Buddhism and socio-ethical progress
Ven. Dr. Beligalle Dhammajoti, Dept. of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Ruhuna.
Upasika Sujatha offering alms to the Buddha after He attained Enlightenment.
Some scholars with a little knowledge of Buddhism are of the opinion that there is no socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddhism. A well-known scholar, Max Weber, who is considered ‘The Father of Sociology of Religion’, explaining the socio-political aspect of Buddhism says: “Buddhism had no tie with any social movement, nor did it run in parallel with such and it has established no social and political goal.”
He further says that Buddhism is a social and anti-political, and it can be considered to be an “other-worldly religion.” This is a misleading and distorted concept of Buddhism. It is very clear, for this misleading idea that Max Weber has not deeply analysed Buddhist teachings. Buddhism is in no way another-worldly religion. It includes a well-defined socio-economic and political philosophy.
Professor D.D. Kosambi and Professor Rhys Davids accept that there is a socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddhism, and they disprove the above mentioned idea. Another misconceived idea of Buddhism says that Buddhism is such a sublime system that ordinary people cannot practise it.
One has to retire to a monastery if one desires to be a true Buddhist. This is a partial view. The doctrine of the Buddha is meant not only for Monks but also for ordinary men and women living in their homes with their family members. The Noble Eightfold Path, observing precepts, meditation on loving-kindness and the Ten Perfection are meant for all. They can be practised in anyone’s daily life.
It is incorrect to say that Buddhism is asocial. Addressing the first sixty Arahants (Perfected Ones), the Buddha says: “O Monks! Walk on tour, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many, good and happiness of human beings and celestial beings.”
This shows that the Buddha has laid much emphasis on the members of society and their welfare. Therefore, the old Buddhist monasteries became spiritual centres and the centres of learning and culture. The Five Precepts are meant for the whole human society. Any person can observe them and lead a spiritual life, and that would be of great benefit to this competitive society.
The Sigalovada Sutta explicitly explains the family and its social relationships. It gives a set of instructions and ethical teachings that pertain to man’s socio-economic and spiritual progress.
Modern man can lead a very happy and prosperous life if he understands the significance of these social relations explained in the Sigalovada Sutta.
Some scholars are of the opinion that Buddhist philosophy is interested only in higher morality and it ignores the social and economic welfare. This is also another misconception of Buddhist socio-economic philosophy.
The Kutadanta Sutta explains the way of developing a country with proper planning and the nature of socio-economic progress. We should not forget that the Buddha expounded these words in the sixth century BC, but even today they are of great value.
The Chakkavattisihanada Sutta explains the poverty, revolution, poverty-related crimes and the chaotic situation of a country and the reasons for those social ills. Today, our competitive global society experiences these socio-economic and political tribulations that are well-explained in the Chakkavattisihanada Sutta.
In the Agganna Sutta we find a theory of the origin of social classes. There the Buddha explains the arising and evolution of vegetation, the origin of state, the evolution of human race and social grades, the changing nature of moral values, and the relationship between moral degeneration and the deterioration of environmental elements.
The Sutta explains how the beings (Satta) were becoming less hard-working, less honest, less ethical and how they lost their physical and mental qualities. Fundamental unreasonable concepts relating to social organisations were radically transformed by the Buddha. The Buddha explained the nature of those concepts and their connection with the Ditthis or dogmatic views of certain religious traditions.
The socio-economic and cultural transformations by the Buddha can be seen explicitly even in the present time in our Buddhist societies. Making a comment on the socio-cultural upheaval of Buddhism, Narendranath Bhatthacharya says: “The rise of Buddhism was certainly to serve some social purpose. It had some distinct social and functional role.
But very few attempts have been made to understand all these.” It is true that Buddhism is capable of doing a drastic transformation of the present day competitive and war-like society. But it needs and appropriate knowledge and correct understanding of the teachings of the Buddha.
Buddha, Marx and God
The first significant work in the Buddhist social field was Die Religion des Buddha (1957), written by C.F. Koppen. In his book Koppen explains: “…. the Buddha was viewed as the emancipator of the oppressed and a great political innovator.”
Here, it is very interesting to note that Koppen was a close friend of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Karl Marx ruthlessly criticised religion and the widely accepted concept of omnipotent God. Buddhism is completely free from that criticism, for it does not have any concept of God.
Trevor Ling in his work ‘Buddha, Marx and God’ explains that Buddhism is free from his critique. French scholar La Loubere says that Buddhism is totally different from other religions as it does not have a doctrine of God and it teaches rebirth (re-becoming, re-changing, re-transformation of Punabbhava) without accepting the concept of a soul.
Addressing the ‘Berlin Science Academy’ in 1856, Albrecht Weber explained that Buddhist teachings were so helpful for social reformation and it had accepted the equality of all human beings.
The equality of all human beings is explained in the Vasetta Sutta, Ambatta Sutta, Assalayana Sutta and some other places.
Karl Marx and meditation
Karl Marx, writing a letter to his daughter Laura Marx, on March 20, 1866, said: “Most of my time I’m walking and breathing fresh air. I read nothing and write less. I go to bed at 9.00 p.m. Generally, I subside into the emotional state of non-existence that Buddhism considers to be the height of human delicacy.”
This statement clearly suggests that Karl Marx tried to practice Buddhist mindfulness and meditation in his final days. A well-known political philosopher who wanted to change the world society with revolutionary measures apparently changed his mind and came to the spiritual path.
Buddhism is the most socially-oriented religion. Therefore, the early Buddhist monasteries were celebrated seats of learning which functioned to a great extent like the modern universities.
Buddhist education paved the way for righteous (dhammic) existence and welfare of various societies. A more favourable socio-economic system for the world has been shown by the teachings of the Buddha.
The contribution of Buddhism in the field of art cannot be explained in words. It is inexpressible. Millions of pagodas and statues speak volumes for the immeasurable kindness and pure motivations of the human heart. Those statues were able to tame the minds and change the hearts of human beings. This is a silent revolution for the welfare of all living beings.
The very great and astonishing creations of Buddhist art can be seen in India, China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia and in some other countries.
The Borobudur Tope Complex in Central Java is a very wonderful creation of the Buddhist mind. Today, modern architects try to explain how they built it.
The only thing that we can do is to admire and be astonished by seeing it. The immensity and beauty of these structures puts the observer in awe of the intense dedication and inspiration of the people who built them.
Candi Sewu, Candi Mendut and Candi Plaosan in Central Java are also very astonishing Buddhist complexes. Why do so many people visit these artistic creations?
They definitely pave the way for mental peace and mental harmony of the visitors.
Contribution to sociology
The society in which we live today is highly competitive and money-centered. That very competition and money-centeredness takes a lot of time, energy and effort, and results in mental stress and physical distress. So, where do we find the proper medicine for this inconvenience? If we look at those ancient statues in a silent place, they infiltrate love, compassion and peace into the pure side of our hearts.
A society would be a very pleasant place if many human beings have pure hearts. The greatness of Gotama the Buddha’s contribution to sociology as a psychotherapist is admitted by Dr. Robert H. Thouless, the well-known psychologist of Cambridge.
If we carefully investigate the teachings of the Sutta Pitaka (Discourses) and the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline), we certainly would find many fundamental theories of sociology in them.
Buddhism is certainly a socio-ethical movement and it appreciates and promotes nothing but socio-ethical progress. Material development without ethical foundation is of no use. R. R. Bhole says, “Buddhism spread after first century AD to Middle Asia, China, Mongolia, Japan and Southeast Asia and triumphed as a far-reaching social humanistic movement.”