Buddhism and Social Action
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.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
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.
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 responsibility.
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 other non-Buddhists.
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 society.
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
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
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 taught.
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 condition itself.
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
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 their existence.
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
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
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
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
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
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 practice.
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
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
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
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 society.
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 health service?
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,
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
Here we are concerned primarily with the teaching of the Dharma to
newcomers in Buddhism, and with the general publicizing of Buddhism
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 learning.
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
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
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
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
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
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 follow.
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
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 Ts'an, 1954).
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. 60).
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
"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
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.
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
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 is doing.
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, 84).
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
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
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, p. 6).
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
(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
(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 Livelihood.'"
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 sustained.
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 implacable
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 group.
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 activity here.
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
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 done.
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,
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 widely
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,
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
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 individual.'"
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
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
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
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
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
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 May 1980).
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
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
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, 1976.
Chuang Tzu, "The Way of Chuang Tzu," trans. Thomas Merton,
Unwin Books, 1970.
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 1979, 13.
Rahula, Walpola, "What the Buddha Taught," 2nd ed., Gordon
Rahula, Walpola, "Zen and the taming of the bull: Essays,"
Gordon Fraser, 1978.
Saddhatissa, H., trans., Kalahavivada-sutta (Sutta-Nipata),
"Buddhist Quarterly," 11(1), 1978, 1-3.
Sangharakshita, M.S., "Peace is a fire," Windhorse
Saraha, Treasury of Songs (Doha Kosha), in Conze, E., ed.
"Buddhist Texts," Cassirer, 1954.
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, 1958.
1. Translated in Everyman's Ethics,
The Wheel No. 14.
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 all creeds.
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. Write to:
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
9 November 1998
to Buddhism Home