise judgment?
Moreover, in the words of the Dalai Lama, "when a person criticizes you and
exposes your faults, only then are you able to discover your faults and make
amends. So your enemy is your greatest friend because he is the person who
gives you the test you need for your inner strength, your tolerance, your
respect for others... Instead of feeling angry with or hatred towards such a
person, one should respect him and be grateful to him" (Dalai Lama, 1976, p.
9). We are one with our adversary in our common humanity; we are two in our
divisive conflict. We should be deluded if we were to deny either -- if we
were to rush either to compromise or to uncompromising struggle. Our
conflict and our humanity may be confirmed or denied at any point along that
line of possibilities which links the extremes, but ultimately it will be
resolved in some other, less explicit sense. Sangharakshita expresses this
paradox in his observation that "it is not enough to sympathize with
something to such an extent that one agrees with it. If necessary, one must
sympathize to such an extent that one disagrees" (Sangharakshita, 1979, p.
Zen Master Dogen advised that "when you say something to someone he may not
accept it, but do not try to make him understand it rationally. Don't argue
with him; just listen to his objections, until he himself finds something
wrong with them." Certainly we shall need much time and space for such
wisdom and compassion as may inform us in such situations. If we do fight,
may our wisdom and compassion honor both our adversary and ourselves,
whether in compromise, victory or defeat.
"On how to sing
The frog school and the skylark school
-- (Shiki, 1958, p. 169)
2.6 Ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty
Our "Small Mind" clings to delusions of security and permanence. It finds
neither of these in the world where, on the contrary, it experiences a sense
of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty which it finds intolerable, and
which make it very angry when it is obliged to confront them. Small Mind
prefers to see social, economic and political phenomena in terms of black
and white, or "Left and Right." It likes to take sides, and it clings to
social dogmas both sophisticated and simple. ("The rich/poor are always
To the extent that we have achieved "Big Mind" we perceive with equanimity
what Small Mind recoils from as intolerable. We are freer to see the world
as it is in all the many colors of the rainbow, each merging imperceptibly
into the next. In place of clinging to a few black, white and grey
compartments, scrutiny is freed, encouraged by the Buddha's discriminating
and differentiating attitude. (Vibhajjavada; see Wheel: No. 238/240,
Anguttara Anthology, Part II, pp. 59 ff.)
We shall not be surprised then that the personal map which guides the Wise
through social and political realities may turn out to be disturbingly
unconventional. Their reluctance readily to "take sides" arises not from
quietism or an attachment to a compromise or a belief in the "unreality" of
conflict, as is variously the case with those guided by mere rules. On the
contrary, they may not even sit quietly, throwing soothing generalizations
into the ring, as is expected of the religious. This seemingly
uncomfortable, seemingly marginal stance simply reflects a reality which is
experienced with equanimity.
However, it does not require much equanimity to discover the deeper truths
which underlie many current conventional truths. Conventional politics, for
example, run from "left," to "right," from radicals through liberals and
conservatives to fascists. Some radicals are, for example, as dogmatic and
authoritarian in practice as fascists, and to their ultimate detriment they
hate no less mightily. And, again, some conservatives are equally dogmatic
because of an awareness of the subtle, organic nature of society and hence
the danger of attempts at "instant" restructuring.
Similarly an ideology such as Marxism may be highly complex but has been
conveniently oversimplified even by quite well educated partisans, both
those "for" and those "against" the theory. The present Dalai Lama is one of
those who have attempted to disentangle "an authentic Marxism" which he
believes is not without relevance to the problems of a feudal theocracy of
the kind that existed in Tibet, from "the sort one sees in countless
countries claiming to be Marxist," but which are "mixing up Marxism and
their national political interests and also their thirst for world hegemony"
(Dalai Lama, 1979).
The Wise person sees clearly because he does not obscure his own light; he
does not cast the shadow of himself over the situation. However, even an
honest perception of complexity commonly paralyzes action with, "Yes, that's
all very well, but...," "On the other hand it is also true that... ."
Contemplative wisdom is a precious thing, but true Wisdom reveals itself in
positive action -- or "in-action." Though a person may, through Clear
Comprehension of Purpose (satthaka-sampajanna), keep loyal to the social
ideal, his Clear Comprehension of (presently absent) Suitability may counsel
in-action, or just "waiting."
In a social action situation the complexity and ambiguity to which we refer
is strongly felt as ethical quandary, uncertainty as to what might be the
best course of action. Even in small organizations all power is potentially
corrupting; the power wielded is soon lost in a thicket of relative ethics,
of means and ends confused, of greater and lesser evils, of long term and
short term goals. This is not a "game." It is the terrible reality of power,
wealth and suffering in the world, and the confusing of good and delusion.
It cannot be escaped; it can only be suffered through. We cannot refuse
life's most difficult problems because we have not yet attained to Wisdom.
We simply have to do our mindful and vigilant best, without guilt or blame.
That is all we have to do.
2.7 Violence and non-violence
The First Precept of Buddhism is to abstain from taking life. But it must be
made clear that the Buddhist "Precepts" are not commandments; they are "good
resolutions," sincere aspirations voluntarily undertaken. They are
signposts. They suggest to us how the truly Wise behave, beyond any sense of
self and other.
Evil springs from delusion about our true nature as human beings, and it
takes the characteristic forms of hatred, aggression and driving
acquisitiveness. These behaviors feed upon themselves and become strongly
rooted, not only in individuals but in whole cultures. Total war is no more
than their most spectacular and bloody expression. In Buddhism the
cultivation of sila (habitual morality) by attempting to follow the Precepts
is an aspiration toward breaking this karmic cycle. It is a first step
towards dissolving the egocentricity of headstrong willfulness, and
cultivating heartfelt awareness of others. The Precepts invite us to loosen
the grip, unclench the fist, and to aspire to open-handedness and
open-heartedness. Whether, and to what extent, he keeps the Precepts is the
responsibility of each individual. But he needs to be fully aware of what he
The karmic force of violent behavior will be affected by the circumstances
in which it occurs. For example, a "diminished responsibility" may be argued
in the case of conscripts forced to kill by an aggressive government. And
there is surely a difference between wars of conquest and wars of defense.
Ven. Walpola Rahula described a war of national independence in Sri Lanka in
the 2nd century BC conducted under the slogan "Not for kingdom but for
Buddhism," and concludes that "to fight against a foreign invader for
national independence became an established Buddhist tradition, since
freedom was essential to the spiritual as well as the material progress of
the community" (Rahula, 1978, p. 117). We may deplore the historic
destruction of the great Indian Buddhist heritage in the middle-ages,
undefended against the Mongol and Muslim invaders. It is important to note,
however, that "according to Buddhism there is nothing that can be called a
'just war' -- which is only a false term coined and put into circulation to
justify and excuse hatred, cruelty, violence and massacre" (Rahula, 1967,
It is an unfortunate fact, well documented by eminent scholars such as
Edward Conze and Trevor Ling, that not only have avowedly Buddhist rulers
undertaken violence and killing, but also monks of all traditions in
Buddhism. Nonetheless, Buddhism has no history of specifically religious
wars, that is, wars fought to impose Buddhism upon reluctant believers.
Violence and killing are deeply corrupting in their effect upon all
involved, and Buddhists will therefore try to avoid direct involvement in
violent action or in earning their living in a way that, directly or
indirectly, does violence. The Buddha specifically mentioned the trade in
arms, in living beings and flesh.
The problem is whether, in today's "global village" we are not all in some
degree responsible for war and violence to the extent that we refrain from
any effort to diminish them. Can we refrain from killing a garden slug and
yet refrain, for fear of "political involvement," from raising a voice
against the nuclear arms race or the systematic torture of prisoners of
conscience in many parts of the world?
These are questions which are disturbing to some of those Buddhists who have
a sensitive social and moral conscience. This is understandable. Yet, a
well-informed Buddhist must not forget that moral responsibility, or karmic
guilt, originate from a volitional and voluntary act affirming the harmful
character of the act. If that affirmation is absent, neither the
responsibility for the act, not karmic guilt, rest with those who, through
some form of pressure, participate in it. A slight guilt, however, might be
involved if such participants yield too easily even to moderate pressure or
do not make use of "escape routes" existing in these situations. But failure
to protest publicly against injustice or wrong-doings does not necessarily
constitute a participation in evil. Voices of protest should be raised when
there is a chance that they are heard. But "voices in the wilderness" are
futile, and silence, instead, is the better choice. It is futile, indeed, if
a few well-meaning heads try to run against walls of rock stone that may
yield only to bulldozers. It is a sad fact that there are untold millions of
our fellow-humans who do affirm violence and use it for a great variety of
reasons (though not "reasonable reasons"!). They are unlikely to be moved by
our protests or preachings, being entirely obsessed by divers fanaticisms or
power urges. This has to be accepted as an aspect of existential suffering.
Yet there are still today some opportunities and nations where a Buddhist
can and should work for the cause of peace and reducing violence in human
life. No efforts should be spared to convince people that violence does not
solve problems or conflicts.
The great evil of violence is its separation unto death of us and them, of
"my" righteousness and "your" evil. If you counter violence with violence
you will deepen that separation through thoughts of bitterness and revenge.
The Dhammapada says: "Never by hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased
by kindness. This is an eternal truth" (I, 5) Buddhist non-violent social
action (avihimsa, ahimsa) seeks to communicate, persuade and startle by
moral example. "One should conquer anger through kindness, wickedness
through goodness, selfishness through charity, and falsehood through
truthfulness" (Dhammapada, XVII, 3).
The Buddha intervened personally on the field of battle, as in the dispute
between the Sakyas and Koliyas over the waters of the Rohini. Since that
time, history has provided us with a host of examples of religiously
inspired non-violent social action, skillfully adapted to particular
situations. These are worthy of deep contemplation.
Well known is Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent struggle against religious
intolerance and British rule in India, and also the Rev. Martin Luther
King's black people's civil rights movement in the United States. A familiar
situation for many people today is the mass demonstration against authority,
which may be conducted either peacefully or violently. As Robert Aitken
Roshi has observed, "the point of disagreement, even the most fundamental
disagreement, is still more superficial than the place of our common life."
He recalls the case of a friend who organized an anti-nuclear demonstration
at a naval base passing through a small town in which virtually every
household had at least one person who gained his livelihood by working at
the base. Consequently, when the friend visited every single house before
the demonstration he hardly expected to win the people over to his cause.
But he did convince them that he was a human being who was willing to listen
to them and who had faith in them as human beings. "We finally had our
demonstration, with four thousand people walking through this tiny
community, nobody resisted us, nobody threw rocks. They just stood and
watched" (The Ten Directions, Los Angeles Zen Center, 1 (3) September 1980,
And yet again, situations may arise in which folly is mutually conditioned,
but where we must in some sense take sides in establishing the ultimate
responsibility. If we do not speak out then, we bow only to the conditioned
and accept the endlessness of suffering and the perpetuation of evil karma.
The following lines were written a few days after Archbishop Oscar Romero,
of the Central American republic of El Salvador, had been shot dead on the
steps of his chapel. Romero had roundly condemned the armed leftist rebel
factions for their daily killings and extortions. However, he also pointed
out that these were the reactions of the common people being used as "a
production force under the management of a privileged society... The gap
between poverty and wealth is the main cause of our trouble... And sometimes
it goes further: It is the hatred in the heart of the worker for his
employer... If I did not denounce the killings and the way the army removes
people and ransacks peasants' homes I should be acquiescing in the violence"
(Observer newspaper (London), March 30, 1980).
Finally there is the type of situation in which the truly massive folly of
the conflict and of the contrasting evils may leave nothing to work with and
there is space left only for personal sacrifice to bear witness to that
folly. Such was the choice of the Buddhist monks who burnt themselves to
death in the Vietnam war -- surely one of the most savage and despairing
conflicts of modern times, in which an heroic group of Buddhists had for
some time struggled in vain to establish an alternative "third force."
2.8 The good society
The social order to which Buddhist social action is ultimately directed must
be one that minimizes non-volitionally caused suffering, whether in mind or
body, and which also offers encouraging conditions for its citizens to see
more clearly into their true nature and overcome their karmic inheritance.
The Buddhist way is, with its compassion, its equanimity, its tolerance, its
concern for self-reliance and individual responsibility, the most promising
of all the models for the New Society which are an on offer.
What is needed are political and economic relations and a technology which
(a) Help people to overcome ego-centeredness, through co-operation with
others, in place of either subordination and exploitation or the consequent
sense of "righteous" struggle against all things.
(b) Offer to each a freedom which is conditional only upon the freedom and
dignity of others, so that individuals may develop a self-reliant
responsibility rather than being the conditioned animals of institutions and
ideologies. (See "Buddhism and Democracy," Bodhi Leaves No. B. 17)
The emphasis should be on the undogmatic acceptance of a diversity of
tolerably compatible material and mental "ways," whether of individuals or
of whole communities. There are no short cuts to utopia, whether by "social
engineering" or theocracy. The good society towards which we should aim
should simply provide a means, an environment, in which different "ways,"
appropriate to different kinds of people, may be cultivated in mutual
tolerance and understanding. A prescriptive commonwealth of saints is
totally alien to Buddhism.
(c) The good society will concern itself primarily with the material and
social conditions for personal growth, and only secondarily and dependently
with material production. It is noteworthy that the 14th Dalai Lama, on his
visit to the West in 1973, saw "nothing wrong with material progress
provided man takes precedence over progress. In fact it has been my firm
belief that in order to solve human problems in all their dimensions we must
be able to combine and harmonize external material progress with inner
mental development." The Dalai Lama contrasted the "many problems like
poverty and disease, lack of education" in the East with the West, in which
"the living standard is remarkably high, which is very important, very
good." Yet he notes that despite these achievements there is "mental
unrest," pollution, overcrowding, and other problems. "Our very life itself
is a paradox, contradictory in many senses; whenever you have too much of
one thing you have problems created by that. You always have extremes and
therefore it is important to try and find the middle way, to balance the
two" (Dalai Lama, 1976, pp. 10, 14, 29).
(d) E.F. Schumacher has concisely expressed the essence of Buddhist
economics as follows:
"While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist
is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is 'The Middle
Way' and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical
well-being... The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and
non-violence. From an economist's point of view, the marvel of the
Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern --
amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfying
results" (Schumacher, 1973, p. 52).
Schumacher then outlines a "Buddhist economics" in which production would be
based on a middle range technology yielding on the one hand an adequate
range of material goods (and no more), and on the other a harmony with the
natural environment and its resources. (See also Dr. Padmasiri de Silva's
pamphlet The Search for a Buddhist Economics, in the series, Bodhi Leaves,
No. B. 69)
The above principles suggest some kind of diverse and politically
decentralized society, with co-operative management and ownership of
productive wealth. It would be conceived on a human scale, whether in terms
of size and complexity of organization or of environmental planning, and
would use modern technology selectively rather than being used by it in the
service of selfish interests. In Schumacher's words, "It is a question of
finding the right path of development, the Middle Way, between materialist
heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding 'Right
Clearly, all the above must ultimately be conceived on a world scale. "Today
we have become so interdependent and so closely connected with each other
that without a sense of universal responsibility, irrespective of different
ideologies and faiths, our very existence or survival would be difficult"
(Dalai Lama, 1976, pp. 5, 28). This statement underlines the importance of
Buddhist internationalism and of social policy and social action conceived
on a world scale.
The above is not offered as some kind of blueprint for utopia. Progress
would be as conflict-ridden as the spiritual path of the ordinary Buddhist
-- and the world may never get there anyway. However, Buddhism is a very
practical and pragmatic kind of idealism, and there is, as always, really no
alternative but to try.
2.9 Organizing social action
A systematic review of the different kinds of Buddhist organization for
social action which have appeared in different parts of the world is beyond
the scope of this pamphlet. Some considerable research would be required,
and the results would merit at least a separate pamphlet.
Later we shall introduce three contrasting movements which are in some sense
or others examples of Buddhist social action. Each is related more or less
strongly to the particular social culture in which it originated, and all
should therefore be studied as illustrative examples-in-context and not
necessarily as export models for other countries. They are, however, very
suggestive, and two of the three have spread beyond their country of origin.
2.9a Maintaining balance
Social action needs to be organized and practiced in such a way as to build
upon its potential for spiritual practice and to guard against its
seductions. Collective labor with fellow-Buddhists raises creative energy,
encourages positive attitudes and engenders a strong spirit of fellowship.
The conflicts, disagreements, obstacles, and discouragements which will
certainly be met along the way offer rich meditation experiences and
opportunity for personal growth, so long as scrupulous mindfulness is
The meditator will learn as much about himself in a contentious meeting as
he will in the meditation hall. Both kinds of experience are needed, and
they complement one another. Social action is a great ripener of compassion
(for self as well as for others), out of the bitterness of the experiences
which it commonly offers. Yet, like nothing else, it can stir up the
partisan emotions and powerfully exult the opinionated ego. The busy,
patronizing evangelist not only gives an undercover boost to his own ego; he
also steals another person's responsibility for himself. However, these
dangers are, comparatively speaking, gross and tangible when set against the
no less ego-enhancing seduction of Other-Worldliness and dharma-ridden
pietism. Such "spiritual materialism," as Chogyam Trungpa calls it, has long
been recognized as the ultimate and most elusive kind of self-deception
which threatens the follower of the spiritual path.
The seduction lies in being carried away by our good works, in becoming
subtly attached to the new goals and enterprises we have set ourselves, so
that no space is left in our busily structured hours in which some saving
strength of the spirit can abide. Here is opportunity to learn how to dance
with time -- "the river in which we go fishing," as Thoreau called it,
instead of neatly packaging away our lives in it, or letting it dictate us.
And in committee lies the opportunity of slowly turning the hot, lusty
partisanship of self-opinionated confirmation into the kind of space and
dialogue in which we can communicate, and can even learn to love our most
It is therefore important that both the individual and the group set aside
regular periods for meditation, with periods of retreat at longer intervals.
It is important also that experience and the feel of the social action
project should as far as possible be shared openly within the Buddhist
In our view, the first social action of the isolated Buddhist is not to
withhold the Dharma from the community in which he or she lives. However
modest one's own understanding of the Dharma, there is always some first
step that can be taken and something to be learned from taking that step.
Even two or three can be a greater light to one another, and many forms of
help are often available from outside such as working together through a
correspondence course, for example, or listening to borrowed audiocassettes.
For the reasons given earlier it is important that social action projects
should, where possible, be undertaken by a Buddhist group rather than each
individual "doing his own thing." And since the Buddhist group will, in most
Western countries, be small and isolated, it is important that the work be
undertaken in co-operation with like-minded non-Buddhists. This will both
use energies to better effect since social action can be very time- and
energy-consuming, and create an even better learning situation for all
involved. Forms of social action which are high on explicit giving of
service and low on conflict and power situations will obviously be easier to
handle and to "give" oneself to, though still difficult in other respects.
For example, organizing and participating in a rota of visits to lonely,
long-stay hospital patients would contrast, in this respect, with
involvement in any kind of local community development project.
2.9b Spiritual centers: example and outreach
In this section we are concerned with the significance of Buddhist
residential communities both as manifestations and examples of the "good
society" and as centers of social outreach (mainly, though not solely, in
the form of teaching the Dharma). We may distinguish four possible kinds of
In the first place, any healthy spiritual community does, by its very
existence, offer to the world a living example not only of the Good Life but
also of the Good Society. Certain spiritual values are made manifest in its
organization and practice in a way not possible in print or in talk. On the
other hand, the purely contemplative and highly exclusive community can do
this only in some limited, special and arguable sense.
In the second place, where the members of such a community undertake work as
a community economically ("Right Livelihood"), then to that extent the
community becomes a more realistic microcosm of what has to be done in the
wider world and a more realistic model and example of how it might best be
Thirdly, such communities are commonly teaching and training communities.
This may be so in formal terms, in that they offer classes and short courses
and also longer periods of training in residence, in which the trainees
become veritable community members. And it may be true in terms of the
"openness" of the community to outsiders who wish for the present to open up
their communication with the community through some participation in work,
ritual, teaching, meditation.
Fourthly, the community might involve itself in various kinds of outside
community service, development or action beyond that of teaching, and beyond
the necessarily commercial services which may sustain the community's "Right
Livelihood." Examples might be running a hospice for the terminally ill,
providing an information and advice center on a wide range of personal and
social problems for the people of the local community, and assisting -- and
maybe leading -- in various aspects of a socially deprived local community.
The spiritual community thus becomes more strongly a community within a
community. In this kind of situation would the spiritual community draw
strength from its service to the social, the "lay" community, creating an
upward spiral of energy? Or would the whole scheme founder through the
progressive impoverishment and corruption of the spiritual community in a
vicious downward spiral?
In the Eastern Buddhist monastic tradition the first and third aspects
(above) are present. In contrast to Christian monasticism, monks are not
necessarily expected to be monks for life, and the monasteries may have an
important function as seminaries and as long and short stay teaching and
training centers. On the other hand, economically such communities are
commonly strongly sustained by what is predominantly Buddhist society. In
the West there are now similar communities in all the main Buddhist
traditions. Although these are to some extent sustained also by lay Buddhist
contributions, their income from training and teaching fees may be
important. And whether it is or not, it is clear that their actual and
potential training and teaching role is likely to be very important in
non-Buddhist societies in which there is a growing interest in Buddhism. A
good example is the Manjusri Institute in the United Kingdom, which is now
seeking official recognition for the qualifications which it awards, and
which could eventually become as much part of the national education system
as, say, a Christian theological college. Such an integration of Buddhist
activity into the pattern of national life in the West is, of course, most
welcome, and opens up many new opportunities for making the Dharma more
The above developments may be compared with the communities which form the
basis of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). In these, our
second aspect (above), that of Right Livelihood, is found, in addition to
the first and third.
The FWBO was founded in 1967 in the United Kingdom by the Ven. Maha Sthavira
Sangharakshita, a Londoner who spent twenty years in India as a Buddhist
monk and returned with the conviction that the perennial Buddhism always
expresses itself anew in each new age and culture. The FWBO is concerned
with building what it calls the "New Society" in the minds and practice of
its members. Opening the FWBO's London Buddhist Center, Ven. Sangharakshita
was reported as saying that the New Society was a spiritual community
composed of individuals who are "truly human beings: self-aware, emotionally
positive people whose energies flow freely and spontaneously, who accept
responsibility for their own growth and development, in particular by
providing three things: firstly, a residential spiritual community;
secondly, a co-operative Right Livelihood situation; and thirdly a public
center, offering classes, especially in meditation" (Marichi, 1979).
The FWBO does in fact follow a traditional Mahayana spiritual practice, but
within this framework it does have, as the quotation above suggests, a
strong Western flavor. This owes much to the eleven co-operatives by which
many of the eighteen autonomous urban communities support themselves. These
businesses are run by teams of community members as a means of personal and
group development. They include a printing press, graphic design business,
photographic and film studio, metalwork forge, and shops and cafes.
Membership of the communities (which are usually single sex), varies between
four and thirty people, and often the community members pool their earnings
in a "common purse." The FWBO comprises Order members, Mitras (who have made
some initial commitment) and Friends (supporters in regular contact). Each
community is autonomous and has its own distinctive character. Attached to
communities are seven Centers, through which the public are offered talks,
courses and instruction in meditation. Regular meetings of Chairmen of
Centers and other senior Order members, supported by three central
secretariats, are planned for the future, but it is not intended to abridge
the autonomy of the constituent communities, each of which is a separately
registered legal body.
The FWBO is growing very rapidly, not only in the United Kingdom but also
overseas, with branches in Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia,
the USA, and, interestingly, in India, where a sustained effort is being
made to establish centers.
2.9c Community services and development
We refer in this section to the fourth aspect distinguished early in the
previous section 2.9b, namely, various possible kinds of service and support
which may be given by organized Buddhists to the local community in which
they live. The FWBO does not undertake this kind of activity (see previous
section for examples), and in fact there do not appear to be any major
examples of it in the West.
Arguably if this kind of work is undertaken at all, it might more likely be
initiated by a non-residential "lay" Buddhist group, whose members as
householders and local workers may have strong roots in their town or
neighborhood. As an example of what can be achieved by a relatively small
group of this kind, we quote the following (from The Middle Way, 54 (3)
Autumn 1979, p. 193):
"The Harlow Buddhist Society have recently opened Dana House, a
practical attempt to become involved with the ordinary people of
the town and their problems. The new center ... has four regular
groups using it. The first is an after-care service for those who
have been mentally or emotionally ill. The center is there for
those in need of friendship and understanding. The second group is
a psychotherapy one, for those with more evident emotional
problems. It is run by an experienced group leader and a
psychologist who can be consulted privately. The third group is a
beginners' meditation class based on the concept of 'Right
Understanding.' The fourth group is the Buddhist group, which is
not attached to any particular school of Buddhism.
"Peter Donahoe writes: 'We have endeavored to provide a center
which can function in relation to a whole range of different
needs, a place of charity and compassion, where all are welcomed
regardless of race, colour, sex or creed, welcomed to come to
terms with their suffering in a way which is relative to each
However, on the whole, it is only in the East, in societies in which
Buddhist culture is predominant or important, that there are sufficiently
committed Buddhists to play a part in extensive community service and
development projects. For example, in Japan there are several such movements
and we shall refer in the next section to one example -- Soka Gakkai, a
movement which also plays a number of other roles. We must first, however,
turn our attention to a pre-eminent example of a Buddhist-inspired movement
for community development, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka.
"Sarvodaya" means "awakening of all" and "Shramadana" means "sharing of
labor," making a gift of time, thought and energy. This well describes what
is basically a village self-help movement, inspired by Buddhist principles
and founded in 1958 as part of a general national awakening. It is now by
far the largest non-governmental, voluntary organization in Sri Lanka.
The Movement learned in its earlier days how very important non-economic
factors are in community development, and its projects combine
spiritual-cultural with socioeconomic development. "One important element
that cannot be improved upon in Buddhist villages in particular is the
unique place of the temple and the Buddhist monk, the one as the meeting
place, the other as the chief exponent of this entire process." (All
quotations are from the pamphlet Ethos and Work Plan, published by the
Movement.) Founded on traditional culture, Sarvodaya Shramadana is
ultimately "a nonviolent revolutionary movement for changing man and
society." At the same time it aims to retain the best in the traditional
social and cultural fabric of the community.
Village development projects are undertaken on the initiative of the
villagers themselves. To begin with the community is made aware of the
historic causes that led to the impoverishment and disintegration of the
community and of its cultural and traditional values. Economic regeneration
is only possible if there is a restoration of social values within the
village. It is emphasized that the community itself must take the initiative
in removing obstacles to development and in learning the new skills needed
to carry through a change of program. The volunteers brought in to help
serve only as a catalyst. Action is focused initially on Shramadana Camps in
which villagers and outside volunteers work together upon some community
project such as a road or irrigation channel. The experience of such Camps
helps to develop a sense of community. Local leaders, working through
village groups of farmers, of youth, of mothers and others, emerge to take
increasing responsibility for a more or less comprehensive development
program. This may include pre-school care for the under-fives, informal
education for adults, health care programs, and community kitchens, with
co-operation with State agencies as appropriate. By 1980, Sarvodaya was
reaching 3,500 villages and was running 1,185 pre-schools.
Essential to these community development programs in Sarvodaya Shramadana's
system of Development Education programs, operating through six Institutes
and through the Gramodaya centers each of which co-ordinates development
work in some twenty to thirty villages. The movement also provides training
in self-employment for the youth who compose the largest sector of the
unemployed. Although the main thrust of activity has been in rural areas,
the Movement is also interested in urban community development where
conditions are favorable and there is local interest.
The main material support for the movement comes from the villagers
themselves, although financial and material assistance has also been
received from overseas.
It is argued that the basic principles of Sarvodaya Shramadana can be
adapted to developed as well as developing countries, and Sarvodaya groups
are already active in West Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Thailand.
"The rich countries also have to helped to change their purely materialistic
outlook and strike a balance, with spiritual values added to the
materialistic values of their own communities so that together all can build
a new One World social order."
2.9d Political action and mass movements
Although there may be exceptional circumstances in certain countries, as a
general rule there are strong arguments against Buddhist groups explicitly
aligning themselves with any political party. It is not just that to do so
would be irrelevantly divisive. As we have noted in section 2.6 (above),
there are deeper, underlying social and political realities which cross-cut
the conventional political spectrum of left, right and center.
Nevertheless, Buddhism, like other great religious systems, inevitably has
political implications. To some extent these seem to be relatively clear,
and in other senses they are arguable and controversial. Religion has its
own contribution to make to politics and, ultimately, it is the only
contribution to politics that really matters. It has failed both politically
and as religion it falls either into the extreme of being debased by
politics or of rejecting any kind of political involvement as a kind of
fearful taboo. The fear of creating dissension among fellow Buddhists is
understandable, but if Buddhists cannot handle conflict in a positive and
creative way, then who can?
On closer examination we shall find that it is not "politics" that requires
our vigilance so much as the problems of power and conflict inherent in
politics. Indeed, a better use of the term "political" would be to describe
any kind of power and conflict situation. In this sense a Buddhist
organization may be more intensely and unhappily "political" in managing its
spiritual and practical affairs than if and when its members are discussing
such an "outside" matter as conventional politics. Indeed, any such
discussion of social and political questions may be banned by a Buddhist
society which may be in fact intensely political in terms of underlying
power and conflict with which its members have not really come to terms. All
kinds of organizations have problems of power and conflict and derive their
positive dynamism from the good management of these, but the dangers of
self-delusion seem to be greater in religious bodies.
When we meet Buddhists and get to know them, we find that even when they do
not express explicit opinions on political and social matters, it is clear
from other things they say that some are inclined to a conservative
"establishment" stance, some are of a radical inclination, and others more
dissident still. Since the diversities of THIS and THAT exist everywhere
else in the conditioned world, even Buddhists cannot pretend to exclude
themselves from such disturbing distinctions. This is not really in
question. What is in question is their ability to handle their differences
openly and with Buddhist maturity. And, as we have tried to show earlier,
this maturity implies a progressive diminution of emotional attachment to
views of THIS and THAT, so that we no longer need either in order to sustain
our identity in the world and have in some sense transcended our clinging by
a higher understanding. We still carry THIS or THAT, but lightly and
transparently and manageably -- without ego-weight. If we did not still
carry them, how could we feel the Compassion for samsara, for ourselves as
well as others?
Alan Watts wrote a suitably controversial little pamphlet on this subject,
entitled Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen (City Lights Books, San Francisco,
1959). The following passage may be found helpful to our present discussion;
what the author has to say about Zen is surely no less applicable to
Buddhism as a whole. Watts argues that the Westerner who wishes to
understand Zen deeply "must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he
is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come
to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience
so he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of
the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will be either 'beat' or
'square,' either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of
stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the
mind from conventional thought and this is something utterly different from
rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign
conventions, on the other."
In the West, individual Buddhists have been particularly attracted to
pacifist, disarmament, and environmentalist movements and parties. These
movements have profound concerns, which, arguably, undercut the expediencies
of conventional party politics. On the other hand, are they not made the
more attractive by a certain political innocence, as yet uncorrupted and
unblessed by the realities of power? And do they not also underestimate the
karma of power and property?
However, in Western and other non-Buddhist countries Buddhist political
action of any kind is little more than speculative. Buddhists are few in
number, and their energies are necessarily fully occupied with learning and
teaching. Teaching is the major form of social action and we have already
discussed certain social action implications of the spiritual community.
Social action at most verges upon certain possible kinds of service to the
wider community or even participation in community development. We have
already suggested the merit of such enterprises. But as to politics, using
the word conventionally, in the West and at the present time, that can be no
more than a matter for discussion in Buddhist groups. As always, individual
Buddhists and perhaps informal groups will decide for themselves about
political action or inaction.
However, in countries where there are strong Buddhist movements, well rooted
in society, some kind of political stance and action seems unavoidable and,
indeed, logical and natural, though conventional party political alignments
may generally be avoided.
For example, Sarvodaya Shramadana's success at the higher levels of village
self-development depends on "the extent that unjust economic arrangements
such as ownership of means of production, e.g., land in the hands of a few,
administrative system and political power structures, are changed in such a
way that the village masses become the true masters of their own selves and
their environment. That the present government has gone very far in this
direction is amply demonstrated when one examines the radical measures that
have already been taken" (Sarvodaya Shramadana pamphlet Ethos and Work Plan,
For large and explicitly Buddhist movements filing a variety of different
roles, from the devotional to the so-called "New Religions" which have
become particularly important in Japan in the post-war period. (Some mention
has already been made of the small discussion groups which are a notable
feature of Rissho-Kosei-Kai -- The "Society for Establishing Righteousness
and Family Relations".) With their strong emphasis on pacifism, brotherly
love, and mutual aid, these organizations have done much to assist the
recovery of the Japanese people from the trauma of military aggression and
the nuclear explosions which terminated it.
Soka Gakkai (literally, "Value Creation Society") is perhaps the most
striking of these Japanese Buddhist socio-political movements. It is a lay
Buddhist organization with over fifteen million adherents, associated with
the Nichiren-Sho-Shu sect.
Soka Gakkai has an ambitious education and cultural program, and has founded
its own university, high school and hospital. It also has a political party,
Komeito -- the "Clean Government Party," which as early as 1967 returned
twenty-five parliamentary candidates to the Japanese lower house, elected
with five percent of the national vote. The party has continued to play an
important part in Japanese political life, basing itself on "the principles
of Buddhist democracy" and opposition to rearmament. Soka Gakkai is a
populist movement, militant, evangelical and well organized, pledged to
"stand forever on the side of the people" and to "devote itself to carrying
out the movement for the human revolution" (President Daisaku Ikeda). More
specifically, its political achievements have included a successful
confrontation with the mineowners of Hokkaido.
Attitudes to Soka Gakkai understandably differ widely. It has been
criticized by some for its radicalism and by others for its conservatism;
certainly it has been criticized on the grounds of dogmatism and
aggressiveness. Certainly it is imbued with the nationalist fervor of
Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist monk who inspired it. Although it has
some claims to missionary work in other countries, Soka Gakkai appears to
have a more distinctive national flavor than the other social action groups
we have looked at and to be less suitable for export.
2.9e "Universal Responsibility and the Good Heart"
Elsewhere we have already quoted the words of the Dalai Lama emphasizing the
active global responsibility of Buddhists, and the importance above all of
what he calls "Universal Responsibility and the Good Heart." In all
countries will be found non-Buddhists, whether religionists or humanists,
who share with us a non-violent, non-dogmatic and non-sectarian approach to
community and world problems, and with whom Buddhists can work in close
cooperation and with mutual respect. This is part of the "Good Heart" to
which the Dalai Lama refers. "I believe that the embracing of a particular
religion like Buddhism does not mean the rejection of another religion or
one's own community. In fact it is important that those of you who have
embraced Buddhism should not cut yourself off from your own society; you
should continue to live within your own community and with its members. This
is not only for your sake but for others' also, because by rejecting your
community you obviously cannot benefit others, which actually is the basic
aim of religion" (Dalai Lama, 1976).
Mr. Emilios Bouratinos and his colleagues of the Buddhist Society of Greece
have framed certain farsighted proposals for the "rehumanization of society"
which have Buddhist inspiration but which seek to involve non-Buddhist
ideological groups with the aim of reaching some common ground with them on
the organization of society. Mr. Bouratinos argues that Buddhists should
address themselves "to all people somehow inspired from within -- whether
they be religionists or not. This is indispensable, for we Buddhists are a
tiny minority in the West and yet we must touch the hearts of many if this
world is to survive in some meaningful fashion" (Letter to the author, 15
Certainly in the West many Buddhists will maintain that it is necessary to
take one step at a time, and that for the present our individual and
collective action must go into the inner strengthening of our faith and
practice. They would doubtless agree on the importance of teaching the
Dharma, which we have characterized as one of the important forms of social
action, but they would argue that the seduction of other kinds of social
action, and the drain of energy, are greater than the opportunities which it
can afford for "wearing out the shoe of samsara." They would argue that the
best way to help other people is by personal example.
This pamphlet concedes some possible truth to the above position but also
offers a wide range of evidence to the contrary, to which in retrospect the
reader may now wish to return. Whatever we may feel about it, certainly the
debate is a worthwhile one since, as we have seen, it points to the very
heart of Buddhism -- the harmony, or creative equilibrium, of Wisdom and
Compassion. And as in all worthwhile debates, the disagreement, and, still
more, the possible sense of disagreeableness which it engenders, offers each
of us a valuable meditation.
The needs and aptitudes of individual differ, and our debate will also
appear differently to readers in different countries with different cultural
backgrounds. Though we are brothers and sisters to one another, as Buddhists
each must light his or her own way. To the enquiring reader who has little
knowledge of Buddhism and yet who has managed to stay with me to the end, I
offer my apologies if I have sometimes seemed to forget him and if my
explanations have proved inadequate. For
"This is where words fail: for what can words tell
Of things that have no yesterday, tomorrow or today?"
-- Tseng Ts'an
To a world knotted in hatreds and aggression and a host of follies, grand
and mean, heroic and base, Buddhism offers a unique combination of
unshakable equanimity and a deeply compassionate practical concern. And so
may we tread lightly through restless experience, riding out defeats and
discouragements, aware always of the peace at the heart of things, of the
freedom that is free of nothing.
Brandon, David, "Zen and the art of helping," Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Chogyam Trungpa, "The Myth of freedom and the way of meditation," Shambhala,
Chuang Tzu, "The Way of Chuang Tzu," trans. Thomas Merton, Unwin Books,
Conze, Edward, "Buddhism," 2nd ed., Cassirer, 1974.
Dalai Lama, H.H.XIV, "Universal responsibility and the good heart,"
Dharamsala (Library of Tibetan works), 1976.
Dalai Lama, H.H.XIV, reported in "Tibetan Review," April 1979, and quoted
from Reuter (Paris) News Report, 21st March 1979.
Hakuin, Zen Master, "The Zen Master Hakuin," trans. P.B. Yampolsky, Columbia
University Press, 1971.
Marichi, "Authority and the individual," FWBO Newsletter No. 41, Winter
Rahula, Walpola, "What the Buddha Taught," 2nd ed., Gordon Fraser, 1967.
Rahula, Walpola, "Zen and the taming of the bull: Essays," Gordon Fraser,
Saddhatissa, H., trans., Kalahavivada-sutta (Sutta-Nipata), "Buddhist
Quarterly," 11(1), 1978, 1-3.
Sangharakshita, M.S., "Peace is a fire," Windhorse Publications, 1979.
Saraha, Treasury of Songs (Doha Kosha), in Conze, E., ed. "Buddhist Texts,"
Schumacher, E.F., "Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people
mattered," Blond & Briggs, 1973.
Seng Ts'an, "On trust in the heart," in Conze, E., ed. "Buddhist Texts,"
Cassirer, 1954 (trans. Arthur Waley).
Shiki, Haiku, in Henderson, Harold, "An introduction to Haiku," Doubleday,
1. Translated in Everyman's Ethics, The Wheel No. 14.
The Wheel Publication No. 285/286
SL ISSN 0049-7541
Copyright © 1981 Buddhist Publication Society
Buddhist Publication Society
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
Kandy, Sri Lanka
For free distribution only.
You may print copies of this work for your personal use.
You may re-format and redistribute this work for use on computers and
provided that you charge no fees for its distribution or use.
Otherwise, all rights reserved.
This edition was transcribed from the print edition in 1995 by Heath Row
under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with
the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.
The Buddhist Publication Society
The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making
known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of
Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets
covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate
annotated translations of the Buddha's discourses, standard reference works,
as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and
practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is -- a dynamic force
which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as
relevant today as it was when it first arose.
A full list of our publications will be sent free of charge upon request.
The Hony. Secretary
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
149 Lockwood Road
Barre, MA 01005 USA
Revised: Tue 2 November 1999
and Disruption in Society