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Buddhism and its Social Implications

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Buddhism and its Social Implications

-Dr. Mohan Khatiwada


Today’s society of divergent nature with exacerbating complexities requires balanced growth and development. Materialist societal ambitions will ultimately worsen the human abode. Buddhism can be the path way to resolve the social crises engulfing every aspect of life. Social transformation to the extent of spirituality is the derivative of Buddhism. Buddhist canonical texts are the evidence of social service carried out from the time of its origin. This is to engage itself in the removal of social evils through spirituality in order to teach people the Dharma. In addition, the best possible solutions are to be portrayed in consent without exerting any pressure on others belief and creeds as Buddhism has the axioms of tolerance against intolerance. The social issues have taken the form of global issues. Unless the societal issues are resolved, the global tension cannot be reduced to minimum. Social integrity is imperative to its progress. Buddhist education would extend helping hands for the welfare of human society.

Key words: Sila, concentration, wisdom, impermanence, compassion, homelessness, naturalization


The Buddha, the enlightened one, born to the Shakya clan in almost 5 century BCE at Lumbini, is the founder of Buddhism which is regarded as the supreme achievement the mankind has ever accomplished. He did not have only interpreted the worldly sufferings but also encapsulated the measures to get rid of them so that a man could have enjoyed the life of happiness. Buddhism has envisaged the society of equality, harmony and tolerance as against hatred, greed and worldly attachment. The Buddha’s doctrine endowed with the dialectical extremes, like suffering and Nirvana, cause and consequences (dependent origination)

etc. has its social implications, arisen from society and meant for society. It is so because the Buddha’s first announcement of four noble truths was the discovery of mystery over human existence. A man confronts with society of not being at par due to the multiplicity of desires. The consequential effect thus engenders hatred, greed, intolerance and other kind of defilements till his survival. The obsession of illusionary worldly pleasure deviates human beings from the righteous living with compassion and loving-kindness. Buddhism in such a context shows the path to deliverance from suffering. Buddhist Contribution to Early Period Society

The Buddha’s teachings are primarily concerned with the social transformation beginning from an individual, the member of society. It is to gear up a society making the societal relations more blissful and prosperous. It should not only be regarded Buddhism as a doctrinal and soteriological teaching alone, but a complex social institution (Steinkellner and Rospatt, 2010) . Even during the period of the Buddha, the feudal kingdoms were dominant over the societal structure. Superstitions had become the tradition that was believed to be the destiny of the people. Social stratification of people was based on primarily by

birth as upper and lower classes like Brahmins(the elites), Khattiya (the ruling class), Vaisya (trading class), Shudra (working class) etc and by the possession of wealth. Manipulation of justice was prevalent because the poor person (daliddo) was to serve in prison for more terms than that of a rich (addho) in similar cases of offence (Narayan, 2014, p. 66) . Social discrimination was rampant. Out of sixteen Mahajanapada, four monarchies viz. Magadha, Kosala,

Vamsa and Avanti were more significant and at loggerheads. Small republican states, gana-sanghs at the time could not resist the imperialist ambition of the kingdoms. The subversive political and economic system was leading nowhere but to the collapse of regimes and social structures. Narayan argues that the territorial dominance of the then Mahajanapadas during the sixth century BCE was completely undergoing a social chaos and political turmoil for which the Buddha himself was a witness (p. 30).

The religious influence over political, economic and social systems was not capable enough to retain the ongoing anarchies in the region. As a matter of fact, an alternative social system was imminent against the culture of violence that had plagued the society. The Buddha’s renouncement decision was not only the cause of having a sight at an old man, a sick and a dead person but chiefly it was attributed to the enmity between the states of Kosalas and Koliyas on the issue of dividing waters of Rohini river for irrigation (Ambedkar, 2011, p. 48). Gender discrimination and disparity of income were most common features of

society. The unfortunates, deprived of basic amenities, were regarded as the untouchables. The caste system that prevailed at the time had been interpreted in different ways. Brahmanic idea of caste had the concept of ‘naturalization’. For some others, it was deemed to be the outcome of social convention. Both the concept had derogated the humanity to the lowest level. Buddhism from its origin denied the social denominations categorized on the basis of caste system.

Further, Buddhism rather redefined the system with a new height attributing to the karmic action. The evolution of Buddhism was to ensure social transformation, yet not in the form of social reform. Glane (2012) found that “Buddhism has not created a social reform in India, despite some rhetoric in its literatures (p. xvii)”. Whatsoever the argument is, Buddhism brought awareness awakening the people, scholars and ascetics of the time developing the parallel thought to feudal social system.

Social Connectedness of Buddhism

Buddhism has never urged to be in the state of isolation. Renouncing the family and social privileges does not mean disassociating oneself from society. Rather, it is to find the ultimate truth for the wellbeing of society on one hand and to attain salvation from all sort of suffering on the other. Going forth from homely life into the homelessness is not a pessimistic view, nor is this a detachment from society but it will ultimately reward society with the

knowledge the recluses gain as is the case of three clansmen ie, Anuruddha, Nandiya and Kimbila (Nanamoli and Bodhi, 1995, p. 305). The Buddha has insisted on avoiding Three Poisons ie, ignorance ( not understanding oneself and the world but purportedly behaving of possessing such knowledge), attachment (considering what someone holds the thought is true, or blind faith) and aggression (towards anyone who disagrees with others point of view). (Sachs, 2006, p. 36). This is the manifestation of social behavior of an individual. The behavior code, mostly known as Noble Eightfold Path ie the guiding principles of human life, are the ways and means of purifying minds, body and speech which are worth significant in dealing with the people outside.

The social beings , the good or the evil, from the prince to the pauper and from the sages to the criminals attained transformation through the Buddha’s teachings. Biddulph and Flynn (2009, p. 11) observe, that “the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching others to find release from their sufferings, as he had. During the phase he brought many to an understanding of the nature of suffering and the way out of suffering. Among his early disciples were kings,

princes, nobles, Brahmins, many holy men, merchants, householders, and even criminals.” All these were the social compositions differentiated by karma (action) and thoughts. Buddhism, in such a way, unequivocally, lays emphasis on the wellbeing of all. The Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra) states about the ten vows of omniscient Bodhisattva Samantabhadra of which the ninth and tenth vows reflect how the social beings are benefitted and the merits and virtues are transferred to them.

From the early periods of Buddhism, it has been able to release itself from narrow bindings of racial, territorial and national boundaries. The consequential effects exhibit the widening stretch of Buddhism from the place of its origin to the western world. However, its connectivity to society needs further to be strengthened more vigorously. It is so because, after Shakyamuni attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he did not remain alone gloating over his new found truths. Instead he set out upon a journey to preach and spread the Dharma so that he might share his enlightenment and wisdom with other men and women everywhere (Ikeda , 1982, p. 83). Thus, interconnectedness of Buddhism rests on society as it is for the welfare of society at large.

Fear of losing its significance as religion

Making Buddhism a societal practice with tenets even in diversity further augments its significance as universal religion. But those practicing Buddhism as religion may express polemics fearing the potential damage of Buddhism as religion. Skepticism mainly relies on the confinement of Buddhism as social ethics. It is so because the society embraces the people of diverse nature in terms of faiths, culture, language and so on, and adaptation of Buddhist faith merely as social ethic will deviate people from the roots of the Dharma and Vinaya. That is why the early sects of Buddhism are allegedly regarded being aloof from societal responsibility by engrossing themselves for the supreme path of deliverance without taking any steps to assist the advancement of others by preaching and offering guidance (Ibid.).

Even in a cross-cultural society, understanding of noble truths accompanied by the adaptation of noble paths and paramitas would help bring peace and harmony. Buddhist universalism is the religion itself. It rises up from above any sectarian beliefs and works for the welfare of all human beings. It is sided with conciliatory approach against hostility for dissolving contentions. Buddhist spirituality diagnoses the problems of scarcity and develops the measures of adequacy in the field of economic science because the poverty corrupts the people morally and deprives them from basic requirements of livelihood. That is how the spirituality stands on prosperity to the extent of adequacy while living on an austere life. Bodhisattva abandoned all the luxury life to seek for enlightenment and even when he attained it he continued to live without much material possessions. The Buddha emphasized to make wealth through just means and to spend it for the benefit of others and oneself (Khatiwada, 2016, p. 125).

Buddhism never demands for conversion but assists in transformation. Taking refuge in Triple Gems and practicing five precepts lead simply to the path of liberation. Even for non-Buddhist or lay followers, practicing five precepts and adapting the Noble Eightfold Path help achieve the process of transformation. It is to develop a culture, a Buddhist culture for all. It is not to delimit Buddhism into merely the culture but to build the space for civilization.

Social issues are the global issues

Social issues are multiplying ferociously in different forms. The twenty-first century human society is not only endowed with the modern amenities of living but also entrapped into the vicious circle of extreme poverty, starvation, climate change, famine, widespread corruption, conflict and violence, epidemics, disparity, disasters and deprivations. Seemingly these are thought to be the problems of a particular group of people or a territory yet they pose a global threat to peace and prosperity.

The burning issues of society can be resolved through justifiable distribution of resources to minimize the income disparity following the Buddhist approach to surplus disbursement. In monastic order, a monk is satisfied with a robe and alms (Walshe,1995, p. 101) , not to mention the luxury possessions. If the amassing of wealth is replaced by the essential goods for every individual, sufficiency occurs for all. Buddhism has never discouraged trades and commerce for economic self- sufficiency. A householder as well as a wealthy merchant Anathapindika (Nanamoli,1995) attained arhantship without forsaking his

entrepreneurship. The artisans and craftsmen were encouraged to produce more for themselves and for others. The Buddha has given instances of society made up of different professional groups like farmer, workers, merchant, chaplain, ruler etc (Majjhima Nikaya :98) . If they deserve an understanding of sila, wisdom and compassion, the optimum production is made possible. The Buddha has also mention about the robber, an evil product of society but he has not ignored the potential transformation of such evils by means of the Dharma teaching as it happened in the case of Angulimala(Nanamoli,1995, p. 1289) .

Buddhism cannot remain isolated from society. It works as a raft in the water of suffering. Present day social chaos and ever multiplying desires are aggravating the social unrest and worsening situations, for instance, ethnic and racial violence, gender discrimination, unemployment etc. War against terrorism and between the hostile countries has claimed lives of people and displaced thousands of people from their home and homeland. The evils are exponentially impeding the human rapture resulting in distraught. As such, Buddhism with its very means of wisdom and compassion can resolve the problems.

Social Conflict Resolution

Conflict occurs in absence of peace. Society as an entity consists of stratification of social classes with the possibility of upward or downward social mobility. To some, it reflects the antagonistic relationship between two or several groups. It is further argued in a fovourable way that conflict within and between groups in a society can prevent accommodations and habitual relations from progressively impoverishing creativity(Lewis, 1957, p. 197) . But the

conflict that the society is witnessing now is more devastating causing uncomfortable to the peace and prosperity. Ruling of society not by force but by the righteousness, as Buddhism suggests, brings social harmony as against the social conflicts (Khatiwada, 2017, p. 20) Christopher S. Queen (2000, p. 1-7) suggests to rise up through the socially engaged Buddhism for the resolution of the social problems bearing the universal responsibility. Buddhism, by means of wisdom and compassion, develops ways out to relieve others from the mundane sufferings. This is why Buddhism helps resolve conflict through compassion.

Canonical expressions on the management of conflict are very much useful to settle disputes, not only within oneself but also for the society at large. Pali source of conflict management through Buddhist perspective throws light on how the arisen of conflict is resisted. The Samagama sutta ( Majjhima nikaya: 104) introduces to the early monastic community seven methods for resolving their individual and group conflicts.

These are:

1. Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Stipatthana)

2. Four Supreme Efforts (Sammappadhana)

3. Four Means to Accomplishment (basis of spiritual power)-Iddhipada

4. Five Faculties( Indriya)

5. Five Powers (Bala)

6. Seven Facors of Enlightenment (Bojjhanga)

7. Eight Path Factors (Ariyo atthangiko maggo)

These were the instances of the Buddha referring to the quarreling and wordy war among Niganthas (the Jain followers). Further, concentration on eight realizations (Hanh, 1998, p. 6-9) (being aware of impermanence, desire, poverty, human mind, laziness, ignorance, wealth and endless round of birth and death) and meditation puts an end to the countless misunderstanding and conflicts. Buddhism, thus, develops peace internally as well as externally followed by prosperity. Peace does not flourish in starvation, famine and poverty but exists in harmony and resourceful society. In Japan, Buddhism is regarded as a refuse to the people against famine, disasters and distress (Shinsho et al., 1999, p. 138). Myriad of such instances in traditional Buddhists text make clear that Buddhism was an integral part of society. Kausalyan et al. (1998, p. 240) have rightly observed giving instances of the Buddha’s initiative to save the life of the people of famine-hit Vaisali by providing them with the alms collected from other places and to get the sick people served by the healthier ones with compassion and love.

Hence, Buddhism is a social phenomenon and contains indivisibility factors associated with society. The modern society is heading towards nowhere but to the path of distress, discomfort, disparity and destruction despite the abundance of resources and prosperity. Societal healings arise by means of wisdom, compassion and loving-kindness. Buddhism and society form integrity notwithstanding the diversity of society. Only the societal peace and prosperity keeps the Buddhism alive.


Buddhism is being regarded as the religion of twenty-first century. The religion that deserves the law of existence unequivocally focuses on the measures and means to enrich social integrity and harmony. The materialistic society longing for material pleasure is in the quagmire of sufferings like conflicts, deprivation and disorder. Buddhism needs to evoke society from panic of all these defilements.

Virtues (sila), concentration and wisdom are the productive means to awake the society towards prosperity and happiness. Buddhism has served the simplest means, taking at least an example of five precepts, to make the life easier and prosper even for the laity. Adapting Buddhism as religion and accepting its values and principles are quite different. The latter is applicable for all society irrespective of any faiths and beliefs. However, critics may ponder over

the significance of general acceptability of Buddhism as social values, since it may lead to the development of merely the philosophy. No doubt, a religion is a sectarian belief while philosophy is widely acceptable interpretation of society and universe. That is why, many scholars are in the opinion to regard is as both the religion and philosophy. This would help broaden the significance of Buddhism in different areas of social and global concern.

Now, Buddhism needs to take a lead in pacifying social conflicts by developing the measures of overcoming the crises of racial and gender discrimination, disparity of income, unequal distribution of resources, widened gaps between haves and have- nots. Moreover, Buddhism should take initiative to resolve the regional and global crises. Once observed the nuclear catastrophe is still hunting the mankind. States are expending more defense budget for arsenals being targeted to the annihilation of mankind rather than peace and prosperity. Buddhism has made its history of human civilization, so it cannot remain aloof from all these evils being a silent onlooker, but gets involved not as an intruder but in the role of a sooth seeker.