The Social and Political Strata In Buddhist Thought

21 Tháng Chín 201608:27(Xem: 1515)

The Social and Political Strata In Buddhist Thought

The Buddha, indeed, was the first man to have envisaged the basic concepts of social living and human relationships. His ideas were as dynamic and revolutionary as original. It is not surprising, therefore, that the latest theories of socialism and democracy seem to have live wires in the original thoughts of the Buddha. Every socialistic and democratic principle in the realm of politics and socio-economic matter finds its origin in the Buddhist sutras, with his divergence that the basic social philosophy in Buddhism was comparatively larger and definitely more purposeful than the social philosophies applied by modern socialists.

The Buddhist social philosophy excels over all other systems in providing the best means and guidelines for achieving social well being. It is a pity that modern thinkers hardly ever realize or grasp the deep significance inherent in the Buddha’s thoughts on socio-economic problems, which are as sublimes as those on the human consciousness.

In the Buddhist scriptures, the term “social” has a wider sense than its usual application to mere human existence. In the Buddhist sense the Buddha included the six worlds and the four kinds of birth, thus extending the social sphere to the aggregate of all sentient beings.

Similarly, political thinkers could only conceive of a temporary well being or happiness, while the Buddha showed the means to achieve permanent success. He gave to the world a modus operandi to abandon forever the source of misery.

The  Three Schools
For the ethical progress of mankind, the Buddha initiated three different vehicles (yanas) or schools which I consider to be successive stages of social development. According to the Sravakayana School, social practices may be grouped into two: one group of practices common to the laity, and another group for monks who have renounced worldly pleasures. The elementary sila (discipline), common to the lay people, deal with moral discipline which prohibits the ten evil deeds and stresses non-violence to sentient beings. In the Vinaya discipline violence to any sentient being is strictly prohibited so as to allow every being to live without hurting each other and without disturbing each other’s rights and well being. Violence is the root cause to social disturbance and misery, and the elimination of violence at the individual stage automatically builds up the growth of the social structure.

In the Mahayana bodhisattvacarya, violence is no doubt prohibited, but the Buddha allowed bodhisattvas the seven evil deeds of the body and speech in the larger interests of social beings. These deeds in themselves are definitely violent to others, but under special circumstances Buddha permitted the bodhisattvas to do these acts for the well being of all social creatures. This embodies self-sacrifice to face the consequence of evil acts in order to save a larger segment of humanity from falling into misery. The famous jatakas story of sarthavaha sattavavana calls forth our attention in this regard.

The black man of the cargo, with lance in his hands and desirous of killing the passengers of the ship and plundering their wealth was slain by Sarthavaha Sattvavana with great compassion for both the black man and the ship’s passengers. He had compassion for the black man to save his from the great sinful act which he planned to perform, by which he would incur the consequence of the sinful deed, and for the other passengers to save their lives and wealth.

As mentioned above in the parmitayana, the Buddha only allowed evil deeds or violent acts, but these were not enforced; in Vajrayana it becomes part of the duty of bodhisattvas to perform violent acts so as to eliminate anti-social elements, uncontrollable by non-violent means.
The sense of sacrifice gradually assumed larger dimension from these different vehicles.


Buddha aimed at the preservation and promotion of the real cause of social harmony. With this end in view, he laid down principles, which are well balanced and broad- based. It was with this object that he gave much important to the individual’s rights and benefits for the cause of the larger interests and social benefits of the state. These developed not by force but voluntarily.

This method is the only remedy to moderate social harmony and is practicable without hurting anyone. As regards individual rights, the prohibition of the ten evil deeds is mainly based upon the protection of everyone’s rights in society. In the ecclesiastical organisation if a single individual, in the jurisdiction of a particular sangha, did not turn up personally or surrendered his right to vote, no sangha-karma could be performed even if thousands of monks had assembled for that purpose.

Such an act, termed as “veto” in modern phraseology, is vital for social practices and to avoid the system of supersession of the minority by the majority. This kind of Episcopal organization can alone give a representation of each and every individual. Thus it is an unique privilege of Buddhism that it cannot be compared with any “ism” or dogma depriving man of his individual rights.

The greatest demerit of today’s social and democratic systems is that the representation of people is a one-way traffic, and the ideas and that right of the minority are always superseded by the majority.

In Mahayana bodhisattvacarya every individual has his proper place and rights on a reciprocal basis. It is in this way that real social harmony is practised in Buddhism which is generally ignored in political ideologies of our times.

Taken as a whole, the importance of safeguarding the individual’s rights and the maintenance of social harmony in the Sarvastivada Vinaya conduct, from the layman’s ten to the monk’s 253 vinaya restrictions, is its focus on warding off violence. In additions to these, the rules of conduct in Mahayana bodhisattva Vinaya were not limited to non-violence, but included the duty of bestowing happiness and benefit to others.

Furthermore, in vijrayana the sense of self-sacrifice was greatly adhered to and equality of beings especially equality of sex was very much emphasised. The social perspectives can thus be summed up in six paramitas:

1. The “dana paramita” may be taken to mean equal distribution of wealth.

2. The “sila paramita” means the harmony of social beings through practices avoiding violence.

3. The “ksanti paramita” means tolerance of violence and criticisms.                                 If a violent act starts from one side it must be subdued from the other and not aggravated.

4. The “Virya paramita” means to work incessantly for social wellbeing.

5. The “Samadhi Paramita” means to purify the mind, and make the mind fit to bring about social harmony.

The “Prajna Paramita” means attainment of wisdom to enable a person to become capable of understanding the rights and wrongs and to practice well for society.


The individual’s efforts for social well being are strengthened by the common bonds of the state. The Buddha has in clear terms outlined the theory of state- its principle and organizations for the maintenance of social welfare, law and order. The Mahayana texts Dasa-Cakra-ksti-garbhanama-Mahayana sutra contains ten wheels or chakra relating to Buddha’s turning of the wheel of law during the five rough periods of the kali era. Buddha’s Dharma-pravartana has been compared to administrations of the state.

The wheel examples provide great motivation for good administration of the state. The first wheel describes the method of choosing the head of the state or the administrator. The Buddha enunciated that the absence of the state was tantamount to social disorder and it was thus incumbent upon the people to elect their administrator.

The sutra describes the time of election of the people’s qualifications for electing a ruler. It lays stress upon the voter’s age, education, wisdom and impartiality. The Buddha further recommends a man who is an assiduous worker with considerable industry, impartial judgement, good physique, education, wisdom, personality and compassion to be elected as the head of the state. The second wheel of the state turns to the duties of the leader. He should think thoroughly upon the past, present and future, and chalk out a policy for the sustenance of the state. The sutra details that government policy should engage all the people of the state in various kinds of work. It says that the brave men should engage in agriculture, road and the other building projects to provide food and communication facilities, and a third group should be involved in business and learning technical arts and crafts to provide industrial benefits. The sutra also specifies in unmistakable terms how to eliminate unemployment and develop the country.

In the third wheel the Buddha deals with the provision of suitable posts and titles to those who are educated , knowledgeable and skilful, or brave with sound training in the science of war, irrespective of caste whether one is Brahman, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya, or a Shudra. For employment, education qualifications and talents are stressed.

The sutra, it is significant to note, also mentions that people having less knowledge and education or intelligence should not be left out from being provided with work suitable to their needs and abilities. The sutra is remarkable for containing a safeguard measure against the livelihood of incapable people, so that their interest may not be indiscriminately crushed by employing only educated and able persons. However persons who are not industrious, shirk work, and unkind by nature, who do evil and are engaged in anti-social activities, should be punished according to their offence. This is all in the interest of the state, upholding its laws and peace.

In the fourth wheel of the state the Buddha states that if the people of the state are divided by beliefs of different gods and goddesses or religions and philosophies of life, the state must attempt to bring all of them together and put them in true cooperation in order to avoid strife and dissension. The head of the state must always consults the elders or advisers and decide each matter with the fullest consultation; this is in essence the parliamentary practice followed in modern political life.

In the fifth and sixth wheels the Buddha mentions that the state should protect the cities, towns, and villages by strong palisades, watched by strong forces not excluding even the animal watchers who may be employed for the purpose. The methods of defence employed to keep out the enemies of the state speak of wisdom and political sagacity. The difference of the fifth and sixth wheels is that the fifth wheel stresses the measures of protecting the property of the countrymen and visitors, while the sixth speaks for the defence of the entire country.

In the seventh wheel the Buddha cautions the state to have a regular watch upon the movements of people in all the cities, towns, villages, mountains, valleys, plains, gardens, forests, roads, rivers and such other places of the territory. In case of any danger of outside infiltration or natural calamities the duty of the state becomes still more onerous. The sutra devises methods of precaution against natural calamities and foreign attacks by providing remedial measures and instituting intelligence services.

In the eight wheels the Buddha warns the head of the state to always recollect his position, his early life, and the conditions of his birth, childhood and education in consonance with his experience about men and matters in the state. He must not fall into the snare of evil temptation or be blinded by power; on the other hand, he must fully realise that he owes everything largely to the state.

The ninth wheels relates to the Buddha’s dictum that the administration must watch all the people of the state and should have a personal knowledge of their positions, talents, castes, occupations social contacts, beliefs and customs and in addition to these , their psychic tendencies which reflect upon the state. The sutra devises ways of educating the young and looking into the moral and material well being of the people as a whole.

The last wheel states that a state conforming to the dictates of the above wheels is respected by all mankind. Its jurisdiction would be enlarged worldwide without war or violence. The idea of a world government, based on moral ethics as conceived by modern statesmen should find recompense in this ancient wisdom.

The record of the wheels is further elaborated in several other Mahayana texts. In the “Arya bodhisattvacarya-gocaropaya-visaya-vikurvana-nirdesanama-Mahayana-sutra” a full treatment of “praja” (subject), “prajapala” (protector) of the state and the circumstances in which laws of the state should operate has been furnished. The text expounds social economy, leadership, judiciary, eight considerations for the head of government and administrators, war of defence, and allied subjects.


According to the sutra cited above, an unequal distribution of wealth and income among the family members and among owners and workers, the landholders and labourers, would be classed in the observance of wrong livelihood. It precisely underlines the importance of equal distribution of profit and wealth. In case there is a risk of losing all the wealth of an individual by misjudgement, the state is to take over an individual’s or family’s part of the wealth to use it with the state’s own wealth for profitable business, carried out under state supervision. By this process the wealth of the individual and families is protected and enhanced on a sound cooperatives basis. It seems to me to be the precursor of all cooperative systems, long leases and great operations.

The head of the state, the sutra says, must have two virtues for proper governance, caution and compassion; caution for not being led by power and authority, but remembering always that power, state and even the self are transitory and therefore to use authority properly. Compassion stands for all the people of the state, especially those who are hard hit by pestilence, famine or such other natural and unnatural calamities.

The sutra has indications for punishment of defaulters by compassion and not by anger or with a spirit of retribution. It adumbrates five principles of punishment. They are termed “proper”, “timely”, ”purposeful”, “soft”, and “amiable”. Proper connotes that a punishment should be inflicted upon the real wrongdoer. Timely means the time or situation in which the judiciary is capable of awarding punishment, and that the person is capable of bearing it. Purposeful signifies a marked improvement in the actions of the criminal by the inflicted punishment. Soft must be the nature of punishment: it should on no account be harsh. If the criminal improves by a warning, that is best. Likewise the judiciary must try to keep the punishment at the minimum possible level.

Execution and impalement are strictly prohibited in this code of punishment. Amiable justice means a compassionate treatment of the subject accused of crime. Such must be the means of punishment to which parents take recourse to punish their children.

The sutra says the head of a state or government should always have eight considerations in mind. These are:

(1) the citizens of the state should be considered like his own sons and daughters;

(2) miscreants should be considered as patients:

(3) suffers should be considered as objects of love and kindness;

(4) well-off persons should be considered from the angle of rejoicement;

(5) the enemy should be considered in such a way so as to eliminate the cause of enmity;

(6) friend should be considered in such a way as to promote their genuine interest;

(7) wealth should be considered as a medicine of life; and (8) the self should be considered from the angle of selflessness.


The text sheds important light on how to act in the event of war. The Buddha recommends that a war situation should be approached through the three stage and three wise efforts.

At the first stage the first effort is aimed at bringing about a compromise between the contending or belligerent parties without bloodshed, even though both sides may have to give up some of their interests. If the war remains unsubsidised by friendly approaches, compensation by wealth or ultimatums, only then can the state begin hostilities.

At the second stage the second effort should be applied to face the battle with three subsequent measures, the self being treated as sacrifice. It is explained thus: the citizens of the state is under the danger of foreign occupation, so the self is compelled to undergo a sin, and with a view to saving the people at large, a few persons should be ready to bear the results of sinful acts.

In the battle itself one’s own side should be considered stronger than that of the opponent, and confidence in victory must be entertained. However, with a war in the offing there should always be a consideration as to how to minimise the sequel of carnage and loss of lives on both sides.
At the third stage effort with the aforementioned principles calls for the application of skill and bravery in war operations with a defensive purpose.

As we see, the object of war has never been reckoned as destruction or fame of victory; it has been calculated to aim at the protection of the people’s interest and rights. This lightens the result of sin in a moral sense. Further, not only in the Mahayana sutras but in the Sarvastivada sutras also, the Buddha did not oppose war based upon the interest of the state. There are instances like the one in which king Prasenajit of kosala was engaged in war for a long duration. The Buddha sent some Bhikhus to the king’s camp to preach to the king and the soldiers at the request of the king. This shows that if Buddha opposed war he would not have sent any monks to the king’s military camp for their moral support. The king was very much under the influence of the Buddha, who could have easily stopped the king from war. But this should not be misunderstood as encouraging violence for self-centred ends. For the purpose of one’s own self the Buddha never allowed violence to be inflicted upon the smallest of beings even in defence of one’s life. Similarly monks are prohibited from violent acts under any circumstances.


Another sutra entitled”Nagaraja-Bheri-Gatha.” Says that for the sake of the family self should be sacrificed, and for the sake of the country, the town should be sacrificed. This principle was later advocated by several statesmen and social reformers, including such men of vision as Mahatma Gandhi.

To sum up, the Buddha did not leave any corner untouched in the fields of social economy and political philosophy. His ideas, absolutely new in his time, are so viable today. Equality of man, based on the principles of liquidating caste and colour prejudices and sexual discrimination, was preached by the Buddha and now form the objectives of present-day secular states on the globe. The Buddha was aware of the demerits which would follow the establishment of Bhiksuni sangha (order of nuns), but he sacrificed these for the sake of bringing about equality of man and woman, even in the order.

In a world where ethical concepts keep changing, I would like to rebut the misconceptions of some scholars who accuse the principle of non-violence as a cause of decline of the national military force, and consider the large Bhikshu and Bhikshuni sanghas as disadvantages to the national economy, and burdens on society. The fact is that these misconceptions are based on prejudiced beliefs and a disparaging study of Buddhism. Buddhism and military strength held fast in the time of Asoka in India. And so did temporal power grow side by side with Buddhism in Tibet in the time of Srong-tsen Gampo (Srong-btzan sGampo) Tri-song Deu-tsen (Khri-srong Ide-btzan) and Ralpachen, the three greatest kings of Tibet, who expanded their empires and also had rapid social and economic progress. A close adherence to Buddhism placed the Tibetan social structure on a sound plinth. Since the establishment of Buddhism no social disharmony or common suffering was found till the country was swallowed up by the Red Chinese in recent decades.

It was due to Buddhist influence that no unbearable gap between rich and poor, high and low, existed in the history of Tibet. Under monarchical governments, too, the people enjoyed full democratic privileges. The citizens had equal opportunities. The Bhikshu and Bhikshuni sanghas were a constant source of inspiration and happiness to the lay society. Moreover as soon as any boy or girl of the family became a monk or nun, he or she had to renounce every right of property and wealth which the person had in the family. Thus all the members of the family benefited by that person’s share. Most of the social services like religious ceremonies, running schools, and providing medical aid, were carried out by the monks and nuns, without expecting remuneration. The tradition of monk, living together in monastic institutions has been one of the greatest and most advantageous sources of social cohesion.

Another accusation or rather criticism of Buddhism is that the Tibetan Buddhists are afraid of adapting to a modern way of life. In other words the Buddhists are afraid of adapting to a modern way of life. In other words the Buddhist faith hinders social progress; it is reactionary. This is a misconception of the greatest order. The Tibetan is not afraid of applying or assimilating a new method, to a Tibetan; appear to have their moorings in the age-old principles of Buddhism.

Free will in social planning and the adoption of faith is by far the most significant trait in Buddhism which makes us justly feel proud and distinguished from other societies. The Buddha stresses the use of free thinking and reasoning by the self and not to give credence even to this own words by simple faith. This is the wonderful aspect of Buddhism-a respect for religion freedom of the individual. Most of the sutras in different yanas are replete with discussions and debates of the disciplines. The “Arya Mahaparinirvana-nama sutra” specially reiterates the strongest arguments of the disciples with the Buddha, which I feel are more drastic than today’s parliamentary debates. It evinces that the Buddha greatly encouraged the right of speech and discussion in every field, and admitted criticisms without an unpleasant feeling.

In the four cardinal truths preached by the Buddha which are commonly known to the Tibetans as “Denpa-shi” (bden pa bzhi), lies the surest way of doing away with misery. It is middle way, the practice of which eliminates all kinds of poverty, unemployment, riots and wars, which are social miseries. The roots of these are ignorance and anger which must be rooted out by the Buddha’s doctrine of compassion, loving kindness, tolerance and wisdom. Its acceptance means so much to the world, indiscriminating and misunderstanding to a great measure, while seeking illusory short cuts.


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